You already know about herbicide-tolerant crops, Bt crops, and other types of transgenic GMOs such as the AquAdvantage salmon—we’ve been talking about them for years. If you have been paying attention to the news, you have probably heard a little about CRISPR and the newest wave of GMOs. These technologies, which may be referred to as gene editing, gene silencing, GMOs 2.0, or just “new GMOs,” have been making headlines recently.
When the Non-GMO Project talks about “new GMOs” or “products of new genetic engineering techniques,” we generally mean all the emerging GMOs that aren’t covered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Plant Protection Act (PPA). The PPA is a law that is meant to fight the spread of pests that can harm valuable crops. It essentially says that people cannot import plant pests, bring them across state lines, or otherwise spread them around. This law is important because many GMO plants are (loosely) regulated under this act because they include DNA from Agrobacterium tumefaciens; a plant pest.
The newest types of GMOs do not include DNA from that bacteria, so they are not regulated under the PPA. This leads some people to mistakenly believe that they are not the products of genetic engineering. Some companies are even marketing these crops as non-GMO. The Non-GMO Project is working hard to correct these misconceptions. We all know that there is no way to start with biotechnology and end up with something that is not the product of genetic modification. New GMOs are still GMOs—and they’re not allowed in Non-GMO Project Verified products.
So What are New Genetic Engineering Techniques?
It’s important to understand that all of the following techniques are forms of biotechnology, and they all produce GMOs.
- Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) creates double-stranded cuts in DNA. No products of CRISPR are commercially available right now but they could be soon.
- RNA interference (RNAi) uses RNA molecules to inhibit gene expression via translation blocking or degradation. This is how the GM Simplot Innate potatoes are made.
- Oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM) involves inserting new DNA that mimics a portion of the plant’s genome. That new DNA is incorporated via the cell’s own repair function. This is how a new type of commercially available GMO canola oil is produced.
- Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs) are enzymes that can be used to cut DNA. There is a variety of GMO soy produced using TALEN.
This is not an exhaustive list; there are many techniques being used to create new GMOs and there may be more on the horizon. The Non-GMO Project is committed to staying ahead of these technologies in order to protect our supply chain.
Fermentation: More than Just Kombucha and Sauerkraut
You may also have heard of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is generally used to genetically modify microorganisms in order to exploit their natural function and make them produce compounds they would not typically produce. For example, yeast is sometimes genetically modified so that it creates vanillin instead of what it would normally excrete. In addition, that yeast produces vanillin by consuming sugar (often from genetically modified sugar beets or corn) in a fermentation tank. Companies sometimes call this process “brewing” or “fermenting,” so be aware that those words are often used to disguise synthetic biology in this context.
Like all GMOs, products of synthetic biology have the potential to disrupt traditional economies. If it’s cheaper to make vanilla flavor using GM yeast than it is to make it with real vanilla beans, that hurts the farmers in places like Madagascar who depend on harvesting vanilla beans for their income. Do we really want to buy into a food system that would take their livelihood and export it to American corporations? At the Non-GMO Project, our answer is a resounding “no.” We want to help create a future that supports a diverse genetic inheritance, ecological harmony, and farmers everywhere.
You can help create a future we can all be proud of by choosing Non-GMO Project Verified products at the grocery store. By voting with our dollars every time we shop, collectively we have the power to change the way our food is grown and made. As products of synthetic biology and other types of new GMOs become more commonplace, we all need to work together to protect our non-GMO food supply.
Want to learn more about new GMOs? Check out this article by Non-GMO Project Executive Director Megan Westgate.