We have provided answers to some of the frequently asked questions around bioengineering. Use the quick links on the left to jump to an answer.
Biotechnology in the Supermarket
Biotechnology (biotech for short) is an umbrella term first coined in 1919 to describe complicated processes built on the natural systems found in living things. The myriad of different biotech methods serve a wide range of needs, from the environment and health care to food production. Some, but not all, involve genetic changes.
Supermarkets have long been on the front line of biotech innovations. For example, highly sophisticated ripening rooms carefully monitor the air surrounding certain foods like bananas or cheese to gradually bring them to full flavor. Specially designed packaging allows foods to “breathe” while keeping them fresh longer. Biotechnology has brought personal monitoring kits, such as for blood sugar or cholesterol so that patients can better manage their disease. Recent products, especially in health care and agriculture have started with mapping the genetic blueprints for animals, plants and even the human gut microbiome!
Because genetic biotech tools are in the news, some assume that biotechnology always involves genetic changes. Not so! Biotechnology includes a much broader set of tools. And the impact goes far beyond health care and agriculture.
How far reaching is Biotechnology?
Think of biotech as an array of tools in the toolbox of product developers across many industries. Biotech endeavors have been grouped by color to help reveal their scope. Examples: Gold biotech or computational biology helps understand and organize information. Blue biotech looks to the sea such as in bio-oils from algae. Green biotech provides tools to crop breeders and those doing environmental clean-up. Red biotech, in health care, has produced vaccines and diagnostic tests. White biotech is applied to industrial processes, such as enzymes in cleaning products. Yellow biotech supports food production, as in making wine, cheese, and beer by fermentation. The list goes on to Gray, Brown, Violet and even “Dark” (for bioterrorism!)
How do supermarkets view such an emotionally charge topic?
Customers may hold deep-seated convictions about biotechnology, especially when it involves tweaking the genetic code of plants and animals. We recognize the promise of these technologies in addressing significant challenges to the environment, agriculture and health care. Supermarkets respect the role of federal agencies and university researchers to provide thorough testing and assurance that biotech products are as safe, if not safer, than other products. At the same time we are committed to offering our customers the product choices they seek along with information to answer their questions.
Is there a solution to labeling confusion?
Biotechnology gets further complicated when different stakeholders use different terms and vocabulary. From GMO to CRISPR, it can feel like alphabet soup!
The government has recently stepped in to mandate “Bioengineered” claims on products containing genetic material that would not otherwise be in the food or dietary supplement.
We provide a vocabulary overview to help you get to know this topic. We will continue to refresh this resource as science advances.
Get To Know the Vocabulary
New “Bioengineered” Claim: What does it mean?
USDA has a shortcut, the Bioengineered claim, for shoppers wanting to know if genetic material (DNA) from another species is in a food product. All food is made from plants and animals that share genetic traits with the next generation. In simple terms, bioengineering is a scientifically sophisticated means of taking the gene for a specific trait from one plant, animal or bacteria and transferring it to another. Other words have been used for this such as GMO, Genetic Engineering, Gene Splicing and Transgenic. However none of those terms can be used to replace the required claim, “Bioengineered”, on applicable food products in the coming years.
You’ll soon notice the claim appearing on-line and in the store. With few exceptions, bioengineered products in production by January 2022 will be required to carry the claim.
Does all Biotechnology involve Bioengineering?
No! When it comes to improving the inherent traits of plants and animals there’s a wide array of biotech solutions that do not involve DNA from another species. Examples from over the past century include Mutagenesis, Marker Assisted Selection and Protoplast Fusion which have brought you foods like seedless watermelon, ruby red grapefruit and triticale grain. Some Gene Edited products, like non-browning mushrooms and high oleic soybean oil (with nutrition more like olive oil) are in the pipeline and will not be considered bioengineered.
What kinds of traits have been introduced in plants that are bioengineered?
