Currently a growing multi-billion dollar industry, synbio applications seem limitless. Both the private and public sectors are investing in new technology. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a project of the Department of Defense, leads the push by U.S. government agencies to get involved in the synthetic biology industry. In 2014 alone, DARPA funded $100 million in synbio research programs, far more than the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the USDA. According to the Wilson Center Synthetic Biology Project, if other Department of Defense spending is added to DARPA’s current investment in 2015, then close to two-thirds of all federal funding awarded to synthetic biology comes from the defense industry. With all of this public funding for research programs, almost no money (less than one percent of the total amount) has been invested in research to monitor the potential impact of synbio production on the environment or on human health.
This lack of funding in risk research, as well as a similar lack of funding allocated to researching the ethical, legal, or moral aspects of re-engineering living cells, becomes even less understandable when the proliferation of “garage biology” is considered. Crowdfunding programs like Kickstarter and Experiment.com are opening the field to amateur biologists and “bio-hackers.” With the ability to order synthetic building blocks online, several independent labs are experimenting with creating and re-creating DNA. The U.S. government supports this trend, viewing it much in the same way the garage tech industry was viewed – an opportunity for truly creative minds to work on the edge of possibility. However, the safety and ethical concerns regarding micro-organisms are very different from those of micro-chips.
Though the funding from federal agencies is considerable, it pales in comparison to the private sector. Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont, and other giant, international corporations are feeding research programs across the globe. Recent history regarding the proliferation of GMO crops and the effect they have had on the global eco-system and independent farmers raises flags that need to be acknowledged. Food scarcity, seed diversity, and bio-piracy are issues tied to the expansion of industrial farming. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that up to 75% of the world’s crop diversity has already been lost through seed sovereignty laws and patents limiting farmers’ centuries-old practice of seed saving. New super-weeds have sprung up, the use of pesticides and herbicides has grown exponentially, and many questions are still left unanswered about the health effects of GMO products. The large corporations continue to grow and profit and the benefit-sharing of the new industrial farm system is lopsided.
Every new technology will have winners and losers. Synthetic biology is no different. In a consumer market that is increasingly concerned about product-sourcing, sustainability, global labor, and fair trade, synbio raises several issues. Supporters of the development of synthetic biology point to the technology’s potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions and offer a sustainable solution to the climate crisis by sequestering food production to laboratories and fermentation vats. However, they downplay the increased need to produce sugar crops for feedstock, the potential for environmental contamination, and the impact the industry will have on the already struggling economies that rely on specialty crops to survive.
Is there truly a need for products engineered using synthetic biology? Who stands to benefit from the advancement of this technology and who may be negatively affected by it? Who is funding the research and development and to what end? We have spent centuries bending our eco-system to fit our needs and fulfill our desires, but in the context of agriculture and food production, consumers are not looking to technology to correct the damage brought about by technology anymore. The rapid growth of the organic market and the departure from the ideology of the “Green Revolution” indicates the focus is now on a natural and sustainable solution.