Extra-nutritious GM foods still years away
2.GM bean could help prevent heart attacks - Mark Henderson, The Times
3.Why Europe should rewrite the rule book - Ian Crute, The Times
1.Extra-Nutritious Bioengineered Foods Still Years Away
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post, November 3 2008
For years, advocates of agricultural biotechnology have promised a future in which foods will be genetically engineered to give more nutrition and to prevent chronic diseases, in which crops will be modified to thrive in salty soil or hot or dry climates and in which consumers will benefit directly from science's ability to tweak other characteristics of plants.
So far, however, that has generally not happened, and the main beneficiaries of agricultural biotechnology remain farmers battling pests and weeds that threaten staple crops such as soybeans, corn and cotton, as well as the companies that develop and produce genetically modified seeds.
But last week, consumers were reminded of what might be available in the future. Researchers at the British-government-sponsored John Innes Center announced that they had developed a purple tomato that has high levels of beneficial anthocyanins -- antioxidants known to neutralize potentially harmful oxygen molecules, or free radicals, in the body and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. The genes for the purple tomato came from snapdragons.
The creators of the purple tomato, a team led by Cathie Martin, tested their fruit in cancer-susceptible mice and found that the animals on a diet of 10 percent powdered purple tomatoes in their pellets lived significantly longer than those eating powdered normal red tomatoes. Her findings were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
This advance does not mean that extra-healthful purple tomatoes will be on the market anytime soon -- that would require much more testing in animals and humans and, perhaps a bigger hurdle, finding a company that wants to develop, market and sell them.
But Martin said the tomatoes are important because they are a promising example of a genetically modified food "that offers a potential benefit for all consumers." That's because the anthocyanins -- which are also found in many berries and in red cabbage -- would be delivered at high levels in a product that is widely and frequently consumed.
"The goal here is to improve diets by putting important compounds like anthocyanins in foods everyone eats," Martin said.
Researchers are genetically modifying many other foods to be more nutritious or to carry extra health benefits -- including staples such as rice, cassava and bananas, as well as vegetable oils engineered to have higher levels of healthful omega-3 fatty acids. Some are working on engineering ingredients in beer and white wine to boost levels of the antioxidant resveratrol, a heart-healthy compound found especially in red wine.
Unlike the explosion in biotechnology to protect crops from insects and weeds, these modified consumer products are in the relatively early stages of development, and there is seldom much money supporting their research. What's more, they often require the introduction of two or more new genes into the existing plant or, as in the case of the purple tomato, the insertion of a "transcription factor" that controls the activity of numerous genes. The health risks of this broader-brush genetic engineering have been far less studied than those that involve modifying or inserting a single gene.
Nonetheless, advocates of food biotechnology say the promise is there. Michael Wach, managing director for science and regulatory affairs at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said many researchers are experimenting with ways to engineer more healthful fats, more nutritionally dense products, and foods with increased levels of iron, zinc and Vitamin A.
It remains unclear whether any will pan out, but he said the traditional products of biotechnology that help farmers are becoming ever more important in poor nations as well as developed ones. About 282 million acres of genetically modified crops are planted in 23 nations.
"The issue of food availability is becoming increasingly important, and we know that genetically modified crops can help," he said. "With all the research now into developing crops that can resist drought or poor soil, we think the importance of biotechnology to agriculture can only grow."
Margaret Mellon, a food specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, disagrees. She generally views today's genetically modified crops as a problem rather than a solution. Although biotechnology could someday help increase the yields of staple crops and make them more resistant to climatic stress, she said, foods modified for nutritional benefits have fared poorly and can be produced better by conventional methods.
"The big biotech firms always used the promise of consumer-friendly, extra-healthy foods to fend off some of the criticism of their pesticide- and herbicide-control products, which often were not terribly popular with the public," she said. "It doesn't look exactly promising that we'll get any of that kind of benefit anytime soon, if ever. Clearly, genetically engineering fruits and vegetables for nutritional benefits has proven far more difficult than the industry expected."
And even if vegetables and fruits can be genetically modified to contain an abundance of a beneficial compound, she asked, do we really want them? Wouldn't it be better, she said, to develop richer soils -- using microorganisms and nutrients -- that could boost the nutritional value of all edible plants?
Martin, the creator of the purple tomato, said conventionally bred and grown fruits, vegetables and berries can certainly supply the nutrients and minerals that people need. But nutrition experts say that would require eating five servings a day, she said, and "eating one tomato instead certainly would be easier and more likely to happen."
2.GM bean could help prevent heart attacks
Mark Henderson, Science Editor
The Times, November 3 2008
The first genetically modified foods with direct benefits for human health should be available within four years after successful experiments in the United States.
