Genetically Modified Food: Can It Help Fight the Obesity Crisis?

Though Monsanto and other Ag giants have worked hard to give genetically modified organisms (GMO) crops a bad name through excessive litigation, the scientists who work to genetically modify crops are not all evil geniuses. Undoubtedly some are, working primarily for profit and glory, but others see their work as a way to make the world a better place. Working largely in non-profit and university labs, these scientists are using genetic manipulation to create food plants that carry extra nutrition and that restore the flavors lost to previous generations of GMO crops.

Historically, genetic engineering of food plants has been aimed squarely at making them suitable for the industrial food system. Tomatoes, typically fragile fruits, were engineered to survive months in storage and transport without spoiling or being bruised. Wheat, corn, and soybeans, the commodity crops that drive the American food system, have all be hyper engineered to increase yield as well resistance to drought, pests, and disease. The drawback, of course, is that in the process of making food plants that are able to survive the rigors of the modern industrial food system, little attention has been paid to their nutrition and taste. Most of us have tasted a tomato from the average grocery store and wondered why such a wonderful looking vegetable tasted like so much pulpy water.

Research being conducted at the University of Florida has zeroed in on one of the causes of lackluster vegetable flavor. In the process of genetically engineering modern tomatoes, certain chemicals known as volatiles have been engineered out. Volatiles, which readily become fumes, play a key role in how we perceive flavor. These chemicals stimulate the olfactory sense and help the brain to perceive how sweet, sour, bitter, etc. a particular food is.

As the lead researcher, Harry Klee, puts it, “The perception of sweetness in our brains is the sum of the inputs from sugars plus certain volatile chemicals.” The hope for this research is that by engineering tastier vegetables — sweeter tomatoes, say — the average American will want to start eating them in greater quantities again. The net result would be to counter the bliss point engineering of processed food and bend the curve of the obesity crisis back in a healthier direction. Such a GMO vegetable would contribute to the health of the American consumer, instead of only enabling huge profits from cheap, processed food.

Around the world there are poverty stricken areas where the stable crop, rice, is only the only thing keeping the population alive. But rice is not terribly profitable so it has been largely ignored by the Big Ag companies that have the R&D budgets to create new GMO food crops. Research being conducted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) aims to genetically modify rice to generate beta carotene, an essential nutrient that is sorely lacking in the diets of many of the world’s poor. The result, dubbed Golden Rice, is being tested in the Philippines and other Asian nations. Though the testing has not been without controversy, Golden Rice shows some promise in helping to alleviate chronic hunger and malnutrition among the poor in these poor nations.  

Until their safety is proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, genetically modifying foods will remain a controversial subject. Though big Ag corporations have been rightly vilified for pushing patent protected seeds and prosecuting those who dare to defy their strict use agreements, there is promising work happening in the GMO field that has more to do with humanitarian need than profit.

If the science can be proven safe and the profit model optimized so that poor and independent farmers don’t become overly dependent on seed companies, genetic manipulation of foods might hold some of the keys to solving both the obesity crisis here in America and the nutrition crisis around the world.