THE GM SUPERFOODS
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
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