Welcome to episode 253 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follet, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast this week, we’re going to chat about the USDA’s recent finalization of a regulation free approach to the design, cultivation and sale of certain gene edited plants and by follow on foods that would be in our grocery store. On March 28th, the USDA released to the press this statement that, “They do not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise been developed through traditional breeding techniques,” so the translation is, if they determine that however the plant’s been altered via gene editing, if that could of sort of reasonably been done through sort of the standard breeding protocols for plants, howbeit over time, you know, over a much longer period of time, so if they determine that, that could have reasonably happened, then they’re not going to regulate that plant. Anything that’s making tweaks to the genome of a plant’s turning things on and off, for instance, perhaps for the reasons of making the plant hardier, or being resistant to certain herbicides, or making it more nutritious in some way …
… and taste better, all of those things will be unregulated territory as far as the USDA is concerned. They include in this unregulated area any new techniques that are being used by plant breeders, which of course includes crisper for changing the way the gene is put together. Now, what do they consider biotechnology, right? On the one hand we have this alterations that could be expressed in nature as being unregulated. Well, if the alteration could not happen in nature, so if you took some gene from a fish and put it in your tomato, say, you know that couldn’t have happened in nature or at least not in the nature that we’re familiar with, so that would be considered biotechnology that would need to be regulated in some way by the USDA.
It seems a pretty clear distinction, even though you can, and we will discuss whether or not, you know, what we think the outcomes of this might be. One of the possible outcomes and probably pretty likely is that you’re going to have a lot of smaller players, not sort of the giants, whether it’s DuPont or Monsanto. You’re going to have smaller companies, academic labs, you know, organizations like that who can now sort of play in this space of altering the genes of plants and hopefully having some very positive results with that. But it’s going to increase the amount of competition in the field, for sure.
With that summary, Dirk, what are your initial thoughts on this statement from the USDA?
Well, it’s certainly provocative. This is an area that I’m not very knowledgeable about, so I’m not qualified to say if this is something we should be concerned about or if it’s much ado about nothing. You know, the big question is, is there risk to humans for ingesting these sorts of genetically modified things. What the FDA is basically saying is, “No.” They’re saying the logic trail or it might even be the science trail, I mean, maybe they can prove this, it seems to be, if it’s something that could happen in nature, that even if it would take a long time in nature, then it’s okay. Maybe it is okay, maybe it’s not. I don’t know. That’s sort of the essential question and what I’m interested in, having read this story, and our … talked about it a little bit is, do scientists think that there is no risk? Do scientists think, yeah, if it’s possible in nature within the context of the natural organism to have this mutation happen, is it safe to humans to insert it, to modify it to happen immediately?
That’s something that I need to look into. But, you know, it’s another show where we’re talking about the government’s relationship to technology. In this case, the government is taking a very specific position. It’s a position that, happily, doesn’t seem to be driven by the big bio companies. I mean, you know, I don’t think Monsanto’s happy about this. If it was more top down, regulated, then little players wouldn’t be able to get in. Monsanto and their competitors could sort of control this, from a big money, big budget perspective. I’m heartened by the fact that it doesn’t seem like a decision that was bought and paid for by big corporate interests. That makes me hopeful that there’s merit in the position. But yeah, with government, that’s always the question, is what is the genesis of this decision? Who funded this decision? Did we get here through merit and fact or did we get here through essentially bribery? Yeah. Yeah.
For myself, I think the idea of having a second set of eyes on food products feels … Now, certainly there are all kinds of other regulations that, you know, these foods would be subject to.
It’s not like they could just sort of distribute whatever you want. It still has to be, you know, follow other safety and freshness and other measures in order to get into your grocery store. I think having a second set of eyes on food products can only be a good thing. There’s certainly the ability to do some of that. For instance, I’ll give you an example. When you’re altering grains, for instance, there’s some experimentation around reducing the amount of gluten in wheat. Obviously folks have Celiac disease and …
… can be very sensitive to gluten, so that would be a desirable outcome if you enjoy eating wheat products, but you don’t want quite as much gluten in there.
But, you know, at the same time, the ability to verify that this product is, you know, sort of indeed safe for human consumption and that it’s not going to have adverse effects, I always feel better if there’s a little bit more verification in there. Like you, I’m not familiar with the entire USDA process, so it does make me feel like every time there is a largely unregulated sector, it sort of throws the doors open wide for experimentation. While I’m not made nervous by GMO foods generally speaking, like I said, a third party observation feels a little better to me. Maybe I’m just being paranoid.
Maybe. We don’t know. I don’t think either of us know, is the problem, right? I mean, as you mentioned, there are other checks and balances from becoming a food producer to people being able to buy that food on a supermarket shelf, right? I think we’re also ignorant of what those checks and balances are. Your point that there should be checks and balances, absolutely. The question is, where to draw the line. Let me use a silly example to make your position look silly, for a second. If I said, “Look, I’m going to start producing tomato peanut butter,” should that be put through some kind of a process. We’d say, “No, mix tomatoes and peanut butter? Have fun, man. Knock yourself out.” We instinctively know that there’s no health risk. There might be a taste police emergency situation going on, but there’s no health risk to tomato peanut butter.
