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.