The flip side of synthetic biology

By Deanna Utroske

- Last updated on GMT

The flip side of synthetic biology

Related tags Synthetic biology Flavor Agriculture Biodiversity

Local farm economies voice concern over the globally unregulated biotech industry and its impact on the people and ecosystems in developing countries.

“What we are seeing here is a fight between a handful of rich states and the poor states of the global South, whose farmers and biodiversity are threatened by the new synthetic biology industry,” ​says Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America director for ETC Group, according to The East African.

That publication recently covered the issue in an article enumerating the plants and ingredients now or soon to be produced using synthetic biology, which have conventionally been cultivated in African, South American, and Caribbean nations.

Corporate social responsibility

The biotech initiatives of prominent corporations have adversely impacted economies across the globe.

Agricultural production of fragrance and flavor ingredients, including vanilla and vetiver oil, has been disrupted by corporate use of synthetic biology. As has the cultivation and harvest of coconut oil.

“The livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers in Kenya, Uganda, DRC, Tanzania, Malawi and India is threatened as Evolva and US-based International Flavours & Fragrances have joined hands to artificially produce the key flavour compounds found in vanilla,” ​reports The East African.

That publication also pointed to the example of “Unilever and Ecover, the Belgium-based plastics and detergent-making company, have incorporated synthetically produced algae oil into the manufacture of soaps.”

Education and regulation

Consumer safety and environmental wellness are part of the concern: “The danger is that, unlike normal genetic engineering, which is regulated by the Cartagena Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), there is no international agreement or convention on synthetic biology, nor are there national or local systems of regulating it,” ​Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, a Nigerian legal expert from the ETC Group, told The East African.

To address this discrepancy, “The African Union has asked civil society bodiesthat have been involved in an anti-synthetic biology campaign to involve governments in the cause.”

Production partnerships

Consumer demand for natural personal care products has spurred some companies and investors to get involved in the research and cultivation of sought-after ingredients.

Symrise recently funded research on lavender sourcing​. While, Givaudan is deeply involved in the patchouli supply chain​.

Also, investments in sandalwood​ plantations and oud production​ are intended to ensure that those natural ingredients can be sustainably sourced for years to come.

The success of those projects, together with the concern out of disrupted agricultural economies, suggests that there is an opportunity for more such initiatives. 

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