The USDA recently approved a new, genetically modified purple tomato for cultivation in the U.S. The tomato is engineered to be high in anthocyanins, a purple pigment with antioxidant properties reported to have health benefits. The modifications have also increased the GMO's shelf life.
The purple tomato was created by scientists at Norfolk Plant Sciences in the U.K. It is a mixture of old and new: The purple tomato's longer shelf life echoes the characteristics offered by the first GMO approved for human consumption (also a tomato). Scientists used traditional GMO techniques to add snapdragon genes to a tomato, resulting in a dark-fleshed fruit with generous antioxidant levels. And those antioxidants, while new to the tomato, are frequently found in existing fruits and vegetables.
The purple tomato's story weaves together breakthroughs and encores — leaving us with questions about its usefulness.
The most common GMOs (think soy, corn, cotton, alfalfa) are engineered with traits that appeal to the farmer or manufacturer. For example, Roundup Ready crops can withstand multiple applications of glyphosate, making it easier to apply weedkiller to the crop (though using more weedkiller has its own problems. Many varieties of GMO corn produce their own insecticide, providing increased pest resistance (though the trait also has some negative impacts. Non-browning GMO apples are attractive in schools or hospitals where food is prepared hours before it is served (though there are non-GMO apples that resist browning.
On the other hand, the purple tomato joins a relatively short list of genetically engineered foods with traits designed to benefit the person who eats it. The GMO's color is due to added snapdragon genes that cause the tomato to produce anthocyanins — a pigment with antioxidant properties thought to have health benefits. Anthocyanins may help to reduce inflammation, protect against type 2 diabetes, or even fight cancer.
Purple flesh isn't the only novel characteristic of this GMO. Reports indicate plans to introduce the GMO at farmers' markets, where sellers can talk with interested eaters about the fruits proposed benefits. Furthermore, purple tomato seed could ultimately be made available to home gardeners — a significant departure from the restrictions faced by farmers who grow GMO commodities.
The purple tomato is also the first GMO to be deregulated under the new SECURE rule, which went into effect in 2020. The SECURE rule streamlined some aspects of GMO regulation, effectively removing many GMOs from USDA oversight, and was the first substantial revision of biotechnology regulation since 1987.
The genetically modified purple tomato is not the first genetically modified tomato. In fact, the first GMO ever approved for human consumption was a tomato — the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered for hardiness and longer shelf life.
Also, the purple tomato is not the first GMO whose modified traits promise a health benefit to the consumer. For example, the Sicilian Rouge tomato is engineered for higher levels of an amino acid believed to aid in relaxation and help lower blood pressure (the Sicilian Rouge is currently available only in Japan).
It is not the first purple tomato. Other varieties with deep, dark skin include heirloom Cherokee Purple or traditionally cross-bred Indigo Apple tomatoes. It is not the only food high in anthocyanins, either — berries, cherries, pomegranates, cabbage and eggplant are a few of the many excellent natural sources of anthocyanins.
This makes us wonder: Is a genetically modified, high-anthocyanin tomato really the best use of cutting edge science? Has the team at Norfolk Plant Sciences reinvented the wheel? Genetic modification is an expensive process that, in this case, delivers a niche product with a trait already found in various natural foods (more on that in a moment). Nevertheless, lead botanist Cathie Martin would like to expand the niche. According to an interview in Fast Company, Martin foresees applying the same process to "bananas, oranges, and countless other fruits."
In the meantime, you can reach for blueberries or blackberries if you'd like to increase your anthocyanin intake. Or try cabbage. Or pomegranates. Or grapes (grape juice and wine have benefits as well!) or eggplant. Also, purple carrots. Or black beans. Or cherries, elderberries, strawberries, chokeberries, açai, blood oranges, and so on.
There's a lot going on.
In case you missed it, there have been several news stories lately regarding the food system — including some that impact your right to choose whether or not to consume GMOs. As always, the Non-GMO Project continues to advocate for natural, resilient and sustainable food supply, to build and protect our genetic inheritance, and to offer Verified options.
Now, the news roundup.
White House promotes biotechnology… again
President Biden recently issued an executive order to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing across government agencies and industries — including agriculture. This order blindly promotes biotechnology in the food sector — a misguided and expensive move. It takes the food system in the wrong direction to meet its stated goals of food security and climate adaptation.
