The following is a brief summary of an article on the consumer acceptance of genetically modified foods. The complete article will be published in the upcoming Agro Food Industry Hi Tech journal:
Humans have been modifying and selecting traits of plants and animals to suit specific human needs for thousands of years, and the ability to make precise adjustments in both plant and animal performance may have just taken a significant step forward, if that step is acceptable to the consumer. Recently, researchers in China reported the successful production of cows that are partially resistant to infection by Mycobacterium bovis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, a disease that can be transferred from cattle (and contaminated milk) to humans. The resistance was provided using a new gene altering technique known as CRISPR/Cas9n modification (Gao et al., 2017). Classical methods to alter plant traits include cross pollination and root grafting, to plant exposure to chemical mutagens or radiation to promote genetic variation, the latter of which may result in unintended genetic changes. This does not mean that the food is not safe, only that not all the changes are known. It is only through safety and toxicity testing does one determine if a substance, including a food ingredient, is safe. For example, in the 1960s researchers in the U.S. worked to breed the “perfect potato” for the production of fried potato chips and succeeded in developing a potato with great attributes for frying; unfortunately, the potato also contained increased levels of solanine, an alkaloid that is toxic to humans, initiating severe nausea and vomiting after consumption (National Research Council, 2004). This example underscores the need for sufficient testing of products of new crops to show safety when consumed.
In recent years, consumers have become more focused on the “healthy aspects” of foods, and have expressed a desire for foods that have only been produced by “healthy”, “wholesome” or “natural” methods, even though there is no consensus on the meaning of these terms for food ingredients. While use of CRISPR-type biotechnology provides targeted changes through specific genetic manipulation, it is only through public education, safety testing, and acceptance of the technology that these food products will become accepted by the consumer.
Gao Y, Wu H, Wang Y, Liu X, Chen L, Li Q, Cui C, Liu X, Zhang J, and Zhang Y (2017). Single Cas9 nickase induced generation of NRAMP1 knockin cattle with reduced off-target effects. Genome Biol. 18(1):13. doi: 10.1186/s13059-016-1144-4.
National Academy of Sciences (2004). Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10977.html; site last visited February 6, 2017.