Synthetic Biology – Who Will Control the Food We Eat?
Yesterday, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity released a statement urging nations to establish formal regulations for the emerging field of Synthetic Biology. The UN’s statement comes in response to the media-rage and unbridled excitement that has propelled Synthetic Biology onto the international stage.
This year alone conferences on Synthetic Biology have been held in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, South Korea, and China. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has already injected millions of dollars in funds into university laboratories for synthetic biology research. Major agribusiness corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, BASF, Dow Chemical, and DuPont have invested heavily in the technology. The US Army is a major player too. Just today a scientist from the Indian Institute of Technology urged Indian policy-makers not to miss the boat on synthetic biology.
With all this frenzy and publicity being generated, we decided to look into Synthetic Biology and find out what exactly is this new technology. We learned that Synthetic Biology is actually a very scary development in science, business, and industry. It’s something that we all need to know about.
Synthetic Biology is the successor to Genetic Modification, the technology that brought us the environmentally destructive Genetically Modified (GM) crops that are a boon for agribusiness profits. Genetic Modification is a process whereby an organism is altered by injecting a single gene into its DNA code. Synthetic Biology is a big step beyond Genetic Modification because it involves piecing together entirely new strands of DNA. By building new DNA strands, synthetic biologists are engineering entire organisms from scratch.
Using this technology, Synthetic Biologists are already producing food flavorings. Evolva, a Swiss company, has engineered microalgae that secrete a compound whose chemical structure is identical to the chemical compounds in saffron, vanilla, and stevia flavorings. These products are expected to go on the market in the next couple of years. Other biologists are dreaming even bigger, hoping that Synthetic Biology will allow them to engineer new plants that require less pesticides and less water. Some synthetic biologists are even hoping that engineered organisms can one day produce the food that feeds humans, animals, and even plants (through compost), which is not far off from the dreams of many agribusiness corporations to control most of the food that people eat.
Farmers are already familiar with the consequences of GM crops, that continue to be falsely heralded as miracles, innovative, and at the forefront of technology. Studies have demonstrated that GM crops lead to increased pesticide use, environmental contamination, resistant pests and weeds, and health consequences.
We can certainly imagine the negative consequences of something like Synthetic Biology, but no one in the main stream media or policy-makers are talking about this. Currently, there is no regulatory body in the United States to prevent Synthetic Biology from being prematurely released into our environment and food systems, even as companies are rushing to push their product to market.