By Grant Jacobs 06/07/2018 11


In the New Zealand media and social media people are talking about this genetically modified ‘Impossible Burger’. Except it’s not.

Sorry everyone, but it really isn’t genetically modified.

What was genetic engineered is a yeast that makes one of the ingredients used in the ‘Impossible Burger’.

It’s just a different way of making that ingredient. The ingredient is the same as in soy plants. All the ingredients in the burgers are the same as in ‘natural’ plants.*

A noisy few rush to declaim loudly everytime someone mentions genetic engineering or GMOs, calling to banish the use of a technique, rather than look at each application. Let’s look at this one.

A key part of what gives the burger it’s ‘meaty’ taste is a “blood” protein, leghaemoglobin. The one used is actually from soy plants, not animals. Like the similarly-named haemoglobin in our blood, it’s a protein that tightly binds an iron atom to carry the oxygen around. Haemoglobins are a part of blood, and make the patty taste like we’d expect meat to.

(Plants don’t have blood, but evolution re-uses similar proteins in other forms of life, re-using the detailed molecular job they do—in this case, carting oxygen about. They’re structurally very similar, and, apparently smell and taste similar, too.)

The yeast have been made to biosynthetise the protein by adding a gene for the leghaemoglobin to them. The leghaemoglobin protein made by the yeast is identical to what is found in soy plants.

You could try to extract it from soy plants. Or you could get yeast to make the protein you’re wanting directly, more efficiently. In both cases, the protein is exactly the same. The burger isn’t any different.

It’s not the burger that has been genetically modified, or anything in it: it’s the yeast that makes one of the ingredients that is. (The yeast is not in the burger, only the protein it produces. The protein is identical to the ‘natural’ one.)

This is basically the same as to how insulin is made. Diabetics take insulin to control the levels of sugar in their blood. Insulin was once made by extracting it from pancreases of cattle or pigs. Forty years ago scientists first made insulin from bacteria with a gene for insulin grafted into them. Since then biosynthesis using either bacteria or yeast has been commercialised, and is used worldwide by countless people.**

Making medicines, vitamins, supplements, and other products are valuable applications of genetic engineering. Well-established examples include insulin, human growth hormone, vaccines, supplements (e.g. tryptophan), rennin (used in cheese making) and biofuels. There are many, many other examples under development.

There are wider-still applications. Some of these have great potential. Things like modified biomolecules as nano-engineering scaffolds, biomining (extracting minerals), and mopping up or breaking down waste.

It’s not just bacteria or yeast. We can biosynthesise things using plants and animals, too. There’s research to develop plants that make medicines, or supplements. There is modified milk to reduce allergies, to give an example related to New Zealand.

One problem with people opposing genetic engineering is that they take concerns about ‘possible’, maybe-one-day things then ask to ban all use of genetic engineering in-the-field at a stroke.

There is a very wide range of applications for genetic engineering. Just within plants, there’s resistance to disease, drought, frost, making supplements (vitamin A, calcium), onions that don’t make you cry (developed in NZ), preventing browning in fruits, and a whole raft of others.

A key thing is that they’re all very different! You can’t really talk about them in a general, sweeping way.

Any ‘possible’ risks are with the new plant or animal variety, not the techniques used to make the variety and that particular application. (GMOs are not completely ‘new organisms’, but are new varieties of existing organisms; they’re almost entirely the same as the ‘parent’ organism with one or two of the tens of thousands of genes in them altered, added, or removed.)

If anything, calls for blanket bans are getting distracted away from risks. They’re ideological objections when you strip away the science facade often placed on the objections.***

Rather than throw all the good applications out for the sake of hypothetical worries, why not consider what applications are acceptable?

It’s not helped by a few irresponsible groups (that seem to like attention) encouraging ‘banning’ all of them, throwing out the many good applications. Ironically, they often end up at odds with their own aims of a more environmentally-friendly world. (Greenpeace, for example.)

Late last year I wrote a brief list of points about genetically-modified plants, as starters for discussion. It’s worth just laying down what is actually there, rather than the excitable noise, and thinking about it.

Impossible Foods is not the only company making meat substitutes. Another is Beyond Meat. They’re unlikely to be the only or last. It’s a market NZ could contribute to and benefit from if we weren’t hampered by unnecessarily restrictive GM laws.

Similarly, we could be getting on making and using with the many beneficial GM crops and animals if we could throw off this distracting focus on ‘what if’, ‘maybe one day’ concerns and look at each application. They’re all different. It’s a crying shame to be throwing all these good applications for no sound reason.

There’s more in Siouxsie Wiles’ earlier piece, The science behind the Impossible Burger. Do read it! I agree, it’s time for a kōrero. It’s time to move forward, as I’ve been calling for for a while.

