Chez GMO

One of my favorite podcasts is Flash Forward, created (& hosted) by Rose Eveleth. She explores a potential future and then comes back to the present to discuss how plausible it is and the implications of a future like that, and just what that future says about our present world.

So with that in mind, let’s visit a potential future of food that is local, selectively bred, organic, and engineered– using all the tools in the food production toolbox– all in an effort to serve novel food to a wealthy clientele. And we’re likely to need all of the tools in our arsenal of tools for agriculture to feed the projected ~9,000,000,000 (billion) people that will live on Earth mid-century.

This future takes us to the year 2070 in London, England.

Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT) underscores that plants have DNA too. source: Shutterstock by Christos Georghiou.

Welcome to HGT, High Garden Table,  the cutting edge vegetarian restaurant. Enjoy food from our on-site roof greenhouse, served on our sheltered terrace.

We feature a menu of plants designed by scientist-chefs to bring together new and surprising flavors from across the tree of life. New combination plants are constantly in the pipeline using the latest precision gene editing and transfer technologies. We go to the ends of the Earth to find unique food combinations and genetic resources. We use all plant modification techniques from traditional to the modern in many combinations. Try a serving our cinnamon apples that we sprinkle lightly with sugar after baking. The chemistry of cinnamon has already been engineered into the apple, an incredible scientific feat to produce a classic combination.

Try one of our sour lemonade-based cocktails made from lemons engineered to make miraculin from the “miracle berry”, it’s a sweet tasting beverage for any occasion.

Head Chef and geneticist Jean Gunn is constantly working with our team of sous chefs, gardeners, and scientists to find new foods for the menu. Bananas are a favorite staple Chef Gunn et al. have fortified in many ways over the last three years of HGT. Bananas have been designed with fortified nutrients, high protein content, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, not to mention the throwback beta-carotene enriched variety from our greenhouse. For pescatarians, try our local farm raised salmon that have been engineered to have a dill flavor right off the grill, no seasoning required. Served on a bed of our iron fortified lettuce, it’s delicious and nutritious, as well as environmentally friendly. One variety of variety of tomatoes we use in pasta sauce has the basil flavors engineered in that evenly distributes the flavor evenly throughout the sauce.  

In the mornings, stop by the cafe for a cup of coffee, locally produced in our greenhouse. We have naturally decaffeinated coffee beans as well as beans engineered with hints of lemon, casein from milk, or cinnamon already part of the brewed coffee. 

We are constantly evolving our menu, so do keep up with our internet accounts for new items fresh from our HGT greenhouse-adjacent labs*.

Varieties of plants and animals produced are available for licensing to farmers to grow**. These sales and agreements help sustain our business of cutting edge foods, produced locally, and transparently***.

*HGT Labs provides annotated whole genome sequences, with any modifications highlighted, on servers accessible from HGT table terminals. Detailed information about how our plants are grown is also available**.

**HGT Labs is always open to new suggestions for menu items from our patrons. The world gene repository is accessible to all and any trait you’d like to see in an edible plant, we will consider making with full credit to the authors.

***We contract independent scientists to test our genetically modified organisms and all of our foods are certified by the relevant food regulatory agencies. All of this information is available on our website and accessible at each table kiosk in the restaurant.

In this future, the height of cuisine at a high-end restaurant is genetic engineering of foods to create surprising flavor profiles and different nutritional content of foods- like beta-carotene enriched bananas that exist today and are just starting to be test-cultivated now (in Uganda). It is also a biotech company, willing to sell seeds of it’s creations to others around the world. I’m not a chef, so I don’t know what possible food combinations might be brought together to make surprisingly good combinations. Imagine lettuce tasting like mint– an example of the “molecular gastronomy” of the future. HGT is also seeking to be transparent and open about their food and also have it self-contained in a greenhouse, though admit to selling seeds they come up with to farmers around the world to grow what they come up with. Tests are done and results open to anyone to review. They are as transparent as can be- including genome sequences of organisms genetically modified and not– a repository of genetic information patrons can tease out and suggest new ideas for future HGT modifications.

