Great minds thinking alike, or fools seldom differing? That’s me and the production team of BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme.
You see, we both were inspired by what Boris Johnson said when he arrived in Downing Street after being made Prime Minister (namely: “Let’s start now [ie, after we leave the EU] to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world”) to re-visit the subject of GM (genetically modified) crops and food.
Farming Today broadcast the results of their endeavours last week, including a round-up programme on Saturday: podcast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0008pdl stream: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0008pdl
Me, well, I took as my (kind-of) inspiration one of the ‘alternative’ descriptions of GM crops – “Frankenfoods” – and did a Frankenstein (ie brought back from the dead) some stuff on GM food (also known as Genetically Engineered, or Transgenic) that I picked up more than 20 years ago, at an exhibition at the Science Museum in London.
The exhibition was called Future Foods? An exhibition looking at Genetically Modified Food and it ran between November 1997 and March 1998.
The stuff is (are?): a four-page leaflet accompanying the exhibition, and a 30-page booklet, Food for our Future: Food and biotechnology, published by the Food and Drink Federation.
Both the leaflet and the booklet cover similar ground, an explanation of what genetic modification is (ie the sort done in a lab, rather than that done in a greenhouse using conventional breeding techniques), and outlines of the arguments for and against. OK, largely ‘for’: both publications wax lyrical about GM crops, and how they can enhance our lives in so many ways, from reducing our use of pesticides to making our food extra-nutritious.
And they describe how we could expect to be experiencing those benefits within just a handful of years.
I thought it might be worth find out how some of the crops mentioned in those booklets had fared in the years since the exhibition.
To put their progress, or otherwise, into context, it’s important to consider the current situation in the UK, and the EU of which the UK is still a part.
At present, a GM crop cannot be grown anywhere in any EU member country unless it has been approved by the EU’s European Food Safety Authority. If/when it is, then it’s up to the governments of individual countries whether or not they adopt it.
Unlike some nations (the US, for example), the EU regulates according to the ‘precautionary principle’, in effect, the whole “better to be overly cautious – and safe – than sorry” thing. Although EFSA has approved a handful of GM crops, from carnations to sugarbeet, currently only GM maize is actually grown in the EU, in Spain and Portugal.
That’s not to say we don’t already have GM crops in this country, because we do. They’re not grown in fields on ‘proper’ farms, but in laboratories or in fields at research facilities. (Although some people warn that it could be possible for GM organisms to escape from the research facilities and ‘contaminate’ surrounding farmland.)
We also have GM food, although not much: the EU has approved only GM canola (rapeseed), soya, maize, potato and sugarbeet for (animal and human) consumption. I’ve seen cooking oil that includes oil from GM plants, for example, and hummus. And an awful lot of our animal feed is made from (imported) GM ingredients, such as soy.
Food eaten directly by humans must be labelled (which is why I knew the cooking oil was GM) – although I do wonder how many people even think to check the labels for the abbreviation “GM”. But food from animals fed on GM, such as pigs reared on GM soy, does not have to be labelled; not in the UK, at any rate.
When we leave the EU, however, we should no longer be bound by EU restrictions on growing GM crops, of course; as Boris put it, we’ll be “liberated.
But how many of the foods featured in my exhibition bumpf could we expect to have access to once we have been “liberated”?
As far as I know, the best source of information on GM crops – what is grown, where in the world and in what quantities – is the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), which, on its website, describes itself as: “a not-for-profit international organization that shares the benefits of crop biotechnology to various stakeholders, particularly resource-poor farmers in developing countries, through knowledge sharing initiatives and the transfer and delivery of proprietary biotechnology applications.”
ISAAA’s partners and donors include CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and organisations like the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which is funded by, amongst others, the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DfID), and companies that develop GM crops.
As ISAAA says itself, it thinks GM crops are a good thing; it promotes them, it doesn’t try to cover them up.
So if they know a GM crop exists, they’re going to tell you about it, and I’m pretty sure they have the best information on the planet about what exists. Maybe I’m wrong and there is a better source out there, and if that is the case I apologise, but the ISAAA is the best one I can think of.
The ISAAA database (http://www.isaaa.org/gmapprovaldatabase/default.asp) lists 31 GM crops, from alfalfa to wheat, via insect-resistant eggplant (aubergine) and safflower, that have been approved for human or animal consumption, use and/or cultivation around the world, including the EU.
