Reuters/Thierry Roge

GMO or Not GMO? A $64 Billion Question


larry fisher, a former New York Times reporter, writes about business, technology and design.

Published January 13, 2023


What’s in a GMO? That was an easy call when the first food stemming from a genetically modified organism received FDA approval: It was a plant created by combining the DNA of multiple species. The FDA still uses this definition, but advances in plant biology over the past three decades mean it is now possible to modify foods substantially without employing gene-splicing technology. Are these foods GMOs? Who knows. Or more to the point, who gets to decide?

Maybe it’s time for new rules and regulations, or at least new language regarding genetically modified food crops. That’s the premise of a recent paper in the prestigious journal Science with no less than 17 authors. They argue that because new technologies have blurred the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding, it’s time for regulations based on the product rather than the process that creates it.

This struck me as entirely reasonable – but, evidently, I’m in the minority. The paper has been ignored or dismissed, lamented Fred Gould, the lead author who is a professor of agriculture at North Carolina State University and director of the university’s Genetics and Genomics Academy. “Nobody’s happy with it. If you’re anti-GMO you won’t like it, and if you’re a company, you don’t want regulation,” he said. “We’re in an untenable situation.”

Since the approval of the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994, we’ve seen the completion of the human genome project, the invention of the CRISPR gene-editing process, and the spectacularly successful mRNA vaccines for Covid-19. And yet, genetically modified food crops still arouse unfounded fears, while the “non-GMO” label has become one of the most successful branding efforts in marketing history.

Bred in the Field or Bred in the Lab? 

If you’ve shopped for apples in recent years you’ve surely noticed the diversity available, with varieties offering special characteristics like greater firmness, more sweetness or a tarter edge. One such, the Honeycrisp apple, developed at the University of Minnesota, has “explosive crunchiness” and honey-like sweetness, the result of controlled hybridization that requires taking the pollen from one kind of apple tree and putting it on the flower of another. The result is a fruit unlike its genetic parents — but it’s not considered a GMO.

Or you may have purchased Arctic apples, available in Fuji, Gala or Granny Smith varieties, which were developed by Okanagan Specialty Foods using a technology called RNA interference. This is a biological process in which the expression of specific genetic information can be inhibited through exposure to certain RNA molecules. Okanagan uses it to produce apple varieties that don’t brown when bitten, sliced or bruised, which the company says means they last longer and generate less waste. They are considered GMOs, and thus required approval for cultivation by the Department of Agriculture. (Hoping to quell fears, Okanagan offered them for voluntary review by the FDA, too.)

Both of these apples are genetically distinct from pre-existing varieties, but the Okanagan apples drew opposition from organic food advocates and anti-biotech activists when they debuted in 2016, while the Honeycrisp launch in the early ’90s largely went unnoticed.

“Somehow, just because it was traditional, we’ve always been comfortable with plant breeding,” said Professor Gould. “We just assumed it was okay, though there were some instances with potatoes and tomatoes where there was a toxicant that came along with the breeding, so you take it off the market. Then GMOs come along in the ’80s, and people say, ‘We don’t know where the genes are going, so we’re going to regulate it.’”

Gould and his coauthors note that the first widely commercialized genetically engineered crops all involved the transfer of DNA from one or more donor species into a recipient crop (“transgenic”), with the initial placement in the genome being random for the most part. Today, genetic engineering technologies based on CRISPR and genomics can substantially alter the properties of a plant by making changes in a single nucleotide in a specific location. Some countries, notably Argentina, have already exempted such foods from safety testing.

CRISPR is a technology that can be used to edit genes, with world-changing possibilities. The technology provides a way to find a specific bit of DNA inside a cell and then alter it. CRISPR has also been adapted to do other things, such as turning genes on or off without altering their sequence. CRISPR’s co-inventors, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020.

Plant breeding has kept up with the times as well. “You can change plants dramatically with non-genetic engineered breeding,” Gould explained. “Companies look for ways of doing things that could be done trans-genetically, but they do it with CRISPR… They’re spending money to avoid regulation; we’re saying we’re beyond that. It’s not 1986 anymore.”

The cost to sequence a human genome has dropped from $2.7 billion for the first one completed in December 2001, to as little as $99 today. Plant genomic costs have declined more slowly. But sample testing for genetic changes to specific plants are already under $2,000, and it should soon be possible to screen a complete plant genome for about $5,000. 

