October 9, 2014 by Louise Green
When we think of GMOs, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a field of corn, soya or cotton. Less talked about, but the subject of intense research and development activity, is synthetic biology “synbio”.
This extreme form of genetic engineering seeks to “design and construct new biological parts, devices and systems that do not currently exist in the natural world, or to tweak the designs of existing biological systems…to construct designer organisms that perform specific tasks.”
In essence, instead of using existing DNA from plants or animals synthetic biology involves scientists creating entirely new DNA sequences in the lab and using them to create new synthetic life forms or splicing this DNA into naturally occurring DNA.
It is a new science, the products of which have no transparent or agreed rules for safety testing. Being man-made, synbio products are fully patentable and have the full protection of the law and, in theory at least, are able to freely enter the marketplace. Cosmetics and food are considered two of the most attractive markets for synthetic biologists.
Currently well-publicised applications range from the creation of the petri dish patty to herbal medicinal constituents and fragrance components. Many of the extracts that scientists are developing are genetically engineered versions of natural extracts traditionally produced from plants cultivated in developing nations such as vanilla, saffron, vetiver, coconut and wormwood.
Currently there exists almost no regulation for synbio products. Recently a group of 116 consumer, food safety, environmental, sustainable agriculture, parent, public health and faith based organisations signed a document called “Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology”.
The document outlines the need to safeguard public health and the environment from the novel risks of synthetic biology and to ensure open, meaningful and full public participation in decisions regarding its uses.
The natural extracts in the sights of the synbio industry are not necessarily in short supply, but are typically high value or geographically specific. Plans to market synbio vanillin as ‘natural’ directly threaten the agricultural income of an estimated 200,000 farmers in Madagascar, the island of Réunion, Mexico and Tahiti. Without adequate labelling regulations, consumers are prevented from voting with their wallets.
Synbio semi-synthetic artemesinin (SSA) released in 2013 has already impacted on the market for naturally grown sweet wormwood, Artemisia annua.  . Until this time, sweet wormwood, grown by around 100,000 small-scale farmers and wild-harvesters in Asia, Africa and China was the sole source of artemisinin for malaria treatment ACTs (Artemisinin-combination therapies).
The release of the new SSA extract, heavily funded, threatens further development of agricultural cultivation as trust in potential markets is lost and prices unstable. But it is necessary? Could farmers sustainably produce enough natural wormwood to meet global ACT demand, and in doing so support rural employment and respect the growers valuable role in producing crops that safeguard health?
According to the Royal Tropical Institute of the Netherlands, by increasing Artemisia annua cultivation to around 17,000-27,000 hectares, the answer is ‘yes’.
Accessible malaria treatments are vital for millions, but removing agricultural income from small-scale farmers and moving chemical production to Western pharmaceutical laboratories furthers drives poverty and ill-health for those most at risk.
A conservative estimate is that at least 50% of today’s commercial pharmaceutical compounds are derived from plants, animals and microorganisms. Seven of the ten largest pharmaceutical companies are already partnering with synthetic biology companies to develop synbio production routes for pharmaceuticals previously processed from plant sources.
It’s full steam ahead – the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates that the global market for synthetic biology products will exceed £7 billion by 2016.
Synbio is touted by its advocates as the path to a greener “Bio Economy” since it uses genetically modified yeast and bacteria to create plastics, chemicals and fuel instead of using petrochemicals.
To feed synthetic biology’s microbial fermentations on an industrial scale, vast volumes of plant matter, ‘biomass’, would be needed. Given that we are currently already using an estimated 1.5 planet’s worth of resources 6, this puts further pressure on already overstretched ecosystems.
Where would this biomass come from? A report by the World Bank in 2009 notes that global investors acquired 111 million hectares of agricultural lands over four years, 75 percent of which were in Africa.5 In 2011, the Bank reported a 12-fold increase in the amount of agricultural land acquired by foreign investors.
The rapidly growing synthetic biology industry is likely to drive destructive agriculture deeper into rainforests, reduce biodiversity by increasing monocultures of crops such as sugar cane (with its poor record of labour conditions), and fuel rural landlessness and poverty.
Cultural heritage, conservation, biodiversity and the livelihood of those who depend on cultivating natural resources is being lost in the drive to make patentable extracts owned by a minority of organisations. If we focus too hard on the cells in the petri dish, will we look up to see the world outside the laboratory collapsing?
1 Synthetic Biology information overview, etc group, See: http://www.etcgroup.org/issues/synthetic-biology
2 Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, Friends of the Earth, Initernational Center for Technology Assessment & etc group, 2012, See: http://www.foe.org/news/blog/2012-03-global-coalition-calls-oversight-synthetic-biology
3 Synthetic Biology: Livelihoods and Biodiversity, Artemisinin Case Study, etc group, See: http://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/ETC-artemisinin-synbio-asestudy2014.pdf
4 Heemskerk, W. et al., The World of Artemisia in 44 Questions, The Royal Tropical Institute of the Netherlands, March 2006, p. i-ii: http://tinyurl.com/7zoazkh
5 Synthetic Biology: Livelihoods and Biodiversity, Artemisinin Case Study, etc group, op cit
6 A synthetic biology roadmap for the UK, 2013, Technology Strategy Board, See: http://bit.ly/13Yi7cS
7 Global footprint Network, See: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint /