Genetically modified foods have been controversial ever since they were introduced. But a new variety of GM soybean nearing commercialization promises to deliver health benefits that could change how people think about agricultural biotechnology.
Today's genetically modified crops are designed to help farmers by making weed and insect control easier. But they're not designed to help consumers, says Jane Rissler, with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"The farmers and the companies have profited and benefited, and consumers have taken whatever risks there are," she says.
In the decade or more since GM crops have been on the market, those perceived risks to the natural environment and to human health, have not materialized. But many consumers remain uncomfortable with anyone tinkering with their food. That's especially true in Europe, where farmers are prohibited from growing most GM crops.
Monsanto readies GM soybean oil
But a new crop could complicate the picture. The giant U.S. seed and biotech company Monsanto is on the verge of introducing genetically modified soybeans that produce substantial amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that a diet rich in omega-3s is good for the heart and the brain.
Roy Fuchs heads soybean research at Monsanto. He says conversations with European regulators about the new omega-3-rich soybeans have been encouraging.
"They have been saying for the last decade or two, 'When will biotechnology deliver a trait that consumers can see, they can experience, and benefit [from] themselves?' So, they see this as really the first of a number of products that will have direct consumer benefits and an opportunity to change the conversation from productivity to human health," Fuchs explains.
Will consumers eat up GM ingredients for their health?
Omega-3 rich GM soybeans could change the conversation because soybean oil is practically ubiquitous in Western processed foods. It's in everything from breads and granola bars to salad dressings. Fuchs says you could get your full daily allotment of one type of omega-3s just by eating three products made with the new soybean oil.
These days, Fuchs takes a capsule of fish oil every day to get his omega-3s, "But I'd much rather have my yogurt and granola bar and salad dressing with omega-3 than have to take a capsule every morning," he says.
Providing convenient ways to increase the amount of omega-3s in the American diet could provide some real benefits, according to University of Southern California pharmacology professor Roger Clemens, a spokesman for the American Society for Nutrition.
"Particularly as our population gets older, this population's at the highest risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and obviously Alzheimer's [disease]," he says. "So, those five major [diseases] may be impacted by this type of [decision] to provide more omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet."
While few would argue that a food rich in omega-3 fatty acids would be a healthful addition to any diet, skeptics aren't convinced that Monsanto's genetically modified soybean is the best source for those nutrients.
Will perceived risks outweigh possible benefits?
And questions remain about possible health risks from the GM soybean oil itself, Rissler says.
"This is a rather substantial interference with the oil metabolism processes of soybeans," she says. "And this, to us, raises some potential -- and I say potential -- safety issues that we think need more careful consideration," she adds.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently gave its approval to Monsanto's soybean oil. But Rissler says the FDA's approval process relies too heavily on the company's own safety testing data.
Monsanto expects their omega-3 soybean oil to hit the market in the next few years. Then, the question will be whether consumers warm to genetically modified foods made with their health in mind, or remain wary of anyone tinkering with the fundamental chemistry of their food.