In the News
January 24, 2018
Humankind is on the verge of a genetic revolution that holds great promise and potential. It will change the ways food is grown, medicine is produced, animals are altered and will give rise to new ways of producing plastics, biofuels and chemicals.
Many object to the genetic revolution, insisting we should not be ‘playing God’ by tinkering with the building blocks of life; we should leave the genie in the bottle. This is the view held by many opponents of GMO foods. But few transformative scientific advances are widely embraced at first. Once a discovery has been made and its impact widely felt it is impossible to stop despite the pleas of doubters and critics concerned about potential unintended consequences. Otherwise, science would not have experienced great leaps throughout history—and we would still be living a primitive existence.
Gene editing of humans and plants—a revolutionary technique developed just a few years ago that makes genetic tinkering dramatically easier, safer and less expensive—has begun to accelerate this revolution. University of California-Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, one of the co-inventors of the CRISPR technique::
Within the next few years, this new biotechnology will give us higher-yielding crops, healthier livestock, and more nutritious foods. Within a few decades, we might well have genetically engineered pigs that can serve as human organ donors…we are on the cusp of a new era in the history of life on earth—an age in which humans exercise an unprecedented level of control over the genetic composition of the species that co-inhabit our planet. It won’t be long before CRISPR allows us to bend nature to our will in the way that humans have dreamed of since prehistory.
The four articles in this series will examine the dramatic changes that gene editing and other forms of genetic engineering will usher in.
Great advances likely for GE foods
Despite the best efforts of opponents, GE crops have become so embedded and pervasive in the food systems—even in Europe which has bans in place on growing GMOs in most countries—that it is impossible to dislodge them without doing serious damage to the agricultural sector and boosting food costs for consumers.
Even countries which ban the growing of GMOs or who have such strict labeling laws that few foods with GE ingredients are sold in supermarkets are huge consumers of GE products.
Europe is one of the largest importers of GMO feed in the world. Most of the meat we consume from cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, pigs and fish farms are fed genetically modified corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
North America, much of South America and Australia are major consumers of foods grown from GE seeds. Much of the corn oil, cotton seed oil, soybean oil and canola oil used for frying and cooking, and in salad dressings and mayonnaise is genetically modified. GM soybeans are used to make tofu, miso, soybean meal, soy ice cream, soy flour and soy milk. GM corn is processed into corn starch and corn syrup and is used to make whiskey. Much of our sugar is derived from GM sugar beets and GE sugarcane is on the horizon. Over 90 percent of the papaya grown in Hawaii has been genetically modified to make it resistant to the ringspot virus. Some of the squash eaten in the US is made from GM disease-resistant seeds and developing countries are field testing GM disease-resistant cassava.
Many critics of GE in agriculture focus on the fact that by volume most crops are used in commodity food manufacturing, specifically corn and soybeans. One reason for that is the high cost of getting new traits approved. Indeed, research continues on commodity crops, although many of the scientists work for academia and independent research institutes.
For example, in November 2016, researchers in the UK were granted the authority to begin trials of a genetically engineered wheat that has the potential to increase yields by 40 percent. The wheat, altered to produce a higher level of an enzyme critical for turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into plant fuel, was developed in part by Christine Raines, the Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex.
Genetic engineering and nutrition enhancement
A new generation of foods are now on the horizon, some as the result of new breeding techniques (NBTs), such as gene editing. Many of these foods will be nutritionally fortified, which will be critical to boosting the health of many of the poorest people in developing nations and increase yields.
Golden rice is a prime example of such a nutrition-enhanced crop. It is genetically engineered to have high levels of beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. This is particularly important as many people in developing countries suffer from Vitamin A deficiency which leads to blindness and even death. Bangladesh is expected to begin cultivation of golden rice in 2018. The Philippines may also be close to growing it.
A strain of golden rice that includes not only high levels of beta carotene but also high levels of zinc and iron could be commercialized within 5 years. “Our results demonstrate that it is possible to combine several essential micronutrients – iron, zinc and beta carotene – in a single rice plant for healthy nutrition,” said Navreet Bhullar, senior scientist at ETH Zurich, which developed the rice.
The Science in the News group at Harvard University discussed some of the next generation foods.
