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.
Every June, we highlight natural dairy products and producers during National Dairy Month. This year's celebrations are particularly important because of a new GMO antagonist: synbio non-animal dairy proteins.
Synbio dairy proteins are made using synthetic biology, which generally exploits genetically modified microorganisms to produce novel compounds. Synthetic biology is just one part of the biotech industry's push towards an increasingly unnatural, engineered food system reliant on patents and corporate control.
Of course, genetic engineering isn't the only path to innovation. One farm at a time, natural dairy producers are combining age-old strategies with cutting-edge infrastructure to adapt to — and even mitigate — the climate crisis, proving that cows can be part of a comprehensive regenerative strategy with incalculable benefits.
Here are the top 5 ways natural dairy leaves synthetic biology in the dirt:
1. Nature's first fertilizer
Rather than relying on synthetic fertilizers made with and transported using fossil fuels, regenerative dairy operations treat and repurpose cow waste solids to feed the soil. This is the oldest form of nutrient cycling, and ruminants are the stars of the show. It's also a valuable example of circular resource use, in which products that are generally regarded as waste are integrated on-farm to boost productivity and reduce externalities.
2. Renewable energy: the other gas
Much of dairy farming's climate impact comes from methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced through a cow's digestion. At Straus Family Creamery, innovative thinkers have turned that minus into a plus. The Straus team installed a methane digester to convert the gas into usable energy. In fact, according to a 2020 Sustainability Report, "the methane digester provides enough renewable energy to power the entire dairy farm, charge [founder and CEO] Albert Straus’ electric car and other farm vehicles."
3. Rotational grazing 'til the cows come home
Did you know properly managed cattle can help regenerate grasslands and sink carbon into the soil where it belongs? At Alexandre Family Farms, cows are moved around the acreage in a cycle of grazing, pooping and restoration. After 30 years of rotational grazing, soil carbon has increased dramatically, supporting a variety of ecosystem services and producing better forage for the cows.
4. Less water and cleaner water
Soil health is a critical part of regenerative farming — and what benefits soil also benefits water! Building healthy soil increases its water-holding capacity with dramatically improved performance during periods of drought and lessens the need for irrigation. Rich soil offers better filtration as water moves through it by maintaining moisture and keeping valuable nutrients on the farm for longer.
5. Beyond milk: ecosystem management
Regenerative farming lends itself to restructuring in ways that synbio doesn't. The deeper we dive into using and restoring resources, the more farming becomes about ecosystem management rather than just producing a commodity. A holistically managed system is more complex and delivers layers of benefits.
Ultimately, explorers are going to explore — and dairy farmers seeking ways to improve their systems are no different. What started on the farm expands beyond the horizon, diverting waste from landfills, sourcing reusable packaging or finding creative ways to bolster the local economy. Meanwhile, synbio remains inherently extractive, reinforcing patented technology, corporate power structures and GMOs.
At its height, synbio's environmental claims rest on doing less harm (though exactly how much less is uncertain), but that simply isn't enough. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must rebuild ecosystems and restore planetary health. Regeneration is essential for future generations' food security and investing in natural and nourishing food is top of mind for shoppers and farmers alike.
"Consumers want to make purchases based on their values, and farmers want to farm to their values…. This grassroots approach is driving so much change," said Chris Kerston, leader of the certification program Land to Market, in an interview with Civil Eats.
As this movement gains momentum, every dairy farm that develops a climate-positive plan becomes a resource for other farmers. That's some serious innovation.
June is National Dairy Month! We're celebrating natural dairy by investigating an interloper in the dairy aisle, a wolf in cow's clothing: synthetic biology dairy proteins. Synbio proteins have fed the biotech's growing dairy presence in recent years, spawning a range of products made with non-animal dairy proteins.
So far, these products include GMO milk, cheese spread and ice cream. It's important to note they aren't the same as plant-based dairy alternatives like oat milk or coconut milk ice cream. Plant-based products can be made naturally, and many are Non-GMO Project Verified options.
Non-animal dairy proteins, on the other hand, are another (non) animal altogether.
What is synbio dairy, precisely?
Non-animal dairy proteins are made through synthetic biology ("synbio"). Synbio techniques generally use genetically engineered microorganisms to produce novel compounds (in this case, dairy proteins) through fermentation.
