Nutrient-altered GM crops

No crops with altered nutrient content are currently on the market, although some may be close to being launched.

Promises that new GM crops will be developed which have enhanced levels of vitamins and nutrients have been made for many years. Enhanced levels of vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids are being engineered into both high-value crops, such as tomatoes and lettuce, and staples, such as rice, soya, sorghum and potatoes.

Enthusiasts claim that these new crops will overcome public resistance to eating GM foods, by providing benefits directly to consumers, and also help people in poor countries who are nutrient-deficient.

Soybeans with altered oil content (for example, low trans fats or increased omega-3 oils) are being developed by the GM industry for sale in the US. GM crops with increased levels of vitamins and minerals have been a topic of research for many years. Originally intended for marketing as 'functional foods' (foods with claimed health benefits) to wealthy consumers, much research is now focused on increasing the nutrient content of staple crops to tackle the problem of 'hidden hunger' in less developed countries.

Although the GM industry as long argued that 'nutritionally enhanced' crops will convince consumers to eat GM foods, there have been a number of problems with this approach. There have been technical difficulties due to the need to engineer the complex pathways involved in the production and concentration of vitamins and oils in plants or the uptake of minerals from soils. Additional concerns include:

  1. Difficulties in deciding what is a healthy or safe level of some vitamins and minerals (which can be harmful at high levels or in some groups of people).
  2. Unintended effects of altering plant pathways, such as increasing uptake of toxic metals from soils, making the plant more attractive to pests, or reducing its yield.
  3. The limitations of a 'nutrient by nutrient' approach to tackling the problems caused by overeating or hidden hunger, both of which depend on altering whole diets.

Regulating health claims and safety for nutritionally-altered crops is expected to be particularly difficult because their impacts can depend on a wide variety of factors, including the soil that they are grown in and the diet of the person eating them.

Because GM technology introduces nutritional changes at the bottom of the food chain rather than in final, processed products, issues of traceability, liability and lack of reversibility arise. These issues may be particularly important for 'biofortified' staple crops, which could form a large proportion of people's diets, particularly in poor countries.


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