“T

he 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.”

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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, 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.

  • GMO use has not been around long enough for people to know the long-term effects. We can have all the biased opinions that we wish however the thought should be towards the future generations. I wouldn’t take the chance on feeding GMO products to my children. It comes down to: “Real VS Fake”-duuuuhhh

    • Exactly . Historically people have died eating untested things.
      The white berries, bear liver, etc etc etc.
      Big-GMO is fine with you being a guinea pig.

    • Lol so 35 years of massively intensive global scientific scrutiny isn’t enough huh, you do know it’s only a matter of time until late all the idiotic lies and fear mongering against biotechnology unravels

    • You are unhinged, all you have is paranoid delusions, all we need to do to show how unhinged you are is point out no empirical data exist showing gm crops are harmful and watch the delusional crap you reply with, have fun making an idiot of yourself, keep digging

  • Stat, this is the sort of biased, anti-science, pro-ideology over evidence crap that I came to your site to avoid. Out of all the topics you could have chosen to publish in this First Opinion, you have chosen to publish the same old tropes of the anti-GM brigade. These topics get rehashed time and time again by simply inserting the terrifying ‘new technology’ for the old one without actually providing any evidence of a mechanism of action, let alone any evidence of harm. Are the First Opinion pieces going to cover the benefits of bicarbonate soda injections or black salve as important ways to cure all cancers?

  • Do you publish activist article without fact-checking them? This is really dreadful in an number of ways that other folks have already pointed out. But to let an abject lie fly right in the 3rd sentence is pretty repulsive.

    “Gene-silenced Arctic apples that do not turn brown when exposed to air, even when rotten…” is false. The mechanism that affects the superficial browning is not the same as what happens in rotting. http://www.arcticapples.com/arctic-apples-help-show-fruits-true-quality/

    “In fact, since Arctic® apples don’t show superficial damage, when you do see discoloration or damage, you know it’s not just a minor surface issue and the eating quality of the apple has probably been compromised. Far from allowing older or lower quality fruit from being sold, Arctic® apples actually make it easier to tell if an apple is still in good condition!”

    I hope this is not going to be a common practice at STAT. I have enjoyed high quality information on issues related to biotechnology here. If the next “First Opinion” comes from RFKJr on vaccines, we’ll be parting ways for good. You can still fix this piece, though, and I would hope that you will.

    • Lol all you’ve done by being deluded and claiming to know who I am when I’m not that person is show how paranoid you are, also you’ve shown that you’re the same person trolling me in other threadstates who’s clanded to know I’m the same person, so thanks

  • I see Big GMO has cued up thier operatives already.
    The Arctic Apple like yellow rice is a Trojan horse that has no use.
    There is a non-browning non-GMO apple on the market since 2010.
    There are much cheaper alternatives for vitamin A – and target rice markets are not going to accept some different rice anyway.
    All commercial GMO crops are fro one purpose only. Allowing application of toxic herbicides.
    Meanwhile North Korea is trying to mutate biotoxins ith CRISPR – that’ll be “fun”

    • Wow the stupidity in you comment is just beyond reason, have you got any actual scientific data showing gm crops are harmful

  • This is a very disappointing article for Statnews. I’m a scientist that has studied this topic for decades, and it is unfortunate you gave this platform to an activist group to provide their anti-technology, anti-agriculture talking points.

    First, the new technologies create minor deletions in genes to inactivate them. That’s exactly what happens in nature to generate variation, or what happens when (accepted food crops) have their DNA damaged with ionizing radiation, like it has been done for decades. The difference is that these technologies provide precise control of changes made.

    If the author is concerned about eating RNA, then stop eating. We swallow millions of non-human RNAs in every swallow from bacteria, fungi, and the food we consume.

    The author also talks about herbicide increase since the development of herbicide-tolerant crops. Yes, there has been an increase in the total kg applied. But it is a relatively benign chemical that helps farmers, and the reason it increased in use is because of its safety profile and efficacy. The links above cite a highly controversial decision by IARC that is the only agency finding a problem with glyphosate among all international regulatory bodies over many years. The ‘liver damage’ paper also has seen some strong negative scientific criticism.

    The author neglected to note that the genetic engineering technologies cut insecticide use in cotton and corn, somewhere between 50-90%. Convenient omission.

    No technology is perfect and no technology solves everything. But new gene editing technologies are going to revolutionize agriculture and medicine. New therapies were implemented this week to cure two infants of leukemia because gene editing made better cells for therapy.

    Let’s not let affluent USA activists kill a good technology that can feed more people, help farmers, save lives, and help the environment.

    • Exactly Mark.
      Big GMO is going down and they are desperate.
      The trolling is so transparent. 3-4 of them here.

    • must be why all you have is ad hominem attacks against folta while not having a single piece of empirical scientific data showing gm crops are harmful or pointing out a single time where folta has lies about biotechnology.

  • Using CRISPR to remove genes is no different than random mutations which silence genes. To suggest this new (even more precise) method of breeding rep[resents a novel risk is totally incorrect but unfortunately in keeping with the fear mongering FOE is known for wrt GE crops and derived foods.

  • This is a highly misleading article that leaves out many critical details and cherry picks examples.

    For example. claims regarding the non-browning apples…suggesting that they would increase pesticide use are pulled out of thin air with no supporting data and in terms of sustainability, the growing and use of water-intensive lemons to simply prevent a little browning is far more questionable than the sustainability issues of yeast to produce vanilla flavor. Speaking of vanilla producing yeast…currently the majority of vanilla flavor is synthetically produced from oil. There simply is not enough vanilla produced from farms to meet world demand. The orchids used to produce vanilla also are in environmentally-sensitive areas such as Madagascar and increased production could have negative impacts. If the author is really concerned about sustainability, the relatively small amount of corn needed to feed yeast (we already have an excess amount of corn) is going to be far more sustainable than continuing to produce vanilla flavor from oil or farming more environmentally sensitive rainforests.

    Of course there are many other problematic claims made. For instance the author references links of glyphosate to liver disease, ignoring the fact that the samples come from a retracted study and that the study in she cites actually shows no evidence of liver disease (Proteomics and Metabolomics cannot be used to make that diagnosis). Furthermore, the study is flawed by sloppy statistics. Another example would be the reference to plant small RNAs regulating mammalian genes. A highly contested claim within in the field and one that has been marked by numerous questionable study designs.

    A full vetting of all the misleading claims made in the article would take much more space than the article itself. I encourage consumers to speak to scientists and learn the facts about these issues.

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