Picture this: Massive steel fermentation tanks housed in warehouses are populated with genetically engineered microorganisms such as yeast. The GMO microorganisms are fed a steady diet of simple sugars, which are broken down through fermentation. Genetic engineering instructs those microorganisms to produce dairy proteins. Then, the dairy proteins are separated from the growth medium, and combined with flavorings, texturizers, colorants, etc. to create synthetic milk products.
The synbio process is antithetical to a non-GMO or regenerative dairy operation. On a real dairy farm, the livestock is cows, not herds of microorganisms. The cows eat grass, non-GMO feed or a combination of the two, while microorganisms are fed simple sugars. Cows produce whole milk, and the byproduct is cow manure, which is a natural fertilizer. Microorganisms produce dairy proteins through a combination of genetic engineering and fermentation. The byproducts include significant biohazardous waste. Milk and cream are whole foods, whereas the ingredient panel on non-animal milk comprises more than a dozen other ingredients.
Synthetic biology isn't just for dairy proteins. It can be used to generate a wide range of compounds, including flavors, scents, vitamins or other additives. Currently, synbio ingredients show up in virtually every aisle in the grocery store. The companies behind these products use the marketing term "precision fermentation" to describe synthetic biology to their customers, but the products it describes are precisely unnatural.
Venture capital and future outlook
In the last five years, the Non-GMO Project's biotechnology research team has tracked a sharp increase in biotech developers exploring synthetic biology. That proliferation reflects the staggering private investment and the exponential growth of unnatural synbio ingredients.
In the words of SynBioBeta founder John Cumbers, "Once synthetic biology can direct cells to change identity, the possibilities could be only limited by our imagination." As the technology evolves to include new methods and products, synbio's presence in the supply chain grows.
"Just about all of this new food technology is heavily funded by tech oligarchs, venture capitalists, or the occasional celebrity," writes author and industry expert Errol Schweizer. (Schweizer serves on the Non-GMO Project's Board of Directors and is a panelist in the upcoming seminar, How Do You Milk a Microbe? How Synbio is Disrupting the Dairy Industry). Investors are focused on monopolizing emerging markets. "Think: Uber, Doordash, Instacart, Amazon. The investors throwing billions of dollars at such enterprises are not altruists, even if some are motivated by animal rights or climate change."
You are what you eat
Synbio dairy isn't the first GMO to impact the dairy industry.
Traditional GMOs, such as genetically engineered corn, soy, cotton and alfalfa, are common ingredients in conventional livestock feed, and their production dominates North American agricultural land. Other ingredients that appear in synbio dairy product formulations — such as sweeteners and starches — are assumed to be sourced from GMOs. Non-GMO Project verification ensures that your favorite dairy products meet the highest standard for GMO avoidance.
While livestock farming can involve various practices and outcomes, we believe the future is non-GMO and regenerative. We continue to work toward reducing the dairy industry's environmental impact, moving towards carbon sequestration, healthy people, animals and soil. Join us next week when we explore the regenerative potential of dairy operations and compare synbio's environmental footprint.
Until then, look for the Butterfly in the dairy aisle and beyond!
This spring we’re exploring biotech’s biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series Are GMOs really going to save the world?
In our final piece of our three-part series, we examine the prospect of a global lab-based food system. Could synthetic biology be the key to producing food in a changing climate, or just a lot of hot air? Don't forget to check out Part One of the series, Genetically Engineered Golden Rice: Real Hope or Misplaced Hype? and Part Two, How Useful are GMOs on a Warming Planet?
Since the rise of industrial agriculture during the 20th century, our food system has been writing checks the earth can't cash. The biotech industry continues to develop new GMOs for human consumption, marketing some of them as must-haves for feeding a growing population on a warming planet. But, do biotech's promises hold when we examine them in detail?
New GMOs' performance in yield and adaptability is uncertain. Still, some downstream impacts are foreseeable: Patented GMOs will nearly certainly usher in a new era of privatization in the food supply, resource monopolies and even more industrialization.
What do you think — could the solution to industrialization in our food system be more industrialization?
We're skeptical, too.
Old MacDonald had a "ferm"
Have you heard of "precision fermentation"? It's a genetic engineering technique popping up at trade shows and in the media. Precision fermentation is a marketing term for synthetic biology (or "synbio"), a process that generally uses genetically modified microorganisms to produce a variety of compounds for food or industrial use. Synbio vanillin, some scents or flavors, synthetic vitamins and specialty ingredients such as Impossible Burger's blood-like "heme" are produced using this technique.