Looking beyond Golden Rice, there are a large number of biofortified staple crops in development. Many of these crops are designed to supply other micronutrients, notably vitamin E in corn, canola and soybeans…Protein content is also a key focus; protein-energy malnutrition affects 25% of children because many staple crops have low levels of essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are building blocks of proteins and must be taken in through the diet or supplements. So far, corn, canola, and soybeans have been engineered to contain higher amounts of the essential amino acid lysine. Crops like corn, potatoes and sugar beets have also been modified to contain more dietary fiber, a component with multiple positive health benefits.
Other vitamin-enhanced crops have been developed though they have yet to be commercialized. Australian scientists created a GE Vitamin A enriched banana, scientists in Kenya developed GE Vitamin A enhanced sorghum and plant scientists in Switzerland developed a GE Vitamin B6 enhanced cassava plant. None is near approval, however.
Scientists genetically engineered canola, a type of rapeseed, to produce additional omega-3 fatty acids. Research is being conducted on developing GM gluten free wheat and vegetables with higher levels of Vitamin E to fight heart disease.
Other more consumer-focused genetically-engineered crops that do not use transgenics, and have sailed through the approval system include:
- FDA has approved the commercialization of a GE non-browning apple—the Arctic Apple, developed by using a gene-silencing technique.
- Simplot has developed GE potatoes created using gene-silencing techniques. They are less prone to bruising and blackening, in some cases are resistant to certain diseases and also contain less asparagine which reduces the potential for acrylamide that is created when frying, baking and roasting.
Fighting plant diseases
Other products are in development that fight viruses and disease. Scientists have used genetic engineering to develop disease-resistant rice. A new plum variety resists the plum pox virus. It has not yet been commercialized. GE solutions may be the only answer to save the orange industry from citrus greening, which is devastating orange groves in Florida. GE might be utilized to curb the damage caused by stem rust fungus in wheat and diseases effecting the coffee crop.
In Africa, GE solutions could be used to combat the ravages of banana wilt and cassava brown streak disease and diseases that impact cocoa trees and potatoes. A GE bean has been developed in Brazil that is resistant to the golden mosaic virus. Researchers at the University of Florida, the University of California-Berkeley and the 2Blades Foundation have developed a disease resistant GM tomato.
Scientists at the John Innes Center in the UK are attempting to create a strain of barley capable of making its own ammonium fertilizer from nitrogen in the soil. This would be particularly beneficial to farmers who grow crops in poor soil conditions or who lack the financial resources to buy artificial fertilizers.
Peggy Ozias-Akins, a horticulture expert at the University of Georgia has developed and tested genetically-engineered peanuts that do not produce two proteins linked to intense allergens.
New Breeding Techniques
New gene editing techniques (NBTs) such as CRISPR offer great potential and face lower approval hurdles, at least for now.
- Scientists at Penn State have removed the gene that causes white button mushrooms to discolor, and the product was quickly approved.
- In 2014, scientists in China produced bread wheat resistant to powdery mildew.
- Calyxt, a biotechnology company, has developed a potato variety that prevents the accumulation of certain sugars, reducing the bitter taste associated with storage. The potato also has a lower amount of acrylamide.
- DuPont has developed a gene-edited variety of corn, which can be used to thicken food products and make adhesives.
In June, the EPA approved a new first of its kind GE corn known as SmartStaxPro, in which the plant’s genes are tweaked without transgenics to produce a natural toxin designed to kill western corn rootworm larvae. It also produces a piece of RNA that shuts down a specific gene in the larvae, thereby killing them. The new GE corn is expected to be commercialized by the end of the decade.
What could slow—or even stop—this revolution? In an opinion piece for Nature Biology, Richard B. Flavell, a British molecular biologist and former director of the John Innes Center in the UK, which conducts research in plant science, genetics and microbiology, warned about the dangers of vilifying and hindering new GE technologies:
The consequences of simply sustaining the chaotic status quo—in which GMOs and other innovative plant products are summarily demonized by activists and the organic lobby—are frightening when one considers mounting challenges to food production, balanced nutrition and poverty alleviation across the world. Those who seek to fuel the GMO versus the non-GMO debate are perpetuating irresolvable difference of opinion. …Those who seek to perpetuate the GMO controversy and actively prevent use of new technology to crop breeding are not only on the wrong side of the debate, they are on the wrong side of the evidence. If they continue to uphold beliefs against evidence, they will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
Steven E. Cerier is a freelance international economist and a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project.
