vanilla cake

Synthetic biology, or synbio, is a new and unregulated experimental genetic technology being used to create a “natural” vanilla flavoring, reports Friends of the Earth. And like other GMOs, it won’t be labeled.

According to Friends of the Earth, the synbio vanilla was designed “to replace natural vanillin flavoring from vanilla beans, and is made in labs using synthetic DNA and reprogrammed, genetically engineered yeast.”

Vanilla will be the first synbio ingredient to launch (it’s expected to begin appearing in ice creams and other sweets), but Friends of the Earth says “dozens of other flavors and food additives are in the pipeline.”

Aside from inherent human health risks as a result of genetic modification, synbio vanilla could have devastating effects on the rainforests, where vanilla orchids grow. “If the demand for synbio vanilla reaches an industrial scale, it could lead to rainforest destruction,” reports Friends of the Earth. Because synbio vanilla will be touted as “natural,” that could disrupt the vanilla market. “Without the natural vanilla market adding economic value to the rainforest in these regions, these last standing rainforests will not be pro­tected from competing agricultural markets such as soy, palm oil, and sugar.”

Further complicating the issue is the need for sugar, which is used in production of synbio vanilla by feeding the yeast used. The demands for sugar could result in rainforest clear cutting to grow sugar cane or genetically modified sugar beets.

More than 100 consumer, food safety and environmental health organizations have signed a report (“Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology”) intended to help safeguard the public from synthetic biology and keep synbio vanilla out of the food supply. They’re also urging consumers to ask major ice cream manufacturers to vow not to use synbio vanilla.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: grongar