Would you like roses that smell like bacon? Or bananas? This is the bizarre frontier of genetically modified flowers. The University of Florida is conducting studies on 13 flower genes responsible for the fragrance of a blossom. They hope to apply this knowledge to engineer better tasting fruit and better smelling flowers. Researchers are working with tomatoes to try and get them to be tastier. What effect these genetic changes would have on the body of a tomato consumer is anyone’s guess.
The premise behind the plant tinkering is that scent has suffered over the last 50 years of selective breeding in favor of color and beauty. What breeders have done through generations of careful pollination is now trying to be accomplished by implanting new genes into flowers and foods. This goes beyond the focus on parasite resistance and increased yield to the esthetics of the flower or food. The researchers stumbled upon the fragrance genes as they were trying to find the genes to extend the lifespan of petunia petals, thus increasing the chance of successful pollination. That led to examine over 8,000 related genes in the last ten years.
Researchers frame the question as one of restoring lost fragrance that has been bred out of a flower. But why stop there? You could put in a gene to make a petunia smell like a rose, or a skunk for that matter. While people may not be too concerned about manipulated flower fragrance (very few of us eat flowers), the same science is being applied to fruits and other foods. Most of the research on crops has to do with increasing their resistance to insects and herbicides. Corn, soybeans, canola and alfalfa are common targets of genetic modification. But sweet potatoes and rice are also undergoing modification in order to increase their resistance to viruses and to improve their nutrition.
Futurists predict bananas that produce vaccines against hepatitis B, cows that are resistant to mad-cow disease, and fast-growing fish. The U.S. is the leader in GM crops, followed by Argentina and Brazil. More and more developing nations are rushing to use GM products in order to feed their populations. The risks this will impose on their people and to other crops are yet to be measured. There are potential human health impacts as well as possible environmental consequences when the natural genetic makeup of food products is manipulated. Big agriculture companies have no compunction about tinkering with nature, but you may have an opinion not motivated by the profit motive. The courts so far have sided with big business. Only concerted efforts by concerned individuals and groups will have any impact on the rush to create “Frankenfood”.