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Biotech industry cooks up PR plans to get us to swallow synthetic biology food

Posted May. 22, 2014 / Posted by: Dana Perls

Two Mondays ago, I sat in a room of some of the most powerful agribusiness, food and synthetic biology companies in the world. The goal of this industry meeting was to discuss how to get the public to accept synthetic biology, a new and unregulated set of genetic engineering methods, as the “foundation for the future of sustainable food.” It was meant to be a closed door and off-the-record industry meeting, in contrast to the open public forum on synthetic biology in our food which I helped organize the week before. But after some of the companies caught wind that Friends of the Earth was going to expose the leaked meeting information, we were cordially urged to attend by the meeting organizers.

Although there is no agreed upon definition of synthetic biology, it is a term that encompasses a variety of new, and many would say, “extreme” genetic engineering approaches, including computer generated DNA, directed evolution, and site specific mutagenesis. It’s faster and uses more powerful methods to engineer new genetic sequences than “traditional” genetic engineering. Engineers can even create entirely new DNA and organisms that do not exist in nature.

What are the concerns?
The synthetic biology industry is expanding rapidly, with a market value that is expected to reach $10.8 billion by 2016. Like traditional GMOs, the products of synthetic biology are unlabeled, virtually unregulated and the novel risks to human health and the environment posed by synthetic organisms have not been adequately assessed.

The ways in which synthetic organisms will interact with the natural environment are unpredictable and potentially devastating and permanent. While other types of pollution can be cleaned up and do not breed, synthetic biological creations are designed to self-replicate and, once released into the environment, they will be impossible to recall.

Unfortunately, even in absence of regulations to protect our health and the environment, or any labeling, synthetic biology produced ingredients are rapidly entering our food and cosmetics. Ingredients currently on the market or in the pipeline include synthetic biology vanilla, coconut oil and cocoa butter derivatives, stevia and saffron. Hundreds of other ingredients may enter the food system and consumer products in the coming years.

These ingredients are being designed to replace naturally produced ingredients for food, cosmetics and other consumer products, and are made in labs using synthetic DNA and reprogrammed, genetically engineered yeast which feed on sugar or other biomass.

The demand for sugar needed to feed the yeast engineered for these synthetic biology ingredients could have major impacts on access to land and water. Increased demand for sugar could also result in destruction of intact and biodiverse ecosystems like Brazil’s fragile Cerrado and tropical forests across the global south. These problems will be exacerbated as other synthetic biology applications scale up and replace the current production of natural commodities. 

Despite marketing claims, these ingredients are not sustainable or “natural,” and could have serious impacts on human health and the environment. These products also threaten the livelihoods of many small, sustainable, producers of truly natural commodities (such as vanilla and coconut) around the world.

To my disappointment, none of these concerns were on the agenda of the “SynBioBeta Cultured Food meeting” that was leaked to Friends of the Earth.

Inside the SynBioBeta “Cultured Food meeting”
The meeting was under Chatham House rules – which means I can’t disclose who said what. However, I can say that the meeting was an alarming insight into the synthetic biology industry’s process of creating a sugar-coated media narrative to confuse the public, ignore the risks, and claim the mantle of “sustainability” for potentially profitable new synthetic biology products.

Over the course of the day, primarily CEOs, directors and PR people from powerful chemical and synthetic biology companies, bounced around tales of promise, discussed how to position synthetic biology as a “solution” to world hunger, and made blithe claims of safety that were not backed up by any actual data.

One problem, explained a participant, is that investors are Googling synthetic biology and finding activist blogs instead of media stories about how synthetic biology would help “feed starving people in poor nations” -- how can they change the narrative? That seemed to be the point of the meeting.

Topics not discussed included risks to the environment; potential impacts on hundreds of thousands of small, low-income farmers; the lack of independent, transparent health and environmental assessments; and the lack of federal and international regulations. When I brought up these glaring omissions, my concerns were generally dismissed.

