The Promise of GMOs: Nutrition

This is a part of the series The Promise of GMOs. Do GMOs live up to the promises of the biotech industry? So far it’s not looking very good. While all of the nutrition-related claims about biotechnology are certainly possible, there are no crops with these types of traits available on the market yet.

BIO’s claims here are that “Biotech is helping to feed the world by: Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles that solve vitamin and nutrient deficiencies; Producing foods free of allergens … and Improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health.”

Improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health

Soybeans, oil, and meal. Image from the  United Soybean Board via Flickr.
Soybeans, oil, and meal. Image from the United Soybean Board via Flickr.

Verdict: Promise not yet met.

What are the healthiest oils? We can’t look at them all together, because different oils have different purposes (different smoke points). Some oils are super expensive so they just aren’t realistic for the majority. So, looking at the heart-healthiest oils for each purpose that are reasonably priced, the Cleveland Clinic recommends sunflower (high smoke point), olive (light is high sp, extra virgin is medium sp), canola (medium sp), corn (low sp), and soy (low sp). The ones that are genetically engineered are canola (herbicide tolerant), soy (herbicide tolerant), and corn (both herbicide tolerant and Bt) are genetically engineered (sunflower has non GE herbicide tolerance). If there’s a yield increase in canola, soy, or corn thanks to biotech then maybe that’s something. However, I think it’d be difficult to point to any yield increase (if there is one) and say that directly correlates to an increase in consumption of a healthier oil vs a less healthy oil.

There is a genetically engineered soybean with an improved fatty acid profile on the market in the US:  Monsanto’s Vistive Gold. DuPont Pioneer’s Plenish soybeans are expected to be on the market soon. Among other benefits, Vistive Gold oil results in fried foods with reduced saturated fat and almost zero trans fats. While Vistive Gold is available, not much of it is planted relative to other soybean varieties, and not much of this improved soybean oil is produced compared to unimproved oil. As described in Farmers test high-oleic soybeans, these improved beans are just starting to enter the market and Monsanto isn’t entering into many contracts with farmers to produce these beans until they have regulatory approval in other countries.

Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles

Verdict: Promise met. As the promise is phrased, the crops with enhanced nutrition profiles are under development, which is true.

There’s been so much research on nutritionally improved crops! Biotechnology has a lot to offer in this arena! I could link to tons of studies showing creative ways to improve nutritional qualities of foods (this review lists just a few). Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, none of these are on the market yet.

Producing foods free of allergens

Verdict: Promise not yet met.

Genetically engineered foods are the most highly scrutinized foods on the planet, and that includes testing for allergenicity. An excellent summary of testing for allergens, and other human safety concerns (or lack thereof) due to agricultural biotechnology can be found in The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods Produced through Biotechnology. There has been no increase in allergens. However, there are no genetically engineered traits on the market that reduce allergens. There have been a few reduced-allergen foods developed, including: apple, soypeanut, and milk. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, none of these are on the market yet.

Author’s note: This post was changed on 19 Feb 2014 to match recommendations by commenters. Thanks to everyone who weighed in for helping to make this a more accurate post!

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Mention of a company or product does not indicate endorsement.

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  • Tom

    It’s premature to make any kind of verdict if these varieties are not on the market yet. Let’s stick to the GMOs that are already out there.

    Have herbicide resistance and Bt-containing crops lived up to their promise? Yes they have. The promise was to make it attractive enough to farmers that they would be willing to pay a higher price for the seed and keep coming back for more. The adoption rate among farmers and the profits made by Monsanto, DuPont, BASF et al. is all the evidence you need.

    Has the Rainbow papaya lived up to its promise? Yes it has (Hawaii still has papayas).

    Did the FlavrSavr tomato live up to its promise? No, it didn’t.

    Will Golden Rice live up to its promise? We won’t know until it’s out there and see how rates of vitamin A deficiency are affected.

    Done.

  • André

    It is useful to take stock from time to time, but this approach makes me feel uneasy.

    Have GMOs lived up to the promise of improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health ?

    Well, who has made a promise, for what crop, what kind of transformation, with what prospective date, etc. ?

    This is over and above, in this particular case, the question of what improves cardiovascular health.

    The case of Golden Rice is also interesting. Why hasn’t it fulfilled a « promise » ? If one takes the title of the part litterally, « Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles », the answer should be « yes ».

    • BIO, the main biotechnology industry group, made these promises, and they phrase them as if these things are happening in the present. The claims addressed here, as phrased by BIO is:
      “Biotech is helping to feed the world by:
      Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles that solve vitamin and nutrient deficiencies;
      Producing foods free of allergens and toxins such as mycotoxin [mycotoxins are covered in the next post]; and
      Improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health.”
      Helping to feed the world implies it’s already happening, when sadly all we have so far is proof of concept and seeds on the shelf.