A GM soya bean that can help to prevent heart attacks has passed the first phase of trials, clearing the way for its use in foods such as spreads, yoghurts, cereal bars and salad dressings.
The research, at the University of South Dakota, has shown that oil from the GM soya can raise blood concentrations of long-chain omega3 acids, which are found chiefly in oily fish such as salmon, trout and fresh tuna. They protect against cardiovascular diseases and diabetes and help the growth of brain cells in the young.
Omega3 acids are regarded as so important that the Food Standard Agency (FSA) recommends a portion of oily fish every week, although 70 per cent of adults ignore the advice.
Efforts to promote fish consumption have raised concerns about fragile marine stocks, but the GM soya offers a sustainable, fish-free way in which people can maintain a diet rich in omega3 fatty acids.
More than 280 million acres of GM crops are already grown worldwide, but they are modified to resist weeds or insects. In Britain their reception has been lukewarm. The GM soya beans could change that attitude. The biotechnology company Monsanto has harvested 600 tonnes this year from trial plots in the US and some of this has already been passed on to food companies to develop products.
Monsanto expects the US Food and Drug Administration to clear it as a food by 2011, allowing it to reach American supermarket shelves by 2012. If it is approved by the European Food Safety Authority and the FSA’s novel foods committee, products containing the omega3 oil could then be exported to Britain.
Any product would be clearly labelled as GM, in the US and Europe. “We’ll want to label it,” said David Stark, Monsanto’s vice-president for consumer traits. “Consumers will have a choice: some may choose not to try it, but others will.”
He added: “It’s another reason for consumers to pause and consider whether GM has a role to play. I think it does, not only for how we deliver food for the planet, but also for how we protect our own health. We’ve shown for years that GM crops can control pests. That’s important to consumers, but not in a personal way. Hopefully this will be personal enough to make a difference.”
If it is passed by regulators, the soya oil would become the first beneficial food to be produced by genetic modification. It is much further ahead in development than the GM tomatoes announced last week by scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which are rich in an antioxidant thought to have anticancer properties. The tomato has so far been tested only on mice, but the soya has completed a trial, led by William Harris, professor of medicine at the University of South Dakota, on 33 volunteers.
The study, published in the journal Lipids, found that the GM soya oil increased the “omega3 index” in the participants’ blood from an average of 4 per cent to 5 per cent. Such a change, which was not seen in people taking normal soya oil, would be associated with a drop of about 50 per cent in the risk of heart attacks, Professor Harris said.
“We saw these effects in our subjects after just a few weeks. I can imagine that, if you got this into the food supply and people were eating it year after year, you do have an opportunity to raise omega3 levels in the blood.”
Professor Harris is now conducting a larger study, involving 250 volunteers, which will finish next month. He will also test food products containing the soya oil as they are developed.
The two long-chain omega3 fatty acids required by the body are eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. They are produced by algae and enter the human food chain through the fish that feed on them. The GM soya is enhanced with fungal and plant genes.
3.Why Europe should rewrite the rule book
Professor Ian Crute: Commentary
The Times, November 3 2008
A genetically modified soya bean that contains health-giving fish oils is the sort of advance that might find favour with consumers and even convince sceptical Europeans that biotechnology has something going for it.
Before we can say for certain that it is beneficial, though, the results of this study will need to be scrutinised and independently replicated. The novel food products prepared from it will also, quite properly, be subject to a set of onerous regulatory hurdles before they appear on our supermarket shelves. The key issue, which has been lost in the furore over GM, is that it is the new characteristic of the crop, rather than the means by which this is produced, that should be placed under scrutiny with regard to impact on the environment or human wellbeing.
When the UK conducted enormous field experiments on herbicide-tolerant GM crops a few years ago, the focus was on the impact the modified crops had on weed control and biodiversity. It was never a test of GM technology per se, and every new crop must be assessed on its merits.
There are signs in Europe that we are beginning to realise that we can no longer take cheap food, or even food security, for granted, and that there may indeed be real potential benefits to be derived from the adoption of GM technology. So perhaps now is the time for us to catch up with the rest of the world where these crops are, with great benefit, being grown over substantial areas, and to reexamine critically the regulatory framework that we have erected. It sometimes seems to have been designed and operated to exclude and discourage just the sort of innovation we are going to need to address environmental and health issues.
The gains for humanity from scientific plant breeding have been immense not least the ability to feed 6 billion people from about the same amount of land as was cultivated 50 years ago when there were half as many inhabitants on the planet.
The author is director of Rothamsted Research, a publicly funded agricultural science institute [which partners with GM firms and has a long history of propagandising for the technology: http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=188 ]