Just because some of the molecules (i.e. chemicals) that make up aroma and taste of the foods we eat might be engineered into different plants (as it already is into some processed foods), the entire nutritional profile of those foods does not necessarily transfer. Mint flavor is largely due to the chemical menthol. Making lettuce capable of making menthol might give it a hint of mint flavor, but would not bring any of other compounds of the mint source plant, if that were used as a mix with lettuce. Engineering food with one or two more flavor profile traits by GM technology is currently feasible, but beyond that, the cost and effort get prohibitive and trickier, even in the era of CRISPR technology.

It might be a great and unique dining experience to visit HGT. However, it’s important to keep in mind that depending on the food ordered, nutrition might not be the same as a regular, varied diet– that could involve GM traits or not. The opposite is also possible, that a dinner at HGT is more nutritious in some ways– say in pro-vitamin A which we tend to get sufficient amounts in the developed world, but is still a problem in the parts of the developing world, part of the reason for beta-carotene fortified foods.

Is this open future of food serving a market of novelty seeking customers? Is this model of transparency applicable to our food system now (note that all the information possible about these plants is available in this scenario)? Is the fact that all HGT food is locally produced in a greenhouse and self-contained reassuring? Is this the very definition of sustainable, green, and open? Do most consumers have the time to sift through what is potentially a bottomless pit of information about the food they are eating? Is crowd-sourced genetic modification a good idea?

I don’t have answers to all of these questions but can write a few things to consider about the past and present of the foods we eat.

Modern glasshouse in The Netherlands. Source: Shutterstock by Ruud Morijn

Green, Local, and Natural

This future features a restaurant attached to a lab, farm, and greenhouses where everything is grown and carried out locally. “Local” is a complicated word when applied to food. Few foods are truly local these days– if local means where a plant species originated (or does it merely mean where a plant is capable of being grown?). Does growing a tropical species in a greenhouse make it local? Or growing a non-native species in a local garden? To truly meet the definition of local from the species’ point of view, local almost certainly would mean a vastly restricted diet. That would mean no tomatoes for Italian food (they are native to South America and introduced to Europe in the 16th century). Americans would have to give up french fries, potato chips, and chili peppers (potatoes and chilis are also native to South America and introduced to Europe after the Columbian Exchange). Though mostly extinct, do we bring back the American Chestnut– a local and abundant crop before the chestnut blight from China wiped them out? There is a breeding as well as a transgenic/GMO approach to re-introducing blight resistant versions of the American Chestnut tree. Most spices would be off limits as they are native to the tropics– eating chocolate is not eating local, for example, unless you live in Central America. A large driver of colonialism and slavery was the global spice trade. Coffee would be off limits too, as it is, to this day, a tropical tree native to Africa (and still only grown in the tropics or in tropical greenhouses).

Global trade does- and did- make a variety of foods available where they otherwise wouldn’t be. If we maintained a native range limit on our food, many would likely exist and many plant based foods would only be available seasonally.

Does growing food in a local greenhouse get around the issue of locally grown? If a plant is capable of being grown out of its native range, that may be local production, but is it still “natural”? Natural is an ambiguous and hard term to define. Most of the plants humans eat have been altered by humans in some way– by moving them around the world or often at the level of genes that confer desirable traits enabled by our modern understanding of how organisms’ general blueprint are conferred by genes. By moving plants around the world and mixing up environments, humans have altered the face of the Earth– and it’s taken some trial and error to optimize plants to a new region. Agriculture itself is disruptive and creates whole new ecologies. All of this done by another product of nature: human beings. And we rely on a few common plants out of the vast number that are potentially edible.

Enter a captionExamples of Wardian cases used in homes for plant display. Source: Warden Case: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Wardian cases.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1870.