Other articles on Code for life

Read more about GMOs on Sciblogs.

Kumara are transgenic (Transgenes occur in nature too.)

Genetic modification now accepted by most New Zealanders (A survey indicates New Zealanders now accept GM food as safe.)

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural” (An essay on food.)

Green Party GM policy and discussion about GE or GMOs (The Green Party should revise their stance on GM.)

In a demon-haunted world (Not about GM, but unfortunately relevant as GMOs are being demonised by many. A tribute to Sagan, sorely needed in these times.)

Christmas trees weedy and not (The proposed project that the court case shut down – despite EPA approval, and that it didn’t involve introducing new genes. Wilding pines are a curse in New Zealand.)

Carrots for my neighbour (A short story of sorts.)

New Zealand political spokesperson for GE and more endorses homeopathy for Ebola (What can we say? Some people are… interesting. He re-asserted this claim in his valedictory speech, flipping on what he said at the time.)

Changing the GMO regulations – the ministry options (The options that set the current legislation.)

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one (A short series; parts two and three are linked at the start.)

GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report (A summary of a large UK report. Not a short or light read!)

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on GMO legislation (Lighter take on the previous article.)

Footnotes

* The crops we use aren’t really ‘natural’ as we’ve so extensively selected, breed, and modified them (by all sorts of techniques). See GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural” from the list of further reading above.

** Incidentally, the first protein amino acid sequence to be worked out was insulin by Frederick Sanger. I wrote about his work that brought on modern molecular biology in 2013.

**** Older ways of making new varieties can make new varieties that are potentially less-than-ideal too, but they’re explicitly approved by fiat—even though those some of the techniques actually are much more prone to making unintended changes some people worry about. The new techniques reduce that risk.

One thing I think that needs some education is a disconnect in most of the public’s view of what it means to transfer a gene between species, and what it actually means. One of these days I must get to writing about this; I’ve been saying this far too long! It’s a central and deep cultural meme that’s behind some of the protesting, one that needs unpacking, one that we’d do well (worldwide) to move on from.

About the featured image

An early sample of the ‘Impossible Burger’. Source wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


11 Responses to “The ‘Impossible Burger’ is not genetically modified”

  • Have you tried Impossible Burger yet? It’s really good. I’ve tried a couple of variations now–one as meatballs, one as traditional burger, and it has a remarkable taste and texture.

    It’s actually pretty clever how they rolled it out too–via restaurants, rather than grocery stores. In the past, anti-GMO activists were able to pressure grocers to deny us choice. But this time, there are so many small, independent outlets that they couldn’t really do that. It got great reviews and was selling out all over the place. This is what happens when people are allowed to choose.

    I think it is the app we’ve been waiting for–consumer benefits, rather than farmer benefits. And this means anti-GMO folks have to step up and attempt to crush it now. I think they were off guard on this one.

    Who should be allowed to make the choices about which food tech we have access to? Organic-industry funded activists? The meat industry? Who gets to decide for others?

  • I haven’t tasted it. I don’t think the burger is available in NZ (yet), not that I’ve tried to find out if it is. For what it’s worth, Air New Zealand say (advertise!) they taste-test their food, drinks.

    Good point about consumer benefits as opposed to farmer benefits. Other products (‘true’ GMOs!) have this aspect though, don’t they? (I listed a few.) This one is more literally here-in-my-hands, though. More direct.

    One of the issues with opposition to GE crops, etc. seems to be a lack of understanding of how farming actually works. You’d wish a little country like NZ was better connected to farming, but in reality we moved past that many decades ago. I once read a piece covering some research that pointed out that while we like to effect a ‘connection’ with farms in practice we’re mostly ‘city folk’ who don’t really understand farming in any real way.

  • As an aside, others have commented on the lack of nutritional value of the patties. I left that out as I generally avoid ‘nutrition’ debates; I’d rather a nutritionist cover that. I’ve seen on comments online comparing it to Ryvita, and by implication other grain, etc., based “healthy” snack foods. It left me idly wondering if the texture of (some of) these is related to meat, either intentionally or subconsciously. It’s something I don’t know anything about. Do humans have preferences for some particular classes of food texture? If there’s anything that has me pausing, it’s reports from some that they’re on the soft side. Perhaps they’ll develop a range, a bit like people asking how they want their steak done?

  • I haven’t seen the nutrition objections. But that strikes me as more goal-post moving like the anti-vaxxers do on HPV vaccine: “it doesn’t cover ALL the strains1!1!!”

    In a White Castle slider (famous American fast-food version of this, which is selling these like crazy: https://forbes.com/sites/aliciakelso/2018/06/08/plant-based-proteins-are-captivating-fast-food-customers/), nutrition is not the driver. Spending time worrying about the exact vitamin content in rich diets is just some well-fed-foodie handwaving. Are they comparing it to other fast-food burgers? Really?

