A new gene-editing technique is instilling hope among soybean farmers. Calyxt, a Minneapolis-based startup, promises its modifications can keep the trans fats out of soybeans, making them healthier like olive oil. However, opponents of GMOs aren’t celebrating.
Soybean oil is high in linoleic acid, which means it goes rancid fast. So manufacturers have long been partially hydrogenating their oil to extend shelf life and improve frying capability. Now that legislation has banned the trans fats caused by partially hydrogenated oil, soybean processors are looking for alternatives. This new gene-editing technique means that it will be shelf-stable without having to be hydrogenated.
Calyxt’s new soybean variety is higher in oleic acid and lower in linoleic acid and saturated fatty acids than other soybean varieties. These variations increase shelf life up to five times longer, and increase fry-life threefold, with no need for hydrogenation. Calyxt hopes to begin commercial sales in 2018.
Calyxt is using a gene-editing technology called TALEN to alter single genes within plants. The three approaches they can use are to insert correct or knock out a gene. The company likens it to using spell check to identify and correct an error in a word. Because gene-editing is so specific and only rearranges rather than adding a foreign gene to a plants’ existing DNA, the USDA has decided not to regulate it. This enables Calyxt to avoid the usual long waits of the regulatory process.
Calyxt presents its technology as a way to decrease trans fat, allergens and toxic compounds in foods while increasing dietary fibers, nutrients, vitamin content and plant proteins. It also promises farmer-friendly traits, such as increased yield, herbicide tolerance and resistance to insects and disease. But Calyx emphasizes that unlike traditional GMO development, it’s putting healthier food needs of the consumer above farmer needs. While soybean oil is the farthest along in Calyxt’s development stages, they’re also using the gene-splitting technique on wheat, potatoes, alfalfa and canola oil.
The USDA green-lighted the first gene-edited crops in April 2016, starting with a mushroom that resists turning brown. But the European Union is slower to accept any kind of GMOs, however allegedly benign. French trade unions and NGOs have argued that gene-editing tools are the first step down a slippery slope leading to many new plants with uncertain environmental impacts.
Will the new, healthier soybean oil adversely affect olive producers? Joanne Lacina, president of the online shop Olive Oil Lovers, isn’t worried. “I don’t believe soy oil can ever replace olive oil in any significant way,” she said. “Extra virgin olive oil is quite literally the fruit juice of an olive. A producer picks the olives off the tree, immediately transports them to the mill where they are crushed and the juice is extracted. Two hours later you can be eating fresh oil from the olives you just picked.”
Soy oil, she pointed out, is extracted at high temperatures using petroleum-derived solvents, degummed, deodorized and bleached. “A good extra virgin olive oil is so delicious you can happily eat it with just bread alone. I have yet to meet someone who proclaims they eat soy oil because they love the way it tastes.”