Investors in the flavour and fragrance industry are always so excited about technological breakthroughs in synthetic biology. I mean why not? It translates to lower costs and better economics for them. But what’s going to happen to farmers and workers when we can now ‘grow’ food in vats?
Here’s a little Synthetic Biology 101: According to the SynbioWatch Organization “It’s the applied re-engineering of lifeforms to make stuff.” The easiest way to explain what synthetic biologists do is that they try to look at living organisms as machines. The type of machines they can take apart and recreate in a way that they would do something entirely new. It is basically the less regulated, hi-tech, extreme younger sibling of GMO’s.
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice is derived form the stigma of the crocus flower. Iran is the largest producer of saffron, accounting for more than 90% of the world’s saffron export. It is also one of Iran’s most important non-petroleum export products, second only to pistachio. Mostly used as a food flavouring and colouring agent, saffron is particularly time-consuming and strenuous to produce. It takes approximately 50,000 crocus flowers and 40 hours of labour to manually extract enough stigmas to realize 1 kilogram (kg) of saffron. Annual worldwide sales of saffron is estimated to be well over half a billion dollars.
During the harvest season, saffron production provides jobs for thousands of Iranians every day. Things might not be so rosy a few years into the future. In 2010, Swiss-based synthetic biology company Evolva began working on a biosynthetic route to express saffron-derived genes in engineered microbes. Currently, “Evolva is able to make all of the key saffron ingredients by yeast fermentation. By making saffron in this way, Evolva can both significantly lower the cost of saffron and offer a robust and stable supply chain that is free of geopolitical and adulteration issue” The company says.
The scary part is that this not just speculation, Evolva expects its SynBio saffron to be commercially available this year, 2016. Iran is not the only country at risk, Spain, India, Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Kashmir and Afghanistan are also minor producers of saffron that stand to be affected. Evolva’s SynBio saffron will impact the livelihoods of saffron growers and pickers everywhere.
The synthetic biology market is set to affect not just saffron farmers, other near term targets of this technology are; Coconut Oil (production of which is supporting livelihoods of over 25 million people in the Philippines) and Vetiver Oil (Over 60,000 people in Haiti alone depend on vetiver production). In fact, BCC Research reveals in its 2014 report SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY: GLOBAL MARKETS, that the global synthetic biology market is expected to grow to nearly $11.9 billion in 2018. Synthetic biology-enabled products in the agricultural industries and pharmaceutical/diagnostics compose the bulk of this market segment.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the first and only intergovernmental body that is trying to address the potential effect of synthetic biology on the livelihoods of those who depend on these agricultural export produces.
It is necessary for individuals, agencies and governmental bodies to band together, discuss the potential impact of synthetic biology on the natural farming industry, and propose ways to minimize said effects. The world does not have to wait till these problems are dangerously imminent to do something about it.
“They are going after pockets of tropical farmers around the world,”. These words by Jim Thomas, a researcher at the ETC group, a Canadian technology watchdog perfectly mirror my thoughts on the entire SynBio technology industry.
The only slightly reassuring news in all of this is that right now, synthetic biology companies cannot completely do without farmers. The vats of engineered yeast or algae used in SynBio operations require vast quantities of sugar sourced from corn/sugar-cane plantations. This is why the largest SynBio companies have all located their manufacturing plants in Brazil. Safety, health and regulation issues regarding synthetic biology, especially in relation to products that we actually eat, need to be answered satisfactorily before the industry should even be allowed to grow further than it already has.