What do pink pineap­ples, high-fi­bre bread and coeliac-friendly wheat have in com­mon? As the next gen­er­a­tion of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods, they prom­ise to el­e­vate not just flavour or aes­thet­ics, but your health, too

Women's Health (UK) - - EAT SMART - words CLAU­DIA CANA­VAN il­lus­tra­tion SPOOKY POOKA

Should you ever find your­self in Cen­tral Amer­ica, trekking through the dense trop­i­cal coun­try­side of Costa Rica – props to you, in­trepid trav­eller – you might just come across a field that is de­cid­edly fuch­sia in colour. The source? Pineap­ples grown in a spe­cific shade of pink. Pro­duced by food com­pany Del Monte, their pur­pose is not to boost the In­sta­gram likes of any pass­ing travel blog­ger, but to en­hance the well­be­ing of the per­son who ends up eat­ing them. Th­ese fruits have been mod­i­fied to con­tain higher lev­els of ly­copene – which makes to­ma­toes red and has been linked with cancer pre­ven­tion. And you thought crisps made of quinoa de­served a No­bel Prize... If ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) food has had a che­quered past, it’s un­der­go­ing a re­brand of epic pro­por­tions. The term de­scribes the re­sult of ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, the sci­en­tific process by which a plant or an­i­mal has its ge­net­ics di­rectly al­tered by hu­mans, which can be achieved by adding for­eign genes into an or­gan­ism – tra­di­tional GM – or by mod­i­fy­ing a food’s nat­u­ral make-up, in a newer pro­ce­dure known as gene edit­ing. GM foods have di­vided opin­ion more than the taste of co­rian­der, but while the tech­nol­ogy of yes­ter­year was de­signed to help the food in­dus­try pull off big­ger yields and longer shelf lives, the next gen­er­a­tion of GM food prom­ises to serve you – the per­son eat­ing it. ‘We’re now in a po­si­tion where we can use tech­nol­ogy to en­hance the nu­tri­tional pro­file of plants grown for the di­rect health ben­e­fit of con­sumers,’ says Pro­fes­sor Johnathan Napier of the Rotham­sted Re­search in­sti­tute in Hert­ford­shire – a sci­en­tist at the sharp end of this tech­nol­ogy. Ben­e­fits such as coeliac-friendly bread, made us­ing wheat edited to re­move 90% of gliadins, a com­po­nent of gluten that trig­gers im­mune re­ac­tions in coeli­acs; and plant-based omega-3s from camelina oil, pro­duced by adding genes from al­gae (where fish get their fatty acids from) to the camelina plant, which al­lows them to pro­duce their own, to­tally ve­gan, oils. It paints a promis­ing pic­ture, and the ben­e­fits preached by ad­vo­cates go be­yond health, too. Among them is the no­tion that GM and gene edit­ing have the po­ten­tial to ad­dress the de­mands of the world’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion – pro­jected to be 9.8 bil­lion by 2050 – as well as cli­mate change-linked prob­lems with food sup­plies and the needs of peo­ple in the de­vel­op­ing world, via vi­ta­min-en­riched or dis­ease-re­sis­tant foods.


The story of GM in the UK be­gins, much like a suc­cess­ful spag bol, with tomato puree. In 1996, a tin of the stuff cre­ated by US bio­science com­pany Zeneca be­came the first GM prod­uct to be stocked in Bri­tain. It used to­ma­toes that had been mod­i­fied to ripen at a slower rate, by switch­ing off an enzyme that nat­u­rally soft­ens the fruit – lead­ing to a longer shelf life – and it was clearly la­belled as a GM prod­uct. It proved, to put it mildly, di­vi­sive. Three years later, there was no sign of the prod­uct on shelves. This was partly down to the ‘Franken­food’ scan­dal. Its with­drawal came in the wake of a pub­lic scare around im­ported soya, grown us­ing Roundup-ready crops, which were mod­i­fied to be re­sis­tant to the chem­i­cal glyphosate in the her­bi­cide Roundup, made by the agro­chem­i­cal com­pany Mon­santo. The her­bi­cide is widely used to­day, but it re­mains con­tro­ver­sial. The In­ter­na­tional Agency for Re­search on Cancer – part of the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion – has ruled that it could be a car­cino­gen, while the Euro­pean Food Safety Au­thor­ity and US En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, among oth­ers, have stated that it’s un­likely to be car­cino­genic in hu­mans. The con­tro­versy was enough to put the pub­lic off their GM food, and an un­of­fi­cial halt on fur­ther ap­provals un­til more ro­bust safe­guards could be es­tab­lished. Around the same time, busi­nesses that made GM seeds were ac­cused of putting prof­its be­fore safety when a study claimed that GM po­ta­toes had

com­pro­mised the im­mune sys­tems of lab rats – a find­ing later de­clared to be flawed by the Royal So­ci­ety – which stoked the flames fur­ther. It was five years later when a fresh rul­ing saw the first new ap­provals for the im­port of GM crops to the EU. Fast for­ward to to­day and GM maize and soya of­ten end up in an­i­mal feed and, as a re­sult, a lot of the non-or­ganic meat we eat. Di­rectly mod­i­fied foods, like GM soy sauce or flour, are al­ways la­belled as such, in keep­ing with reg­u­la­tions from the Food Stan­dards Agency, but Gm-fed meat isn’t. Re­gard­less of the ethics and safety of mess­ing with the DNA of what we eat, GM is gear­ing up to be the Bri­tish food in­dus­try’s an­swer to po­ten­tial sup­ply-chain is­sues thrown up by Brexit, so you’ll un­der­stand why sci­en­tists are more than a lit­tle ex­cited that giant leaps for­ward in tech­nol­ogy have birthed a new gen­er­a­tion of GM food, one that pri­ori­tises not shelf life, but health.