According to activist and writer George Manbiot, synbio (aka precision fermentation) will save us all.
In 2020, Manbiot penned a controversial article for the Guardian proposing synthetic biology as the ideal production model for most human food. Farming, he wrote, must be replaced by "ferming," a system under which proteins, egg and dairy replacements would come from giant vats in labs and warehouses, and the remaining carbohydrate residue would be transformed into our favorite comfort foods. By adopting a lab-based food system, Manbiot argues we could rewild agricultural landscapes and curb environmental disaster.
Leaving aside for a moment what we imagine would be a tidal wave of unforeseen impacts and micronutrient deficiencies, is such a future even possible?
The first issue concerns practicality: Global "ferming" would involve a dizzying amount of new infrastructure. A lab-based food system takes production indoors, requiring immense amounts of energy. Even if we were to convert to green energy, completely replacing the natural and elegant process of photosynthesis and moving our food production indoors isn’t efficient.
There's also another kind of fuel to consider — the "food" needed to sustain those genetically modified microorganisms so they can churn out the compounds we'll later consume. Synbio frequently employs simple sugars such as sugar cane, genetically modified corn or genetically modified sugar beets. Growing enough food for our food brings back the industrial monocultures of GMO crops that "ferming" was meant to replace.
Finally, there's the issue of food system monopolization, which results in negative impacts for just about everyone who eats. Currently, just four agrichemical companies own more than 60% of the global seed supply and a handful of food manufacturers control the most popular grocery store products. Global "ferming" would likely increase our dependence on private ownership. A recent article in Forbes summed up the problem of precision fermentation and privatization: "What will be the implications for a single company to own the formula for milk, honey or eggs?" (The article's author Errol Schweizer serves on the Non-GMO Project Board of Directors). Keep in mind, market monopolies work wonderfully for the corporations who hold them, but "consumers, farmers, small food companies and the planet lose out if the top four firms control 40% or more of total sales."
Unsurprisingly, industrial systems tend to approach complex and interconnected problems with industrial-style solutions. However, extractive approaches badly distort the issues and root causes of serious problems, preventing meaningful and effective remedies. Additionally, the biotech industry's genetically engineered solutions — such as "precision fermentation" and other new GMOs — prioritize costly quick fixes over systemic changes and accelerate the privatization of the world's food supply.
Thankfully, the path forward needn't be so grim. There are authentic, agroecological solutions to our most grave problems, solutions that prioritize the welfare of people and the planet over shareholder profits. New pathways emerge by working holistically with the whole food system — and the people whose work drives it.
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 article is part of a 3-part series on familiar foods with surprising backstories. Part One: What is the past, present and future of the humble vanilla bean, a tasty and lucrative crop that pits biotechnology against traditional knowledge and sustainable farming?
Read Part Two: What Does Bill Gates Have To Do With Ethiopian Chickens? and Part Three: GMOs and Heritage Corn: Protecting the Source of Life
There's a new genetic engineering technique in town: Synthetic biology, or "synbio" — and it's already on store shelves. Synbio techniques generally exploit genetically modified microorganisms such as yeast or algae to produce compounds for industrial or commercial use. On ingredient labels, these compounds might even be listed as "natural flavors"! In 2014, synbio vanilla became the first product of this technique on the market.
How, you may wonder, can a synbio product created by engineered yeast microbes be marketed as a natural flavor? The dubious description is based on the molecular makeup of the finished compound — not on the method of production, and definitely not on the genetic engineering that made it possible.
Synbio is a new twist in the winding road of biotechnology. What does synbio mean for the future of the most popular flavor in the world?
Biopirates of the Caribbean
The flavor many of us know and love comes from the beans of a flowering orchid vine native to Mesoamerica. Europeans landing in the Americas in the 16th century took vanilla away with them. They distributed vines throughout the tropics, following the routes of imperial expansion: The British, Spanish and Dutch all tried to produce vanilla in colonized lands in Southeast Asia.
But, for 300 years, the vines remained fruitless.
