Synthetic Biology - a new threat to natural vanilla markets?
In early 2014 biotech company Evolva and International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF) will commercialize a novel food ingredient that will drag Vanilla into the spotlight in a brewing global fight over extreme genetic engineering techniques. Evolva's new fermentation-derived Vanilla flavor will be marketed by IFF as ‘natural’ but will in fact be the byproduct of a bioengineered yeast fed on sugars and constructed using synthetic DNA sequences. The companies involved in Synthetic Biology (or Syn Bio), a cutting edge biotech field now receiving many billions of dollars of investment, initially focused their activities on biofuels and industrial chemicals but are now aggressively switching their commercialization efforts to synthesizing a suite of natural products to replace challenge agricultural harvests. As well as Vanilla, Saffron, Stevia, Patchouli, Coconut oil, citrus flavors, Vetiver and more are being targeted by these new Syn Bio companies. The United Nations is currently starting investigations into the environmental and social impact of this new technology. Meanwhile international environmental groups are mounting a campaign to alert consumers to the introduction of syn bio vanilla and some Ice cream companies are already committing to avoid the new ingredient. They regard Evolva/IFF's product as a threat to the livelihoods of vanilla growers, opening the way to an exciting alliance between consumers, environmentalists, natural vanilla growers and the natural products industry. Jim Thomas will present an introduction to the new 'artificial life' industry of Synthetic Biology and explain how natural products, including vanilla, are being targeted for replacement.
Jim Thomas is Programme Director with the ETC Group (www.etcgroup.org), an international civil society research and advocacy organization who for over thirty years have tracked developments in emerging technologies and worked with social movements to defend farmers rights. Before joining ETC Group, Jim worked as a campaigner on genetic engineering issues for Greenpeace International, this involved working with food industry players to eliminate GMO ingredients and strengthen natural and organic food systems. In the past decade Jim has been active analyzing the impacts of nanotechnology, climate technologies and new genetic engineering techniques and is particularly regarded as a leading expert on the topic of Synthetic Biology. He is the lead author of several reports on the topic published by ETC Group, a convener of the International Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology as well as the SynBioWatch collaborative. ETC Group is also part of the European Union's SynEnergene project examining the social and policy implications of Synthetic Biology. Jim is regularly asked to speak on the topic of Syn Bio: he was invited to give evidence to a US Presidential commission hearing on the topic in 2010 and has spoken at several United Nations meetings through ECOSOC and the Convention On Biological Diversity. Jim has also written for a number of press outlets including The Guardian (UK), The Times of London, BBC online, Slate.com and has an occasional column at The Ecologist Magazine and The Huffington Post.