      • André

        Point taken.

  • AS

    One important question is also *why* the promises have not yet been met? (a) It is because the technology failed? (In which case the proponents of those crops promised indeed too much.) Or (b) is it because those who oppose GMOs succeeded in blocking the introduction of a promising crop? (In which case the proponents can hardly be blamed for it, if those who prevented the introduction of the crop in the first place then blame the proponents for breaking the very promise they themselves sabotaged…)

    Had India (or the Philippines) introduced Bt eggplant, the better pest control they offered might well have reduced to lower crop losses, which means more of these vegetables would have been available for consumption (by poor and malnourished farmers themselves or, via lower prices due to a higher supply, also by poor and malnourished people more generally). And eating more vegetables improves nutrition. In this case it was not the technology that failed (it’s real and ready), but activists failed those who would have benefited from a more plentiful and cheaper supply of a popular vegetable.

    Ditto for Golden Rice, which was not ready for dissemination after the proof of concept study in 2000, but with more support instead of opposition and sabotage, also that crop could already be in the farmers’ fields and improve people’s nutrition (i.e. vitamin A status), as other carotene-enriched crops already do in Africa — where people happen to eat those a staples and not rice. So again, it’s not the technology that failed, but opponents of agricultural biotechnology failed those — mostly women and children — who would have benefited from having more carotene in their diets.

    • This is exactly the point. Biotech has the capacity to accomplish these claims and more, the technology certainly isn’t a failure. So the reason we as a species are not reaping the benefits must be closer to (b) than to (a).

    • AS

      Given that Bangladesh now introduced Bt eggplant, perhaps that should already count as contributing to better nutrition!? One of the criticism of the Green Revolution (of the same people that also criticise GMOs) is that it focused on staple cereals, making rice, wheat and maize more abundant and cheaper — and pulses and vegetables relatively more expensive, thereby reducing their consumption and worsening dietary balance and nutrition. The same argument should then also apply the other way round: If the Gene Revolution makes vegetables more abundant and cheaper, and thereby increases their consumption and improves nutrition, then this is a nutritional benefit of GMOs, even if it’s an indirect one.

  • Richard R

    Please explain how Monsanto’s Vistive soybeans which are on the market do not meet your definition of “improving food and crop oil content to improve cardiovascular health?” I am not sure what that your interpretation of that promise means in relation to the product that is on the market today. Is the oil profile not “heart healthy” enough in relation to the standard soybean oil? I am just not sure what measure you would be looking for to say “promise met.”

    Full disclosure: Monsanto employee, but I really know very little about the Vistive soybean compared to Plenish soybean compared to commodity soybean other than the oil profiles are different.

    • Vistive isn’t biotech, it’s breeding if I recall correctly. If you have information otherwise, I am happy to correct this post!

      • Richard R

        I thought it was biotech because I remember it received regulatory approval, but fair enough if it was breeding. Why would it need regulatory approval if it was breeding?

        Here is the aphis doc that talks about what it does. Kind of out of my element, but looks like it is biotech for changed oil profile and herbicide tolerant.

        http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/aphisdocs/09_20101p_dea.pdf

        MON 87705 (hereafter referred to as MON 87705 Soybean), that produces soybean seeds with lower levels of saturated (palmitic and stearic) and polyunsaturated (linoleic) fatty acids, and higher levels of monounsaturated (oleic) fatty acid than those found in non-modified soybean seeds. MON 87705 Soybean contains DNA segments designed to suppress endogenous delta-12 desaturase (FAD2) and Acyl-ACP thioesterase (FATB) genes which encode for two enzymes in the soybean fatty acid biosynthetic pathway.

  • There’s an onion that could reduce human suffering–but it’s not available.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/2013/09/17/ignobels-2013-the-tearless-onion/

    This is not a failure of the technology.

    • Thanks, I will be sure to include that in my list of biotech traits for my summary post!

      • Oh, good–I felt like there were things pretty far along that deserved some notice. Are you also going to do things like plant-cell-derived drugs, medicines, allergy treatments, vaccines…? Those require the tech infrastructure too but they aren’t really in that “promise” list in a formal way.

        • I think for this series I’ll stick to the specific claims made by BIO, but those innovations certainly deserve some attention too.

  • David Nicholl

    Vistive is biotech. It suppresses the FAD2 and FATB enzymes of the biosynthetic pathways of fatty acids with dsRNA technology. It triples the oleic acid content from 20% to 70% of oils. Side note it is also roundup ready.

