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I recently had someone ask me to explain what GMO’s really are. What is the entire hullabaloo really about? Why clamor for labeling when we have been engineering genes for thousands of years?
The question made me realize that I can’t assume I have an audience always well versed in such details. Thus it is always good to clarify and cover the basics. So if you already know this stuff, dear reader, STOP READING NOW! Instead, forward it to someone who may not know, share it on Facebook with friends, and give it a tweet. .
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.
Throughout each week I trundle through a lot of reading material. I read during my morning jaunt. I peruse articles before the lights go out at night. I no doubt subscribe to far too many newsletters and blogs. I diligently perform this ritual in order to stay up to date on food and agriculture news and trends.
It suddenly dawned on me that many of you simply don’t have as much time to study and ingest the same mountain of material. While facts continue to be unturned, and ideas are being offered up on the plate of newsfeeds and blogospheres, these tidbits can subtlety change our food system. Here are some of my favorites from the week:
Can’t join the 8th Organic Seed Growers Conference in person next week? Organic Seed Alliance and eOrganic will be live streaming a selection of sessions directly from the event. Register Here for the live Broadcast Feb 5-6th.
Such traditional factors as price, taste and convenience hold less sway over consumer purchasing decisions, according to a food industry report. New purchasing influences, such as health and wellness, safety, social impact, experience and transparency, are motivating consumers and forcing food and beverage manufacturers and marketers to adapt. From Food Business News “The US consumer has changed”
Stop worrying so much about not getting enough protein, and remember that plant-based protein is a lot easier on the planet than animal protein. Buy organic food whenever you can. Source your food as locally as possible, and eat seasonally to avoid racking up major food miles. Eat less and waste less. Be open-minded and creative about new cuisines. Relax. Have fun. Sustainable eating isn’t synonymous with masochism. Read this opinion piece from Outside Online on how: Eating Right Can Save the World