We believe that agriculture should work with nature rather than against it. We support expanding holistic, resilient and equitable solutions in the food system. We are deeply concerned about the ongoing privatization of the food supply, which places ever more of our essential resources into the hands of a few multinational corporations.
You can read our statement in response to the executive order here.
Big investment in "Climate-Smart Commodities"
The U.S. government selected the first round of grant recipients under the "Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities." The program earmarked $3 billion of the federal budget to reduce GHG emissions and increase carbon sequestration in major food crops and commodity production.
While this is an important first step, it doesn't go far enough.
The food system desperately needs a bold transition to fully regenerative production. In its current form, the grant program could further subsidize GMO production systems for crops such as soy, corn, cotton and alfalfa. These GMOs are grown using fundamentally harmful methods — vast areas of monocropping with liberal pesticide applications, leading to "superweeds" and "superbugs." Reducing GHG emissions without addressing the production model's other major issues is only a partial solution.
We welcome equally ambitious investment in an aggressive transition to diverse, non-GMO agriculture.
USDA packs Standards Board with government employees
The USDA is taking four seats on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) away from dedicated public volunteers and re-designating them to be filled by “Special Government Employees” (SGEs). The NOSB is a 15-member federal advisory board that makes recommendations on National Organic Program regulations, including which substances or practices to allow or prohibit in organic production.
With the Presidential Executive Order on biotechnology already telegraphing the federal government's support for GMOs, replacing public representatives with government employees is cause for deep concern. Organic supporters — including the Non-GMO Project — are left wondering if the appointment of government employees is part of a larger movement to include GMOs in organic production.
GMO labeling win — QR codes are unlawful
The Center for Food Safety had a critical victory in their latest suit to address shortcomings in the federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law. A U.S. district court found using QR codes alone for BE disclosures unlawful and discriminatory. QR codes are inaccessible to Americans who don't use smartphones or live in rural areas with unreliable internet.
The finding is a big win for everyone who supports clear, meaningful GMO labeling. It eliminates the most egregious and discriminatory form of disclosure, forcing the USDA to revise the portions of the labeling law to remove the option alone on product packaging.
However, there are still issues with the Bioengineered Food labeling law — find out more here.
While we've ended on a positive note for GMO labeling, there are causes for concern in organics and agricultural biotechnology. Biotechnology in the food space continues to overpromise and underdeliver, increasing the need for costly and destructive inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers while failing to address hunger in the most vulnerable populations.
The Non-GMO Project continues to work towards a natural, regenerative and equitable food system that honors traditional and Indigenous knowledge and empowers all people to care for themselves, the planet, and future generations.
At the Non-GMO Project, part of our goal is to help people better understand the GMO issue so they can make the best decisions for themselves. Through articles like this one, as well as infographics and videos, we educate the public about GMOs and where they might appear. That work often involves combatting common misconceptions.
Here's an example: One common misconception is that GMOs are necessary to feed a growing population. Contrary to biotechnology industry promises, a careful analysis of GMOs finds that they have not meaningfully increased crop yields or reduced global hunger. Or the misconception that new GMOs made with emerging techniques such as gene editing are not GMOs. Common gene editing techniques meet the definition of GMOs.
Under the Non-GMO Project Standard*, a GMO is a living organism to which biotechnology has been applied. We define biotechnology as in vitro nucleic acid techniques — the alteration of genetic material in a petri dish or test tube ("in vitro" means "in glass") — or combining genetic material from different organisms beyond natural reproductive barriers in ways that aren't used in traditional breeding. (You can find more information about what makes a GMO a GMO in our recent article, What Is a GMO?)
How do those misconceptions measure up against our definition of a GMO? In other words, what's not a GMO?
Traditional cross-breeding ≠ GMOs
Here's one myth we'd love to dismantle entirely and forever: The idea that after thousands of years of selective breeding by skilled farmers and indigenous experts, all our modern food crops are genetically modified. In other words, if human hands have played a role in changing an organism, that organism is a GMO.
This idea is categorically false.
GMOs aren't just the end product of change guided by human hands. GMOs are the result of biotechnology, and biotechnology consists of manipulating the genetic material of an organism in glass petri dishes or test tubes (in vitro) or combining genetic material from different organisms in ways that overcome natural reproductive barriers.
How does the claim that "all crops have undergone changes directed by human breeders, so they're all GMOs" measure up against the definition of GMOs? Let's see:
- Are new traits the result of in vitro nucleic acid techniques (altering the organism's DNA in a glass petri dish or test tube)? No.
