Although there have not been substantial studies that suggest synbio products could cause immediate danger to the health and welfare of the consumer, as a new and emerging field that has yet to be defined, the long-term effects of synthetically engineered by-products are not well researched. Similar to GMO crops, synthetically derived products are not fully understood and yet have quietly entered the market before being properly vetted. “Synthetic biology is an experimental form of artificial gene manipulation, and as such carries many of the same consumer concerns as genetic engineering,” said Megan Westgate, Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, who has recently added synbio products to their list of prohibited substances. Consumer concern is a major driving force in retail and one that genetic engineers and some food companies appear to be ignoring. If these products are safe and beneficial, then they should be heralded and not covertly infused into the market.
Environmental and Economic Concerns
Many environmental and economic concerns are closely tied together as they affect the small-scale farmers of the developing world. Local vanilla, coconut, saffron, and stevia farmers may feel the immediate impact. With no labeling in place to differentiate the naturally grown crops from the engineered byproducts, market prices and increased supply will threaten their livelihoods. Evolva, a company at the forefront of synbio vanillin production, maintains that they hope only to compete with artificial vanilla flavorings, yet they continue to market their vanillin as “natural” and “sustainable.” High-value crops like vanilla, saffron, and stevia are key exports in several developing economies. These crops provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of people and are sewn into the social fabric and traditions of the region. Collapsing that economy could lead to deforestation and land clearing, migration to urban centers, loss of cultural identity, and a shift to other, less labor-intensive cash crops like rice or soy.
Harvesting saffron is a long and arduous process, the kind that needs to be done by hand. Vanilla relies on the health of a dense rainforest in order to grow. If these industries wane, jobs could disappear and diverse ecosystems could lose their usefulness. Crops that are more efficiently grown and harvested by corporations and industrial farms would quickly supplant the handpicked crop that is too expensive to cultivate. This would further consolidate the food supply and marginalize the small and family-owned farms.
Synbio also poses a threat to global biodiversity. The backbone of several prominent synbio techniques is the biomass needed to fuel the new micro-machines of production. Most of the engineered yeast and algae need to be fed with large amounts of sugar. As the demand for production increases, so does the need for biomass. Instead of supporting the diversity of specialized crops, global agriculture will need to focus more and more on corn, beets, and sugarcane. Monoculture and industrial farming has already impacted global bio-diversity and cut into rain forests and savannahs throughout the world. The increase in demand for biomass to use as feedstock for synthetic biology production will further strain the natural balance and diversity of the earth.
The concerns voiced by consumers and activist groups regarding synthetic biology go beyond that of GMO crops; What about the risks of contamination and the irreversible nature of synthetic biology? The organisms produced in this emerging field, once they enter the eco-system, cannot simply be recalled or discontinued. They are living cells that will strive to reproduce and survive. How they will reproduce with other existing natural organisms, how they will mutate, and how they will affect pollinators, insects, and animals in the natural environment is not fully understood. If there is an unintended result from exposure to these organisms, there is no way to retract the genes that will have spread.
Even the efficacy of the much-touted “suicide gene” meant to sterilize an organism or used as a failsafe to terminate an organism after a period of time is being challenged by researchers. Mutations and selective pressures may cause constrained organisms to overcome termination and remain viable. Even terminated genes can be scavenged through horizontal gene transfer (HGT) by other living cells creating new organisms. Life finds a way. Superweeds and pesticide-resistant viruses and insects have already shown the ability of organisms to adapt and thrive.
Health, environmental and economic concerns have prompted all 194 member states of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2014 to call for all members to take a “precautionary approach” to synbio development. Among other recommendations, the CBD urges member countries to set up systems of regulation, ensure no synbio organisms are released for field trials without appropriate risk assessments and encourage funding to research and assess the safety and socio-economic impacts of the new technology. The United States is one of three members (Andorra and the Holy See are the other two) that is not a signatory to the CBD and is, therefore, not formally bound by this decision.
Note: Andorra ratified the CBD by accession in 2015, leaving only the U.S. and the Holy See non-parties to the decision.