Though they had progenitors, greenhouses (aka glasshouses) really took off in the 19th century– the UK was a hotbed of glasshouse building– partly fueled by innovations in glass-making and partly due to the repeal of the glass tax. Plant collecting was big business and plants helped European economies boom. Miniature greenhouses/terrariums known as Wardian boxes better enabled the global trade, transport, and local growth of plants. Their inventor made the first one to keep ferns from dying in London’s polluted air.

Head Gardeners were celebrated members of wealthy estates. Some greenhouses in Victorian Britain were for mere bragging rights amongst the aristocracy to show off rare plant collections. Sir Joseph Paxton may be one of the most famous head gardeners in history. He got the Victoria amazonica lily– a giant lilypad– to grow and bloom in England in a glasshouse of his design at Chatsworth. Besides ornamental and collectible plants, some gardens and glasshouses were an important source of vegetables for families too. Gardens and glasshouses became common for the middle classes and above in Victorian England. Perhaps the most spectacular glasshouse from the era was The Crystal Palace, that was an event space for a World Exposition and was a vendor hall as well as hosting at least one tree inside. It was designed by Paxton who had experimented and learned new techniques for creating glass and metal structures- in part inspired by the Victoria lily’s structure.

Gregor Mendel, whose work was critical to our modern understanding of genes and inheritance of traits, also had a small greenhouse where at least some of his pea plants were grown.

Enter a captionGreenhouse atop the Life Sciences Center at Dartmouth College housing a diverse plant collection as well as dedicated research plant growth areas. Photo by Ian Street

And of course, greenhouses are used today. The glass is likely better or been replaced with plastics, the temperature control is likely better as are other environmental controls, but the principle is the same: greenhouses can be used in many ways for research, growing crops, and gardening– it is one way of making food season/outside environment independent. In the increasingly urbanized future, greenhouses and urban gardens may be an important source of foods for citizens– at the very least a source of more varied and fresh produce.

Knowing What We’re Eating and Transparency

Food is a big discussion right now, as it always has been, I imagine. The nature of that discussion has shifted over time as knowledge increases and depending on where one lives. In the food secure world, the discussion is often around how food is produced, its impact on the Earth, unprocessed vs. processed foods, what the healthiest diet is, and just what is in our food. In the food insecure world, just having enough to eat is primary and just how to obtain/grow enough to survive. And more people are involved in growing food than in the food secure world– food security has freed people up to specialize and pursue other things.

When humans first evolved, food was a matter of survival. Did food get found that day? If yes, then we’re set, at least until the next day, perhaps a few days. Is there a regular source of food we can eat? Are all plants edible and what parts? It does not sound like an easy life, not least because Humans underwent at least one severe population bottleneck in our past, down to a few thousand of us. Those thousands throve enough for humans to expand into the 7,000,000,000 (billion) of us there are now.

With agriculture, it was a big shift in diet and food security. Though agriculture does not necessarily equal food security. Tinkering with cultivated plants, discovering certain traits that led to improved or more easily harvestable plants helped things along.

Living in the temperate zone- and even further north means surviving a winter. Some products of agriculture– like grains– allows food storage over a winter. Livestock helped too. Hunting, fishing, and gathering were still a likely a part of our ancestor’s lives as well. It is no accident that harvest times and the return of spring are points of celebration to this day– even if some of their significance has been lost. We often take them for granted now, but how the harvest went in the fall really could to determine making it through the winter– or not. And making it to spring was worth celebrating.

