Environment, Social Implications in Agriculture

Serving up a Vegan Burger or Genetic Roulette?

Not all plant-based meat alternatives are created equal. For years the vegans among us have chomped down on black bean burgers and seitan chicken balls, alternatively feasting on Tofurky breast and stuffing. Animal rights groups laud the artisanal vegan meatloaf and tempeh bacon as righteous culinary trends. Who doesn’t want to see an end to confined animal feeding operations by voting with your vegan fork? As technological tongue twisters like CRISPR-CAS9 and Synthetic Biology are changing the face of medicine and agriculture, they are also landing directly onto your vegan plate. One of the newest plant-based products is sizzling with gene-editing techniques to create an impossible burger with potential hidden consequences.

A Bloody Impossible Burger

Impossible Foods produces the Impossible Burger which utilizes genetic editing and synthetic biology to produce a “plant-based” burger that bleeds and sizzles just like the bovine-derived patty. Thanks to yeast that is genetically altered to grow soy protein which resembles blood, this vegan burger is attracting hungry investors and vegan diners alike.

The company’s earth-friendly claims are compelling: “…the Impossible Burger uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s 100% free of hormones, antibiotics, and artificial ingredients.” But the story on human health and safety isn’t completely clear.

Generally Recognized as Safe?

Impossible Foods took their new creation to the FDA and applied for Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status which means that Impossible Foods can decide for themselves whether it is safe for human consumption. According to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents, the FDA came back and indicated that “…the arguments presented, individually and collectively do not establish the safety for consumption, nor do they point to a general recognition of safety.”

What they found was that this Impossible Burger contains 46 novel proteins, not just the one that mimics blood. The long-term effects on human health from these 46 new proteins are completely unknown. With these FDA safety concerns, the company withdrew their GRAS status, but they continue to sell the burger in over 40 locations. In fact, they continue to expand, recently opening a facility in Oakland, CA that will flip the burgers onto over 1000 menus in the coming year.

We are altering the genetic evolution of ourselves and the world

Life has evolved on this planet for 4.5 billion years through natural selection. Plants, animals, insects and sapiens all evolved slowly over great millenniums of time. Humans participated in that process by breeding plants that were stronger, sweeter and better able to withstand the elements. We selectively chose the fatter, slower animals for our domesticated agrarian partners.

Suddenly we have the key to altering all life on the planet, the food we eat and even our own bodies. We have become gods in the genetic realm of unnatural selection.

As you read this, there is a tidal wave of animal replacement products being developed through genetic editing. Companies are creating substitutes for milk, dairy, eggs and shrimp all through new gene-editing techniques, birthing a new generation of unknown substances.

These are proteins and molecules our bodies have never encountered or ingested in the last 200,000 years of our evolutionary journey. We just don’t know what unintended consequences they will have on our health, our future children or the environment.

Because these techniques don’t combine genes from different species, they are considered to be outside of the normal GMO regulations. There is virtually no safety or environmental oversight for these novel foods or techniques. They are essentially outside of any rational or ethical safety net.

Is it Time to Take Stock and Slow Down?

The co-creator of one of these gene-editing techniques thinks it’s time to step back and think about the unknown consequences of genetic manipulation. In her book “A Crack in Creation,”  biologist Jennifer Doudna has called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of new gene-editing tools. She argues that even the tiniest changes to DNA could have myriad, unforeseeable consequences—to say nothing of the ethical and societal repercussions.

If you are a manufacturer, retailer or consumer of organic and natural foods and concerned about these new techniques entering our food supply, it’s important to become knowledgeable. Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have a “Shopper’s Guide to Synthetic Biology” to help us all avoid GMOs and find truly natural and sustainable non-GMO options. This guide provides information on which new products using gene-editing techniques are currently in stores or on their way. It also outlines the concerns about the lack of safety assessments and labeling, possible risks to human health and the environmental and negative impacts on small farmers.

This is the new wave of GMO’s, and it’s quickly becoming a multi-billion-dollar industry. It is not natural or plant-based by any stretch of the imagination. We must demand that these novel ingredients entering our food supply are safe to eat and safe for the environment for generations to come.

Genetic roulette should not be on our dinner plate.


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