Misinformation Is Poisoning the Environment for Synthetic Biology

Biofuels & Climate Change

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.

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2 Responses to Misinformation Is Poisoning the Environment for Synthetic Biology

  1. Jeff Conant says:

    Dear Paul,
    As Friends of the Earth’s International Forests campaigner, I have to counter your charge of ‘misinformation’. Before you went ahead and branded FoE as pro-palm oil, you might have thought to look into our position and our years of work on palm oil. In a piece we posted earlier this week on the FoE Blog (http://www.foe.org/news/archives/2014-08-in-fighting-deforestation-lets-celebrate-our-victori), I wrote:
    “In shifting the palm oil sector, the most significant victories go beyond merely “protecting forests” — though that is of course crucial — towards efforts to build transparency, to hold corporations accountable for the harmful impacts they cause, and, in our view, to undo the unsustainable consumption and investment patterns that are root causes of the problems we are combating.”

    There’s no question that we need sound, independent science to address the multiple crises confronting our world today. But as yet, we have little reason to believe that the synthetic biology industry provides a sustainable and equitable solution.

    I work with other environmental and human rights groups in the global North and the global South on the palm oil issue everyday, and I can say with confidence that the problem with palm oil isn’t palm oil — its a corporate-led economic development model that depends on increasing consumption, lack of democratic oversight, and technical approaches that, broadly speaking, fail to address the underlying causes of poverty, environmental degradation, and inequity. Until we see that the biotech industry meets these standards any better than the the palm oil industry, we’ll continue to take issue with synthetic biology.

  2. Paul Winters says:


    These are all fine sentiments, but they’re directly at odds with the actions FoE has taken.

    Your current campaign against synthetic biology has nothing to do with global concerns. You are targeting an individual company and trying to coerce it to break its business relationship with biotechnology companies. That’s about politics — and nothing more.

    The president of your organization, Erich Pica, addressed his editorial directly to this company and advised them to use palm oil instead of synthetic biology-derived ingredients. There is no mention in the editorial of a sustainability standard for palm oil — instead palm oil is broadly described as “a truly natural alternative.” It is perfectly clear that this advice is at odds with your group’s prior policy stance. That’s the point. And yet you’ve made no move to refute, retract or correct Mr. Pica’s statements.

    All the best,


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