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Move over synbio stevia; there are new GMO sweeteners in town

The stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana) features leaves that contain sweetness compounds known as rebaudiosides, or Rebs for short. Each Reb has a slightly different flavor profile. When extracted from the stevia leaf, they combine to create a sweetener that has a slightly bitter, and often unpopular, aftertaste.  Various brands of synthetic biology (synbio) stevia have been on the market for a number of years and were developed, in part, to address this drawback. Through synbio, developers have been able to select and recreate the sweetest Rebs (e.g., Reb M), of the stevia plant while leaving the other, more bitter Rebs behind.

But in the ever-expanding quest for low- or no-calorie sweeteners, biotechnology developers are now turning their attention to creating new sweetness proteins that mimic those present in less common fruit, such as fruit from the West African oubli and katemfe plants, which are known for their intense sweetness. Some of these novel proteins provide sweetness on their own; others are taste modifiers that are not sweet in their own right but affect sweetness receptors to make foods taste more sweet.

This new group of sweetness and taste-modifying proteins includes brazzein, thaumatin, curculin, mabinlin, and miraculin. Most are being developed using synbio, also known as precision fermentation, but at least one developer is using molecular farming. Here’s a brief overview of some of these developers.

Joywell Foods
Joywell Foods (Joywell) is a developer of synbio sweetness proteins that has been working in this space since 2014. Some of the proteins in its portfolio include thaumatin I and II, brazzein, pentadin, curculin, mabinlin, monellin, and miraculin. In June, Joywell announced that it had raised $25 million to bring a line of beverages sweetened with its synbio proteins to market. The Series B funding round was led by Piva Capital with participation from Evolve Ventures (Kraft Heinz VC), IndieBio, Khosla Ventures, and others. Flavor profiles for the beverages include lemon lime, cherry ginger, and mint berry. At this time, it is unknown which of Joywell’s sweetness proteins will be used in the beverages or how they will be listed on ingredient panels.

It is interesting to note that in February of 2021, Joywell Foods sent a GRAS submittal for various forms of miracle fruit (miraculin) to the FDA but then several months later, in September, requested that the FDA cease its evaluation of the submittal after the FDA had raised a number of issues.

Conagen/Sweegen
Conagen and its partner Sweegen have announced the commercial launch of a new synbio sweetness protein, brazzein. The protein will be marketed under the brand name Ultratia™. Sweegen plans to launch the synbio sweetener by the end of the year but did not reveal the specific products that would feature the new protein. At the end of 2021, Conagen revealed that it was preparing to submit GRAS paperwork to the FDA. The ingredient will reportedly be listed on ingredient panels as brazzein.

Amai Proteins
Amai Proteins (Amai), an Israeli biotechnology developer, uses a computational protein design platform to create novel synbio sweetness proteins. Amai was recently named the global winner of the 2022 XTC  Extreme Tech Challenge for its work and hopes to launch its sweetness proteins within the year. The company’s first product will be branded sweelin™.

Brain Biotech/Roquette
Brain Biotech is a German company that specializes in the use of CRISPR and precision fermentation  (i.e., synbio). The company entered into an agreement with the French company Roquette in 2021 to produce a synbio brazzein sweetness protein. The partnership stemmed from their collaboration as part of the DOLCE Research Program, whose mission was to provide next-generation sweetness solutions. The companies plan to initially target the beverage industry.

Nomad Bioscience/Nambawan Biotech 
Nomad Biosciences (Nomad) is a German biotechnology company that develops antibacterial biologics for medicine, food antibacterials, and sweet and taste-modifying proteins.Working with its spinoff company, Nambawan Biotech, Nomad has developed and commercialized thaumatin II, which is intended for use in food and beverages. Nomad uses molecular farming to produce thaumatin and other proteins in tobacco (Nicotiana benthamiana) and other crops. The company has submitted paperwork and achieved GRAS status for nine protein events.

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

October is Non-GMO Month!🦋

New GMO Alert – Purple Tomato Recently Approved for U.S. Import and Cultivation
Eat two tomatoes and call me in the morning

As new GMO techniques such as CRISPR are making it easier and cheaper to genetically modify plants, researchers are expanding their focus to manipulate different types of crops, those that fall outside of what we have come to identify as likely being GMO, such as corn, soy, cotton, sugar beet, and canola. They are also expanding the types of traits that are being engineered into these plants, with some of those traits being created in hopes of providing some sort of health benefit. One of the most popular plants du jour for this experimentation is the tomato.

The “purple tomato” was recently approved for U.S. import and cultivation by USDA/APHIS, a little over a year after the application was first submitted in July 2021. It was developed by scientists at Norfolk Plant Sciences (Norfolk), which is located at, and is a spinout of, the John Innes Centre in Norwich, U.K. The tomato species Solanum lycopersicum was genetically engineered to have greater levels of anthocyanin, which is thought to have beneficial health effects. The company says about half a cup of purple tomatoes is estimated to contain the same amount of anthocyanin as half a cup of blueberries.

The transgenic tomato was modified using genetic material from the snapdragon (to control anthocyanin levels) and Arabidopsis thaliana (as a flavanol activator). Purple tomatoes aren’t new; there are over two dozen varieties of tomatoes that feature some degree of purple skin, many of them heirloom varieties. What makes this GM purple tomato distinct is that it also features purple flesh.

The purple tomato represents the first GM crop to undergo USDA/APHIS review under the new SECURE rule, which was promulgated in 2020. Thus, in addition to receiving the USDA’s stamp of approval for both import and cultivation, any future versions (i.e., events) of the purple tomato that involve the same species, traits, and mechanisms of action will not be regulated. Norfolk plans to release the tomato for sale in limited markets in 2023.

However, the purple tomato is not the first genetically modified tomato to reach the table. Sanatech Seed (Sanatech) launched the GM Sicilian Rouge GABA tomato in Japan in 2021, after the Japanese government determined that the tomato would not be regulated as a genetically modified product. Sanatech, in conjunction with scientists at the University of Tsukuba, used CRISPR to genetically modify the tomato to have high levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid thought to help manage hypertension. The tomatoes were first made available to home gardeners as seedlings and were then released for sale directly to consumers in September of last year.

