Synbio Issue Brief for Small Businesses

Definitions

SynBio is the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms.

European Commission on Health and Safety

Synthetic biology is a maturing scientific discipline that combines science and engineering in order to design and build novel biological functions and systems. This includes the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems…as well as the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.

Department of Energy Synthetic Biology Research Consortium

University of California

Synthetic biology, although still undefined, can be described as ‘extreme genetic engineering,’ and refers broadly to the use of biological engineering to design and construct new synthetic biological parts, devices and systems, and to redesign existing biological organisms.

Friends of the Earth US

How are Synbio ingredients made? | Via Friends of the Earth

Graphic courtesy of Friends of the Earth US

*Only one example of how some synthetic biology derived ingredients are made. Does not cover all synthetic biology techniques that may be used or are being developed.

Current Application

Materials made with synbio are entering the US, European and Brazilian supply chain as ingredients in the following industries:

  • Bodycare, cosmetics, spa treatments
  • Candles, in fragrances labeled as natural
  • Cleaning products, for industrial and home use
  • Food, including food service and restaurants
  • Pet and livestock food

Concerns

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Transparency for Consumers

Without a global consensus on labeling ingredients produced with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or synbio, consumers have no way to know if their shampoo or dishwashing liquid was produced with these techniques. The products of synthetic biology are not subject to additional health and environmental assessment or adequate oversight, and ingredients derived from a process using synthetic biology that are used in consumer products or food will likely not be labeled.

According to a poll released in December 2014, “a large majority of Americans support labeling of genetically modified foods, whether they care about eating them or not.” With synbio being an advanced form of GMOs, it is clear that there is an unmet demand for better labeling in the food, bodycare and cleaning industries.

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Safety

According to Friends of the Earth, there is a risk should environmental escape and contamination occur. No containment strategies are foolproof, and we do not know how these organisms will interact with the environment. While some types of pollution can be cleaned up, synbio organisms are living and self-replicate. Since synbio yeasts and algae are designed to self-replicate, once released in the environment they cannot be easily recalled or cleaned up.

According to the ETC Group, synbio has not yet come under any technology-specific national or global oversight. There are no regulations in any country framed to specifically govern the production and use of synthetic biology technologies. Given the broad array of products across industries that can contain these materials, a robust regulatory regime is warranted.

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Resource Use

Commercially available Synbio ingredients are currently produced with synbio yeast and algae. Both feed on sugars which in turn are produced using high inputs of chemicals and water and with potentially serious land use impacts. The main feedstocks for yeast and algae are currently corn and sugarcane.

Concerns about synbio’s reliance on sugarcane include: 

  • Water use: Most sugarcane is either grown in sensitive wetlands or irrigated. With concern about the world’s supply of potable water at an all-time high, it is unclear how the increased use of such a water intensive crop could be considered sustainable.
  • Land use: Expanding sugarcane plantations to meet feedstock demand from a growing synbio industry could in time exacerbate the current destruction of critical ecosystems in Latin America (including some of some of Brazil’s most environmentally-sensitive land), Africa and Southeast Asia.

Concerns about synbio’s reliance on sugar from corn include:

  • Corn grown in industrial quantities uses huge inputs of fertilizer, herbicide and pesticides. These chemicals are carbon intensive and directly foul our water and air.
  • Almost all corn grown in the US and increasingly abroad that is not certified organic, is Genetically Modified (GM) and unlabeled, despite clear consumer demand for this information.
  • GM corn and it’s industrial agriculture cousin soy, have created weeds resistant to less toxic herbicides and are now treated with new herbicides that are more toxic to people and wildlife.
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Social Impact

Many of the products currently slated for synbio substitutes can currently be grown in socially equitable (fair trade) and environmentally positive conditions. Commodities currently produced by small farmers (e.g. vanilla) may be displaced in favor of synthetic biology products, and the land they preserve (e.g. rain forests where vanilla beans are grown) may in turn be converted into industrial-scale plantations for soy, beef or sugar.

Synthetic biology companies are targeting high value, low volume flavors and fragrances for market use, which could have devastating impacts on millions of small farmers across the globe.

For example, the following products may currently be produced in ways that actively support small farmers and protect vulnerable ecosystems. They are now being targeted for replacement by synthetic biology derived ingredients.

  • Coconut oil
  • Cocoa butter
  • Saffron
  • Aretemsinin, a component of a malaria prophylactic
  • Vanilla

Growing trend rejecting synthetic biology derived ingredients

There is a growing trend of companies stating that they will not use ingredients produced via synthetic biology.

Non-GMO Project

Non-GMO Project: Ingredients derived from synthetic biology are included in the organization’s definition of genetically engineered organisms and in their list of prohibited substances for micro ingredients. This change ensures that moving forward, ingredients derived from synthetic biology will not be allowed in the more than 33,000 products that are Verified by the Non-GMO Project.

 

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream

Ben and Jerry’s: “We are aware that some food ingredients may soon be available on the market that are derived from new applications of genetic engineering techniques and approaches sometimes referred to as synthetic biology. We consider the food ingredients produced in this way to be inconsistent with Ben & Jerry’s criteria for sourcing and therefore we will not use them in our products.”

Dr. Bronner's All-One

Other companies including Dr. Bronners, Nutiva, Häagen-Dazs, Three Twins Ice Cream, Straus Family Creamery and Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss have also confirmed their products will not include any vanilla flavoring derived from synthetic biology.