I am not a fan of gene tampering and, to the greatest extent possible, avoid GM foods. At the end of my TQIDiet class this past spring, it seemed that this would soon be easier to do. Vermont had passed a strong GMO labeling act and Campbell’s had decided to begin lobbying for mandatory GMO labeling. But things have actually been going down hill.
In late summer, Obama signed off on the “Dark Act,” a piece of legislation that preempts laws like those of Vermont and replaces them with vague language that will not provide the information those trying to avoid GM foods need. Then, a recent article in Nature highlighted the fact that a federal agency had just ruled that a “gene edited” mushroom (its genes silenced to prevent browning) needed no regulation or oversight or pre-market safety studies. The article noted that an additional 30 “gene silenced” crops already had been given the green light of “no needed government approval” before being grown and marketed but there are actually more than 30.
I’ve been aware of the gene silencing technique for some time and knew that agribusiness believed that these altered crops would avoid government scrutiny, could be sold as non-GMO verified, and probably could even be marketed as certified organic. I, however, had no idea how far they had progressed along this road.
To “gene edit” a crop, a “gene scissor” is used to cut selected portions of the plant’s DNA. This triggers a repair process that is less than perfect, resulting in a mutation at the site. At the same time, a gene with similar end pairs as the damaged gene can be inserted and this new gene will be picked up in the repair process. This technique allows genes to be silenced or mutated or new whole gene units to be inserted. Examples of gene editing: A gene used by the plant to limit oleic acid production can be silenced, resulting in high oleic seeds. Their oils can then be marketed as healthy, stable, inexpensive alternatives to a good extra virgin olive oil. Genes that trigger browning when a food (e.g., arctic apple, Crispr-mushroom) is exposed to oxygen can be shut off. Or genes can be edited to result in herbicide resistant crops by quieting the gene that makes enzymes that are sensitive to toxins. Su-Canola has been in our stores and foods since 2014, it is “naturally” resistant to sulfonylurea herbicides. Over 20 varieties of resistant corn, at least 10 varieties of resistant soy, along with “edited” sugar beets, apples, and more, need no regulation says our government.
These creations do not contain foreign genes. Plant viruses, such as cauliflower mosaic virus (remnants of which remain in 54 approved, “true” GMO foods), are not present in the gene-silenced plants. Because they do not contain foreign genes, they are not considered genetically modified and are not subject to regulation. They are, however, obviously tampered with and, despite claims that the techniques in use (ZNF, TALENs, and/or Crispr-cas9) are precise and well understood, there is already evidence that they are neither. A group of researchers from prestigious institutions (such as Harvard Medical School) back in 2013 found that the editing also caused many other unintended mutations in the cells being tampered with.
In other words, genes other than the target gene are being altered and who knows what else the plant (or modified animal) will end up doing as a result. Despite these unknowns, fields of these crops are being planted and are spreading pollen that contains both the intended and unintended mutations. Crops are being harvested and fed to unwitting consumers, most of whom would prefer not to eat gene tampered foods even though agribusiness scientists and businessmen think that they should.
These new creations will be a challenge for both the non-GMO verified project and for the certified organic food movement. The former says it is not verifying gene-silenced foods but I have yet to learn what technique they use to exclude them. (Something to think about if you eat a lot of Whole Food Market’s deli items made with non-organic but non-GMO verified canola oil). NOSB (the national organic standards board) will probably discuss whether gene editing should be added to its exclusions at an upcoming meeting. At present, gene edited foods are not prohibited and NOSB does not have a plan on how to implement such an exclusion.
This is depressing news for many of us. What can we do? We obviously need a certification process beyond organic and non-GMO verified, one that guarantees us that traditional farming and hybridizing techniques (perhaps certifying only open pollinated, heirloom seeds) were used in the foods being offered. But, until we have a system to label all gene-tampered foods, it is Katy, bar the door!
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