Not all of them were grown in 2018. In fact, the majority weren’t, and some haven’t been grown for years – they’ve been withdrawn from the market, for a variety of reasons (some of which you can read about later).
The most popular traits relate to tackling a problem: weeds, pests (insects), disease or drought, but there are some that are more about making a product ‘better’: apples and potatoes that don’t go brown when they’re cut, or soya that yields oil that’s supposed to be healthier than that from conventional plants. Some have more than one of these traits.
In 2018, GM crops were grown in 26 countries around the world – a total of 191.7million hectares of them – and imported into 44 more (including members of the GM-sceptical EU). As a point of comparison, in the first year the crops were commercialized – 1996 – only 1.7 million hectares were grown.
The biggest producer in 2018, by far, was the US, which grew 75 million hectares, of maize, soy, cotton, canola, sugarbeet, alfalfa, papaya, squash, potatoes and apples. The ISAAA praises the US for its “support” of GM crops and “leadership” in its regulation of them (or non-regulation, as some critics of GM would see it).
The smallest, and newest, grower was the African nation of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), where around 250 hectares of insect-resistant GM cotton were grown.
The most ‘popular’ crop internationally was soybeans, accounting for 50 per cent of the acreage grown. The other ‘top’ crops were maize, cotton and canola (rape).
So what about the crops in my booklet and leaflet?
The most commonly used trait nowadays is mentioned only almost in passing in the leaflet and booklet: herbicide tolerance. A total of 46 per cent of GM crops grown in 2018 – mainly soybeans, canola, maize, alfalfa, and cotton – were genetically engineered to be resistant to some form of herbicide.
The ‘benefit’ of this trait is that it supposedly enables farmers to use less herbicide on their crops, because the weeds will be taken out in one go, while the crops will be fine.
While herbicide-resistant wheat, featured in the booklet, was approved for food and animal feed use in the US, and food use only in Australia, Colombia and New Zealand, in 2004, it’s never been authorised for cultivation anywhere.
The next most ‘popular’ trait today is insect resistance (often ‘stacked’ with herbicide tolerance).
Among the fruits and vegetables being lined up to be made “pest resistant” in the mid-1990s were: “potatoes able to resist the Colorado beetle”; “fruit trees and strawberries”; “crops including apple, potato, maize, cotton, rice and tomato”, and cauliflower with a snowdrop gene added, to make it produce lectin, to make it resistant to pests.
Colorado beetle-resistant potatoes, called NewLeaf, had been available in the US since 1995. However, they were withdrawn in 2001, after the manufacturer, Monsanto, decided they weren’t commercially viable.
The potatoes, which were supposed to be disease-resistant as well, were expensive to produce, even after development costs had been met, but apparently, only a relatively small acreage was planted.
I’ve seen a number of possible explanations for why: the planting process was more complicated than that for conventional potatoes, so maybe farmers decided the ‘benefits’ weren’t worth the hassle, especially when a new insecticide that was effective against Colorado beetle came onto the market?
Meanwhile, food producers couldn’t work out how to separate GM foods from non-GM ones for consumers who declined to eat GM food (one of the main markets Monsanto was targeting was crisp manufacturers; good luck to them in separating GM crisps from non-GM ones!).
No insect resistant apples, rice or tomatoes have been approved (although they have, of course, been approved for other ‘qualities’). Strawberries don’t feature anywhere on the ISAAA database, nor do cauliflowers.
However, some of the biggest GM crops on the planet are pest-resistant maize and cotton (as mentioned above). The latter is especially contentious, though: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/monsanto-burkina-cotton/.
There’s also insect-resistant Bt sugarcane, developed and approved in the US and Canada and Brazil in 2016-2018, which was grown in Brazil in 2018.
How about the disease-resistant fruit and veg that features in the booklet and leaflet?
Such as: “cucumber, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers resistant to Cucumber Mosaic Virus”; “sweet potato resistant to feathery mottle virus”, and “a viral-resistant variety of papaya able to resist ringspot”?
The only disease-resistant crops to have any kind of approval, ie for consumption and/or cultivation, are: beans, papayas, plums, potatoes, squash, sweet peppers, tomato. Of these, only papaya and squash were grown, in the US and China, in 2018.
The GM feature that got the most coverage in the leaflet and booklet is the one that is least used today: what I suppose you could call the ‘making plants better’ one. Maybe that’s because a vaccine-in-a-banana sounds a lot more exciting than “wheat that doesn’t wilt when you douse it in weedkiller”?
So what were these brave new fruits and veg, and what happened to them? Well, some appear to have been more successful than others.
