Synthetic Biology: Rebranding Extreme Genetic Engineering

By Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst, Centre for Food Safety

This article is reposted from the Centre for Food Safety web site.


Some years ago, bread companies got the word that customers wanted more fiber in their bread. Instead of making more of their bread with whole grains, a few companies actually put in wood pulp and labeled it as “fiber”. Today, in San Francisco, a group of synthetic biology companies and a representative from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are holding a meeting called the SynBioBeta Cultured Food Forum about how to market foods and food additives made from extreme forms of genetic engineering as “natural” and “sustainable.”

Whenever you read or hear the term synthetic biology, remember that it is a euphemism for extreme genetic engineering.  This supposedly new technology is really just a similar but more extreme form of the genetic engineering of bacteria, plants and animals that has been going on for the last three decades or more.  Because it is an extreme form of genetic engineering, it should not be subject to more, not less regulation. It is the exact reverse of natural.

If these companies want to produce their products using extreme genetic engineering they should label their products as such and not try to pass them off as “natural” or “sustainable.” I have met many of these genetic engineers in their labs and talked with them about their products. They are good at engineering living organisms, mostly yeasts, bacteria, and algae, so far, but most of them seem to have missed the basic courses in ecology.  Moreover, many of them have contempt for the messiness of nature and think that their genetically engineered products can improve on nature. One of them recently tweeted, “Real nature is not green. Rather, it is beyond control.”

These companies are proud of their products and rather than trying to disguise them as “natural,” should market them as the new genetically engineered products that they are. The companies present at today’s forum represent many of the key players in the field. Evolva is planning to market its synthetic biology version of vanillin this year also and plans to market synthetic biology copies of stevia and saffron flavors. Solazyme is developing a “synthetized in algae” version of cocoa butter, as well as an oil designed to mimic the properties of palm oil.  Amyris, the first company in the field, is already marketing its farnasene oil to a Japanese pharmaceutical company and to the US military as “jet fuel.”  Ginkoworks does not disclose the work that it is doing for various food companies. Intrexon, the genetic engineering company that owns roughly half of the company that has produced the GE salmon, is also participating. Monsanto, DuPont and Ajinomoto are the only “big” biotechnology firms present.  Interestingly, two in-vitro meat companies, Modern Meadow and Sand Hill Foods, are also attending, even though most genetic engineers would not call their work synthetic biology.

These companies should not try to side step regulation and should want to prove themselves through rigorous safety regulations. So far, the few products on the market have used the FDA’s weakest standard: self-affirmed “Generally Regarded As Safe” (GRAS) to put their products on the market. [i] The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, a code of conduct for synthetic biology, developed by some 117 organizations around the world, calls on governments to require mandatory synthetic biology specific regulations.  We hope the USDA representative present at today’s industry forum is taking notes on which new regulations need to be developed. These companies do themselves and the public a disservice by trying to side step regulation.  They show contempt for their customers when they try to rebrand what they are doing as “natural”.  If their products were really “natural”, they would not be applying for patents on their new inventions or convening conferences to strategize about deceptive marketing.

*A previous version of this blog said that Grist’s Nathanael Johnson would be participating in this forum as indicated on the agenda. CFS has since learned that Mr. Johnson did not attend.


[i] The Center for Food Safety has sued the FDA for failing to issue its final regulations on Generally Regarded As Safe Approvals of foods and food additives.