Mention genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and watch the brows wrinkle. People just don’t want the genes in their meals modified, even if they are not quite sure what genes are. Better just leave them alone. It isn’t nice to fool with Mother Nature!
Isn’t it curious that when it comes to using drugs to treat natural diseases, there are no complaints about interfering with nature. Why? Because the benefits are clear! With genetic modification, though, this is not the case, at least not so far. The average consumer sees no benefit from herbicide-resistant canola. In fact, he probably doesn’t know what canola is. Farmers of course see the benefits; less tilling, less herbicide used, less work. But seeing none of this, consumers can easily be swayed by anti-GMO arguments. That situation, however, may be about to change.
Finally a genetically modified food with a promise that people can relate to has emerged. A food that can reduce the risk of strokes and heart disease! Now that is something we can bite into. Well, we can’t actually bite into it, because what we are talking about is soybean oil that has been modified to produce stearidonic acid (SDA). Granted this chemical is not likely to trigger a stampede in the grocery aisles, at least not until people learn that in the body it is converted to a heart-healthy omega-3 fat. More specifically, into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which is the omega-3 fat found in fish that when consumed regularly has been estimated to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by roughly 25% and the risk of sudden cardiac death by 45%.
Omega-3 deficiency may account for thousands of deaths from heart disease every year. Of course one can always boost omega-3 intake by eating fish several times a week, but for many this is not possible or attractive. Incorporating modified soybean oil into the diet is a viable alternative. Soybeans do not normally produce EPA, but they can be modified to produce stearidonic acid which the body can efficiently convert into EPA. One gram of EPA is produced for roughly every four grams of SDA ingested.
So what does genetic modification of soy involve in this case? Genes are just segments of DNA, the molecule that is the “blueprint” for life. They dictate which proteins an organism will produce. Some of these proteins are enzymes which are responsible for the production of various biochemicals. Insertion of a gene from a primrose-like plant and one from a fungus into the DNA of soybeans tells the bean to produce the chemicals needed for the formation of stearidonic acid. Bringing to market an oil that can be easily incorporated into many foods, one that can reduce the risk of strokes and heart disease, may just take away some of the bitter taste that the concept of genetic modification leaves in some consumers’ mouths.