Eating towards better health

The GM crops that are currently commercially available target agronomic characteristics, with crops showing insect resistance, herbicide tolerance and virus resistance having been grown on 67.7 million hectares globally in 2003.

Research into crops designed for environmental stress, such as salt and drought tolerance, is also under way, both in Australia and overseas. The "second-wave" of GM products will include crops with consumer oriented characteristics such as enhanced nutritional values. These foods are often called "functional foods" and considerable research is under way around the globe.

Functional foods are those foods or food constituents that have a capacity to enhance good health or help protect against disease.

Examples of these can already be found in supermarkets - for example, breakfast cereals with added folate that help prevent spina bifida in unborn babies, and yoghurt with added enzymes for gut health.

Researchers are now looking to gene technology as a tool that could assist in the production of more functional foods. Future foods developed through gene technology which target health characteristics may one day include those in the table at left.

Commercial realisation of such products is still several years away, however, and will ultimately depend on consumer responses.

The indications so far in Australia show an even balance between support and opposition to such foods. Market research conducted in 2003, commissioned by Biotechnology Australia, found that respondents are equally split about whether they would or would not eat GM foods modified for health benefits.

Continuing research and development in Australia must be encouraged, to ensure agribusiness remains globally competitive and provides Australian consumers with the choice of taking advantage of these healthier foods in the pipeline.

- Agrifood Awareness Australia Ltd

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