Science-Food: between tradition and progress
For thousands of years we have been changing our food through selection and crossing. Nevertheless, genetic modification of organisms is a controversial issue. Fears - for example of multi-resistant pests – characterise the discourse. But genetically modified organisms could also change the world in a positive sense.
This is an excerpt from the GDI study "European Food Trends Report". The complete study is available for download.
The more developed a technology is, the more likely it will be accepted by society. Laboratory meat and nutrigenetics are still in the laboratory stage and tend to be viewed rather critically. Biohacking is at the turning point in terms of social acceptance and technological development, while precision agriculture is both technologically advanced and socially accepted. Negative outliers: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are relatively well developed and are also used in many places. However, social acceptance is very low and the use of GMOs is controversial: The most recent example of this is the debate on the European Court of Justice judgement on genetically modified organisms.
But humanity has been genetically modifying its food since the beginning of settlements and agriculture. Every year, the seeds of the specimens that were particularly large, palatable or resistant were sown again. Through this continuous selection, humanity has completely modified the genes of fruits, vegetables and cereal grains in a slow process over several thousand years and created a myriad of new varieties. Take for example the peach: in its wild form over 6000 years ago, it was 75 % smaller than today’s peach, tasted rather earthy, had a waxy skin and was found only in China. Today, peaches come in about 200 different varieties, are large, sweet and juicy, have a soft skin and grow on every continent.
Much the same happened with all other agricultural products, such as maize, bananas and cucumbers. There are only two differences between this millennium-old process and GMOs: First, we no longer have to wait a thousand years for a new species to emerge, and second, manipulation today is targeted and the modification is not dependent on spontaneous mutations. So, where does the scepticism in the population come from? Perhaps because the words genetically manipulated organisms sound like terms from science fiction. And furthermore, unlike the cross-breeding and mutations we are familiar with from traditional agriculture, GMOs combine genetic material from unrelated species of organism. This creates transgenic organisms. It could be possible for these transgenes to be passed on to other organisms, infiltrating non-GMOs or creating new super-resistant pests.
Despite the various controversies, many scientists believe that genetically modified organisms are useful. They could help to feed the world and replace fossil fuels. Soya for example can be better adapted by genetic engineering to future environmental conditions – higher temperatures and higher levels of CO2 in the air – to produce higher yields than conventional crops. Sugarcane can be genetically modified to produce oil in its leaves and stems, from which biodiesel can be produced. Modified plants also produce more sugar, which can be used to produce ethanol. These crops can also be grown on marginal lands in soil that is not well suited to food production, so that in just a few years’ time, we may see fields of oil pumps replaced by fields of green plants.
Read more about the future of nutrition in the "European Food Trends Report".