Opinion: Are you ready to eat gene-edited food? It’s arrived…

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So you decide to take your significant other on a special date to celebrate (pick an event).  You head out to your fav Midwest restaurant and order a fried chicken sandwich, and salad with ranch dressing.  The meal is delicious, the evening wonderful.

Only later (when your friend who works at the restaurant tells you) do you learn that the chicken is fried with gene-edited soybeans and ingredient one on the ranch dressing is you guessed it – is also gene-edited.

WHAT?

I know what you’re thinking.  Dickey you’re making it up.  Except I’m not.

A Midwest restaurant is buying Calyno™ High Oleic Soybean Oil from Calyxt that fashions itself as a “consumer-centric, food- and agriculture-focused company.”

It is also the first commercial use of a gene-edited food in the U.S.  Although the soybean oil is most definitely genetically modified Calyxt calls the product non-GMO. We’ll try not to get too wonky here but stay with us.  The soybeans are gene-edited by a tool called TALEN, which is a predecessor to other gene-editing tools like CRISPER-Cas9 (As an aside, there’s a huge ongoing debate among scientists about the merits of each.)

You can imagine TALEN as a pair of DNA scissors that cuts and binds DNA sequences to create a desired trait.  In Calyxt’s case high-oleic soybeans.  Calyxt deactivated or cut out two genes to create the new soybeans.

For Calyxt there is another very attractive attribute; the tool is proprietary avoiding the huge world wide squabble of who owns and can sell CRISPER.

For Calyxt the soybeans are genetically enhanced through gene-editing rather than the traditional transgenesis GMO process.

Calyxt says the gene-edited soybeans contain no trans-fat and have a longer shelf life than traditionally modified GMO soybeans.

The gene-edited soybeans were grown last year by 78 farmers in Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota.

Calyxt business model is to sell just about all of the gene-edited soybean oil as a food ingredient to small to medium sized food companies.

I don’t know if the part of the buying public that is non-GMO will appreciate the nuances of what Calyst is offering.

But I do know that eventually the public will want to know what restaurants are serving food featuring gene-edited tools.

For now Calyst says that’s not going to fly.  CEO Jim Blome said , yup, the oil is “in use and being eaten” but the company claims it can’t reveal where for competitive reasons.

That’s just goofy.  If gene-edited soybean oil is so great wouldn’t you want to shout where you can eat it to the moon?  Especially if you have no competition?

Anyway, like it or not, TALEN and CRISPER will overrun the market place within the next five years…and maybe sooner.

And it’s not just grains and vegetables.  How would you like your gene-edited steak served?

For its part the feds have been caught a little short regarding how quickly gene-editing is moving along.

The Food and Drug Administration’s Plant and Animal Biotechnology Innovation Action Plan declares:

“In 2019, the agency intends to publish guidance to clarify the FDA’s regulatory approach to the regulation of intentional genomic alterations in animals, including through genome editing. This regulatory approach would be characterized by risk-based categories that include: an FDA decision not to enforce approval requirements with no prior review, an FDA decision not to enforce approval requirements following a review of data that address specific risk questions, and an FDA decision to review for approval with data requirements proportionate to the risk associated with the particular product.”

Well…welcome to the party.

So let’s recap.  We got a new technology moving at light speed which is guaranteed to be the new normal real soon and the feds playing catch up.  And where gene-edited soybeans are being sold is a secret.  Kind of a rough and bumpy beginning.  Don’t you think?

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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