This week, Minnesota biotech firm Calyxt announced the first commercial gene-edited product on the US market – a soybean oil “for frying and salad dressing, as well as sauce applications.”
It boasts that the oil contains less saturated fatty acids, no trans fats, and can keep three times as long without going rancid.
So good we won’t tell you where to get it
But from the Associated Press article that served as a virtual press release, one part jumps out: “Calyxt said it can’t reveal its first customer for competitive reasons, but CEO Jim Blome said the oil is ‘in use and being eaten.’”
That’s one way to launch a product.
Imagine if instead of showcasing their new car at a launch, Tesla said instead that someone was already driving an unmarked model, perhaps without knowing they were doing so. After all, the location where the oil is being used, “a restaurant somewhere in the Midwest,” doesn’t have to inform their customers about bioengineered foods.
Of course, it is possible that Calyxt is trying to keep competitors away from the scent of its healthy-formula fried cheese curds, much as it is unusual to hide a product that is supposedly commercially-available.
Yet the suspicion remains that the precaution is aimed at placard-waving protesters and more importantly, paying customers who might be alarmed at taking part in what effectively constitutes a post-launch trial.
This might seem like paranoia, but there are other signs of reticence from Calyxt. In its actual press release, where it said that its oil will also be sold as a “premium feed ingredient with added benefit for livestock,” it mentions on three separate occasions that its soybean oil is “non-GMO.”
So, according to the company, injecting DNA (as in the previous generation of altered crops) is “eww GMO,” but manipulating the structure of existing DNA (which is what gene editing is) in a laboratory to produce variations of plants that would never naturally evolve is completely different, and don’t you dare get the two confused.
Calyxt is not alone. Agricultural corporations have repeatedly insisted that genetic editing is a separate technology, using the argument to bypass European Union restrictions on genetically-modified foods. The European Court of Justice ruledlast year that the two methods are in fact subject to the same regulations.
In the US, the agri-giants have won the same battle. Not only will their food not be put to the rigorous testing of GMOs before coming on the market, but they will also avoid having to use the already vague "bioengineered" label that comes into force next year, which incidentally doesn't apply to restaurants and other companies with annual turnover of less than $2.5 million.
Immune pigs & happy farmers
The above is not in itself a slight on the genetically-modified products themselves. Their proponents say that since the introduction in 1994, they have benefited the US to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, drastically reduced the use of pesticides in the developing world, freed up women from spending days weeding in the fields, and cut the suicide rates among Indian farmers.
Innovations in the pipeline made with the newer sophisticated techniques – such as mushrooms that don’t brown, wheat impervious to drought, and pigs with a born immunity to deadly PRRS – might be even more spectacular.
Gene-edited pigs are the future, they say. © REUTERS/China Stringer Network
A proponent should feel that what we are dealing with here is a true miracle of scientific progress that would have been unimaginable. A more moderate voice could argue that gene editing is merely an improvement on existing cross-breeding techniques, which limits the opportunity for unforeseen harm.
Either way, the benefits should be self-evident to the biotech firms. And yet the companies putting these products on the market seem to be taking tips from tobacco or arms manufacturers, always cowering in shame, anticipating a trap from their opponents, and looking to downplay the true impact of their business.
The long game here appears to be the expectation that with the passing of time, people will simply grow used to genetically-modified foods as a part of their everyday life, and concerns will fade away, like those about the potential risks of microwaves or mobile phones.
Beat your drum!
These cowardly tactics are both a mistake and unethical.
Shiftiness will not reassure the vocal skeptics, already suspicious – and not going away after a quarter of a century – while doing nothing to sell the benefits to the majority of the public, most of whom still likely can’t name a single plus of GMOs for themselves. No single publicity campaign can overcome fear of innovation, but for even commercial scientists, it is a duty to try.
Worse than passivity is introducing genetically-manipulated crops into the food chain without labeling at all, as will now certainly happen with Calyxt’s soybean feed. However valid their concerns or otherwise, people have a right to make an informed choice about the food they eat.
So, the advice is: if gene-edited products are good for us all, the manufacturers should not sell us their food unmarked and on the sly, but convince us that the "gene-edited" label is a badge of honor, and display it with pride.
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