Throughout September, we're celebrating the growing popularity of plant-based foods and the non-GMO innovation driving it. To help you keep GMOs out of your shopping cart, we're also shining a light on how genetic engineering shows up in this fast-growing food category.
Last week, we explored the rise of new GMOs in the plant-based space — you can read the blog here or explore this handy infographic.
In case you missed it, here's a quick refresher: New GMOs differ from traditional GMOs because they rely on emerging techniques such as CRISPR gene editing or synthetic biology. New GMOs can take many forms, including flavors, colorants, proteins, genetically engineered animals, etc. Traditional GMOs — sometimes described as "transgenic" because they combine genes from different taxonomic families — are made up of a handful of commodity crops engineered to withstand herbicide applications or to produce their own insecticide. Think soy, corn, canola and sugar beets. While the list of traditional, transgenic GMOs is relatively short, ingredients made from them are used in up to 75% of the products on grocery store shelves.
Traditional GMOs can show up in plant-based products, too. You can protect your right to choose by knowing what to look out for. When in doubt, look for the Butterfly!
Recipes calling for plant-based protein often use soybeans. Soy is a protein powerhouse in the plant-based world. It was also one of the first GMO crops in the United States.
Soy was the base ingredient for some of the first non-dairy milk alternatives. These days, soy milk shares shelf space with other popular plant-based milk products made from rice, oats, almonds and more. Soy is also the cornerstone of several meat alternatives, including tofu, tempeh and veggie burgers.
Today, at least 94% of soy is genetically modified to withstand multiple applications of weedkillers, produce an insecticide, or both.
A corn-ucopia of GMOs
More than 91 million acres of farmland are planted with corn in the United States. Most of that corn ends up in livestock feed or biofuel, while the remainder is processed for food manufacturing or used in industrial applications.
At the grocery store, corn and corn by-products are incredibly common. Corn can be the main ingredient, sweetener, starch, texturizer, or some other additive. A 2015 article in the Washington Post reported that corn is present in nearly every product in the grocery store. With 92% of corn genetically modified, the vast majority of those corn-derived starches, sweeteners and additives used on unverified products — or non-Non-GMO Project Verified products — come from GMOs.
Added oils and sweeteners
Oils and sugars are common in many processed foods, including plant-based options. Depending on what crops they're made from, they might be GMOs.
For example, canola oil is a widely available plant-based oil made from rapeseed. Canola oil is a common ingredient in prepared foods, including meat analogs and snacks, and some brands of vegan mayonnaise list canola oil as the first ingredient on the label. At least 95% of the rapeseed grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.
Sweeteners come in many forms. Genetically modified forms can include corn, which is processed into one of the most common sweeteners in food manufacturing — high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar also comes from sugar beets — and nearly all sugar beets grown in the States are genetically modified. GMO sugar cane is a recent development that's being cultivated in Brazil, and making its way through American regulatory systems. Sweeteners can appear in plant-based milk products, creamers, yogurts, processed foods and sweet products such as snacks and desserts.
At the Non-GMO Project, we often discuss new and traditional GMOs as two distinct categories determined by the technology that produced them. To be clear, both new and traditional techniques result in GMOs; they just go about it in unique ways which can impact their testing, labeling and regulation.
As the biotechnology industry continues its explosive expansion, we'll see more GMOs enter the market and more techniques developed to create them. And as our appetite for plant-based products continues to grow, our work protecting natural ingredients and non-GMO innovation in this space becomes more important than ever.
Stay tuned throughout September as we explore the products, ingredients and people driving the plant-based movement!
As we mentioned in our last post, breeding techniques don't have to be low-tech in order to be non-GMO, but we hear from many of you that some modern takes on traditional breeding techniques don’t always feel completely natural. Quite a few of you would like to learn about mutation breeding this week, so let’s talk about mutagenesis!
Mutation breeding, or mutagenesis, is an example of a traditional breeding technique. It’s a way farmers and crop scientists can improve crops without using GMOs. Mutagenesis involves exposing seeds to radiation or certain chemicals in order to create random mutations. It is typically used to speed up natural processes; crop breeders can induce many random mutations and then select the most useful mutations for future cross-breeding rather than waiting for multiple generations for those mutations to occur on their own.
Some Mutagenesis is Biotechnology; Some is Not.
Random mutagenesis does not involve in vitro nucleic acid techniques, so it is not genetic engineering and the end result is not a GMO. However, new genetic engineering techniques have encroached into this territory. It can be tricky to understand where the line is drawn.
As a reminder, a GMO is an organism in which the genetic material has been changed through biotechnology using In vitro nucleic acid techniques or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family. In plain language, that means modern biotechnology involves directly editing DNA (genetic information) in glassware in a laboratory or mixing DNA from different species that couldn’t reproduce on their own.
Random mutagenesis does not involve in vitro nucleic acid techniques or fusion of cells beyond their taxonomic family, so it does not meet the definition of biotechnology. Products of random mutagenesis are not GMOs!
But What About Directed Mutagenesis?
Directed mutagenesis, such as oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), only ever happens in vitro. ODM involves the insertion of new DNA that mimics a portion of the plant’s genome and is incorporated via the cell’s own repair function. This allows scientists to intentionally induce a mutation by inserting oligonucleotides at a specific place in the DNA. It always involves biotechnology, so products of ODM are always GMOs.
This means that inputs made with ODM are not eligible to be Non-GMO Project Verified; they are not allowed under the Non-GMO Project Standard. At present time, the only ODM crop that is widely commercially available is an ODM canola variety. This new GMO is listed on the Non-GMO Project's High-Risk List.
