Synthetic Biology – The Future of Food?

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Published by Environmental Health Symposium Jun 21, 2022 – Website


 

“The notion that high-tech, ‘farm free’ lab food is a viable solution to the food crisis is simply a continuation of the same mechanistic mindset which has brought us to where we are today–the idea that we are separate from and outside of nature.” -Vandana Shiva

“The only consumer we care about with our products is the hardcore meat eater. That’s probably why one of the first of these products, Impossible Burger, was engineered to “bleed. -Pat Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods

My goal in starting this company is to eradicate animal agriculture by 2035.
-Pat Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods

Demand for vegan meat has soared, with retail sales of plant-based meat alternatives reaching $7 billion in 2020 — an increase of 27% from 2019, according to one report. Going forward, the meat value chain could be simplified dramatically, as ‘clean meat’ labs could take the place of farms, feedlots, and slaughterhouses.” Bloomberg News August 2021

While we were distracted with Covid-19, lockdowns, mask mandates, and other conundrums, manufacturers of artificial food were busy at work creating the “new food economy.” Since the strategy for getting pesticide-intensive GMO crops onto your plate or your backyard is failing (see Kellogg Commits to Phasing Out Glyphosate by 2025 and Bayer to Remove Glyphosate from Lawn & Garden Roundup Products ) the world of evermore frightening fake foods is moving boldly forward.

Called “synbio” (short for synthetic biology), this new technology promises foods that are “planet-friendly, low-input, low-carbon, methane-free, heart-healthy, high fiber, plant-based” through a technology that can create everything from honey to lobster, cheese, milk, chicken, and beef simply from “plants.”

The most recognizable synbio is the “Impossible Burger,” known for its apparent similarity to the real thing. Its ingredients are GMO corn and soy, wheat, potato, and coconut. Innocuous enough, yes? What the ingredients don’t reveal is the actual process by which the “real beef texture and taste” is created.

The secret ingredient is a genetically-engineered yeast that produces a heme-like protein also known as soyleghemoglobin. And, as the company, Impossible Foods, declares on their website, “that is the science behind the impossible.” Although growing a form of genetically-modified heme in the lab may sound a bit risky, the site clearly states that this technology is “safety-verified by America’s top food-safety experts and peer-reviewed academic journals.”

The strategy for all this “safe and effective” marketing was to have the FDA declare soyleghemoglobin as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe). It took a few back-and-forth applications with the FDA, but after a simple genotoxicity test and a 28-day animal feeding study, the FDA was convinced that this synthetic “pigment” was the same as heme and was completely benign.

Speaking of the FDA, Linda Burnbaum (recently retired Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a heavy hitter in the world of toxics like dioxin and PFAS) wrote an op-ed piece in Environmental Health News April 21, 2022. In it she declared the FDA a failed agency and incapable of protecting the American public from harmful chemical exposures. She also referred to a Politico investigation published a few weeks earlier interviewing former FDA and other government regulatory officials who were ready and willing to talk. They alleged the FDA took no action to protect the public from many exposures including dangerous pathogens found in water used to grow produce and heavy metal contamination in baby foods. Burnbaum highlighted issues identified by the FDA’s own scientists– that they need better data on effects of chemicals at low doses, and that the agency lacks an understanding of chronic toxicological effects of chemicals.

So much for that GRAS designation. The physicians and scientists at GMOScience have now voiced concerns about the safety of the Impossible Burger because the same rat feeding study that got Impossible Food’s burger it’s GRAS status also showed that the rats fed soyleghemoglobin developed “unexplained weight gain, changes in blood markers that can indicate inflammation or kidney disease, and possible signs of anemia.”

Fake blood aside, at the heart of synbio is it’s love of fermentation. But we’re not talking about yogurt, kimchi, tempeh, kefir, or even sauerkraut. That’s what the synbio engineers refer to as “traditional fermentation.” In the world of synthetic biology, fermentation has a complex meaning. It includes creating entirely new microorganisms and “materials” produced through genetic modification.

With processes known as biomass fermentation or it’s evil twin- precision fermentation, genetic engineers can implant pieces of microbial DNA into new microorganisms and trigger them or even single tissue cells to “ferment” and reproduce in order to either create new completely synthetic ingredients or to grow meat, milk or cheese “in vitro.”

To get a simpler picture of this, think sci-fi movie in which a harmless ant eats some GMO soybean extract and with the help of a mutant mold morphs into a giant human-eating reptilian never before seen on earth. That giant lizard is a sort of forerunner of precision fermentation.

Through this gene manipulation process, producers can manufacture enzymes, flavour and aroma molecules, fats, colours, and new proteins. They can do this using a genetically modified e. coli or yeast that is not only antibiotic resistant, it can reproduce endlessly using only sugar.

 

And without anything other than a cow stem cell (derived from a calf fetus or a living cow) and some GMO soy to start with, adding a few unique antibiotic and antifungal resistant organisms, you can produce egg whites, collagen (Paleo creamer anyone?) crabcakes, lobster, mozzarella or human breastmilk (not a joke– more about that later).

These new technologies are now being used by companies like Beyond Meat, Motif Foodworks, Ginkgo Bioworks (custom-built microbes), BioMilq (that’s the lab-grown breast milk), Nature’s Fynd (fungi-grown meat and dairy alternatives), Eat Just (egg substitutes made from plant proteins), or Perfect Day Food (lab-grown dairy products).

