Speaking at the world's largest biotech event, BIO 2004, that ended in San Francisco this week, David Kessler, the ex-FDA chief, uttered a view that is dominating the biotechnology industry today. In today's health-sensitive climate well-being food products, despite being GM, are likely to sell.
This new way of thinking is opening up opportunities for the food industry. Ouvertures that could be financially viable as the archly suspicious, anti-GM consumer finds personal health outweighs concerns over genetic engineering.
At the event, attended by 18,000 participants of the $40 billion (€33 bn) industry amid fervent protestations from anti-biotechnology campaigners, Monsanto's chief technology officer Robert Fraley described a soybean, planned for the market in 2006, with oil that has reduced saturated fat and contains fewer of the acids that produce heart-unhealthy trans fatty acids.
With a 2006 deadline the product will arrive just in time to meet the new rules on trans fatty acid labelling due to be enforced in the US that year. Food makers looking for alternative formulations for trans fat recipes in the face of increasing consumer awareness are likely to be interested by the new product, assuming the anti-GM feeling dwindles between now and then and the bet that health over GM will win.
Transfats increase total blood cholesterol and levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or 'bad') cholesterol, and may contribute to cardiovascular disease.
"We're improving soybeans through breeding and biotechnology to produce healthier oils," said Monsanto. We are using marker assisted breeding (MAB) to produce a soybean low in linolenic acid, a precursor to transfats in the hydrogenation process, the firm added. Hydrogenation is used to produce margarine and shortening and to improve the shelf life of many foods.
Reducing the linolenic content of soybean oil, said Monsanto, reduces the need for hydrogenation, so processors can avoid producing transfats.
Pushing the healthy products line further, the firm said that it is also breeding soybeans to produce oil high in the healthy monounsaturated fat that lowers LDL cholesterol.
And the ultimate ambition. "In the future, Monsanto plans to use biotechnology to develop a soybean that will yield soy oil that is free of saturated fats and transfats," said the firm.
Another long-term project is to enrich soybeans with higher levels of health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids associated through recent research with a raft of well-being benefits, including a boost for the memory and cardiovascular health.
The company has apparently found the gene in ocean plants that creates omega-3 fatty acids. Monsanto is working on transferring the gene to land-based crops like canola to create a cheaper and more accessible beneficial food product.
At the conference St. Louis-based Monsanto, and the principal target for heavy critism of the biotech industry, said the firm is working on a soybean that has an enhanced protein with a flavour and texture more like milk and that would be on the market before the decade is out.