GMOs in pipeline promise consumer-friendly traits but attacks by familiar critics abound

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The newly approved GMO Simplot Innate potato, developed to produce lower amounts of the harmful-yet-natural chemical acrylamide, resist bruising, and improve starch quality and potato color, represents a new generation of genetic modification in food. These multiple traits can directly benefit consumers in ways previous transgenics did not (and one could argue that the RNAi technology behind this potato was not exactly transgenic).

But there are challenges to developing more foods like the Innate potato. These include a lack of public sector research on these new innovations, and the need for agribusinesses and newly created international organizations to get more involved in their research, development and commercialization.

Why?

According to ARS’ Anna McClung, director of the USDA’s Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, in an email interview specifically referring to generation of new rice varieties:

A new effort (is) being put towards (human) nutritional improvement, tolerance to extremes in temperatures, production under reduced water availability, salinity, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. These latter “abiotic stress” traits are complexly inherited, less is known about them, and they can be difficult to measure accurately – thus progress is expected to be slower than for some other traits.

These challenges are by no means limited to rice. Academic researchers and even government-run labs don’t have the financial capacity, time or physical space (sometimes) to conduct what are often 20-year studies on complex traits.

Genetic generation gap

Like most attempts to differentiate one generation from the next, calling crops “first” or “second” generation isn’t entirely accurate. But in general, the first-generation GMs were transgenic crops that had a gene from another organism inserted using molecular biology methods that expressed a single trait. And that trait was typically resistance to herbicides (like “Roundup Ready” soy), or to a particular pest (like Bt corn that resisted insects). These traits have been viewed as benefiting farmers more than consumers, because they increase crop yields, reduce dependence on a wide range of pesticides, and allow for more efficient production. Consumers might see this trait appear in lower prices of food, but it’s not something they’ll see right up front. These traits are called “input traits.”

The “second generation” of crops will be raised with several traits, which do have direct consumer benefits. As we’ve seen, the Innate potato now comes with reduced harmful chemicals, and improved starch quality (as well as better storage ability). These traits, called “output traits,” also include tomatoes with longer shelf-life, canola with higher concentrations of lauric acids (which have a number of benefits), and biopharming (making plants that express certain drugs). Such crops have been more difficult to study, and may present some development and perhaps even new regulatory challenges. They also may be more acceptable to consumers, even to the point of being willing to pay more for them.

Several scientists and other experts have argued that the definition of “first” or “second” generation is all that clear. After all, one of the first “first generation” GMO was the Flavr Savr tomato, which was raised with changed output traits (it eventually failed in the market place). Golden Rice also is engineered to produce more Vitamin A than conventional rice (and hasn’t been approved largely due to resistance from anti-GMO groups). Also, pesticide and pest resistance can still be in the mix of traits in newer GM products.

Some of this confusion has carried over into the anti-GMO activist community. In Natural News, an anti-GMO, anti vaccine activst web site that regular attacks genetic innovation and biotechnology, staff writer Ethan Huff warns about “second generation GMOs, and points to applications of what are more like first generation crops—Enlist Duo and other crops bred to resist a range of pesticides. And longtime GMO opponent Jeremy Rifkin tried to demonize biopharming  in his response to the PBS “Harvest of Fear” documentary:

There’s a second generation of genetically modified organisms being readied in R&D. These organisms are plants that act as chemical factories to produce genes that code for proteins to produce vaccines and chemicals and drugs and vitamins. … This all sounds very good–except no one has stopped for even a moment and paused and asked this question: When we seed millions of acres of land with these plants, what happens to foraging birds, to insects, to microbes, to the other animals, when they come in contact and digest plants that are producing materials ranging from plastics to vaccines to pharmaceutical products? There hasn’t been as much as a single congressional hearing, and as far as I know, there hasn’t been a single parliamentary debate anywhere in the world, on introducing this second generation of pharmaceutical and chemical-producing plants.

Regulatory changes

Actually, regulators are looking at these multitrait crops, and organizations like the USDA’s ARS and the International Rice Research Institute are investigating how to evaluate these innovations for effectiveness and safety. There are some differences that may need addressing:

  • Regulators are much more familiar with the “first generation” in which the composition of the final product is identical to a conventionally (or organically) grown crop. However, new crops under the “second generation” are different from conventional/organic crops. For example, GM can modify the production of plant oils, such as soybean oil, to create more, healthier, polyunsaturated fats. In addition, traits can be added that eliminate the need for processing these oils to avoid rancid flavors and odors. Drought and salt resistance are also new traits that change the nature of the final product.
  • For regulators, this means risk assessment has to change. Instead of assessing risk based on “substantial equivalence” (as the European Food Safety Agency and other global food regulators conduct tests), regulators may need to compare the GM plant with a range of natural variation of control plants grown under the same conditions. They may also have to conduct more field experiments to test GM and comparison crops against various stresses (since a drought resistant crop could thrive with no water, while the comparisons die). In addition, the final product component (such as a change in oil), would have to be evaluated based on its history of safe use (assuming this already has been done).
  • These field tests and extra evaluations will also call for longer trials, using more crops and farmland than are typically used in academic environments or even government labs. Hence USDA’s McClung’s argument that the public sector isn’t doing a lot of second generation GMO research. The solution here may have to involve partnerships between academic institutions and – gasp – agribusiness. A University of Guelph paper pointed to the need for the additional capital and financing of these larger-scale studies, which can now take decades and cost as much as $50 million. The paper’s authors also called for the establishment of more international research organizations (such as IRRI for rice) that can pool talent and other resources to cover this scale of work. The Guelph authors wrote:

High energy physicists do not all have their personal super-collider. In the same fashion, plant biologists cannot be expected to carry out translational research based on knowledge gained from their basic research using their own resources.

The second generation GMO, even loosely defined, could herald a new revolution in crop genetics and food production. It has more potential for bringing these attributes directly to consumers, instead of to farmers and to the business of agriculture (this has become a popular theme and meme among anti-GMO activists). It has even been proposed that labeling might trigger a favorable response among consumers (as long as the food tastes good), and may change pricing patterns. But markets are difficult to predict, and first, the products need to finish the long journey to commercial stage.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and nonprofits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.