- Do the new crops combine genetic material from different organisms using techniques different from those used in traditional breeding and selection? No.
Zero out of 2 criteria were met, meaning modern crops are not all GMOs just because humans selectively bred them.
For our next question: What about the mutants?
Mutants and watermelons
It's summertime. As the temperature rises, grocery stores offer big bins of heavy, sweet watermelons, with or without seeds. We frequently hear from people wondering if those seedless varieties are GMOs, and we're happy to set the record straight.
The short answer is no, seedless watermelons are not GMOs. The slightly longer answer is that seedless watermelons aren't GMOs because the process by which they are produced doesn't meet the Non-GMO Project's Standard's criteria for biotechnology.
Seedless watermelons are created through a process called "random mutagenesis." A young watermelon plant is exposed to a chemical compound to induce a genetic mutation in the plant. The mutation causes the plant to develop double the usual number of chromosomes. That plant is then cross-bred with a regular watermelon plant, resulting in a seedless melon. (You can find more information about mutagenesis in our article, Does Mutation Breeding Produce GMOs?)
How does that process of creating a seedless watermelon measure up against the definition of GMOs? Let's see:
- Were the changes made using in vitro nucleic acid techniques (altering the crop's DNA in a glass petri dish or test tube)? No, random mutagenesis is not an in vitro nucleic acid technique.
- Do seedless watermelons combine genetic material from different organisms overcoming natural reproductive barriers? No, the cross-breeding part of the process is between a watermelon and another watermelon.
Again, 0/2 criteria are met. Seedless watermelons are not GMOs.
For more examples of mistaken identity, read Exposing GMOs: Are You Being Fooled By Imposters?
If you have questions about a specific product or crop and want to know if it's a GMO, contact us at email@example.com. We're happy to walk you through the definition and see how a suspected GMO measures up.
*The Non-GMO Project Standard's definitions of GMOs and biotechnology are adapted from the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international treaty designed to protect biodiversity from potential risks of GMOs. It is consistent with definitions used by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Union's GMO Legislation. By adhering to international standards for clarity and consistency/specificity, the Non-GMO Project upholds the highest standards for rigor, transparency and subject matter expertise.
In the 1990s, GMOs entered the food supply without public consultation or consent.
The first generation of GMOs were novel organisms created in a lab by combining DNA from different species. The genetically modified crops were engineered to withstand weedkillers or produce their own insecticide. While GMOs were added to common products that were consumed every day, the preferences of the people who would ultimately eat those products was never considered.
That lack of transparency is at the root of many of our concerns over GMOs. Food's role in human life is personal and nuanced. Food brings us together. It’s an essential part of many social and cultural traditions. Unnatural modification, undertaken without our input or consent, just rubs folks the wrong way – and rightfully so!
Because nobody asked for the public's opinion before adding genetically modified organisms to the food supply, the Non-GMO Project was founded to serve the millions of people who wanted to avoid them.
Trustworthy and rigorous
Since 2007, the Non-GMO Project has offered North America's most trusted and rigorous certification for GMO avoidance.
Because of our intense focus on GMOs, the Project can dive deeper and respond faster to new GMOs than other clean label certifications. The Non-GMO Project Standard is continually adapting to new technologies and verification requires ingredient segregation, supply chain tracing and testing for ingredients on the High-Risk List. No other non-GMO label offers that level of scrutiny.
For example, under USDA Organic Certification, genetically modified organisms are considered excluded methods, but contamination can occur in the absence of regular testing. Meanwhile, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act, the new federal food labeling law for bioengineered food, excludes most "new GMOs" created with emerging biotechnology techniques, leaving shoppers with an incomplete picture of the products they're purchasing and eating.
What You Need To Know About Bioengineered (BE) Food Labeling
Monitoring new GMOs around the world
The pace of biotech development is only speeding up. That's why it’s critical for us to keep an eye on what’s coming down the pike so we can better serve everyone who deserves accurate food labeling.
While the Butterfly seal helps you avoid GMOs that are already on the market, our dedicated research team tracks what’s on the horizon. The biotech industry is expanding at a staggering rate, fueled by funding from venture capitalists. Since we began monitoring developments in the field, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in activity and investment globally: Over a period of 5 years, the number of biotech developers working in this field grew by 300%.
GMOs are no longer limited to a handful of crops created by a few agrichemical corporations. New GMOs made using emerging and experimental techniques are less costly to produce than early GMOs were, with a much faster turnaround time. These products are entering the food supply virtually unregulated and unlabeled.
