With Blade Runner being re-hashed on the Hollywood scene, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about genetic manipulation lately. Although it doesn’t have quiet the same sci-fi flare, food genetic manipulation is still a pretty exciting area. Not too long ago, genetic manipulation was a thing of the future. Now, it’s here (or at least it will be soon)! The technology is astounding and pretty much the only thing standing in it’s way is a hugely complex ethical debate. This debate is so multi-faceted and filled with so much potential, that I couldn’t dream of summarising it in one piece of writing. Here, are just a few ideas being thrown around, that I think are important for everyone to understand and are especially relevant to my passion, food.
Since the birth of agriculture, humans have been practicing genetic manipulation. Simple cross breeding and human-selection processes are the most simplistic forms of genetic manipulation. However, these processes take a long time and are limited in their potential. With new transgenic technologies, horizons are broadened. We are able to cut out, and insert genes from anything, to anything, for any purpose. The best part is, it is almost instantaneous. You want an extra bright cherry red tomato? You got it! You want a that tomato to last for twice as long? You got it! The possibilities truly are endless.
Novel GM modifications are entertaining, but how can we use GM technology to really make a difference for those who need it the most?
Rice is the staple food for thousands of people living in poverty. Often, the rice they consume is not of the whole grain variety and therefore lacks in vitamins and minerals. After years of intensive experimentation, some very clever food scientists have able to express the vitamin A gene in white rice. This can improve the nutrient status and overall health of malnourished populations. Since GM technologies have the potential to alleviate so much suffering, surely it’s unethical to not implement them?
Genetic modifications that silence a starch synthesising enzyme in wheat result in a flour with a drastically lowered GI. By consuming lower GI wheat, we can start to fight the diabetes epidemic. Lowered GI products release glucose to the blood stream in a slow and steady manner. This puts less pressure on the pancreas and improves insulin sensitivity. Lower GI foods make us feel fuller for longer, so perhaps this genetic modification will have a role to play in the fight against obesity too! Diabetes and obesity are current health crises in which previous solution strategies have failed. Maybe it’s time we at least considered these more drastic GM approaches.
Gluten is a wheat protein that causes severe discomfort in those allergic/intolerant. Current gluten free options are highly processed and nowhere near as fluffy and delicious as their gluten containing counterparts. Genetic modification that silences the expression of gluten protein results in a low gluten product with only very mildly compromised sensory properties. It is also far less processed. Genetic modification may increase options for the gluten-free community.
One notable genetic modification that is already in use is the Bt gene. This is when the gene is inserted into the plant, making it resistant to pests. This technique has been applied to many crops including corn and cotton. In fact, if you’re wearing cotton right now, it’s likely to be genetically modified. A plethora of other genetic modifications have been used to make a variety of plants disease and pest resistant. However, eating genetically modified food is still not a popular opinion amongst the public, so, the GM gene is always inserted to a part of the plant we don’t consume e.g. the husk, stalk, leaf. A lack of public support for GM crops is the result of heavy lobbying from Greens and is a significant hurdle to the implementation of GM technologies.
If we can genetically modify crops to be pesticide resistant, then there is need to add nasty chemicals and pesticides. Hence, everything becomes organic! This may have some positive health benefits as agricultural chemicals are not exactly good for us.
The Draw Backs
Despite the potential positives of genetic manipulation, there are some considerable draw backs that need to be considered. Of which, are more sophisticated than mutant babies and glowing radioactive food, which are some common misconceptions.
Accepting GM technology opens Pandora’s Box- a world of possibilities. With this, comes the good and the bad. Questions of ‘playing God’ and ‘designer babies’ are some serious considerations that professors of ethics and morals are deliberating over. Another ethical consideration is the availability of GM technologies and how this could further entrench societal inequalities. Will GM only be available to the rich? What about struggling farmers who can’t compete? Some logistical concerns include questions regarding a regulatory body. Who decides how to use these technologies? Who monitors? Who enforces? These are some seriously heavy questions that we simply do not have answers to, yet.
A big argument from the environmentalist side, is biodiversity. A genetically engineered perfect crop will out-compete non-GM varieties. After all, it has a considerable advantage. If not contained, the GM crop may spread and over-run wild-type varieties. Hence, we end up with a smaller gene pool consisting solely of the GM crop. This is dangerous in the case of future unforeseen stressors that even our GM crops may not be able to withstand. It opens us to the possibility of the entire food supply being wiped out. By having a larger gene pool, it is more likely that at least one variety will be able to handle the future stressor and the world won’t starve. While this seems, dramatic, it is a legitimate concern in GM debates.
Xenohormesis is a theory that describes why organic food might be more nutritious. A plant exposed to pests and harsh conditions is forced to develop its’ own chemical protection to deal with this stress. It is thought that consumption of these stress-protective chemicals are extra healthful and have a role in human cellular stress management. A GM modified food is genetically equipped to deal with stress, so, it doesn’t need to produce these healthful compounds. Therefore, they are lacking in that crop. For this reason, perhaps GM foods are less ‘healthy’. That being said, xenohormesis is just a theory, and is not yet proven. So, take this idea with a grain of salt.
In conclusion, the jury is still out! All that we know for sure is that GM technologies open a world of possibilities, both good and bad. As for if we should use it or not, know body knows.