GMOs, engineered to make better food

GMO_s_300_300_100With some reluctance, I’m again writing this week about  genetically-modified organisms. My reluctance stems from the fact that on this topic, most people’s minds appear to be made up. People tend to be for ‘em or agin’ em, and for whatever reason, most aren’t open to listening to arguments that challenge their settled view.

My own views are undecided when it comes to the debate over labeling, and the environmental benefits, if any, of GMOs. I’m persuaded that the health risks of eating GMOs, which most Americans do every day, are zero or close to zero although, again, I’m not going to try to change the minds of those who believe otherwise. I’m concerned, finally, about the intellectual property issues surrounding GMOs, although, again, this is complicated because it takes many years and millions of dollars of investment to develop new crops.

Today’s story took root (pun alert!) last winter when I visited the Johnston, Iowa, headquarters of Pioneer, the big seed company owned by DuPont. (It’s near Des Moines, where I moderated a panel on food security at Drake University.) I toured a couple of labs — one for conventional breeding, another for genetic engineering, and chatted with scientists and executives. Pioneer has a fascinating history, by the way: It was founded in 1926 by Henry A. Wallace, who learned about plants as a young boy from his neighbor, George Washington Carver, and went on to become FDR’s secretary of agriculture and vice president.

In any event, while at Pioneer, I heard about genetically-engineered soybeans that have been branded as Plenish. They were designed to make soybean oil that is free of trans fats, and thus healthier than conventional soybean oil. Earlier, I’d heard about a biotech potato under development called Innate, which reduces black spots and thereby means fewer potatoes are wasted. These are among the first biotech crops to promise direct, tangible benefits to consumers, and I decided that was worth a story for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

It’s easy to understand why many Americans are unenthusiastic about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Although supermarket aisles are lined with foods made from biotech crops – most cereals, frozen foods, canned soups, vegetable oils, soft drinks, baby formula, tofu and even milk contain GMOs – consumers have yet to see tangible benefits from GMOs. The biotech industry has been slow to develop food that is healthier, better tasting or longer lasting – to its political detriment.

As Food and Water Watch, a critic of GMOs, has argued, hyperbolically: “The only ones experiencing any benefits from GE crops are the few, massive corporations that are controlling the food system at every step and seeing large profit margins.”

That is about to change.

Pioneer, the big seed company owned by DuPont, is bringing to the market a brand of genetically engineered soybean called Plenish that the company says will produce a healthier oil, free of transfats. Plenish oils have been designed to replace the unhealthy partially hydrogenated oils used to fry food and to keep cookies and crackers, crackers and chips from going stale.

Meantime, the JR Simplot Co, the US’s biggest potato processor, is seeking regulatory approval for genetically engineered potatoes branded as Innate. Simplot says the Innate potatoes will limit black spots from bruising, deliver improved taste and reduce the formation of acrylamide, a naturally occurring chemical that has been identified as a potential carcinogen and is created when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures.

You can think of these new products as GMOs 2.0 – biotech foods designed not just for farmers but for consumers, too. Other examplesinclude the Arctic Apple, which like the Innate potato is engineered not to go brown, and a soybean oil enriched with Omega-3 fatty acids from Monsanto.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Comments

  1. For more on this important topics – read the brad new article in GreenMoney’s June issue on “Seeds, Soil, and Sustainability” from John Roulac, founder of Nutiva on “Why Monsanto Will Never Rule the Food World: The movement that’s stopping the beast in its tracks” at- http://bit.ly/1gf8hLH

  2. I think the biggest problem with the “debate” about GMOs is that GMOs are so many things. Genetic modification is a very powerful tool, or, actually, a tool-shop. When we say “GMO” we’re lumping together everything that can be cobbled together with hammer, nails, and a saw with what a skilled craftsman can do on a lathe.

    Given the variety of things that can be produced with GM technology, we’ll never be able to have a coherent discussion until we understand what’s going on at a much finer level of detail.

  3. Marla Schaefer says:

    After reading your article, A deeper dive into NGO’s claims on biotech foods, it is clear your mind is made up.
    http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/jul/16/ngo-claims-biotech-foods-gmos-emails

    i have to tell you I am totally disturbed by your journalistic style and obvious intent to make Dr. Micheal Hanson look bad. I cannot believe that the Guardian has stooped as low as it has. And to take Karl Haro von Mogel’s opinion over Dr Hason’s views without giving him a chance to respond? Karl does not even have a PhD. How biased. I am shocked at this outlandish behavior and will from here on out view the Guardian and you as biased and untrustworthy.

    • Marc Gunther says:

      You’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but in a small respect you are mistaken in your facts. Karl Haro von Mogel does in fact have a PhD. And if you read Dr. Hanson’s testimony, particularly around the question of whether independent scientists can study GMOs, you will find that he has distorted the record, as noted both in my story and in the more than 7,000 words (at least count) of backup material.

  4. Marla Schaefer says:

    Thanks for the clarification. However, please write more responsibly about this topic in the future. Letting Karl have the last word, as though he is the arbiter over the topic of GMOs, is disturbing. Patenting seeds, genetically modifying plants to tolerate an ever increasing load of pesticides, and corporate bullying does not make for a healthy food system.

    • Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks, Marla. I’m trying to write responsibly.

      You mention “patenting seeds.” That’s a legitimate it is separate from GMOs. Seeds bred in conventional ways are patented, too. Patents are the incentive for private companies to invest in research, whether we are talking about Apple or Monsanto. Again, you can debate that, but it’s not a debate about GMOs.

      “Corporate bullying” often refers in this context to lawsuits by seed companies against farmers who re-sell their seeds after agreeing not to do so. Again, this isn’t a GMO issue. I haven’t researched this myself. But I’m told that the seed companies only sue those farmers who deliberately violate their agreements, and that the companies have won most of the cases.

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