Synthetic Biology: Artificial Life Threatens Nature and Society

By Glenn Ashton · 30 Oct 2014

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Picture: Get ready for extreme genetic engineering in your ice cream cautions environmental NGO, Friends of the Earth U.S.
Picture: Get ready for extreme genetic engineering in your ice cream cautions environmental NGO, Friends of the Earth U.S.

Synthetic food has long been the subject of speculative fiction, from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” where poor quality artificial food spawned dissent, to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” where food was manufactured from coal and petroleum because fossil fuels had trashed global ecosystems.

Today fiction manifests as reality. If genetic modification (GM) of our food were not enough, biologists continue to push the boundaries of their ability to alter life on earth in novel and unpredictable ways. The latest version is known as synthetic biology, or “synbio.”

We are all familiar with chemical based artificial ingredients, especially flavourants and preservatives, in our food. However our evolving ability to manipulate genes enables us to synthesise entirely new living organisms in previously unimaginable ways.

Synbio has become the commercial flavour of the month, with a new supposedly “nature identical” vanilla essence ready to go on sale. But just how nature identical are these synbio products?

From the outset synbio promoters have attempted to avoid both the controversy and the required oversight associated with GM products, claiming that the synbio process produces compounds identical to natural products. Therefore they require no evaluation, monitoring or labelling.

Published studies reveal increasing environmental and health risks associated with GM crops and products, repudiating years of industry denial. Similar denial of the risks associated with synbio products raises an obligation for us to independently monitor and oversee these products.

But what exactly is involved in synthetic biology? Briefly, it is human designed life, using computerised gene sequencing strands of artificial DNA and associated proteins. It can involve “gene shuffling” or “whole genome construction,” using complex algorithm’s involving millions of variants.

These processes are neither risk free nor benign; they essentially involve the creation of novel life forms that could or would not exist naturally. Although experts have written extensively on the subject there is no dedicated international or national regulation of the associated processes, nor have the complex ethical, social, environmental or legal implications been dealt with. Oversight remains unaddressed and absent.

What products are in the pipeline? Besides synbio vanilla flavouring produced via synbio yeast, other products such as synbio rubber and vetiver oil are almost ready for market. Extensive research is being conducted on replacement energy sources. The corporate control and production of these products through patented processes raises other serious concerns beside regulatory oversight.

For instance vanilla is grown by over 200 000 small scale farmers around the world, many in poor nations like Madagascar where vanilla is a leading cash and export crop. An estimated 20 million smallholder farmers rely on the production of natural rubber. Vetiver provides a livelihood for some 60 000 Haitians, the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere. Synbio directly threatens these agricultural industries, along with the downstream supply chains.

The past 20 years has seen extensive international regulation of benefit-sharing of natural products, primarily through the recognition of traditional knowledge and expertise. Synbio facilitates de facto bio-piracy, robbing these marginalised people of these precious resources, just as the piracy of music, books and movies subverts the intellectual property rights of their creators.

While there are ways to protect these rights, we should note that the developers of synbio include the world’s seven largest pharmaceutical companies, leading food commodity traders, along with most of the big chemical and energy companies. This skewed power dynamic essentially pits unsophisticated, poor farmers against the power of the corporate-political nexus.

It is imperative that synbio is not only regulated but that adequate provision is made to ensure that access and benefit sharing contractually protects this vulnerable sector. Synbio threatens to accelerate the already precipitous shift away from traditional, natural production methods toward capital intensive, patented and legislatively protected industrial manufacture, along with presently undisclosed risks. The danger is that synbio reinforces already growing global inequality, further eroding already precarious social cohesion and stability.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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