GMO promoters are promising us nutritionally enhanced novelty fruit – but nature got there first. Report by Claire Robinson
An article in Newsweek from this summer breathlessly hypes the potential of genome editing techniques such as CRISPR by promising a supposedly "must-have" food item: a red-fleshed apple. But a closer look at the article and the work of the scientists behind it actually shows that genome editing – and genetic engineering in general – are not needed.
The Newsweek article is titled, "We could soon be eating apples with red flesh". It begins: "Apples with red flesh and other novel fruit varieties may soon be making their way to a supermarket near you thanks to new plant breeding techniques that mimic DNA mutations that occur in nature, according to scientists from Plant & Food Research (PFR) in New Zealand. The techniques allow us to easily manipulate the look, feel, taste and nutritional content of fruit and vegetables to rapidly create higher quality products."
In particular, anthocyanins are mentioned. These are antioxidants that give certain fruits and veg a purple, blue, or red colouration. Some research suggests they may have health benefits.
The article says that most of the nutrients and vitamins in products such as apples and potatoes are concentrated in the skin. But by manipulating a family of proteins called MYB transcription factors, which switch other genes on or off, "scientists can produce these healthy compounds throughout the fruit, including the flesh".
The article adds, "This could be done using gene editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9, which essentially allows scientists to 'copy and paste' DNA code."
One of the PFR scientists leading the research, Andrew Allan, is quoted as saying, “Studies have shown that pigments such as anthocyanins and carotenoids are thought to offer health and dietary benefits. Changes in key MYB transcription factors could turn the colorless flesh of certain fruits into one with color. It could significantly increase the content of pigments per fruit serving, resulting in a possible step change in health benefits.”
Red-fleshed apples via conventional breeding
Are we impressed? Not exactly.
As with virtually all things that genetic engineers dream up as the next must-have food fad, nature – and conventional plant breeders – got there first. One of our neighbours has a conventionally bred dwarf apple tree in her garden with bright red apples on it. The red isn't confined to the skin but is spread throughout the entire flesh (see image above). The apples are crisp, taste wonderful, and store well.
It seems that more such conventionally bred red-fleshed apples are in the pipeline. And interestingly enough, they come from a breeding programme run by some of the same New Zealand scientists at PFR that are hyping CRISPR as the route to red-fleshed apples in the Newsweek article.
A separate article on the "Science Learning Hub" website explains that the scientists are developing red-fleshed apples using conventional breeding. They use genetic engineering and marker assisted selection as research tools to identify genes of interest in the breeding programme, but any GM procedures are "confined to the lab – apple breeding in New Zealand does not use transgenic techniques". The result will be non-GM apples that are conventionally bred.
Claims of speed
In the Newsweek article, the PFR scientists justify their hyping of the "new breeding techniques" (read: new GM techniques) by claiming they can be much quicker than conventional breeding. But there is no proof that the new GM techniques can deliver a useful crop any more quickly than conventional breeding. The first step – the genetic manipulation – may be quick, but the subsequent process to produce a crop that performs well in the field may involve many cross-breeding steps, which take time, as well as several years of field trials. The latter are not just a requirement of certain regulatory regimes, but are an intrinsic part of any plant breeding programme.
And speed may not be desirable when it comes to food crops. By using the new GM techniques, changes that would not happen naturally can be forced. But using these techniques to engineer food plants could produce new toxins or allergens that are not weeded out in the path to market.
Regarding the food safety of GM crops, it makes no difference if no "foreign" genes are introduced. Manipulating individual genes can have unintended effects, as numerous scientific papers on CRISPR and other genome editing techniques show.
New GM, same old claims
Andrew Allan, one of the PFR scientists hyping the new GM techniques in Newsweek, makes claims that are familiar from the debate twenty years ago over the first generation of GM crops. He says the new techniques will deliver crops that are high in yield and nutritional content and adapted to climate change.
But he offers no data to back up these inflated claims.
And as with red-fleshed apples, we already have plenty of high-performing and specialist crops, all of them the products of traditional breeders working with natural processes. In contrast, GM techniques, including the new genome editing methods, are laboratory techniques that rely on tweaking one or a few genes. They are incapable of delivering desirable traits such as high yield and nutritional content, which rely on complex networks of genes working together.
As for Newsweek's description of genome editing as "copying and pasting", that's only true in the sense that someone who doesn't understand Chinese could take a document written in Chinese and copy and paste bits of text in different places. They might do so precisely (the favourite word of the gene bashers) – but they will only succeed in scrambling the meaning and ending up with something that neither they nor anyone else understands.
In one forum – the Science Learning Hub – the PFR scientists present their work to develop red-fleshed apples as based on traditional breeding, helped along by GM and marker assisted breeding used as research tools. Yet in the Newsweek article – which includes the "crisis narrative" of the necessity of feeding the world's expanded population – they imply that genome editing is necessary to produce such apples. Meanwhile a quick Google search – or a smidgen of curiosity over a neighbour's apple tree – tells us that nature has already given us delicious red-fleshed apples and that GM is not needed. And if we should need more varieties, the PFR's own work shows that conventional breeding will come up with the goods – without the safety concerns of GM.
When wildly contradictory narratives emerge, it's often a sign that dishonesty and obfuscation are at work. And certainly the PFR scientists appear to have been economical with the truth about their interests in the new GM techniques. The two scientists featured in the Newsweek article, Andrew Allan and Richard Espley, hold inventor status on at least four biotech patents, two of which have direct relevance to anthocyanin production in plants. PFR is the assignee for two of the patents.
Allan and Espley do not disclose these interests in the Newsweek article and neither does the reporter. The interests are also not mentioned in Allan and Espley's peer-reviewed paper, published in the journal Trends in Plant Science, which is featured in the Newsweek article. The paper focuses on the MYB transcription factors that can be switched on by genetic engineering methods to produce, for example, a red-fleshed apple.
Both PFR and the two scientists may stand to gain from these patents if a genome edited red-fleshed apple is commercialised. Why Newsweek and Trends in Plant Science considered that these vested interests do not need to be disclosed is a mystery.
The take-home message from this tale is that the answer to the question, "Who needs a GM red-fleshed apple?", is "Someone who has a patent on one."