Food and Technology Blog

Extreme genetic engineering in your ice cream?

Posted Aug. 27, 2013 / Posted by: Dana Perls

With the long Labor Day holiday weekend approaching, I look forward to barbeques with friends and family, and enjoying one of my favorite summertime treats: vanilla ice cream. I generally pick the ice cream that has a label with a picture of a vanilla orchid and vanilla beans, a sign to me that I’m eating ice cream made with real natural vanilla.  But that may not be true anymore.

A new ingredient straight out of a petri dish is about to enter the global food supply in many of our favorite foods including ice cream. And like many of the products of genetic engineering, it won’t be labeled -- instead it is being marketed as “natural”. But this ingredient is anything but “natural”.

This product, synbio vanilla,  is made via an extreme form of genetic engineering called synthetic biology,  and is on its way to market should the FDA approve it this next year.  Synbio vanilla was designed to replace natural vanillin flavoring from vanilla beans, which are grown by small family farmers in rainforests across the globe. Instead, synbio is made in labs using synthetic DNA and reprogrammed, genetically engineered yeast. This new synbio vanilla doesn’t come from a plant at all but will be labeled as “natural” on product labels.  

Similarly to genetic engineered products, synbio vanilla has been virtually untested, unregulated, and is anything but “natural” or “sustainable”.  But Evolva (EVE:SW), the company producing this ingredient, together with the International Flavors and Fragrances (NYSE: IFF), will fight hard to keep its product unregulated, and the FDA will likely approve it as “Generally Regarded As Safe”, an approval which has minimal testing requirements, and outdated regulations which rely on companies like Evolva to self-evaluate.

Synbio vanilla is something we need to be concerned about for reasons beyond ice cream.  As the first major use of synthetic biology in our food, synbio vanilla could open the floodgates to allow many more synthetic genetically engineered ingredients labeled as “natural” into our food without us knowing. And even though many people buy organic products to avoid ingredients like synbio vanilla, there are technically no prohibitions under the National Organic Program to keep synbio ingredients out of organic food.

What’s worse, is that this new synbio vanilla could speed rainforest destruction, and harm sustainable farmers and poor communities that rely on rainforest-raised vanilla beans to survive.  Natural vanilla farmers protect intact rainforests by growing the high valued vanilla orchids which depend on these tropical forests. If synbio vanilla masquerades as “natural”, the demand for synbio vanilla could displace the demand for natural vanilla. Without the natural vanilla market adding economic value to the rainforest in these regions, these last standing rainforests will not be pro¬tected from competing agricultural markets such as soy, palm oil, and sugar.  

Secondly, the demand for sugar needed to feed the yeast engineered for synthetic biology could result in clear cutting tropical forests in Latin America, Africa and South East Asia for more sugar cane production. These problems will be exacerbated as this and other synthetic biology applications using yeast scale up to meet increasing demand and replace current production of natural flavors and fragrances, including vanilla.  

So what can we do? It’s up to consumers to voice our concerns and make it clear we do not want synbio vanilla in our food.  Ice cream companies are one of the biggest purchasers of vanilla flavoring, so rather than relying on the FDA to take responsibility for safe food, Friends of the Earth has just launched a campaign to urge Haagen Dazs, Dryers, Baskin Robbins, and other major ice cream companies to commit to not use this unnatural synbio vanilla in their ice cream.

If ice cream companies commit to not using synbio vanilla should it come to the market in 2014, then we can help end this dangerous experiment with nature and our food before it begins.

Take action:

1.  Help us spread the word:  Tell Haagen Dazs, Dreyers, Baskin Robbins and other ice cream
    companies to commit to not use synbio vanilla.
2.  Ask your family and friends on Facebook to take action against synbio vanilla.
3.  Tweet:
      -Coming to an ice cream cone near you: extreme genetic engineering labeled “natural”
       #nosynbio, @foe_us: www.nosynbio.org
      -Tell ice cream companies not to use extreme genetically engineered vanilla masquerading as
       “natural” #nosynbio, @foe_us:www.nosynbio.org
4.  Learn more at www.nosynbio.org or contact Dana Perls, dperls@foe.org

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