Dan Murphy: Say hello to the ‘new’ GMOs

12:54PM Sep 26, 2019
Alternative meats are often made with GMOs.
( Genetic Literacy Project )

Used to be that GMOs ranked right up there with child porn as a blight on society no one should ever consume — until alt-meat foods started using GE ingredients. GMOs now? Not a problem!

I couldn’t begin to count the number of columns, editorials and commentaries about genetic engineering that I’ve written in the past decade since GMOs become a thing.

Yes, a disturbingly significant percentage of even the most educated American adults has swallowed the activist line about the alleged perils of consuming foods made from ingredients derived from crops grown from GE seeds.

Yes, corporate control of the technology — initially developed through publicly funded research, let’s not forget — has made genetic engineering an easy target for Greenpeace and its allied advocacy groups to demonize as yet another horror show resulting from the industrialization of agriculture.

Yes, the early applications of the technology unfortunately focused on developing the square tomatoes and steel-skinned strawberries that benefitted growers, not consumers.

Yes, the single biggest commercial use of genetic engineering has been widespread cultivation of crop varieties resistant to use of an herbicide many consumers consider as problematic as the perceived threats from consuming GMO foods themselves.

And yes, genetic engineering, the insertion of genes from one species into another, unrelated organism, conjures up images of science run amuck, of the scenarios played out in dozens of sci-fi movies that always end badly for the aliens/renegade scientists/evil corporate masters intending to use some scientific breakthrough to take over the universe.

But guess what? As horrible, as threatening, as scary as GMOs are portrayed by the cadre of activists determined to cash in on the public’s fearfulness, now that the alt-meat category has ridden in a like a white knight to slay the meat industry and rescue the planet from death by cow, GMOs are suddenly A-okay.

No longer much of an issue

That’s because Impossible Foods, manufacturer of one of the highest profile lines of alt-meat products, utilizes a genetically engineered yeast to produce heme, the compound that causes raw meat to “bleed” and is intrinsically connected to the “meat taste” that’s a significant contributor to the unique flavor and sensory appeal involved in eating red meat.

That GE ingredient is what makes Impossible’s shamburgers look and taste like actual hamburgers and is critical to the marketing and advertising that’s driving consumer trial.

Of course, the firm’s chief competitor, Beyond Meat, uses an extract from beets to produce the heme-like effect mimicking raw meat in their line of products.

Not than anyone seems to care about the distinction.

In fact, the same woke consumers determined to purchase only non-GMO products with a fervor usually found only in religious cults apparently could care less about the GMO ingredient in the alt-meat shamburgers they’re lining up to buy.

According to a lengthy report in Forbes, the sober, business-first publication that brooks no touchy-feely- connections with counter-cultural types, “GMOs aren’t much of a motivation one way or the other” for consumers who’ve eagerly embraced alt-meat introductions.

The Forbes story, titled, “Fake Meat Fight: Can The Plant-Based Movement Get Past The ‘Processed Food’ Debate?” (answer: Not if I can help it), cited an as-yet-to-be-release MindLab study — commissioned by the anti-industry activist group the Good Food Institute, by the way — that found that the lack of a non-GMO label didn’t affect the purchase of plant-based foods for most people, nor did the presence of non-GMO labeling correlate with purchase intent.

What does that mean? On one hand, it underscores that for all the media coverage of consumers’ supposedly serious concerns about genetic engineering, the majority of Americans understand neither the technology itself nor the labeling claims food marketers assume are incremental to sales.

On the other hand, the absence of concerns about consuming GMO yeast in their Impossible Burgers is yet more convincing evidence, as if more were needed, that the power of the plant-foods-will-save-the-world mantra is overwhelming.

People are rightly concerned about the climate crisis and the relentless storms, floods, droughts and forest fires being triggered as a result, and when a seemingly simple, easy and painless “solution” — just switch to alt-meat products — continues to be actively promoted by marketers, activists and clueless media types, it swamps people’s GMO phobia like an intellectual tsunami.

The entire animal agriculture and meat processing industries need to understand and respond to this clear and present danger to their livelihoods.

If the same consumers wound up tighter than a five-dollar watch can do an instant 180 regarding their former fear of GMOs when they believe they’re helping solve this existential threat — without really having to change their diets or their lifestyles — the industry has another crisis with which to contend.

Everyone involved in the meat, dairy and poultry industries must understand that the time is long past to actively resist the “meat-is-bad/plants-are-good” message.

Before it’s too late.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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