Only six months ago, proponents of genetically modified organisms were angered by the very idea of GMO labeling. Genetically modified foods, they claimed, were no different than their conventional counterparts. Now, however, some professionals in the GMO industry have changed their tune: they actually say they wantGMOs to be labeled. This odd turn of events has to do with a new form of genetic engineering – synthetic biology, or synbio.
Synthetic biology is a rapidly growing field of science whereby DNA is not spliced from other organisms as in traditional genetic engineering, but rather created from scratch. So far, it has been used to make several food items like synbio vanilla to replace natural vanillin or even gene-silenced apples that don’t brown when exposed to air.
Christina Agapakis, creative director of Ginkgo Bioworks, a company that designs custom microbes, believes that synthetic biology is more natural than other forms of genetic engineering. The technique used at Gingko is similar to fermentation, which sounds much more familiar – and safer – than genetic engineering where genes from other species are introduced into plants or animals.
Agapakis believes that being transparent about what this method actually entails will make people less fearful about purchasing items made through synbio,
“We really value openness and transparency when it comes to technology,” says Agapakis. “We support GMO labeling. We don’t want there to be hidden GMO ingredients. We are actually quite inspired by how much people care about where their foods and other products come from.”
Synbio pros would have us believe that the transparency they seek means that there's nothing to fear when it comes to this technique. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
There are a few issues that have yet to be hashed out: how, for example, the industry controls who has access to these techniques and for what purpose. Synbio could just as easily be used to create non-oxidizing apples as it could herbicide-resistant plants, like earlier iterations of genetic engineering have.
But perhaps the biggest issue is that, as confident as some people seem to be about this technique, we simply don't know enough about it yet: DNA sequences can be identified, but there are so many moving parts that it's nearly impossible to always know how sequences will react, especially when combined.
"We are still like the Wright Brothers, putting pieces of wood and paper together," Luis Serrano, a systems biologist at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, tells Nature. "You fly one thing and it crashes. You try another thing and maybe it flies a bit better."
Even once a viable organism is created, there are more variables at play.
“We don’t know how these organisms will interact with pollinators, soil systems, other organisms,” Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, tells The Atlantic. We also don’t know whether synthetic DNA will swap genes with wild counterparts or not.
As much as synbio fans would like this new technique to be seen as "natural," other groups are lumping it in with GMO. The National Organic Standards Board has voted to prohibit foods produced using synthetic biology from the organic label, and Friends of the Earth calls synbio an “extreme form” of genetic engineering.
“We need to make sure it’s not going to do more harm than good,” says Perls.
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