Why haven’t genetically engineered crops made food better?

Rice grains in different shades of yellow.

Enlarge / Normal rice (bottom), the first version of golden rice (right), and the current strain (left). (credit: Environmental Health Perspectives/NIH)

One of the arguments that has been advanced to promote genetically engineered crops is that the techniques have the potential for improving the food we eat. Crops could be engineered so that they provide nutrients they currently don’t or so that good nutrition is in reach of poor people in developing nations.

In fact, the technology does have that potential, and a couple of efforts have been made to do exactly this. Yet, decades into the GMO era, all of the engineered crops on the market provide enhanced productivity and other benefits to farmers but nothing for the people who ultimately end up eating the results. So why the huge gap between potential and reality? The huge number of problems involved is the subject of a review in Nature Plants.

Far from golden

The people behind the review come from the Rothamsted Research, a UK-based nonprofit agricultural science institution. The nonprofit aspect is rather critical. Rothamsted’s work does include developing genetically modified crops, but it’s not doing so to make money; instead, the organization is dedicated to improving farming in developing economies and sees GMO crops as a potential contributor there. But even with those things going for it, the organization has been caught up in the public’s disapproval of GMOs, with protesters having threatened to destroy one of its test plantings in 2012.

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