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Genetically Modified Foods: Maize

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 4/28/2009

One of the advantages of genetically modified plants is that they can be engineered to produce vitamins. Supporters of the technology claim this can help improve the diets of people in poor countries. Maize was the first genetically engineered crop to be fortified with three vitamins.

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    Vitamins are an essential part of a normal daily diet. When food cannot provide enough, many people opt for vitamin supplements to boost their intake. However, these are very expensive and not practical for those parts of the world where nutrition is low.

    One possible solution touted by GM companies is that crops can have their germ lines modified to produce even more vitamins, so they pack an even healthier punch when eaten.

    GM maize was the first crop to be fortified with three vitamins, and these are beta carotene, and precursors of folic acid and vitamin C.

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    Creation of GM Maize

    This GM maize was created by a team of scientists led by Dr Paul Christou from Spain's University of Lleida. Researchers transferred genes into embryos of a variety of maize known as M37W. Metal particles were coated with DNA and taken up by the embryos. This altered the plant's biochemistry such that it synthesized the products of the introduced genes. This genetic modification persisted through a couple of generations.

    According to the researchers the advantage of genetic engineering is that it can produce a more nutritious crop than can be obtained by conventional plant breeding methods. Before the creation of this type of GM maize plants could only be modified to produce one vitamin at a time. These are suitable to deal with one specific deficiency but no more. But now there's a plant that can potentially deliver a much bigger vitamin boost for those people who do not have a proper balanced diet.

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    GM Maize: The Next Steps

    Field trials of this genetically modified maize have not yet started. They are scheduled to take place some time in 2010. Animal studies also need to be conducted for safety and efficacy. So it may yet be some time before the world gets a taste of this GM maize.

    Anti-GM campaigners note a sound of caution over genetically modified crops claiming that the process is expensive and may not deliver all the nutrients that the plants have been designed to make. They would prefer that time and money was spent on helping people to grow and/or have access to a range of foods and crops that give a wide variety of health benefits.

    For more on this topic read about the pros and cons of GM foods.