By Quartz Media
We’re surrounded by information about the health and nutritional benefits of different food, but a lot of it conflicts—and it’s leaving people more confused than ever about how to make healthy food choices. Should we eat all organic? Does our food need to be natural, and fresh? One recent fad is to avoid genetically modified food.
GM food has negative connotations for many consumers because of general mistrust of the food production industry, but also because anti-biotech activists have been so effective at stoking concerns. It’s led to an sharp increase in non-GMO labels, even on products like salt, which can’t be genetically modified because sodium chloride is an inorganic compound that doesn’t contain genes.
But non-GMO labels do more than placate people concerned about scientists secretly tinkering with their food. They might persuade people to make a poor food choice. That’s because genetically modifying food can actually make it safer, by limiting the need for, say, pesticides. According to Pam Ronald, who studies genetics at the University of California, Davis and whose husband is an organic farmer, farms going non-GMO to meet consumer demand are causing major damage.
“These non-GMO labels have proliferated, and they’re really a problem,” Ronald told Quartz. “Because there’s no regulation, they can just spray anything they want. So what’s happening is… they’re going back to using [far] more toxic compounds. And I think that’s really a disservice to the consumer to market it as somehow being more healthy—when of course, it’s not, and it’s also more harmful to the environment.”
(A representative from the non-GMO Project was not available for an interview.)
Click here to learn more on how misleading labels confuse consumers, and some expert advice on how to actually make healthier choices. (Hint: it’s not choosing non-GMO.)
Most of us don’t spend our days plowing fields or wrangling cattle. We’re part of the 99 percent of Americans who eat food but don’t produce it. Because of our intimate relationship with food and because it’s so crucial to our health and the environment, people should be very concerned about how it’s produced. But we don’t always get it right. Next time you’re at the grocery store, consider these 10 modern myths about the most ancient occupation. Read more…
Millions of people around the world will soon celebrate Earth Day, but for hundreds of New England’s dairy farmers, every day is Earth Day.
We’re talking about farmers like the Erb family. The Erbs own and operate Springvale Farms and Landaff Creamery in Landaff. This was one of three pilot farms that assisted the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in creating an on-farm sustainability assessment tool, called the Vital Capital Index for Dairy Agriculture. This tool allows farms to measure what matters and establish a baseline of sustainability on farms. Read more…
On July 29, 2016, President Obama signed into law an Act amending the Agricultural Marketing at of 1946 which provides for a national bioengineered food di
Click on the link below to see the letter.
When you think of water, what comes to mind? Is it a cool swig after a hard workout? Is it your beach vacation from last year? Or is it whether or not enough water will fall from the sky to grow your food?
March 22 is World Water Day, and it’s an opportunity to reflect on the importance of water. This year’s theme is “better water, better jobs.” How does water impact agriculture, which employs nearly 1 billion people around the world? Let’s take a look.
Although nearly 70 percent of the Earth is covered in water, only 2.5 percent of that water is fresh. To complicate things, only 1 percent of that fresh water is easily accessible. To sum it up, only 0.025 percent of the planet’s water is available for human use.
Agriculture uses a lot of water, accounting for almost 70 percent of all withdrawals and up to 95 percent in developing countries where there may be fewer technologies to make water use efficient. While you only need to drink about a gallon of water per day, it takes 528 to 1,320 gallons of water to grow the food you eat in a single day. Think about that.
Water is important in maintaining food security, which is defined as “regular access of people to enough high-quality food to leave active, healthy lives.” Lack of water, or too much water, can contribute to famine and undernourishment, especially where people depend on local agriculture for their livelihood. Using water efficiently is critical.
Irrigation is an important technology to help maximize the efficiency of water use in agriculture. The highest yields that can be obtained from irrigation are more than double the best yields from rain-fed agriculture. For instance, drip irrigation involves distributing water at very low rates from a system of plastic pipes with outlets called emitters or drippers. The water is released so that the only part of the soil that receives moisture is where the root grows.
