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Synthetic biology: Genetic Engineering Goes Extreme

24 April 2014 Feature
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Two decades after genetically modified crops entered the food chain, a fresh wave of new, unregulated technologies are being rapidly commercialized which threaten agricultural resources, biodiversity and livelihoods and worker and consumer health and safety. Like GM seeds, they will intensify the process of corporate concentration which already grips the global food system. They include the proliferation of commercial nanotechnology applications to food system inputs, pesticides, processing and packaging; the rapid commercial development of synthetic biology, an extreme form of genetic engineering which employs industrial techniques to produce materials formerly sourced from plant products; and new varieties of engineered seeds, like the "Terminator" seed which is engineered for sterility to force farmers to buy them for every planting to enforce total dependence on corporate inputs.

The IUF is pleased to publish the first in a series of articles on these new technologies and their implications from the ETC Group (formerly RAFI), a civil society organization with which the IUF has collaborated for many years. Forthcoming articles will address the implications of the new generation of nanotechnology and seed products.

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Exactly twenty years ago the first genetically modified (GM) food entered commercial use, sparking massive controversy, trade fights and resistance from farmers, consumers and workers worldwide. Now the biotech industry is poised for a second assault on the food system with a technology platform they are calling 'Synthetic Biology', dubbed 'extreme genetic engineering' or 'GMO 2.0', a new hi-tech means of producing artificial organisms. The first targets of this new approach are the tropical farmers who grow vanilla, saffron, stevia, cocoa, rubber, coconut and natural food flavorings.

Now that industrial machinery can make the parts of life from scratch, synthetic biology standardizes and automates the process. Desktop-sized machines called DNA synthesizers can print-to-order strands of DNA - the so-called instruction code for life. These can then be inserted into yeast, bacteria or algae to instruct the microbes to produce valuable compounds in fermentation vats. A growing industry of synthetic biologists is now creating genetic 'programs' that hijack living cells, turning them into miniature factories. Investors see Synthetic biology as the next big 'tech' boom - except that instead of programming websites or smartphones, the bioengineers are programming lifeforms to make food, cosmetics, flavors and fragrances.

Evolva, a Swiss Synthetic biology company, exemplifies this new wave. Evolva have re-engineered brewers yeast so that instead of brewing beer the yeast  produce vanillin - the key flavor compound in vanilla. Evolva have also re-engineered  a yeast that produces the key compounds from saffron and another which produces steviosides, natural sweeteners usually extracted from the Stevia plant. In each case the re-engineered yeast is mixed into vats of sugar to ferment the desired compound. The Synthetic biology vanillin goes on sale this summer and will be marketed by US-based International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). The saffron is promised in a few years' time and the synthetic biology version of stevia should hit the market next year (probably first in Coca-Cola).

Evolva also have other synthetic biology ingredients waiting in the wings through deals with major flavor and fragrance firms. Among the compounds they are interested in producing using synthetic biology are chili, ginseng and caffeine. Other synthetic biology companies such as Solazyme, Allylix and Isobionics are producing replacements for coconut oil, cocoa butter and grapefruit and orange oil - the last two are already on the market.

These developments raise significant questions for the farmers and their communities these products aim to replace. Vanilla, for example, is a difficult and time-consuming crop to grow and cure, and Madagascan vanilla farmers - like cocoa producers - are already on the bad end of a long and exploitative commodity chain. Farmer-grown vanilla already competes with chemically synthesized vanillin. Because Evolva and IFF believe their Vanillin can be labelled as a 'natural flavor' on final products (fermentation is legally a 'natural' process) this synthetically engineered vanillin will compete directly with botanical vanilla. Saffron is also difficult to harvest. Iranian saffron pickers require 40 hours of labour to manually extract enough for 1 kilogram of saffron. But it is also the world's most valuable ingredient, an important source of foreign exchange earnings for producer countries and until now has no artificial version to compete with. Evolva's Synthetic biology saffron will change that, impacting the livelihoods of saffron growers and pickers everywhere.

As with GMOs, many other issues will emerge as synthetic biology becomes more common in the food chain. Environmental and food safety questions are yet to be addressed. IFF, the world's second largest flavor manufacturer, has been found liable for millions of dollars in damages to workers whose lungs were rapidly destroyed through exposure to the artificial flavoring ingredient diacetyl. Diacetyl is not a product of synthetic biology, but the "popcorn lung" resulting from diacetyl exposure shows the workplace devastation which inadequately tested and regulated flavorings and ingredients can potentially unleash. Monopoly ownership of synthetic biology technology will further entrench the power of large biotech and food companies, as GM technology has done.

Some of these issues will get a hearing this summer as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) begins to discuss how to establish international oversight of the field. Already 116 organizations, including the IUF, have signed up to a series of principles for the oversight of synthetic biology that include advocating a moratorium on commercial and environmental release of synthetically modified organisms.
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Regular updates on synthetic biology, including its economic, environmental and health and safety impacts, are available at Synbiowatch

On April 30, a public forum in Berkeley, California on Synthetic Biology, Farmers and Food will be livestreamed at 19:30 PST - you can watch it here