The­new GM Su­per­foods

Ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied food is be­ing re­branded as a smart, health-en­hanc­ing so­lu­tion to our planet’s im­pend­ing re­source cri­sis. But is it safe? MH in­ves­ti­gates


Why are car­rots orange? That’s not the set-up of a Michael Mcintyre gag – it’s a se­ri­ous ques­tion. And the an­swer sums up the forces at play in the pro­duc­tion of mod­ern, ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods: science, fash­ion and, above all, pol­i­tics.

Our an­ces­tors knew car­rots, but not as we do. Theirs were short and stubby, like a radish, and came in yel­low, white, pur­ple or red. But not orange. In the 17th cen­tury, the Dutch were the world’s lead­ing veg­etable tech­nol­o­gists, and the car­rot was just one of the sta­ples they de­cided to “im­prove”. Through se­lec­tive breed­ing, they made it sweeter and less woody and, over time, it be­came the recog­nis­able root veg­etable that sprouts in gar­dens and fields world­wide to­day. Its hue is where the pol­i­tics comes in: ac­cord­ing to lore, the Dutch breed­ers bred their car­rots to hon­our their ruler, Wil­liam of Orange, up­holder of the Protes­tant faith and, from 1689, king of Eng­land, too.

Se­lec­tive breed­ing is ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion: it is the en­gi­neer­ing of DNA, the code within cells. You see its re­sults in the su­per­mar­ket veg­etable aisle and in house­hold pets. It’s what makes a dachs­hund look so dif­fer­ent from a Great Dane, even though they are of the same species. This is evo­lu­tion, ac­cel­er­ated and di­rected in the way that we hu­mans want it to go – in the case of dogs, to make some­thing play­ful and charm­ing out of wolves. The

thor­ough­bred race­horse is the prod­uct of more than three cen­turies of DNA tweak­ing, by pair­ing the best male with the best fe­male. De­spite his own fam­ily’s en­thu­si­asm for this par­tic­u­lar form of ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, Prince Charles has ob­jected to hu­mans “play­ing God” with na­ture. But, as the sci­en­tist Richard Dawkins coun­tered, “We’ve been play­ing God for cen­turies!”

In­tel­li­gent De­sign

The prob­lem with ac­quir­ing god­like pow­ers is that you’re likely to make full use of them. When gene-al­ter­ing tech­niques first moved from the green­house to the lab­o­ra­tory, sci­en­tists fo­cused on help­ing grow­ers: of­fer­ing greater yields, re­duc­ing reliance on pes­ti­cides, or de­vel­op­ing fruit and veg with a longer shelf life. That’s how we’ve ended up with mush­rooms that don’t go brown and toma­toes that are more evenly spaced on a plant’s branches, so they can be har­vested more eas­ily by ma­chine. (And, in the an­i­mal king­dom, salmon that grow twice as fast.)

But the lat­est crop is dif­fer­ent. The new ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms (GMOS) prom­ise ben­e­fits to you, the con­sumer. Mak­ing food health­ier has be­come a cen­tral goal of com­mer­cial users of the tech­nol­ogy, not least be­cause it’s a way of win­ning over scep­tics. There’s wheat whose gluten doesn’t trou­ble coeliac suf­fer­ers, “mil­len­nial pink” pineap­ples en­riched with anti-cancer nu­tri­ent ly­copene, and white bread en­gi­neered to be higher in fi­bre. God’s work is be­ing up­dated, and it seems un­likely that even Prince Charles can stop it.

In the com­ing decade, the num­ber of new, health-fo­cused crops is ex­pected to in­crease ex­po­nen­tially. This is partly a re­sult of a new Dna-edit­ing tech­nique, Crispr (short for “clus­tered reg­u­larly in­ter­spaced short palin­dromic re­peats” – see right), which works with na­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics in a way that could oc­cur in the wild, only with un­prece­dented ac­cu­racy. This dif­fers from pre­vi­ous GM meth­ods, in which a copy of a gene from one or­gan­ism would be placed in an­other with which it couldn’t nat­u­rally re­pro­duce.

