Genetic modification techniques have not exactly been able to win over consumers. The task of turning isolated genes into working crops out in the field has been more costly and time-consuming than anyone imagined.
'There was a lot of promise talked about within the industry, where the timelines were underestimated,'said Dave Schmidt, CEO of the industry-backed International Food Information Council (IFIC).
AdvertisementFarmers, looking for pest protection, might be attracted, but not consumers desiring a tastier avocado. Few specialty crops outside papayas have been genetically engineered.
That's a far cry from the heady days of the early 90s when genetic modification was going to bring hordes of novel foods to the produce aisle. But the question remains: was it the timelines or the promise that was misestimated?
The current generation of GM crops are, in crop breeding terms, quite basic. As many pro-GM voices point out, the plants derived from traditional breeding techniques are more 'genetically modified' from their forebears than most GM crops. Bt corn, for example, produces a single protein, Cry1Ab, derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which makes it resistant to the corn borer.
As it turns out, finding one or two genes that generate consumer perceptions like 'the taste' is very hard. Calgene's Flavr-Savr tomato, introduced in the mid-nineties, was a misnomer. Rather than improve taste, it had an extra gene that interfered with polygalacturonase, an enzyme that softens cell walls during ripening. The genetic change made the Flavr-Savr more resistant to rotting.
Even assuming that cucumbers or peppers could be genetically engineered to taste better, the economics of GM crop breeding are just tough. Though the price of GMing crops is dropping, it's still higher than traditional plant breeding. For specialty crops, i.e. not corn, soy, or the cereals, it hasn't made a lot of sense to take the plants to market for three main reasons: 1. Specialty crops are smaller markets, so there is less money to be made; 2. Specialty crops require more money invested in the growth of the plants relative to the investment in seeds; 3. Big cash crops like corn are often grown as a monoculture, which makes the plants more susceptible to pesticide-resistant bugs than specialty crops, especially when farmers grow a certain crop over and over in the same field. So farmers are more inclined to spend the extra money on genetically modified seeds to protect them.
Social factors have also driven costs up. The big food processors are worried about consumer backlash and most European countries have closed their markets to GM crops. As GM advocates point out, the extra regulatory hurdles also add to the cost of bringing a GM product to market.
What the biotech industry is waiting for is a breakthrough -- something that would be so great that consumers would flock to it, overlooking (or not even noticing) its breeding technique. What would this product look like? It's hard to say, but I had several sources tell me to look for it in melons some time in the next few years. So, keep your eyes on the melon aisle, regardless of which side of the GM crop debate you're on, says Alexis Madrigal, writing in Wired News.
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