When the first genetically modified (GM) organisms were being developed for the farm, says Anastasia Bodnar, “we were promised rocket jet packs” — futuristic, ultra-nutritious crops that would bring exotic produce to the supermarket and help to feed a hungry world.
Yet so far, she says, the technology has bestowed most of its benefits on agribusiness — almost always through crops modified to withstand weed-killing chemicals or resist insect pests. This has allowed farmers to increase yields and spray less pesticide than they might have otherwise.
At best, such advances have been almost invisible to ordinary consumers, says Bodnar, a biotechnologist with Biology Fortified, a non-profit GM-organism advocacy organization in Middleton, Wisconsin. And at worst, they have helped to fuel the rage of opponents of genetic modification, who say that transgenic crops have concentrated power and profits in the hands of a few large corporations, and are a prime example of scientists meddling in nature, heedless of the dangers.
But that could soon change, thanks to a whole new generation of GM crops now making their way from laboratory to market. Some of these crops will tackle new problems, from apples that stave off discoloration to 'Golden Rice' and bright-orange bananas fortified with nutrients to improve the diets of people in the poorest countries.
Other next-generation crops will be created using advanced genetic-manipulation techniques that allow high-precision editing of the plant's own genome. Such approaches could reduce the need to modify commercial crops with genes imported from other species — one of the practices that most disturbs critics of genetic modification. And that, in turn, could conceivably reduce the public disquiet over GM foods.
Or maybe not. Whatever promise these crops may show in the laboratory, they will still have to demonstrate their benefits in painstaking, expensive and detailed field trials; jump through multiple regulatory hoops; and reassure an often skeptical public. That last part will not be easy, says Philip Bereano, who studies the political and social aspects of new technologies at the University of Washington, Seattle. He points out that the arguments over GM organisms run the gamut from concerns about safety and labeling to ethical issues with the patenting of life. “People are concerned about what they're feeding their kids,” he says, “and that is not going to change.”
Nevertheless, most GM-organism researchers seem convinced that the worst of the technology's problems are over, and that its future is bright. If you are looking for the jet-pack era of GM organisms, says Bodnar, “it is happening now.”
The first wave of GM crops was marketed mainly to farmers, with the goal of making their jobs easier, more productive and more profitable. In 1996, for example, biotechnology firm Monsanto of St Louis, Missouri, introduced the first of its popular 'Roundup Ready' products: a soya bean equipped with a bacterial gene that allows it to tolerate a Monsanto-made glyphosphate herbicide known as Roundup. This meant that farmers could kill off the majority of weeds with one herbicide rather than several, without damaging the crop. Other GM crops soon followed, including Monsanto's Bt cotton: a plant modified to produce a bacterial toxin that discourages destructive bollworms and cuts down on the need for pesticides.
Farmers will continue to be a core market for the coming generation of GM organisms. At Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK, for example, scientists are working on GM plants that will need even less pesticide than Bt cotton, and maybe none at all. The key is an 'alarm pheromone' that some species of wild plant have evolved to mimic the chemical warning signals put out by aphids — a major crop pest in the temperate zones — when they are under attack. Putting the genes for this defense into wheat has created a crop that could trick the insects into thinking that they are in peril and drive them away. Unlike Bt cotton and other existing GM organisms, such a crop would need no insect-killing chemical for protection from pests.