Towards a fair, equitable and just food system
Since the Non-GMO Project’s inception 15 years ago, our understanding of what’s at stake in the food system has grown.
Back then, we were among the highly motivated and deeply concerned folks in the natural food sector who knew instinctively we didn’t want GMOs in our food. We were concerned about the long term effects and uncomfortable with the lack of social engagement on a topic that is so personal to each of us. We questioned a system of agriculture that valued uniformity over resilience and privately-held patents over commonly-held genetic resources. Also, we worried that GMOs would erode the diversity of our genetic inheritance, leaving in their wake a homogenous, fragile system where there was once abundance and variety.
The passing years have validated all of those concerns and added a few new ones. We’ve witnessed the generational effects of increased chemical use from herbicide-resistant GMOs, farmers losing autonomy through restrictive user agreements and the erosion of individual expertise and Indigenous knowledge gained over millennia.
With so many ill effects, why does the GMO experiment continue? Who benefits from it? The expansion of GMOs in our food system benefits private corporations that hold patents on modified crops and the costly herbicides that go with them. Currently, new GMOs such as “animal-free” dairy proteins foreshadow a future of even more private ownership of essential commodities and an increase in lab-grown food.
Can a Lab-based Food System Save the World?
The Non-GMO Project doesn't answer to those corporations. We answer to the roughly 90% of people who support GMO labeling. In a fast-moving world with a changing biotechnology landscape, it's our responsibility to protect your right to choose.
When GMOs first came on the market in the 1990s, the general public didn't know much about them. Thankfully, we've come a long way since then. Through the advocacy of activist organizations, including the Non-GMO Project, familiarity with the term GMO is nearly universal.*
We love to see awareness of the GMO issue grow (in the early days, most Americans were unaware that GMOs were entering the food supply). We believe that everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether or not to consume GMOs, and providing folks with the latest information is what the Non-GMO Project is all about.
However, there's still a lot of confusion about what a GMO is — and what it isn't — due mainly to the speed at which the biotech landscape evolves. It's not surprising. As science leaps forward, regulation lags behind. Meanwhile, new products continue to enter the market.
The Non-GMO Project's research team stays on top of new developments so we can bring you the latest information. So let's get down to it: What is a GMO, what are "new GMOs" and how does the changing landscape of biotechnology impact your food supply?
The application of biotechnology
The term "G-M-O" stands for genetically modified organism, a living organism whose genetic makeup has been altered using biotechnology.
The Non-GMO Project Standard defines biotechnology as the application of:
- in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or
- Fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that overcame natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection.
Under the Standard, the application of biotechnology to an organism creates a GMO.
Biologists classify living organisms into groups based on their similarities or differences. It's called taxonomy. Between 8 and 9 million species have been identified and classified by scientists. Some organisms are closely related, others only distantly. The closer the relationship, the easier it is for their genetic material to merge through natural reproduction or traditional cross-breeding techniques. The more different two organisms are, the more hijinks are needed to overcome natural reproductive obstacles. Biotechnology provides those hijinks.
Biotechnology can be used to combine genetic material from two or more organisms, creating a "transgenic" organism. Some organisms are so dissimilar that their cells don't even recognize each other as potential mates. In answer to the question "will they or won't they?" — these two won't. If scientists want those cells to work together, they use biotechnology so the cells will accept each other despite their differences.
Traditional techniques, transgenic GMOs
The first GMOs to enter the food system were "transgenic" GMOs, meaning they contained DNA from two or more species. The first of these traditional GMOs were soy engineered to withstand herbicide and corn that produces its own insecticide. Genetically engineered corn and soy still dominate GMO acreage in North America, but they are not the only transgenic GMOs. Other transgenic GMOs include genetically engineered canola, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa — all engineered for similar traits as the original corn and soy — and papaya engineered for disease resistance.
The biotechnology that drives genetic engineering continues to evolve. The Non-GMO Project research team is monitoring a growing number of products made with new genetic engineering techniques that outpace regulations and evade labeling requirements designed for first-generation GMOs.
New GMO techniques
New GMOs are produced using techniques including gene editing and synthetic biology.
Gene editing tools such as CRISPR and TALEN have been heralded as a highly precise form of biotechnology that makes targeted cuts to an organism's DNA. Still, there are significant uncertainties with the process, including "off-target" effects when the DNA strand is edited at the wrong site or other unintended outcomes.
