Biotech's Next Harvest Aims to Win Consumers
Researchers explore second-generation GM crops, which offer benefits to both food processors and consumers.
Despite the StarLink corn adulteration, farmers are not shying away from GM crops. Biotech corn will account for 24% of this year's total crop, while GM soy accounts for 63% and cotton 64%. These first-generation GM crops contain “input” traits, such as herbicide resistance or toxicity to pests, designed to benefit farmers.
Ray Rodriquez, professor of molecular and cellular biology at UC Davis, experiments with cereal grains to deliver to consumers some of the health benefits found in human milk and plasma.
Meanwhile, researchers are developing the second generation of GM crops with “output” traits designed to benefit consumers and food manufacturers.
For example, research by Peggy Lemaux, a molecular biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, focuses on increasing production of a protein (called thioredoxin) in grains. In barley, increasing thioredoxin can speed germination and accelerate the malting process, potentially saving brewing companies millions of dollars. In wheat, thioredoxin supports the leavening process, which may allow bakers to create stronger dough even from poor quality flour.
Lemaux found that thioredoxin “relaxes” allergenic proteins in wheat to make it more easily digestible, which may provide relief to people who suffer from wheat allergies. Lemaux says the bioengineering process involving thioredoxin is very precise. “We can specify when and where the protein will be made,” she says.
Judy Kjelstrom, associate director of biotechnology program at the University of California at Davis, says hundreds of GM crop research projects are underway worldwide. British scientists successfully inserted a gene from the petunia into tomatoes, boosting the production of flavonoids—powerful antioxidants that may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers in France modified a potato so that its starch converts to fructose without added enzymes. The development could make production of fructose less expensive.
Lemaux and Kjelstrom say that second-generation GM crops are at least five years away from commercialization. Unlike first-generation GM crops that involve a single gene insertion, second generation crops often require insertion of multiple genes, making the bioengineering process more complex.
FDA announced two proposed regulations this past January to assure consumers about GM food safety. The first requires biotechnology companies to consult with FDA at least 120 days before marketing new GM foods. Previously, such consultations were voluntary. Biotech companies must provide health safety data about the new GM foods to FDA, and the agency will make this information available on the Internet.
The second is a draft guidance document to assist manufacturers who want to voluntarily label their products as being made with or without the use of GM ingredients. According to the document, manufacturers in the latter category may be required to use phrases such as, “this product was not produced through bioengineering” or “not derived through biotechnology.”
According to FDA, terms like “GM-free” imply superiority and the agency wants labeling to be accurate. “We want the labeling to be informative, but not misleading,” says Joseph Levitt, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
FDA has taken public comments on both the premarket notice and draft guidance document and will decide what action to take.
The question remains whether second-generation GM crops will move out of the lab and on to the dinner plates of consumers. Biotech experts say the key to winning consumer opinion is providing foods they will benefit from.
Studies by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology both found nearly an identical lack of awareness of GM foods among consumers. In the IFIC survey, consumers were asked to rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how informed they were about biotechnology with 10 indicating “very well informed.” Fifty-three percent rated their awareness at three points or below. The Pew survey found that nearly an identical number of consumers (54%) said they had heard “not much” or “nothing” about biotech foods in grocery stores.
Similar results were found in a public attitude survey conducted by the University of New Mexico and Texas A&M. “Most respondents believed they never consumed GM foods, and if they did they thought the foods would be labeled,” says Hank Jenkins-Smith, a researcher in the two-year study.
All three studies show consumers favor labeling of GM foods, which Jenkins-Smith described as a “potentially explosive issue.” However, the Pew survey found that 65% of Americans favor GM food research.
The IFIC survey found that the StarLink controversy had little effect on public opinion, with 95% of consumers saying that they had not taken any action based on concerns regarding biotech foods. “We expected consumer attitudes to go south after StarLink, but it didn't happen,” says Dave Schmidt, IFIC vice president.
Sidebar: Identity Preservation: A Solution to Future StarLinks?
Since the StarLink corn debacle, “identity preservation,” “traceability” and “channeling” have become the new buzz words in agriculture.
Identity preserved (IP) systems are methods of producing crops and food products to preserve their identity from “seed to shelf.” This is accomplished through segregation, field inspections, equipment cleaning, sampling and GMO testing. Each stage is documented to ensure that a product can be traced all the way back to a farmer's field.
CropVerifeye.com has developed an Internet-based traceability system called SmarTrace that monitors the quality and integrity of crops and ingredients as they move through the food chain.
While traceability systems are now used to preserve the identity of non-GM products, they will also be used for GM crops. Buyers will want assurance that traits, such as enhanced beta carotene in golden rice, are present.
Regardless of the outcome of the GMO debate, industry experts say IP systems are the trend. “Identity preservation will be without question where the food industry will be in the next 10 years,” says Mike Russell, managing director, GeneScan USA, a GMO testing laboratory.