Synthetic Biology: Key to a Healthier Planet—or Threat to Organic?

SynBio (aka GMO 2.0) is championed by some as a more sustainable way to grow crops, but the use of synthetic biology in natural products—and the lack of transparency—raises serious concerns for others.

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We Can Empower Nature to Build a More Sustainable Planet

by Stephanie Batchelor, BIO

Our planet is racing towards an uncertain future. We’re already feeling the effects of climate change and its impact on our ability to support a growing world. Much of the climate conversation is focused on the negative effects of agriculture, but as the world’s population has swelled, so has the demand for healthy food and the need for sustainable solutions.

As we advance through another decade in the 21st century, we must find innovative ways to transform the way we grow and produce food so that we can begin to reverse course.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Some argue that organic farming will lead us towards sustainability, but data tells us that 100% organic food production would hurt biodiversity and require an extraordinary amount of land to be cleared — land that has been so-far untouched.

Farmers and food producers alike need all tools at their disposal. Tools like synthetic biology. Using synthetic biology, we can boost nature’s ability to grow more food on less land and create food ingredients without harming the environment. For example, underneath the soil are millions of microorganisms working to provide the necessary nutrients to crops. Like a battery, these microbes are drained from the soil with each harvest. They must be replenished for the field to work properly again.

Farmers usually have two choices: clear new lands that are fertile—like what’s happening in the Amazon rainforest—or use fertilizers to supplement lost nutrients. Obviously, both have a significant environmental impact. With synthetic biology, we can give farmers another option and help the natural process of plant growth by engineering microbes to revitalize the soil. Farmers can then use previously depleted lands.

Synthetic biology also gives us new ways to sustainably develop food ingredients.Vanillin—one of the most popular synthetic ingredients in the world—makes up 99% of vanilla flavoring consumed but relies on coal and oil mining to produce. Through synthetic biology we can make vanillin that is molecularly identical to the bean without burning fossil fuels.

For its Impossible Burger, Impossible Foods uses synthetic biology to edit brewer’s yeast to produce hemoglobin—the protein that gives meat its mouth-watering taste and smell.

Companies are even using the technology to create bioplastics made from natural sugars found in agricultural residues and other byproducts of farming.

Every day I work with many of the synbio companies at the forefront of innovation. I’m inspired by the promise of the technology. But we can’t wait while the effects of climate change intensify. Tools like synthetic biology should be viewed as empowering the natural world, not hindering it.

GMO 2.0 is a Threat to Natural

by Karen Howard, Organic & Natural Health Association

It is not an understatement to say organic and all things natural are in a battle for survival, courtesy of GMO 2.0 and the National Bioengineering Food Disclosure Standard. The new federal standard intentionally upended the states’ rights effort for mandatory labeling, redefining “genetically modified” to the seemingly innocuous “bioengineering” standard. Organic & Natural Health predicted that the new standard would be a threat to the survival of organic. Our fears are becoming a reality with USDA’s suggestion these new techniques could be used in organic food production. Perhaps USDA was bolstered by the President’s decision to simplify regulatory pathways for GMOs, reducing the standards for scientific review by federal agencies.

The threat to the natural health products industry became immediately evident with the regulation’s failure to label GMO ingredients in processed foods if testing did not reveal their DNA. Now it’s fair game to not identify the artificial, synthetic products being introduced into the supply chain.

We are modifying an entire ecosystem from scratch under the guise of scientific advancement, and at the expense of consumer demand for transparency and traceability in food, beverages and dietary supplements. Data from Free Form Market Monitor shows that households who prioritize the purchase of non-GMO do so because they believe GMOs to be unsafe. Spins data supports that. Non-GMO sales increased 30% in a three year period ending June, 2019. On the flip side, the number of companies engaged in developing crops and products using biotechnology has increased 181% over the past three years. The standard bearer crops we are well acquainted with—soy, potato, canola—are now being joined by apple, eggplant and pineapple. Joining in the parade are the new microorganism and enzyme inputs and ingredients, derived from algae, bacteria, enzymes, microbial cultures and starters, and yeast. We’ve left the Non-GMO Project to bar the gates from these ingredients slipping into the supply chain, reliant on attestations until we successfully develop the testing methodology to identify gene-edited crops, and synbio supplements and ingredients.

We are behind in our efforts to educate the consumer on this new technology. Our efforts to secure synthetic ingredients, like astaxanthin, for identity testing has failed. And we consider the reticence these companies to share their product information of major concern. DSHEA doesn’t have the teeth stay to mandate disclosure. These ingredients are not going away, but we might if we ignore consumers’ explicit demands for transparency.

Stephanie Batchelor is an experienced government affairs professional and esteemed advocate for companies advancing the biobased economy. As Vice President of the Industrial and Environmental Section at BIO, Stephanie provides policy, regulatory, and strategic support and guidance to technology companies that are leaders in the production of biofuels, renewable chemicals, biobased products, and biomanufacturing processes. Stephanie specializes in sustainability, renewable chemicals, biofuels, and biobased products policy. Previously, she held the position of Managing Director, where she led BIO’s Industrial and Environmental state government portfolio, key climate and sustainability initiatives, and international advocacy efforts within the sector. Working in partnership with BIO’s member companies, Stephanie also serves as the team leader for below50 USA and was a founding member of the California Air Resource Board’s low carbon fuel standard advisory panel. She is the Chair for the Women in Industrial Biotechnology group. Prior to joining BIO, Stephanie focused on EU energy and transportation policy at the European Economic and Social Committee. Stephanie holds a Master of Arts in International Relations and Politics from New York University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and History from the State University of New York at Albany.

 

Karen Howard, CEO and Executive Director of Organic & Natural Health Association is a visionary and results-focused leader who has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures and healthcare organizations to develop innovative healthcare policy and programs. She has held a variety of executive positions, including serving as professional staff for a Congressional committee, and has policy expertise in the diverse areas of integrative and complementary medicine, managed care, healthcare technology and mental health. An advocate at heart, she has worked to strategically advance the mission and vision of organizations through effective advocacy and strong collaboration. Prior to Organic & Natural Health, Howard served as executive director for both the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Schools. During her nearly 10-year tenure at AANP, she built a sustainable infrastructure, significantly improved financial performance, established a strong federal presence and supported multiple state association advocacy efforts for licensure. Also during this time, the naturopathic medicine profession established itself as a key component of comprehensive healthcare for the future. www.organicandnatural.org

1 COMMENT

  1. So the BIO argument is:
    SCARY FEELS (!!!) that only our patents can fix, for a price.

    And the ONHA argument is:
    These are not irrational fears, and the choice should be ours, not yours. Go stuff your patents.

    Got it.

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