Synthetic biology (or synbio) is sometimes referred to within the biotechnology industry as "precision fermentation." This technique (as it appears in the marketplace at this time?) generally relies on genetically modified microorganisms such as engineered yeast or algae that are programmed to produce specific compounds. Synbio ingredients already appear in virtually every aisle at the grocery store, including fragrances, flavors, vitamins and even non-animal dairy proteins. This means you may have consumed synbio ingredients already without your knowledge.
New GMOs differ from traditional GMOs in crucial ways which impact their regulation and labeling:
- New genetic engineering techniques don't necessarily use foreign DNA to modify an organism.
- Some new GMOs that rely on foreign DNA are highly processed, so the modified genetic material is removed from the final product.
New GMOs face fewer regulatory hurdles than traditional transgenic GMOs because they lack foreign DNA in the final product.
For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently moved to eliminate government oversight of gene-edited crops that do not contain foreign DNA. That's right — no foreign DNA, no government involvement in the release, cultivation or sale of genetically modified organisms despite the fact they are novel organisms.
The absence of foreign DNA also impacts labeling. In the U.S. the new federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law does not apply to goods without detectable modified genetic material in the finished product. As a result, most products made with new GMO ingredients won't require a bioengineered food disclosure — and shoppers can't rely only on the BE label to be sure which products are made with GMOs.
Traditional GMOs represented only a handful of crops, but they've had a massive impact on North American acreage and the food supply. Today, most conventional prepared foods in the grocery store contain ingredients and inputs derived from GMOs. Meanwhile, new GMOs are proliferating in the supply chain. The techniques used to produce them are cheaper and more accessible than transgenic technology, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of biotech developers exploring the field.
In the past 30 years, a handful of transgenic GMOs and new techniques for creating GMOs have utterly disrupted the food system. This makes us wonder how many conscious eaters and thoughtful shoppers it takes to disrupt it again, to create a natural, regenerative and equitable food system. A few well-placed changes can move mountains. Imagine what we can accomplish together.
*Source: Organic and Beyond Ⓒ 2020, The Hartman Group, Inc.
“Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it.”
— Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
The first Earth Day celebration, held on April 22, 1970, is commonly credited as the birth of the modern environmental movement. More than 50 years later, Earth Day is the largest secular celebration in the world, attracting more than a billion participants across 190 countries.
Each year, the Non-GMO Project team looks forward to Earth Month. We share with our community how the non-GMO movement supports the broader push for ecological regeneration and planetary health.
These two initiatives share a common ancestor: Both the modern environmental movement and the non-GMO movement were inspired mainly by agricultural chemical companies.
Eggs, eagles and Earth Day
During the 1950s and 60s, a synthetic insecticide called DDT was widely used across the United States. DDT was everywhere — farmland, swampland, livestock operations and private residences.
The Sierra Club describes how common DDT applications were: "On warm summer nights, trucks carrying DDT would roll down residential streets, fogging entire neighborhoods with the chemical to combat mosquitoes." Today the Environmental Protection Agency warns of DDT's persistence in the environment, potential to accumulate in fatty tissues and its ability to travel long distances in the upper atmosphere.
Researchers noted the ill effects of DDT in certain bird species in the mid-1950s. Songbirds and raptors were particularly vulnerable. Exposed birds produced thin and weak eggshells that failed to protect their offspring. Generations of fledglings were lost and populations plummeted.
In 1962, conservationist and writer Rachel Carson drew attention to the issue with her book Silent Spring. Carson catalyzed the growing sense of unease felt by many Americans during the 1960s. Industrial expansion had been rampant since World War 2, and pollution was a palpable issue for many people.
The combination of the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and Carson's work gave shape to unprecedented unified action. Many of the agencies and regulations we look to today to protect the environment were created in the years surrounding the first Earth Day, including the EPA, the Endangered Species Act, and a host of laws protecting air and water.
The next generation of activism emerges
More than 20 years after the first Earth Day, products made and sold by agrichemical companies inspired yet another wave of resistance: The movement to protect and build the non-GMO food supply.
Chemical companies had been manufacturing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for decades. Then advances in biotechnology changed everything. Genetically modified seeds could now produce crops that could tolerate chemical weed killers (which were made and sold by the same companies).