Un­der­stand­ing how sci­en­tists are hack­ing the food chain in this way re­quires a re­turn to your GCSE sci­ence text­book. GM prac­tices have shifted to gene edit­ing in re­cent times, which al­lows sci­en­tists to Ex­perts are edit­ing Maris Pipers in a quest for health­ier chips re­place one ex­ist­ing DNA se­quence with an­other. ‘Gene edit­ing pro­vides us with a dif­fer­ent toolkit to tra­di­tional GM,’ ex­plains Dr Sarah Evanega, di­rec­tor of the Cor­nell Al­liance for Sci­ence at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity in the US and lec­turer in agri­cul­tural biotech­nol­ogy. She says that be­ing able to tin­ker with the pre­vail­ing struc­ture makes for greater pre­ci­sion, and be­cause you’re not adding any for­eign genes, the process de­vi­ates less from a nat­u­ral course of events. Gene edit­ing in­cludes a sys­tem that uses (ready?) clus­tered reg­u­larly in­ter­spaced short palin­dromic re­peats – CRISPR, thank good­ness – to cut a DNA strand at a spe­cific point in or­der to insert a cer­tain DNA se­quence, speed­ing up the en­tire process. It’s the tech­nique that re­searchers at the In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture in Cór­doba, Spain, are us­ing to re­duce the num­ber of gluten pro­teins in wheat – lead­ing to as much as an 85% re­duc­tion in im­mune re­ac­tiv­ity. Still in de­vel­op­ment, the wheat is said to be good enough to make baguettes and rolls, if not fluffy sliced loaves just yet. Even sci­en­tists who are still us­ing more tra­di­tional GM tech­niques are climb­ing aboard the health wagon. At the Sains­bury Lab­o­ra­tory in Nor­wich (not af­fil­i­ated with the su­per­mar­ket), Pro­fes­sor Jonathan Jones is look­ing to mod­ify Maris Piper po­ta­toes as part of an ap­proved trial that could lead to what you’ve al­ways dreamed of: health­ier chips. When stored cold, po­ta­toes ac­cu­mu­late sug­ars that, af­ter cook­ing at high tem­per­a­tures, pro­duce acryl­amide, a chem­i­cal that has been linked to cancer. In the GM po­ta­toes, this doesn’t oc­cur.


It all makes for a com­pelling ar­gu­ment for GM to evolve from lab to su­per­mar­ket. And yet, not ev­ery­one is con­vinced. Dr Michael An­to­niou, head of the Gene Ex­pres­sion & Ther­apy Group at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, ques­tions the safety and ethics of mess­ing with the ge­netic pro­file of the food you eat. ‘My group has pub­lished work on GM maize, show­ing that the GM trans­for­ma­tion process can be highly dis­rup­tive,’ he says. Dr An­to­niou also high­lights a study con­ducted on GM rice that showed it had a dif­fer­ent amino acid pro­file, min­eral lev­els and sugar con­tent to its non-gm par­ent rice. He be­lieves the mod­i­fi­ca­tion process can lead to un­wanted changes in plant bio­chem­istry. A lengthy le­gal bat­tle at the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice over whether or not gene edit­ing should be clas­si­fied, and sub­ject to the same reg­u­la­tions, as GMOS (ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms) came to an end in late July. The ver­dict? It will be. This means that, in EU coun­tries, the chance that you’ll be able to pick up coeliac-friendly wheat and pink pineap­ples dur­ing your weekly shop

is much lower than it is in the USA or Latin Amer­ica, where rules around th­ese foods are less strin­gent. But, as of 29 March 2019, we won’t be gov­erned by the EU, and Brexit is set to af­fect the sta­tus of food, big time. ‘If we adopt the com­mon goods rule­book [a trade agree­ment], then noth­ing is go­ing to change,’ ex­plains Dr Claire Mar­ris, reader in food pol­icy at City, Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don. ‘But if we have a hard Brexit – one in which we’re not fol­low­ing EU rules and we’re try­ing to have a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship with the US – reg­u­la­tions on GMOS will be the first thing [US trad­ing au­thor­i­ties] are go­ing to ask us to re­move.’ On the sci­ence side of things, the cur­rent land­scape isn’t en­tirely clear. In Fe­bru­ary 2018, Ital­ian re­searchers re­viewed 21 years’ worth of field data on GM maize, with the in­ten­tion of im­prov­ing knowl­edge of the en­vi­ron­men­tal, agro­nomic and tox­i­co­log­i­cal traits of the crop. Their find­ings? That GM maize pro­duces not only higher yields, but also 29% less of the toxic fun­gus that oc­curs nat­u­rally in crops such as maize. But the fourth edi­tion of GMO Myths And Truths – co-au­thored by Dr An­to­niou and cur­rently in press – ques­tions the va­lid­ity of the anal­y­sis used. While there is no ev­i­dence to sug­gest any con­flicts of in­ter­est on be­half of the re­searchers, Dr An­to­niou queries, in gen­eral, the in­volve­ment of vested in­ter­ests in the GM busi­ness. Mean­while, in Costa Rica, those pink pineap­ples are thriv­ing, hav­ing been ap­proved for sale by the Amer­i­can Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA). Over here? The hue on your pineap­ple, much like the fi­bre con­tent of your bread, hinges on what Brexit deal comes into play next spring. In the ab­sence of pink pineap­ples on Bri­tish shelves, you’ll just have to set­tle for plain old yel­low.

I like to mauve it

Wheat dreams are made of

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