We know now the missing ingredient was the pollinator. Flowers don't produce beans without pollination. Vanilla's natural habitat is also home to unique insects, perfectly sized and shaped to access the deep recesses of the flower. Foreign pollinators couldn't do the job, and vanilla production stalled.
This drought would have continued if not for the innovation of a 12-year-old boy named Edmond.
How a slave created an industry
For centuries, horticulturists and naturalists tried to coax vanilla vines into productivity. The breakthrough finally came when a slave in the French colony of Bourbon developed the hand pollination technique still used today. Le geste d'Edmond, or "Edmond's gesture," was fundamental to the lucrative natural vanilla market, but Edmond himself never benefited from it. Because he was a young Black slave, his innovation was doubted, derided and ultimately appropriated.
The modern vanilla market is centered in the region where Edmond lived, where a subtle flavor once harvested by Indigenous peoples, taken by colonizers and finally brought into production by a slave still flourishes.
Natural vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world, and demand far exceeds what the vines produce. To supply the difference, chemists developed artificial versions derived from wood pulp or petrochemicals. Artificial vanilla appears in a range of products, from candles to candy.
However, artificial vanilla made without genetic engineering doesn't displace natural vanilla farming because labeling restrictions prevent it from being called a natural flavor. Synbio vanilla, on the other hand, is the product of new and insufficiently regulated technology. Corporate marketing materials use language such as "all natural" to describe their product, ignoring that synbio products are created in vats in warehouses. This puts synbio vanilla directly in the path of the natural vanilla market — and the 200,000+ jobs in sustainable agroforestry that go with it.
Savor vanilla. Save the world.
Vanilla vines thrive in rainforest conditions where they climb native trees. They coexist happily with flora and fauna and can even be grown alongside coffee or other food crops. Traditional vanilla farming is a low-impact, high-benefit farming system that supports the conservation of biodiverse rainforests.
The people who grow vanilla mostly do so in developing economies where jobs and security are rare. They apply specialized skills to support their families and preserve diverse ecosystems. In some regions, vanilla farming also has a profound cultural significance, as one farmer explains: "For my community, the value of vanilla goes way beyond economic factors. It has a cultural value and really it represents an identity for us."
Why synbio is a no-go
Reliance on synbio vanilla would destroy the livelihood of skilled farmers in the Global South. Vibrant forest farms would likely be converted into sugar plantations, supplying fuel for those modified yeasts bubbling away in distant warehouses. Deforestation, industrial agriculture and genetic engineering would replace diverse and healthy forest farms.
And then there is the loss of the incomparable taste and scent of natural vanilla, a complexity that comes from the soil where it grows, the vegetation it neighbors, and the diet of the pollinators in its Mexican homeland. These kinds of dynamic, interactive systems can never be replicated in a warehouse.
It's been a big year for the biotech industry. You may have noticed the wealth of headlines reporting breakthroughs in gene editing and other new GMO techniques, news stories littered with acronyms like CRISPR, TALEN and RNAi. These are just some of the new techniques being used to create novel products in our food supply — some of which are even being marketed as "non-GMO"!
But you won't see the Butterfly on these products.
At the Non-GMO Project, we recognize that any process in which an organism’s genetic material is engineered in a laboratory is genetic engineering. The products of emerging techniques — including CRISPR, TALEN, RNAi and gene drives — are GMOs. The Non-GMO Project Standard adheres to the definition of GMOs laid out by the Codex Alimentarius, the internationally recognized set of standards addressing food issues, from production to labeling and everything in between.
Because the new federal bioengineered food labeling law does not recognize many products of emerging genetic engineering techniques as GMOs, tracking new techniques and their impact on the food supply is more important than ever. Rest assured, the products of gene editing are excluded from the Non-GMO Project Standard, and packaged goods that rely on gene-edited ingredients are not eligible to wear the Butterfly seal.
A GMO-producing trio: TALEN, CRISPR and RNAi
In 2019, a GMO soybean became the first gene edited crop commercially available in the United States. The soybeans were engineered using a technique called TALEN, resulting in more oleic acid and fewer trans-fats. These soybeans do not require disclosure under the new bioengineered food labeling law, and oil or meal derived from the GMO soybeans could end up entering the food supply marketed as a "non-GMO product."
