Over a third of the living Nobel laureates have signed an open letter addressed to Greenpeace and global governance bodies asking for an end of their opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In particular, the cohort of laureates urges Greenpeace to end its campaign against Golden Rice, a grain variant that has been genetically modified to produce β-carotene and has long been pursued as a solution to vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, especially Southeast Asia.
Pointing to the large body of scientific evidence indicating that GMOs are safe for human health and the environment, the laureates unite behind the claim that GMO crops present a solution to starvation, malnutrition, and other diet-related deficiencies among the global poor. The adamant letter poses the question of “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”?
Debate Over the Use of GMOs is Fierce and Ongoing
One day after the release of the laureates’ letter, Greenpeace issued a response doubling down on its position and alleging that Golden Rice would disrupt food security and biodiversity without leading to meaningful improvements in widespread vitamin A deficiency
The public exchange between the two groups is the latest high profile development in the long-standing and controversial debate about whether GMOs are safe and ethical. Although a preponderance of scientific studies have debunked concerns about GMO crops’ safety for human consumption, the very public debate persists on dimensions such as the relationship between GMOs and herbicide spraying, gene patenting, and biodiversity.
GMOs and the Synthetic Biology Industry
For all of the controversial publicity surrounding GMOs, some aspects of the topic are often overlooked. The following is intended to be a Q&A-style primer on dimensions of GMOs that may not be discussed in the media but are relevant to the synthetic biology market. Please note that these answers apply to the treatment of GMOs in the U.S. only. The labeling and regulatory landscapes in other countries differ.
What is the Non-GMO label and where does it come from?
The non-GMO label is a certification granted by a third-party nonprofit organization called the Non-GMO Project. It can be found on food, supplements and, more recently, cosmetic and textile products that comply with the organization’s standards. The Non-GMO Project is not affiliated with any governmental organization, but was rather established and operated by retailers in partnership with Global ID Group, a food safety and quality control corporation.
What does the Non-GMO label mean?
The label indicates that the product contains no more than 0.9% GMO ingredients. Any product that is composed of more than 0.9% ingredients that are considered to be at risk of being of genetically modified origin is subject to scrutiny. Above this threshold, the Non-GMO Project will investigate the origins of ingredients they consider at risk of being GMO, and will grant the label only if they are determined not to be genetically modified. Below this threshold, products are automatically considered to be GMO-free and deserving of the label without scrutiny.
How does this tie into the market for bio-based chemicals?
The non-GMO project explicitly states that any products of synthetic biology must be evaluated. However, this does not mean that chemicals produced by GMOs are subject to scrutiny. As long as bio-based chemicals are purified out of the microbial broth from which they originated, these chemicals are not considered GMO.
For example, if a genetically modified strain of yeast is used in a beer brewing process, the beer product would be considered a GMO product. However, if a genetically modified strain of yeast is used to ferment molecules of lactic acid, which is then extracted and used as a food ingredient, food products using that lactic would not be subject to scrutiny.
This is because while the yeast that produced the lactic acid is a genetically modified organism, the lactic acid itself is not. Only in cases where the genetically modified organism itself is included in the final food product is that product considered to contain GMOs.
What kind of governmental regulations are GMO products subject to?
GMO foods and products are regulated by the FDA, USDA, and EPA in the same manner as conventionally bred organisms—that is, GMOs must meet the same standards for environmental and human safety as all crops overseen by these bodies. The FDA does recommend that the development of GMOs be undertaken in consultation with their Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program, which is dedicated to assist GMO developers in ensuring that their products meet all necessary legal and regulatory thresholds. However, this voluntary program is not intended to serve as a regulatory barrier but rather a resource for GMO developers to use as they bring products to market. A complete list of GMOs that have completed the consultation program can be found here.