The narrative follows a similar arc to DDT from this point on. Farmers and extension agents applied synthetic chemicals without understanding the long-term effects. Furthermore, the crops themselves were novel creations. GMOs are living organisms whose genetic material has been manipulated in a laboratory to create combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Without independent, long-term feeding studies, GMOs' impact on human health is uncertain.
Members of the natural products community in health food stores and co-ops were among the first to raise concerns about GMOs. They didn't like how novel and unnatural organisms had entered the food supply without public knowledge. They didn't like the cynicism of engineering food crops to sell more chemical herbicides, and they didn't like the hubris of rearranging the building blocks of life.
The movement to protect the non-GMO food supply grew and the Non-GMO Project emerged to raise awareness of the issue and offer a trusted tool for avoiding GMOs.
Since the first Earth Day more than 50 years ago, the environmental movement has grown and evolved to meet the challenges of the climate crisis. Our work at the Non-GMO Project has also changed to keep pace with new developments in biotechnology. New GMO techniques go by many names, including gene editing, synthetic biology and precision fermentation.
Rachel Carson's work resonates just as much today as it did in 1962. In recognition of Earth Day, we give the last word to her:
“Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”
Plant-based foods are having a renaissance.
While staples such as veggie burgers and soy milk have been around for decades, we're witnessing a tsunami of innovative products that can romance the taste buds of vegans and omnivores, vegetarians and flexitarians.
Recent converts to the plant-based craze credit two reasons for their choice: They want to boost their health and save the planet.
The Butterfly can help you choose the right products, whether the benefits you want are personal, planetary or both.
Plant-based plus for a healthy planet
Most animal-derived products such as meat, eggs and dairy come from intensive, industrial-style livestock operations that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, polluted air and water and deforestation in the Amazon.
Choosing plant-based foods reduces harmful environmental impacts, and it makes better use of resources. Growing crops for livestock instead of directly feeding people costs us a lot of calories. Plant-based food expert Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute memorably compared consuming a serving of chicken to tossing eight servings of pasta in the trash for each one that we eat.
That's some seriously unsustainable spaghetti.
So, eating plant-based products is promising, but we still need to watch the downstream effects of crop production, including pesticide use and biodiversity impacts. Carefully choosing which crops we grow — and how we grow them — is part of building a sustainable food system.
For example, soy is a prominent player in many plant-based meat alternatives. Most of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified for herbicide tolerance, meaning it resists weed killers such as glyphosate. The adoption of herbicide-tolerant GMOs has led to a 15-fold increase in glyphosate since the 1990s. Glyphosate is so widely used that even the weeds are used to it — and that's a massive problem for farmers.
So-called "superweeds" are common weeds that have developed immunity to weed killers. They are the nearly unstoppable foes of agriculture. Desperate farmers are turning to ever more toxic herbicides to get ahead of them. Glyphosate can't kill superweeds, so chemical companies are trying dicamba — and the results are catastrophic. Dicamba is a highly volatile herbicide famous for drifting off-target and inflicting miles of collateral damage. In 2017 alone, dicamba drift destroyed an estimated 3.6 million acres of crops — and the devastation has continued with each successive planting season.
Adopting a plant-based diet can go a long way toward a sustainable food system. Let's not let GMOs and the chemicals that go with them undermine our best efforts. Regenerative food systems are non-GMO.
Soy, synbio and sizzle
Shoppers are also choosing plant-based foods to support their own health. Studies link red and processed meat consumption to increased heart disease, diabetes, and cancer risks. But not all plant-based options are created equal: The risk-to-benefit ratio changes dramatically depending on how products are made.
Take soy, for example. Unprocessed soybeans are high in protein, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. But the keyword here is "unprocessed." Even products that start with the healthiest soybeans can lose much of their nutrition during processing. Highly processed plant-based foods can be healthier than meat without being exactly healthy.
Innovative plant-based products can mimic the taste and texture of animal-derived products. That's part of the reason their popularity is growing. But making plant-based products more like animal-derived ones is a tricky business. Animal products contain unique fats and proteins — that's what makes steaks sizzle and egg whites form stiff peaks — and purely plant-based products rarely behave the same. As one biotech company puts it, "Getting almond and other alt-milks to foam is about as effective as trying to juice a potato."