Humans Have Tried a Lot of Things

A small sample of what humans eat. Source: Shutterstock by Darasp Kran

I can’t know if this is a true statement, but it seems that if it’s possibly consumable, at least one human has tried it (and it should be stated, that has not always gone well for that curious human). In Iceland, Greenland shark was turned into a food through fermentation: hákarl. But if it was between something barely edible (perhaps it’s an acquired taste) and starving, the choice seems obvious (Greenland shark is toxic, the fermentation process makes it edible– actually seems remarkable this was figured out). In the tropics, Jackfruit are eaten which are apparently not pleasant smelling and not easy to get into due to gooey-ness/stickiness. Humans have also gone to extreme lengths to get some flavorings– like vanilla, which to this day is hand pollinated because once it was taken out of its native range in southern Mexico, the pollinating insect didn’t exist elsewhere. Every culture likely has foods that seem exotic and weird to its members, even in a globalized world– these foods have genes and traits we don’t really know about to that underpin the diets of other cultures. New foods do get introduced, though: Tomatoes and chocolate were introduced to Europe long before humans knew what a gene was.

In much of the food secure world, winters might be cold/harsh, but they aren’t the life/death struggle for many of us they used to be– at least not for food accessibility reasons. Food can come from anywhere around the world. When trade went truly global, cultivatable plants (& animals to some extent) moved around the world and are grown in non-native locales and changed cultures and civilizations. Humans cross, selectively breed, graft, experiment with soil & plant variety combinations, fertilizers, watering schemes, and pest management techniques.

Part of it also seems to be an aspect of plant blindness– or natural world blindness– humans are 100% reliant on the natural world. Life on Earth has an intricate history that humans have just started to figure out at a genetic/molecular level, while at the same time moving plants around the world, growing them in greenhouses, and manipulating them in all sorts of ways (both intentional and not).

Humans have also become a vector of horizontal gene transfer (HGT)– the term used when DNA- the stuff genes are made of– isn’t from between one generation and the next, but from one species to another (which can sometimes be heritable, but not always– and usually involves smaller snippets of DNA, not entire genomes). Specifically, humans have made a few targeted horizontal gene transfers to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs/GM). In nature, horizontal gene transfer is much more chaotic and random. Viruses and bacteria do HGT most, but examples exist in multi-celled organisms like plants, animals, and fungi too (a lot of times it’s a virus or bacteria acting as the transfer agent). Modern sweet potatoes all contain an HGT event that happened ~8,000 years ago, done by the naturally occurring bacterium modern scientists often use in our HGT efforts. To put it in Star Wars parlance, humans are more akin to light sabers, not as random or clumsy as a blaster which is more like nature (though in terms of success in evolution, there is something to be said for random and chaotic– lots of different possibilities). And in the case of humans, what we horizontally transfer are carefully chosen, not random (at least when it comes to intentionally producing a commercial product).

So far, the GM organisms commercially grown confer only a few traits on a limited number of crops: cotton, maize, soybeans, potatoes, apples, and papayas. In the case of the first three, resistance to insect herbivores through the Bt trait (used as a spray by farmers for decades before the GM trait), herbicide resistance (e.g. roundup ready, for easier weed management) are the most common traits. With the potato, non-bruising is the trait conferred, the apples do not brown, and papayas are able to resist the papaya ringspot virus. There are a handful of other GM traits under development and being tested– like golden rice designed to get Beta-carotene into rice grains as a source of pro-vitamin-A. And still, the most common use of GM technology is in the laboratory to study plants (& other life– GM is not limited to plants) and how they work, none of which are for commercial release. All of these horizontally transferred traits rely on recombining genes in some way and placing them back into the genome (the sum total of genetic material of the plant, including all of the genes) of the plant.

