Genetically modified organisms: putting the ‘sweet’ back into corn?

The perceived pros and cons of GMOs often leads to a split in opinion, as SciTech Europa explores

GMOs – putting the ‘sweet’ back into corn?

The perceived pros and cons of GMOs often leads to a split in opinion, as SciTech Europa explores.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as: “organisms (i.e. plants, animals or micro-organisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”

The process of genetically modifying organisms has led to one of the leading applications in agriculture; genetically modified (GM) crops. An example of this is plants being genetically modified in the laboratory with a ‘transgenic’ technique, which involves genes from other species of plants being inserted into them.

This method is popular in the development of GM crops as new traits can be introduced into plants, such as resistance to certain pests and diseases.

According to Jhansi Rani and R. Usha in a 2008 article on transgenic plants published in The Journal of Pharmacy Research: “Transgenic plants have genes inserted into them, deriving from other species.

“The inserted genes can come from species within the same kingdom (plant to plant) or between kingdoms (bacteria to plant). In many cases, the inserted DNA has to be modified slightly in order to correctly and efficiently express in the host organism.”

The practice (and obtained results) of genetically modifying crops has continued to evolve since the 1950s, when according to John Laughman (as quoted on scientists “cross-pollinated three varieties of corn to create a hybrid strain that was not only sweeter but able to retain its sweetness [for] longer [… resulting] in cobs that are up to five times sweeter than yesteryear’s and can stay sweet for weeks.”

The Irish Times suggested at the beginning of February 2019 that “today, modern GMO technology allows plant breeders to improve crops in a more precise and targeted way. It also allows them to speed up the breeding process and produce plant varieties with resistance to plant pests, and fungal diseases, tolerance to drought conditions and enhanced nutritional qualities.”

Limitations of conventional plant breeding

“Conventional plant breeding has had great success, but it also has limitations,” The Irish Times continues. “In the case of potatoes, it can take up to 15 years to breed a new potato variety. By using GM technology, this can be reduced to three to five years.

“The application of GMO technology speeds up the pace of crop breeding. …More than 9,500 queries were received in [Ireland in] 2017 and of those just 15 related to GM foods labelling. This is not surprising as the risks from GMO crops to human health and the environment are vanishingly low.

“In 2010, a review of a decade of research on GMOs which looked at their safety for human and animal health, and for the environment, was published. This formed part of 25 years of GMO research [… and] the main conclusion to be drawn was that GMO is not per se riskier than conventional plant breeding technologies.”

The WHO has expanded on this: “No allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market. … GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

According to the Genetic Literacy Project, “less than 0.1% of the global volume of GM crops – approximately 337,000 acres – are cultivated in Europe.” There are currently only four countries in Europe that plant genetically modified organisms. Primarily used in livestock feed, GM corn is planted in Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

However, according to the Genetic literacy project: “Although many EU countries do not grow GMOs, Europe is one of the world’s biggest consumers of them. Every EU nation imports them. More than 30 million tons of biotech corn and soy for livestock feed are imported each year, making Europe the largest regional consumer of GMOs in the world.”

Changing the narrative on how we view GM food

In addition to this, Professor Ian Godwin from the University of Queensland, Australia, has said: “The future of billions of people literally depends on changing the narrative about how we view genetically modified food and genetic technologies.

“If we are to produce more sustainable and nutritious food to meet the growing global demand – in the face of challenges from pests and diseases, eroded soils, lack of water and climate change – we need to be able to take the best from the latest genetic technologies and from organic and agro-ecological farming practices.

“Genetically modified, or GM, crops use 37% less pesticide and increase crop yields by 22% and farmer profits by 68% – and the promise of new genome-editing techniques is simply astonishing.”

In 2018, the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) released a report on the challenges currently facing EU agriculture and plants, which stated: “The continued depletion of the toolbox available to farmers to protect their crops is having, and will continue to have, significant consequences.

“The current approach to innovation makes it a real possibility that Europe will have to rely on importing even more of its food and feed in the future. Modern crop protection products are essential to assure a high standard of food production.

“There is a real danger Europe will have a further disadvantaged food production sector and lose out to other regions in the world. These opinions stem from the fact that food remains a scarce resource as a result of the continued expansion of the global population.”

The potential threat to the human body

Despite the advantages of GMOs such as transgenic crops, Rani and Usha have highlighted two main categories of concerns:

  •   Concerns about what affect genetically modified material could have on human health
  •   Concerns about whether transgenic crops cause damage to the natural environment

Moreover, a paper from 2012 by the Indian Defence Food Research Laboratory, suggested that: “The biggest threat caused by GM foods is that they can have harmful effects on the human body. It is believed that consumption of these genetically engineered foods can cause the development of diseases which are immune to antibiotics.

“Besides, as these foods are new inventions, not much is known about their long-term effects on human beings. As the health effects are unknown, many people prefer to stay away from these foods.

“[…] Many religious and cultural communities are against such foods because they see it as an unnatural way of producing foods. Many people are also not comfortable with the idea of transferring animal genes into plants and vice versa. Also, this cross-pollination method can cause damage to other organisms that thrive in the environment.

“Experts are also of the opinion that with the increase of such foods, developing countries would start depending more on industrial countries because it is likely that the food production would be controlled by them in the time to come.”