Researchers at the John Innes Centre have also been working to develop GM tomatoes with other traits. It was recently reported that they had created a CRISPR “Vitamin D” tomato, boosting the amount of Vitamin D in the skin and flesh of a tomato to equal that present in two eggs. The tomato leaves were found to also contain high levels of Vitamin D3, leading researchers to speculate that the leaves could serve as a vegan source of Vitamin D3 for supplements. Researchers there are also working to create a tomato that accumulates and expresses L-DOPA, an amino acid that is used to treat Parkinson’s Disease.

In all of these instances, the tomato was likely chosen in part because of its popularity with consumers. It remains to be seen whether or to what extent the increased health benefits purported through the creation of these GM traits are ultimately realized.

That being said, these health benefit traits bring to mind Golden Rice, a crop that had been genetically modified to produce beta-carotene with the goal of addressing Vitamin A deficiency, especially in children with poor nutrition. Since its initial development in the late 1990s (GR1), and subsequent iterative event in the early 2000s (GR2E), Golden Rice has been highly controversial for a wide range of reasons – reasons beyond its GM origins – including cost; yield; and nutrient value, bioavailability, and degradation. At the present time, only one country, the Philippines, is commercially growing Golden Rice, and that process has only recently begun.

In 2018, Golden Rice (GR2E) received the approval of the FDA, but it is interesting to note that in its approval, the FDA stated that the levels of beta-carotene in GR2E rice were too low to warrant a nutrient content claim.

If the purple tomato is sold in the U.S. next year, it will be one of a few GM crops to be sold directly to consumers. Due to lack of consumer acceptance, most GMO crops such as corn and soy are marketed toward farmers. The GMO crops are then used primarily as feed for livestock or are highly processed before being sold directly to consumers.

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.


October is Non-GMO Month! Support our work in creating a more transparent food system that is better for the people and the planet. Our research team tracks hundreds of biotech companies so we can deliver you the most accurate information on emerging GMOs – because we believe everyone deserves an informed choice. Donate today!

Molecular Farming: Creating Peas that are Both Plant and Animal?

What is molecular farming? Technically, molecular farming is defined as the production of proteins and other metabolites that are considered valuable to medicine or industry in plants traditionally used in agriculture. Some have casually referred to molecular farming as synbio on steroids.

Thus, inasmuch as synbio (i.e., precision fermentation) is the genetic modification of microorganisms to exploit them for what they do naturally to create novel proteins, molecular farming is the genetic modification of plants to exploit them for what they do naturally to create novel proteins. These plants are different from traditional GMOs, which were modified to create new traits in crops, traits such as herbicide tolerance or insect resistance. Instead, through molecular farming, plants create new compounds and products.

These crops are often genetically modified to include animal DNA in order to create these novel proteins. The proteins can then be extracted from the plant once the crop is harvested for use in various applications (e.g., to make cheese). But the animal proteins can also be left in the crop for use in and to boost protein levels of the final end product. For example, think of a pea or soy crop that is modified to create meat proteins, then harvested so that the end product, the pea or soy isolate, has greater protein levels for use in a plant-based burger.

This technique is relatively new, but in the interest of transparency, below are some of the GMO developers working in this space.

Moolec Science
Located in the UK, Moolec Science (Moolec) is using molecular farming to produce animal proteins in a variety of plants, including safflower, soybean, and pea. The company’s first two products are chymosin (an enzyme used in cheesemaking) and the nutritional oil GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), both being produced in genetically modified safflower. The chymosin is marketed as Chymosin SPC, and the GLA is marketed as GLA Sonova®. The company is backed by Bioceres Crop Solutions, the developer of the genetically modified HB4 soy and HB4 wheat. The safflower was modified using a bovine protein to create the chymosin, and the GLA technology was sourced from Bioceres.

In June, Moolec announced a $504 million deal with the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) LightJump Acquisition. The money will be used to accelerate the commercialization of both chymosin and GLA and expand the company’s R&D facilities. The company is now gearing up to create meat protein in soy and pea, which it plans to launch in late 2022 or early 2023. The product Poork+ features porcine proteins in soy; Beef+ features bovine proteins in pea. In addition, Moolec claims to have established contracts with seven food producers.

Pigmentum
Pigmentum is an Israeli startup that is genetically modifying Romaine lettuce to produce a variety of complex molecules, including proteins, pigments, and aromas. Under Pigmentum’s platform, the transgenic plants express the desired compounds only when an agrochemical is applied, and then the compounds are extracted post-harvest. Overall, the company plans to target the food, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries. Initial compounds being explored include anthocyanin, vanillin, and casein. The platform also allows for the repression of specific genetic traits.

Miruku
Miruku, a New Zealand-based biotech company founded in 2020, is using molecular farming to produce proteins, fats, and sugars in unidentified plants. The company’s initial work is focused on creating dairy proteins, and it hopes to have these proteins in the marketplace within 3 years.

Nobell Foods
Nobell Foods, which is located in San Francisco, is genetically modifying soy plants with animal DNA to produce casein, a protein present in cow’s milk, with the ultimate goal of creating mozzarella and cheddar cheese. The company plans to launch its first product by the end of 2022 or in early 2023.

Tiamat Sciences
Tiamat Sciences (Tiamat) is growing its genetically modified plants using vertical farming. The company’s first product will be animal-free growth factors for cell-cultured meat, for which the company has achieved GRAS status. In 2021, Tiamat announced that it had raised $3 million in seed funding. The funds are being used to construct a pilot facility in Durham, North Carolina.

Kyomei
Based in the U.K. and spun out of work done at the University of Oxford, the newly launched Kyomei is working to genetically engineer plants to produce meat proteins. The startup’s first effort is creating bovine myoglobin in plants.

