Broadcaster: BBC 1
Length: 6:53 mins
URL full original programme (60 mins): https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/0B9E458F
Review by June Adams
At the John Innes Centre in Norwich, a genetically modified “supertomato” has been produced which could help make us all healthier. Using genes from snapdragons, Professor Cathie Martin has genetically modified tomatoes to produce anthocyanins, making them appear bright purple. Anthocyanins are pigment compounds naturally produced in many plants, and in our diets are thought to help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and even cancer. Tomatoes were chosen to host these genes because they are the most consumed fruit in the word, are added as an ingredient to many other foods, and are accessible to people on a low income.
However, despite the benefits they may bring to our health, tight regulations mean that the purple tomatoes can’t leave greenhouses for fear of them spreading their additional anthocyanin genes into wild plants or food crops. They cannot even be taste tested because of the possibility that seeds may be released into the wild via sewage. Are these constraining fears valid?
Anti-GM campaigners, such as director of GM Freeze Liz O’Neill, worries about the effectiveness and safety of GMOs. Despite humans having deliberately added genes to current crop plants via selective crossbreeding for around 3,000 years, GM just seems too “artificial” for some people to feel comfortable. To add (“cut and paste”) genes artificially is not seen as safe because of the possibility that more than just the desired traits can be transplanted into a plant, and this excess genetic material could have unforeseen consequences on the ecosystem or on human consumers. However, in the past several decades of testing, no GM products have ever been found to be harmful, and are already a common occurrence in most of our diets.
Using GM to make food healthier is not just limited to plants. Professor Jim Murray (UC Davis) has produced genetically engineered goats that make human breast milk, which he hopes could one day save a million children a year. There are two main antimicrobial proteins in human milk that can help prevent bacterial growth, such as diarrhoea-causing E.coli. In parts of the world where diarrhoea kills more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined, Jim’s GM goat’s milk could potentially prove lifesaving. However, although the science is safe, without regulatory approval the goats can’t be used for commercial milk production, and so Jim’s goats are stuck where they cannot help anyone.
Although we obviously need to have regulations in place to make sure that GMOs are properly developed and tested for their safety and efficacy, the real concern about controversy surrounding GMOs is that it is holding back progress which could help many people, perhaps even save lives. As well as being engineered to be more nutritious, genetic engineering can give crop plants resistance against harsh conditions like drought and heat, and are a chemical-free way to protect them against devastating diseases and pests. In a world where millions of people die of starvation every year, the benefits GM crops previously have and can yet still bring to food production are immense.
Triumphs in GM developments are equally hindered by science’s failure to adequately address people’s fears about these new developments and better educate them about the real risks and benefits of GM foods. The ultimate consequence of this is that many GM products may never be able to fulfil their purpose of creation if stringent regulations prevent them from leaving the lab. Supertomatoes and lifesaving goats could end up sharing the fate of Golden Rice™, which due to fierce opposition by Anti-GM activists has still not reached the Vitamin-A deficient people it was created to help, nearly two decades after its creation.
As summarised by plant geneticist Pamela Ronald (also of UC Davis), speaking at TED2015: “What scares me most about the loud arguments and misinformation about plant genetics is that the poorest people who most need the technology may be denied access because of the vague fears and prejudices of those who have enough to eat.”