Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Learning to Love G.M.O.s: Purple tomatoes and other great foods

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I’ve never been against genetically modified organisms per se. How could I be? I love modern-day vegetables and fruit, which have been genetically modified — often greatly — through centuries of selective breeding and hybridization. Domesticated animals, too, have been genetically modified through selective breeding: sheep bred for wool bear much more wool than their wild forebears, and meat animals too are more productive.

I do dislike genetic modification done purely to enrich big corporations — plants bred specifically to allow the use of toxic pesticides, or plants modified to require the purchase of new seeds every season. But genetic modification in general is often quite beneficial.

Jennifer Kahn has an interesting article in the NY Times, this time with no paywall, and you can listen to the audio version at the link. The article begins:

On a cold December day in Norwich, England, Cathie Martin met me at a laboratory inside the John Innes Centre, where she works. A plant biologist, Martin has spent almost two decades studying tomatoes, and I had traveled to see her because of a particular one she created: a lustrous, dark purple variety that is unusually high in antioxidants, with twice the amount found in blueberries.

At 66, Martin has silver-white hair, a strong chin and sharp eyes that give her a slightly elfin look. Her office, a tiny cubby just off the lab, is so packed with binders and piles of paper that Martin has to stand when typing on her computer keyboard, which sits surrounded by a heap of papers like a rock that has sunk to the bottom of a snowdrift. “It’s an absolute disaster,” Martin said, looking around fondly. “I’m told that the security guards bring people round on the tour.” On the desk, there’s a drinks coaster with a picture of an attractive 1950s housewife that reads, “You say tomato, I say [expletive] you.”

Martin has long been interested in how plants produce beneficial nutrients. The purple tomato is the first she designed to have more anthocyanin, a naturally occurring anti-inflammatory compound. “All higher plants have a mechanism for making anthocyanins,” Martin explained when we met. “A tomato plant makes them as well, in the leaves. We just put in a switch that turns on anthocyanin production in the fruit.” Martin noted that while there are other tomato varieties that look purple, they have anthocyanins only in the skin, so the health benefits are slight. “People say, Oh, there are purple tomatoes already,” Martin said. “But they don’t have these kind of levels.”

The difference is significant. When cancer-prone mice were given Martin’s purple tomatoes as part of their diet, they lived 30 percent longer than mice fed the same quantity of ordinary tomatoes; they were also less susceptible to inflammatory bowel disease. After the publication of Martin’s first paper showing the anticancer benefit of her tomatoes, in the academic journal Nature Biotechnology in 2008, newspapers and television stations began calling. “The coverage!” she recalled. “Days and days and days and days of it! There was a lot of excitement.” She considered making the tomato available in stores or offering it online as a juice. But because the plant contained a pair of genes from a snapdragon — that’s what spurs the tomatoes to produce more anthocyanin — it would be classified as a genetically modified organism: a G.M.O.

That designation brings with it a host of obligations, not just in Britain but in the United States and many other countries. Martin had envisioned making the juice on a small scale, but just to go through the F.D.A. approval process would cost a million dollars. Adding U.S.D.A. approval could push that amount even higher. (Tomato juice is known as a “G.M. product” and is regulated by the F.D.A. Because a tomato has seeds that can germinate, it is regulated by both the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A.) “I thought, This is ridiculous,” Martin told me.

Martin eventually did put together the required documentation, but the process, and subsequent revisions, took almost six years. “Our ‘business model’ is that we have this tiny company which has no employees,” Martin said with a laugh. “Of course, the F.D.A. is used to the bigger organizations” — global agricultural conglomerates like DowDuPont or Syngenta — “so this is where you get a bit of a problem. When they say, ‘Oh, we want a bit more data on this,’ it’s easy for a corporation. For me — it’s me that has to do it! And I can’t just throw money at it.”

Martin admitted that, as an academic, she hadn’t been as focused on getting the tomato to market as she might have been. (Her colleague Jonathan Jones, a plant biologist, eventually stepped in to assist.) But the process has also been slow because the purple tomato, if approved, would be one of only a very few G.M.O. fruits or vegetables sold directly to consumers. The others include Rainbow papayas, which were modified to resist ringspot virus; a variety of sweet corn; some russet potatoes; and Arctic Apples, which were developed in Canada and resist browning.

It also might be the first genetically modified anything that people actually want. Since their introduction in the mid-1990s, G.M.O.s have remained wildly unpopular with consumers, who see them as dubious tools of Big Ag, with potentially sinister impacts on both people and the environment. Martin is perhaps onto something when she describes those most opposed to G.M.O.s as “the W.W.W.s”: the well, wealthy and worried, the same cohort of upper-middle-class shoppers who have turned organic food into a multibillion-dollar industry. “If you’re a W.W.W., the calculation is, G.M.O.s seem bad, so I’m just going to avoid them,” she said. “I mean, if you think there might be a risk, and there’s no benefit to you, why even consider it?”

The purple tomato could perhaps change that calculation. Unlike commercial G.M.O. crops — things like soy and canola — Martin’s tomato wasn’t designed for profit and would be grown in small batches rather than on millions of acres: essentially the opposite of industrial agriculture. The additional genes it contains (from the snapdragon, itself a relative of the tomato plant) act only to boost production of anthocyanin, a nutrient that tomatoes already make. More important, the fruit’s anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties, which seem considerable, are things that many of us actively want.

Nonetheless, the future of the purple tomato is far from certain. “There’s just so much baggage around anything genetically modified,” Martin said. “I’m not trying to make money. I’m worried about people’s health! But in people’s minds it’s all Dr. Frankenstein and trying to rule the world.”