Mozza Foods
Located in Los Angeles, California, the new startup Mozza Foods and its affiliate Lovely Dairy are working to produce dairy proteins in unidentified plants in order to make mozzarella. The company hopes to bring its cheese, branded as Lovely Cheese, to market in 2025.

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

Eaters are choosing plant-based options more often than they ever have before. Their choices are motivated by health and climate concerns, affordability, animal welfare and more. 

To meet the demand, hundreds of Non-GMO Project partner brands create Verified plant-based products using natural innovations. These are companies that turn to non-GMO or organic ingredients to emulate the plant-based movement's origins in social justice and the natural foods industry. However, other brands rely on new GMO techniques to make their plant-based options, despite widespread consumer rejection of genetically engineered food and ingredients.

There's a lot we don't know about new GMOs, and it's critical to ask the tough questions about something as important as our food supply. Are new GMOs safe for human consumption? Are products made with them labeled as bioengineered food? And, are products that are genetically engineered to be "nature identical" still vegan?

We'll explore these tough questions below, and this infographic will bring you up to date on where new GMOs appear in plant-based foods. Remember, the best way to avoid GMOs is to look for the Butterfly!

Are ingredients made through synthetic biology techniques safe? 

Synthetic biology, or synbio, is a genetic engineering technique that uses genetically modified microorganisms such as yeast, bacteria or algae to produce a range of compounds used in manufacturing food and other products. Synbio ingredients appear as flavorings, colorants, proteins, fats, and other additives. They can mimic naturally-occurring compounds, but they are still novel ingredients. Without long-term, independent feeding studies, there's no way to know the ultimate health impacts. 

Also, some people adopt a plant-based lifestyle for health reasons. However, when biotechnology is used to create a product virtually identical to its animal-derived counterpart, are the health concerns that drove the change in diet — for example, avoiding allergens or saturated fats — re-introduced?

Are "nature identical" GMO-derived plant-based foods vegan?

Biotech-friendly brands operating in the plant-based space are using genetic engineering to fool your taste buds into thinking you're eating animal-derived foods. Their marketing efforts frequently target vegans. For example, Perfect Day's synbio non-animal dairy proteins are used in a range of ice creams, cheese spreads, and prepared desserts — many advertised as vegan alternatives. However, the product's origin story might not meet strict vegan standards.

Synbio uses genetically modified microbes to produce novel compounds — in this case, non-animal dairy proteins. The "instructions" for those microbes come from a digitized copy of a cow gene. That information is available from an open source database, but the genome mapping is based on an actual tissue sample from a cow. A strict definition of veganism excludes products that rely on animals anywhere along the development or production timeline. 

Do plant-based foods made with new GMOs require a bioengineered food label? 

At the Non-GMO Project, we support transparency in the food system — our organization was formed in part to educate the public and empower shoppers to make the best decisions for themselves. We also believe Americans deserve more transparency than the USDA's Bioengineered food labeling law provides. The law includes exemptions and limitations that mean many products made with new GMOs are not labeled. The confusion compromises your right to choose whether or not to consume GMOs. 

As biotechnology evolves and new techniques gain popularity, GMOs are becoming harder to spot. Because looking for the Butterfly is the best way to avoid GMOs, our work protecting and building the non-GMO food supply is more important than ever. 

Join us for our month-long plant-based campaign in September. We'll uncover the new GMOs that are showing up in plant-based foods and beyond, and we'll celebrate the innovative ways our partner brands keep your favorite plant-based options naturally non-GMO.

A New Plant-Based Meat Analog – This Time with Synbio Bovine Blood Proteins

The Non-GMO Project closely monitors all food and ingredient products made using synbio (also known as precision fermentation) and has done so for a number of years. We are now seeing these products making their way into the food supply chain. Since its introduction in 2016, the Impossible™ Burger from Impossible™ Foods has had the distinction of being the only plant-based meat analog that includes a synbio ingredient. The inclusion of that ingredient, heme, which is produced by a genetically modified (GM) microorganism, marked the first merging of a synbio ingredient into a plant-based product. Well, that distinction is no more.

Motif FoodWorks™ (Motif), the food development spinoff from Ginkgo Bioworks, has now released a plant-based meat analog with its own synbio ingredient – Hemami™. Like the Impossible™ Burger, Motif’s BeefWorks™ (aka MoBeef™) burger combines a plant-based meat analog with a GM ingredient designed to create a more “meat-like” product through the inclusion of synbio “blood” proteins.

Hemami™ was launched as an ingredient in December 2021.  Although both heme and Hemami™ are the products of GM microorganisms, Motif’s source of the DNA for its GM microorganism is bovine (cow) muscle (myoglobin); Impossible™ Foods’s source of the DNA for its GM microorganism is soy root nodules (leghemoglobin). Motif’s BeefWorks™ burger also includes the company’s proprietary Appetex™, a texturizer, as an ingredient.

Motif’s burger was first introduced to consumers as part of a pilot study conducted at several Dallas-area Coolgreens eateries during the summer of 2021. With the commercial launch of BeefWorks™ earlier this year, Motif has expanded its focus in the marketplace, targeting food service, distributors, and retailers.

Motif also has ambitious plans for the future, with more products in development, including Motif BeefWorks™ ground beef (2022), Motif PorkWorks™ (aka MoPork™) (2022), and Motif ChickenWorks™ (aka MoChicken™) (2023). The company has also filed trademark applications for Motif MilkWorks™ (aka MoMilk™), Motif MoCheese™, and Motif FishWorks™ (aka MoFish™).

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

GMO wheat

Bioceres GM HB4 Wheat Gains Traction Worldwide

Wheat is a grain fundamental to global health and food security across the world. Our breads, pastas, and other wheat-based foods take up a major portion on our plates, providing an estimated 20% of calories globally. Other principal crops such as corn and soy, which are mostly GMO, are fed to livestock -- not directly to us. Traditionally, consumer acceptance of GMO wheat has been low because we eat wheat at the dinner table. However, with war, supply chain disruption and climate change, genetically modified wheat companies are making the claim that now is the time to release patented GM wheat grains for human consumption into the market. With increased privatization in our food supply, consumers and farmers alike are concerned about consolidation, contamination, and control.