Challenges of Openly Feeding 7,000,000,000+ People

GM plants come about in a variety of partnerships between academic institutions, companies, non-profits, and governments. Transparency and explaining the development process is important and increasingly happening. And should be rewarded more. A cynic might say transparency is the best tool to criticize/tear down or find fault with something– discouraging people from trying or explaining anything ever again. And discussions of how to be transparent and to whom can be challenging– there is a cost to being transparent and communicating (and likely not feasible to reach everyone on Earth, which raises the question about who and where to dedicate communication). Should Monsanto carbon-copy Greenpeace on all of its internal emails in an effort at radical transparency? If researchers dot their I’s, cross their T’s, and do solid science as determined by independent experts, does the funding source becomes less important, especially if the results are independently verified? When is testing of a product sufficient? What if the science supports the industry point of view as it currently does with current GM products on the market? Is being in agreement with a large company always a problem? In science, it’s just not as simple as following the money and therefore finding fatal conflicts of interest– the funding may not have influenced the results of the science (it’s not that there is no concern here- a publicly traded company that tries to deliver value to shareholders ahead of its customers may well be problematic, for instance). Industry scientists like their academic counterparts often are motivated to solve existing problems and want to create products that work, ones that are better than previous generations of plants and solve a problem for farmers who are their primary customers.

Genetic modification can mean erasing DNA, not just adding it back. Source: Shutterstock by Lightspring

That’s not to say they always get it right– scientists are currently under a lot of pressure to publish, get results, and make goals, and stay funded in a tight funding environment– but that is also why they tend to be very cautious in their choice of traits to horizontally transfer for a commercial product and why it takes a long time to bring one to market. Products that make it to market often have decades of basic science behind them before they even start in the commercial pipeline (e.g. the internet started in the 1960s and didn’t really become widely accessible/commercial until the 1990s). Understanding enough about how the GM trait works in the plant and how it interacts in the field matters and partnering with universities, governments, and other institutions can help get those answers. No two GM products are equivalent, they need to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

Perhaps the best test of a company’s scientific claims is funding of more government science and a scientific system that better incentivizes independent replication of results. Federal funding of science has been flat at best in recent years and that drives researchers to seek other funding sources, such as industry partners (and in fact, partnerships should happen– the fruits of science should move from academic lab to products when appropriate) More funding for science would help that goal, but there are structural reforms to science and its communication that need to happen too. These are things that would help improve science, which is still the best tool humans have for learning about how the world works– and underpins civilization.

Demand to label GM plants may be high, but why limit transparency to just them? Most of the plants consumed around the world have not had their genomes sequenced. We don’t really know everything contained therein. If a plant travels around the world to our plate, should it be labeled with local farm conditions, pest/weed management techniques used, an environmental impact statement, and anything else a consumer might want to know? That information should be available for organically farmed products as well– organic farms use chemicals and pesticides too, after all. Not to mention that the genetic history- the natural history- of most plants is not currently required information either. Would a consumer be less likely to reach for a ruby red grapefruit if they knew the whole genome was mutated by radiation to generate the deep red of the fruit (not to mention that many citrus plants are the result of cross-species hybridizations– including grapefruit). Graprefruit can be sold as non-modified and requires no special label.

Nature and food are complicated now and knowing more about them can make decisions about what plants to grow and methods to use in managing them better. Humans are a part of  nature, recently capable of horizontal gene transfer that viruses and bacteria have been doing for billions of years. A lot of anti-GM sentiment focuses on the fact that big biotech companies make them (though not always). Part of it also seems to be an aspect of plant blindness– or natural world blindness– humans are 100% reliant on the natural world. Life on Earth has an intricate history that humans have just started to figure out at a genetic/molecular level, while at the same time moving plants around the world, growing them in greenhouses, and manipulating them in all sorts of ways (both intentional and not). Eating exotic fruits/foods means eating genes unfamiliar and unknown– which is unlike GM foods, where we precisely know what is in the plant (note: our digestive system breaks down DNA into its constituent parts, it’s not likely to make it into your body’s cells– which cannot necessarily be said of viruses and bacteria). Not every plant we eat has had its genome sequenced. And just because it’s a product of nature does not automatically make food, or anything else, automatically safe, good, or appetizing. I will personally pass on the hákarl, thank you.

This post originally appeared on the SciLogs version of this site. Here is the comment on that version of the post copied here:

“A well-written piece, but I have one tangential nit to pick: Fish are animals, so your hypothetical future restaurant cannot be vegetarian if it is serving salmon – dill infused or not.


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