At the sharp end of this new tech is Ge­off Gra­ham, vice-pres­i­dent of plant breed­ing at Us-based com­pany Corteva Agri­science, which has cre­ated plant oils mod­i­fied to con­tain higher lev­els of mo­noun­sat­u­rated fats. “Both Crispr and ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion can be used to im­prove nu­tri­tional qual­ity,” he says. “For ex­am­ple, Crispr is be­ing used in toma­toes to make them health­ier by in­creas­ing their lev­els of Gaba [gamma-aminobu­tyric acid, linked to bet­ter sleep and lower blood pres­sure]. It’s also be­ing ex­plored as a tool to re­duce the harm­ful re­ac­tions some peo­ple have to cer­tain foods – such as peanuts that don’t trig­ger al­ler­gies.” Corteva’s oil, called Plen­ish, is made from soya beans mod­i­fied to con­tain 20% less sat­u­rated fat than they nor­mally would. It’s also more sta­ble dur­ing cook­ing.

At a time when poor diet is a fac­tor in one in five deaths around the world* – and nutri­tion ed­u­ca­tion isn’t mak­ing enough of an im­pact – th­ese lab-pro­duced su­per­foods seem to of­fer a log­i­cal so­lu­tion. Af­ter all, if we won’t change our habits, surely striv­ing to im­prove the foods we’re al­ready eat­ing is a worth­while pur­suit? Even foods long con­sid­ered “healthy” have suf­fered a nu­tri­tional hit in re­cent years, as in­ten­sive farm­ing has de­creased the lev­els of vitamins and min­er­als present in our fruit and veg. This new, nutri­tion-boost­ing tech­nol­ogy could be our best chance of rec­ti­fy­ing that – but, of course, not ev­ery­one is con­vinced.

“The new GM crops prom­ise to ben­e­fit you, the con­sumer – by be­ing packed with ex­tra nu­tri­ents”

Sus­pi­cious Minds

The main bar to many of th­ese foods go­ing into pro­duc­tion is pub­lic dis­ap­proval. When a new trans­genic won­der-fruit drops from the science jour­nals into the Daily Mail, the news story starts with a head­line about “Franken­stein food”. From the be­gin­ning, con­cerns – moral and prac­ti­cal – have been raised about ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing. One is about con­trol: how do we reg­u­late fairly and pre­vent cyn­i­cal cor­po­ra­tions from abus­ing th­ese tech­nolo­gies? In the UK, this is more rel­e­vant now than ever. While cur­rent EU laws en­sure the de­vel­op­ment and use of GM crops are highly re­stricted, the sit­u­a­tion could soon change with Brexit. Any trade deal with the US is likely to re­sult in the UK ac­cept­ing the much looser Amer­i­can food reg­u­la­tions.

The most sig­nif­i­cant con­cern is the risk to our health. In try­ing to solve one prob­lem, do we risk cre­at­ing a worse one? Re­cent stud­ies into GM tech have found wor­ry­ing ef­fects that could have a bear­ing on hu­mans. One pa­per in the jour­nal Plos One de­scribed but­ter­flies with de­formed wings that had been feed­ing on GM oilseed plants, al­tered to pro­duce healthy omega-3 fats. But how could the re­searchers be sure what de­formed the but­ter­flies? And would hu­mans be sim­i­larly af­fected?

Michael An­to­niou of King’s Col­lege Lon­don works in gene ther­apy – in par­tic­u­lar, the adap­ta­tion of genes to ad­dress ge­net­i­cally based diseases. “There are claims from the United States that no one has been harmed by eat­ing GM foods. But no one has ac­tu­ally looked,” he says. “In­creas­ing num­bers of lab stud­ies on rats and mice are show­ing ev­i­dence of harm, mostly on the func­tion of the kid­ney, liver and, to some ex­tent, di­ges­tive and im­mune sys­tem func­tion.” He be­lieves a GM diet “could cause the ad­verse ef­fects ob­served in th­ese stud­ies”.