    I think they are a bit softer than animal flesh, yeah. But still a lot more meaty-textured than a quinoa burger. But yeah–maybe there are other ways to texture-up?

    • As far as I can tell (heh), the people pointing at nutrition aren’t objecting on GMO grounds, just taking the lead from a few saying they have few macronutrients. Western diets are very rich, so I’m not sure that’s a problem or not!

  • it does contain a genetically modified yeast, as you note. does your argument that “it really isn’t genetically modified” therefore rely on the proportion of that ingredient in the final product? would you agree that it “contains a genetically modified ingredient”?

  • Hi John,

    You have a bad habit of rushing in, and making claims that aren’t true. It would help if you recognised that you don’t understand this stuff very well, check first, and to ask (i.e. not make assertions) rather than make assertions or pronouncements.

    In a nutshell: none of the ingredients in the burger are genetically-modified, as both I and Siouxsie wrote, and as the burger company explains, too.

    You’ve made an assumption that the burger has the yeast in it, and run with it. If you’d had read more carefully, or checked first, you’d have known this isn’t true.

    it does contain a genetically modified yeast

    No, the yeast is not in the burger, only the legohaemoglobin that was made using the yeast.

    The leghaemoglobin is extracted from the mixture. That’s pretty routine stuff. It’s the same when making insulin, for example (but will be done more fussily), and will be the same for many other products made this way.

    Siouxsie’s earlier post also explains this, for that matter. On Twitter you’ve incorrectly implied that her article says the burgers have genetic-modified ingredients where in practice she explicitly says they doesn’t: “And as the leghaemoglobin is separated away from the yeast after the fermentation process, the Impossible Burger doesn’t contain anything that is genetically modified.”

    This suggests poor, rushed reading, or trying too hard to ‘find fault’.

    You’ve gone on Twitter trying to make this out as us differing on this, when in practice we’ve both said the same thing, and agree on it.

    In the end it looks like just another example of you trying tilt at a person [me]. (More on this later perhaps.)

    as you note

    Nowhere have I said the yeast is in the burger: that’s an assumption you have made, probably from trying too hard to ‘oppose’ me without reading carefully and checking first.

    I wrote,

    You could try to extract it from soy plants. Or you could get yeast to make the protein you’re wanting directly, more efficiently. In both cases, the protein is exactly same. The burger isn’t any different.

    I also wrote,

    The leghaemoglobin protein made by the yeast is identical to what is found in soy plants.

    Yes, you need to unpack that it’s extracted leghaemoglobin that is in the burger, but other people don’t seem to have trouble working that out. The mention of extraction is there. Nevertheless, I’ve added a short aside to remove all doubt.

  • This is *exactly* the labeling debate we’ve been having in the US on our new proposed label system. Do you label ingredients because you dislike the philosophy of products made in yeast or bacteria? Or do you label the actual, detectable, testable ingredient?

    When the first US labels rolled out, a bunch of food suddenly lost nutrition. https://npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/12/05/368248812/why-did-vitamins-disappear-from-non-gmo-breakfast-cereal The vitamins may have been made in tanks in yeast or bacteria. But the vitamins themselves are identical to any other vitamin. Are they genetically modified? I would also say no.

    Sugar–from GMO sugar beets or sugar cane. Same exact molecule in the end. Is it modified? I also say no.

    If you say they are, what was modified? What is it that you need to know from the label, and why?

    If you want the philosophy labeled–fine. How do you test for that? How do you ensure that there isn’t fraud if there’s nothing testable in the product? You take it on faith? That’s philosophy.

    I think you should define the products based on the actual contents–that’s the only scientific place to stand.

  • Hi Mary,

    Yeah, they’re not genetically modified, they’re identical to the compound you can get or make other ways. (As I noted in my piece. Siouxsie says the same in her article.)

    Loose general thoughts (for anyone!) –

    I think one issue is people not realising or understanding that it’s routine to use genetic engineering to make ‘natural’ biological substances.

    The yeast or bacteria (or plant or animal) is genetically-modified to product something it doesn’t normally make, but the thing made is the same as what you’d get from extracting from, say, soy plants in this case. In terms of thing made, it ends up just being another way to make it — e.g. the burger is the same whether you got the leghaemoglobin from soy plants or synthetised it using yeast.

    Also it seems to me if you’re going to complain about this, you’d likely be obliged to ‘ban’ all chemically synthetised compounds, too, as they’re also made by ‘artificial’ means.

    Personally I think is the road to madness. If something is the same, it’s the same. That’s not saying “don’t look at how it is made’, but that there’s no good sense in pointing at the thing made, as it’s the same.

