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July 06, 2008

New generation of GM crops engineered for nutritional benefits

Scientists have genetically engineered fruit and vegetables capable of providing most of a day’s nutrients in a single meal.

Heading towards the market are potatoes with 33% more protein content, modified tomatoes that could be capable of protecting against cancer and peanuts without the chemicals that cause deadly nut allergies.

Cassava has been packed with new genes that help the plant accumulate extra iron and zinc from the soil, and synthesise vitamins E and A.

Such foods, the first genetic modifications offering nutritional benefits to consumers, would be in marked contrast to the GM crops marketed to date. These were simply designed to boost the profits made by farmers and seed firms by raising yields or cutting costs.

Their attempted introduction to Europe in the late 1990s provoked a backlash from consumers suspicious at being asked to consume plants whose DNA had been “contaminated” but which offered them no benefit. Plant scientists hope the new plants will reverse such fears.

“It is time to reopen the debate over GM crops,” said Chris Leaver, professor of plant science at Oxford University and a long-term supporter of GM. “Earth’s population will reach 9 billion by 2040. We need crops that offer better nutritional quality, can withstand drought, use fertiliser more efficiently and resist diseases and pests. GM can contribute to achieving that.”

Such claims will infuriate Britain’s green lobby, which sees the promotion of the new “nutritionally enhanced” crops as a cynical marketing exercise.

Among scientists, however, there is growing impatience with such views. They say the BioCassava Plus project is funded with £6m from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation rather than a profit-hungry corporation and that it could help ease food shortages in Africa.

At Rothamsted Research, in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, Professor Johnathan Napier has modified rapeseed plants to produce fish oils, said to be good for the heart and nervous system.

“The global market for fish oil has grown very fast and is adding to the pressure on depleted fish stocks,” he said. “Fish oil is also at risk of contamination from marine pollutants.”

Professor Ian Crute, director of Rothamsted, is overseeing other research using plant breeding and genetics to create grains that would allow bakers to make white bread with as much fibre as wholemeal. “Europe is going to become ever more important for global food production so GM will get increasingly appealing,” he said.

Such a change would need a political rethink. Europe has held out firmly against GM crops since their introduction in 1996 even though they have been widely adopted in North and South America, Asia and Australia. About 280m acres were planted globally last year.

The main crops are soy beans, maize, cotton and rapeseed, all of which are available with modifications making them tolerant of specific herbicides, usually glyphosate. Such crops can be sprayed repeatedly to stop weeds.

Cotton and maize are also available with genes taken from bacteria that enable them to produce their own insecticide, so reducing the need for pesticides. However, such plants already seem primitive compared with those in the pipeline, many of which have been given several new traits.

One idea is to remove allergens such as those found in peanuts and many other foods. Peanut allergy affects about 440,000 Britons and can kill the most sensitive. At Georgia University in America Peggy Ozias-Akins, professor of plant biology, is researching how to erase such genes as well as adding separate genes for disease resistance.

Graham Brookes of PG Economics, an agricultural consultancy, will next week publish a research paper, suggesting that rejecting GM crops has cost Europe’s farmers dearly. “GM cuts costs and improves yields while consumers are missing the environmental benefits of reduced insecticide use. Since 1996 British farmers have missed out on an estimated £500m-£600m of additional income,” he said.

Others disagree. Claire Hope Cummings, a former lawyer with the US Department of Agriculture and author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, published in March, said: “People do not need miracle crops offering enhanced nutrients. What they need is a good varied diet. Who wants to eat a giant bowl of cassava or golden rice each day? These ideas are just a new way of marketing GM.”

Genetic modifications could add vital nutrients to this starchy root vegetable as well as remove toxins. A single GM portion could provide many of the nutrients needed in a day

Could be made far richer in folate and lycopene, nutrients thought to increase protection against diseases like cancer. Folate is especially important to pregnant women and babies

Researchers in India have added genes that increase protein content by a third, naming the new vegetable the “protato”. It could offer a cheap source of protein

The Times

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