Published as Special to The Digest by Simão Soares, CEO of SilicoLife and Sam Nejame, CEO of Promotum
Most people have a hard time dealing with climate change deniers. We say, they’re backward, there’s overwhelming evidence, they’re anti-science. Anthropomorphic green house gases accumulate in the atmosphere and if we don’t live more sustainably the earth’s temperature will rise and life on earth will cease to exist. You’ve heard this a million times right? Somehow, anti-science backward thinking has been seen as a problem of the dim unwashed hoards. We know better. We believe the experts. Yet, you can make a case that fear of genetically modified organisms is not different from the climate change denial. The truth is sustainability is complicated and does not lend itself to black and white thinking. To embrace sustainability is to avoid moral constructs, accept the science and the risk-reward continuum and as it turns out… this will lead to widespread use of GMOs for the betterment of all.
While more people than ever want to know where their food and supplements come from there still is a fundamental lack of understanding of the basics of what it takes to provide nutrition to 8 billion people. Not long ago the UN rang the alarm that if the global population continues to grow at current rates, then we will face a crisis in feeding them. With so many people depending upon the ocean for protein, this is primarily a problem concerning fish and fish stock. Meanwhile, on land we’ve seen swift snowballing interest in biotechnology companies, which eliminate the slaughter or exploitation of animals such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Ripple Foods, etc. The fermentation revolution is upon us and it is going to make the things we put in, on and use to house our bodies more sustainable, more healthy and less costly. Companies like Bolt Threads, which is working with Patagonia, Inc. to produce spider silk-based textiles, and Checkerspot, which makes high performance sports materials will become the new normal.
Natural products, whether eaten as food or taken as dietary supplements, fill supermarket shelves, and there is little doubt that fatty fish and the oils that make them that way are good for you. Derivatives of omega-3 fatty acids play important roles in the neural, immune, pulmonary and cardiovascular systems. In fact, they are so important and considered “essential” because our body both needs them and yet doesn’t have much ability to make them itself. Fortunately, for the omega-3 deprived, there are many sources. You could just do what we’ve done since antiquity and eat fatty fish or you could take a pill, derived from natural fish oil or from the same place fish get their omega-3s, by consuming aquatic plants known as algae.
That said, you might think you’d prefer the ethics and safety of farm raised salmon to ocean caught and you wouldn’t be alone. It has long been established that overfishing of our oceans has led to collapsed global fish stocks. If you favor farmed fish, like all living things we need to consider that those fish need to eat. Most are fed “fishmeal,” which is primarily ground up small forage fish. So, generally, you’re killing wild fish to feed farmed fish and further destroys ocean ecosystems. We tend to like eating apex predators and salmon are that, meaning in addition to the good things in their bodies, wild fish can bio-accumulate toxins like mercury and PCBs. The bottom line is the current system of fishing whether farmed or wild caught for food or supplements, is not sustainable.
While we’ve talked mostly about visible fauna here, there are far less charismatic creatures, which teem by the billions, will never go extinct and produce the same omega-3s, amino acids and vitamins we need to thrive. We’re talking about recruiting microorganisms like bacteria, yeast and algae to make stuff we need without the sustainability and supply chain issues or the optics of killing millions and millions of animals… Just to feed other animals. As it turns out there are many algae strains, which efficiently accumulate commercial quantities of omega fatty acids without any genetic retrofit. DSM/Martek, Corbion/Solazyme, and others, all have naturally occurring high producing strains. So, you can get your omega-3s sustainably without overfishing.
But what about improving those omega-3 algal strains or for that matter making monoculture or wild harvested natural products/botanicals sustainable? In many cases large quantities of plant material are needed to produce small amounts of natural product. When you consider the land required to grow the plants along with the water, soil, fertilizer and pesticide requirements you start to get an idea of what it takes to truly produce something sustainably. Sadly, “organics” are often even more energy intensive. This is all the harder when supply chains are opaque and thousands of miles long. It’s time to consider the benefits of GMOs.
But aren’t Genetically Modified Organisms FrankenFood? How is that natural and aren’t they bad for you and the environment? Well… If you believe in science, the answer is no. Despite popular perception to the contrary, there is no data, which supports the idea that GMOs are bad for you, but let’s talk about that…
A GMO has been altered by taking a gene, which occurs in nature, and inserting it into a microorganism that occurs in nature to produce a protein, a fatty acid, amino acids, vitamins, monoclonal antibodies and other things that benefit us all. Because microbes grow quickly and often require minimal feeds they can be cost effective and low impact. If they grow on carbon dioxide they can even suck greenhouse gases directly out of the atmosphere. This is the very definition of sustainable.
But most of the time when people talk about GMOs, they’re talking about GMO crops like corn, soy and cotton. And what’s been modified in those organisms is primarily for insect and weed control. If you read the work from the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine there’s nothing in the plethora of data that says GMOs are categorically bad.
It should also be noted, that what we’re talking about for production of sustainable foods and supplements is the use of GMOs as processing aids. Meaning there are no GMOs in the end product. The molecules are the same as the natural product.
Think about it this way, if your kid is going to die and the drug is GMO derived, you give them the GMO derived drug, right? What’s the difference between that GMO drug and GMO derived food? You put them in your body. When you decide to do the right thing for your child, you’re taking a calculated risk. You are avoiding moral constructs and admitting there are shades of gray.
If all this still seems unnatural consider this, nearly half of the nitrogen in your body (nitrogen is an important constituent of amino acids and protein) comes from fertilizer derived from petroleum hydrocarbons and transformed with synthetic chemistry via the Haber-Bosch process. We remind you of this to demonstrate that the technology developed by Fritz Haber, which won a Nobel prize in 1918, saved much of the world from malnutrition and starvation after WWI. If we are going to avoid starvation and malnutrition in the future, we should expect technologies of similar magnitude.
If we are going to avoid further degradation of arable land, if we’re going to end the need for the breeding, growth and slaughter of livestock, if control of identity, bioactivity, intellectual property and supply chain security and… ultimately consumer benefit are your goals, if we are to live sustainably, then GMOs and GMO processing aids have a place at the dinner table and in our supplements. There will be another Fritz Haber and another Nobel prize for feeding the world in the 21st century and they will come from biotechnology.
About the authors
Simão Soares is the CEO of SilicoLife, a company combining AI and Biology for sustainable products. He has extensive experience managing metabolic engineering projects for global food, ingredient, and related companies. He is also president of P-BIO, the Portuguese Bioindustry Association. He can be reached at ssoares [at no spam] silicolife.com.
Sam Nejame is the CEO of Promotum, a consulting firm focused on strategy & business development for biotechnology, sustainability and wellness. He can be reached at snejame [at no spam] promotum.com.