You probably already know that the Non-GMO Project requires GMO testing all the way back to animal feed—it’s one component of our program that sets it apart from the new federal GMO labeling law and other GMO avoidance programs that don’t check out what animals eat. This is important because most GMOs are large-scale commodity crops such as soy and corn. These crops are grown primarily for animal feed or biofuel—not for human consumption. It takes a lot of corn, soy, alfalfa, and other commodity crops to feed animals. Since we all want to increase access to non-GMO choices and reduce contamination pressure, animal feed is an important leverage point in our food system.
At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that we have the power to change the way our food is grown and made. If you choose to eat animals or animal-derived foods, choosing Non-GMO Project Verified is one of the biggest ways you can help support a non-GMO future. However, reducing or eliminating your consumption of products that come from animals is another powerful way to impact our shared food system.
The market for meat alternatives is exploding—more and more of these products are landing on grocery store shelves every month. It can be hard to keep track of which of these products are actually vegan or vegetarian, and harder yet to tell which ones contain GMOs. We’re here to help give you GMO transparency, but the ethical decisions surrounding animal welfare and meat consumption are up to you.
Author’s note: The next section discusses some of the harsh realities of the meat industry. If you don’t want to read about animal suffering, you might want to skip ahead.
A New Way to Make Meat
“Clean” meat has been all over the news in recent months. Also known as lab-grown meat, in vitro meat, craft meat, cell-cultured meat, cellular meat, or cell-based meat, this is actual meat that has been cultured in a lab instead of grown inside an animal. Some people are excited about this technology because it could mitigate the negative impacts of animal agriculture without requiring meat eaters to stop eating meat. Animal welfare aside, there are some strong environmental arguments to be made for a reduction in animal consumption. Factory-farmed animals require significantly more farmland, water, and energy than plant-based foods do. They also produce a disproportionate share of the emissions that contribute to climate change. For these reasons, meat consumption has been identified as one of the key factors contributing to the sixth mass extinction.
To make lab-grown meat, cells are taken from a live animal in a procedure that resembles a biopsy. These cells grow in a solution that includes both nutrients and fetal bovine serum (FBS). FBS is made from the blood of cow fetuses after they have been harvested from butchered pregnant cows. Many people have ethical concerns about this type of meat, which is decisively not vegetarian. The creator of the first lab-grown burger estimated that a single burger requires 50 liters (that’s more than 13 gallons) of FBS. At an estimated average of 300ml per fetus, that means about 160 cow fetuses per burger.
More FBS math for the curious
Are These Clean Meats Made with GMOs?
We don’t know yet. Many companies around the world are working on different types of lab-grown meat, and they are all being fairly secretive about their ingredients and processes right now. It is possible that some of these clean meats will not involve GMOs, so there may be Non-GMO Project Verified lab-grown meat in the future. However, it’s likely that some of these products will involve GMOs, so our team of full-time researchers is keeping a watchful eye on clean meat around the world. We carefully track the moves of hundreds of biotech companies so you don’t have to!
None of this “clean meat” is on the market in North America yet—you won’t accidentally buy it while trying to find a veggie burger at your local retailer. Most of these foods are only available at select restaurants in places like NYC or LA. However, they are poised to enter our food system soon, as it appears the American USDA and FDA are likely to fast-track in vitro meats. These agencies have publicly announced their intent to avoid legislation around clean meat and plan to “foster these innovative food products.”
The meat alternatives that are available at grocery stores are made from plants, not animals. Many of our readers and engaged shoppers have written to us asking for clarification on the differences between the internet sensation the Impossible Burger and its most similar competitor: the Beyond Meat burger. Let’s compare!
GMO: Impossible Burger
The Impossible Burger doesn’t use FBS or animal cells—it is entirely plant-based. We’ve talked about the Impossible burger before, so you may remember that it uses GMO-derived heme to make a veggie burger that “bleeds.” Heme is the iron-rich compound that makes meat look red and taste metallic. Essentially, it is what makes meat…meaty.
Heme is found in blood and muscle tissue, but it can also be found in the roots of soy plants. It would take a lot of naturally-growing soy to make enough heme for commercial use, so Impossible Foods uses GMO yeast instead. Putting the soy genes that make leghemoglobin into yeast results in a GMO yeast that excretes heme.
Since animal welfare is a key concern for many veggie burger fans, it’s important to note that Impossible Foods tested its heme on animals. Many people do not consider a product to be completely vegan if animals were used or harmed during its creation—we’ll let you decide for yourself. Ultimately, Impossible Foods’ argument that animal testing was necessary to advance animal welfare falls flat because plenty of other companies create great meatless foods without using animals at all. For example:
Non-GMO Project Verified: Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger
Beyond Meat makes the Beyond Burger, which is Non-GMO Project Verified and completely vegan—absolutely no animals or animal testing involved. The Beyond Burger gets its 20 grams of protein from peas and its red color from non-GMO beets and annatto instead of heme. The Beyond Burger is free of both soy and gluten—good news for anyone who is sensitive to those ingredients.
Beyond Meat products have been dominating the headlines in recent months, but Tofurky, Hilary’s, Sweet Earth Natural Foods, Big Mountain Foods, Gardein, MorningStar Farms, Yves Veggie Cuisine, Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, Maika Foods, Lightlife, and Quorn also make excellent meatless burger options that are Non-GMO Project Verified.
These fancy new meat alternatives are great, but we’d be fools to forget the classics. These traditional vegan protein sources are delicious, inexpensive, and can be made at home without wasteful packaging:
- Tofu is soybean curd pressed into a block. It’s a versatile food that’s been around for more than 2,000 years. Tofu is a GMO risk because it is made from soy. About 94 percent of the soy grown in North America is genetically modified, but there is non-GMO soy too! Look for Non-GMO Project Verified tofu next time you shop—there are over 200 Verified choices.
- Tempeh is also typically made from soy, but it is more nutritious than tofu. This cultured soy product uses a special fungus to create a dense soybean cake that is absolutely perfect for slicing, marinating, and pan frying. One serving of tempeh has over 30 grams of protein—well over half of what most people need in a day.
- Seitan is a chewy and protein-rich food made by cooking wheat gluten in broth. It’s the basis for many bacon substitutes, chicken alternatives, and mock duck—an international favorite. While it’s wheat-based, seitan can also contain GMO risks such as nutritional yeast and soy sauce. The best thing about seitan is that it can be made at home quickly and easily.
Whether you’re a dedicated vegan, enthusiastic carnivore, or somewhere in-between, you have the right to know what is in your food and you deserve access to non-GMO choices. “Clean meat” is not particularly clean yet, but there are plenty of meatless non-GMO choices available. We’re here to help you make informed choices—what you eat is up to you!
If you have a favorite meat alternative or meatless recipe, post it in the comments!