David Bronner is the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s and one of the most influential and actively engaged leaders in the organic industry.
When it comes to taking a stand on important social and environmental issues, I do not believe there is another company in our industry that has stepped up more than Dr. Bronner’s. The company has given millions to GMO-labeling, regenerative agriculture, organic hemp farming, the Organic Farmers Association and many other important causes.
With the Impossible Burger dominating the food media landscape over the past week, I wanted to get David’s perspective on the situation. Not only is he a vegan, but David was publicly in support of the Impossible Burger earlier this year.
In March, you wrote a long blog post where you said you were in favor of the Impossible Burger, which contains GMOs. Why did you feel this way?
In my Regenetarians Unite article, I wrote (excerpted below the relevant part) that:
Dr. Bronner’s has contributed huge firepower to the GMO labeling fight. The GMO reality is that over 90% of soy and corn acreage in this country is engineered to resist huge amounts of toxic herbicides like glyphosate, 2,4-D and dicamba, and I’ve written extensively about how the pesticide industry touts commercially non-existent GMOs, such as vitamin-enriched rice in the developing world, in order to obfuscate the reality that they’ve engineered our major food crops to be saturated in the weed killers they sell. Many people who should know better have succumbed to their propaganda, and I highly recommend reading this excellent article on “Golden Rice” to see how easily suckered a large swath of the population has been, including prominent scientists and scientific journalists.
I’m also skeptical of a lot of the next generation synthetic biology (synbio) products, that insofar as they are not disclosed as GMO and are foisted off as natural, will undercut markets from small-holder farmers in the developing world (as is the case for synbio vanilla). That said, synbio ingredients like insulin for diabetics from E. coli versus ground up CAFO cow pancreases, or 2% heme that helps make a plant-based burger so good that it can significantly reduce people eating CAFO (concentrated animal feedlot operations) beef, is not a bad use of the technology. In fact, choosing to eat the Impossible Burger involves a huge amount less GMO grain, hormones, antibiotics and animals suffering than a CAFO burger. And the huge amounts of GMO grain that people are indirectly consuming when eating CAFO meat, dairy and eggs, is the worst of the worst: the vast, synthetically-fertilized, pesticide-drenched GMO corn and soy destroying our ecosystems and soils, fed to animals rotting in cages. We need to differentiate between GMO applications that fight the CAFO machine versus those that drive it.
However, when I had written this, I was under the mistaken impression that the GMO hemoglobin in the Impossible Burger was a protein identical to what people already eat. This turned out not to be the case, as you and others have articulated.
Since the news just broke about the FDA rejecting the safety claims of Impossible Foods (the Impossible Burger), you have since changed your stance on this food product. Why?
Whether it’s Monsanto or Impossible Foods, the precedent and practice of private corporations self-designating new, novel proteins that we’ve never eaten before as “safe,” without independent safety review by entities not paid for by that company, is unethical and will lead to thousands of such proteins in our food supply.
In the case of the GMO hemoglobin that Impossible Foods engineered, for some reason they chose a version in the roots of soy that no one has ever eaten, versus what is commonly consumed in animal products every day. While that version in soy roots may well turn out to be safe with independent FDA review, it may not; the allergenicity potential of proteins differs with different amino sequences.
If the FDA does end up giving Impossible Foods a “no questions letter”, which would validate the safety claims of the proteins in the Impossible Burger, would you then be in favor it?
Yes, with FDA approval, I would be in favor of the Impossible Burger. The principal issue is that there should be independent third-party review by the FDA of any safety claims of new and novel food substances and proteins in our food, and not just a rubber stamp of what a company, whose profits are at stake, has commissioned.
In any event, this protein should be clearly labeled as genetically-engineered, so consumers can make an informed decision about whether to consume it or not.
With the FDA having rejected the safety claims of Impossible Foods (the Impossible Burger), some vegans have told me that they do not trust the FDA and they think that the meat industry pushed for the rejection. Where do you stand on this?
The FDA rejected the rationale, which Impossible Foods put forth, as to why the protein at issue is safe; just because it is “similar” to proteins we already eat, does not make it safe. But as you note, the FDA has not yet determined whether or not the agency thinks it is unsafe.
It is interesting when you contrast this, for example, with Bt corn, where the insecticidal protein Bt was allowed into the food supply without similar comment from the FDA. But my feeling is that’s because the Bt was part of a “whole food” (e.g. corn), whereas the FDA is now treating a single, synbio ingredient differently. I don’t think the FDA should treat it differently, and logically it is inconsistent; whether the protein is engineered and added in separately, versus being engineered directly into a whole food, it’s new and novel and needs to be scrutinized the same. The FDA should respond the same way to both Bt and every other GMO protein engineered into a whole food, and proteins separately engineered by yeast in a synthetic biology process. This is part of the problem we are dealing with.
But, no, I don’t think it’s part of a pro-meat agenda per se.