TALEN has also been used to modify alfalfa for animal feed, and even to modify the animals themselves. One infamous case of TALEN-gone-wrong can be found in the GMO cattle engineered to be hornless. The hornless bull was initially hailed as a success, but was later found to contain non-bovine DNA that could increase antibiotic resistance. This extra genetic information was picked up in the lab during the genetic engineering process. Critically, the company responsible for the creation of the GMO cattle did not find this error — it was detected purely by chance by an FDA researcher running tests on software.
Another gene-editing tool used to create GMO livestock is CRISPR. Of all the emerging acronyms, this is likely the most familiar, as CRISPR has generated a lot of press — and controversy. Its creators won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery, while a scientist in China "shocked the world" with the use of CRISPR to edit human embryos.
There are many projects involving CRISPR in development, including some varieties of genetically modified livestock. Researchers are working to create animals that offer producers higher profit margins or can better withstand the harsh conditions of factory farming. Genetically modified animals include such creations as "double-muscled" pigs and poultry with enhanced immune systems.
CRISPR is often described to layfolk as "operating like a pair of scissors." Or, in a much grander vision for the future, the Nobel Prize press release described CRISPR as "a tool for rewriting the code of life" — a jaw-dropping example of hubris considering how much we don't know about the function of genetic material.
Whether it's kitchen chemistry or re-creating the world, the overall message is, "We've got this."
In truth, we very much don't have this. The gene-editing process can impact sections of DNA that weren't intended, creating so-called "off target effects." There are also the unforeseen consequences resulting from our limited knowledge of the complex and interrelated functions of genes.
One recent CRISPR story involves a bull named Cosmo, engineered to produce more male offspring — a beneficial trait in the beef industry. In the case of Cosmo, the Baker City Herald reported as much:
"A close look at Cosmo’s DNA after birth revealed Crispr’s unpredictability. Researchers said there was a piece of genetic code that didn’t belong, and Cosmo had more SRY, the gene that causes male traits, than intended."
The Baker City Herald continues with a description of odd side effects in other CRISPR animals: “pigs with extra vertebrae, cattle that die prematurely, rabbits with huge tongues.”
This "rewrite" of the code of life is clearly not ready for publication.
Short for RNA Interference, this new GMO technique uses RNA molecules to interfere with the expression of certain genes in order to modify an organism's attributes. For example, RNAi was used in the creation of the Arctic Apple to interfere with the apple's natural tendency to turn brown when it's cut open.
Additional products of RNAi currently on the market include some varieties of Simplot Innate potatoes, engineered to reduce the appearance of bruising. The trouble with inhibiting a gene to hide damage is that the damage is still there, weakening tissues and providing an entrypoint for pathogens. It's only the visual indicators that have been eliminated. At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that's important information and we're better off recognizing it for what it is.
Learn more about GMO potatoes
Syn(bio) City — GMO dairy, breast milk and "meat juices"
Short for synthetic biology, “synbio”refers to the merging of biology and engineering. Currently, the term largely refers to the genetic engineering of microorganisms such as yeast and is often used to produce flavorings or dairy proteins.
Synbio dairy proteins are a hot item in the frozen foods aisle, providing the key ingredient to several GMO frozen dairy desserts, including Brave Robot, Smitten N’Ice Cream, Nick's and Graeter’s Perfect Indulgence. These brands all get their "dairy-identical" synbio dairy proteins from a single source: Perfect Day, who brought their own limited release ice cream to market for $20/pint a few years back. One of the co-founders at Perfect Day, Ryan Pandya, described their marketing strategy in enigmatic terms: "We want people to know it’s plant-based but not from plants, it’s an animal product but without animals." Which leaves one to wonder: What is it, then? Well, it's GMO.
These dairy-without-the-animals desserts put a lot of weight on their non-animal status, appealing to the vegan market. But here we hit a snag: Producing the non-animal dairy protein relies on a digitized copy of a cow gene. While that information is part of an open source database, the genetic material originally came from an animal. According to Perfect Day, it came from a cow named L1 Dominette 01449. Depending on how strictly one defines and practices veganism, the origin of the genetic material becomes vitally important. A product that originated with blood drawn from a cow may not satisfy some vegans.
Other synbio products include human collagen for the skin care market, as well as "heme," a synbio compound that is used to create meat-like juices in the Impossible Burger. The Impossible Burger is also a tricky proposition for vegans: While the heme is derived from GMO soybeans, Impossible Foods conducted animal testing during its development.
