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The March of Genetic Food Progress

January 7, 2016
You may already be familiar with Julie Kelly's contributions to the Genetic Literacy Project but you may not know that she is a cooking instructor and food writer in Orland Park, Illinois.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an opinion piece by Julie Kelly on how 'Farmaceuticals’ and other GM products are slowly being approved, despite political scare campaigns. Ms. Kelly's piece does a great job of arguing how genetic engineering has gradually overcome fear-mongering and false misrepresentation from those who are anti-technology and anti-science:

Despite what you may hear from the culinary elite, genetic engineering is winning the day and gradually overcoming their “Frankenfood” fear-mongering. A flurry of good news this year ought to convince the public, more than ever, of the safety and the tremendous promise of this technology.

On Dec. 8 the Food and Drug Administration approved a new chicken that has been genetically modified to treat a rare and potentially fatal disorder called lysosomal acid lipase deficiency. The chicken, which won’t be available as meat, produces eggs with an enzyme that replaces a faulty human enzyme, addressing the underlying cause of the disease. Add it to the small but growing class of “farmaceuticals,” including drugs made by transgenic goats and rabbits.

In November the FDA approved, for the first time, a genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption. After a 20-year review, the agency gave the green light to the AquAdvantage salmon. The fish is an Atlantic salmon with a gene added from a Chinook salmon that allows it to grow faster with less feed. It makes aquaculture more appealing and could ease pressure on overfished salmon stocks in the wild.

In February the Agriculture Department approved the Arctic Apple, a new variety developed by silencing the genes that cause the fruit to bruise and brown when sliced. Two versions of the apple, the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, could be in stores by the end of next year.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the Canadian company that developed the varieties, is testing how to apply the same technique to other highly perishable fruits, like pears and cherries, which has huge potential to prevent food spoilage and waste. The second-generation Innate potato, which includes a gene from a wild variety that allows it to resist late blight, bruising and browning, was approved in August.

More progress is on the way. The rapidly developing genome editing method known as Crispr—named this month as Science magazine’s “breakthrough of the year”—holds amazing potential for agriculture. Researchers at the University of Missouri and Kansas State University are breeding pigs that resist a viral respiratory disease that kills piglets and costs the pork industry more than $600 million a year.

The pigs’ genes have been concisely edited to stop the expression of a protein vital to the disease’s transmission. Scientists at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom are developing a genetically modified chicken that could help stop the spread of the avian flu that this year decimated American chicken and turkey flocks.

Predictably, anti-GMO activists are howling. They are also spending millions trying to force food manufacturers to label products with the meaningless letters “GMO.” But that effort has suffered major setbacks. GMO-labeling ballot measures in Oregon and Colorado were defeated last year; similar initiatives have failed in California and Washington state.

In July the House of Representatives passed, 275-150, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which would pre-empt state and local GMO-labeling laws. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said earlier this month that a similar bill is on the radar in her chamber: “I think it will be the first thing we have to work on in January.”

Last month the FDA rejected a “citizen petition,” filed by activist groups, demanding mandatory GMO labels. The FDA response noted that the petition presented no evidence that “such foods present any different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”

But if you need an anecdote for how the year unfolded for the anti-GMO movement, look no further than Chipotle. Last spring the fast food company announced with great fanfare that it would take GMO ingredients off its menu. It was all downhill after that. As was quickly pointed out, Chipotle wasn’t being fully truthful, since its soft drinks and cheese contain genetically modified ingredients, and its meat comes from animals fed genetically modified grains. A lawsuit filed in California, which is pending, accused Chipotle of false advertising and deceptive marketing.

Then cases of food-borne illnesses hit Chipotle locations across the country. Supporters of traditional agriculture, who have felt maligned by the burrito company, started keeping a tally of the number of people sickened by Chipotle’s food (ongoing, but more than 300) versus the number sickened by GMOs (zero). As the year winds to a close, the company that once wore the restaurant industry’s health halo is apologizing, preparing for lawsuits, recentralizing its vegetable preparation and cutting locally sourced ingredients.

GMOs never looked so harmless. As science advances and consumers become more informed about genetic engineering’s benefits for human health, animal welfare and food safety, the anti-GMO movement will look ever more like an outdated ideological crusade. Denouncing those three little letters doesn’t make your food safer or healthier—as Chipotle, and Americans, are now learning.