    A numerical analogy might help? (Bear in mind that analogies break down if pressed to hard; they’re meant to convey a concept, not be perfect alternative ways of looking at a thing! Trick is to look to the general message, not to nitpick!)

    1 + 4 = 5
    2 + 3 = 5

    5 is 5 no matter if you add 1+4 or 2+3.

    It’s not how it was made, but what it is.

    The “It’s not how it was made, but what it is.” is the same as what many of us have been trying to point out about GMOs: look to what was made, and it’s properties.

    Taking the analogy further: If we added 1 and 4.01 (= 5.01), then we could start talking about if the 0.01 difference is a meaningful difference. For example, if we only care to a difference of 0.1, then the 0.01 doesn’t matter. (Don’t forget this is an analogy!)

    So we come back to what differences are meaningful. A little thought leads you to the points that every biological product differs—that you need to look at each in turn, not make sweeping dismissals based on how they were made—and that the meaningful differences are the same ones existing food safety standards and farming practices aim to cover. This, in turn, would signal that there’s no need to single out GMOs as an exceptional case.

    A deeper point is that opposition to GE/GMOs are ideological once you strip away the facade of arguments offered in opposition to them. There are a few things there that I think could do with some education, one I alluded to in the last paragraph of the Footnotes that I must tackle sometime.

    (Ideally I’d love to have a media outlet have me to cover this; it’s something well worth covering.)

  • Might be worth mentioning that FDA has clarified,

    “We have no questions at this time regarding Impossible Foods’ conclusion that soy leghemoglobin preparation is GRAS [generally recognized as safe] under its intended conditions of use to optimize flavor in ground beef analogue products intended to be cooked,”

    Opposing the ingredient itself was never likely to raise sensible concerns, so this isn’t that surprising, but it at least rests some speculative stuff some opposing GMOs have pushed.

    (Some more on this is at the Cornwell Alliance for Science: https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2018/07/us-agency-deems-impossible-burgers-key-gmo-ingredient-safe/ )

  • Dear Grant, thank you for your interesting and helpful article. I am a student at one German university and writing now a thesis about Impossible foods. I research the possibility of impossible foods to enter the European market. According to EU law Regulation (EU) 2015/2283, the impossible burger would be categorized as novel food, probably because of heme. There are many categories of “novel food” however and I can’t figure out in which categories the impossible burger would fall into. The regulation says:

    “Novel food’ means any food that was not used for human consumption to a significant degree within the Union
    before 15 May 1997, irrespective of the dates of accession of Member States to the Union, and that falls under at
    least one of the following categories in Artikel 3:
    (i) food with a new or intentionally modified molecular structure, where that structure was not used as, or in, a
    food within the Union before 15 May 1997;
    (ii) food consisting of, isolated from or produced from microorganisms, fungi or algae;
    (iii) food consisting of, isolated from or produced from material of mineral origin;
    (iv) food consisting of, isolated from or produced from plants or their parts, except when the food has a history of
    safe food use within the Union and is consisting of, isolated from or produced from a plant or a variety of the
    same species obtained by:
    — traditional propagating practices which have been used for food production within the Union before
    15 May 1997; or
    — non-traditional propagating practices which have not been used for food production within the Union
    before 15 May 1997, where those practices do not give rise to significant changes in the composition or
    structure of the food affecting its nutritional value, metabolism or level of undesirable substances;
    (v) food consisting of, isolated from or produced from animals or their parts, except for animals obtained by
    traditional breeding practices which have been used for food production within the Union before 15 May 1997
    and the food from those animals has a history of safe food use within the Union;
    (vi) food consisting of, isolated from or produced from cell culture or tissue culture derived from animals, plants,
    micro-organisms, fungi or algae;
    (vii) food resulting from a production process not used for food production within the Union before 15 May 1997,
    which gives rise to significant changes in the composition or structure of a food, affecting its nutritional value,
    metabolism or level of undesirable substances;
    (viii) food consisting of engineered nanomaterials as defined in point (f) of this paragraph;
    (ix) vitamins, minerals and other substances used in accordance with Directive 2002/46/EC, Regulation (EC)
    No 1925/2006 or Regulation (EU) No 609/2013, where:
    — a production process not used for food production within the Union before 15 May 1997 has been applied
    as referred to in point (a) (vii) of this paragraph; or
    — they contain or consist of engineered nanomaterials as defined in point (f) of this paragraph;
    (x) food used exclusively in food supplements within the Union before 15 May 1997, where it is intended to be
    used in foods other than food supplements as defined in point (a) of Article 2 of Directive 2002/46/EC; ”

    You could find a law text here.
    https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32015R2283&from=DE

    In your opinion in which categories would fall impossible burger (and in particular heme) into?

    Sorry for the long question. Thanks and best regards.

    Eugenia