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!”
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”
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.