Since 2020, when Bioceres Crop Solutions (Bioceres) announced the regulatory approval of its genetically modified (GM) HB4 wheat by Argentina’s Ministry of Agriculture, we have been closely monitoring the progress of this crop. Argentina is Latin America’s largest producer and a significant exporter of wheat. GM HB4 wheat (IND-00412-7) was developed by Bioceres in conjunction with its research and development branch INDEAR (Instituto Nacional de Agrobiotecnologia de Rosario). The wheat was modified to be drought tolerant but is also tolerant of the herbicide glufosinate.

Despite Argentina’s initial approval of HB4 wheat in 2020, the cultivation of GM wheat in 2021 was limited to 225 farmers and approximately 55,000 ha (of a total of approximately 6.5 million ha) and was later referred to as “inventory ramp-up,” rather than commercial planting. This was mostly due to concerns regarding Brazil’s lagging approval and the potential export risks associated with contamination.

In May 2021, Bioceres announced an agreement with the Argentinian company Havanna for the latter to produce baked goods using the GM wheat. Later that year in November, after a brief delay, Brazil finally approved the sale of HB4 wheat, as well as the commercial release of flour made from the wheat, paving the way for commercial cultivation in Argentina.

In May 2022, Argentina approved the commercial cultivation of the crop for the 2022/23 planting season. This approval includes the ability to commercialize the seed as well as products derived from the wheat. However, Bioceres has stated that it will maintain its preserved identity plan and delay the commercialization of the seed until there is greater acceptance of the GM wheat and its derivatives worldwide. To that end, also in May, Bioceres received approval from  Australia and New Zealand for the sale and use of foods made with HB4 wheat.

Last month, Brazil revealed that it was testing the GM wheat in response to the global tightening of wheat markets and in an effort to become more self-sufficient. Test fields near Brasilia had been planted in March with the hope of having data on the wheat’s performance in August.

On the heels of Australia’s approval of HB4 wheat for consumption, Bioceres is planning to carry out cultivation field trials in Australia and is seeking Australia’s approval to cultivate the GM wheat by 2024. There is no word on the potential import approval of HB4 wheat by China, which is also a significant trading partner with Argentina.

It should be noted that Bioceres just received FDA approval for HB4 wheat and is awaiting USDA approval for cultivation in the U.S. No GM wheat has ever been approved for cultivation in the U.S. Monsanto conducted GM wheat field trials in the U.S. in the late 1990s and mid-2000s but voluntarily withdrew its request for cultivation approval based on the concerns of farmers and the wheat industry regarding the potential for wheat contamination and risks to international trade. In 2020, the value of US wheat exports was $6.3 billion.

The risk of contamination is real. Between 2013 and 2019, more than 10 years after the last U.S. field trial, there have been at least five reported incidents of GM wheat contamination (Oregon, 2013Montana, 2014Washington, 2016Alberta, 2018; and Washington, 2019). As a result of those contamination events, Japan and South Korea suspended the import of U.S. wheat; China, Thailand, and the Philippines tightened inspection; and the EU urged member countries to increase the import testing of wheat.

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

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.

New GMO Alert: Animal-Free Dairy Products to Watch Out for

Recently, animal-free dairy proteins have entered the marketplace as ingredients in a variety of food products, including milk, ice cream, and cake mix. To date, these products have featured Perfect Day’s synbio animal-free whey proteins. However, Perfect Day is not the only company developing these synbio proteins, which are produced using genetically modified microorganisms in a process often referred to as precision fermentation. It’s important to note that all products of new genetic engineering techniques, including synbio (aka precision fermentation), are defined as GMOs by the Project’s Standard.

According to a recent report by the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) Initiative, fermentation startups raked in more than $1.4B in 2021. So, further growth and expansion in the marketplace is anticipated. Below is a brief round-up of some of the other companies that are actively pursuing the development of synbio animal-free dairy proteins.

Imagindairy, an Israeli precision fermentation company, is using its proprietary synthetic biology platform to produce animal-free milk proteins. Imagindairy completed a $13M seed funding round in 2021 and then recently brought in an additional $15M in an extended seed round, for a total of $28M. The company expects to launch its animal-free milk proteins by 2023, focusing on the B2B market, with the help of strategic collaborations.

New Culture is developing animal-free dairy proteins – specifically casein proteins – in order to create animal-free cheese. In late 2021, the company raised $25M in a Series A funding round. New Culture’s goal is to release its first product, mozzarella, in select pizzerias in 2022, with wider distribution in 2023. The company has reportedly established a number of partnerships with unnamed entities to help streamline the entry of its products into the marketplace.

Change Foods is also focusing on animal-free casein, the dairy protein that provides the melting properties of cheese, as well as inputs such as lipids and aromatic compounds. The company recently completed an extended seed funding round, securing $12M, bringing their total funding to $15.3M. Change Foods is exploring the potential for partnerships in the retail and food service industries. The company plans to launch its first product in 2023.

Formo (formerly known as Legendairy Foods) is also using precision fermentation to create animal-free dairy proteins. Located in Berlin, Germany, the company is touted as being Europe’s first developer of animal-free dairy products. In the fall of 2021, Formo closed a Series A funding round that raised $50M, which was identified as a record for a European food technology company. The money is earmarked for the construction of a pilot plant and the fast-tracking of commercial production. The focus of the company is on cheese.

Remilk, another Israeli developer of synbio animal-free dairy proteins, is building what has been referred to as the world’s largest full-scale precision fermentation facility. The announcement followed the close of the company’s recent $120M Series B Funding round. The facility will be located in Kalundborg, Denmark; and Remilk anticipates that when the 750,000-sq-ft facility is completed, it will generate dairy proteins equivalent to the amount produced by 500 dairy cows. A target product release date has not been announced.

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

Betterland Foods™ – Food that is better for whom?

