If the ingredients in your food and household products were quietly replaced with new substances manufactured by genetically engineered microbes, would you have a right to know?
You should, but unfortunately you do not -- and they are.
Synthetic biology, an "extreme" form of genetic engineering, has been evolving in biotech labs for years, but as The New York Times recently reported, it's just hit the mainstream. A line of new ingredients -- including vanilla, stevia and saffron excreted by a bioengineered yeast, and a palm and coconut oil substitute squeezed out of synthetic algae -- are rapidly entering consumer products such as food, cosmetic and cleaning supplies.
But while consumers know almost nothing about it, some companies are rushing ahead to incorporate this controversial new technology into our everyday products.
When Ecover, owner of the popular "green" cleaning company Method, recently announced a switch to algal oil in its laundry detergent, it became the first eco-friendly company to publicly use a synthetic-biology ingredient. In response, consumer and environmental advocates, including Friends of the Earth, cautioned Ecover and Method to avoid this largely untested and virtually unregulated new form of "extreme" genetic engineering, and to maintain its values by investing in truly natural alternatives such as coconut oil, a crop that can be sourced sustainably from small farmers in the tropics.
Under fire from its loyal customers, Ecover backtracked and publicly denied that its oil, purchased from Solazyme (a leading synthetic-biology startup), is produced with synthetic biology. Prominent biotech-industry blogger Maxx Chatsko in turn told Ecover that "the oils sourced by Solazyme are most certainly synthetic biology."
This gets to one of the major problems surrounding this emerging technology: No one fully can draw lines around what synthetic biology is. It's evolving at such a rapid pace that not even the scientists involved can agree.
Here's what we do know: Synthetic biology involves stripping organisms of their natural genes and replacing them with digitally created DNA codes to create new forms of life. Instead of swapping genes from one species to another (as in traditional genetic engineering), synthetic biology includes a basket of approaches that involve artificially constructing genetic material, such as DNA, to either create entirely new forms of life or attempt to reprogram existing organisms to do something unintended by nature. For example, algae and yeast have been "programmed" with genes that cause them to secrete substances -- such as lauric acid (used in soaps and detergents), vanilla or saffron -- that can replace nature's own compounds and be sold for a higher profit.
Companies learned from the anti-GMO movement that the public might not embrace "artificial life," so some of the world's most powerful food and biotechnology companies recently agreed to avoid the terms "synthetic biology" and "synbio" altogether and instead use words like "nature-identical" and "sustainable." They also agreed to downplay concerns about potential risks to human health and the environment, and concerns that the technology is virtually unregulated and not well understood. Conversely, civil society from around the world has urged caution to the use and deployment of synthetic biology.
For a company like Ecover, how is this "ecological" or transparent?
The synthetic-biology market is growing quickly, with Monsanto, DuPont, BP, Chevron, Cargill and others planning to invest upwards of $10.8 billion by 2016 to produce fuels, flavors, fragrances and pharmaceuticals -- all generated by synthetic organisms or via synthetic-biology techniques.
Following in the footsteps of the chemical industry, the synthetic-biology industry is rushing its untested products to market before there is any regulation, oversight or even scientific understanding of the impacts this technology could have on ecosystems and human health.
Unfortunately, containment strategies are never foolproof, as the escape of anthrax from high-security biotechnology labs has shown, and no one knows how artificial organisms will interact with the environment. If the industry does know, it is not telling the public. In the absence of regulation, the scientific advisory council to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has called for a precautionary approach and is considering a moratorium on the environmental and commercial release of synthetic-biology organisms.
In addition to environmental concerns, the claims of "sustainability" for this technology are questionable at best. While the industry claims that synthetic biology could reduce impacts on land by producing products in labs rather than in farm fields, currently commercialized artificial organisms (synbio yeast and algae) require sugar as a feedstock to live and reproduce. If synthetic-biology applications scale up, it could exacerbate the current destruction of biodiversity hotspots, including Brazil's fragile cerrado and tropical forests in Latin America, Africa and South East Asia, for increased sugarcane production (which also is notorious for "slavery-like" working conditions).
Furthermore, many of the products on the synthetic-biology target list are currently grown by small farmers whose livelihoods would be undermined as their products are displaced by synthetic biology. For example, without a market for truly natural vanilla, grown and harvested by hand in intact rainforests in Madagascar and Mexico, both the vanilla farmers and the forests they preserve may be displaced in favor of industrial-scale plantations for soy, beef and sugar. How is that sustainable?
As a recent NPR blog pointed out, advances in science and technology require accompanying advances in ethics and policy. The synthetic-biology industry says it has developed a powerful technology to solve the challenges of climate change, hunger, disease and dirty laundry. But with great power comes great responsibility. In this case, Ecover has the responsibility to come clean about what it is actually using, what it is selling and what we're buying.
Friends of the Earth and our allies are working at the federal and international levels to make sure that this is a technology that won't do more harm than good. We must make sure we are supporting truly sustainable and just solutions for the planet and everyone on it.
Visit Friends of the Earth to learn more about synthetic biology.