It may be ignorant to you and me, just as obvious that there’s no health risk to genetically modifying the genes of strawberries within the limits of how strawberry genes could be modified in the first place, right? It may be as innocuous. Bringing together tomato and peanut butter is actually horrifying, so calling it innocuous, might be the wrong example, but it may be just as innocuous as bringing together tomato and peanut butter. That’s the real question. It’s like, where there’s white, there’s gray, and there’s black. Bringing together tomato and peanut butter from a health safety perspective is almost certainly in the white area. Then there are other things that are in the gray area of, we’re not sure, that do need some form of regulation. Then there’s things in the black area, which are, do not do, will not make it through. I think it’s a really compelling topic, but I don’t think you and I are knowledgeable enough to know what things are white, and gray, and black, really, other than tomato and peanut butter.
Yeah, I think, so, to follow up on that, I think there are two items that point towards the better be safe than sorry perspective here. One is that it’s pretty clear that there’s not going to be any GMO labeling for foods that, you know, sort of meet this criteria that it could have occurred naturally. There are certainly companies that voluntarily will label their food as GMO free, right, sort of going the opposite direction. There are regulations sort of outside of the US that can require GMO labeling. Now, I think it’s interesting that if there is no sort of potential risk, there’s still the psychological aspects of this new product that’s been produced in a way that people might be uncomfortable with. I think that even though the products may be fine to put on the shelf, people are still going to look at it as being possibly hazardous and then therefore wouldn’t go and purchase it.
The second part of this is, if, you know, a product is released on the market, there’s no guarantee that it’s safe to begin with. I mean, I know that artificial sweeteners, sort of made the march through all the necessary processes and there’s all sorts of folks …
… of how artificial sweeteners turned out to be more artificial and somewhat dangerous than sort of delivering on the promise of a low calorie sweetener that was safe to ingest. I think both of those things, both the, if you’re perfectly satisfied that it’s safe, why not label it, you know? Then secondly, there are plenty of examples of things that people said were perfectly safe, were labeled with said, you know …
… ingredient, and turned out to be causing problems in the long run. I think the track record of putting things in food that we don’t know as much about as we should is not great, especially in the US. Hopefully this will not be the case, and I’m not a science skeptic. I think it’s, probably is for the most part safe.
But I’ve got that little itch that says, “Well, if that’s the case, then lets be transparent about it.”
Yeah, I mean, I think your point about labeling is good. I don’t think the decision’s been made yet. I think, and what I’ve read, that this, sort of tea leaves are reading as if there won’t be a labeling requirement, but that has not been formalized yet. Yeah, throwing a label on there makes sense. You know, one thing I’ve noticed in recent years, or I guess it’s not recent anymore, you know a decade or more, one of the places where we shop is Whole Foods and Whole Foods takes it upon itself to label things. The FDA or whatever the appropriate regulatory bodies are don’t require it, but Whole Foods has a whole, sort of rainbow of ratings that they give the fish that they’re selling, which, basically saying, “This is the most environmentally responsible fish to get to. This is the one that’s most in danger,” you know, you’re potentially being the most harmful by eating this fish. Similar, but sort of different criteria for meats as well.
That’s a case of the purveyor as opposed to the creator putting that layer on top to, sort of give their customers a better view, a more clear view into what exactly they’re purchasing and ultimately consuming. If the FDA doesn’t step up, I mean, maybe it will be companies like Whole Foods that put a little layer on top of it, to try and protect us as well. You know, the government doesn’t do a good job in responding to technology and making good decisions around, you know, sort of protecting and being paternalistic to the citizenry and the society around the movement technology. Some of that has to come from the people in the market and maybe it will in this case too.
Yeah, that’s a good example with Whole Foods. I think, so two things, one reason that this is so important that we have these discussions, both on the show and off, you know, generally speaking is that these are the sort of emerging technology changes of our times, right? These are the technologies that are going to shape how our children live on this planet. They are coming so very quickly and sort of right under our noses. I mean, this story received a little coverage in the tech press, but certainly not the same level that, you know, like the President’s Tweets do, or what have you.
There’s not enough discussion, in my opinion, about genomics and its potential implications on all, you know, all the different elements of those issues. Number one, that’s an important thing to be discussing. Secondly, I think that it’s a brave new world, right, and ultimately we’re helping to, not formulate the policy, but we’re helping to create the environment in which this technology would be released. Let me take a second just to talk about some of the good things that will come of it. I mean, we mentioned, you know, potentially reducing the amount of gluten in wheat, for example. You talked about the strawberries that could be made more flavorful. We talked about herbicide resistance, or fungal resistance, or boosting certain nutrients. We have lots of people on the planet and we need to feed them all and this GMO technology is going to potentially allow that to happen.
I think it’s worth also mentioning some of the positive potential, and the great positive potential that’s already happening with GMO foods, while we’re also wearing our skeptic hats.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to Thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a great information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play, and if you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett. That’s jonfollett. The whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging tech, which you can check out at Goinvo.com. That’s goinvo.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s @dknemeyer, and thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 252 of The Digital Life, for Dirk Knemeyer. I’m John Follett, and we’ll see you next time.