Genetically modified foods have sparked fierce debate for decades. With Brexit ahead, Britain may have the opportunity to grow GM crops, as the EU are fervently against GM production. But what exactly are genetically modified foods, and are we ready to accept these changes?
What are genetically modified foods?
Also known as genetically engineered foods, they are produced from organisms that have had their DNA altered in a way that doesn’t occur naturally. This is different from breeding and crossbreeding.
DNA was discovered in the early 1900s, and as genetic techniques became advanced in the 1970s, it became possible to directly modify the DNA and genes in food. In 1983, the first genetically modified plant was an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. In 1994, the first genetically modified food was the Flavr Savr tomato, designed to have a longer shelf life from the antisense gene that slowed down ripening.
Golden rice was introduced in 2000, and is a strain of rice with higher beta-carotene levels than the standard. Developing countries such as Bangladesh suffer from a vitamin A deficiency, leading to 670,000 child deaths (under the age of 5) per year, and an additional 500,000 cases of childhood blindness. Rice is a staple in over half of the world’s population, and the focus of golden rice is on eating the staples in hard times, as rice is a carbohydrate that keeps you alive. The biosynthesis gene in the crop means the strain can produce beta-carotene in its leaves.
The benefits of GM products are still hotly debated. With the possibility in the future of more modifications being made to foods to improve their health benefits,
The UK view
The population are still resistant to genetically modified food sources. According September 2018’s edition of The Grocer, only 16% of Brits would be willing to try cultured (lab grown) meat. The lab grown approach is certainly at the extreme, but it reveals the population’s ongoing reluctance to adopt to GM produce.
And we are unwittingly purchasing livestock fed with GM crops. According to a 2016 Express article, 80% of maize and soya beans, which feed cattle, are genetically modified. 90% of North and South America’s soya bean crop are GM.
But what if GM foods could help reduce the risk of cancer? We ran a steer asking our consumers if they would eat rice vs genetically modified rice, and GM rice with a health claim.
While UK consumers show a lower acceptance to genetically modified foods compared to non-GM foods, adding a health benefit may go some way to bridging this gap.
Some arguments against GM include the making a of strain of wheat which brings bigger harvests, but is infertile and unable to self-sustain. Patenting seeds means that larger companies are taking away business from local farmers, who cannot plants the seeds they want. In addition, introducing more exotic modifications might have untested consequences; making a plant that is resistant to pests may adversely lead to pests that are able to overcome this resistance. Genetically modified crops may cross-pollinate with non-GM products to increase biodiversity, but at the risk of a product that has adverse effects.
Some argue that we’re doing what we’ve already been doing since the agricultural age. Since 10,000 BC, we have been using artificial selection through the domestication of animals and plants, thus interfering with the genetic manipulation of food. The debate over GM foods looks set to continue.