Animal-free food alternatives continue to enter the marketplace with great fanfare. Many of these products are created using synthetic biology, also known as synbio, a technique that involves the genetic engineering of microorganisms to create novel ingredients that an unmodified microorganism could never produce – such as dairy or whey proteins. It’s important to note that all products of new genetic engineering techniques, including synbio, are defined as GMOs by the Project’s Standard.

A new company, Betterland Foods™, made its debut at Expo West this year. Founded by Liz Falsetto, the creator of Think!® protein bars, Betterland Foods™ has been established to partner with Perfect Day® and create products that use the synbio developer’s animal-free whey protein. The new company’s first product, Betterland Milk™, was introduced at the show.

The milk comes in two forms, whole milk and extra creamy, and is expected to launch in retail stores this summer. In addition to Perfect Day’s animal-free whey protein, the milk also contains water, sunflower oil, MCT oil (a supplement made from medium-chain triglycerides, a type of fat), cane sugar, inulin, pea starch, gellan gum, locust bean gum, pea flower extract, sea salt, and natural flavors.

Despite its official “launch” at Expo West, Betterland Milk™ actually made its debut last fall when two Starbucks locations in the Seattle area initiated a trial of the novel milk product. At the time, the product was attributed to Perfect Day®.

Shortly after Expo West, Betterland Foods™ released its second product, the WOO™ candy bar. Designed to mimic a well-known chocolate, caramel, and peanut chocolate bar, the WOO™ candy bar also features Perfect Day’s animal-free whey protein (listed as cow-free whey protein on the ingredient panel). Other ingredients include inulin fiber, soluble corn fiber, sunflower lecithin, gum Arabic, sunflower lecithin, and guar gum. The candy bar is currently available on the WOO™ website.

According to Betterland Foods™, we should expect a variety of “cow-free” products based on Perfect Day’s animal-free whey protein to be released in the future. It is unclear to what extent future products of the independent Betterland Foods™ will be distinct from or similar to those offered by Perfect Day’s affiliated company, the Urgent Company.

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

Is a GE heat-tolerant cow a good thing?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that a genetically engineered (GE) cow poses a low risk and does not raise any safety concerns, making it safe for human consumption. The angus cow (Bos taurus) has been engineered using CRISPR-Cas9 to be more heat-tolerant based on genetic differences identified in other breeds that are either naturally more heat-tolerant or have been cross-bred over time to be better able to thrive in warmer climates.

The heritable trait achieved through the genetic change is shorter hair, known in the industry as a slick haircoat, which reportedly enables the cow to better regulate and tolerate heat. Officially, the cow is known as the PRLR-SLICK cow, referencing both the genetic change and the trait.

The PRLR-SLICK cow was developed by Recombinetics through its subsidiary Acceligen. Recombinetics is the company that also developed the "hornless cow," which was created using TALEN. Although the hornless cow was never submitted to the FDA for a safety review, the agency accidentally discovered that the cow’s genome included remnant bacteria DNA as off-target effects, rendering the animal transgenic (i.e., an organism with the genetic material of more than one species) and subject to more significant regulatory oversight. The project was subsequently put on hold by the developer.

In comparing the genome of the PRLR-SLICK cow to that of its non-engineered parent, both Recombinetics and the FDA identified off-target effects, but the FDA determined that these effects did not pose a safety risk. Thus, the PRLR-SLICK cow has no segregation or labeling requirements. It is anticipated that meat from these animals could enter the U.S. food supply chain in about 2 years.

The FDA’s determination represents the agency’s first decision for an intentional genomic alteration (IGA) in an animal for food use under the extended Enforcement Discretion Policy, which was enacted to allow the agency to have more discretion in the enforcement of specific safety rules outlined in the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). According to Steven M. Solomon, Director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, one of the goals is to “encourage other developers to bring animal biotechnology products forward for the FDA’s risk determination in this rapidly developing field, paving the way for animals containing low-risk IGAs to more efficiently reach the marketplace.”

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

Let them eat cake? It’s vegan— but it’s also GMO

Perfect Day and its affiliate the Urgent Company are exploring new avenues for Perfect Day’s genetically  engineered (GE), animal-free dairy and whey proteins.

Late last year, the Urgent Company released a new dessert under its Brave Robot brand: the Climate Hero Super Cake mix. The new offering is a vegan cake mix made with Perfect Day’s animal-free whey proteins as an egg substitute. The product is marketed to consumers as being better for the planet, citing both the omission of eggs and the compostable packaging.

The first product released under the Brave Robot Brand was Brave Robot ice cream, so this cake mix marks an expansion of the brand’s dessert offerings. At the moment, the yellow cake mix is available for $18 and is sold solely through the company’s website, but Brave Robot plans to eventually distribute the product through retail grocery chains.

In a related development, Perfect Day has partnered with Villa Dolce, a food service provider, to produce ready-to-bake desserts and gelato made with Perfect Day’s animal-free whey proteins. The ready-to-bake desserts will include cookie dough, pistachio cake, southern brown butter cake, and lava cake. The gelato will be available in seven flavors: sea salt vanilla & honeycomb, caramel cold brew, chocolate all’arancia, strawberry after dark, burnt caramel praline, pistachio latte, and Tahitian vanilla bean.

The new products will be available through DOT foods, a North American food industry redistributor with over 2,000 customers nationwide, including restaurants, resorts, casinos, hotels, and universities. At this time, it is unclear whether Villa Dolce’s new products will be labeled or their GE ingredients will be identified.


The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

More synbio GMOs hitting the grocery store courtesy of Modern Kitchen

After years of development, products of synthetic biology (synbio) are now entering the marketplace. We first heard about Perfect Day’s synbio dairy proteins (made using genetically engineered microbes) when they were introduced in Brave Robot ice cream. However, ice cream was just the beginning. A range of new products created using synbio are poised to enter the marketplace at an increasing pace.