Some brands are turning to biotechnology to recreate plant-based options that taste, feel and act like animal-derived. However, some of these techniques could have health implications. Scientists can create "bio-identical" milk proteins (milk without the cow) or animal-identical fat (fats without the animal) using synthetic biology ("synbio") techniques. And a "bio-identical" product raises questions for the health-conscious consumer: Do synbio compounds carry the same health risks as the animal products they mimic? Would a soy-based burger with synbio animal fat reintroduce the health risks you're trying to avoid?
While synbio animal fats aren't yet commercially available, some frozen desserts on the market contain non-animal dairy proteins. These dairy proteins don't come from animals, but they contain lactose and have the same potential for allergic reactions as natural dairy.
As plant-based foods and biotechnology-based additives mingle, the blurred line can make it harder for you to choose the products you truly want.
That's where we come in. Luckily, our dedicated research team tracks the latest products and emerging biotechnology techniques. The Non-GMO Project Standard prohibits those sneaky synbio ingredients.
We believe everyone has the right to know what's in their food and make an informed choice about whether or not to consume GMOs. When you choose plant-based foods, the Butterfly helps you pick a product that meets your expectations.
The Non-GMO Project protects your right to choose and safeguards the integrity of your choices through clear labeling and natural products.
After all, the decisions you make to care for yourself and the planet are your chance to reform the food system. You exercise that power every time you buy groceries or sit down for a meal.
Make it count.
This spring, we're offering three stories on biotech's biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series, "Are GMOs really going to save the world?" Part One looks at Golden Rice, one of the most controversial GMOs ever created. Don't forget to check out Part Two, How Useful are GMOs on a Warming Planet? and Part 3, Can a Lab-based Food System Save the World?
The biotech industry loves to talk about precision.
For example, advocates for genetic engineering and genetic modification have adopted the term "precision agriculture" to rebrand unpopular technologies that produce GMOs. Divorced from its meaning, precision agriculture sounds very attractive indeed, as if the untidiness of life — and farming — can be tamed if only we apply a sharp enough blade.
Our regular readers know precision agriculture by its other names, "genetic modification" and "genetic engineering." One genetically engineered crop, in particular, Golden Rice, exemplifies the hype and hyperbole of modern biotechnology.
Golden Rice is genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. It was developed in the late 1990s to treat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) — a form of malnutrition that can lead to blindness and death. VAD mainly impacts children and expectant mothers in developing economies across Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (where plain white rice provides daily calories but little actual nutrition).
From a distance, the theory of Golden Rice offers elegant, even algebraic simplicity: If we add the thing that's missing (Vitamin A) to the thing that people suffering from malnutrition eat every day (rice), then — presto! — deficiency solved!
In practice, it doesn't work that way.
Vitamin A deficiency is not an isolated problem. It is a product of extreme poverty intertwined with inequality's social and economic drivers. Effective solutions are systemic rather than targeted, and the realities of extreme poverty quickly undo a "precise" tool like Golden Rice.
How does Golden Rice fail as a "silver bullet" solution? And what can we do instead?
"Golden Rice" wears rose-colored glasses.
The biggest problem with Golden Rice is tied directly to the reason it was created in the first place: People afflicted with VAD rely on very limited diets, and those limitations make Golden Rice ineffective.
People must consume Vitamin A with fat for the body to use it. In regions where people rely on rice to survive, the fruits and vegetables containing copious amounts of the stuff are unavailable — neither are fat-bearing foods like oils or meat. Even if Golden Rice replaced white rice, the lack of diversity in the local diet prevents it from doing any good.
Time is another enemy of Golden Rice. Beta carotene — the precursor to Vitamin A that gives Golden Rice its color — deteriorates over time. How the grain is stored and transported impacts how much of the supplement gets to the people who need it. Vacuum-sealing and refrigeration seem to slow nutrient loss, but people in rural and impoverished areas rarely have these kinds of resources. Again, the conditions that cause VAD also undermine the efficacy of Golden Rice.
Research into Golden Rice's effectiveness has produced skewed results because studies operate under ideal conditions that don't reflect the realities of the regions most affected by VAD. For example, a 2008 study provided a daily butter ration to each participant, optimizing the absorption of Vitamin A — a benefit that is not available to most families facing VAD.
In the end, Golden Rice is most effective for people who don't need it — people with diverse diets and access to refrigeration — meaning that it's not really effective at all. Providing the basic human needs that would increase Golden Rice's effectiveness — improved nutrition, healthcare and basic infrastructure — would go a long way to solving VAD itself, not to mention many of the other ills of extreme poverty.
