sliced onion circuitry
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

The Secret Ways Scientists Are Altering Your Vegetables

With Meatless Week, Thrillist is taking a break from its meaty tendencies to indulge in all things vegetarian and vegan. We'll prod the philosophical quandaries of our dietary choices, ask for a reassessment of what it means to live meat-free, and much more -- all without a single salad in sight.

All hail the Sunion, a sweet onion newly arriving at supermarkets in 2018 bearing an almost unfathomable promise: No matter how finely you chop it, no matter how stale the air is in your kitchen, no matter what names it calls you (kidding), it will never make you cry.

You might think, in these crazy days of seedless tomatoes and plant-based burgers that bleed, that this modern marvel was devised by a bunch of punning scientists high on the fumes of Johnson's Baby Shampoo. But it's actually the three-decade culmination of one farmer named Rick Watson's struggle to inoculate America's favorite bulb with the "no more tears" concept through crossbreeding, that ancient tradition of manipulating crops to suit our own preferences.

That Sunions are perfectly timed to capitalize on our culture's general need for speed, as well as our aversion to tearing up in the kitchen, isn't a coincidence. "There are, of course, trends in produce," says Adam Brady, senior marketing manager at Golden Sun Marketing, working with Sunions. "And right now the trend is to make produce more convenient for preparation." He points to the growing $5-billion-a-year industry, led by Blue Apron, that's built up around delivering prepared groceries right to consumers' doors and expected to surpass $10 billion by 2020. "It takes that fear of tearing out of the equation when you're talking about prepping meals," says Brady, "It's one less thing that consumers have to think about."

The earliest kind of genetic manipulation was done by selective breeding: picking out the favorable traits and weeding out the undesired ones intentionally. Farmers aim to give foods certain qualities (or take them away) and do so by controlling how the crop cross breeds. Think back to your middle school biology class: This is exactly what Gregor Mendel did with his pea pod experiments, just on a much larger, more sophisticated scale.

In 2018, the inherently slow process of crossbreeding may seem as quaint as Web 1.0. New technology has helped speed up the process; adjustments that might have taken 30 years in the field in the past can now be made almost instantly on a single machine in a lab. Just watch how you label it. "It's really important you know this isn't a GMO," Mallory Johnson, president of bigInk PR, says about the Sunion, referring to genetically modified organisms.

The problem: There's still no standardization in place to alert consumers to which of the produce in a grocery store has been genetically manipulated, much less how.

When you're standing in front of, say, a neat pyramid of tomatoes, you're missing some crucial insight into how that produce came to be. The results of the different ways to manipulate a crop (crossbreeding, GMOs, and a third category of gene-edited crops) look the same, but there's no transparency about how those tomatoes -- or mushrooms, or onions, or whatever -- you buy in the supermarket have been grown, nor is there clear regulation of the science that goes into making this produce, which has been a controversial issue since GMOs were first commercially introduced in the 1970s. None of it is unsafe, necessarily, but don't we deserve to know how food we'd otherwise presume weren't subjects of science was made regardless?

tomatoes growing from spooky vines
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

In the modern era, when we use the word "genetic" in relation to a crop, we're usually not talking about genetic engineering through crossbreeding by a farmer who just wants to grow onions that don't make you cry. When we say "genetic," the presumption is usually that some kind of science was involved. In 1973, two American scientists named Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed the ability to genetically engineer DNA. By 1974, other scientists had manipulated the DNA of a rat, and by 1975 a debate was already waging over whether or not genetically engineered food was safe for consumers.

By the time the first commercial GMO food, the FLAVR SAVR tomatoes promising a longer shelf-life, were approved by the US  Department of Agriculture in 1992 and shipped to market, Americans were already wary. What happened next was such an absolute public relations disaster even Monsanto, the parent company of the FLAVR SAVR, admitted to botching it. GMOs became so divisive that Monsanto lost a third of its stock value in 14 months. "Our confidence in this technology and our enthusiasm for it has, I think, been widely seen -- and understandably so -- as condescension or indeed arrogance," the chief executive of Monsanto said in 1999. In other words, instead of hearing the public's concerns and offering any reassurance on the company's science-based safety record, Monsanto brushed right past us.

