31 Mar 2012

A brief history of GM

Once it was Frankenstein food, now it’s the fight against disease. Channel 4 News looks at the brief but controversial story of genetic modification – from tomatoes to mosquitoes.

A brief history of GM. (Getty)

When did you first hear the phrase “genetically-modified”? For most of us it was in the 1990s as headlines screamed “Frankenstein food!” from the newsstands.

The first commercial GM food was the FlavrSavr tomato developed in California in the early nineties. It was genetically altered so that it took longer to decompose after being picked.

Tony Blair’s Labour government announced the first UK farm trials in 1999, with the aim of studying the effects on wildlife of crops engineered to resist herbicides. Critics said the tests would not reveal the long-term environmental impact of the new technology and the debate about the safety of genetically-modified food began.

In response, the word “organic” quickly dominated our supermarket shelves while the farmers’ market became a staple of weekend activity, especially in urban areas. Reassuringly muddy potatoes proved Sunday lunch had come from the farm and not the laboratory.

So how has the science shifted over the last decade or so?

Channel 4 News Science Editor Tom Clarke says the key progress hinges on “accuracy”.

“Scientists’ ability to find useful genes from one organism, and accurately insert them into another, has improved massively.”

And many of the advances have come not in food production, but in the battle against disease.

British scientists were the first to use a genetically-modified (GM) mosquito in the fight against dengue fever, a potentially fatal illness.

Scientists at Oxitec inserted a gene into male mosquitoes that kills its offspring, which in turn reduces the number of wild mosquitoes able to carry the virus. Dr Luke Alphey, of Oxitec said in 2010: “In the absence of drugs and vaccines, the way to control this disease is to control the mosquito, and that’s what this technology will do.”

Read more: Florida frontline for new GM mosquito tests?

GM in 2012

• GM crops have been grown commercially since 1996 with the market spreading to 25 countries. The global value of GM crops was $7.5bn in 2008.

• No GM crops are being grown commercially in the UK, but imported GM commodities, especially soya, are being used for animal feed.

• Ninety per cent per cent of GM crops, and almost all GM food crops, are grown in four countries: the US, Argentina, Brazil, and Canada.

• GM crops are currently grown by around 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries.

• Most current GM crops are designed to make pest and weed control easier for farmers.

• In the near future we may see drought-resistant and nutritionally-enhanced crops.

Biofuels dominate the GM scene, with more than 12.2m hectares of US crops (nearly 10 per cent of the world total) used to make plant-derived fuels.

• Under EU rules, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including GM crops, can only be released into the environment if a science-based risk assessment shows that safety will not be compromised.