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!

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.
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