The first commercially available gene-edited food is now on the market, but consumers won't know where it's being sold or if they've eaten food that contains it. The product, a gene-edited soybean oil created by biotech company Calyxt, was picked up by its first user — a Midwest company with both restaurant and foodservice locations, which is using it for frying as well as in dressings and sauces.1
Calyxt's soybean oil, Calyno, contains two inactivated genes, resulting in an oil with no trans fats, increased heart-healthy oleic acid and a longer shelf life. Along with refusing to identify the buyer of its gene-edited high-oleic soybean oil, Calyxt is marketing its product as "non-GMO," although it's clearly genetically engineered.
Using Semantics to Hide GMOs
Although they're genetically engineered, gene-edited foods are not marketed as GMOs, nor are they labeled as such. The difference comes down to a matter of semantics.
Calyxt used Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nuclease (TALEN) to find and edit DNA sequences in the making of its soybean oil, a process a company spokesperson went so far as to say could happen in nature. Speaking to Forbes, they stated:2
"[U]nlike GMOs, we simply edit existing genes within crops using our technology to speed up a process that otherwise could have happened in nature.
Through this process, we're able to provide outcomes quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively for the American people so that they can have healthier food ingredients without compromising the taste of what they already love. No foreign DNA is added to the product."
Unfortunately, they've also succeeded in introducing a genetically engineered oil to the U.S. food supply without the American people's knowledge or consent. The appeal to food manufacturers is clear: Calyxt's oil, with its zero trans fats and long shelf life, will appeal to companies eager to replace trans fats.
In an announcement through Bloomberg,3 Calyxt said this high-oleic oil contains "approximately 80 percent oleic acid and up to 20 percent less saturated fats." Calyxt also said they'd just completed the company's first commercial sale of a "premium," high oleic soybean meal as a livestock food additive that would be an "added benefit" for the livestock.
But the public may have another take on the matter, especially as many increasingly seek out real, whole foods in lieu of GMOs. One survey found only 32 percent of Americans are comfortable with GMOs in their food.4
By hiding behind the label of gene editing, they can pass off their genetically engineered Calyno oil as natural when it's clearly not. More than 100 farmers in the Midwest are reportedly growing Calyxt's high-oleic soybeans on more than 34,000 acres.5
Gene-Edited Chickens Created
If eating gene-edited soybean oil has you feeling like a guinea pig, you may be equally uneasy to know that gene-edited chickens are also a thing. At the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, chickens have been modified to resist flu, which spreads rapidly among CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) birds and has the potential to be transmitted to humans.
In order to create the transgenic chickens, scientists used the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. They targeted part of the ANP32 gene, which codes for a protein that flu viruses depend on,6 and cells without the gene were impervious to the flu.
The Roslin Institute has also used gene editing to create pigs that are resistant to a disease called Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, or PRRS, edits that are permanent and passed down to other generations. Other companies are using gene editing to remove genes that grow horns in dairy cattle, therefore allowing them to bypass the inhumane process of removing horns from CAFO cattle with no pain relief.
There is talk that first using gene editing to ease animal suffering or fight agricultural disease could soften regulators' stance and create a more favorable profile to the public.7 But ultimately the technology will inevitably be used increasingly for the purpose of profits.
Case in point, one study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has added the SRY gene to cattle, which results in female cows that turn into males, complete with larger muscles, a penis and testicles, but no ability to make sperm.8 Male (or male-like) cattle are more valuable to the beef industry because they get bigger, faster, allowing companies to make greater profits in less time.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed classifying animals with edited or engineered DNA as drugs, prompting backlash from the biotech industry,9 which doesn't want such foods labeled. The Roslin Institute has also launched a survey to gauge people's views on gene-editing and whether or not they would eat gene-edited animals.10
However, because they contain no foreign genetic material, foods produced via gene-editing are not subject to regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — although an advisory board recommended gene-edited foods could not be labeled organic — or other regulatory agencies.