An­to­niou’s views are con­tro­ver­sial. While he and his col­leagues are part of a net­work of hun­dreds of sci­en­tists who cam­paign with green groups for re­stric­tions on GM re­search, they are not the main­stream. World­wide, more sci­en­tists are pro- GM than against.

One ma­jor com­plaint of the pro- GM lobby is that pub­lic fear and gov­ern­men­tal cau­tion – es­pe­cially in Europe – are stalling the progress of re­search into tech­niques with po­ten­tially vast ben­e­fits. Among the sci­en­tists speak­ing out for a more open-minded ap­proach is Jayson Lusk, pro­fes­sor of agri­cul­tural eco­nom­ics at Pur­due Univer­sity in In­di­ana. “It’s just a tool, and a tool can be used in good or bad ways,” he says. “A blan­ket re­jec­tion of a tool is a naive, un­crit­i­cal po­si­tion. We need a case-by-case eval­u­a­tion.”

The fu­ture lies with the gen­eral pub­lic, as well as with politi­cians – and, at the mo­ment, both are wary of the tech­nol­ogy. Lusk’s re­search into US con­sumer at­ti­tudes shows that, if any­thing, the GM in­dus­try has it­self to blame for th­ese pub­lic fears. In the US, where al­most 90% of sta­ple crops such as corn, soy, cotton and sugar beet are GM, con­sumers “know very, very lit­tle” about the tech­nol­ogy. The in­dus­try prefers it that way, and it cam­paigned un­suc­cess­fully against a 2016 law that will soon make the la­belling of

GM prod­ucts manda­tory. This view­point might have made some sense when the use of GM of­fered no clear ben­e­fit to the con­sumer. But with the ar­rival of, say, gluten-free loaves, com­pa­nies may de­cide to re­con­sider their po­si­tion. In any case, trans­parency ap­pears to work bet­ter. In Ver­mont, the only Amer­i­can state where it is al­ready manda­tory to la­bel prod­ucts, con­sumer re­sis­tance to the tech­nol­ogy has fallen. La­bels give peo­ple a sense of con­trol, and so of lower risk.

It’s hard to pre­dict whether the in­tro­duc­tion of the new GM su­per­foods will change minds but, at present, opin­ion ap­pears to be hard­en­ing against the tech­nol­ogy, even while the US cam­paigns for Euro­peans to ac­cept it. Trans­genic salmon – which con­tains DNA from dif­fer­ent species and grows twice as fast – was given the all-clear for health in the US three years ago, but it’s still hav­ing trou­ble reach­ing your fishmonger’s slab.

Like many aca­demics, Lusk be­lieves that “naive” op­po­si­tion to GM is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive – that the tech­nol­ogy’s ben­e­fits are too great to al­low in­stinc­tive fears to rule it out. And health­ier food is ar­guably not the most press­ing is­sue. GM’S great­est ben­e­fit lies in its po­ten­tial to help feed the 9.8 bil­lion peo­ple who will in­habit this planet by 2050, as cli­mate change makes it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to grow crops in re­gions that were pre­vi­ously suit­able.

Mod­i­fi­ca­tions to an­i­mals are also on their way, though th­ese tweaks aren’t quite as ex­treme as those in science-fic­tion, such as the su­per-chicken in Mar­garet At­wood’s Oryx and Crake, which had no eyes or legs, just 20 breasts and a mouth. More sub­tle but hugely im­por­tant are al­ter­ations to an­i­mals’ gut bac­te­ria, en­abling them to eat waste crops such as straw, and, in the case of pigs and cows, pro­duce less meth­ane (a ma­jor cause of global warm­ing).

The Next Gen­er­a­tion

Ul­ti­mately, it may be cool logic, rather than an ap­petite for cancer-fight­ing fruit, that changes minds. In the 1990s, au­thor Mark Ly­nas was an eco-war­rior. He and his friends were de­ter­mined to stop big cor­po­ra­tions cor­rupt­ing na­ture for profit. They went out on late-night raids to de­stroy GM crops be­ing grown in lab­o­ra­tory farms, and he once threw a pie in the face of an em­i­nent pro- GM econ­o­mist. The ef­forts of cam­paign­ers like Ly­nas led to com­pa­nies such as Mon­santo be­com­ing global bo­gey­men, ac­cused of trap­ping farm­ers with their patented GM seeds and the chem­i­cals that had to be used with them.

