GM comes to the table

IAEA ImagebankIn 1983, the first genetically modified (GM) plant was created; a tobacco plant with an antibiotic resistance gene.

Ideas of how plants could be modified to combat global problems such as malnutrition followed. Golden Rice, with its elevated levels of beta carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body, would fight vitamin A deficiency, drought and virus-resistant potatoes and plantain would provide for communities in the face of inhospitable conditions.

Now, thirty years later, the dreams of those first scientists could be coming true, as plans are set for the planting of Golden Rice in the Philippines in the coming months. Other countries such as India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have also expressed an interest in the crop after the Philippines’ decision.

Golden Rice addresses vitamin A deficiency, a highly important issue in developing countries. A deficiency in vitamin A can lead to blindness and has serious effects on the immune systems of children in particular.

The rice has been developed in association with philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and under a Humanitarian Uses Licence, meaning no one stands to make any real money from the project.

This news, received enthusiastically by many scientists, is unfortunately framed by the length of time it has taken for the crops to gain permission for planting. Golden Rice was first created in the late 1990s, and was ready for its initial field trials by 2000. However, due to the public outcry, it took another five years before they actually took place.

Despite setbacks, these initial trials demonstrated that the rice could produce beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. However, it was produced at a low level and so further research was undertaken to increase the quantity produced.

By 2009, sufficient improvements were made to the rice, such that it could provide a substantial amount of a person’s recommended daily intake of vitamin A in a small portion of approximately 120 grams.

Coming close on the heels of this is another potential victory for GM, the possible production of the world’s first genetically modified fish fit for human consumption. AquaBounty, US biotechnology firm, is seeking to engineer an Atlantic salmon that is able to reach full size in half the time it takes their natural relatives.

This work has taken a similarly long time to bring to the table, for the last 17 years, AquaBounty has been working towards approval. Now the US food regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, has declared that transgenic ‘AquAdvantage’ salmon have “no significant impact”. This is the final environmental impact decision they make.

The AquAdvantage salmon, reared from the eggs of wild Atlantic salmon, includes several extra genes from the Pacific Chinook salmon, an eel, and the ocean pout. Together, these genes enable the fish to grow both faster and all year round.
As with all GM animal research, there are concerns. The Atlantic Salmon Federation has fears that the fish could get into the wild, start breeding and seriously disrupt the ecosystem.

However, this is a negligible risk as the engineered salmon are all female, sterile, and are all grown in onshore tanks based in Panama, so the chance of the fish breeding in the wild is near impossible.

Whilst many may disagree with GM for their own reasons they cannot deny that in order to keep pace with the taste of the ever growing middle classes for meat and to supply the malnourished with enough nutrients. GM organisms are going to become increasingly accepted and included in our menus around the world.

One comment

  1. I’m a strong supporter of the potential of GM crops, so it’s good to see Golden Rice on the verge of being used.

    Somewhat more skeptical about the salmon though. Not for ecological reasons, but for concerns about animal welfare. It’s simply reinforcing the view that animals can be seen as products or tools for us to manipulate for our own advantage.

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