“The apple that never browns wants to change your mind about genetically modified foods.”
That headline in the Washington Post is just one of many shining the spotlight on the next generation of genetically modified organisms (what many are calling GMO 2.0) heading to our supermarkets and restaurants.
Gene-silenced Arctic apples that do not turn brown when exposed to air, even when rotten, will be sold in stores in the Midwest this week. Other products on the way include canola oil extracted from rapeseed that has been modified by gene editing to withstand more pesticides, but which is being marketed as a non-GMO food by its maker; salmon genetically engineered with eel genes to grow faster; and synthetic vanillin excreted from genetically modified yeast, yet marketed as “natural.”
Researchers are tinkering with nature’s DNA in new and potentially problematic ways and without clear regulatory guidance. They can alter a species by editing or deleting genes, turning genes on or off, or even creating completely new DNA sequences on a computer. Some of these new foods will be marketed as “non-GMO” or “natural” because the definition of GMO has not yet caught up with the pace of new biotechnology developments.
Existing definitions focus on transgenic technologies that take genes from one species and put them into another. But many companies are modifying organisms’ genomes without adding another organisms’s genes using gene-silencing techniques such as RNA interference and gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR.
New GMO foods are being released with little understanding of their potential health and environmental consequences. So far, no safety assessments specific to these new techniques are required, and no regulatory oversight is in place for this swiftly moving set of new technologies.
To address that gap in regulations, the Department of Agriculture recently announced a proposal for updating its biotechnology regulations. While it is good that the USDA is considering regulating gene-edited foods, the proposal is riddled with loopholes that could exclude many new GMO foods. I believe that all genetically engineered crops, including ones made with gene-editing tools like CRISPR, should be regulated and assessed for health and environmental impacts.
Biotech companies in this emerging market hope consumers are attracted to new GMO products. Intrexon (XON), the company that makes the non-browning GMO Arctic apple, believes that this product may lead to less food waste. Yet there’s a reason an apple turns brown — it’s a signal it has been cut or bruised. If a little oxidizing is worrisome, we can use lemon juice, a proven, natural method to prevent it. Some scientists believe apples’ natural browning enzyme may help fight diseases and pests, meaning that farmers may have to increase their pesticide use to grow non-browning apples.
Research also suggests that newer technologies such as gene silencing may pose health risks, and some of the genetic material used, such as double-stranded RNA, could affect gene expression in human cells in ways that have not yet been investigated.
The first generation of GMOs was promoted to reduce pesticide use in agriculture. Yet data show that the widespread use of GMO crops has actually increased the use of glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide. Not only are there serious environmental consequences associated with such an increase, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer recently declared that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, and a recent long-term study linked low doses of Roundup to serious liver damage.
We understand even less about the potential unintended impacts of GMO 2.0 foods. It is unclear how these new technologies might evolve once released into the environment; how they might interact with their ecosystems; and whether they might result in permanent changes to other organisms or ecosystems.
Although some experts suggest that gene-editing techniques like CRISPR are more precise than the first-generation genetic engineering technologies, there are still documented off-target effects, meaning they will likely have unintended consequences. CRISPR will probably be used to produce more herbicide-tolerant GMOs, which will perpetuate the toxic treadmill of increased chemical dependency in agriculture, taking us further away from healthy food systems.
There are also serious sustainability concerns with GMO 2.0 foods. For example, using genetically modified yeast to make vanillin requires vast amounts of feedstock — the sugary broth used to grow yeast. Common feedstocks, usually from corn or sugar cane, are typically produced in chemical-intensive industrial agricultural systems.
GMO 2.0 foods could also affect millions of small sustainable farmers around the world whose livelihoods depend on growing the valuable natural crops that will be replaced. Many synthetic biology products are intended to replace plant-based commodities typically grown in developing countries, such as vanilla, saffron, cacao, coconut, shea butter, stevia, and others. This raises serious questions about who will benefit from the production of these new technologies and who will bear the costs. A holistic analysis of sustainability — which hasn’t yet been done — would likely point to the many environmental and social shortcomings of this next generation of biotechnologies.
Fortunately, food companies and retailers are listening to consumer demand. Fast food companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s have said they will not carry the GMO apple. More than 60 major grocery stores, including Walmart, Costco, Albertsons, and others, have committed not to carry the GMO salmon.
The Non-GMO Project and the National Organic Standards Board have made it clear that GMO 2.0 technologies like gene silencing and CRISPR are, indeed, genetic engineering techniques that must not be used in the production and manufacture of any product carrying the Non-GMO Verified or USDA Organic labels. Now it’s time for the US government to add its voice to the issue. We need more science, assessment, answers, and regulations before we can decide whether these new biotech products should be in our stores — and on our plates. Instead, we are being kept in the dark, with no clue about what foods contain these unlabeled ingredients.
There is widespread consumer concern about GMOs and genetically modified foods. Friends of the Earth is working with various allies to educate the public about the next generation of GMOs. Instead of being swayed by Intrexon’s narrative of the value of non-browning GMO Arctic apples, we want food that is truly natural, sustainable, organic, and healthy.
Dana Perls is the senior food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth.