Another innovation in food technology is giving scientists, consumers, and health advocates pause.
Synthetic biology (synbio) is a form of genetic modification offering plant-based proteins to create foods and fibers that taste, look, and feel like meat products or natural fibers. Examples are “bleeding” veggie burgers and “spider silk” textiles.
Concerns about the technology include: release of gene-edited organisms into the wild, harm to human health, and disruption of agricultural sectors if engineered products replace natural ones.
One form of synbio uses gene editing combined with fermentation. A gene sequence linked to certain traits in foods or fibers is inserted into yeast or bacteria; fermentation then mass-produces the desired protein.
Synbio companies—many of them launched with support of the California accelerator IndieBio—claim that the microbes revert back to their “wild type” after a short time away from the conditions in the lab.
Adding new proteins to foods can create allergic responses—and environmentally, large-scale fermentation could increase demand for more GMO sugar and corn acres.
Synthetic biology products will not be labeled as GMOs. Most synbio companies are not being transparent, when open dialogue is essential to weigh pros and cons about the future of food.
Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal worries that synbio products could replace natural products such as vanilla, coconut oil, and silk, threatening livelihoods of small and indigenous farmers. Many women in India, for instance, make a living from silks.
Perls sums it up: “People want real food, they want transparency, and nobody wants to be an experiment.”
Source: Civil Eats
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