Read the entire article and learn more about agricultural innovation here.
The future of Connecticut’s law mandating the labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms has been thrown in doubt by Congress and a court. And that’s just fine. The law is needless.
The law — which has never taken effect — may be nullified. The law’s supporters are calling this threat a victory of big agribusiness and the supermarket lobby over consumers. In fact, nullifying the law would be a victory of common sense over ill-informed fretting.
A federal appeals court in New York City will soon hear a challenge to Vermont’s GMO-labeling law, which is similar to Connecticut’s. And the U.S. Senate may pass a bill to stop states from requiring GMO labels. The House has already done so.
No Lack of Evidence
After more than 2,000 studies, foods made with GMOs have been shown to be just as safe as food created by natural genetic selection. That hasn’t stopped the fearmongering by talk show hosts and the publication of GMO scare books.
According to a 2012 report by the American Medical Association, “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”
GMO labeling is framed by its advocates as a consumer-friendly issue, however — which is why some politicians continue to back it even as the evidence shows it’s entirely unnecessary.
So what’s wrong with providing consumers with information about the products they buy?
In most cases, nothing. Having more information often leads to a wiser purchase.
But mandating the labeling of foods as genetically modified implies that they are somehow dangerous and feeds into anti-scientific ignorance. It’s in the same category as the anti-vaccination mania, fear of fluoridation and the widespread (yet incorrect) belief that climate change is a hoax.
The reason Connecticut’s GMO-labeling law is in limbo is that in 2013, our legislators wisely required that four other states enact similar laws before ours takes effect. These four states must be in the Northeast and have a combined population of 20 million. At least one of the four must abut Connecticut.
Unsurprisingly, given all the criteria, this has yet to happen.
The grocery industry and agrochemical companies like Monsanto have indeed lobbied hard against GMO labeling, saying the goal of proponents is to ban GMO foods altogether. The proponents, for their part, say these companies are putting profits ahead of public safety.
In this case, the companies have independent research on their side.
As for labeling, it is already easy for consumers to know a product’s genetic makeup. Non-engineered items routinely carry the label “USDA Organic.” Anything else can safely be assumed to have GMOs.
The fate of Connecticut’s 2-year-old law to require the labeling of foods made from genetically modified organisms may soon be decided, either in a federal courtroom or in Congress.
A federal appeals court in New York City is scheduled to hear oral arguments this week, in a challenge to Vermont’s GMO law. If the food industry wins in that case, Connecticut’s labeling statute would also be in jeopardy.
But the greatest threat to GMO labeling laws in Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine now appears to be in Congress. Responding to an intense lobbying effort by the grocery industry and pro-GMO companies like Monsanto, the House voted 275-150 in July for legislation that would stop individual states from requiring GMO food labeling.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who voted against that bill, said it appears likely the Senate will follow suit. “The House vote is a pretty good measuring stick,” Courtney said of the measure’s chances in the Senate.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is pushing hard for federal action to stop states from acting individually on GMO labeling, are sounding confident.
Mike Gruber senior vice president with the grocery industry lobbying group, said a Senate committee is set to take up the GMO issue at an Oct. 21 hearing and that there is strong bipartisan support for legislation to overturn individual state GMO laws like Connecticut’s.
“We would like to get this whole issue resolved before the end of the year,” Gruber said. The food industry insists there is no health or safety need to tell consumers that a food contains genetically modified organisms, that scientific studies show GMOs are just as good as ‘natural’ foods, and argue that putting on GMO labels would only confuse people and push up food costs for everyone.
Anti-GMO activists are calling the federal legislation the “Deny American the Right to Know,” or DARK Act. They cite numerous polls showing that GMO food labeling is supported by a majority of Americans.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said all indications are that it will be “an uphill battle” to stop the industry-backed GMO legislation from winning Senate approval.
“I am ready and eager to work against it,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal is supporting a Democratic bill that would order the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require GMO labels for genetically modified foods. But passage of that legislation in a Republican-controlled Senate appears unlikely.
