Organic product leaders urge action on synthetic biology

By Ken Roseboro
Published: October 30, 2014
Category: GMO News

DNA strand genetic engineering

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Products from “extreme genetic engineering” already on the market and aren’t regulated

Products derived the “extreme genetic engineering” of synthetic biology are rapidly coming to market with no regulation, and natural and organic food manufacturers should take action to keep them out of organic products.

That was the urgent message of a recent educational session, “GMO 2.0: Synthetic Biology” held at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore in September.

Companies could be using syn-bio products and not know it

“I’ve become concerned for our food supply and our products. Synthetic biology products are already on the market, and companies can be using them and not even know it,” said Melody Mayer, vice president of policy and industry relations at United Natural Foods.

Synthetic biology is a new set of genetic engineering techniques that involve artificially constructing genetic material such as DNA in order to create new forms of life, or to attempt to “reprogram” existing organisms, such as yeast and algae.

“This is a new set of tools and techniques to re-engineer life,” said Jim Thomas, research programme at the ETC Group. “The old style of genetic engineering involved cutting and pasting genes; with synthetic biology DNA is being synthesized from scratch.”

According to Thomas, there are some 200 companies producing products using synthetic biology, and the market for such products is worth $40 billion.

Synthetic biology products on the market include vanilla, resveratrol, saffron, and stevia. Products in the pipeline include coconut oils, cocoa butter, vetiver, ginseng, and patchouli.

Evolva is selling its syn-bio vanilla, which it claims is “natural” and “sustainable.”

Threatens livelihood of natural vanilla producers

Dana Pearls, food and technology policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said syn-bio vanilla poses threats to the livelihood of natural vanilla producers.

“Without a market for truly natural vanilla, grown and harvested by hand in rainforests in countries such as Madagascar and Mexico, both the vanilla farmers and the forests they preserve may be displaced in favor of industrial-scale plantations for soy, beef and sugar,” she said.

Friends of the Earth has organized a boycott of syn-bio vanilla among ice cream producers. So far, Häagen-Dazs, Three Twins Ice Cream, Straus Family Creamery, and Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss have said they would not use syn-bio vanilla.

Ecover, which manufactures natural cleaning products, has already seen a backlash for their use of syn-bio oils.

“They put their toe in the water and got stung,” Thomas said. “They’ve stepped back.”

Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, said syn-bio products should be subject to pre-market safety assessments and labeling.

“Just as consumers do not think genetic engineering is natural, consumers will not think that products derived from synthetic biology are natural,” he said.

“Want GMO 2.0 out of organics”

John Roulac, CEO of Nutiva, criticized the lack of transparency. “It would have been one thing if the syn-bio industry came to us and said ‘we are doing this, we want to see what you think.’ But they didn’t,” he said.

Perls said Friends of the Earth and other groups are working to get adequate government oversight of synthetic biology, and to keep it out of organic products. “We want GMO 2.0 out of organics,” she said.

Mayer is alerting the National Organic Program of the threat to organics. She also said the Non-GMO Project has incorporated a prohibition on syn-bio into their standard.

“I urge you to get ahead of this. Manufacturers should ask what is in ingredients they are using. Let’s get ahead of this as an industry,” she said.

Hansen sees a similar lack of understanding of nature by proponents of synthetic biology as there has been with genetic engineering.

“Bacteria are not little machines. Nature is much more complex. This is being done by engineers who have no knowledge of evolutionary biology,” he said.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, November 2014

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