Science Talk

Facts, not fears, the key to dealing with GM foods

From nutritious, drought-resistant rice to fast-growing fish and medicinal milk, the sky's the limit, it would seem, for genetically modified (GM) products. With a little tinkering from science to add new genes to plants and animals to give them beneficial qualities, such products could help end world hunger and enhance health as well, say proponents.

The field has been making strides. GM crops have been around for a while, but the world's first GM animal, a salmon, was approved for human consumption by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November.

The salmon grows twice as fast as its wild counterparts, and the company behind it says producing such fish speedily couldreduce overfishing of wild stock.

And in December the FDA approved the first drug to treat a rare enzyme disorder called lysosomal acid lipase deficiency that can cause liver and heart disease. The drug, Kanuma, is produced with a protein found in the eggs of genetically engineered chickens.

However, if precedents are anything to go by, getting the stamp of approval from the authorities could be as far as such products make it.

CIVIL SOCIETY AND RETAILERS

Many civil groups and retailers are dead against GM foods.This could make it near impossible for products to reach the market, even if they have the necessary approvals.

The GM salmon, for instance, has met its fair share of opposition from non-governmental groups like Food and Water Watch (FWW). The NGO started a petition asking Congress and President Barack Obama to revoke the FDA's decision, one that was 20 years in the making.

Although the American food watchdog says the GM salmon is safe to eat following extensive evaluation, groups such as FWW believe it is a serious threat to the environment and the health of people who eat it. Already, over 60 retailers, including retailing giant Costco, have pledged not to sell the fish.

Associate Professor Carmen Bain from the Iowa State University, who does research into genetically modified organisms (GMOs), explained that food retailers and restaurants want to be perceived as trustworthy by their customers. They are deeply concerned that their reputation for being socially and environmentally responsible could be damaged if they were to face boycotts for carrying GM salmon.

CONSUMERS

What does the regular Joe think of GM products?

Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has done research on GMOs, believes that the anti-GMO movement is driven mainly by anti-GMO groups, not consumers.He cited a 2014 study by the International Food Information Council, which surveyed 1,000 American citizens, many of whom said they were likely to purchase foods produced through biotechnology for benefits such as nutrition.

In Singapore, a nationwide survey conducted in 2011 showed that while many were not clear about what GM foods are, more than half of the 600 respondents agreed that GM food is of better quality, and half would consider buying it.

"While I can't tell you that all consumers want this (GM) salmon, enough will eat it to make the salmon a financial success," said Prof Chassy.

The genetic engineering used to make this faster-growing fish utilised a promoter (a small sequence of DNA that tells the cell how much of a particular gene product to make) from an edible fish called an Arctic Pout and a growth hormone gene from a King or Chinook salmon, he said. "Neither of these sources are particularly alien or scary."

Prof Bain, however, believes that safety is only one piece of the puzzle. The influential group of consumers is the small but growing segment of consumers who are seeking food products that reflect their personal, ethical or political values, she said.

"Demands for non-GMO labels reflect a growing desire by many consumers for more transparency, which provides them with more individual power to make choices over what to eat."

MORE AWARENESS, TRANSPARENCY NEEDED

What is clear is that more transparency and awareness are needed to improve the quality of debate about GM foods - which will work to benefit biotech companies, governments as well as the people at the receiving end of this technology.

One success story is biotech company Oxitec, which started its public education efforts two months before it released its GM mosquitoes in the Brazilian city of Piracicaba to bring down the Aedes aegypti mosquito population responsible for spreading dengue and other diseases. The GM mosquitoes are injected with a self-limiting gene which would cause their offspring larvae to die.

It distributed brochures in the neighbourhoods where the releases would be carried out, and also provided net cages filled with male GM mosquitoes, which residents could put their hands in, to see that these mosquitoes would not bite.

The efforts to engage the public paid off. Studies showed that 88.5 per cent of residents supported the use of the GM mosquitoes.

The media also has a role to play; many have been swayed by terms such as "Frankenfood" and the images conjured, that are often bandied about in headlines.

Food safety expert Jorgen Schlundt, from Nanyang Technological University's School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, said: "Using words such as 'Frankenfish' does not really help an informed debate on how we want to produce food in the future."

While some consumer groups have rightly complained that most benefits of GM foods have been to the producers of food, and thus not directly to the consumers, this could change in the future. GM technologies could be used to produce non-allergenic peanuts and corn with increased essential fatty acid content, among others, added the former director of the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses at the World Health Organisation.

A spokesman for Singapore's Genetic Modification Advisory Committee said it has rolled out initiatives such as public forums to create greater awareness and understanding of GM technology and food.

"Information should be presented in a transparent, clear and concise manner, which involves public engagement in an open dialogue," she said. "This approach helps facilitate mutual consensus and allows the Government and policymakers to address legitimate public concerns and...ensure that policies imposed will not limit the benefits of the technology."

This is a good start. Since GMOs have the potential to do so much, it would be a waste if consumers reject them because they don't know the truth, as they are ones who stand to benefit.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2016, with the headline 'Facts, not fears, the key to dealing with GM foods'. Print Edition | Subscribe