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Who needs to travel the world to eat, learn and network when you can go to Expo West in balmy Anaheim? If you’re attending Natural Products Expo West like me, it’s exciting to see all the new products and learn more about the issues and opportunities facing our industry. While we network in sunny Southern California, there is much important activity going in Washington DC, and we must remain diligent in our engagement. I give you a call to action, even while you’re traipsing and sampling your way through the show.
Next week many of us will trundle off to Anaheim packing sensible shoes and clutching business cards. We make the annual pilgrimage to Natural Products Expo West because it is the mother of all organic and natural events. It gives birth to a myriad of successful brands and trends. One trend to be uncovered is technological changes in our food production. The tinkering of our “natural” foods and ingredients is increasing and taking place behind closed lab doors. If you want to learn more about these emerging technologies and their intersection with our favorite products, there is one educational session you won’t want to miss.
On Friday, March 11, 2016 from 10:30 – 11:45am at the Anaheim Marriott, I will be participating in a conference session entitled “Biotechnology & Genetic Engineering: Concerns & Opportunities.” Joining me on the stage will be Tim Avila from Systems Bioscience, Jim Thomas from ETC Group and Dana Perls from Friends of the Earth.
The session will highlight how the way we think about producing food is shifting quite drastically and very rapidly. The capabilities of biotech companies to manipulate genes in order to grow substances in laboratories that are “nature identical” to food grown in soil are increasing with no oversight or regulations.
Understanding GMO foods and technology used to be much more straightforward. Forcing the DNA from one species into an entirely different species was clearly something that could not occur in nature. We worked to get Non-GMO products labeled in the absence of national mandatory labeling. We organized and mustered up large chests of funding for state initiatives. We marched, we wrote our congressional leaders and we fought the DARK Act.
We understood the techniques involved; we could identify the relatively few crops being manipulated by a handful of companies.
Everything has changed in the blink of an eye. Biotech has a new “digital platform” and it is best exemplified by a term called synthetic biology or “Syn Bio.” This new scope of manipulation is huge, the pallet of techniques is wider, and the targets and commercial pathways are even more varied.
One commonly used Synthetic Biology technique involves writing new genetic code from scratch by printing them out on a DNA printer. Scientists insert this synthetic DNA into yeasts and algae to manipulate it to “create” new living entities never before found in nature. They are already programing algae and yeast to produce flavors, fragrances, sweeteners, oils and also egg whites, milk and meat.
These synthetically-engineered entities made via computers could hold great financial rewards for manufacturers and food companies looking to source less-expensive alternatives to truly natural plant based ingredients. But what are the costs to the environment when these yeasts and algae escape the laboratory? Algae and yeasts are some of the most basic and prolific building blocks of life and can travel easily throughout the environment. If they are released into nature, there could be genetic contamination on a wide scale producing new forms of invasive species or exotic pervasive pollutants.
What will be the ramifications for those producers who actually grow the soil-based versions of the ingredients being targeted by synthetic biology companies? For instance, the impact on native vanilla growers in equatorial rainforests is of grave concern. When manufacturers can make vanillin grown in a vat in Switzerland or San Francisco at a fraction of the cost, why should they bother sourcing from hundreds of thousands of small growers across the globe?
Those examples are really just the tip of the technological iceberg. There are modifications and new ways of digitally altering the genome editing of the raw materials such as crops and animals. There are hacks called “RNAi sprays” which goes beyond the genome to the epigenome.
I’m sure this session will be an eye opener for everyone that attends. It will certainly be provocative and raise more questions than it answers. Some of the issues we will raise are how the companies are making “natural” claims and the technologies are being advanced as “non-GMO”, even though they clearly involve much more significant messing around at the genetic level than traditional GMOs that we have all been so diligently and appropriately concerned about.
Please join us if you want to discover just where some of these products may even now be lurking on the show floor or be coming soon to a booth near you. Biotechnology & Genetic Engineering are indeed at Natural Products Expo West. Don’t miss this session.
It’s that time of the year when we set aside the champagne and brie, or beer and curds depending on your longitudinal coordinates. We pull our resolutions up by their proverbial boot straps and get back to work, turning another corner on our good food journey. Sweet sixteen is upon us and so too is a year full of congregations and confluences to satisfy our organic urges and sustainable impulses. Mark your calendars now so you don’t miss out! Continue reading “A New Year of Organic Occasions and Sustainable Summits: Hello Sweet Sixteen”→
I attended Expo West in early March and was astounded by the activity, creativity and energy the show offered this year. Not only were there over 67,000 eager attendees and 2,600 festive booths, but the educational sessions were packed with information and thought leadership. It lead me to reflect on how far we have come as an industry and how far we have yet to go in redefining the food landscape in the US. Continue reading “My Expo West: eating, partying and learning along the way”→
The organics and natural foods industry gathers twice a year to showcase new products, network and strengthen existing business relationships. These expositions are affectionately called Natural Products “Expo East” and “Expo West”. They present the opportunity to celebrate the success of organic foods and discuss the challenges and opportunities ahead. In my previous Blog “Eat Party Learn”, I highlighted the educational sessions held by The Organic Trade Association and The Organic Center at Expo East last September. This week, Expo West will descend upon us with all its festivity, gastronomy and bustle. Here you will find opportunities to join the discussions that are important to the flourishing organic and natural food business community.
The first time I attended Expo West was in 1984 when I worked for the small, collectively-owned, health food store, Community Foods. We were so small and frugal that we had to room together. In those early days the show was simpler and smaller but still a place to express our vision for the organic movement. This year, there are a myriad of opportunities to join in the strategic discussions of where the organic industry can go. Continue reading “Eat, Party, Learn– West Coast Style!”→