With Dow-DuPont merger, food ‘editing’ gets fresh start
As U.S. regulators approved last week the $130 billion merger between Dow and DuPont, a new agricultural spinoff is on the cusp of moving forward with a DuPont unit that promises to change the world with a pioneering technology designed to improve crops, both in yields and quality.
The big question is whether food activists will yield to the new engineering, after attempting to erect warning signs in Connecticut and nationally in the first wave of genetically modified foods.
In 2013, Connecticut passed a law that would require labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms — but only if neighboring states did so, as well. With Vermont following suit in 2016, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed federal legislation a year ago preempting states from requiring GMO labeling in favor of a national standard. Fed up with waiting, opponents derisively termed the law “the DARK Act” as an acronym for “Deny Americans the Right to Know.”
As the federal law worked through Capitol Hill, back in Hartford activists had taken another crack last year at GMO labeling in Connecticut, with a bill that would have mandated GMO disclosure for baby formulas and foods. Unlike 2013, the bill did not make it to a vote.
In advance of the 2016 debate the previous November, the Food & Drug Administration issued guidance on how companies should label GMO-based foods if they choose to do so, with the FDA continuing to hone final regulations mandated by the federal law.
Among the Connecticut-based manufacturers to adopt GMO labeling on a voluntary basis included the Norwalk-based Pepperidge Farm subsidiary of Campbell Soup.
The Non-GMO Project keeps a running database online of the foodmakers who have had their products verified as GMO-free, with more than 43,600 products listed as of June — in Connecticut to include Saffron Road in Stamford, Barefoot and Chocolate in Norwalk, and Red’s 100% All Natural in Fairfield.
The new GE in Connecticut and beyond
In the past year, the GMO debate has faded as attention has shifted to the promise of genetically “edited” foods in which producers trim existing DNA in foods rather than introducing new DNA, as the case in GMO-based genetic engineering.
DuPont has emerged as a major innovation in genetic editing with a new unit called CRISPR-Cas, designed to improve seeds without incorporating DNA from other species. DuPont describes the innovation as a continuation of what people have been doing since plants were first domesticated — selecting for characteristics such as better yields, resistance to diseases, shelf life and nutritional qualities.
Research on CRISPR — and acronym for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” — is being extended to mice used by Jackson Laboratory in Farmington and Maine for medical research, with one staffer calling the technology “a tremendously versatile tool” in engineering genetic alterations. In March, Jackson Lab received a $450,000 federal grant to improve genome editing for research, drug testing and potential future therapies.
It is one thing to tinker with DNA for medicine, it is another to do it for everyday food people put on their table. To date, genetic editing has yet to spark the universal outcry that Monsanto incurred with its early efforts to produce GMO foods, with activists still absorbing the implications of the emerging technology.
Leading the charge for both Connecticut bills was Tara Cook-Littman, who has worked to marshal support via the lobbying groups Citizens for GMO Free Labeling and GMO Free CT.
Cook-Littman told Connecticut legislators last year that her group agreed in 2013 only reluctantly to the “trigger clause” compromise that shifted the enabling of Connecticut’s GMO labeling law to companion laws in other states. She added that in the run-up to Vermont creating its own GMO law, companies voluntarily changed their labeling there — and with sales not impacted by the move.
“If Vermont can do it … why can’t we?” Cook Littman asked at the time.
Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; www.twitter.com/casoulman