The Urgent Company has released a second new product made with Perfect Day animal-free dairy proteins: a cream cheese spread. The spread is being marketed under the brand name Modern Kitchen.  Similar to the Urgent Company’s Brave Robot ice cream, which was launched in 2020, Modern Kitchen cream cheese spread uses Perfect Day’s synbio proteins, this time labeled on the ingredient panel as “non-animal whey proteins.”

The spread was launched on the Modern Kitchen website and made available in three flavors: spring onion and chive, strawberry, and harissa pepper. In addition to the synbio-produced whey protein, the ingredient list also includes potato starch, potato protein, and cornstarch. All three are derivatives of crops included on the Non-GMO Project’s high-risk list for their potential to be sourced from GMOs. In addition, the strawberry flavor includes sugar, possibly sourced from GM sugar beet, another high-risk crop.

Several of these ingredients are listed as being “non-GMO,” but we often see self-made non-GMO claims on products that the Non-GMO Project considers to be GMOs. It is also interesting to note that the product label states that the spread is “Made from Plants and Flora.” The Urgent Company chose the word “flora” to represent the genetically engineered microbes because it believes that the term is more "consumer friendly."

In addition to the website launch, the spread also made its East Coast debut at the first annual Brooklyn Bagelfest in October, an event sponsored by both Perfect Day and Modern Kitchen. Modern Kitchen plans to follow up its website launch with a limited retail store debut in Southern California in the coming months.

Perfect Day recently raised $350 million in Series D funding, bringing its total funding to $750 million.

 

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

Synbio Egg White Proteins Make Their Debut

“No chicken needed.” With the help of genetic engineering, one company is making animal-free egg proteins a reality. In this case, the proteins are made through synthetic biology using genetically engineered yeast. Products of synthetic biology are considered GMOs by the Non-GMO Project Standard and, if you’ve been tracking this newsletter you’ll know, represent a new tidal wave of GMOs entering the marketplace.

“World’s first animal-free egg protein”

In early October, Clara Foods, a biotechnology company founded to create synbio egg proteins using genetically modified yeast, announced that the company is rebranding as the EVERY Company and is launching its first animal-free egg protein, EVERY ClearEgg™. The product is being marketed as a clear alternative to other proteins, such as whey, for inclusion in a variety of beverages. 

Back in April, with an eye toward commercialization, Clara Foods announced that it was partnering with ZX Ventures, the innovation sector of Anheuser-Busch InBev, the large-scale brewer. The partnership marked the first project undertaken by the new BioBrew division of ZX Ventures, which was founded in 2019 to facilitate next-generation fermentation.

Worldwide distribution

The following month, Clara Foods announced that it had launched its first product, an animal-free pepsin, which is now branded as EVERY Pepsin. Both products are being distributed worldwide through Ingredion. The company is also working on another synbio egg product, EVERY Egg White, which is intended for use in a wider variety of food products. 

Clara Foods was founded in 2014 with the assistance of New Harvest, a research institute dedicated to cellular agriculture, and then nurtured with funding from SOSV under the IndieBio accelerator program.


The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

How was your plant-based “meat” made?

More than ever, consumers are turning to plant-based meat alternatives as a way to show their solidarity with nature and their commitment to more sustainable practices. However, it’s important to note that some of these products are made with GMOs, and more are likely on the way. When ingredients are made using biotechnology, including genetically engineered microorganisms (commonly referred to  as "synbio" — short for synthetic biology), they are considered GMOs by the Non-GMO Project Standard. 

That “meaty” flavor? GMO microorganisms

First, there was the Impossible™ Burger, with its synbio leghemoglobin, or heme, the product of a genetically engineered yeast that is designed to mimic the flavor and aroma of meat in a plant-based burger. Now, Motif FoodWorks, has announced the result of a limited-time promotion carried out at the Dallas, Texas, location of the eatery CoolGreens, which took place between May and July 2021. 

The event consisted of the introduction of two plant-based meat analog sandwiches that featured two new Motif FoodWorks products: Hemami™, a synbio myoglobin ingredient that provides an umami flavor, and Appetex™, which simulates the texture and mouthfeel of meat. Motif FoodWorks reports that it has submitted its FDA  application to be designated as Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS, for the synbio Hemami™. The determination is pending.

Those animal-free dairy proteins and fat? Same.
As part of the promotion, Motif FoodWorks solicited feedback from consumers in order to inform the development of ingredients going forward. Future products could include synbio animal-free dairy proteins and animal fats. The company anticipates that Hemami™ will be commercially available by the end of 2021, with Appetex™ becoming available the following year

More likely on the way

Motif FoodWorks is a subsidiary of Gingko Bioworks, the developer of custom-engineered organisms, and was founded as an ingredient innovation company.

Other companies are also developing products to enhance the flavor and texture of plant-based meat analogs. Melt & Marble, a Swedish company, recently raised €750,000 in seed funding to develop synbio animal-free animal fats through the genetic engineering of yeast (https://www.greenqueen.com.hk/melt-marble-funding/). The company’s ultimate goal is for these bespoke fats to be used in plant-based products to make them taste more like their meat counterparts. Melt & Marble hopes to debut a prototype of its first product – a “beef-like” fat – by the end of 2021. 

 

The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family. 

Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.

This article is part of a 3-part series on familiar foods with surprising backstories. Part Two: Chickens are quickly becoming the world's most widely consumed meat. Intensive factory farming dominates poultry production, creating a laundry list of related problems — but is genetic engineering an effective solution? 

Read Part One: Is Synbio Vanilla "Natural"? Heck, No! and Part Three: GMOs and Heritage Corn: Protecting the Source of Life

Chicken is quickly becoming the world's most popular meat. More than 90% of the world's chicken is produced through factory farming. This intensive livestock production method brings with it myriad problems, including horribly cruel conditions and an ideal setting for new pathogens to emerge. The conventional poultry industry is embracing new kinds of genetic engineering to pave the way to an all-chicken future. 