With more dietary options, the foods that naturally deliver Vitamin A could do their work, providing essential nutrients and the healthy fats needed to metabolize them. Consistent health care is a perfect delivery system for the Vitamin A supplementation programs that have already been highly successful — as well as other life-saving treatments.
Where would we be today if we had applied the resources used to develop Golden Rice over the past 20+ years directly to the VAD crisis and its underlying causes?
Farmers choose the best seeds — and they don't choose Golden Rice.
Another obstacle to Golden Rice's success is adoption: Will farmers in affected regions choose to grow it, and how will those crops perform?
Golden Rice cross-bred with locally grown rice produces offspring suitable to a given area, but these crosses often have low productivity. In 2017 in India, local rice varieties crossed with Golden Rice produced pale and stunted plants. Unsurprisingly, low performance is an unappealing trait for farmers. A study in the Philippines (the first country to approve Golden Rice for commercial cultivation) concluded farmers are unlikely to plant the low-yielding crop. "Some [farmers] might adopt Golden Rice if it could fetch a premium in the market, but extremely poor customers are unlikely to pay it."
Again, the roadblocks of poverty and necessity undermine Golden Rice's effectiveness.
Failing diversity = future catastrophe
Reliance on a single crop such as Golden Rice is very dangerous even with the best intentions.
The people impacted by VAD rely on diets with little diversity. Even if Golden Rice effectively controlled VAD (a claim we've challenged above) and even if the adoption overcame practical barriers (ditto), distributing a handful of rice seed varieties to support millions of people across a massive land area increases the fragility of the food system. Genetic uniformity is a welcome mat to plant pests and diseases — threats that are only increasing in the changing climate whose effects are forecast to disproportionately impact the Global South, including all the regions affected by VAD.
The Non-GMO Project was founded on the belief that every person has the right to adequate, nutritious and natural food. Real solutions are based on a holistic understanding of the problem and must work with the messy realities of our troubled world.
We support the fastest, most effective and longest-lasting solutions to suffering worldwide and we have yet to see an offering from the biotech industry that stands up to scrutiny.
If you read last week’s blog, you know that there is some ill-intentioned disagreement about what counts as a GMO. Consumers overwhelmingly rejected the first wave of GMOs, so biotech companies are mounting campaigns to convince the public that new GMOs aren’t actually GMOs. Meanwhile, these companies are also working hard to mix up biotechnology and traditional crop breeding in the public eye. This leads people to ask us questions such as: "Aren't all living things GMOs because all species have undergone genetic changes over time?" The answer, of course, is no! Let's talk about traditional plant breeding and how it is different from biotechnology and GMOs.
What is a GMO? What Isn’t?
A GMO is an organism in which the genetic material has been changed through biotechnology in a way that does not occur naturally by multiplication and/or natural recombination.
This definition clearly does not apply to crops that have changed over time through natural selection. It also does not apply to crops that humans have been breeding since the dawn of agriculture using traditional farming practices (e.g., traditional crossbreeding). Trying to say that everything is a GMO is reductive and misleading. Moreover, it’s an intentional distraction from the real issues at hand.
Traditional crossbreeding methods are distinctly different from GMOs. These techniques rely on multiplication and natural recombination—not gene editing, biotechnology, recombinant DNA technology, or in vitro nucleic acid techniques. Traditional breeding methods occur in vivo; they happen to the whole organism rather than just to its nucleic acids. At the most basic level, these techniques all involve selecting for favorable traits based on observable characteristics or traits (i.e., phenotype-based selection). This is what Gregor Mendel accomplished with his pea plants a century before the first GMO was invented.
Breeding techniques don't have to be low-tech in order to be non-GMO.
There are plenty of ways to improve crops through technology that do not involve genetic engineering. Marker-assisted selection (MAS) is a great example of this. MAS allows plant breeders to learn useful genetic information about crops when they are trying to select for favorable traits. It shifts the process of plant breeding from phenotype-based selection to genotype-based section (i.e., selection based on genetic information). MAS uses molecular tools to speed up the traditional breeding process by allowing breeders to more quickly identify traits at the genetic level. This information can then be used to breed plants using other traditional, non-GMO methods. These crops do not undergo in vitro techniques, and modern biotechnology is not applied to them. They aren’t GMOs!
All of these different ways to grow crops can be confusing, but the Non-GMO Project is here to help. We sort through crop breeding technologies so you don’t have to—all you need to do is Look for the Butterfly to know you are choosing products made without GMOs.