The Beef With the GMO Impossible Burger
By Jaydee Hanson
In the foodie world, 2019 might as well be named The Year of the Impossible Burger. This plant-based burger that "bleeds" can now be found on the menus of Burger King, Fatburger, Cheesecake Factory, Red Robin, White Castle and many other national restaurant chains. Consumers praise the burger's meat-like texture and the product is advertised as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional beef burgers.
In January, Impossible Foods launched the Impossible Burger 2.0. The company has stated that the new burger is "tastier, juicier and more nutritious" — featuring 40 percent less saturated fat than the old recipe, and just as much protein as 80/20 ground beef from cows. The new product is also gluten-free, replacing wheat with soy protein. Unfortunately, the Impossible Burger might just be too good to be true. At Center for Food Safety, we believe that replacing conventional animal products with ultra-processed, poorly studied, and under-regulated genetically engineered products is not the solution to our factory farm and climate crisis. Here's the science to back this up.
The Impossible Burger is manufactured from two different methods of genetically engineering soy products. This "impossible in nature" union is neither healthier nor more environmentally friendly than other kinds of non-meat burgers. While Impossible Foods, the company behind the Impossible Burger, has been trying to spin its product as both healthier and more sustainable than those of its competitors, a quick examination of the company's own data suggests otherwise.
1. The first kind of genetic engineering in the "Impossible Burger" is found in the soy used for the protein in the "burger" itself.
Rather than starting with organic soy beans, which have higher levels of protein and lower levels of Omega 6 fatty acids (the bad Omega), the company chose to use GMO soybeans, probably because they are cheaper than the organic beans. The company uses both GMO soy protein concentrate and GMO soy protein isolate for the protein in its burger. Impossible Foods does not describe how it processes the soy, but alcohol is the most common solvent used to process soy protein concentrate, as it produces products with a neutral taste. But the beneficial isoflavones in soy are removed by this method. Soy protein concentrate has the lowest level of healthful isoflavones — including daidzein, genistein and glycitein — of any form of processed soy.
Unfortunately, GMO soy is also sprayed with large amounts of the herbicide glyphosate, a product shown to cause cancer in people exposed during its application. GMO soy has been found to use significantly more herbicides than conventional soy or organic soy. At a time when juries are awarding billions of dollars in damages to those affected by exposure to glyphosate, it is startling that Impossible Foods would double down on the GMO soy that is inextricably linked to this toxic herbicide.
2. The second kind of genetic engineering of soy produces the "heme" that makes the Impossible Burger "bleed."
In order to manufacture its burgers, Impossible Foods takes DNA from the roots of soy plants, where a small amount of "heme" is produced, and inserts it into genetically engineered yeast that is then fermented to mass-produce heme. This is the first time that people have consumed this product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to require testing in this situation to make sure that this novel protein does not cause allergic reactions in people. Unfortunately, instead of requiring Impossible Foods to file a new Food Additive Petition, FDA allowed the company to use a weak regulatory process called "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS) where the company does its own research and chooses its own reviewers to self-certify that its product is safe for human consumption. Center for Food Safety has a lawsuit challenging the GRAS food additive loophole that the Impossible Burger went through, allowing it and many other novel food substances to unlawfully evade government analysis and approval before coming to market.
Even under the weak GRAS process, the first time the company submitted data on the allergenicity of its "heme," it was so inadequate that the FDA raised questions about the company's data and the company withdrew its application so that it could redo its research. Although the FDA now says that it has "no questions" about Impossible Foods' latest research on the safety of "heme," the agency itself has not affirmatively declared that "heme" produced in genetically engineered yeast is safe for human consumption. Moreover, FDA has warned Impossible Foods that it cannot claim its "heme" is a source of iron based on this review and that it must label its product as a potential allergen. The FDA also notes that the company should request a review of the "heme" as a new color additive.
Most customers of the Impossible Burger will not see labels saying that the burgers are made from GMO soy or could cause allergic reactions as Impossible Foods are currently only selling to fast food chains which do not put such labels on their menus.
Rather than buy the GMOx2 Impossible Burger, choose a non-GMO burger made in your local area. The Washington Post recently highlighted six veggie-based burgers being made by local restaurants that are not serving the Impossible Burger.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.