For a start: “Potatoes and apples that don’t go brown when you cut them”?
Anti-browning potatoes, under the brand name “Innate”, were launched in the US – but only in 2016, while “Arctic” apples genetically engineered by a Canadian company not to go brown went on sale in the US – in 2017.
Vegetables with increased levels of carotenoids (the things that make tomatoes, peppers and carrots red, which, apparently, helps protect against cancer and coronary heart disease)?
No carotenoid-enhanced vegetables of any kind on the ISAAA database.
A banana that delivers a vaccine, such as against Hepatitis B (to make a more patient-friendly method of vaccination, especially for children)?
The leaflet stated that the Boyce Thompson Institute in New York had genetically modified potatoes to carry Hep B vaccine and were hoping to do the same with bananas. I can find reports about the potato vaccine entering clinical trial in 1999, and media reports of the “remarkable” success of (I assume) that same clinical trial from 2005.
But do inoculative bananas feature on the ISAAA database? Er no. In fact, bananas don’t feature at all.
A search for “vaccine” brings up news stories about research into using fruit, and veg, as a means of delivering vaccines (carrots against cholera, for example, in 2007, and Hep B vaccine in transgenic maize in 2014), and/or as a medium for developing a vaccine – ie modifying the whatever so it contains the vaccine, which can then be extracted from the plant and purified.
(Tobacco seems a particularly popular medium; I don’t know whether this is because tobacco is particularly good for this, or because someone is desperately trying to find a new use for all the tobacco-growing facilities around the world that must be falling out of use as smoking declines.) But so far, no inoculative plants of any kind.
Jeans made from cotton genetically modified to grow blue?
No sign of that cotton anywhere, although, away from the ISAAA website, I did find a media story, from the US, about scientists in the US genetically modifying plants to make blue dye for jeans, instead of making it from chemicals. But as far as I can find out, this hasn’t made it into commercial use.
“Improving nutritional value” (ie biofortification), such as “transferring genes from pea plants to make higher protein rice”? That didn’t happen, or at least hasn’t as yet.
The only GM bio-fortified food currently available is “Golden Rice”. It’s been engineered, using genes from daffodils and soil bacterium, to contain Vitamin A, which doesn’t occur naturally in rice. It’s supposedly intended to be eaten in developing countries, as a way of tackling Vitamin A deficiency, which causes, amongst other things, sight loss. It’s taken 20 years, and a reported US$100 million, to develop.
Over the last couple of years it’s been approved for use in food for human consumption in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (and, in the US, in animal feed too), although it’s not been approved to be grown anywhere in the world yet.
(An organisation called HarvestPlus, which is also associated with CGIAR, has been distributing non-GM Vitamin A enriched sweet potatoes in developing countries for over a decade. I can’t find out how much it cost to develop, but US$100million is an awful lot of money).
“Altering the saturated fat content of corn, soya, oilseed rape (canola) and other oil crops”:
GM high-oleic acid soybean oil has been available since the late 1990s, approved for consumption by animals and humans, in a couple of dozen countries and grown in several, especially the US. It’s supposed to be lower in saturated fat and trans fats – and therefore healthier – than conventional soybean oil.
Low saturated fat corn oil, made from GM maize, has been available since the 1990s. A transgenic high-laurate canola oil was approved for human and animal consumption and cultivation, in the US and Canada in the mid-1990s (ie before the booklet was produced). It was intended as a substitute for imported coconut and palm oils, but, apparently, it wasn’t as successful as the developers hoped, and may not even be available today.
Higher vitamin fruit and veg:
Haven’t happened. At least as far as I can discover.
Longer-lasting fruit and veg:
The booklet lists the Flavr Savr delayed-ripening tomato, which had gone on sale in the US shortly before the booklet was published. These tomatoes were the first commercialised GM foodstuff to go on sale anywhere in the world, but within about three years they’d disappeared from shop shelves.
Factors blamed for their demise include them being of poor quality because they were developed from low-grade ordinary tomatoes, because the developer couldn’t afford better, more expensive varieties, and them being poorly packed on their journey from Mexico, where they were grown. However, I’ve also seen claims that they were prohibitively expensive, and didn’t taste as good as ordinary tomatoes as well.
Delayed-ripening melons were approved for human consumption in the US in 1999, but have never been approved for cultivation anywhere in the world.
So that’s now compared to then. Who knows what things will be like in 2040? That’s partly up to you, Boris…