On its journey from the fields in Madagascar to your ice cream, sponge cake and chocolate, the vanilla plant is subjected to an intense process: it’s cured, dried and sometimes even oxidised.
Given the lengthy nature of vanilla production – it can take several weeks to go from plant to product – the majority of producers turn to synthetic alternatives (vanillin). Synthetic vanillins are generally produced using petrochemicals or wood pulp, and some in the industry consider them to be harmful to the environment. One such organisation is Swiss company Evolva, which has developed a way to brew vanillin from yeast – deemed a more sustainable source.
“We’re not sure why anybody who cares about sustainability and environmental progress would prefer that the food industry simply continues to source their [artificial vanillin] from chemical companies and paper mills,” says Stephan Herrera, the company’s vice president.
Using synthetic biology (synbio), scientists at Evolva edit the DNA of yeast, and through a fermentation process, force it to sythensise vanillin. It’s a lot morecomplicated than that, of course, and it’s not the first attempt to produce food using synbio. Biohackers are attempting to create a “real vegan” cheese, free of dairy. And biotech company Solazyme is engineering microalgae to produce alternative butters and flours, which could replace oils and eggs in bakery goods.
In the case of vanillin though, synbio has courted media coverage and criticism. The environmental organisation Friends of the Earth (FoE) has urged the public to say no to synbio vanillin, referring to it as an “extreme form” of genetic engineering.
“Claims of sustainability for this technology are questionable at best,” says Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner at FoE. “We need regulations specific to these new technologies. We need safety assessments that can guarantee the absence of long-term health and ecological impacts.”