“Unnatural” Corn/Canola oil — Dispatches from Behind the Looking Glass…

Corn Field

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” (Rev. Charles Dodgson, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

Recent news brings one of those items that causes palms to smack foreheads:

ConAgra Foods is facing two class action lawsuits that claim the marketing of its Wesson cooking oils as “100% natural” and “pure” is misleading because the oil is extracted from plants that have been genetically modified (GM).

“The two lawsuits, one filed in Los Angeles and the other in Brooklyn, seek millions of dollars’ worth of refunds for consumers who bought products in ConAgra’s Wesson range of cooking oils, as well as a court order preventing the company from labelling the oils as natural. The oils concerned include Wesson-brand corn oil, canola oil, Best Blend and vegetable oil.

“According to the complaint, labelling the oils “100% natural” is misleading because GM plants are “unnatural”, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO says: “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.”

This is exactly the kind of ridiculous lawsuit that gives lawyers a bad name. Let’s jump to the punchlines, with explanations to follow:

1. Newsflash: nothing about agriculture, in any of its forms, is “natural.” To apply the term to one form of agriculture and deny it to another is just silly. This dog won’t hunt.

2. The “unnatural” genetic modification the suit complains about is directly analogous to processes we find everywhere in nature. Indeed, it was only by studying these natural phenomena that biotechnologists learned how to genetically engineer crops in the first place. To complain that this particular type of genetic modification is “unnatural” and therefore somehow beyond the pale is flatly contradicted by the facts; it is ignorant;

2. Corn and canola are each purely and unambiguously the result of genetic modification by humans (as is every other crop we grow and eat, though most to somewhat lesser degrees). These crops are not found, and never have been, anywhere in the ‘”natural” world. So for the lawsuit to have any validity at all it would have to complain against any and all oil derived from corn or canola.

Let us consider some facts.

Any way you slice this, you have to shake your head. Let’s start with the WHO definition that “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” How have the “GM” corn and canola been modified? Each has been improved by the addition of a gene imparting either tolerance to an herbicide or resistance to an insect pest. The most common method of adding these genes is to insert the DNA encoding these traits into the corn or canola genome using one or another of a variety of techniques — Ti plasmid or ballistic transformation, or something analogous. Are these techniques found in nature? Abundantly.

Ti plasmid mediated transformation is a method that exploits the plant pathogen Agrobacterium tumefasciens. This microbe has the capacity to infect plants and insert its own DNA, co-opting the host plant’s cellular machineries to reproduce itself. Biotechnologists have learned how to insert DNA from other species into a plant by studying what they see in nature. Ballistics transformation uses a slightly different mechanism that is very similar to what plant viruses do, injecting their own DNA into a host plant’s cells, where it is taken up by the host DNA. Only someone who is profoundly ignorant of what we find everywhere in the natural world could be so arrogant as to call this “unnatural.”

But wait — these corn and canola plants contain DNA from other species — surely that’s unnatural?  Look again.

The avalanche of DNA sequence data that has been produced in recent years has been staggering, unprecedented. It is difficult to convey with language just how massively revolutionary the impact of this has been on our understanding of living things, and we’ve barely scratched the surface.  Much understanding remains to be extracted from this mountain, these Himalayas of information. But one thing has quickly become apparent: Genes, DNA sequences, are no respecter of “species boundaries” (exactly what those might be will have to wait for another posting…). There is nothing in any gene or DNA sequence that says “I belong to species X; if found elsewhere please return to rightful owner.” Indeed, the vast majority of genes are widely shared throughout related species, genera, and families, and those encoding some of the most basic properties of life are shared between very distantly related species indeed, such as fungi and humans. You can look it up.

In other words, for one species to contain DNA from another is purely natural, if that word has any relationship to what we find in nature. So the lawsuit fails on this count as well.

But there is an even more ironic fact that completely vitiates the legal complaint and should result in summary dismissal, though it would be sweet indeed to put the plaintiff on the witness stand and unleash Darrow for the defence. It would be good to hear them describe exactly what kind of corn or canola they think is “natural”.

Fact: neither corn nor canola is ever, nor has ever been, found anywhere but in human dominated environments. This is because both are purely the artefact of human genetic manipulation beginning long before the advent of in vitro recombinant DNA techniques. Corn did not exist until  humans in Central America, perhaps 10 millennia ago, began to domesticate a plant that today very few would recognize as being related to corn — teosinte. Although  corn and teosinte look quite different, on the DNA level they are unmistakably similar, the major visual differences resulting from human selection on perhaps as few as five genes. Over thousands of years, saving seed from varieties they favored, our foremothers transformed teosinte into corn without having the faintest idea of what they were doing in genetic terms. But their persistence and diligence produced the wealth of landraces modern corn breeders have built upon to produce the corn on which we rely so heavily today.

Canola is, in one conspicuous way, an even more remarkable story. Although produced over a span of years rather than millennia, and derived from a plant that today is still visually indistinguishable, if one were to cook with oil from the parental plant, Brassica napus, or rape, the difference would quickly become apparent. Rape seed oil is high in a particular lipid compound, erucic acid. It has a bitter and unpalatable taste. Canola was derived from a mutant rape variety in which erucic acid production is dramatically, “unnaturally” reduced, rendering it edible.  Developed by Canadian plant breeders, it was named “canola” for “Canadian” and “oil.”

What all this means is that if we’re going to talk about “natural” with an eye to evoking what we find in nature, then no variety of either corn or canola can properly be called “natural.” Each is wholly and purely the product of genetic manipulation by humans regardless of whether they have been touched by in vitro recombinant DNA techniques. In fact, agriculture itself is anything but natural, and everything, without exception, that appears on a dinner plate anywhere in the world has been either willfully or inadvertently genetically modified by humans, some more so than others. Even wild caught fish come from populations that have been selected by human harvest for earlier maturation and smaller size.

What this means is that the term “natural” can’t really be applied legitimately to much of any food, whether it’s derived through biotechnology or the more primitive, inefficient and obsolete  methods certain cults regard as superior.

So what is this lawsuit about? Who is behind it? It doesn’t appear to be the usual mischief from professional opposition groups — this one appears to originate with a classic, parasitical bottom-feeder — oops, I mean an upstanding firm that specializes in consumer protection lawsuits. Well, it’s fate should be determined on the merits, and on the merits, It is without merit; it’s just another back alley mugging attempt by predatory thugs; today its ConAgra — who will they go after next? But this one is so far out there we can only hope it will quickly find the oblivion it so richly deserves.

Image Credit: mhall209

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About the author

L. Val Giddings has nearly three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He works with ITIF to bring intellectual leadership to examination of the constraints inhibiting innovations in these areas, and devising remedies to those constraints.