A German company, Formo, received 50 million in funding in 2021 for the creation of laboratory-grown mozzarella and ricotta cheese. Not to be mistaken for the organic cashew vegan cheese popular in the U.S., this synbio variety is made totally from microbe-generated “dairy proteins.”

Two months later, California-based The Every Company received $175 million to scale their animal-free eggs. Perfect Day, founded in 2014, raised a stunning $300 million in July 2020 for making vegan dairy ingredients.

The FDA’s new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard would not require these foods to be labelled as GMO because they do not contain genetically engineered organisms- they are just produced by them.

Let’s review the process for the future of food:

Step 1: Take cheap GMO corn, soy, sugar (GMO beet or cane) and animal cell lines that will grow well in the presence of sugar.

These basic starting materials, soy and corn, are grown with heavy inputs of glyphosate-containing herbicides so may also contain a hefty dose of glyphosate and its metabolite- AMPA. A recent study by the Health Research Institute Laboratories found levels of glyphosate and AMPA in the Impossible Burger at 11.3 ppb– high enough to cause some serious dysbiosis.

Glyphosate, concerning as it is, may actually be one of the least worrisome contaminants in pesticide-marinated GMO corn and soy. Dr. Giles-Eric Seralini has pointed out that “inert” ingredients in pesticides like Roundup– metals (significant levels of arsenic), solvents or other intentional additives not disclosed on the label, may have an effect all their own. One of these “inerts” is the potent mixture PEOA (polyethoxylated tallow amines). PEOA, as Dr. Seralini has revealed in his published research, is thousands of times more cytotoxic than the same concentration of glyphosate. Genetic food engineers use the generic term “biomass” for this toxic soup.

Step 2: Enter the magical process of biomass fermentation and precision fermentation (also called recombinant protein production) using GMO organisms that may or may not naturally occur on earth.

Biomass fermentation is a process where microorganisms themselves are cultivated for their protein content. Established alternative protein companies like Quorn use this technique. Precision fermentation is different: a fragment of DNA from plants or animals are implanted into a host microorganism – yeast, bacteria, or fungi. This “selected” (aka genetically modified) host microorganism replicates the foreign DNA, producing large amounts of protein with the selected qualities of taste, texture, flavour, etc. The final step is purification, where the protein is extracted from the microorganism and processed into the final food product through altering the shape, texture, flavour. This is done using more “carefully selected” (another term for genetic modification) microbes.

Proteins, fats and carbohydrates from the ensuing “biomass” are chemically extracted, cooked at high heat and then molded into shapes that look like muscle fibers (think spaghetti) allowing them to look like hamburger or other meats. Not to worry, this biomass is safely sequestered in large fermentation tanks in manufacturing facilities that never see the light of day. Unless of course one accounts for human error, natural disaster, bioterrorism, or reads the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) patent filings for these companies which include that unintentional release of these microorganisms potentially may cause foodborne illness and allergy.

Step 3: The Biowaste- this is called “spent grain,” but it’s not the kind you get from beer–and you can’t feed it to your pigs. This biowaste has to be disposed of as a hazardous waste material because it contains novel living organisms that have never before been seen on earth.

Approximately 90% of the total biomass used to create these products ends up as waste and has to be “deactivated.” How? Where will billions of tons of this potentially deadly toxic waste be stored? To be determined, apparently.

And finally, we have the biggest “disruptor in the lactation space,” Biomilq. This is a bioengineered solution made from cultured breast mammary cells– the company describes the process as “cellular agriculture that produces cultured breastmilk” and markets their product as “better than breastmilk.”

As the company states “it will be free from the environmental toxins, food allergens, and prescription medications that are often detected in breast milk.”

Injected with a grant for $3.5 million from a Bill Gates-led investment group, it is a woman-owned company that in an interview in 2020 predicted being 3-4 years out before they bring Biomilq to market. Which could be as soon as next year.

As the company explains, this is actually just a toxin-free breastmilk. But the owners/food scientists Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger say that they seek to eventually make milk that is “nutritionally” but not necessarily “immunologically” close to breast milk. So far, they have been able to produce casein and lactose– not even remotely a breastmilk equivalent.

Breastmilk contains crucial nutrients like iodine, hormones including melatonin, oxytocin, gonadotropin-releasing hormone, bradykinin, TSH, T3 and T4, and cytokines,as well as microbes that support a normal infant microbiome. New research also shows that breastmilk contains epidermal growth factor and mammotrope differentiating peptide– this last one is a growth factor that contributes to pituitary development.

But the owners insist that there is a need to replace infant formula, and who knows, maybe the current shortage of infant formula is an opportunity for “market disruption,” a term commonly used in the lab-grown food sphere.

So, as we march bravely and apparently headlong into a future where food is grown by mutant microbes in fermentation tanks and where cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens are only visible in museums- we may wish to go back to the past where we actually had a voice in how all this played out. That would be now.


For more info on the future of fake foods see the Sources and Resources below. The last article listed is by Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya International organization and is an excellent summary article on the industry.

Source and references for this article Click here

https://www.environmentalhealthsymposium.com/blog/synthetic-biology-the-future-of-food

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