Most of the crops that have been bioengineered have had genes transferred that make the crop resistant to pests or able to withstand herbicides that allow the desirable crop to grow, but not weeds. For example, corn, canola, potatoes and cotton have had genes from bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) added to them that code for insecticidal proteins. In fact, Bt is so safe and the insecticidal properties so well known, it has been used on plants for decades by organic farmers.
Crops such as soybeans and cotton have been modified so that they can be sprayed with an herbicide (RoundUp) that kills the weeds around them but doesn’t affect the crop at all.
Other plants such as papaya and some squash varieties have had genes inserted that make them resistant to plant viruses. In the future, it may be possible to add genes that improve a plant’s nutrition profile by adding a beneficial nutrient or changing the fatty acid content.
Are bioengineered foods safe to eat?
Yes. Commercially grown bioengineered foods have been safely consumed in the United States since 1994. There is broad scientific consensus among food and safety regulatory bodies – including World Health Organization, American Medical Association, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and most recently the National Academies of Science - that approved bioengineered products currently in the marketplace are as safe to eat as their conventional counterparts.
Many scientists have and continue to study the benefits and effects of bioengineering, and there is no evidence that bioengineered foods pose a risk to humans.
There are individuals and organizations who question the safety of growing and eating food produced from bioengineered seeds. Mostly the expressed concerns have to do with people eating foods that are perceived as being “new” and related fears that they may cause allergies or result in unforeseen health consequences.
What government agency is in charge of Bioengineered disclosure?
Congress put the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, the same group that manages the national organic program, in charge of assuring that the bioengineered claim is understood and followed. Bioengineered status is considered a marketing claim, not a health, safety or nutrition claim since there have been no proven health, safety or nutrition concerns identified in these foods.
What foods have been Bioengineered?
The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service keeps an updated List of Bioengineered Foods to identify the crops and seafood currently available in bioengineered form throughout the world. In some cases these represent a large proportion of the particular crop (over 90% of field corn and soybeans). Food companies will use this list to consult their suppliers to understand the bioengineering status of each ingredient
Can food additives be Bioengineered?
Yes, for example yeast and enzymes can be bioengineered to have very specific functions in products. Some additives could be from bacteria bioengineered to produce a substance, such as certain vitamins.
Many food additives are “Derived from Bioengineering” in that they are made from bioengineered corn, soy, sugar beets or cottonseed but are so highly refined that no genetic material is measurable.
What are the benefits of bioengineered crops?
Since bioengineered crops are often engineered to resist damage from pests and herbicides, they often require less application of products, thus reducing worker safety issues on farms and reducing the cost and investment of these products by farmers. For example, Bt cotton which is currently grown in the US, China, and India, has resulted in larger crop yields per acre and lower use of insecticides. Bioengineered soybeans, corn and other crops are tolerant to the herbicide Bt and allow farmer to spend less time eliminating weeds and use less herbicide compared to traditional crop varieties.
Less pest damage means larger yields per acre and more food being produced. This is especially important in developing countries where crop failure – due to pests or weather conditions - is a huge problem and can result in severe hunger and malnutrition.
What are the concerns about bioengineered foods?
One concern about bioengineered foods and crops has focused on the possibility of food allergies caused by introducing new proteins into foods. During the initial premarket safety evaluations for bioengineered varieties, potential allergens are carefully considered and factored into the safety evaluation.
Another concern is the potential impact of bioengineered seeds on the natural communities and ecosystems that form around plants and animals. A concern is that widespread use will eventually lead to resistant weeds and pests, requiring the use of harsher chemicals. At this point in time, this has not been the case. Data are being collected and reviewed by the EPA to evaluate the environmental impact of bioengineered crops. Bioengineered seed companies are working on new technologies and evaluating the environmental impact. Farmers are natural environmentalists because their livelihood depends on a sustainable use of their farmland. They are conservationists and are often the first ones to use a process or technology with a lower environmental footprint. Many farmers have been on the same land for generations and they are the last ones who are going to harm the land or water their family lives on.
