Wednesday, September 30

Why Haven’t Genetically Engineered Crops Made Food Better?

One of the arguments that have been advanced to promote genetically engineered crops is that the techniques have the potential for improving the food we eat. Crops could be engineered so that they provide nutrients they currently don’t or so that good nutrition is in reach of poor people in developing nations.

In fact, the technology does have that potential, and a couple of efforts have been made to do exactly this. Yet, decades into the GMO era, all of the engineered crops on the market provide enhanced productivity and other benefits to farmers but nothing for the people who ultimately end up eating the results. So why the huge gap between potential and reality? The huge number of problems involved is the subject of a review in Nature Plants.

Far from golden

The people behind the review come from the Rothamsted Research, a UK-based nonprofit agricultural science institution. The nonprofit aspect is rather critical. Rothamsted’s work does include developing genetically modified crops, but it’s not doing so to make money; instead, the organization is dedicated to improving farming in developing economies and sees GMO crops as a potential contributor there. But even with those things going for it, the organization has been caught up in the public’s disapproval of GMOs, with protesters having threatened to destroy one of its test plantings in 2012.

The new paper, however, isn’t especially focused on the work done at Rothamsted in particular (neither the protests nor the research effort that attracted them is mentioned in the piece). Instead, it uses two very different GMO crop experiences to illustrate the challenges of trying to improve nutrition. The first is a case that has reached a fair degree of public attention: golden rice.

Using genes from other plants, researchers engineered rice to produce a precursor to vitamin A, something that’s lacking from rice-dominated diets; deficiencies in vitamin A can lead to a form of childhood blindness. The first version of rice engineered to carry the new trait dates back nearly two decades. But, since that version was announced, nearly everything has gone wrong with efforts to get it in the hands of farmers.

As of 2017, the latest version of golden rice, one with all the biological issues seemingly solved, had been submitted for regulatory approval in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the US. If approved, golden rice will finally be ready to plant for food production.

Read more at Ars Technica