Recent decisions by some major food manufacturers and retailers to begin marketing non-GMO products reflect the growing popularity of organic and non-processed and so-called natural foods. In July, the Obama administration also announced that it’s planning to update the way the federal government regulates GMOs and other biotechnology products.
According to a USA Today report, an estimated 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop involves GMOs. Almost
the same percentage of America’s soybeans are genetically modified and about 88 percent of corn used as feed for cattle, pigs and chickens is grown from GMO seeds.
The GMO labeling law that passed in Connecticut’s General Assembly in 2013 was one of the first in the nation and had some highly unusual conditions attached. Connecticut’s law can’t take effect until at least four other states also approve GMO labeling, the combined population of those states must equal at least 20 million and at least one of those states must border Connecticut.
Massachusetts lawmakers are now poised to fulfill at least one of those conditions by passing GMO labeling legislation, according to two key supporters of that bill.
According to Massachusetts Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, 154 of her state’s 200 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of the GMO bill. Rep. Todd Smola, a Republican from Warren, Mass., said backers of the legislation “have a pretty good shot this time” of winning passage.
In New York, anti-GMO activists say they plan to make another try in 2016 to push through their own labeling bill. Stacie Orell, a spokeswoman for GMO Free New York, predicted there is a good chance to win approval in the New York Assembly but added that the Republican-controlled Senate looks “a little tougher.”
Among the fiercest opponents of GMO labeling laws are the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food
Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers .
Those four industry organizations are plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking to overturn Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which is set to take effect in July 2016.
Earlier this year, a federal judge rejected the industry groups’ request for an injunction to stop the Vermont statute from taking effect while the lawsuit is being litigated. The case is now before the U.S. Second Court of Appeals in New York City.
Connecticut is one of eight states that have filed briefs in support of Vermont in the GMO lawsuit.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said the lawsuit hinges on the issues “of free speech and legislative prerogatives.”
In a brief filed with the appeals court in late August, Jepsen’s legal staff argued that allowing the food industry groups to block Vermont’s law “threatens to undermine a wide range of labeling and public reporting laws” for food, pharmaceutical products and consumer goods and services.
Gruber said the Vermont law is “proving itself to be very disruptive” because food producers, wholesalers and retailers are “scrambling to figure out how to comply” with the statute’s provisions. They also desperately want to avoid the law’s potential fines, which could amount to $1,000 per day per product.
GMO labeling, said Gruber, “is designed to mislead consumers that these [GMO] products are unsafe.”
Lawmakers and activists in New York, Massachusetts and other states considering GMO labeling laws argue that, if GMO products are as wholesome and safe as the food industry claims, telling consumers which foods are genetically modified shouldn’t be a big deal.
“We’re not asking for a lot,” said Smola, who has been pushing for GMO food labeling for years. “We’re trying to educate the public to let them make their own decisions. That’s the American way.”
At first blush, it sounds like a good idea: require the labeling of genetically engineered foods so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat. Yet such a law, proposed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and other senators, simply caters to unjustified worries and makes no sense scientifically.
Genetically modified food isn’t new. Since farming began, humans have been breeding food — in other words, changing the genetics — for beneficial traits and better crops. The practice has moved from the field to the lab, as scientists can now transplant genes from species to species.
The laboratory angle worries some people, and in recent years about 2,000 studies have been done on genetically modified foods to uncover any problem. The result? According to the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the National Academies of Science and several other groups, so-called GMO food — made with genetically modified organisms — is safe.
As the European Commission put it, engineering crops genetically is “no more risky than conventional plant-breeding techniques.”
Despite the failure of research to come up with hazards, what’s wrong with better informing consumers by labeling genetically engineered food? Several things.
Such a move doesn’t inform consumers so much as it caters to misconceptions, and government shouldn’t be about that. Labels may limit consumer choice: Despite the lack of proof that such crops endanger anyone, retailers may choose not to stock certain foods. And mostly, politics shouldn’t trump science.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of the genetically engineered label debate is that the labels already exist, in a sense.
The majority of food found in the supermarket, especially processed food, contains some genetically engineered component. Non-engineered items routinely carry the label “USDA Organic.”
Lack of such a designation almost always indicates some genetic engineering, so those who are worried about a potential hazard need only look for the label. No new law is necessary.