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Genetically modified crops: a hazard or a possible solution to combat micronutrient deficiency?

 

By Andreas Pousette, Umeå University

 

Today’s problem of undernutrition around the world manifests itself not only as an inadequate intake of calories, but also as a lack of essential micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, often referred to as the “hidden hunger”. Much effort has been made in research and relief on undernutrition to supplement crucial micronutrients such as vitamin-A, iron, zinc and iodine to improve health outcomes and prevent further illnesses. Still, micronutrient deficiency is believed to affect at least one in three individuals globally, particularly in countries where meals are centred around a staple crop with a lack of intake in fruits and vegetables (1, 2). Apart from the development of lifesaving nutritional programmes in low income countries, much work has also been put into agricultural research in order to improve cultivation of crops, in order to facilitate food security.

 

The lack of intake in fruits and vegetables still affects many people worldwide

 

Biofortification is the practise of increasing the micronutrient content and its bioavailability in crops, which is a widely studied area to combat micronutrient deficiency in affected countries today. The practise involves either conventional plant breeding, agronomic solutions (e.g., fertilizer optimization) or the process of genetically modified (GM) crops (3). In a nutshell, the process of breeding is based on choosing and combining the most wanted traits for a given plant or animal and to control its reproduction for the next generation. These basic breeding techniques is not a new phenomena, humans have been aware about the benefits of breeding animals and plants since the roman times to facilitate desirable attributes and overcome undesirable traits (4). Yet, less is known about the possibilities of artificially modify genes using genetic engineering which make it possible not only to increase the content of already existing micronutrient in a plant, but also to introduce completely new nutrients that did not exist in a plant before.

 

For several decades up to today there have been an ongoing debate regarding the safety and usefulness of GM crops as the practise might cause disturbance in the ecosystem and also be harmful for humans. The environmental concerns are focusing on the potential loss of biodiversity and the neediness of using more chemicals in the agriculture process. However, the human hazard concern of eating the crops are mostly caused by strong oppositions groups, general beliefs among the society and not grounded in any related studies (5).

 

Today, several common crops have been genetically tested to enhance the nutrition content

 

Until today, several crops i.e. rice, banana, maize and cassava have been genetically modified to contain new beneficial nutrients such as iron, vitamin-A, zinc and iodine to improve nutritional status more than their counterparts. The most widely known is the so called “Golden rice” which is rice fortified with vitamin-A in the form of β-carotene. Golden rice have been tested for cultivation in several countries (i.e. India, Bangladesh, China and Uganda) with promising results but is not currently available on the market (3, 6). Due to existing strict regulation of these crops the potential improvement in human nutrition have only been assessed ex ante by estimation on how much it possibly could close the micronutrient gap and not by practically measuring the nutrition intake after consumptions (3).

An important notion to add is that far from all GM crops are prevented for cultivation today, as cultivation approval depends on the extent the crops have been modified and a resulting risk assessment. For instance the United States is known to have a more liberate regulation of GM crops compared to the European Union where 86 % of the maize crop was genetically modified in 2010 (2). In general, the issue of GM crop regulation has become a troublesome procedure since the variety of possible modifications increases the complexity of the process and where the setting of implementation also plays a crucial part in the decision process (7). Future research focusing on GM crops impact on the environment will likely be vital in the processes of making GM crops with enhanced nutrient content such as Golden rice a useful tool to combat micronutrient deficiency.

 

References:

  1. Bouis HE, Saltzman A. Improving nutrition through biofortification: A review of evidence from HarvestPlus, 2003 through 2016. Glob Food Sec. 2017;12:49-58.
  2. Bawa AS, Anilakumar KR. Genetically modified foods: safety, risks and public concerns-a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2013;50(6):1035-46.
  3. De Steur H, Mehta S, Gellynck X, Finkelstein JL. GM biofortified crops: potential effects on targeting the micronutrient intake gap in human populations. Curr Opin Biotechnol. 2017;44:181-8.
  4. F. Mills B. Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops. 350 Main Street , Malden , MA 02148 , USA , and 108 Cowley Road , Oxford OX4 1JF , UK .2005. p. 106-8.
  5. Key S, Ma JK, Drake PM. Genetically modified plants and human health. J R Soc Med. 2008;101(6):290-8.
  6. Beyer P. Golden Rice and ‘Golden’ crops for human nutrition. N Biotechnol. 2010;27(5):478-81.
  7. Herring RJ. On risk and regulation: Bt crops in India.  GM Crops Food. 52014. p. 204-9.

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