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Misinformation Is Poisoning the Environment for Synthetic Biology

August 14, 2014
Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety and the ETC Group (or Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) have launched a campaign to frighten consumers and consumer product companies about synthetic biology. The groups are following a well-worn campaign formula, threatening individual consumer product companies with boycotts to force them to abandon biotechnology.

The groups’ campaign has resulted in some inconsistent advice for consumers. Friends of the Earth recently advocated the use of palm oil in consumer products, which other environmental allies such as the Environmental Working Group have classified as a hazardous product. FOE also apparently advocates the use of chemically synthesized vanillin and saffron flavorings, which it calls “nature’s own compounds.” Other food advocates have cautioned consumers against their use.

Further, the campaign has enlisted an ally, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, to parrot their misinformation. The Institute mistakenly equates synthetic biology with new methods of agricultural biotechnology and claims that synthetic biology is unregulated. The truth of the matter is that the U.S. government’s oversight of any products produced with synthetic biology falls under the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. The same is true in Europe. That’s because synthetic biology is part of the ongoing growth and development of genetic engineering, even though it is distinguishable from other applications of biotechnology.

Synthetic biology solves problems that previous methods of biotechnology and other chemical technologies simply can’t. For instance, natural substances – such as rubber, vanilla beans – grow only in certain climates, so shortages can make them as precious as gold. That is why chemical substitutes were developed in the first place. Now, synthetic biology provides cleaner, more energy efficient methods of producing these substitutes, many of which have been recognized with Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge awards.

So with conflicting advice and outright scare tactics from the environmental groups about consumer product ingredients, what are consumers to do? BIO can assure consumers and consumer product manufacturers that products made with synthetic biology are regulated and provide solutions for safer, healthier consumer products.