Knowing Your Roots

Blog 49

Image: 3 kinds of genetic engineering defined


The heated battle over using genetic technology in our food systems has continued for over a decade and shows little sign of cooling down. From the early days of herbicide tolerance in corn and soybeans to the fast growing salmon of today, the battle lines are firmly drawn and rarely seem to waiver. On the one hand, concerned consumers in the US, Europe and elsewhere, accuse GM foods of being unnatural and the companies that develop them as business seeking to control the world’s seeds. On the other hand, farmers worldwide have embraced GM foods as an exciting new technology that provides higher yields and allows them to use fewer and safer pesticides to increase the sustainability of their farms.

Well, as we all dig our heels deeper in this battle, a new wave of technological innovations that are set to change the face of the world’s food production systems are quickly ramping-up. The GMOs or transgenics we are familiar with (but that most of us never quite understood at a deep level) involved introducing a genetic trait from one organism into another unrelated one; like it or not, they may be becoming old hat. As science has begun to unravel the intricacies of the genetic code and understand how life works at the molecular level, it may no longer be necessary to put something new into a plant to get a desired end result. The ability to simply tweak what nature already provides in the plant without changing its genetic makeup or adding new traits is a reality. This is the new world of world of cisgenics; simply turning a gene on or off within the plant’s genome or adding a gene from a different cultivar of the same species to elicit traits in that have hitherto been unattainable. In some ways this could be described as the traditional breeding of Mendel on hyper-drive.  

It is generally agreed that we will need to double our food production in coming years to feed the world’s growing population. Imagine the potential impacts where crops need less water, or can thrive in inhospitable environments, or can resist pest attack, or are simply more nutritious and the resulting influence this could have on the world’s food supplies. This seems like the stuff of science fiction, but technology is rapidly heading in this direction; maybe its time to reevaluate our priorities when it comes to what we will accept in food production systems.

Although we rarely think of it in these terms, we have already made this adjustment in how we have accepted breakthroughs in the field of medicine and our ability to finally begin to manage some of the most destructive conditions that have plagued mankind for centuries. We readily accept these advances with rarely a thought of the technologies that are making many of them attainable. When your life or a loved-one’s life has been saved through a technological advance that involves biotechnology, there is no hesitation. The simple truth is that the very same technologies that we have difficulty accepting in our food systems are already well established in medicine and are driving treatment protocols and research into new approaches. Countless medicines would be impossible without the use of biotechnology and many are more effective or affordable because of it. A world without readily available insulin, antibiotics, vaccines, chemotherapy treatments, clotting factors or many of the other treatments we take for granted, is hard to imagine and yet all of these are heavily dependent on biotechnology.

Why then is it so hard to accept the same technologies in our food? Biotechnology in our healthcare system is already intersecting with food production in ways we rarely think about. Several medicines are now produced in plants and many vitamins, amino acids and enzymes used in food production are routinely produced in GM microorganisms rather than by conventional chemical methods, which are often slower, less precise and more expensive. It is surely time now for everyone to take a step back from the battle and closely examine what we really care about. We may just find that we are all on the same side and finding new medical treatments and feeding a hungry planet are not mutually exclusive.

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