GMOs 2.0 - Synthetic biology

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The issue

Unbeknownst to the public, a new generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are hitting the market without appropriate regulatory oversight or assessment for health and environmental risks. In addition to transferring genetic material between organisms, like traditional GMOs, DNA and biological components can be composed synthetically and existing organisms can be genetically “reprogrammed.” A suite of new gene editing techniques are being used to develop new genetically engineered crops, animals, insects, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals and even bioweapons. According to the National Academy of Sciences, these new biotechnologies are virtually unregulated.

Known as synthetic biology, these emerging GMOs have been envisioned as the source of a new bioeconomy in which GMO yeast, algae and other organisms act as "living factories" to produce fuels, industrial chemicals, bioplastics, medicines and even food.

The drive for biomass to feed these synthetic organism “factories” could exacerbate the current rush to grab land from communities in the global South. The so-called marginal lands eyed by synthetic biology enthusiasts as the answer to this resource question are often the source of food and livelihood for small-scale farmers, pastoralists, women and indigenous peoples.

Synthetic organisms could impact ecosystems in unpredictable and potentially permanent ways. While other types of pollution can be cleaned up, most GMOs are living organisms that self-replicate, and once released into the environment, they may be impossible to recall. A synthetic organism could swap genes with naturally occurring organisms or outcompete them, potentially disrupting entire ecosystems as a new class of invasive species.

What we’re doing

Friends of the Earth is working at the federal and international levels to establish a regulatory framework for synthetic biology that has the precautionary principle, transparency and democratic decision-making at its core. We are calling for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until appropriate regulations and safety assessments are in place. We advocate for a responsible approach to technology that uses human ingenuity to address pressing public and environmental problems rather than to generate new commercial products that benefit corporate bottom lines at the expense of people and the planet.

Reports and resources


Blogs and articles

Civil society resolutions

A Call for Conservation with a Conscience - open letter against gene drives

“New technologies have played an important role in protecting life on earth, and we the undersigned support innovation and science in conservation. However, we believe that a powerful and potentially dangerous technology such as gene drives, which has not been tested for unintended consequences nor fully evaluated for its ethical and social impacts, should not be promoted as a conservation tool.”

Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology

Friends of the Earth and allies released the Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, the first global declaration from civil society, endorsed by 111 organizations from around the world, outlining  principles that must be adopted to protect public health and our environment from the risks posed by synthetic biology.

Resolution on Consumer Concerns about New Genetic Engineering Techniques

The Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, a network of 77 EU and U.S. consumer organisations, states that risks to human health, animal welfare and the environment must be assessed before products derived from new genetic engineering techniques are placed on the market or released into the environment. Products must also be labeled in accordance with consumers’ rights to know and choose what they are buying, including what they eat.

Consumer and company guides

GMOs 2.0: Synthetic biology, a company guide to protecting natural products

Ingredients produced via synthetic biology have already have entered natural products supply chains without labeling or notice. This guide helps companies to ensure these ingredients don’t evade existing product control procedures and unintentionally end up in products. Consumers want more transparency and honesty about what is in the products they buy and what is truly natural and sustainable.

Shopper’s Guide to Synthetic Biology

Are GMOs 2.0 in your food and cosmetics? Gene-silenced apples that never brown, synthetic stevia created with genetically engineered algae — these are just some of the new generation of GMOs companies are sneaking into food and consumer products. This guide helps consumers avoid the new wave of GMOs and find truly natural and sustainable options.


Reckless Driving: Gene drives and the end of nature

Gene drives could re-engineer ecosystems, create fast spreading extinctions and intervene in living systems at a scale far beyond anything ever imagined. The implications for the environment, food security, peace, and even social stability are significant. Dealing with this run-away technology is already being compared to the challenge of governing nuclear power.

Synthetic solutions to the climate crisis: The dangers of synthetic biology for biofuels production

In the wake of unfulfilled promise of genetic engineering to mitigate climate change emerges a more extreme form of genetic engineering, also touted as the solution to the climate crisis - synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is not a sustainable solution to the climate crisis and has the potential to create an entirely new set of problems.

Potential Impacts of Synthetic Biology on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity

This submission to the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice examines the potential impacts of synthetic biology and its relevance to the three objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity: the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.

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