Local company stirs controversy through marketing gene-edited foods

A company co-founded by a University professor has begun distributing gene-edited soybean oil, which is used by an undisclosed Midwest food chain.

Dylan Miettinen

Because of the contributions to one company by a University of Minnesota professor, a major Midwest food chain is quietly introducing a genetically edited soybean oil, causing controversy in the agriculture and food industries. 

The oil was invented by the Minnesota-based biotechnology company Calyxt, which was co-founded by University professor Dan Voytas.The release of this oil has sparked debate among food industry experts and activists about whether gene-edited foods should be subject to the same regulations as food containing genetically modified organisms. 

According to an Associated Press article published last month, an undisclosed Midwest fast food chain is using this soybean oil in food preparation. Gene-edited foods are not regulated like GMOs, and critics worry this may lead to unforeseen environmental consequences and health impacts.

This soybean oil has a longer shelf life, zero trans fats and is being used in sauces, dressing and fryers by the undisclosed Midwest food chain, according to the AP.

The headquarters of Calyxt is about a 10-minute drive from the University’s St. Paul campus, where Voytas works at a lab that holds his name. There, he co-invented TALENs, the enzymes that can cut DNA, Voytas said. 

Whereas past scientists edited genes without a great deal of precision, TALENs allow Calyxt scientists to precisely edit certain parts of the genetic code. Voytas said the TALEN technology is analogous to a word processor. If the genetic makeup of a soybean is a book, TALENs are able to find and replace, delete, rearrange or insert words. For Calyno oil, the genetically edited soybean oil, a few “words” of the genetic code were deleted, changing the fatty composition of its oil.

“We’re modifying genes and genomes that occur naturally,” Voytas said. “We’re just going in and introducing genetic variation that in many ways already exist.”

Calyxt started out relatively small, according to Thomas Stoddard, the grower relationship manager of Calyxt.

In 2016, Calyxt started growing soybeans commercially on about 100 acres of land. Now, Calyxt’s new soybean can be found across 48,000 acres, Stoddard said. 

Though more farmers have gained a greater sense of trust in the company, Stoddard said, starting out, farmers were more hesitant to risk farming their land for a small, start-up company. Many were leary about planting gene-edited crops, but Stoddard reassured them.

“Did we add foreign DNA? No. Could this occur in nature? Yes,” he said. “We’ve developed a soybean product that could occur in nature, only we did it much quicker and in a much more sustainable fashion.”

Stoddard said Calyxt’s soybean could occur in the environment through a naturally occurring genetic mutation, which differentiates it from genetic modification. The soybean would have to be introduced to foreign DNA for it to be considered genetically modified, which could not occur in natural soybeans. The Food and Drug Administration agrees, so companies like Calyxt require less regulations than food products containing GMOs. Not all are in agreement with these classifications, however. 

Dana Perls is the senior food and agriculture campaigner with Friends of the Earth, an organization that advocates for sustainable and organic agriculture practices. Perls said the consequences of gene-editing can be dire and that gene-editing should be classified as genetic modification.

“Many of these genetic engineering proposals are being bolstered by company PR and investor hype. There is robust scientific evidence that shows new genetic engineering techniques like  gene-editing are resulting in potentially dangerous consequences and genetic havoc, genetic mutation and unpredictable consequences,” Perls said.

The fact that Calyxt will not disclose the identity of the major food chain for what they claim are competitive reasons is a concern to Perls. It is unknown whether that restaurant discloses to consumers they use gene-edited food products.

“We need a model for strong regulation and we need to let consumers know what they’re eating. People deserve the right to decide what they’re feeding their families and themselves,” Perls said. 

While Perls said that organic and sustainable solutions are what the future of agriculture should look like, Stoddard said he thinks younger generations will respond well to foods that have a wide array of benefits supplied through gene-editing. 

“I absolutely love our really challenging products, which would be like removing all of the allergens from peanuts. If you could do that, you just can’t even imagine how you could change the world,” he said.