These days, most GMO corn and soy — the two most prevalent GMO crops — end up in animal feed. GMO livestock feed is, quite simply, the norm. However, the rise of new GMOs made with emerging techniques includes genetically engineering the animals themselves. In 2015,  GMO salmon became the first genetically engineered animal approved by the FDA for human consumption — but it surely won't be the last. 

If the future is chicken-centric, dependent on the co-existing apparatus of factory farming and GMOs, what else are we producing? 

The factory farming flu

Modern livestock production is an extension of industrial agriculture. Most chickens come from so-called "factory farming" operations, and even the shallowest internet searches reveal a deeply cruel system that demands reform. Agricultural biotechnology is often employed to expand fundamentally inhumane and dangerous practices. 

Factory farming practices house thousands of animals in crowded, filthy and stressful conditions. They come from genetically similar stock after generations of breeding to maximize growth. This creates the ideal conditions for viral and bacterial pathogens to emerge, mutate and spread. In the book Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, Dr. Michael Greger writes, "If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms." (If this prophecy seemed distant at the book's release in 2006, perhaps it has more resonance as we enter the third year of the coronavirus pandemic.)

Researchers at the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh are developing a GMO chicken with resistance to avian influenza. Currently, 90% of the chicken consumed globally comes from factory farming, making the suppression of bird flu a high priority. And while less flu is absolutely a good thing, engineering resistance treats the symptom (the rise of a specific pathogen) while leaving the underlying cause in place (a production model that breeds pathogens nearly as quickly as it breeds chickens).

Bird flu is not the only animal-borne disease plaguing concentrated livestock operations. The Guardian lists Mers, Nipah and Covid-19 as pathogens of importance, while The Counter just published a deep dive into salmonella. Perhaps the best lesson here is that nature is dextrous, and viruses and bacteria emerge and mutate wherever conditions are kind to them. 

Why did Bill Gates cross the road?

Chicken's rise as The World's Most Popular Meat isn't an entirely natural phenomenon. It has had several helpers along the way. 

Philanthropic organizations and governments in developing economies are singing poultry's praises. Bill Gates himself — Microsoft mogul and owner of more farmland in North America than any other individual — blogged about chicken-keeping as the antidote to poverty and even donated 100,000 birds to impoverished families. Ethiopia is one of several sub-saharan African countries expecting a population spike in the coming decades. The government is already promoting consumption of and investment in resources for the next generation's nuggets. 

Chicken-keeping is commonplace in Ethiopia's rural areas, where a flock of 5 or 6 birds can provide crucial income for a family. These chickens are indigenous varieties with a different lineage than the factory farm broilers. Indigenous chickens scavenge for their food and are skilled at evading predators, but they don't grow quickly or lay frequently. Even by the standards of a developing economy, many Ethiopians consume very little meat. 

All of which begs the question: What do the Bill Gateses of the world have in mind when they picture expanded poultry production? Is the landscape populated with indigenous birds, well-adapted to their environment but considered low-producers? Were Gates' 100,000 free chickens standard broiler stock, bred for high productivity but ill-suited to life in Africa's rural villages? Perhaps the chicken of the future is a new bird altogether. Research facilities across sub-Saharan Africa and the EU are working to integrate the productivity of factory farm breeds with the resilience of the indigenous chicken — and genetic engineering is one of the tools available to them.

The trouble with chickens bred for productivity is that they show deficits in other areas. Fast-growing birds tend to be slower birds, less skilled at scavenging and avoiding predators. The factory farm setting which gave rise to conventional broilers controls for those particular risks, but chicken-keepers in sub-saharan Africa seldom have supplementary feed or shelter to offer their flocks. 

Currently, 90% of the chicken consumed globally comes from factory farming. The system is easily replicable, environmentally questionable and morally reprehensible. Can small household flocks survive with birds explicitly bred for a factory setting? If factory farmed livestock production spread across the planet's fastest growing continent, what dangers would follow? 

Food for thought

Encouraging the consumption of animal protein in this day and age has another, more cynical purpose: the conversion of overproduced commodity grains — mostly GMOs — into discrete protein units. In the book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk, Mark Bittman identifies livestock as a great way to turn grain into money. For example, it takes 8 pounds of grain to generate 1 pound of chicken, smoothly turning crops into profit. That kind of conversion rate is a good thing, Bittman writes, "if you're looking for a product that's easier to ship and more marketable than corn."

The idea places an unsettling spin on Gates' 100,000 free chickens, as does the phrasing in Fortune magazine's article outlining biotechnology's role in "finding ways for farmers to produce more corn and soybeans on every acre." It becomes difficult to read those words without seeing an ulterior motive. 

Only the philanthropists themselves know their motivations. However, the long-term plan bears investigating  — particularly with initiatives based on foreign, historically exploitative support. Is a movement, new product or aid package an effective way to feed people or an effective way to extract wealth? Does it create self-sufficiency or ongoing dependence? Will it concentrate power in foreign hands, ensuring continued influence over previously colonized land? 

If colonization and imperialism sound like buzzwords from previous centuries, keep in mind these twin specters operate under the guise of progress and development. In the end, only the methods of approach have evolved. Genetically engineered animals and crops are among the sneakiest, as "helping hands" — including patented GMOs and costly agricultural products — displace traditional wisdom and locally-adapted seeds. Meanwhile, the beneficiaries are the same as they've ever been.

It's been nearly 30 years since the USDA approved the first genetically modified crop. During that time, technology has drastically outpaced regulation — and products made from new GMO techniques are hitting grocery store shelves near you.

When genetically modified organisms first came on the scene in the early 1990s, the cast of characters was limited. A handful of commodity crops — including soy, corn and cotton — were engineered by a few giant agrichemical corporations to withstand weedkillers or to produce their own insecticide. Three decades later, there are countless players on the stage: Biotech startups create new products using emerging techniques. New GMO techniques outpace traditional methods. An array of synthetic biology ingredients and even genetically engineered animal products appear in food and body care. This wild expansion is quickly rendering regulations and labeling requirements for GMOs ineffective and outdated.