Although some have tried to blame bioengineered crops for creating problems for beneficial insects such as honeybees or butterflies, these claims have not held up under close examination. Researchers at the USDA and EPA have been carefully examining potential causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome affecting bees which have a variety of contributors unrelated to bioengineering. [For more information on this, go to: http://www.usda.gov/documents/ReportHoneyBeeHealth.pdf]
Is there an easy way to avoid food that is either Bioengineered or Derived from Bioenginering?
Yes, both the Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA organic certification track all ingredients to assure that bioengineering was not used in any way to create the products.
What’s the difference between certified non-GMO and USDA Certified Organic?Both have strict guidelines to prevent the use of ingredients, animal feed or veterinary treatments that were created through bioengineering. However, certified organic standards cover many other food production practices such as use of certain pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, irradiation, animal containment and specific food additives. Non-GMO does not check for those practices.
Could food products be listed as neither Bioengineered nor non-GMO?
Yes, this will often be the case for at least five reasons:
Many ingredients made from bioengineered crops like corn, soy and sugar beets are so highly refined that no genetic material is present and therefore not considered bioengineered. However, companies may voluntarily say that ingredients are “Derived from Bioengineering”. These same products would not be allowed as non-GMO.
The non-GMO claim cannot be placed on products from animals that have been fed bioengineered grain or treated with bioengineered drugs. These same products would not be considered Bioengineered but could voluntarily be labeled as “Derived from Bioengineering.”
Although most varieties of fruit, veggies, grains, nuts and seeds have never been bioengineered the companies that produce them may see no reason to take the time and pay to have the product certified as non-GMO.
Products with meat, poultry or eggs as one of the first three ingredients are exempt from Bioengineered disclosure. Restaurant-type foods including in-store prepared foods are also exempt.
Gene Edited foods will not be certified as non-GMO, nor would most of them be considered Bioengineered since they would not have DNA from another species.
Can foods be tested for bioengineered ingredients?
Yes. Very specific tests are designed to react to genetic markers in each currently approved bioengineered food. These are like home pregnancy tests and give results within a few minutes.The new bioengineering disclosure standard requires that likely ingredients (ones that are on the above “list”) either be tested or prove that they were so highly refined as to not contain any measurable genetic material.
Is there a connection between bioengineered products and the rise in celiac disease?
It is absolutely true that gluten sensitivity and celiac disease have been rising rapidly in recent years. This does not mean that there’s a connection between bioengineered products and gluten sensitivity. The reasons for the rising rates are not known, but they are rising world-wide and not just in the US, where most bioengineered foods are eaten. It’s important to know that there is no bioengineered wheat. Gluten, which comes from wheat, is therefore also not bioengineered. The best estimates that have been done on celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity show that about 7 percent of the population is affected - 1 percent have celiac disease, 6 percent are estimated to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity
The leading celiac disease researchers in the world agree that celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are increasing but the credible theories suggested so far have nothing to do with bioengineered products.
What is Gene Editing?
Gene or Genome Editing, a type of genetic engineering, has created excitement among researchers and start-up companies. Gene Editing begins with a clear understanding of the genetic sequence and DNA location of selected traits. An enzyme system precisely edits (turns on, turns off or adds to) the DNA at a specific place along a strand of DNA. Different methods have unique names like CRISPR and TALEN. Gene Editing typically does not add DNA from another species. Rather it works with traits that are dormant in the particular plant or animal, and therefore could have happened with traditional breeding methods. In most cases it would not be labeled as either bioengineered or derived from bioengineering.
If I wanted to, how could I avoid Gene Edited food?
The Non-GMO Project Verified has announced that Gene Edited products will not be certified as non-GMO. The National Organic Standards Board has recommended that Gene Editing not be allowed, however, USDA has yet to approve the recommendation.