Unnatural: GMO 2.0 companies at Natural Products Expo West spark controversy

By Ken Roseboro

Published: March 29, 2022

Category: GMOs 2.0/Synthetic Biology

Natural food retailers denounce lack of transparency as GMO 2.0 companies promote their products at world’s largest natural food tradeshow

Natural Products Expo West recently returned as an in-person event after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The show, which is organized by New Hope Network, was considered a success as 57,000 people attended along with more than 2,700 exhibitors. But the show’s sunny optimism was dimmed by controversy as some exhibiting companies promoted very unnatural products developed using risky genetic engineering technologies known as synthetic biology or GMO 2.0.

Totally inappropriate” that these companies exhibit at Expo West

Brave Robot promoted its ice cream made from Perfect Day’s synbio proteins. Motif FoodWorks offered samples of its GMO-derived “Hemami” meat alternative. Other synbio company exhibitors were Pipette sunscreens and personal care products, Atomo “molecular coffee,” and Remilk dairy products, among others.

Natural food retailers—the main target market for Expo West—say the synbio companies had no business being at the show because their products are developed using genetic engineering technologies that are even riskier than the ones the natural food industry has opposed for many years.

“I think it’s totally inappropriate that these companies are exhibiting at Expo West; their products are not natural,” says Mark Squire, co-owner of Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, California. “They are hiding behind a lack of transparency. New Hope needs to understand these GMO 2.0 products have a whole new set of problems attached to them and no regulations.”

Alan Lewis, vice president of government affairs, stakeholder relations, and organic compliance at Natural Grocers, says that New Hope Network, is “bending the definition of ‘natural’ beyond the breaking point” by allowing synbio companies to exhibit at the show.

“The New Hope brand was founded on the hope of creating and nurturing the community of people committed to taking care of each other, animals, and the planet. Transparency was fundamental to the brand and built trust in the community. Synthetic biology violates these foundational values.”

Patrick Sheridan, president and CEO of the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA), says the consensus among his group’s member retailers was that synbio companies don’t belong at a natural food show.

“We’re trying to curb the expansion of GMOs in our food system but food start-ups are getting into Expo using smart marketing campaigns that aren’t transparent.”

In a Forbes article, Michele Simon, an attorney and strategy consultant for the plant-based foods industry, wrote that New Hope confuses retailers by allowing the GMO 2.0 companies to exhibit.

“Many of these buyers are not sophisticated enough to be up on the latest biotechnologies deployed by Silicon Valley-funded start-ups… By allowing products that clearly are not (natural), New Hope is not serving retailers in an honest way.”

Lack of transparency

New Hope Network allows these companies to exhibit as long as they don’t make “natural” claims—a low bar to clear. In a recent interview, New Hope’s director of market integrity Shelley Sapsin emphasized the need for transparency around synbio products. But when I stopped by several synbio company booths, including Brave Robot, Motif FoodWorks, and Pipette, there was no mention of the use of genetic engineering or even “precision fermentation” in the company’s signage or literature. The same was true when Impossible Foods, maker of the GMO-derived Impossible Burger, exhibited at Expo West in 2019. Squire says if the companies had been transparent about their use of GMOs, the attendees probably would have kept walking past their exhibits.

Motif FoodWorks was one of the companies giving out samples of their of its GMO-derived “Hemami” meat alternative at Natural Products Expo West.

Motif FoodWorks gave out samples of their GMO-derived “Hemami” meat alternative at Natural Products Expo West.

Sheridan emphasizes that transparency is key. “Transparency is the number one priority; that’s why certifications (such as organic and Non-GMO Project Verified) were created. Transparency can go deeper on the label and better at the show.”

Sapsin also claimed that New Hope wasn’t promoting “food tech” such as synthetic biology. But that doesn’t jibe with the fact that two speakers in the show’s lead keynote presentation, Kathryn Peters, executive vice president at Spins, and Nick McCoy, of Whipstitch Capital, spoke about the need for lab-based protein sources and cell cultured meat to feed a growing world population.

“New Hope talked a big game about transparency at Expo West, but required none and promulgated several public deceptions in support of syn-biotech,” Lewis says.

Release of GMOs could impact the health and safety of consumers

For years, GMO proponents have said their products are needed to “feed the world,” and now synbio supporters are repeating the same claim. They also say precision fermentation of proteins will eliminate the need for abusive meat production practices like confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and will require less land and resources.

But food industry consultant and former global grocery manager at Whole Foods Errol Schweizer asked several important questions about the technology in a recent article in Forbes: How much waste material will be produced from the synbio process and how will it be disposed of? How does the energy and resource usage of such products compare to competing animal-based items? What kind of testing has been done to understand the potential environmental impact for if and/or when the microbes escape the confines of a fermentation plant, particularly as the technology scales?

How risky are synthetic biology techniques? Potentially very risky, according to the SEC filing of major synbio player and owner of Motif FoodWorks, Ginkgo Bioworks“The genetically engineered organisms and materials that we develop may have significantly altered characteristics compared to those found in the wild, and the full effects of deployment or release of our genetically engineered organisms and materials into uncontrolled environments may be unknown… Such deployment or release… could impact the environment or community generally or the health and safety of our employees, our customers’ employees, and the consumers of our customers’ products.”

There are not just theoretical risks; a real-life example has already shown how dangerous this technology can be. In the late 1980s, Japanese company Showa Denko used “precision fermentation” to genetically engineer bacteria to produce the supplement tryptophan. But the synthetic biology process also created toxic compounds that caused eosinophilia myalgia syndrome, a deadly disease that killed 60 people and disabled hundreds more.

The term “precision fermentation,” which sounds like the creation of some biotech industry PR firm, is an attempt to obfuscate a risky technology. Synbio companies obviously want to steer clear of any reference to “GMO or “genetic engineering.” But there is nothing precise about genetic engineering, whether the “older” shot-in-the-dark transgenic technology or the new GMO 2.0 synbio and gene editing techniques. An article published last year in Nature described that gene editing of human embryonic cells caused “chromosomal mayhem.” That is not precision.

Consumers are being convinced this stuff is good”

There is no consumer demand for Brave Robot Ice Cream or other synbio products. Synbio companies are pushing their products into the marketplace—fueled by billions of dollars in venture capital—and hoping consumers and food companies will buy into their dubious sustainability and plant-based claims. This is Silicon Valley arrogance about what is best for the U.S. food supply.

“Consumers are being convinced this stuff is good,” Schweizer says. “There is no consumer demand for it. It’s very different to engineer demand than to meet a need.”

Synbio companies will continue to appear at Expo West, and even more may follow. And if it continues, Squire says the show’s name should change.

“I think New Hope shouldn’t allow them on the show floor. Either that, or they should take ‘natural’ out of the Expo name.”

Organic & Non-GMO Insights April 2022

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