Genetic engineering in food: a blanket 'no' misses benefits

cience has enabled Air New Zealand's Impossible Burger to taste more like the real product. Photo: Allied Press Files
cience has enabled Air New Zealand's Impossible Burger to taste more like the real product. Photo: Allied Press Files
Vege burgers and sausages are nothing new - they've been in our supermarkets for decades, tucked away in the vegetarian section.

However, the new-style vege burgers, like the Impossible Burger, served on Air New Zealand business class, do not want to be being tucked away.

Why would you want your product positioned where only 5% of consumers go? The real prize is to be positioned squarely in the meat section.

What makes these new burgers any different from the somewhat dry and tasteless meat replacement products of the past?

There are two main categories of ''new burger''; the first and most radical are the cellular burgers, made from cells taken from live animal muscle and scaled via culturing and bioengineering to a minced product.

We can do this now, but not very cheaply, so these products are a few years off being on our shelves. The second category, and where The Impossible Burger and other companies such as New Zealand's Sunfed Meats fit, are plant-based burgers. The main difference from the old-style plant-based burgers, is quite simply the application of science to make these burgers taste more like the real product.

Let's have a look at the Impossible Burger. It is made of wheat, coconut fat and soy leghemoglobin. Nothing too sinister or new there, surely?

Yet people are claiming that the Impossible Burger is a genetically modified food product - and they are right, which is where things get interesting.

In the early days of Impossible Burger development, a lot of money was poured into analysing the ''meaty taste'' of real meat and how that differed from traditional plant-based patties. Scientists found that the main taste and juiciness difference was the blood taste, a slightly metallic taste distinctive in mince patties that arises from the presence of iron in a compound called heme. In blood, heme lives in a protein called haemoglobin. Interestingly, plants also have heme proteins, so the Impossible Burger scientists set about testing a whole bunch of plant-based heme proteins to find the one most similar in taste to animal blood.

The protein they found was soy leghemoglobin, which is found in the roots of soy plants, a part of the plant not normally consumed by humans. It was not economically feasible for them to extract this protein directly from soy roots in large amounts.

So they looked to another mechanism - genetically engineering yeast so that they could produce large amounts of the protein in what are essentially bio-machines. They do this by isolating gene/s in the soy plant that code for leghemoglobin and putting those gene/s into the genetic code of the yeast organism, so that the yeast is regulated to produce the plant protein. The protein product that comes from the yeast is the same as the product which is extracted from the soy roots; it's just produced in a different way.

In theory, those who do not want genetically engineered food products in our food chain should be up in arms, and some critics are. Yet the Impossible Burger makers have sold so hard the upside of their product in terms of lower environmental footprint and animal welfare that the genetic engineering part is mostly conveniently ignored. The company has never denied that this is the way they produce the leghemoglobin, but they have been slightly opaque about it all.

Does the thought of eating this protein produced from genetically-engineered yeast make you feel uncomfortable? Well, I don't think it should - this is nothing new. As a high-profile example, insulin, as used to treat diabetes, is a protein which has long been produced in a similar manner.

Before the days of genetic engineering, trains would bring piles of pink pancreases from surrounding pig farms to a manufacturer in Indianapolis. Extracting insulin from pig pancreases was expensive and the human body's immune system recognised that pig insulin was foreign and some people rejected the insulin over time.

In the 1980s, scientists engineered bacteria, Escherichia coli, to produce insulin as coded by human genes. A better and cheaper product was developed and made available, which is still widely used by diabetics today.

We have a common-use success story in insulin - can we build on this and use the Impossible Burger to re-start the conversation around the use of genetic technologies in our food chain?

I would like to think we can; society has much to benefit from the range of newer genetic technologies now available to scientists - environmentally, health-wise and in food production.

I appreciate that there will be a need for rules, regulations and appropriate labelling surrounding such activities, but a blanket ''no'' response is short-sighted and bordering on hypocritical when we consider the efficacy of insulin production in medicine.

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

Comments

Yes, product labelling at pos. Customers must know the ingredients.

Cultural significance is JW/Adventists may be able to consumer plant based ersatz burger. Be very clear. Don't mess with kosher.