by Amber

Unregulated GMOs: Mushrooms, Corn & More

If you thought GMOs were looking like an endangered species with all the glyphosate being found in even organic foods and wines, how wrong you were. Now we have gene edited foods modified without inserting anything at all. Why bother? In the case of the new genetically modified mushroom it’s a longer shelf life accomplished by destroying the genes that cause natural browning and bruising.

Granted, fresh mushrooms are one of those fragile foods the population has grown quite attached to having on hand constantly. They bruise easily, and have at most 9 days of shelf life, if rapidly cooled upon harvest, and kept refrigerated at 32-34°F (0-1°C) with 95% relative humidity. Deterioration is much faster in conditions just 2°F (1°C) warmer. However, packaging methods put pressure on the perishable food inside the plastic wrap, and between stacking them on supermarket shelves and consumers pawing through the boxes looking for the one with the least injured specimens, the biggest pieces, or the highest piece count is not doing the product any favors. Nor is the fact that they are transported long distance before reaching distribution warehouses, and ultimately the stores.

The common sense approach would be that mushroom farms were local or regional to their market. But, like all other things in the food system, they’re trucked hither and yon. Instead of reorganizing the messed up food system, big business seeks to reorganize the nature of food to suit their purposes. The Washington Post touts this as a breakthrough step toward staunching the absurd amount of food waste in the U.S. Hardly, the United States produces more food a year than those with money to purchase it with can eat, and it’s been that way for years.

The mushroom has biotech science all excited. It was developed with CRISPR-Cas gene editing by plant pathologist Yinong Yang at Pennsylvania State University, and it’s just one of the most recent GMOs to escape regulation. The creation was undertaken with partial funding from the second largest mushroom producer in the U.S., Giorgio, whose Pennsylvania-grown fresh mushrooms are distributed to almost every state east of the Mississippi River. But Giorgio isn’t so sure they want to use the mushroom now that it exists. Their marketing department is not in favor of it at all, and rightly so with so many consumers against GMO foods.

It may not have bacteria or genes added, but it’s still an abnormality – a designer mutant for whose benefit? Consumers who buy fresh mushrooms are well aware that if left in the fridge longer than 4-5 days after purchasing, waste is a given due to deterioration. What’s next? Genetically modifying cows so their blood stays red and the meat won’t spoil for 3 more weeks? Try holding hamburger more than 7 days after purchase – the stench could be so bad you can smell it before opening the refrigerator door. As long as nothing foreign is spliced in, the USDA will love it, just like they do the new anti-aging mushroom. They’re not even going to regulate Yang’s creation. He’s already pondering starting his own mushroom operation, since Giorgio isn’t going to use his novel fungi, but he has to get that approved by the university, who has already filed a patent application on it.

Initially, I was concerned about what this would mean to composting, and regenerating the soil. But apparently only about 1 third of the browning mechanisms was silenced, so they will age and decompose, just 30% slower. At least that’s what they say.

For an in depth explanation of this new fast, cheap, and easy CRISPR-Cas technology, and further details on this mutant mushroom, you’ll find this March 2016 piece an excellent read. Apparently, it took only 3 days to create and check Yang’s mushroom?

The New GMOs Tsunami

In the past 18 months scientists and plant pathologists have been busy redesigning things with this CRISPR-Cas technology. The non-browning mushroom joins over 30 other genetically modified food that will be grown in the US without any regulation. Last year’s non-browning Arctic apple and potato (that McDonald’s shunned) are two more such crops that no oversight will be done on. And there’s a lot more on the way, and CRISPR technology’s reach far exceeds food. Science is working on ‘perfecting’ anything undesirable from pest and disease issues in plants to redesigning human beings.

Last week DuPont Pioneer bypassed GMO regulation too on their new CRISPR waxy corn too with the same type of letter from APHIS received by Yinong Yang, which in summary states that since no genes or bacteria were added the new seed can be marketed without regulation under The Plant Protection Act of 2000. Pioneer’s new waxy corn won’t be in production on farms for about 5 years though, it still needs controlled testing and final USDA approval. Something that it doesn’t appear the non-browning mushroom needs, as it isn’t a plant, and not a crop grown outside a controlled environment for commercial production. Though what the mutant gene could do in compost piles and landfills remains to be seen. None of this stuff is tested long enough or thoroughly enough to remove uncertainties.

While the USDA is currently allowing gene-silenced crops to be released to the market without regulation, they are also in the midst of rewriting the rules of regulation, but until they are completed and voted on, the easy approvals will continue. There won’t be as many CRISPR-Cas products being created as there might have been, because of issues surrounding getting the creations patented. There’s a dispute as to who actually owns the technology itself being battled out, and until the path to patent ownership is clear, many scientists don’t want to start working with CRISPR.

““Without a doubt,” Voytas says, in the future CRISPR “is going to be the plant-editing tool of choice.” But the murky patent situation—both the University of California and the Broad Institute (run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University) claim to have invented CRISPR—may slow commercial agricultural development. DuPont recently reached a “strategic alliance” with Caribou Biosciences, a biotech associated with U.C. Berkeley, to use CRISPR applications in agriculture, but executives at
two small biotechs told Scientific American that they were wary of developing CRISPR-related products while the patent dispute remains unresolved.

That’s not a big issue for academic labs.” — Scientific American, March 2016

My my, and here we thought they were concerned about feeding the world.

Let’s Edit Everything

Here’s something even more troubling from the same article in Scientific American:

“Like any powerful new technology, CRISPR has inspired some agricultural dreamers to envision almost science-fiction scenarios for the future of farming—scenarios that are already making their way into the scientific literature. Michael Palmgren, a plant biologist at the University of Copenhagen, has proposed that scientists can use the new gene-editing techniques to “rewild” food plants, that is, to resurrect traits that have been lost during generations of agricultural breeding. A number of economically significant food crops—notably rice, wheat, oranges and bananas— are highly susceptible to plant pathogens; the restoration of lost genes could increase disease resistance. The idea, Palmgren and his Danish colleagues recently noted, aspires to “the reversal of the unintended results of breeding.””

The bananas are questionable being mutants to begin with, but a partially unmutated mutant? Sounds awfully frankenfoodish.

AND… when they’ve succeeded at restoring the original genes, who will own the once again pure plants? Certainly not the world at large.

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The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.