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Abstract of genetic engineering, from iStock

How health and environmental benefits are fostering the acceptance of GM food

March 17, 2020

Editor’s Note: Dr. Oliver Peoples is CEO of Yield10 Bioscience, a crop technology company.

Genetically modified foods have a long history of opposition but today’s consumers are giving them another look. More household decision-makers today than before are interested in exploring foods that offer benefits to their health, the environment, and more sustainable lifestyles, regardless of them being produced with biotech tools, including new gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR.

For example, consumers across the US are becoming increasingly fond of plant-based meat alternatives, with a recent Gallup study revealing that four out of 10 Americans have tried plant-based meat and 1 in 4 in US have cut back on eating meat. Drivers for this change can be social or economic, but many have indicated that it is a conscious choice to select products that are perceived as healthier and are more environmentally-sustainable to their counterparts. 

Among the plant-based meat alternatives, we’ve seen the rise of the Impossible Burger, which is made from genetically-engineered soy heme (soy leghemoglobin), the secret ingredient that makes these meats ‘bleed’ like a rare or medium-rare burger. The soy/heme is created by taking the DNA for soy leghemoglobin, inserting it into yeast, and fermenting the yeast. By developing the heme using genetic engineering via fermentation production, the heme can be produced economically at large scale. Producing the heme by digging up soy plants to harvest from root nodules, apart from being commercially unrealistic, would increase erosion and release carbon stored in the soil.

The Impossible Burger is now offered in many mainstream grocery stores and restaurants, including Burger King and White Castle in the US, and earlier this year it was launched in the UK. As more consumers incorporate genetically modified foods into their diets through these mainstream health and sustainability-focused alternatives, we can expect to see broader acceptance of biotech-edited crops as a whole.

The growing consumer trend of sustainability & health

As consumers become more aware of the food that they are consuming, their food choices are heavily impacted by personal, social and environmental interests. Desire to minimize food waste, protect the environment and enhance food security, while also making healthier choices for personal wellness, are all drivers toward which foods are accepted or neglected.

Dr Oliver Peoples, CEO Yield10 Bioscience

According to research from Nielsen in 2018, nearly half (48%) of US consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment, and this means that they want to minimize food waste, protect the environment, and enhance food security. Furthermore, many consumers’ perception of healthy food is changing. Food Navigator found that 23% of US consumers are prioritizing vegan and sustainable diets, and 39% of those customers are focusing on the health benefits – which is why the Impossible Burger is such a hit since many consumers perceive improved nutritional content in these meat alternatives.

In fact, a 2018 study by Technomic, a research and consulting firm for the food and food-service industry, found that the most influential factor in trying plant-based protein was the perception of improved nutritional content over animal protein. And, GMO-free food is becoming a secondary thought compared to nutrition.

Genome-edited crops, CRISPR, and the potential to meet the needs for sustainability and health

Genome-editing is emerging as a way to more precisely narrow in and enhance the traits that fit with health and sustainability trends. There has been increased buzz of late around CRISPR, a potentially game-changing technology in both agriculture and human biology that enables the development of new crops using new compositional and performance profiles as well as treatments for previously intractable genetic diseases.

While consumers have historically feared GMO foods posed a safety risk, a view fueled by anti-GMO marketing to promote more expensive food products, CRISPR genome-editing is more similar to precision breeding – a technique used for years to cultivate generations of crops with ideal traits, including traits.

These traits, which can enhance health and sustainability often fit into one of three categories:

  • Compositional traits – These traits focus on the nutritional content of a crop. For example, traits in crops with a high oil content such as soy and canola can be reprogrammed to improve their fatty acid profiles to enhance health benefits and meet the nutritional needs of a population. These traits support the health and wellness concerns of consumers and will become increasingly important as the human lifespan continues to increase.
  • Yield traits – These traits focus on increasing the crop or seed yield of a plant without having to increase the land and resources required. In doing so, these traits support the environmental concerns of consumers and will enable farmers to sustainably produce enough food for the growing global population.
  • Resistance traits – These traits cater to sustainability concerns, ensuring the survival of more crops on existing land without requiring additional pesticides or accepting losses during longer dry/wet seasons, early frost and other environmental hazards.

Each of these traits plays a role in creating foods that provide benefits to consumers and the environment. But challenges still exist in getting GMO and CRISPR genome-edited crops to our homes and stores.

The challenges with getting bioengineered crops to the table

Even though plant-based products created using GMO crops are mainstream now, there are still regulatory factors pertinent to bringing new genome-edited crop innovations into homes.

Fortunately, based on 24 years of experience studying genetically engineered crops on a vast scale as well as a number of National Science Academy reviews of their safety and benefits for food production, the USDA-APHIS is making strides towards making the process more seamless. They can designate genome-edited plants as non-regulated under the rules for approval of GMO crops if they do not incorporate foreign DNA as they’ve been produced through processes similar to precision breeding techniques. It is important to recognize that the submission process and its length are still dependent on the modification and nature of the crop itself, as some specific new crop development programs may be subject to FDA and/or EPA approvals. There are many who are hopeful that other regulatory bodies will follow a similar path as the USDA-APHIS and eliminate certain steps in the process that help the industry move quicker to develop products that emphasize select traits and cater to consumer demands.

As time goes on, consumers are becoming more interested in sustainable diets, and the agriculture industry has the opportunity quickly adapt new techniques in crop development, which includes bringing genome-editing into the mix. As the global population continues to grow and agriculture faces challenges from unpredictable weather and environmental pressure, we are going to need all of the current tools and innovations that need to be developed to meet this challenge.

We should consider developing technologies such as CRISPR as necessary additional tools with the potential to enhance compositional, yield and resistance traits, and to continue to create plant-based products and enhanced oils that fit consumers preferences.

What do you think about the paradox around consumer opinions of GMO? We want to hear from you! Email [email protected]

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