by Bhawna Sharma
Depending on who you are talking to, the idea of genetically modified (GM) food can evoke a range of sentiments, ranging from intense anger and distrust to hope for feeding the world. This is because although most scientific research concludes that GM foods are as safe as non-GM foods, most of us tend to have an opaque understanding of the science behind them. We are psychologically-averse to things we are less familiar with, including eating food from plants and animals whose genetic composition is altered.
Both genetic engineering and selective breeding involve modifying the genetic make-up of subsequent cultivars or offspring, albeit through different ways. These methods have also long been used to tinker with the genetic design of and revolutionise food as we know it today.
Most of us are unaware that selective breeding—a process of producing organisms by breeding the most desirable traits—has been around for thousands of years. From a 50mm fruit with just six varieties in 3,000 B.C., for example, watermelons now come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties (two-hundred, to be precise) thanks to selective breeding by farmers. While we enjoy the sweet, juicy, and refreshing taste of biting into watermelons today, our ancestors were not so lucky.
Selective breeding implies—to the possible dismay of some—that much of the staple items we eat today are not actually original, and have been radically ‘bred’ to look the way they do today. From what were pea-sized peaches and barely-edible sweetcorn plants found exclusively in North America, to bananas with hard seeds, we are now enjoying the rewards of thousands of years of careful breeding and incremental changes in design.
More recently, the IR8 rice variety, a cross between a dwarf strain from Taiwan and a taller variety from Indonesia, has been dubbed a miracle for Asia by doubling rice yields in one go and averting famine in India.
Selective breeding makes use of existing, naturally-present gene variants in a species and passes all the desirable traits to the new cultivar or offspring through a natural process of breeding.
GMOs: the next frontier
Genetic engineering involves a direct change to an organism’s genome, manipulated in a laboratory. The first Flavr Savr tomato GMO entered the market in 1994, promising riper, more long-lasting, and firmer tomatoes. Since then, GM has taken over the food business by storm and ballooned into a billion-dollar industry led by the likes of Monsanto.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, the commercialisation of GM crops from the 1990s was intended primarily for greater resistance against pests and tolerance against herbicides rather than enticing consumers through taste and size. Perhaps that explains why tomatoes sold in supermarkets today are bland: an overwhelming focus on making them stronger and more resilient during long-distance transportation has led to a compromise in flavour genes.
Given the advances in the biotech industry, we may have already entered the next frontier of designer GM crops. In 2015, biotech firm Aquabounty created history with the world’s very first genetically-modified salmon, coined Aquasalmon. By inserting genes from the Chinook salmon and ocean pout fish into the Atlantic salmon, scientists at AquaBounty halved the production time of the transgenic salmon from 32-36 months to 16-18 months.
Why GM isn’t going away anytime soon
If you’re imagining an apocalyptic Jaws-like Aquasalmon taking over the world, you’re probably not alone. But, whether we like it or not, GM isn’t going away anytime soon. By saving millions of hectares of arable land and doubling productivity, GM crops could potentially be our saving grace for the sobering reality that food supply will need to increase by 50-70% by 2050 to match demand.
If we really want to end world hunger by 2030, governments, scientists, and large agri-businesses should collaborate and find more new ways to leverage on food technology from a longer-term perspective.