Whether you love the idea of genetically modified foods or not, they have grown to prominence for a reason.
In today’s article, Lara will explore the number of factors that have made genetically modified foods so appealing to the food and biotechnology industries, and the benefits they confer to the public at large.
If you think she is looking at the positive side of GMO, think again. Her next piece will explore some of the arguments AGAINST the use of GMOs and the potential risks (if any) that may be associated with growing and selling crops that have been genetically modified.
Case #1 – Desirable Traits
I do not know about you, but I always spend a couple of minutes picking the best-looking fruit or vegetable. For example, while I am picking apples, I must make sure that they are deep red in colour, have no bruises and are not on the soft side.
A growing trend in the food industry is to sell pre-cut fruits and vegetables 15. Specifically, with apples, when they are sliced, bruised or bitten, they turn brown. The brown colour on a perfectly edible apple makes the apple unappealing to the consumers.
For the brown colour to occur, the enzyme that is called polyphenol oxidase (PPO) initiates a chemical reaction 14. The food industry typically stops the browning reaction from happening by adding antioxidants, such as calcium ascorbate. Although calcium ascorbate acts as an inhibitor, it changes the flavour of the apple.
Okanagan Speciality Fruits, an agriculture biotechnology company, successfully genetically modified Arctic apples to stop them from browning when sliced, bruised or bitten. These apples have done successfully in a test run in select markets in America and will be brought to Canada, however no date is yet announced when they will be brought. Therefore, this is an example of how scientists have solved the browning process from happening – by reducing the PPO content through biotechnology 14.
How does the food industry benefit from GMO Arctic apples?
- The benefit of genetically modifying apples can help food companies save money by no longer having to use calcium ascorbate 15.
- Worldwide, food waste, especially for fruits and vegetables is a re-occurring problem. In 2016, United States, threw away nearly half of their produce due to rotting, feeding to livestock or throwing it into landfill. It is also estimated by Tesco , a UK supermarket, that 40% of apples are wasted due to consumers behaviour in 2014. Therefore, turning towards genetically modifying apples might be a solution to reducing food waste 13.
Case #2 – Disease Resistance
Crops suffer from diseases just like humans do. Crops that have diseases can lead to severe economic consequences for the food and agricultural industry.
Let’s take Papaya, for example, a fruit which an estimated $30 million dollars worth of produce is imported into Canada.
Papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) was found in all areas of the world where papaya is cultivated, including Hawaii and Thailand.
PRSV is spread by aphid species. They are pests that suck the juice of the papayas with their piercing mouth, which then gives rise to the PRSV on the papayas 12.
Before genetically modifying the papayas became an option, the farmers thought maybe the PRSV was due to the Hawaiian island they were planting on. They thought in order to stop the PRSV in papayas, they would need to relocate the crop production to another island in Hawaii.
The virus did not stop. There were also other unsuccessful methods used before, such as using destroying the infected trees or spraying insecticides.
A 2014 study by the Journal of General Plant Pathology revealed that the genetic makeup of papaya included a PRSV gene. Through genetic modification, scientists inserted a PRSV resistance gene into the RNA of the papaya. This process causes a creation of a coating protein that has the papaya protected on a cellular level and safe from any virus attacks, such as from the aphid species.
Case #3 – Nutritional Improvements
You’ve heard of fortified milk, but have you ever imagined the potential that genetically modifying foods has in terms of fortifying crops?
Let’s explore the curious case of the cassava.
Cassava is a staple crop consumed in areas such as Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.
However, the poor availability of vitamin A in this staple crop, combined with the absence of dietary diversity in these areas, can cause vitamin A deficiency which can impair vision and weaken the immune system, which can ultimately cause blindness and even death 6,11.
Cassava’s bioavailability of vitamin A is low because of the extensive thermal processing that it must undergo before consumption due to the safety concerns of the cyanide-related compounds that cassavas contain.
This reality was altered through what is known as “biofortification”, which can be achieved through a number of mechanisms including genetic modification and ultimately results in a vitamin A enriched crop.
Until now we believed that only about eight percent of beta-carotene from cassava could be absorbed by the body. This study shows that it is not eight but 17 percent that is absorbed and then transformed by the body into vitamin A.” If vitamin A deficient populations that eat cassava regularly switched to this new variety, their vitamin A status should improve measurably” – Dr. Erick Boy, Nutrition Manager at HarvestPlus 9.