Products made from new GMOs are impacting virtually every aisle in the grocery store. These new types of GMOs are engineered for a wide range of traits, and the techniques used to create them are both cheaper and faster. The names of these techniques might look familiar, as headlines trumpet the latest developments in CRISPR and TALEN gene editing, in gene silencing and RNAi, and in the chameleon-like potential of synthetic biology (also known as "synbio"). 

Some of these new GMOs can take a shorter path to market, too, because regulations applied to traditional genetic modification don't necessarily apply to new GMOs in the same way. The incoming Bioengineered Food labeling law fails to address many products of new techniques, leaving shoppers in the dark about whether or not there are new GMOs in their grocery cart.

What You Need to Know About the BE Labeling Law

From farms to labs: The rise of synbio

Synthetic biology offers cheap and easy access to synthetic flavors, colors or fragrances. News reports from June announced a memorable milestone, with scientists now able to convert plastic waste into vanilla flavoring using synbio. (While we, at the Non-GMO Project, are firm believers in waste reduction, our enthusiasm stops short of eating plastic.) Synbio allows manufacturers to source many familiar aromas by programming genetically engineered microbes to convert a cheap ingredient into a signature flavor or fragrance. It's the ultimate low-rent alchemy.

Synbio scents and colors can be found in many cosmetics and body care products, and the technology can also be used to create compounds for skin care, including synthetic human collagen and spider silk proteins. Some synthetic vitamin compounds used in supplements are also made with synbio.

One of the fastest areas of expansion in new GMOs is in protein alternatives and animal-derived products. Raising livestock is resource-intensive, and industrial livestock farming can be famously destructive to the environment. Synthetic versions of animal-derived foods are all the rage, and the Impossible Burger is one of the best-known GMO products in this category. The Impossible Burger is made with GMO soy and the unique synbio "heme" that gives it blood-like juices and general "meatiness." The regulation and approval of heme has been contentious, with environmental groups advocating for a rigorous evaluation of this novel substance. Regulatory bodies have been accommodating towards Impossible Foods, though: When the Impossible Burger was first offered in restaurants in 2016, the FDA had not yet completed its assessment or approval of the product's safety and neither the company nor the FDA made the public aware of this fact. 

New GMO techniques are being used to genetically modify animals, and the meat has been approved for human consumption. A genetically modified pig was engineered by inserting human DNA and deleting a portion of the pig's DNA to create organs and tissue for medical uses that would be more acceptable to a human recipient. The pig has since been approved for both human consumption and for medical uses.

What happens when technology outpaces regulation?

GMOs have traditionally been created by inserting foreign DNA into an organism. The crop containing foreign DNA was now a "transgenic" GMO crop. The foreign DNA included a type of bacteria that is considered a plant pest by the USDA, which led to a department within the USDA regulating GMO crops. 

New GMO techniques use different procedures to produce GMOs. The resulting organisms don't necessarily contain foreign DNA. Gene-editing techniques, for example, can modify genetic material within an organism, and synbio uses genetically engineered microbes to create new compounds through fermentation. 

Because earlier government regulation was based on the presence of foreign DNA, new GMOs are not subject to sufficient oversight. This is one of the pitfalls of technological development: Technology expands into new areas, beyond the scope of established government bureaucracy. When this happens, new tech can remain unregulated or under regulated until oversight catches up. In the meantime, stuff falls through the cracks. In the case of new GMOs, an entire bull nearly fell through the cracks. 

In 2015, a pair of hornless bulls were born, created using the gene editing tool TALEN. A few years later, an FDA bioinformatician found a sequence of non-bovine DNA in the genome of one of the bulls, presumably from contamination during the editing process. It's important to note that the discovery of the non-bovine DNA was entirely accidental. It wasn't detected by the bull's developers, but by an external agency working on a routine data check. 

This story illustrates the problem of new technology and not knowing what to look for: Had the FDA scientist not chosen this bull's genetic profile for analysis, the non-bovine DNA would likely not have been discovered (remember, no one was looking for it). It's unknown exactly what impact, if any, that DNA sequence might have had, but that's the point of regulation — to mitigate the risks of new and novel creations. Marching boldly into unknown territory, where guardrails have yet to be built because it is unknown territory, is extremely reckless. 

Advertising the next generation of GMOs

The gulf between traditional and new GMOs affects more than regulation. Biotech developers are also exploiting it for marketing. The negative public perception of GMOs is widely known — most shoppers are aware of the GMO issue, and many choose to avoid GMOs at the store*. Some brands are trying to distance themselves from those negative associations, marketing new GMOs as "non-GMO," even while relying on biotechnology to create novel products.  

For example, Perfect Day — developers of synbio animal whey protein and the vegan ice cream it's made with — poses the question, "Does your protein contain GMOs?" in their FAQs. Their response reads:

"No, animal-free protein does not contain GMOs…. Genetic engineering is part of our process, but genetically modified organisms or any detectable genetic material is not present in our protein." 

That is a carefully crafted answer, focusing on the absence of genetically modified DNA in the finished product while minimizing the role of genetic engineering in the product's creation. 

To avoid GMOs, look for the Butterfly!

New products made with emerging techniques are entering the market across categories, and most new GMOs are unregulated and unlabeled. 

The Non-GMO Project monitors new biotech developments as well as their commercial availability — all so you don't have to. Our dedicated research team has seen a dramatic increase in the number of biotechnology developers — the number of companies we’re monitoring has grown nearly 300% in the last 5 years. 

While the incoming Bioengineered Food labeling law requires disclosures on some GMO products, it is not comprehensive. New GMOs in particular risk being overlooked because the law requires detectible modified genetic material in the finished product to trigger mandatory labeling. Products made from new techniques don't necessarily leave modified material behind, and some new GMOs are currently untestable. 

In the absence of meaningful regulation and reliable labeling, the work we do at the Non-GMO Project is more important than ever. Through our rigorous and evolving Standard and the continuous research that informs it, we support your right to choose whether or not to consume GMOs.

 

*Source: Organic & Beyond © 2020, The Hartman Group, Inc.

 

 

 

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