Beyond GMOs: Synbio foods sidestep restrictions on genetic engineering

| | October 7, 2014
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In essence, synthetic biology is about designing and building workhorse organisms that can make things more efficiently than nature (or make things we might need that nature doesn’t make at all). According to Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate with the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “It’s the next stage of genetic engineering.”

While there’s been far more hype around synthetic biology’s potential to create drugs, biofuels and even designer creatures, some of the most recent “synbio” products to hit the market are actually (somewhere) in our food.

Synbio vanillin, marketed as an alternative to artificial vanilla flavor, was rolled out in the U.S. this summer. But don’t expect to be able to locate it in your local supermarket. Its maker, International Flavors & Fragrances, the U.S. partner of a Swiss company that invented the technology, is keeping mum about which food companies are using it.

Evolva is the Swiss synthetic biology company that developed the synbio vanilla; it also has synbio saffron, the antioxidant resveratrol and stevia in the pipeline. All are expected to go to market in the next two years. The main advantage of synthetic biology foods, Evolva claims, is that they can be made in a lab, rather than in a field that has to be tended by laborers and is subject to unpredictable variables like weather

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Primarily, Evolva wants to “make these expensive and scarce products more affordable” and available, CEO Neil Goldsmith tells The Salt. And Evolva’s process is cost-effective and sustainable, he says.

The company also says it has performed rigorous safety tests. And as for the vanillin — chemically, it’s identical to the artificial vanillin already on the market, so the flavor industry group has designated it as “generally recognized as safe.” Critics have pointed out that new products like synbio vanillin are slipping through a regulatory loophole that allows them to earn this GRAS designation without a government safety assessment of the process.

There are several other companies making synbio flavorings and supplements, says Kuiken. But few are as transparent as Evolva, he says. “Evolva is being completely open and up front about their process.”

But even though most consumers still haven’t heard of synbio foods, one advocacy group is scrutinizing them and rejecting claims that they are “natural.” In August, Friends of the Earth noted in a press release, “Like ‘traditional’ GMOs, synthetic biology ingredients are entering food and consumer products in absence of adequate health and environmental safety assessment, regulations or labeling.”

Read full, original article: GMOs Are Old Hat. Synthetically Modified Food Is The New Frontier

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