New GMOs are Coming Soon
Products of new genetic engineering techniques such as ODM are not especially prevalent in consumer goods at this time, but they are poised to flood the market soon. In the United States, the FDA promotes these GMOs, explicitly works to “advance” biotechnology, and “is committed to supporting innovation” in biotechnology. Meanwhile, the USDA created regulations that largely exempt products of new genetic engineering techniques from the forthcoming labeling law. The current administration even released an executive order directing regulatory bodies to streamline the already-lax review process.
While the European Union has committed to regulating new GMOs just like the older ones, it is clear that the current governments of Canada and the United States are interested in promoting biotechnology and limiting any regulation of new types of GMOs. This makes the Non-GMO Project’s role even more important; the Project and its full-time team of researchers keep a watchful eye on these new techniques in order to keep them out of our non-GMO food supply. Look for the Butterfly to avoid all types of GMOs!
Yes, There is Non-GMO Canola!
Our readers write to us almost every day to ask why they saw canola in a Non-GMO Project Verified product. There’s a fairly pervasive misconception that all canola is genetically modified, but this is not true! Non-GMO canola does exist; when you see canola in a product bearing the Butterfly, you can rest assured that it’s non-GMO canola because we test (major) high-risk crops that go into your food.
Canola’s story starts with the rapeseed plant, which is a member of the Brassicaceae family like cabbage, beets, mustard, and turnips. The name of this plant comes from rapum, the Latin word for turnip. While we think of this as a Canadian crop, rapeseed has been a traditional part of Asian cuisines for more than 4,000 years. It did not become widespread in Canada until it was used to make industrial engine lubricant during the Second World War.
In the 1970s, researchers at the University of Manitoba started working to alleviate two potential problems with rapeseed: erucic acid (which has been connected to heart problems) and glucosinolate (which just tastes bitter or pungent). By repeatedly crossing rapeseed plants that were lower and lower in these compounds, scientists used traditional breeding methods to create canola: a rapeseed variety that is very low in erucic acid and glucosinolate. The first canola variety emerged under the name Tower canola in 1974. To be clear, Tower canola was a non-GMO crop. GMOs had not been developed yet!
What’s the difference between hybrid crops and GMOs?
Remember, most GMOs are essentially living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through biotechnology, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Those traditional crossbreeding methods are exactly how canola was made, by breeding crops over generations without the use of genetic engineering. For about 20 years, all canola was non-GMO canola.
That changed in the mid-1990s when GMOs started to emerge. Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready canola variety became the first commercially available GMO canola in 1997. Like all herbicide-tolerant GMOs, it allows farmers to spray chemical herbicides (in this case, glyphosate) directly onto the plant without harming it. Today, nearly all of the canola grown in Canada and the United States has been genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant. Herbicide-resistant GMOs are made by the same chemical companies that sell these harmful chemicals. It’s no accident that just three of these chemical companies now control over 60 percent of the world’s entire seed supply.
Read more about patented seeds
These chemical companies still claim that herbicide-tolerant crops reduce chemical herbicide usage, but the USDA’s data shows the opposite is true. In fact, research shows a fifteen-fold increase in glyphosate use alone since the introduction of Roundup-Ready crops. Read this full study to learn more.
Herbicide-tolerant GMOs have also been connected to the rise of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” Herbicides such as Roundup kill most weeds with each spraying, but the few that survive can pass their resistance on to the next generation of pests. This is becoming a serious problem across the continent—how many herbicide-resistant weeds are there in your state or province? This has, in fact, become such a problem that some farmers are now spraying more pesticides more often, including more potent formulations like Monsanto’s Enlist Duo. This herbicide is made with dicamba and 2,4D—one of the components of Agent Orange.
Read more about pesticide treadmills
Some herbicide-tolerant canola (e.g., Clearfield canola) is the product of a genetic mutation rather than genetic engineering.
Mutations are not inherently bad, they are just changes in a heritable trait. For example, blue eyes started out as a mutation. Mutations occur naturally all the time; they are the basis of natural selection. There are also actions humans can take to force mutations to occur in plants. Crop scientists can use chemicals or radiation to induce random mutations in lots of plants, then pick out the plants with the most desirable traits to keep breeding. This process (sometimes called traditional mutagenesis) does not involve either in vitro nucleic acid techniques or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, so it is not biotechnology.
However, some processes that result in mutations do involve biotechnology. Oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), a type of site-directed mutagenesis or site-specific mutagenesis, is a new genetic engineering technique that uses in vitro methods to create specific mutations at specific points in a DNA sequence. The type of canola that is made with this technique is on the Non-GMO Project’s high-risk list; it is a GMO and it is not permitted in Non-GMO Project Verified products.
Canola is Everywhere in the Grocery Store
Canola is perfect for making processed oil because its seeds have upwards of 40 percent oil content. With most of its glucosinolate (which is what makes mustard and radishes taste so strong) bred out, it has a mild flavor that doesn’t overpower other ingredients. Canola oil is present in many store-bought foods. Once the oil has been extracted, the leftover parts are generally used in animal feed.
If you live in the United States, it’s important to be aware that products containing canola oil may not be labeled as GMOs under the new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. This law only requires the labeling of products that contain detectable GMO DNA. Canola oil is so refined that it does not always contain enough useable DNA to test it for GMOs. The Non-GMO Project solves this problem by tracing that oil back to its source and testing the canola itself. Remember, you can’t start with a GMO and process it into something that is not the product of biotechnology.
While most canola is genetically modified now, about ten percent of the canola grown in North America is still non-GMO. Show food producers you want more non-GMO canola by choosing Non-GMO Project Verified when you shop. Collectively, we have the power to change the way our food is grown and made.