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Beyond meat: GMO versus non-GMO

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Last week, TRR’s editorial took a look at the Impossible Burger that is now available in Burger King restaurants and other outlets. Impossible is made using genetically modified (GMO) soybeans and further uses GMO yeast to produce a substance called “heme,” a molecule that occurs naturally in every plant and animal.

This week we consider the Beyond Burger, one of the main competitors to Impossible, and a company that has had the most successful initial public offering of the year. Shares of Beyond, which sells its plant-based meat-like products in grocery stores as well as fast-food outlets, became available to the public on May 2 at $25 per share. By August, the price per share was up to $160. One reason for the optimism among investors is that Beyond doesn’t use any GMO products in its faux burgers, which is a big plus for many consumers seeking plant-based alternatives to meat.

Also, Beyond does not use any soy or soy products in its burgers; the main ingredient is pea protein isolate, which, as one might guess, comes from peas. So, are Beyond Burgers healthier for humans than beef burgers and are they healthier for the planet? Nutritionists point out that the plant-based burgers are still highly processed food, and with an ingredient like coconut oil, not necessarily the healthiest choice for dinner. But is a Beyond burger healthier than a hamburger? The general consensus is yes, it is.

There is little doubt that production of the ingredients of a Beyond Burger is much less hard on the planet than the production of a cow. According to the World Resources Institute, “Beef production requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse-gas emissions per unit of edible protein than common plant-based protein sources such as beans, peas and lentils. When it comes to resource use and environmental impacts, the type of food eaten matters as much, if not more, than how that food is produced.”

Right now, Beyond seems to be best positioned to take advantage of the growing demand for plant-based burgers, but larger companies are entering the market. For instance, Kroger announced on September 4 that it is launching a line of plant-based products, including burgers called Simple Truth Plant Based this fall. Also MorningStar Farms, owned by Kellogs, will begin selling Incogmeato and other plant-based meat substitutes this fall, which will all be made with non-GMO soy products.

It’s not clear where the market will be in five years, but companies that choose non-GMO ingredients should have the edge. American consumers have been demanding GMO labeling on products for years, while the industry fought back hard, insisting that labeling would be unnecessary and expensive.

Ultimately, Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard and President Barack Obama signed it in 2016. The law established mandatory labeling for food with GMO ingredients, but it also gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) two years to finalize the rules.

Under the current administration, the USDA has been trying to soften the impact of the labeling by suggesting GMO foods be labeled BE for Bioengineered, instead of the more widely known GMO or genetically modified.

The debate about whether GMO foods is safe goes on, with many studies saying GMO foods are just as safe as non-GMO foods. But what’s also clear is that GMO foods are very hard on the environment. That’s mostly because GMO plants aren’t any more productive than non-GMO plants unless they are sprayed with a lot of the herbicide glyphosate, which the plants have been engineered to withstand. This has led to the emergence of glyphosate-resistant “superweeds.”

In 2017, glyphosate was added to the California list of substances that cause cancer. Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, the largest seller of glyphosate through its Roundup weed killer, took the issue to court, and a judge put a temporary hold on the state’s move. The Environmental Protection Agency this month said it disagrees with California’s conclusion.

The bureaucrats may still be arguing about it, but the public has some strong opinions about GMO foods. As far back as 2015, according to a poll by the Mellman Group, 87% of U.S. residents favored the labeling of GMO foods or ingredients.

Further, this year juries awarded $80 million in one case, and $78.5 million in another, to people who said they contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from using Roundup, and there is talk of a multi-billion dollar figure to settle thousands more pending lawsuits.

It seems like a no-brainer that if there is a way to make non-GMO plant-based meat substitutes, that’s the way to go.

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