Dietary revolution in the offing

After scientists’ thumping YES to the anti-biotechnology campaigners’ question ‘Is genetically food safe to eat?’, the world hasn’t looked back and the global biotech research in food crops has entered a new era in both developed and developing countries. Today, the revolutionary science of biotechnology is one of the biggest hopes for the world in general and developing world in particular for ensuring sufficient food for a fast growing world population in the years to come, simply because this technology is capable of doing what traditional breeding can’t, besides being extremely precise and time-consuming. Considering the achievements and ongoing developments in the field of food biotechnology, the most appropriate question today should be: ‘What next?’.

Although increasing yields of both food and non-food crops by reducing the losses caused by different insect pest, weeds etc. has always been the primary focus of global biotech research but in recent years the global biotechnology research has taken a new direction world-over through development of food crops that are not only healthier and nutritious than their traditional counterparts but may also in preventing diseases in future. A number of such food crops have already been (developed and) commercialised while others are at different stages of testing. Let us take a look at some of previously unimaginable genetically engineered food crops that are surely going to bring a dietary revolution across the globe in near future.

Because rice is one of world’s top staple foods, therefore the biggest example of such GM food crops is ‘Golden Rice’, which is the same rice that people eat, aside from the fact that it is infused with beta carotene or Vitamin A, which is an essential vitamin needed in the human body. Since Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), according to the World Health Organization, is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, therefore Golden Rice, which has not been commercialised yet, is a big hope for millions of children worldwide, especially for those living in South East Asian countries like the Philipiines where rice is huge part of diet. It is relevant to note here that a few genetically engineered fruits and vegetables are already available in grocery stores in a number of countries: Hawaiian papaya, some zucchini and squash, and a small amount of the sweet corn people eat world-over, for example.

Another important example of GM foods that are going to add to the future biotechnology-driven dietary revolution in near future are apples that don’t brown when sliced or bruised and potatoes that don’t bruise. Again one of world’s major foods, GM potato, also known as Innate potato, was engineered to reduce black spots from bruising, a common reason why potatoes can’t be marketed. It also has been designed to produce lower levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen that forms in potatoes and other starchy foods when they are cooked at high temperatures. Both the crops, which directly address consumers’ concerns, have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to media reports, it is expected that both the GM foods will appear on the US grocery stores’ shelves soon; potatoes within this year and apples in 2017. While most genetic alterations of plants involve making these more resilient to pests or yield more, the non-browning apples, which are nutritionally equivalent to other apples, were developed keeping in mind the needs of consumers and industry, not farmers.

Cancer-fighting pink pineapples, heart-healthy purple tomatoes and less fatty vegetable oils have also been developed, which have direct health benefits for people. In other GM food crops, researchers have engineered a pink pineapple that includes lycopene, an antioxidant compound that gives tomatoes their red color and may have a role in preventing cancer. USDA has approved importation of the pineapple, which would be grown only outside of the United States; it is pending FDA approval. A small British company is planning to apply for US permission to produce and sell purple tomatoes that have high levels of anthocyanins, compounds found in blueberries that some studies show lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. FDA would have to approve any health claims used to sell the products. One of world’s biggest seed companies Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences are separately developing modified soybean, canola and sunflower crops producing oils with fewer saturated fats and more Omega-3 fatty acids, negating the anti-science lobbies propaganda that agri multinationals care for their profits, not cosumers. In another development, a US citrus company is using a spinach gene to develop genetically engineered orange trees that could potentially resist citrus greening disease, which is devastating the orange crop in Florida, US. The company that created the non-browning apples is also looking at genetically engineering peaches, cherries and apples to resist disease and improve quality.

A glimpse at the global developments in the field of food biotechnology confirm the fact the new wave of biotech food crops offer a direct benefit to consumers too, in terms of added nutritions and health qualities. The development of these crops, which is result of hard work of both governments and biotech industry, was obviously unimaginable without biotechnology because traditional breeding methods has its limitations but in case of biotechnology, sky seems to be the limit currently. Although the primary goal of the development of these ‘dream crops’ is for ensuring even nutritious food, promote healthy eating and preventing any potential diseases causes by traditional foods but ultimately it will change the form and qualities of our diets in a positive way in future. In short, a dietary revolution is just around the corner, thanks to the world’s fastest adopted crop technology i.e. biotechnology.