But Ly­nas’s name is now a dirty word at Green­peace and other en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paign groups. He has be­come one of the anti- GM move­ment’s nois­i­est crit­ics, and con­sid­ers it hyp­o­crit­i­cal. “You can’t de­fend the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus on [the risks of man-made] cli­mate change, while deny­ing the equally strong sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that GM is a safe tech­nol­ogy with huge po­ten­tial ben­e­fits,” he says.

In Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOS, pub­lished ear­lier this year, Ly­nas ac­cuses the an­tiGM cam­paign of deny­ing us this tech for no rea­son other than un­sci­en­tific prej­u­dice. “GM, like wash­ing ma­chines or cars, is a tech­nol­ogy and we have to make a po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion … as to whether we want to use it or not and the ex­tent to which we want to use it,” science writer Ge­orge Mon­biot tells Ly­nas in the book.

Politi­cians have dithered over ge­neal­ter­ing tech­nol­ogy for years. Cur­rently in Bri­tain, as in the rest of the EU, un­less you are strictly or­ganic or ve­gan in your diet, you are al­most cer­tainly eat­ing GM at one re­move, be­cause GM an­i­mal fod­der is le­gal for use here. But Europe is keep­ing a wall up against the fur­ther in­tru­sion of GM: in July, af­ter months of de­bate, the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice ruled that new gene-edit­ing tech­nolo­gies such as Crispr should fall un­der the same con­trols as the older splic­ing meth­ods.

Yet progress is be­ing made. In Costa Rica, those pink pineap­ples are still grow­ing, hav­ing re­ceived the stamp of ap­proval from the US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Last year, re­searchers from Aus­tralia show­cased an orange ba­nana with high lev­els of pro-vi­ta­min A, de­vel­oped to treat nu­tri­ent de­fi­cien­cies in Uganda. With Western tastes in mind, sci­en­tists at the Sains­bury Lab­o­ra­tory in Nor­wich are cur­rently mod­i­fy­ing pota­toes to cre­ate health­ier chips ( see left).

With such tools now avail­able, it seems un­likely that hu­mans can be pre­vented from ex­ploit­ing them. Whether that’s good or bad, safe or con­cern­ing, re­mains a mat­ter of de­bate. Yet one thing is cer­tain: the fu­ture of food is com­ing ever closer.

“Are the ben­e­fits of GM food too great to let in­stinc­tive, naive op­po­si­tion rule it out al­to­gether?”

Isn’t a “mind­ful­ness app” a con­tra­dic­tion in terms?

Most of us are slaves to our phones, and thou­sands of very smart peo­ple are de­sign­ing prod­ucts to be as ad­dic­tive as pos­si­ble. The key is to change our re­la­tion­ship with our de­vices – to be­come the mas­ters, not the slaves. What we do at Calm is give peo­ple the tools to do that.

What’s your so­lu­tion?

We’re try­ing to teach peo­ple med­i­ta­tion, and to im­press on them that it’s like a gym ses­sion for the mind. You start to gain more con­trol of your mind, to be­come aware of your at­ten­tion and where it goes. In­stead of get­ting your phone out mind­lessly, you’ll ask your­self if you really want to do it. You might stop and think, look around, talk to the per­son you’re with, or even day­dream. It’s a sub­tle shift, but a pow­er­ful one.

How much do you use your own phone?

I’m not per­fect: I use my de­vice a lot. But now, I’m much more con­scious of it. When I’m work­ing, I put my phone on silent, ei­ther face down or in my pocket. You can’t get into a state of flow if you’re con­stantly get­ting dig­i­tal taps on the shoul­der. I don’t use my phone in bed and, in the morn­ings, I keep it in air­plane mode un­til I leave the house. Dur­ing that half-hour of show­er­ing and hav­ing a cup of tea, my mind has space to wan­der. I can be hu­man. Later on, I catch my­self when I reach for my phone to check so­cial me­dia. I don’t stop my­self ev­ery time, but I’m more aware of it.

