Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A bridge too far for Bio-enterprise?

If you look back over the posts of the last three years, you will see that the vast majority are about microbiological food safety issues.  There are other safety concerns, not all of them justified.

If you were going to fly from Seattle to Los Angeles, would you go via Hong Kong?  Not unless you were forced.

I have just returned from the NZBio 2011 conference, where the theme was "Enabling Successful Bio-enterprise".  The conference was attended by delegates from far and near - businessmen, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, regulators and scientists.  Over three days, I heard papers on drug development, bio-fuels, bio-marker molecules and bio-plastics.  I didn't hear a single paper on food.

This surprised me.  When I began my career, I helped to develop the ICI Single Cell Protein process.  This was a high-tech attempt to solve a perceived looming food shortage.  The development was a technical success, but an economic failure.  The cost of feedstock rose dramatically and, even back then, the costs of testing and getting approval for human or even animal feeding were prohibitive.  The protein was high quality, but there were difficulties of acceptance and the public probably thought that it was too reminiscent of sci-fi foods.  The SCP concept was, perhaps, an approach to food supply ahead of its time.
Now, through beautifully sophisticated molecular biology techniques, we have the opportunity to produce more food, with desirable characteristics such as longer shelf life, slower or faster maturation, better nutrition and better functionality.

Why are bio-enterprises not taking advantage of these procedures to increase our food supply and are instead choosing to manufacture medical test kits, bio-fuels and making the very risky investment in new drugs?

I think the answer lies partly in the massive misinformation campaign against genetic manipulation and safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).  There; I named the elephant in the room.  The public has been so mislead about genetic manipulation that bio-enterprises consider that it is just too financially risky to invest in GM products.

I questioned a panel of experts about this.  The consensus of those prepared to comment was that foods derived from GMOs will be accepted and on the market in 10 to 20 years.  Currently, research and development organisations are going to great lengths to get to a product they could achieve much more quickly and easily by genetic manipulation.  This is like forcing a mechanic to fix your car with stone tools or doing the SEA - HKG - LAX trip.

Currently, there is no real shortage of food, just a maldistribution.  But the growing world population and increasing lifestyle expectations will eventually lead to food shortages.  GMO-derived foods may help to alleviate these shortages and add to the arsenal of functional foods and nutraceuticals.  This will not happen until the safety of GMO-derived foods is demonstrated, the public begins to trust scientists again and the misinformation campaigns are shown for what they really are.

I don't claim to be an expert on GMOs.  If you want to follow up on the safety of GMO-derived foods, have a look at:

Assessment of the food safety issues related to genetically modified foods. Harry A. Kuiper, Gijs A. Kleter, Hub P. J. M. Noteborn and Esther J. Kok (2001) The Plant Journal  27(6), 503-528

1 comment:

Peter Bradley said...

Nice work John. I think the issue is that until someone can make money from GM food AND the general public understand we will not see a great deal about. It is interesting to compare food with Bt cotton which I believe currently accounts for >50% of the world's cotton production.

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