Synthetically modified organisms aren’t “natural” at all

Synthetically modified organisms aren’t “natural” at all

Synthetic biology is “Still in [the] Uncharted Waters of Public Opinion,” according to a recent focus group study by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. That’s not surprising since the technology involved sounds like something out of science fiction. It includes a range of techniques to modify organisms using artificially constructed sequences of genetic information (DNA) not found in nature. The Center’s Synthetic Biology Project gives an introduction to this discipline, sometimes referred to as “synbio.”

The advancement of synbio has taken place largely under the radar, with little public debate, but that’s changing. A June 17 criticism of an NGO synbio letter by an industry lobbyist, published on the investor website The Motley Fool, served to put more of a spotlight on the issue. The Motley Fool blog was almost immediately rebutted by Synbio Watch.

More attention was brought to synbio earlier this month, when 17 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including IATP, sent  an open letter to  Ecover, a self-described “green pioneer” of consumer and cleaning products, and its parent company Method, to protest their decision to use an oil derived from synthetically modified algae in laundry detergent. The NGOs, led by the ETC Group, Consumers Union, and Friends of the Earth, also opposed the company’s characterization of the synthetically modified ingredient as a “natural” alternative to palm oil. The palm oil industry is notorious for illegally clear cutting tropical forests and evicting forest residents to establish palm oil plantations.

Jaydee Hanson, of the Center for Food Safety, said that the companies could readily and safely substitute coconut oil for palm oil. He added, “That solution would support tropical farmers and would really be ‘natural’, rather than misleading consumers.”

The creation and use of Synthetically Modified Organisms (SMOs), to the extent that they are regulated at all, are governed in the United States by policies issued in 1986 and 1992, which were designed to expedite the deregulation and commercialization of Genetically Modified Organisms. A recent New York Times article surveyed some of the synthetic biology products that are entering the market without regulation specific to the identified and potential harms and risks SMOs pose.

Since SMOs have not undergone independent and mandatory pre-market safety assessment, the NGO letter urges Ecover/Method to “[p]ledge not to use SMO-derived ingredients in its products.” The letter also asks the companies to “[a]cknowledge that descriptors such as ‘natural,’ ‘green,’ ‘ecological’ and ‘sustainable’ cannot apply to the products of synthetic biology.” The press release for the letter links to a petition, “Synthetic Biology is not natural,” which is open for sign-ons. The petition website also contains links to more reading about synthetic biology.

Some of the issues raised in the letter will be discussed by the scientific advisory body of the Convention on Biology Diversity, which meets June 23-28 in Montreal. Of particular interest to the CBD is the effect on biological diversity of the environmental release of SMOs.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has already issued permits for field trials of synthetically modified biofuels feedstocks. Since the risks of SMO interaction with wild and cultivated plants are not well understood and since SMOs cannot be retrieved once released, the NGO letter calls on the CBD and “national governments to establish a moratorium on the commercial use and environmental release of synthetically modified organisms.”

IATP is beginning work to understand specific applications of synthetic biology to foods and agriculture. The aforementioned APHIS permitting process for SMO field trials is another indication that the Obama administration will use the existing framework for the case by case deregulation of GMOs to govern the deregulation of SMOs. The U.S. government is a major investor in synthetic biology, particularly through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. As an investor, the U.S. government is more concerned with synthetic biology product development than it is with process or product regulation.

Indeed, it appears that federal synthetic biology investment, like the investments in the National Nanotechnology Strategic Plan, commented on by IATP, will prioritize product development over research in public and environmental health and worker safety related to nanotechnology product development. IATP anticipates a very difficult regulatory struggle for U.S. agencies to mandate pre-market safety assessment of synthetic biology products and processes. Actions like the June 2 NGO letter, by publicizing the use of synthetic biology in consumer products, will help slow down the development of the synthetic biology industry, while petitions to mandate pre-market safety of all products derived from synthetic biology or nanotechnology work their way through the legal process.