The New Frontier: Genetically Modified Oil Wars

Original photo by Sven Hoppe/Wikimedia

Original photo by Sven Hoppe/Wikimedia

Consumer Beware: the next generation of biotech crops focus directly on you. Unlike most of GM crops currently on the market, which are genetically altered to be herbicide and pesticide resistant, the new generation of GM crops are designed to express alleged nutritional benefits. Focusing on soybean oil — the fastest way to reach the broadest number of consumers because of its ubiquitous presence in many foods — biotech companies are mutating seeds used to produce oil designed to express various types of “nutritional” benefits.

Since we do not yet know whether genetically modified crops and food products made from them are safe, and in fact studies have suggested otherwise, it is hard to swallow and digest (no pun intended) the news that GM oils are designed to express nutritional benefits. How nutritious can food be if it has, as is suggested by studies, adverse health impacts? It’s like smoking cigarettes which have been designed to address halitosis.

But that is not stopping biotech companies from R&D. And so the oil wars have officially begun.

DuPont – United States Department of Agriculture recently deregulated DuPont’s Plenish – the genetically modified soybean that is high in oleic acid, a mono-saturated fat, which is said to significantly increase the stability of the oil, provide greater flexibility in food applications, yield a product with 0g trans fat and is claimed to have 20 percent less saturated fat than commodity soybean oil.

DuPont’s appeal to the public with its GM soy is two-fold: first, its Plenish is said to address the concerns of consumers and many health officials about trans fats. Since cooking with Plenish allegedly yields a product with 0g trans fats, Plenish oil is believed to be appealing to companies and restaurants that make or cook food.

DuPont is also hoping distinguish its product from the rest of the biotech pack by promoting the method it uses to design its GM soy oil. Rather than insert genes from other plants or animals, Plenish is produced by silencing certain proteins in the soy. While the silencing of genes makes for a more appealing PR message, science, however, does not support it because it has not been demonstrated that the silencing of genes is any safer than the insertion of foreign genes into the host.

Monsanto - Not to be outdone, Monsanto currently has two varieties of biotech soybeans pending approval with USDA that also seek to modify the nutritional value of soybean oil, promising to eliminate trans fats and produce oil with omega-3 fatty acid for use in yogurt, granola bars and spreads. Monsanto obtained the approval of the Food and Drug Administration in November of last year.

As we discussed it in the past, Monsanto’s PR pitch is aimed at both promoting the alleged health benefits of its Omega-3 soy as well as the alleged benefit of saving the world’s fish stock. The claim is that since currently the only sources of Omega-3s (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)) come from fatty fish, the world’s fish populations are overtaxed because of overfishing. Monsanto’s Omega3-s soy is said to ease that pressure by creating a soybean oil with Omega-3s, thus, supposedly, eliminating or decreasing the need to rely on fish as the source of Omega-3s.  Monsanto’s environmental claims, however, ring false to many ears because the decline of the fish population is a complex problem that is caused by multiple of factors that cannot be redressed with a single solution.

Less known is the fact that Monsanto achieves its omega-3 soy by inserting two genes into the soybean genome, one from a plant related to primrose and one from a fungus.

BASF - Trailing behind in the food oil wars, and using a different crop, is the German Chemical Company BASF. BASF is developing GM canola plants that also produce omega-3s by inserting five genes from algae that naturally make EPA and DHA into the canola genome. The company’s product, however, is still in development.

Whether it is DuPont, Monsanto or BASF that reaches the market first is irrelevant. The point is that consumers will lose because they will end up eating food products that, while are claimed to promote a “healthy” (and “sustainable”) lifestyle, in reality, are potentially dangerous. Right now there is a big question mark looming over the safety of genetically modified foods that the biotech companies and the government are telling us does not exist.

But the Emperor here has no clothes. And pointing the consuming public to the GRAS determination by the Food and Drug Administration does not alter the safety concerns that still surround GM foods. (Read our past report on the problems with FDA’s GRAS policy).

What’s more pernicious is that the biotech companies will go on to label and market their GM oils as panacea for health ailments and an ecological savior. With each new next generation GM product, however, whether its soybean or canola oil manipulated to produce Omega-3s, or rice manipulated to produce vitamin A, the concept of health and nutrition is further perverted as consumers are enticed to purchase food that has not been demonstrated to be safe.

What will you eat when the New Frontier reaches you?