Case #4 – Feeding A Growing World
“The projections show that feeding a world population of 9.1 billion people in 2050 would require raising overall food production by some 70 percent between 2005/07 and 2050. Production in the developing countries would need to almost double” 3.
-Food and Agricultural Organization of The United Nations
Using GMOs To Produce More Food
Let’s use the example of GMO salmon to explore this concept further.
AquAdvantage salmon is the first fast-growing salmon that was created by Canadian researchers, through the company AquaBounty Technologies 1. The process is done by microinjecting the extracted growth hormone from Chinook salmon and the gene promoter from ocean pout, into the fertilized eggs of the wild Atlantic salmon 1.
It is important to note that the AquAdvantage salmon grows faster and with less feed. As noted by the FDA, “the overall total amount of feed required to produce the same fish biomass was reduced by 25%” 1. This can be beneficial to the fish farmers, as they can get the fish faster to the market, while economically saving from having to feed less. In addition, in terms of consumption and environmental safety, Health Canada and the FDA has approved the GM salmon to be safe 1.
Does Genetically Engineered Fish Benefit the Environment?
Muir (2004) suggests that that genetically engineered farmed fish protects marine fish from over exploitation and reduces the pressure on ocean fisheries 10.
This is obviously a salient concern as the United Nations more recently has reported that 90% of the world’s fish stocks are already depleted, overfished or fully exploited 8.
Fish are a uniquely rich source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, meaning that the use of biotechnology to simultaneously increase the farmed yield and reduce the wild demand is certainly something of value 2 .
I hope you guys enjoyed my exploration of some of the major justifications and uses for GMO technology in plants and animals.
Join me for part III next week when I explore the “darker side” of genetic modification, including an honest account of potential pitfalls that may be associated with an over reliance on biotechnology.
- Bodnar, A. (2019). Fast-growing genetically engineered salmon approved. Retrieved from https://biofortified.org/2019/03/gmo-salmon-approved/
- Christensen, J. (2019). The global fishing fleet has exploded and that could be bad for the planet. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/27/world/fishing-boats-overfishing-study-scn/index.html
- FAO (2009). Global agriculture towards 2050. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf
- Godfray, H. C. J., Beddington, J. R., Crute, I. R., Haddad L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J. F., Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S. M., Toulmin, C. 2010. Food Security: The Challenge of feeding 9 billion people.
- Goldenberg, S. (2016). Half of all US food produce is thrown away, new research suggests. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/13/us-food-waste-ugly-fruit-vegetables-perfect
- Hefferon, K. L. (2016). Can biofortified crops help attain food security? Current Molecular Biology Reports, 2(4), 180-185. doi:10.1007/s40610-016-0048-0
- Howe, J. A., Maziya-Dixon, B., & Tanumihardjo, S. A. (2009). Cassava with enhanced β-carotene maintains adequate vitamin A status in mongolian gerbils (meriones unguiculatus) despite substantial cis-isomer content. British Journal of Nutrition, 102(3), 342-349. doi:10.1017/S0007114508184720
- Kituyi, M. (2018). 90% of fish stocks are used up – fisheries subsidies must stop. Retrieved from https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=1812
- More Vitamin A Possible from Cassava, Says New Study. (2013). Retrieved from https://www.harvestplus.org/knowledge-market/in-the-news/more-vitamin-possible-cassava-says-new-study-0
- Muir, W., “The Threats and Benefits of GM Fish.” EMBO Reports, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2004, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1299107/.
- Sayre R, Beeching JR, Cahoon EB, et al. (2011) The biocassava plus program: biofortification of cassava for sub-saharan Africa. Annu Rev Plant Biol 62, 251–272
- Siriwan, W., Takaya, N., Roytrakul, S., & Chowpongpang, S. (2014). Study of interaction between papaya ringspot virus HC-pro and papaya (carica papaya) proteins. Journal of General Plant Pathology, 80(3), 264-271. doi:10.1007/s10327-014-0523-5
- Tesco and society: Using our scale for good. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.tescoplc.com/files/pdf/reports/tesco_and_society_2013-14_halfyear_summary.pdf
- The Nonbrowning Apple – Arctic ® Apples. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.arcticapples.com/arctic-apples-r/introducing-nonbrowning/
- Waltz, E. (2015). Nonbrowning GM apple cleared for market. Nature Biotechnology, 33(4), 326-327. doi:10.1038/nbt0415-326c