While many food companies use genetically engineered ingredients and some are even willing to admit it, few have come out as dramatically in favor of biotechnology as the California startup Soylent.
Soylent's chief scientist posted a blog on the company's website the other day headlined, "Proudly Made with GMOs" (http://blog.soylent.com/…). Reinforcing the message, an illustration under the headline showed a bottle of Soylent with "PRO GMO" in large type.
This, it's fair to say, is an unusual marketing move by an unusual company.
The first way the company is unusual is its product, a concoction of soy protein, algae, vitamins and other ingredients that the company says is "engineered to deliver all essential nutrients and provide an even release of energy." It comes in liquid or powder form and is only available for sale on the company's website or at Amazon.
Soylent's defense of genetic engineering is unusually sweeping and insistent. It powerfully summarizes every pro-GE argument you have ever heard and a couple you may not have. Its assertiveness would horrify the risk-averse marketing departments at most food companies.
Soylent has never hidden its use of GMOs; a page on its website explains why (http://tiny.cc/…). The blog post, though, goes a step further. It argues GE ingredients are beneficial. It doesn't just defend them; it treats them as a selling point.
Soylent's inventor and CEO, a late-twentyish software engineer named Rob Rhinehart, has never flinched from taking unpopular stances. In an interview with the Atlantic two years ago (http://tiny.cc/…), he decried fresh tomatoes. "They're out in the air being oxidized. Bacteria are feasting on them." Tomatoes are better canned, he said, because "if you can them, you seal them at the peak of freshness and the nutrients stay intact."
At times in the interview Rhinehart sounded almost anti-vegetable. "It's just intuitive on principle, these plants are not on our side," he said. "These plants did not evolve to feed us. If they could kill us, they probably would. It's competition." The plants we eat, he added, are those we changed, engineering them over hundreds and even thousands of years.
Rhinehart rejects the popular view that natural food is superior to processed food. "The natural state of man is ignorant, and starving, and cold," he told the Atlantic. "We have technology that makes our lives better. It doesn't make sense that you would keep technology out of this very important part of life."
It isn't just Rhinehart's ideas that are unconventional. On a vacant lot in Los Angeles, he converted a metal shipping container into what some called an "experimental living facility" (http://tiny.cc/…) but neighbors called a "vandalized eyesore." After months of argument, the Los Angeles Times reported, the container was hauled away and prosecutors charged Rhinehart with "unpermitted construction and other violations."
Soylent has promised it will soon identify all GMO ingredients on the labels of its packages. It hasn't said whether it will put "Proudly Made With GMOs" or "PRO GMO" on the label. Considering it's a company that sells almost all of its products on its own website, though, what Soylent says in its blog post is as important as what it says on the label.
If, as Soylent clearly expects, boasting about biotechnology boosts sales, or at least doesn't hurt them, maybe other food companies will stop worrying about the new mandatory labeling law.
Soylent is named after a product in the 1966 science-fiction novel "Make Room! Make Room!" that was the basis for the 1973 movie "Soylent Green" (http://tiny.cc/…). Spoiler alert: In the end Charlton Heston's character discovers that the product, a staple food in the movie's dystopian future society, is made not of algae but of human remains. The movie's punch line: "Soylent is people."
Compared to giving your product and your company a name calling that to mind, coming out as "Proudly Made with GMOs" is almost conventional.
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