The first commercially available gene-edited food is now on the market, but consumers won’t know where it’s being sold or if they’ve eaten food that contains it. The product, a gene-edited soybean oil created by biotech company Calyxt, was picked up by its first user — a Midwest company with both restaurant and foodservice locations, which is using it for frying as well as in dressings and sauces.1
Calyxt’s soybean oil, Calyno, contains two inactivated genes, resulting in an oil with no trans fats, increased heart-healthy oleic acid and a longer shelf life. Along with refusing to identify the buyer of its gene-edited high-oleic soybean oil, Calyxt is marketing its product as “non-GMO,” although it’s clearly genetically engineered.
Using Semantics to Hide GMOs
Although they’re genetically engineered, gene-edited foods are not marketed as GMOs, nor are they labeled as such. The difference comes down to a matter of semantics.
Calyxt used Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nuclease (TALEN) to find and edit DNA sequences in the making of its soybean oil, a process a company spokesperson went so far as to say could happen in nature. Speaking to Forbes, they stated:2
“[U]nlike GMOs, we simply edit existing genes within crops using our technology to speed up a process that otherwise could have happened in nature.
Through this process, we’re able to provide outcomes quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively for the American people so that they can have healthier food ingredients without compromising the taste of what they already love. No foreign DNA is added to the product.”
Unfortunately, they’ve also succeeded in introducing a genetically engineered oil to the U.S. food supply without the American people’s knowledge or consent. The appeal to food manufacturers is clear: Calyxt’s oil, with its zero trans fats and long shelf life, will appeal to companies eager to replace trans fats.
In an announcement through Bloomberg,3 Calyxt said this high-oleic oil contains “approximately 80 percent oleic acid and up to 20 percent less saturated fats.” Calyxt also said they’d just completed the company’s first commercial sale of a “premium,” high oleic soybean meal as a livestock food additive that would be an “added benefit” for the livestock.
But the public may have another take on the matter, especially as many increasingly seek out real, whole foods in lieu of GMOs. One survey found only 32 percent of Americans are comfortable with GMOs in their food.4
By hiding behind the label of gene editing, they can pass off their genetically engineered Calyno oil as natural when it’s clearly not. More than 100 farmers in the Midwest are reportedly growing Calyxt’s high-oleic soybeans on more than 34,000 acres.5
Gene-Edited Chickens Created
If eating gene-edited soybean oil has you feeling like a guinea pig, you may be equally uneasy to know that gene-edited chickens are also a thing. At the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, chickens have been modified to resist flu, which spreads rapidly among CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) birds and has the potential to be transmitted to humans.
In order to create the transgenic chickens, scientists used the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. They targeted part of the ANP32 gene, which codes for a protein that flu viruses depend on,6 and cells without the gene were impervious to the flu.
The Roslin Institute has also used gene editing to create pigs that are resistant to a disease called Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, or PRRS, edits that are permanent and passed down to other generations. Other companies are using gene editing to remove genes that grow horns in dairy cattle, therefore allowing them to bypass the inhumane process of removing horns from CAFO cattle with no pain relief.
There is talk that first using gene editing to ease animal suffering or fight agricultural disease could soften regulators’ stance and create a more favorable profile to the public.7 But ultimately the technology will inevitably be used increasingly for the purpose of profits.
Case in point, one study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has added the SRY gene to cattle, which results in female cows that turn into males, complete with larger muscles, a penis and testicles, but no ability to make sperm.8 Male (or male-like) cattle are more valuable to the beef industry because they get bigger, faster, allowing companies to make greater profits in less time.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed classifying animals with edited or engineered DNA as drugs, prompting backlash from the biotech industry,9 which doesn’t want such foods labeled. The Roslin Institute has also launched a survey to gauge people’s views on gene-editing and whether or not they would eat gene-edited animals.10
However, because they contain no foreign genetic material, foods produced via gene-editing are not subject to regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — although an advisory board recommended gene-edited foods could not be labeled organic — or other regulatory agencies.
Gene Editing Used to Create High-Fiber Wheat, Altered Potatoes
To date, gene editing has been used not only to produce soybeans with altered fatty acid profiles, but also potatoes that take longer to turn brown and potatoes that remain fresher longer and do not produce carcinogens when fried. Other uses for gene-editing in foods include the creation of low-gluten wheat, mushrooms that don’t turn brown and tomatoes that can be produced in areas with shorter growing seasons.