You’ve run a tech busi­ness for 20 years. Are you less stressed now?

I went through a bumpy time when Mind Candy [the tech firm be­hind the game Moshi Mon­sters, which he founded] grew like crazy, then came crash­ing down. I wasn’t sleep­ing, I had headaches and I was ex­hausted, con­stantly ru­mi­nat­ing and stressed. But by de­vel­op­ing a med­i­ta­tion prac­tice, I slowly started to feel bet­ter. I am now a healthy per­son. My re­la­tion­ships are bet­ter. I think I’m a bet­ter leader – cer­tainly a calmer one. Who wants a man­ager who’s scream­ing and throw­ing things one minute, then quiet and un­read­able the next? Be­ing bal­anced helps you to put things in per­spec­tive.

Can tech be a force for good?

Yes. The penny dropped for me with the im­prove­ment in my own health: how tech could ben­e­fit so­ci­ety, how Calm could be­come global. I’m pas­sion­ate about tech­nol­ogy. Think of all the ways it has im­proved our lives. Mo­bile phones have put ex­tra­or­di­nary power in the pock­ets of four bil­lion peo­ple around the world, but no one is taught how to use it prop­erly.

Is bet­ter reg­u­la­tion of tech firms the so­lu­tion?

I’m a big be­liever in free mar­kets and let­ting in­dus­tries self-reg­u­late. Last year was a water­shed mo­ment. Peo­ple re­alised that smart­phones and sim­i­lar de­vices can cause real dam­age. Big Tech is tak­ing steps to self-reg­u­late. Google and Ap­ple users now have ways to track how they are us­ing those prod­ucts.

But isn’t giv­ing peo­ple too much in­for­ma­tion to process part of the prob­lem?

That’s a fair point, but if it’s done in a pos­i­tive way, it will help. Com­pa­nies are start­ing to deal with the prob­lems, not least be­cause share­hold­ers are push­ing for it. Hope­fully, self-reg­u­la­tion will hap­pen. If not, gov­ern­ments will need to step in. But we need to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for our per­sonal health. Gov­ern­ments and com­pa­nies can help, but in the end it’s up to you. Many peo­ple are al­ready tak­ing own­er­ship of their phys­i­cal fit­ness, but one of the big­gest cur­rent trends is peo­ple recog­nis­ing that they need to look at their men­tal fit­ness in the same way. It’s not easy, though. Hu­mans are ter­ri­ble at do­ing things we know we should. Very true. Med­i­ta­tion is one method of chang­ing the way your mind works. I think of it in terms of soft­ware: it’s like lay­ing in a new op­er­at­ing sys­tem for your brain. Or it’s like turn­ing up the bright­ness on life. It be­comes eas­ier to do the other things you want to do: not to shout at your part­ner when you get an­gry, not to reach for an­other bis­cuit. To re­spond to sit­u­a­tions, rather than re­act to them. And I think that’s really pow­er­ful.

How do you feel about prof­it­ing from some­thing so pow­er­ful?

It feels nat­u­ral, be­cause the best type of busi­ness is one that has a pos­i­tive im­pact on peo­ple’s lives and makes a lot of money. If you make a lot of money, you can grow faster, mar­ket more and have a big­ger im­pact. We think we can do that with Calm. I feel that we – and other com­pa­nies like us – are in the cen­tre of the zeit­geist of Western so­ci­ety right now.

Will Calm be­come, as you’ve said, “Nike for the mind”?

There’s a par­al­lel with what hap­pened about 50 years ago, when ex­er­cise wasn’t the done thing. If you were seen out jog­ging, peo­ple would ask you what you were run­ning from. Then, celebri­ties started do­ing it and doc­tors be­gan to say it was good for you… and we all know what hap­pened. Nike and dozens of other brands moved in, and phys­i­cal fit­ness has be­come a huge busi­ness. I be­lieve we’re at the start of an equally big move­ment for men­tal fit­ness.

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