Genetically modified foods are generally harmless, sometimes quite tasty and not that difficult to avoid — if that’s what you want to do. At my local co-op, almost everything is organic and there’s nary a GMO to be seen. Shop at any major grocery store chain and the shelves are chock-full of them, mostly in the form of grains as ingredients in packaged snack foods and cereals.

Genomics could be used to compare the full sequence of a genetically engineered plant with that of the specific plant from which it was derived to confirm that no unintended, consequential changes have occurred. Plants with either no differences, or well-understood differences that have no expected health or environmental effects, would be exempted from safety testing. Plants with understood differences that do have potential effects, or differences that cannot be interpreted, would undergo safety testing. This would be regulating the product, not the process.

But as Gould bemoans, the proposal is gaining no traction. And let’s be serious: its odds of making it through today’s conspiracy-minded Congress are vanishingly thin. The European Union considers any crop with a CRISPR-based modification a GMO and subject to regulation — rules a recent EU government study concluded are not adequate. Other countries trigger regulation on the basis of the size of the genetic change and the source of the inserted genetic material.

“We keep talking in the U.S. about things being science-based, but we’ve gotten to the point where science would say this isn’t appropriate,” Gould said. “The emperor has no clothes, so let’s look at this again.”

What if They Approved a New GMO and Nobody Cared?

When the Flavr-Savr tomato was introduced, it prompted a mini-media storm and gave birth to the anti-GMO movement. When a tiny U.K. biotech received USDA approval last September for a purple tomato loaded with antioxidants, there was markedly less sturm un drang. What changed?

Perhaps it was a growing recognition that genetically modified foods are generally harmless, sometimes quite tasty and not that difficult to avoid — if that’s what you want to do. At my local co-op, almost everything is organic and there’s nary a GMO to be seen. Shop at any major grocery store chain and the shelves are chock-full of them, mostly in the form of grains as ingredients in packaged snack foods and cereals. Overblown fears turned many people against GMOs — with some dire consequences, like the burning of vitamin-enriched Golden Rice crops. But there seems to be growing acceptance.

Ironies abound here. “People believe they’ve been eating GMOs even when it’s not true,” said Barbara Blanco-Ulate, a professor of plant biology at the University of California at Davis. She notes that shoppers widely assume that purple cauliflower and carrots are GMOs, when in fact they are not.

There may be a generational divide regarding GMOs at work here, Blanco-Ulate suggests: “Millennials and Gen Z are more open to trying new things… The purple tomato is an innovative option for people who want to try different things. People will post on social media and then others will want to try it.”

While Blanco-Ulate has not had a chance to taste the purple tomato yet, several of her students had and found it delicious. As word gets out, more people will want to try it, but many never will, and that’s okay, too, she said.

“There’s always going to be backlash from people who don’t want GMOs, who don’t understand them,” Blanco-Ulate added. “A lot of scientists think there’s a need to educate people…. I don’t think that’s really the case. Not everyone needs to know how you make a GMO. They need to know it’s safe, and they need to be excited to try it.”

Proving a Negative 

The aforementioned purple tomato may benefit from being the product of a small startup, not an agricultural giant — and particularly not Monsanto, which people associate with PCBs and Agent Orange. Norfolk Plant Sciences, the creator, is barely a company yet, let alone a representative of Big Ag.

Anti-GMO organizations still fulminate against the environmental dangers of these crops, often without supporting data. But their language increasingly targets the corporatization of agriculture. “Genetically modified foods — GMOs — are another tool industrial agriculture uses to control our food system,” states the Food and Water Watch website. The Non-GMO Project railed against President Biden’s September 12 Executive Order Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation, calling it “a massive push toward further privatization of U.S. food supply.”

In these cases, the objection to GMOs stems from the fact that, as novel inventions, they can be patented, which ensures that profits from their production will flow to their inventors — usually big companies — for decades to come. And it is true that corporate seed, fertilizer and pesticide producers dominate the food sector, though the organic farming and regenerative agriculture movements are thriving alternatives.

But while the predatory practices of entrenched monopolists are a legitimate cause for concern, that’s a conversation about capitalism, not plant biology. Stay tuned.

main topic: Agriculture