The Right to Know Movement has become pretty popular among consumers who are wary of genetic engineering and food ingredients produced from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The question of "what's in my food?" should be relatively simple to answer, but thanks to numerous organizations for and against biotech crops, the answers have become unnecessarily complicated. While Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) and Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFM) are exploiting consumer fears to fuel their growth by going "GMO-free," I've come to realize that far too many consumers are unaware that the acronym "GMO" is a blanket term for numerous traits with varying benefits and drawbacks.
Do you consider yourself anti-GMO? Do you realize what you are taking a stance against? Whether you answered "yes" or "no," you may want to clarify your answers based on the following questions about the numerous traits that get grouped together under the GMO umbrella. I'll bet you're only against certain uses of genetic engineering, if at all.
Are you against crops engineered to resist pesticides?
Everyone's favorite agricultural products company created the portfolio of traits that allow agricultural crops to resist glyphosate, which kills plants by targeting the biological processes that create three essential amino acids. If you're anti-GMO because that sounds unnatural, then consider the following. The trait combines an enzyme responsible for producing the amino acids from the bacteria Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a genetic regulator from cauliflower mosaic virus that expresses the enzyme; a genetic component from a Petunia flowering plant; and another enzyme from the bacteria above involved in the replication of the trait. There's nothing unnatural about the elements combined to create the glyphosate resistance trait.
If you think shuffling genes across kingdoms is unnatural, then consider how researchers are using genetic engineering to save the American chestnut tree. Not only does gene transfer occur naturally, but the methods used by seed engineering companies are similar or the same to those used by the team detailed in the link above.
Of course, you may be anti-GMO because the glyphosate resistance traits increase the use of pesticides. However, the traits have actually reduced the overall amount of herbicides used, in addition to reducing tillage (thus saving fuel consumption), since their introduction. While pesticide runoff can harm the environment, and safer biopesticides are being developed (some by the same company), genetically altered crops aren't the technology that needs to be removed from the food system.
Additionally, while farmers can choose from several corn and soy varieties, it's important to note that not all GMOs carry this trait. Too many consumers believe that the two are synonymous. They're not.
Are you against crops engineered to produce natural pesticides?
If you're absolutely anti-GMO, you must also be against crops engineered to produce Bt toxin, naturally found in the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which is an important tool used to keep several costly pests at bay. As I recently wrote, "from 1996 to 2011, global consumption of pesticides fell 9%, while Bt cotton and Bt corn alone saved farmers $57 billion in pesticide costs." Imagine that: allowing plants to produce a natural toxin that is devastating to insects saved the world over $60 billion and reduced the consumption of pesticides by nearly 10%. There are isolated, but growing, cases of insect populations beginning to develop resistance to Bt crops. However, that is not the result of genetic engineering, nor does it detract from the amazing benefits it can provide.
Are you against crops engineered to provide nutritional benefits?
If you're anti-GMO without exception, then you're also against crops engineered to provide nutritional benefits, which, unlike pesticide resistance and production, directly impact consumers. The most notorious example is Golden Rice, which is biofortified to produce large amounts of vitamin A. Why? To save lives. An estimated 1.15 million children die every year from vitamin A deficiency, according to UNICEF. It has nothing to do with profiting from the world's poor, either: Golden Rice was the brainchild of Dr. Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Dr. Peter Beyer of University of Freiburg, Germany. Despite the potential to save millions of lives by making food more efficient, opposition groups have succeeded in spreading fear about the technology, hindering its commercialization.
Nutritional benefits from genetically engineered crops aren't restricted to impoverished populations. For instance, Innate potatoes from Simplot could make French fries healthier, while the British government recently approved field trials for crops engineered to produce omega3 fatty acids normally found in fish. Similarly, Arctic Apples don't oxidize, which means they don't turn brown after being cut. The simple improvement could be just the thing needed to get your kids to eat their apples and cut down on food waste!
You may also want to consider the following quote from the well-known skeptic of genetic engineering of food products, Michael Pollan:
So far genetically modified products offer consumers nothing. ...That's why [Monsanto] has to be so quiet about it. They love to talk to farmers and they love to talk to Wall Street, but they don't like to talk to consumers because they don't have a story to tell -- yet. When they come up with products that are nutritionally enhanced, or save on calories, it's another conversation.
We can debate if genetically modified products extend any benefits to consumers, but Pollan is correct in noting that, to date, trait manufacturers have operated as business-to-business companies (consumers aren't their customers). If Pollan makes a distinction between traits, then why shouldn't you?
Are you against food engineered without foreign DNA?
Similar to a widespread belief that "GMO" implies "Roundup Ready," not all genetically engineered food contains DNA from another organism. Scientists can simply alter the expression of a protein -- turn it up or turn it down -- to induce a desirable trait, or knock out a gene to remove an undesirable trait altogether. For instance, the expression of polyphenol oxidase, the enzyme responsible for browning, is turned down in Arctic Apples. What's so scary about that? Fine-tuning the expression of native genes is just another tool engineers have to enhance the food system.
Are you against food engineered to grow more efficiently?
If making a simple and safe change to an organism could greatly increase the efficiency of production, then why shouldn't we do it? AquaBounty Technologies has inserted a single gene from Pacific Chinook salmon into an Atlantic salmon (containing roughly 40,000 genes) to create the AquAdvantage Salmon. Consumers may be caught off guard by genetic engineering of higher-order organisms than plants, but the benefits of engineered fish are too great to ignore. The company's engineered fish grow to full size in half the time as conventional salmon. That's a huge advantage. Already a $100 billion global industry, aquaculture will be necessary to meet the fast-growing demand for meat and seafood from a quickly expanding global middle class. Should we bankrupt the world's oceans or use the tools nature gave us more efficiently?
The benefits of genetic engineering technologies are not limited to the trait classes listed above and should not be characterized under a blanket term. You can choose not to support any combination of the traits above, that is your right, but I would suggest you account for the differences before saying that you're anti-GMO and calling it a day. To me, that is a pretty ignorant stance to take. In fact, I don't think a single argument could be used to refute the advantages or discuss the potential risks of all possible traits. Knowing that, why would anyone choose to shop at Chipotle Mexican Grill or Whole Foods Market? Profiting off of misinformation and ignorance is not something I support.
John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio, CAPS page, previous writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for SynBioBeta to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry.
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