Member States and GMOs

According to a 2014 paper on the various global restrictions on GMOs, including within the EU, by the Law Library of Congress (LLC): “The EU was prompted to adopt legislation on GMOs for two key reasons:

  • To protect human and animal health and welfare, consumer interests, and the environment
  • To ensure that authorised GMOs, or GM products derived from a GMO, may circulate freely within the EU and the European Economic Area to ensure their effective functioning

“[…] the EU and its Members are required to take measures to prevent adverse effects on human health and the environment that may occur owing to the intentional release of GMOs into the environment or the marketing of and import into the EU of GMOs or products made from GMOs.”

However, the relationship between Europe and GMOs has always been complicated and disunited. According to EU regulations, EU Member States can choose whether to restrict or prohibit GMOs being sold. Some countries have gone even further and banned the production of GMO crops on their territory.

Furthermore, in 2015, 19 Member States voted to prohibit the cultivation of eight new biotech crops that were waiting to be approved by regulators. On top of this, an insect-resistant corn variety (MON810) that was already approved was also chosen to be cultivated.

Food science: GMOs and authenticity in the real world

According to the LLC: “Government policy states that, provided it is used safely, GM foods could be a tool with which to address global food security and climate change, and help with sustainable agricultural protection. The approval regime for the evaluation and authorisation of GM foods moved to the EU in 2003.”

This means that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) now conduct safety assessments, including providing “a case-by-case review of each GM food, and assesses their safety for human consumption to ensure that the foods do not present a risk to health, [do] not . . . mislead consumers, and [are] not of less nutritional value than the foods they are intended to replace.”

“[…] At the EU level, the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) conducts the required risk assessments. GMOs, or food and feed consisting of or containing GMOs, are assigned a unique identifier and are labelled as such to ensure traceability and enable consumers to make informed choices.”

A report published in 2011 by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), conducted by Burrell and Burns et al, found that: “The global food industry faces various challenges in terms of providing confidence in the authenticity of foods.”

One of the challenges the UK food industry faces is, according to the authors, the occurrence of GMOs, and “DNA approaches for the determination of food authenticity are becoming increasingly common and easy to implement.”

GM food in restaurants

In accordance to this, a UK survey conducted by Beyond GM in 2017 found that “people who have concerns about the quality and authenticity of their food have a significant stake – both personally but also financially – in wanting the restaurant food chain to be sustainable and free from GMO contamination.”

However, it is believed that this insecurity surrounding GMs in restaurants stems from “a slow creep of GMO products in to our shops and of GMO ingredients into our food and drink – and the landscape is rapidly changing.

“Britain does not grow GM crops, but it has an open door policy to imports of GM feed and foods and to ingredients that can be used without the need for labelling. Foods for human consumption and animal feed can contain up to 0.9% GM ingredients (as long as the GM content is accidental or technically unavoidable) and not require labelling.

“The most common GMO products in UK restaurants, however, are GMO oils derived from maize, soya, rapeseed and sometimes cottonseed.”

“Importantly,” the survey adds, “new biotechnology methods and biotech ingredients, such as cocoa, vanilla, stevia, saffron and coconut produced using synthetic biology and ‘fake foods’ such as chicken-less chicken, milk-less milk and egg-less eggs, some of which require GM starter cultures, are being aimed squarely at the food service industry and cynically framed as sustainable and ethical alternatives to conventional foods.”

Why is the USA more accepting than Europe?

Over the years, it has become increasingly clear that there is a significant difference between the USA’s and Europe’s opinions regarding GMOs, especially with transgenic crops.

At the end of January 2019, the US Senate Finance Committee’s new chairman, Senator Chuck Grassley, met with the European Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström.

According to the Genetic Literacy Project website, the meeting was: “To stress the safety of agricultural biotech in trade talks with the EU. Before the meeting, Grassley said that any trade deal with the European Union must include agriculture.

“He also told reporters of his plan to eat genetically engineered corn and soybeans in front of EU officials.”

Following the meeting, Grassley tweeted: “Met [sic] w Celia Malmström EU Commissioner for Trade. Ate a kernel/soybean in front of the EU group to prove that GMOs aren’t bad + I’m a laboratory to prove it. Chewing on corn/soybean is how farmers like me test the moisture content. So why isn’t Europe more accepting to GMOs since it hasn’t hurt me after 25 [sic] yrs?”

To conclude, over the years the development of GMOs has led to leading applications, such as GM food and transgenic crops, in the agriculture industry. All though not globally accepted, modern GMO technology proposes numerous advantages and disadvantages that have been, and continue to be, not been universally agreed with, both within EU Member States and on a more global scale.

Interestingly, although Europe has been very vocal about its opinions of growing GMOs, they are still heavy endorsers on GMO products; particularly GM crops for livestock.

However, the EU has changed and adapted legalisation over the years regarding the use and development of GMOs, including stressing the importance of the evaluation, authorisation and traceability of all GM foods to ensure safety for national health is being achieved.

As technology continues to develop, it is difficult to really say how far GM crops will come in the EU, however, one thing is certain: the health and safety dialogue surrounding GMOs will only increase.

In 2018, **  provided a list of 27 of GMO advantages and limitations. Below is a collection of the positives and negatives suggested globally over the years in accordance to GM foods:

Advantages of GM food Disadvantages of GM food
Insect resistance ** = larger production Allergic reactions
Stronger crops – e.g. crops engineered to withstand extreme weather Not 100% environmentally friendly
Higher yield, lower costs ** = decrease in food prices Lower level of biodiversity
Environmental protection – reducing greenhouse gas emissions etc. Decreased antibiotic efficacy
Extensive protection for crops Unusual ** taste/not totally safe to eat
More nutritious foods – such as enhancement in vitamins and minerals etc. New diseases
Decreased use of pesticides Cross-pollination
Less deforestation Gene **spilling/transfer



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