We were asked to brainstorm stories that paint biotech applications to food in a positive light. When I asked how biotech companies will protect small farmers who are producing the truly natural products, I was met with a hard cold stare, silence and a non-answer about needing to meet “consumer demand.”

Another person boiled it down that the industry’s most important task is to reassure the public and potential investors that these synthetic biology ingredients are regulated, safe, “natural,” and not new.

Here are the take-away messages from this meeting for the synthetic biology industry’s PR strategy:

Do not use terms “synthetic biology” and “genetically engineered”:

The term “synthetic biology” is now tainted with negative connotations and should be avoided in public. Consumers prefer natural to synthetic,  and “syn” brings up negative connotations of “sin.” The term “genetically engineered” should also be avoided because it’s gotten too much public backlash. Some alternative terms suggested at the meeting were “fermentation derived” and “nature identical.”

Capture public emotion:

Most people at the meeting emphasized that “the public” generally doesn’t care what’s in our food; they just need to be reassured that the food is safe. Heads bobbed when one person suggested that industry should make activists (“the opposition”) feel like “we are all marching under the same banner,” down the common path of food sustainability, transparency, and food sovereignty. When I pointed out that corporate-controlled synthetic biology is the antithesis of “food sovereignty,” I was met again with stony silence.

Control narrative in the media with stories of hope and promise:

Currently the public narrative is focused on the risks and uncertainties of synthetic biology. The synthetic biology industry needs to flood the media and conferences with images, stories and feel-good emotions. One participant urged us to think of stories about how synthetic biology ingredients will help feed the “poorest of the poor”, and take the burden off nature. Everybody thought hard. Nobody could come up with anything yet.

Industry self-regulation:

According to meeting participants, the few government regulations that exist for genetic engineering are “plenty sufficient”.  A clear theme at the meeting was that the fewer government regulations the better, and industry self-regulation is best.
There was a general consensus in the room that the public should not be concerned about a lack of data on safety; however, the internal and self-funded corporate studies are proprietary and cannot be shared with the public.

Find an NGO to be a partner:

Public acceptance was more about the “messenger” and less about the “message”. Therefore, the synthetic biology industry needs an environmental NGO (WWF was the given example) that could endorse synthetic biology as being in-line with non-profit concerns supports a vision of sustainability.

Although I wasn’t surprised that industry’s focus at this meeting was how to spin synthetic biology to get public acceptance, rather than to discuss and understand the substantive concerns, I was disturbed about the implications for true sustainability. We know there are truly safe, effective, resilient, sustainable and just solutions and technologies available to us now, such as agro-ecological agriculture. We have a great opportunity at this moment to learn from history and not chase false solutions.

In order to understand if synthetic biology is, in fact, a problem masquerading as a solution, we need to have open and holistic dialogues about potential impacts, unintended consequences, and potential benefits.

But now for the good news: The growing movements for truly sustainable and just food systems are rapidly gaining ground. We need to make sure that synthetic biology – or other profit driven, poorly understood methods of developing high-tech food -- won’t rob the livelihoods of sustainable commodity farmers across the globe and perpetuate the problems of a broken corporate-controlled agricultural system.  

Before any synthetic biology ingredients enter our food and consumer products, we need independent health and environmental assessments, a set of strong government regulations that specifically address synthetic biology’s novel impacts, and full transparency about what the synthetic biology process actually involves, and where it is in our food system.

At the meeting, one attendee tried to convince me that if synthetic biology food fails in the market, it could negatively affect other “important” synthetic biology uses such as “bringing new forms of life to Mars.”  Am I bothered that this could inhibit bringing new life forms to Mars?  No, not really. Life on Earth is more of a priority.

So what can we do? It’s up to consumers to voice our concerns and make it clear we do not want synthetic biology ingredients in our food or other products until this new technology is thoroughly regulated, assessed for safety and labeled so we can make informed choices about what we’re purchasing. Visit www.nosynbio.org to get involved and to learn more!

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