It is a reality that GMOs are not going away. Yet, if we have a next-generation, genetic-engineering technology, such as the one used in the Impossible Burger, and this can reduce the need for CAFOs, should the organic community be okay with these technologies? Or, does this line of thinking just lead to a slippery slope of more unproven genetic-engineering technologies coming to our dinner plates?
FOE has a major initiative they call the “Better Burger Challenge” which is all about incentivizing the use of plant-based and grass-fed burgers, rather than unsustainable feedlot/CAFO disaster beef. FOE focuses on organic plants and mushrooms versus conventional grains and GMOs for their plant-based burgers. The Good Food Institute also has a major focus on replacing factory-farmed/CAFO disaster meat, but it is willing to support conventional grains and GMO proteins to accomplish that mission.
At Dr. Bronner’s, we split the difference: we support GFI, in that we need to compete with disaster meat on price and convenience, and fight fire with fire; we support FOE because we need to transition to regenerative organic plant and meat-based options. FOE was one of the main organizations that called foul on the Impossible Burger’s claims vis-à-vis the FDA, as part of its mission is to safeguard our food supply from companies engineering new and novel substances without adequate third-party safety testing.
Ironically, the Impossible Burger hands-down blows all competitors out of the water in their Better Burger challenge, leaving alone the issue of organics, GMOs and safety. Impossible Burger is competing with and serving as an alternative to cheap, non-organic, CAFO disaster meat; it is not competing with regenerative, organic plant-based options and high-welfare, grass-fed, animal-based options.
Obviously, synbio GMO proteins have no place in organic foods. However, I think that synbio GMO proteins, such as the one with the Impossible Burger, must meet the following three criteria: first, they must be made by yeast instead of engineered into food crops that can contaminate nearby organic crops; second, they must be verified safe by independent, third-party FDA review or be exactly identical to common proteins we already eat; and third, they must be clearly labeled.
If synbio GMO proteins do meet these three criteria, then I am okay with them because they address safety and disclosure concerns, and don’t pose the kind of contamination threat to organic seed genetics that traditional GMO or next generation CRISPR techniques (gene-editing within a crop genome) do when applied to regular food crops.
David brings up some very interesting, compelling and thoughtful points. In my view, synbio poses real risk to human health, but as we are seeing with the Impossible Burger, it can also serve as a potential tool to decrease GMO-contamination of organic farms and to reduce CAFOs and chemical use, something we’d all like to see. The debate on this issue is just getting started.
What has gotten somewhat lost in this whole Impossible Burger controversy over the past week has been the actions of Impossible Foods.
Based on previous responses from PR departments at GMO companies, it should not have been a big surprise that Impossible Foods viciously went after Stephanie Strom of The New York Times and tried to discredit her (a futile attempt – she is an outstanding journalist) and then told me that my article was “dangerously deceptive” and asked when I would “stop being the platform for extremist anti-science groups.”
Yet, let’s remember two things.
First, while Impossible Foods broke absolutely no laws and is still in good standing with the FDA, the company sold the Impossible Burger to consumers knowing the FDA had serious safety concerns. While this was legally permissible, it raises real moral questions.
Second, after the controversy broke, Pat Brown, CEO and Founder of Impossible Foods, wrote a long letter to the public addressing the situation (see here on Facebook or here as a PDF), in which he said:
Impossible Foods intends to be the most open and transparent company in the world.
For many of us in the industry who are closely following this story, Pat Brown’s statement was shocking. The argument could easily be made that Impossible Foods is not being transparent at all.
– It hid from the public that the FDA rejected the company’s safety claims for its soy leghemoglobin, yet sold the Impossible Burger to the public anyway. No explanation has been provided as to why the company did not disclose this information.
– It never disclosed and is still hiding from the public on the company’s website the names of the people on the expert panel – the expert panel that “self-affirmed” GRAS status and vouched for the safety of the soy leghemoglobin.
As I wrote in my piece, the three experts have links to Monsanto, the Gates Foundation, and all of the major biotechnology companies. All three experts also happened to serve on the Scientific Advisory Board of Philip Morris, and one of the experts, Dr. Michael Pariza, co-authored a study which said that “aspartame in the human diet would not affect nervous system function, learning or behavior.”
– The company’s website, which attempts to educate consumers on heme and soy leghemoglobin, is so confusing that Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union, had this to say about it.
The way in which Impossible Foods is loosely and interchangeably using the word ‘heme’ is misleading consumers. The average person with no scientific background would reasonably read the FAQ section of this website and think that the genetically-engineered heme in the Impossible Burger is ‘identical’ to the heme that humans have been consuming for hundreds of thousands of years in meat and other foods. This is categorically not true.
The relevant sections on the FAQ page of the website still read the same way.
In time, Impossible Foods may escape from all of the FDA clouds currently hanging over its head, but it has a very, very long way to go before any reasonable person could consider this company to be open and transparent.
Have a great day!
Max Goldberg, Founder
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