Synthetic biology could open another Pandora's box

Synthetic biology could open another Pandora's box

By Desmond Brown

On the way to Les Cayes, one of the largest cities in southern Haiti, one marvels at the vetiver fields on both sides of the route. And the same happens going from there to Port Salut.

Haitian vetiver has a good reputation among perfumers and is a key ingredient in some of the finest and most expensive fragrances in the world.

But synthetic biology could jeopardize all of that. It is considered "extreme genetic engineering", as its objective is to design and create synthetic microorganisms and biological systems.

“In countries like Haiti, there are high-value agricultural exports that make up an important part of the economy and the reduced volume of high-value products will begin to be created by companies like Evolva, replacing truly natural products,” lamented Dana Perls, from the food and technology campaign of Friends of the Earth United States.

"Evolva creates fragrances and flavors with synthetic biology and will be able to offer them at a much lower price, which will end up eliminating the need for specialized farmers," he told IPS in the framework of the 12th Conference of the Parties (COP 12) of the Convention. on Biological Diversity (CBD), which began in this South Korean city of Pyeongchang on Monday the 6th and will last until the 17th.

Vetiver processing in Haiti is carried out by 10 distillers, but the activity employs 27,000 farming families in the south-west of the country. For them, cultivation has important conservation benefits, prevents soil erosion and helps maintain water quality.

The global value of the synthetic biology market reached $ 1.6 billion in 2011 and is projected to reach $ 10.8 billion by 2016, increasing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 45.8 percent.

Haiti's share of world vetiver exports increased from 40 percent in 2001 to more than 60 percent in 2007.

But after the global economic crisis, Haitian exports plummeted. This country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, produces between 50 and 60 tons of vetiver per year, about 50 percent of the world's supply.

Some 60,000 people in the Les Cayes area depend on vetiver, which is their main source of income. This crop occupies about 10,000 hectares.

Before 2009, the value of Haiti's vetiver plantations was between $ 15-18 million per year. But in recent times, export earnings have fallen to about $ 10 million.

While biotechnology has been described as the panacea for climate change and other social ills, critics argue that this has yet to be proven. Credit: Bigstock.

Friends of the Earth International called for caution in the use of synthetic biology and made several recommendations at COP 12.

"We recommend a moratorium on the release to the environment and commercial use of synthetic biology, especially in the absence of international standards and the virtual absence of environmental and safety assessments," Perls explained.

"We urge the CBD to adopt a cautious approach, which countries have already agreed upon when signing" the agreement, he added.

“This is a new and emerging issue and should be treated as such. Many of the concerns have to do with the environmental, cultural and social impact of this new technology, such as what would happen if a product like ginseng here were produced using synthetic biology.

The damage to small farmers across the country would be immense, ”Perls exemplified.

"It would also have enormous impact in countries like Brazil, where the staple food would be grown to produce these organisms through synthetic biology, which will reproduce whatever you have designed," he remarked.

While biotechnology has been described as a panacea for climate change and other social ills, Friends of the Earth contends that it remains to be proven that microbes and plants can sequester more carbon from the soil and produce more fuel once processed than can. conventional methods.

The organization remarked that “after these broken promises” synthetic biology emerges, a more extreme form of genetic engineering, which is also presented as the solution to the climate crisis.

Friends of the Earth argues that synthetic biology is not a sustainable solution to the climate crisis and has the potential to create a host of new problems.

The Philippines is the world's largest producer and exporter of coconut oil.

Twenty-five million people, of the 100 million inhabitants that the country has, depend directly or indirectly on this industry.

Neth Dano, program manager at ETC Group, told IPS: "The stakes are high for the Philippines" because synthetic biology could replace coconut oil in the global market.

“In the Philippines, coconut is not produced on vast plantations, but on a small scale. And in the structure of the rural economy, its producers are among the poorest ”, he explained.

Dano said that the CBD, as the body of the United Nations (UN) responsible for monitoring the possible consequences of development on biodiversity and its conservation, has much to do to address the concerns generated by synthetic biology.

"The CBD is the only UN body that has dealt with synthetic biology and addresses concerns about its possible consequences on biodiversity," he stressed.

Dano mentioned that much of the commercial beginnings of synthetic biology were linked to climate change.

“The first research and development efforts focused on algae that could produce biofuels, considered a solution to the problem of large greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming. In fact, it was presented as a solution to climate change and as a mitigation strategy ”, he recalled.

"Oil companies invested so much in biofuel development by synthetically modifying the algae, but the investments weren't paying off, so now they are concentrating on small, high-value production and that's where lauric oils come in," added Dano.

Edited by Kitty Stapp / Translated by Verónica Firme

Inter Press Service - IPS Venezuela

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