Genetic food technologies — time to reopen the debate

Food-tech company Impossible Foods’ burger uses a heme protein, leghaemoglobin, to give the...
Food-tech company Impossible Foods’ burger uses a heme protein, leghaemoglobin, to give the burger a blood-like taste. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The food world is at war — the old versus the new, the processed versus the unprocessed, meat versus plants.

It’s interesting to explore where and how New Zealand should play.

United States food journalist Larissa Zimberhoff recently wrote, "we can’t have food tech on one side of the fence and the natural world on the other; we need to think about how we are playing together".

One issue where there are divisions is the use of genetic technologies in food production.

Many of the proposed cellular agriculture technologies require genetic modification of bacterial or yeast species with genes from other organisms to produce large quantities of compounds.

Often the compound or protein produced is not genetically modified itself — it’s the method of production that uses genetic modification. This technology has been widely used in the production of medical products, like insulin. Food-tech company Impossible Foods, creator of the Impossible Burger, produces one of its ingredients in this way — a heme protein, leghaemoglobin, which gives the burger its blood-like taste. Leghaemoglobin is produced by soy roots, but not in sufficient quantities for burger production. To increase scale, the company modifies yeast organisms so they can express the leghaemoglobin protein in large quantities, cheaply. The protein then gets isolated and purified from the yeast — the resulting extract is not different from naturally derived protein.

High-tech food companies have started to produce meat, milk proteins and milk itself in this way. Less harm to animals, less land used for production and a lower carbon footprint sound like win-win scenarios, if the carbon numbers stack up and if scale and food safety can be achieved — no small feat.

So, back to the metaphorical fence dividing food-tech and "natural" food. Broadly speaking (and recognising I am stereotyping here), veganism sits ideologically on the Left, which has traditionally taken an anti-genetic modification stance. When many of the new food technologies offer an environmental alternative to traditional meat and milk and even large cropping production, will the shape of the genetic modification debate change?

At a market level there are interesting things going on too. Alternate meat products have received huge investment and hype, yet at a consumer level, sales of plant-based meat products are crashing. Many of the highly-geared food-tech companies are struggling. This has led to some jubilation in agricultural circles, with cynics delighting that "plant-based meat is a fad".

It’s true, plant-based meat alternatives have not covered themselves in glory, by producing often poor-tasting and unhealthy products. However, it would be dangerous for agriculturalists to celebrate too soon — people said the "internet was a fad" in the 1990s.

The key drivers for dietary changes — climate change and ethical food consumption — are not going away. I have been doing a lot of thinking about food tech and how people will accept new genetic technologies, especially given New Zealand’s agricultural environment would benefit from some of the technologies in development. My thinking is not all theoretical either — sometimes I have to take a position. For example, I do not use any genetically modified products in the organically grown ingredients I use to develop nutraceutical products, yet I am not anti-genetic modification at a personal level, I believe genetic technologies have their place in some situations.

Should I put GMO-free on my boxes if that is what my products are and what my customers are looking for?

When you examine this debate with an open-mind, the fence dividing the protagonists looks decidedly shaky. Surely a one-size-fits-all argument cannot continue?

It’s time to stop putting people and arguments in boxes and it’s time to be open-minded about finding the right solutions for future food production systems which feed the world’s growing population in ways that are healthful, with minimal environmental footprints.

By taking too strong a position on a technology or an ideology, we box ourselves into an unhelpful corner and miss opportunities for real change.

 - Anna Campbell is co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company. She holds various directorships.