he organic food industry has grown rapidly in recent years. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales grew 125.1% between 2009 and 2018 to $47.862 billion and accounted for 5.9% of total food sales. One of the main reasons for this rapid expansion is the misconception, propagated by the industry itself, that organic foods are healthier and more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.
A 2018 Pew survey, for example, noted:
[Y]young people remain more likely than their older counterparts to say that organic food is healthier than conventionally grown food. Some 54% of 18-29 year olds and 47% of 30-49 year olds think organic fruits and vegetables are generally healthier, compared to 39% of 65+ year olds who say the same.
While anti-biotech activists cling to the myth that organic foods are healthier and more nutritious than conventionally grown foods, genetic engineering – which most bio-advocates vehemently oppose – is producing a new range of GMOs and genetically modified crops with nutrient content. cannot reply. One of these products has already arrived on the market and several others should follow in the coming years. This development revealed a nutritional gap between organic and genetically modified crops and further weakened the case for organic farming.
[Editor’s note: This article is part four of a four-part series on the organic food industry’s reaction to the introduction of gene-edited crops. Read part one, part two and part three.]
Organic food and nutrition: the evidence so far
Anti-biotech activists often base their claim that organic foods are healthier on banning the use of synthetic pesticides in organic farming. Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, claimed that conventional farming “means chemical, conventional means toxic and that whole myth of using genetic engineering in farming is actually dangerous to our health. .”. The Rodale Institute, the self-proclaimed “cradle” of organic agriculture, shares Cummins’ view, but is more open about the state of the science, noting in 2012:
We have little long-term research on the health effects of chronic low-level pesticide exposures. And the research that does exist is troubling. Exposure to these toxins has been linked to disruptions in the brain and central nervous system, infertility, cancer, and even changes to our DNA….
The thing is, nutritional research on organic foods is still in its infancy. The “literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” as [the authors of a 2012 study] concluded, in part because there is very little research to speak of….
The claim that pesticide residues on conventional crops pose a health risk is not well supported by the evidence, which is quite extensive. And although some studies suggest that organic foods may have higher levels of antioxidants, the vast majority of studies comparing organic and conventional foods have concluded that there are no significant nutritional differences between production methods. . One of the most extensive studies comparing the nutritional content of organic and conventional foods was conducted by Stanford University in 2012. The university explained following the publication of the study:
Analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were observed in the vitamin content of organic produce, and only one nutrient – phosphorus – was significantly higher in organic produce compared to conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that, as few people suffer from phosphorus deficiency, it has little clinical significance). There was no difference in protein or fat content between organic milk and conventional milk, although evidence from a limited number of studies suggests that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Harvard Medical School also noted in 2015:
Although organic foods contain fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and are free of hormones and antibiotics, they do not appear to have a nutritional advantage over their conventional counterparts.
Kathy McManus, director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told Harvard that “there have been a number of studies looking at macro and micronutrient content, but whether they’re grown organically or conventionally , the foods are really similar in vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates.
Genetic engineering produces more nutritious food
A wide variety of crops, including genetically modified bananas, sorghum, cassava and potatoes, have been bred to combat vitamin A deficiency, which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), affects approximately 250 million preschool children, of whom 250,000 to 500,000 go blind each year. Half of them die within twelve months of losing sight. Genetic engineering can drastically reduce these numbers by producing crops rich in beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A when consumed.
Golden rice is the best-known example of a crop fortified with vitamin A. It has been in development for more than two decades and is finally approaching commercialization in parts of the world where it can have the greatest impact. Hopefully this year, Bangladesh will be the first country to cultivate this plant. The Philippines should follow soon after.
Nuseed, a subsidiary of Nufarm, Ltd. of Australia, received approval in August 2018 from the USDA to begin planting its omega-3 GMO canola. The crop is produced by taking genes from microalgae and inserting them into canola seeds, allowing the plant to produce docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which supports eye health, brain function and may prevent various diseases, including heart disease. This fatty acid is found in the meat of cold-water fish, and Nuseed estimates that one hectare of its canola could provide the omega-3 equivalent of 10,000 kg of wild-caught fish.
The oil from these genetically modified plants can be used for food and feed once the FDA grants regulatory approval, which Nuseed expects to receive in 2019. Food giant Cargil, in collaboration with BASF, is also working on an omega-3 canola that he hopes to bring to market in 2020.
CRISPR widens the gap
New breeding techniques, including CRISPR, are also beginning to produce a wide variety of more nutritious foods. Minneapolis-based Calyxt is one of the companies at the forefront of the crop gene-editing revolution. In April, the biotech company announced its first commercial sale of genetically modified soybean oil to a Midwest restaurant chain. The oil is used for frying, in salad dressings and sauces and is made from soybeans that have been modified to produce a high oleic oil with no trans fat and less saturated fat. These nutritional characteristics, the company notes, extend the oil’s shelf life and make it a competitor to healthy olive, sunflower and safflower oils. Calyxt has also developed a high fiber genetically modified wheat, which could be on the market in 2020. According to Jim Blome, CEO of Calyxt:
Consumer demand for fiber-rich products has never been higher, as fiber is essential for healthy digestion, with the potential to reduce the risk of diet-related diseases like coronary heart disease and diabetes. Most adults only get about half the recommended amount of fiber in their diets, but with the latest advancements, we’re one step closer to developing a product with up to three times more dietary fiber than wheat flour. standard wheat.
Given wheat’s status as a staple crop around the world, a number of other research projects are underway to improve its nutritional qualities. Scientists at the John Innes Center in the UK have developed a variety of wheat that produces white flour with more than double the typical iron content of the crop, greatly benefiting people with anemia, a medical condition with serious complications in extreme cases. Field trials of the wheat are being conducted between 2019 and 2022. Researchers in Spain and the Netherlands are also developing gluten-free wheat which, if commercialized, will allow people with celiac disease to consume the grain in completely safe.
Amfora, a San Francisco-based biotechnology company, develops rice, wheat, legumes and several vegetables that contain up to 60% more protein than existing varieties. Significantly, the amount of protein is increased at the expense of starch and other carbohydrates, thereby increasing the nutrient density of foods made from these crops.
The examples abound: canola oil with low saturated fat, tomatoes with the nutritional benefits of chili peppers, allergen-free peanuts, and many other improved crops are in development, but the conclusions are clear. While the organic food industry and its activist allies promote their products as healthier alternatives to conventionally grown foods, it is genetic engineering that actually produces healthier and more nutritious products.
Calyxt’s heart-healthy soybean oil is just the first of what is likely to be many foods developed with genetic engineering that will pique consumer interest. With more of these nutritionally-enhanced, consumer-focused products coming to market in the years to come, the organic industry will find it increasingly difficult to deny the benefits of biotechnology and justify the inflated prices of its products.
Steven E. Cerier is an independent international economist and frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project.
This article was originally published on May 29, 2020.