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Experts: Non-GMO Certification of GMO-Derived Sweetener Sets a 'Dangerous Precedent'

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By Ken Roseboro

Consumer advocates and non-GMO food experts have criticized the non-GMO certification of Cargill's EverSweet sweetener by NSF's Non-GMO True North program because the product is derived from a genetically engineered yeast and should be considered a GMO.


Sold by Cargill, EverSweet is described as a "next generation, zero calorie sweetener." It is derived through a fermentation process using a GMO yeast, which produces the compounds Reb M and Reb D similar to those found in a stevia leaf. NSF says the yeast is not in EverSweet.

But Dana Pearls, senior food and technology policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the True North non-GMO verification of EverSweet "sets a dangerous precedent for greenwashing other GMO products."

"All products derived from genetic engineering, including the GMO EverSweet, must be regulated, assessed, and labeled," she said. "Ingredients like EverSweet that are derived from genetic engineering are the new GMOs, and labeling must be honest and transparent."

At Odds With Non-GMO Project Standard

By contrast to True North, the Non-GMO Project would not certify EverSweet because the Non-GMO Project's standard requires that fermentation microbes of verified products be non-GMO.

"You can't make a truly non-GMO product using genetic engineering," said Megan Westgate, Non-GMO Project executive director. "A product like EverSweet would not be eligible for verification under the Non-GMO Project Standard because it's produced by genetically engineered yeast."

Cargill claims the GMO yeast is "completely filtered out" of the end product sweetener. This allowed the product to be certified by NSF's Non-GMO True North program, according to NSF spokesperson Lindsay Karpinskas. She said the True North standard includes a range of exemptions for enzymes used as processing aids, which are not present in the finished product. These include vitamins, minerals, non-viable or inactivated microorganisms, and microbial growth media such as the fermentation feedstock used to produce Reb M and Reb D in EverSweet.

"These exemptions allow products derived from microorganisms and enzymes to be certified because genetically engineered ingredients are not present in the finished product," Karpinskas said.

But Westgate says it doesn't matter that the GMO yeast isn't in the finished product. "How can you take a GMO microbe and produce something non-GMO with it? It just doesn't really make sense."

John Fagan, CEO of Health Research Institute, a molecular biologist who has extensive experience developing non-GMO standards worldwide, also said Reb M and Reb D in EverSweet should not be certified as non-GMO.

"Technically, Reb M and Reb D are products of a microorganism that is genetically engineered to produce enzymes that enable the yeast to produce Reb M and Reb D. That yeast was specifically engineered to produce Reb M and Reb D, so the genetic engineering that was done to that organism was not incidental to Reb M and Reb D."

Jim Thomas, program director at the ETC Group, a non-profit advocacy group that tracks new GMO technologies, said it's misleading to describe the GMO yeast used to produce Reb M and Reb D as just a processing aid.

"That's a bit like saying a cow is a processing aid for making milk," Thomas said.

Fagan said there are potential human health concerns with EverSweet. "The issue of safety is a real one. When you put new enzymes into a cell using genetic engineering, this changes the balance of the metabolic network in the cell, resulting in metabolites being present at levels not normally found in the cells. These levels are not something the manufacturer can predict or control, and some of these metabolites may be toxic."

Fagan also sayid contaminants can result when Reb M and Reb D are extracted from the GMO yeast, and that these could be toxic or allergenic.

Loophole Allows Other GMO-Derived Ingredients to Be Non-GMO Certified

The fermentation process used to make compounds like EverSweet is known as synthetic biology and is one of the new genetic engineering technologies that include gene editing. A growing number of companies are using synthetic biology techniques that involve altering the DNA of microorganisms such as yeast, algae and bacteria to produce compounds like flavors, fragrances and ingredients that previously have been extracted from plants. Evolva, which works with Cargill to produce EverSweet, has also created a synthetic biology form of vanillin, an alternative to natural vanilla extract. The ETC Group has compiled a database of some 350 synthetic biology products on the market or in development.

Fagan said NSF's True North standard doesn't address synthetic biology products. "Reb M and Reb D are clearly synbio products, and synbio products are definitely classified as GMO by CODEX and the other authoritative definitions of GMO. Given that True North certified them as non-GMO, it would appear that they may have missed the whole synbio category of GMO products."

Another problem is that while the use of GMO processing aids are exempt from GMO labeling in European regulations and Vermont's GMO labeling law, the True North extends that exemption to include other compounds, said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union.

"The real issue is that any ingredient or additive that comes from a GMO microorganism is exempt (from the True North standard). This is a very problematical loophole."

As a result, Hansen is concerned that more synthetic biology ingredients could also be non-GMO certified. "So, not only can this genetically engineered stevia (EverSweet) get a True North non-GMO label but the Impossible Burger could also get such a label, since the soy leghemoglobin is produced by GMO yeast. Indeed, you could have a product where all the main ingredients were produced by GMO microorganisms and still get the True North Non-GMO Standard."

NSF's True North and the Non-GMO Project are the two certification programs approved for companies making non-GMO claims on products sold in Whole Foods stores. NSF is also a technical administrator to the Non-GMO Project.

Pearls urges NSF to change its standard. "True North's standards should be updated to include new genetic engineering techniques, following the lead of the Non-GMO Project and the National Organic Standards Board (which in 2016 voted to update U.S. organic standards to exclude ingredients derived from next generation genetic engineering techniques)."

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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