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Expo West organiser criticised over stance on ‘GMO 2.0’ tech 

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New Hope, organiser of the Natural Products Expo West and East events in the US, is facing criticism from parts of the organic and natural community over its stance on so-called ‘GMO 2.0’ technology. 

The return of Expo West earlier this month, after two years’ absence as an in-person event, was widely welcomed by the US natural products industry and received many plaudits. 

But the inclusion at the show of a number of brands exhibiting products made using synthetic biology techniques, or ‘precision fermentation’ (typically involving the use of genetically engineered microorganisms) has dismayed some prominent industry figures. 

Ahead of the Anaheim event New Hope gave advance notice that visitors to Expo West could expected to see various manifestations of the “rapid innovation of of food tech” present on the show floor, including food products made using precision fermentation and cell culture production (for example, lab-grown meat). 

In an interview with New Hope Network, New Hope Network’s director of market integrity, Shelley Sapsin, said that the company had a position on novel food tech, but it was one that was “not for, or against, food tech” and instead was “about transparency”. Elaborating, Saspin said: “Our (exhibitor) Standards allow products produced with or sourced from genetically modified organisms or bioengineered ingredients, but these products may not be labeled or promoted with any ‘natural’, ‘all natural’ or ‘100% natural’ claims. We also recommend that these products include a statement of source for transparency”. 

But Max Goldberg, editor and founder of Organic Insider, says that by permitting inclusion of such products at Natural Products Expo, New Hope was effectively “advocating for GMO 2.0 food technologies at its ‘natural’ products trade show”. In an editoral summary of this year’s Expo West event, Goldberg warns: “The organic industry should be deeply disturbed and alarmed by what is happening. These risky and novel food technologies are being normalized, and we are being conditioned to simply accept them without fully understanding the long-term implications.”

“These risky and novel food technologies are being normalized, and we are being conditioned to simply accept them without fully understanding the long-term implications”

Organic Insider quotes Alan Lewis, VP of advocacy at retail chain Natural Grocers on the development: “It seems that even with all the smarts and savvy in the natural products community, we have failed to understand that we are being targeted by a coordinated global campaign to force the adoption of synthetics in natural channels.” 

Organic Insider also quotes food retail commentator (and former VP of grocery at Whole Foods Market), Errol Schweizer, on New Hope’s position, which he says represents a “big step backwards when it comes to food sovereignty”. In an recent article for Forbes, Schweizer argues that techniques such as precision fermentation should face much more robust scrutiny, with the “biggest set of questions revolving around ownership, governance and social equity considerations”. He notes that “just about all of this new food technology is heavily funded by tech oligarchs, venture capitalists, or the occasional celebrity”. And he warns that the enormous hype around precision fermentation and synthetic biology is deflecting attention away from the vital role that regenerative organic agriculture, and agroecology more widely, could play in transitioning to sustainable food production. 

Commenting on Organic Insider’s article (and a post by Goldberg on LinkedIn), New Hope’s Sapsin said: “While we disagree with the assertion that New Hope is ‘advocating for GMO 2.0 technologies’ we do believe it’s important for our community to discuss – openly and publicly – this technology, its effect on our industry, and its impact on sustainability. We invited that going into the show, encouraged it at Expo, and are glad to see on-going discourse here. We believe that engaging the community with these challenging (and controversial) issues and finding ways to bring increased transparency is an important way New Hope contributes to the community.

“That in no way alters New Hope’s commitment to featuring natural and organic products at Expo West and East. We’re proud to create a marketplace that celebrates and verifies non-GMO and organic certified products, and to provide our Organic Pavilion and Fresh Ideas Organic Marketplace that have only certified organic, non-GMO products.”

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