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How GM Overcame Soy's Fatal Flaw (Business Spectator)

Date Posted: February 18, 2011

(18 Feb 2011/Business Spectator) -- Within a year or so, food will become available that has been cooked using a new types of soy oil – Vistive Gold, produced by Monsanto, and Plenish, produced by DuPont subsidiary Pioneer.

Soy oil is the most abundant vegetable oil in the world and widely used in commercial frying and baking, but it has a flaw. Although high in unsaturated fatty acids, which are good for the heart, it is easily oxidised and develops objectionable flavours and odours when heated extensively.

The problem can be solved by partially hydrogenating the oil, which makes it more stable against oxidation. However this leads to the formation of trans fatty acids, which are believed to contribute to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Some people believe trans fats should be banned.

The instability mainly derives from the linolenic-acid component. The new oils come from a new line of soybeans which contain high oleic acid but low linolenic and palmitic acid. That makes them stable, reducing or avoiding the need for hydrogenation and eliminating trans fats.

Vistive Gold is said to have the lowest saturated fat of any soybean oil (60 per cent less than normal soybean oil) with zero trans fat. It also contains 85 per cent less saturated fat than palm oil, one of its main competitors. Testing has shown it to have excellent stability and flavour.

The US Food and Drug Administration has completed its inquiries on both products, which received a 'Generally Recognised As Safe' classification. The US Department of Agriculture is considering an application for deregulation of the soybeans from which the oils are extracted.

There are other high oleic oils, including olive oil, but they each have their own flaws. The bottom line is that the introduction of Vistive Gold and Plenish will reduce the saturated and trans fat intake of many people, particularly those who buy fried food.

None of this would warrant comment but for the fact that the soybeans were developed using a combination of traditional breeding and genetic modification. What it signifies is the start of a new chapter in agriculture in which the benefits of genetic modification are mainly captured by the consumer rather than the farmer or processor.

For at least the next two decades there will be a flow of genetically modified crops that are not only cheaper to grow, better for the environment and easier to process, but also safer, healthier and more enjoyable to eat compared to conventionally bred varieties.

If Vistive Gold or Plenish had been developed using purely conventional plant breeding methods it would now be on the market, potentially reducing heart disease and saving lives. Instead they are slogging their way through a protracted regulatory process which, even in the US, is slow and expensive.

Public alarm based on overblown risks and anti-science bigotry has created a regulatory environment that makes the development of GM crops slow, expensive and uncertain, putting it beyond the capacity of all but big companies with deep pockets. Vistive Gold and Plenish are two such examples.

Resistance is highest in Europe, where Bulgaria has just joined Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Luxembourg in banning the cultivation of the only GM maize approved in the EU. Member states are deeply divided and cannot even agree on the importation of products produced from GM crops.

It has now been suggested that each EU country go it alone on the issue of approvals, with grounds such as ethical concerns and the need to maintain public order being permissible options for bans on cultivation. Scientific and environmental considerations, which are resolved by the EU Commission, could not be used.

But much of the rest of the world is also wary. Even in China, where GM crops are highly advanced and public opinion only relevant if it threatens stability, the government has allocated 2.6 million yuan for a public debate to counter consumer hostility.

Many in agriculture anticipate public opinion will change as new products like Vistive Gold and Plenish reach the market. As they see it, no rational person would choose a higher risk of heart disease over vague fears for which there is no scientific basis. Others claim escalating food prices will make it morally impossible to reject the technology if the alternative is a billion people with not enough to eat.

But reason has been lacking from this issue for quite some time. Moreover, the people with the loudest voices are the least likely to consume fried food or to live in countries where people do not have enough to eat. Even in China, consumer concerns originate from the prosperous upper class rather than those who struggle to survive.

Ultimately it will probably come down to simple self-interest. While not everyone will worry about heart disease, most would like to live longer. New crop varieties that make it easier to lose weight, manage diabetes or gluten intolerance, avoid dementia or maintain joint mobility, for example, might convert opposition into support wherever there are ageing populations. And as it happens, that includes much of the world and they are all future possibilities.

David Leyonhjelm works in the agribusiness and veterinary markets as principal of Baron Strategic Services and Baron Senior Placements.

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