The technology may even be used to create plants that withstand droughts and diseases or seeds that can be customized to unique growing conditions. Calyxt has also developed a high-fiber wheat that has been declared a “nonregulated article,” by the USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The wheat is in Phase 1 of development and may launch as early as 2020 or 2021.11
Calyxt has lofty plans for expansion and is also working on gene-edited cold-storable potatoes and canola oil with improved composition, and hopes to eventually create products with many gene-edited targets in one. According to the company:12
“In particular, over time we may explore opportunities to apply our commercial strategy elsewhere around the world and leverage our North American products and footprint to target geographies where there are unmet consumer or farmer needs.
We also intend to explore the ability to add value through our existing product candidates once they are commercialized by combining traits in the same crop, which may allow us to create products with additional benefits without adding significant cost.”
Gene Editing Isn’t Always Precise, Carries Significant Risks
While gene-edited foods have already been released into the food supply, there safety is largely unknown. What is known, however, is that gene editing isn’t a perfect science, and off-target edits could cause unintended changes to plant DNA, with consequences that could include growth disturbances, exposure to plant diseases or the introduction of allergens or toxins.13
In animals, gene editing has led to unexpected side effects, including enlarged tongues and extra vertebrae.14,15 Often researchers don’t know the extent of a gene’s functions until they attempt to tweak it, and something like an extra vertebra reveals itself. Speaking with Yale Insights, Dr. Greg Licholai, a biotech entrepreneur, explained some of the very real risks of CRISPR and other gene-editing technologies:16
“One of the biggest risks of CRISPR is what’s called gene drive, or genetic drive. What that means is that because you’re actually manipulating genes and those genes get incorporated into the genome, into the encyclopedia, basically, that sits within cells, potentially those genes can then be transferred on to other organisms.
And once they’re transferred on to other organisms, once they become part of the cycle, then those genes are in the environment.
That’s probably the biggest fear of CRISPR. Humans manipulating the genetic code, and those manipulations get passed on generation to generation to generation. We think we know what we’re doing, we think we’re measuring exactly what changes we’re doing to the genes, but there’s always the possibility that either we miss something or our technology can’t pick up on other changes that have been made that haven’t been directed by us.
And the fear then is that those changes lead to antibiotic resistance or other mutations that go out into the population and would be very difficult to control. Basically creating incurable diseases or other potential mutations that we wouldn’t really have control over.”
Japan Follows US, Says Gene Edited Foods Are Safe
While the European Union has ruled that gene edited crops must go through the same approval process as GMOs, Japan recently concluded that such foods could enter the consumer marketplace without any safety studies. “There is little difference between traditional breeding methods and gene editing in terms of safety,” Hirohito Sone, an endocrinologist at Niigata University, stated.17
However, in an interview with GM Watch, Michael Antoniou, a London-based molecular geneticist, explained that significant changes could occur due to genetic editing, in both agricultural and medical contexts, necessitating long-term safety and toxicity studies. He explained:18
“Many of the genome editing-induced off-target mutations, as well as those induced by the tissue culture, will no doubt be benign in terms of effects on gene function. However, many will not be benign and their effects can carry through to the final marketed product, whether it be plant or animal …
Thus not only is it necessary to conduct whole genome sequencing to identify all off-target mutations from CRISPR-based genome editing, but it is also essential to ascertain the effects of these unintended changes on global patterns of gene function.
… In addition, it is important to acknowledge that the targeted intended change in a given gene may also have unintended effects. For example, the total disruption or modification of an enzyme function can lead to unexpected or unpredictable biochemical side-reactions that can markedly alter the composition of an organism, such as a food crop.
The compositional alterations in food products produced with genome editing techniques will not be fully revealed by the molecular profiling methods due to the current inherent limitations of these techniques. So it is still necessary to conduct long-term toxicity studies in established animal model systems. In the absence of these analyses, to claim that genome editing is precise and predictable is based on faith rather than science.”
Organic Foods Are Not Gene Edited
Without a label requirement, there’s no way for consumers to know whether they’re eating gene-edited soybean oil — or one of the many future gene-edited products likely to hit the market. For now, however, gene-edited foods cannot be labeled organic, which is one more reason why seeking out organic and, even better, biodynamic foods, is so important.
This may not be the case forever, though, as some organic proponents have claimed gene editing falls within the realm of organic if used in a way that mimics nature.19 That being said, when the National Organic Standards Board voted (unanimously) to add CRISPR to the excluded methods list, one board member said:20
“It very clearly is a GMO [method] and has no field history of improved varieties to evaluate what unintended effects the technology might have on the environment, just like all of the GMOs released into the environment have had unintended effects that don’t show up for a number of years.”
Whether the U.S. government will ultimately decide to classify gene-edited foods similarly to GMOs or conventional foods, or to allow them under the organic label, remains to be seen, but for now the best way to avoid gene-edited foods, if you so choose, is to purchase organic.