Developers are also using new techniques to synthesize proteins found in human breast milk, with a potential use in GMO infant formula.
The Butterfly is more important than ever!
With novel products made with new GMO techniques entering the market, it's more important than ever to look for the Butterfly. Many of these products won't require a "bioengineered food" disclosure under the new BE labeling law — a law which focuses on foods with detectable modified genetic material in the final product.
Learn more about the bioengineered (BE) labeling law
The biotech industry knows all too well that the majority of Americans want GMOs to be clearly labeled. So, as they bring new products to market, they are bending over backwards to distance themselves from the simplest and most powerful acronym of all: G-M-O.
At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that everyone has the right to know what's in their food. That is only more critical in light of emerging technologies and new techniques, creating organisms that humans haven't eaten before.
You already know about herbicide-tolerant crops, Bt crops, and other types of transgenic GMOs such as the AquAdvantage salmon—we’ve been talking about them for years. If you have been paying attention to the news, you have probably heard a little about CRISPR and the newest wave of GMOs. These technologies, which may be referred to as gene editing, gene silencing, GMOs 2.0, or just “new GMOs,” have been making headlines recently.
When the Non-GMO Project talks about “new GMOs” or “products of new genetic engineering techniques,” we generally mean all the emerging GMOs that aren’t covered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Plant Protection Act (PPA). The PPA is a law that is meant to fight the spread of pests that can harm valuable crops. It essentially says that people cannot import plant pests, bring them across state lines, or otherwise spread them around. This law is important because many GMO plants are (loosely) regulated under this act because they include DNA from Agrobacterium tumefaciens; a plant pest.
The newest types of GMOs do not include DNA from that bacteria, so they are not regulated under the PPA. This leads some people to mistakenly believe that they are not the products of genetic engineering. Some companies are even marketing these crops as non-GMO. The Non-GMO Project is working hard to correct these misconceptions. We all know that there is no way to start with biotechnology and end up with something that is not the product of genetic modification. New GMOs are still GMOs—and they’re not allowed in Non-GMO Project Verified products.
So What are New Genetic Engineering Techniques?
It’s important to understand that all of the following techniques are forms of biotechnology, and they all produce GMOs.
- Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) creates double-stranded cuts in DNA. No products of CRISPR are commercially available right now but they could be soon.
- RNA interference (RNAi) uses RNA molecules to inhibit gene expression via translation blocking or degradation. This is how the GM Simplot Innate potatoes are made.
- Oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM) involves inserting new DNA that mimics a portion of the plant’s genome. That new DNA is incorporated via the cell’s own repair function. This is how a new type of commercially available GMO canola oil is produced.
- Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs) are enzymes that can be used to cut DNA. There is a variety of GMO soy produced using TALEN.
This is not an exhaustive list; there are many techniques being used to create new GMOs and there may be more on the horizon. The Non-GMO Project is committed to staying ahead of these technologies in order to protect our supply chain.
Fermentation: More than Just Kombucha and Sauerkraut
You may also have heard of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is generally used to genetically modify microorganisms in order to exploit their natural function and make them produce compounds they would not typically produce. For example, yeast is sometimes genetically modified so that it creates vanillin instead of what it would normally excrete. In addition, that yeast produces vanillin by consuming sugar (often from genetically modified sugar beets or corn) in a fermentation tank. Companies sometimes call this process “brewing” or “fermenting,” so be aware that those words are often used to disguise synthetic biology in this context.
Like all GMOs, products of synthetic biology have the potential to disrupt traditional economies. If it’s cheaper to make vanilla flavor using GM yeast than it is to make it with real vanilla beans, that hurts the farmers in places like Madagascar who depend on harvesting vanilla beans for their income. Do we really want to buy into a food system that would take their livelihood and export it to American corporations? At the Non-GMO Project, our answer is a resounding “no.” We want to help create a future that supports a diverse genetic inheritance, ecological harmony, and farmers everywhere.
You can help create a future we can all be proud of by choosing Non-GMO Project Verified products at the grocery store. By voting with our dollars every time we shop, collectively we have the power to change the way our food is grown and made. As products of synthetic biology and other types of new GMOs become more commonplace, we all need to work together to protect our non-GMO food supply.
Want to learn more about new GMOs? Check out this article by Non-GMO Project Executive Director Megan Westgate.