Silenced genes, edited genes, algae engineered to produce compounds that taste like food: new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) made with these experimental techniques are making their way to your dinner plate. It's the next wave of genetic engineering, or GMOs 2.0.
Will we know if they're in our food?
The new GMO labeling law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama has been widely panned by consumer groups because it allows companies to use QR codes or 800 numbers in place of plain English on labels.
But even worse news for our right to know what's in our food: vague wording in the new law opens the door for industry pressure on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt many - possibly even most - GMOs from labeling at all.
Q: GMOs have been in our food for over 20 years but they have recently been changing. Can you describe what's new?
MH: What's new is they are using different methods to cut and change specific gene sequences. There are two basic types: gene silencing techniques such as RNA interference (RNAi) that can turn particular genes off; and gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, TALEN or zinc fingered nucleuses used to cut DNA in order to make small genetic changes or insert genetic material.
These methods are more precise than the old methods, but there can still be off-target and unintended effects. When you alter the genetics of living things they don't always behave as you expect. This is why it's crucial to thoroughly study health and environmental impacts, but these studies aren't required.
Also, just because the techniques are different doesn't mean the traits will be. The old method of genetic engineering was used mostly to make plants resist herbicides, and increase sales of herbicides. The new gene editing techniques will probably be used in much the same way, but there are some new twists.
Q: What GMO 2.0 foods are on the market now?
MH: Non-browning GMO apples are growing in fields now and may be in stores next year. A GMO potato is in stores now but we don't know where. The potato was engineered with RNAi to not turn brown on exposure to air and to produce lower levels of acrylamide (a carcinogen) when fried or baked.
Canola genetically engineered with CRISPR to tolerate herbicides may already be in canola oils. Synthetic biology vanilla flavor and stevia are also in products - these were produced using genetically engineered yeast - and they may even be marketed as "natural."
Companies are not telling consumers these products are GMO; instead they are using terms like "fermentation derived" to describe ingredients made with synthetic biology. When you see that term on products, or a "non-browning" apple or potato, assume that means genetically engineered.
Q: Congress just passed a GMO labeling law, but the language is written in a way that could be interpreted to exempt many GMO foods from labeling. Can you explain the problem?
MH: The first problem is that the law says genetically engineered DNA must be present. That means the law exempts highly processed foods such as high fructose corn syrup, GMO beet sugar, purified oils and some engineered artificial flavors and spices because the identifiable engineered DNA is degraded or removed. Whole classes of soft drinks won't be labeled even if they contain high levels of genetically engineered corn syrup. Nothing can be done about that now.
The second problem we can do something about. The law exempts foods if the genetic modification could otherwise be achieved via conventional breeding or found in nature. It all comes down to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines "modification." It could be defined in a way that includes nothing, though hopefully that won't happen because there would be such an uproar.
Modification should be defined as specific genetic sequences that are altered. If USDA defines it that way, these new GMO 2.0 techniques should be covered. But that is going to be a huge fight and it could end up that a lot of GMO foods fall through the cracks and don't have to be labeled.
On the plus side, USDA has decided that meat, poultry and eggs can be labeled as non-GMO if they come from animals that are not fed with genetically engineered foods, and they leave it up to an independent third-party standard. We need to make sure that standard is created in an open transparent manner and consistent with international standards.
The next step is that consumer groups need to flood the USDA with comments. USDA is accepting public comments until Oct. 23 and Consumers Union will be posting our comments soon to help inform others of the issues at stake.
Q: Is genetic engineering the future of our food?
MH: No I don't think so. When you look at the millennial generation, there is a sea change in how people view food. Previously people asked if it was cheap. Now there is a huge interest in how food is produced and where it comes from. People are trying to get food as fresh and natural as possible. They want food grown more sustainably, more locally and in less industrialized conditions.
This is why we see so many companies announcing they are getting rid of antibiotics, artificial colors and ingredients, GMOs and other foods produced in industrialized conditions. That's why these new GMO technologies may not have a great future; most of them are designed for industrial food systems.
There is global agreement in the World Agriculture Report that industrial agriculture and genetic engineering are not the answer for the future of food. The answer is ecologically rational farming systems.
Biotechnology by its very nature is focusing on one or a few genes or specific traits whereas truly ecological agriculture is focused on whole systems. That's the direction consumers want and where we need to go for health and sustainability.
But ecological agriculture is not something that corporations can easily monetize, and not something they can patent and own. Companies are pushing GMOs because of the profit margin.
Q: What, in your view, is the responsible path forward for genetic engineering?
MH: Along with hundreds of other scientists and academics, I signed the statement "No scientific consensus on GMO safety," which describes the problems with current regulatory and scientific methods. Our view is that decisions about whether to continue or expand genetically engineered crops and foods should be supported by strong scientific evidence of the long-term safety for human and animal health and the environment, which is obtained in a manner that is honest, ethical, rigorous, independent and transparent.
Q: Given the uncertain state of labeling, what can people do to avoid genetically engineered foods?
MH: Choose organic food or products certified by the Non GMO Project, which has verified tens of thousands of foods that don't contain GMOs or synthetic biology ingredients.