In the three decades since G.M.O. crops were introduced, only a tiny number have been developed and approved for sale, almost all of them products made by large agrochemical companies like Monsanto. Within those categories, though, G.M.O.s have taken over much of the market. Roughly 94 percent of soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified, as is more than 90 percent of all corn, canola and sugar beets, together covering roughly 170 million acres of cropland.

At the same time, resistance to G.M.O. foods has only become more entrenched. The market for products certified to be non-G.M.O. has increased more than 70-fold since 2010, from roughly $350 million that year to $26 billion by 2018. There are now more than 55,000 products carrying the “Non-G.M.O. Project Verified” label on their packaging. Nearly half of all U.S. shoppers say that they try not to buy G.M.O. foods, while a study by Jennifer Kuzma, a biochemist who is a director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, found that consumers will pay up to 20 percent more to avoid them.

For many of us, the rejection of G.M.O.s is instinctive. “For people who are uncomfortable with this, the objection is that it isn’t something that would ever happen in nature,” says Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religion and science at James Madison University. “With genetic engineering, there’s a feeling that we’re mucking about with the essential building blocks of reality. We may feel OK about rearranging genes, the way nature does, but we’re not comfortable mixing them up between creatures.”

Our distrust might also stem from the way G.M.O.s were introduced. When the agribusiness giant Monsanto released its first G.M.O. crop in 1996 — an herbicide-resistant soybean — the company was in need of cash. By adding a gene from a bacterium, it hoped to create crops that were resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in its trademark herbicide, RoundUp, enabling farmers to spray weeds liberally without also killing the soy plant itself — something that wasn’t possible with traditional herbicides. Commercially, the idea succeeded. By 2003, RoundUp Ready corn and soy seeds dominated the market, and Monsanto had become the largest producer of genetically engineered seeds, responsible for more than 90 percent of G.M.O. crops planted globally.

But the company’s rollout also alarmed and antagonized farmers, who were required to sign restrictive contracts to use the patented seeds, and whom Monsanto aggressively prosecuted. At one point, the company had a 75-person team dedicated solely to investigating farmers suspected of saving seed — a traditional practice in which seeds from one year’s crop are saved for planting the following year — and prosecuting them on charges of intellectual-property infringement. Environmental groups were also concerned, because of the skyrocketing use of RoundUp and the abrupt decline in agricultural diversity.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” says Mark Lynas, an environmental writer and activist who protested against G.M.O.s for over a decade. “You had this company that had made Agent Orange and PCBs” — an environmental toxin that the E.P.A. banned in 1979 — “that was now using G.M.O.s to intensify the worst forms of monoculture farming. I just remember feeling like we had to stop this thing.”

That resistance was compounded because early G.M.O.s — which focused largely on pest- and herbicide-resistance — offered little direct benefit to the consumer. And once public sentiment was set, it proved hard to shift, even when more beneficial products began to emerge. One of these, Golden Rice, was made in 1999 by a pair of university researchers hoping to combat vitamin A deficiency, a simple but devastating ailment that causes blindness in millions of people in Africa and Asia annually, and that can also be fatal. But the project foundered after protests by anti-G.M.O. activists in the United States and Europe, which in turn alarmed governments and populations in developing countries.

“Probably the angriest I’ve ever felt was when anti-G.M.O. groups destroyed fields of Golden Rice growing in the Philippines,” says Lynas, who publicly disavowed his opposition to G.M.O.s in 2013. “To see a crop that had such obvious lifesaving potential ruined — it would be like anti-vaxxer groups invading a laboratory and destroying a million vials of Covid vaccine.”

In recent years, many environmental groups have also quietly walked back their opposition as evidence has mounted that existing G.M.O.s are both safe to eat and not inherently bad for the environment. The introduction of Bt corn, which contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally insect-resistant bacterium that organic farmers routinely spray on crops, dropped the crop’s insecticide use by 35 percent. A pest-resistant Bt eggplant has become similarly popular in Bangladesh, where farmers have also embraced flood-tolerant “scuba rice,” a variety engineered to survive being submerged for up to 14 days rather than just three. Each year, Bangladesh and India lose roughly four million tons of rice to flooding — enough to feed 30 million people — and waste a corresponding volume of pesticides and herbicides, which then enter the groundwater.

In North America, though, such benefits can seem remote compared with what we think of as “eating naturally.” That’s especially true because . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

20 July 2021 at 1:19 pm

2 Responses

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  1. What a garbage article by the NYT. Surely we can improve the foods we eat but they are ignoring the fact that they have made these crops “round-up ready” and the produce is sprayed with deadly chemicals throughout their growth. We haven’t forgotten about 2,4,5-T, DDT, Lasso and Agent Orange…. we will continue to inform others about glyphosate.

    Like

    Michio Y.

    26 July 2021 at 12:08 pm

  2. Following your usage, what a garbage comment you just posted. The article (even in the section I quoted) points out the problem of Monsanto using genetic modification to make crops round-up ready and how Monsanto greed tainted GMO foods to the point that the highly beneficial golden rice has had to struggle for acceptance and we may well not get the chance to eat purple tomatoes with their nutritional benefits.

    Glyphosate is a totally separate issue from genetically modified foods and has nothing whatsoever to do with (say) golden rice and purple tomatoes. You are conflating different issues and not thinking clearly.

    What you are doing is throwing out the baby with the bath water.

    Like

    Leisureguy

    26 July 2021 at 1:01 pm


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