Genetically modified foods are coming… to dinner

In the early Seventies, researchers figured out how to insert genes from one organism directly into the DNA of another, giving them tremendous control over what had previously been a random process. Now, instead of just scrambling the genes in the hope that among the thousands of resulting mutations, something useful might turn up, they could insert the specific gene that expressed the trait they were looking for. Not only that, they could also start intermingling genes from dissimilar species. For instance, before this technology was developed, no amount of encouragement would cause plankton, the source of most omega-3 fatty acids, to breed with soya beans. The two species just aren’t attracted to each other.

Now, with biotech, every single species becomes a prospective sexual partner of every other. And suddenly the world is a much sexier place. So, what’s on the market now, besides “the big four” – soya beans, corn, cotton and canola?

Besides new broccoli, which will feature increased levels of anti-cancer compounds, Monsanto is working on new varieties of lettuce, cauliflower and peppers. It’s also developing high-lycopene tomatoes, and green beans with boosted antioxidants. “We’ve got probably several dozen different projects that will result in consumer benefits,” Dr Jim Astwood, a food scientist at Monsanto says.

The cleverness of some of these products rivals Mother Nature herself. Consider, for instance, Jammer Lettuce, the sturdy leaves of which are engineered to replace pitas and function as a low-carb wrap. But again, these are not strictly GM products. That is, while the Monsanto scientists did fiddle with the DNA to create them, they didn’t manually insert specific genes from one organism into the DNA of another. “You have to invent a blockbuster product to justify that kind of investment,” explains Astwood. “It’s like a drug discovery model – you have to come out with the next great painkiller.

FRANKENFACT [VS] FRANKENFICTION

One of the biggest misconceptions about GM food is that it’s in some way “unnatural”. If it is, then so is every other living thing in the universe. Nature itself is essentially an enormous laboratory, constantly experimenting with new mutations in the hope that something will work. Most don’t, but those that do – like the whiteness of a polar bear’s fur, or the shape of an eagle’s beak – sometimes catch on, and help advance the species. Humankind’s involvement in this lab work goes back 10 000 years, when farmers started selectively breeding crops for their desirable qualities. “What we eat today looks very little like what hunter-gatherers ate thousands of years ago,” says Dr William Tracy, a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin. “The ancestor of corn would be unrecognisable to most people.”

Up to 70 percent of food on supermarket shelves contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients. As these foods proliferate, the debate escalates about their long-term effects on our health and the environment.