Way to GMO's may lie in embracing sustainability

by Morton Sosland
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Coming up with an easy definition of sustainability across the global grain industry is no easy task. That is so even though many leading companies making grain-based foods as well as those in food retailing have expressed strong commitments to pursuing projects meant specifically to assure the high importance of sustainability in directing projects along the entire food chain. Thanks to the Institute for Food Research, which operates primarily as a collaboration between the U.K. food industry and that country’s research universities, a rather simple definition has been put forward. “Development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” are the words being used. In reality, this is a thought ascribed to Gro Harlem Brundtland, when she was prime minister of Norway. Ms. Brundtland, now on the staff of the United Nations, won acclaim for her public health initiatives as well as for her efforts to promote sustainable development.

According to the U.K. Institute, sustainability of food may be translated into specific scientific goals. These focus on “improving the effective exploitation of food chain residues and co-products by developing a greater understanding of how to disassemble plant structures.” This declaration means finding new uses for non-food grade components of grains and other plant foods as well as seeking “higher value” for components that have major present-day functions in food production. In this case, “higher value” means medicines and various pharmaceuticals that could be made from plant components that are now used to produce common foods. Efficient handling of food wastes also is included in this program that is based on the overriding pursuit of sustainability. It is no surprise that developing plant-based energy sources has high priority.

Hardly anything is more central to these sustainability efforts than this one aim: “To actively engage with all food-chain stakeholders so as to maximize the potential for innovation.” It is here that biotechnology looms large on the horizon of grain-based foods, especially in those areas where questions about genetic modification have somehow assumed such a prominent role. This is so even when it is recognized that the application of these plant modification methods offers a future with great progress toward innovation. The promise covers how grains are grown, how they are processed into basic raw materials and the sort of consumer products that are the final result.

Affected industry sectors in America have joined in forming the Wheat Industry Biotech Committee, which has the commendable goal of involving everyone possibly concerned with moving toward genetically-modified wheat. In Britain, similar efforts have resulted in capturing the attention of that nation’s scientific research community through the formidably-named Food Chain Research and Technology Network. The network seeks to enhance efficiency as well as sustainability across the European food chain, while always keeping in mind the heightened concerns of European consumers with food quality. These efforts embrace the urgent need for change from what occurred a decade and a half ago when sensationalism about genetic modification quite forcefully interrupted the delivery of these benefits to the people of Europe.

“Achieving a rational debate is essential,” said one of the network leaders in acknowledging that both the scientific community and the food industry itself have fallen hugely short in persuading consumers of the importance of the work in biotechnology. Black and white has become the order of the day in public opinions about food science. Another network official summarized this rationality need in a way that not only recognizes the widespread distrust among Europeans of modern science but also ought to provide basic guidance for the American industry.

It is Roger Turner, former chief executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders, who said: “We need a future where consumers trust all the links in the food chain to meet their needs, and where they not only trust the end product but trust the technology that delivers it too.”