  • David Nicholl

    http://www.redorbit.com/education/reference_library/science_1/genetically_modified_organisms/1112964738/vistive-gold/

    This is where I found it. Hmmm no idea on the validity of the website. It could be erroneous.

  • David Nicholl

    My face is red. I am a Monsanto employee. I had looked at our website but missed the breeding snipet. So I was looking for a source that went into more detail.

    • No worries! We’ve all done this more than once 🙂
      I am terribly curious how Vistive and Plenish stack up – perhaps that’s a good question for Susan from Pioneer.

      • Richard R

        Are we confusing Vistive Low Linoleic soybeans (breeding) and Vistive Gold?

        For Farmers: Along with SDA Omega-3 soybeans, Vistive® Gold soybeans represent one of the first biotech products that enable farmers to help bring nutrition benefits to consumers – while growing a high-yielding soybean.

        http://www.monsanto.com/products/pages/vistive-gold-soybeans.aspx

        • Wll geez, Monsanto, way to confuse us with products that have the same name! I thought Vistive was biotech too, but then I googled Vistive soybeans and got the non biotech kind (on the Monsanto website). Sheesh. Well I will update this post shortly.

          Sorry about that, David! You totally were right.

  • Dan H

    promise not met at all. fact with soybean oil it is worse.
    In the US per capita consumption of edible soybean oil has been dropping due to the problems using the oil. There is also the elevated Omega 6 fatty acids effects on human health.

  • AS

    To balance this series, perhaps it would also be necessary to look into the statements of the key opponents of GMOs (e.g. does Bt cotton kill farmers?), or to compare it to the promises of other players in agriculture, such as the organics industry (e.g. is organic food produced without pesticides?). How much hyperbole is there, on which side is more of it?

    Compared to other “whiter than white” claims by industry the statement that “Biotech is helping to feed the world by: Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles that solve vitamin and nutrient deficiencies; Producing foods free of allergens and toxins such as mycotoxin; and Improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health” seems to be pretty solid — or at least formulated in a way that’s vague and open enough.

    They do not present biotech as a panacea but simply suggest it is “helping” to feed the world. Also, they do not claim that crops with enhanced nutrition profiles are already on the market, but they say that such crops are being developed — and they are. Bt crops can have lower levels of mycotoxins, so that’s not too far off the mark, either. And GM crops are tested for allergens, as this is a major concern, i.e. biotech is producing crops that are free of (new) allergens. And in the case of the oil content they say they are improving the oil content (which they do), not that they are marketing such oil already.

    • I think looking into claims of those opposed to GMOs is a great idea. If you feel like compiling some claims, please send them along in our Contact form – or this could be a great topic for a Guest Post 🙂

      • AS

        Thinking about it, there’s already an entire website dedicated to checking the validity of the claims made by those opposing ag biotech that’s perhaps worth a mention somewhere to show how close to the truth the “other” side is… http://academicsreview.org/reviewed-content/genetic-roulette/

        • That’s true, and Academics Review (by our own Board Member David Tribe) is a great resource! But a short run down of some claims could be useful too.

  • Loren E

    Hi Anastasia, I’ve been in this industry (mid-level) for 28 years now and I’ve never been to a BIO convention or talked to anyone from that organization. I’m also not aware of anybody at my company, even at the highest levels, who is in close contact with that group. Where are they getting their information? It is actually kind of annoying to read about promises made on ‘our behalf’, because when people other than yourself (Shiva, Smith, Suzuki, etc.) point out these inaccuracies, it wrongly gives credibility to their arguments.

    • BIO is more heavily involved in non-ag biotech but they are “the world’s largest trade association representing biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and in more than 30 other nations.” (About BIO) I think the key word here is “trade” and trade organizations don’t typically get involved with individual researchers. My hope with this series is to find out what the real successes are and create a new list of promises that are as accurate as possible.

  • Just for my memory, I also wanted to note that we’ve got that tomato which is now very far along (that you blogged about recently). And there’s that wheat that was destroyed by Greenpeace: http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/features/brave-new-wheat/

    While barley was relatively easy to modify by traditional means, wheat is not. Which is why CSIRO Plant Industry used a form of genetic modification known as RNA interference (see “GM recipe” p52). They successfully generated wheat with a starch content that is 70% amylose. When tested in rats and pigs, it showed many of the same properties as BARLEYmax [indigestible plant fibre was protective against bowel disease]. It would have taken more tests before the researchers were ready to try it in humans to answer a compelling question: might it protect people against colorectal cancer?

    Thanks to the Greenpeace break-in, it will now take a year longer to find out.

  • Why the concern over the promise of GMOs providing better nutrition? What about all the promises made by anti-GMO organic activists who falsely proclaim that their methods are more sustainable and produce purer more nutritious food?