A new wave of GMO (genetically modified organisms) ingredients is already making its way onto the market. Agribusiness companies are trying to rebrand genetic engineering with terms such as synthetic biology, CRISPR, gene editing and gene silencing. These terms all describe new methods of genetically engineering crops, animals and ingredients that producers are rushing to get onto the market.
Despite claims from the biotechnology industry, these products are anything but natural, healthy or sustainable. Consider genetically modified apples designed to never brown, but which require more pesticides. Or the Impossible Burger, which claims to be environmentally beneficial, but which is made with GMO proteins and GMO Roundup Ready soy, both risky to our health and the environment. Calyno soybean oil self-proclaims to be non-GMO, but has been genetically engineered with new gene editing techniques.
The market trends are clear. Consumers want healthy, toxin-free organic foods, and they want to know exactly what they are eating. Many brands are listening and have taken steps to clean up their supply chains and replace GMOs with natural ingredients. But these newer genetically engineered items are not labeled, and many have found their way into supply chains and onto grocery shelves. While some well-meaning companies may truly not know that they are sourcing these new GMOs, the giants of the agribusiness industry know what they are doing. That’s why they are paying for sophisticated PR campaigns to cover up the science about GMOs and pesticides.The industry is deceiving consumers to maintain their vice grip on our food system and protect their corporate profits.
These new GMOs are unpredictable and largely untested. Studies show that genetic engineering, particularly new techniques like CRISPR, cause surprise genetic errors and problems for organisms and ecosystems. Once in the environment, these new genetically engineered organisms are uncontainable and could cause irreversible ripple effects. Many of these new GMOs may rely on toxic pesticides linked to cancer and be responsible for destroying bee populations around the world. There are holes in the science about health impacts for consumers, and antiquated federal health assessments cannot adequately determine safety. Many new GMO products are intended to replace plant-based commodities, such as vanilla, stevia, coconut and cannabinoids. Not only do people’s livelihoods around the world depend on growing these valuable crops, but many of the crops are culturally important and ecologically critical.
Companies interested in providing people with real non-GMO and organic ingredients are uniquely positioned to lead on this issue. They can help lead the fight for a more sustainable and healthy food system and protect people’s right to choose what they are eating.
The Non-GMO project and the USDA organic standards already exclude ingredients derived from genetic engineering. But for non-certified ingredients, companies need to demand transparency and ask questions at every step of the supply chain.
We need to see clearly who this technology is benefiting.
These unlabeled new GMOs may already be in the supply chain, so it’s critical that companies hold themselves accountable and protect the integrity of the natural foods industry by ensuring they know what they are sourcing. Companies interested in avoiding the potential risks of new GMOs should be asking their suppliers detailed questions. For example:
Are any ingredients derived from genetic engineering, including new gene editing techniques like CRISPR?
Are any ingredients produced using fermentation or bioengineering? Are any ingredients derived from yeast, algae or enzymes?
Does the supplier know from where the ingredients are originally sourced?
Would the supplier sign an affidavit confirming the ingredients are produced through processes that do not use genetic engineering techniques?
If a supplier cannot confirm that an ingredient or product was made without genetic engineering processes, the company should ask for more information or source an ingredient that is traceable back to its origin and preferably organic. Companies need to ensure the authenticity of their products and claims and should build public confidence in their roles as champions of transparency, authenticity and safe, sustainable products.
If we are serious about climate change, health and sustainability, we need to look holistically at our food system and stay focused on sourcing real, truly natural and organic ingredients that consumers want. We are at a crossroads within our food system. The direction we choose to take will have profound effects on the future of food—how ingredients are made and what people eat. By listening to consumers, thoroughly screening for these new GMOs and sourcing organic, companies can lead the fight for a healthy and transparent food system and protect the integrity of what’s truly natural.
Dana Perls is the senior food policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth (foe.org)