It makes sense, then, that the Sunion's developer wants to emphasize that their product is not a GMO. Mostly because Americans still hate GMOs, or at least the idea of them, an incredible amount. According to data collected by the Pew Research Center in 2015, about 50% of Americans believe GMOs are bad for their health, while only one in five admitted to having a firm grasp of the topic. This suspicion is based in lore only. When Pew surveyed member scientists of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 88% said GMOs are "generally safe" in a conclusive exoneration. But that former statistic reveals a deeper anxiety about consumer confidence in the state of produce, and reveals that the majority of us do want to know the origins of our food.

In 2016, Yinong Yang, a researcher at Penn State University, found another way to manipulate produce, creating a white button mushroom that browns less quickly. This more precise method targeting specific strands of DNA made use of CRISPR-Cas9, a new popular gene editing tool. "I think of these things on a continuum," says Gregory Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "You can't make the kinds of very bright line distinctions [scientists] want to make between what's a GMO and what's gene editing."

mushroom root circuits
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Even in the case of browning produce, this quickly becomes clear. Scientists had already created non-browning apples and potatoes by inserting new, altered genes into the crop's DNA in order to "silence" a gene that already existed. That made them GMOs. In Yang's case, CRISPR technology was used to simply pop in and snip out a tiny piece of the mushroom's DNA, which disabled the production of an enzyme that handles mushroom browning. The result of the two methods is the same (produce that browns more slowly) but the process is different, and so, weirdly, are the governmental rules around them. In Yang's case, the USDA exempt his mushrooms from review, citing that he did not introduce new "foreign DNA," potentially setting the precedent for all CRISPR-Cas9 crops.

"Right now, if you make a genetically engineered potato, it is subject to different regulations than if you introduced the exact same gene using CRISPR. Same phenotype. Same environment. But one is regulated and one isn't. So either you're over-regulating one, or you're under-regulating one," Jaffe says. He notes that CRISPR can potentially manipulate more than just one individual strand of DNA, unlike a GMO crop, so it's confusing that they would be subject to different regulatory systems under the USDA and the FDA. GMOs are only evaluated by the FDA on a voluntary consultation process, which, to be fair, many crop growers elect not to waive to raise confidence in their product. Before 2010, every GMO was regulated by the FDA, but in the last five years the USDA has stepped in to monitor GMOs that break new ground under the risk of being plant pests. Neither system, however, applies to CRISPR crops. Federal agencies have not decided how exactly gene-edited produce will be regulated, and so right now, they pass through untouched.

"I'm not suggesting that they all need to be overseen or that they all need the same oversight," Jaffe says. "But the current system isn't set up to regulate anything fairly." As consumers, the answer isn't to vilify all genetically edited foods, but to push for independent, science-based evaluations. "Oversight is to find the one in 1,000, or one in 10,000, that might have a food safety risk," Jaffe says. "We regulate to to catch the exceptions, to find the needle in the haystack. If a gene edited crop isn't regulated, the question will be whether the public or even other members of the food industry even know that a genetically edited crop is in the marketplace."

Last year, Congress passed a law requiring labeling on GMOs to disclose that they were modified, lauded as a win for everyday consumers. No such law exists for gene-edited crops; they're too new. Already anticipating backlash, DuPont Pioneer, a company developing a CRISPR-edited waxy corn, has already launched a PR campaign to help consumers understand what genetically engineered foods are long before its product will be available on the market. They need to win in the court of public opinion before they can win on the shelves.

CRISPR is the food industry's first real chance at a do-over from the GMO fallout. Gene-edited crops aren't on shelves yet, though soybeans, potatoes, and corn could be ready to go to market soon, possibly by the end of 2018, so the industry still has time to get this right. In the next five years, we could see massive scientific leaps in helping crops become more drought resistant, more nutritious, and have longer shelf lives. All things worth celebrating, but only if we can see enough of what's happening to know to clap.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Kelsey McKinney is a writer in Washington, DC. Her work has been published in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and GQ. Follow her on Twitter @mckinneykelsey.