Soylent Says It's 'Pro GMO' When It Really Should Be Pro Food

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In the artsy, liberal Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park sits a giant billboard that simply reads “Pro GMO | Soylent.” The maker of the controversial meal replacement has been plastering up these“Pro GMO” billboards and ads to drive web traffic and sales. But what exactly does it mean to be "Pro GMO?"

Soylent Says It's 'Pro GMO' When It Really Should Be Pro Food

Soylent took the processed food industry by storm when it launched a product it claims can eliminate the need for basically any other food. For those of us to lazy or busy to cook, or I suppose, for people who just truly hate eating, this product, which took its name from the 1970s sci-fi movie starring Charlton Heston, aims to be the cure-all.

The company points to research and lab-testing that make its powdered or liquid meal replacements meet all human dietary requirements without the fuss or mess or deliciousness of food—and it raised more than $750,000 in its Kickstarter campaign. Clearly people want a futuristic food product, even if they still plan on eating actual food at some point.

But when the company released its “2.0” version of Soylent, it was called out for using genetically modified ingredients—those GMOs it now says it’s so 'pro' for.

On its website, Soylent claims that GMOs “can be a safe and economic option for industrial food production, as long as they and their cultivars are well-researched and documented and their propagation is controlled in order to preserve the biodiversity of wild plants.”

Soylent goes on to point toward potatoes to illustrate its point about GMO safety (even though it contains no potatoes):

An examination of glycoalkaloids - a natural toxin produced in potatoes - helps to illustrate this point.

Even though glycoalkaloids can be harmful to humans, because the quantity naturally produced in potatoes is so small, we can safely consume potatoes without worrying about becoming sick.

When a potato farmer uses conventional methods to breed a new strain of potato (this is done by putting the pollen from the male potato plant on the stigma of the female potato plant), after the resulting strain is grown, the potato farmer tests to make sure that the new potato strain has the usual low, and therefore safe, glycoalkaloid levels.

In the same way that farmers check for safe glycoalkaloid levels, all of the GMO ingredients found in Soylent are extensively tested and proven to be safe. In fact, federal regulation requires much more testing of new genetically-produced crops than new non-genetically produced plants.

Soylent uses ingredients derived from genetically modified soy and canola and possibly GMO corn—which really don’t have anything to do with how farmers test new potato breeds.

Breeding is categorically different from genetic modification. Selective plant breeding is a lot like modern human mating. In today’s world, humans often date and procreate outside of their ethnic lineage. Plant breeding takes pollen from a male plant and pollinates another female breed. Farmers do this to get sweeter or more colorful fruits, rounder tomatoes, etc. Similar to the child of parents with different ethnicities where you get a hybrid of both parents—in plants, you get a mix of the traits of both “parent” plants.

But genetic modification is taking DNA from one plant or animal and injecting them into the DNA of another. It’s a bit more like taking the genetic material of an Hispanic person and injecting them into, say, a cat. Not quite the same as breeding.

Despite all the controversy surrounding GMOs, the science is still out on whether there’s any inherent risk to the genetic engineering component itself. And in some cases, genetically altering plants or bacteria has proven benefits, such as making a food healthier by containing more vitamins, or altering the DNA of bacteria to help fight obesity.

But that’s not what most modern GMOs are doing—certainly not the ones found in Soylent’s products. The GMO soy and canola it uses are designed to withstand heavy applications of an herbicide the World Health Organization recently linked to cancer. In some cases, the seeds are engineered to be pesticides themselves—given the DNA of the Bt bacterium that kills insects who eat the plants. Those Bt seeds are registered as pesticides.

So is Soylent really “Pro GMO” or is it just Pro Cheap Ingredients, Pro Publicity, and Pro Controversy? Or maybe the real question is: shouldn’t it quit peddling pesticide- and herbicide-laced flavorless powders and be Pro Real Food instead?

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