The next generation of extreme biotechnology needs you!

Real Vanilla

If you happened to read the recent New York Times Article “What’s That Smell, Exotic scents made from re-engineered yeast”, you may be feeling concerned about this new form of extreme genetic engineering. If you are also a creative being, there may be an opportunity to combine your concern with your artistic energy. 

In early 2014, a new ingredient may be turning up in your food unannounced and unlabeled.  It will be a vanilla-tasting flavor produced using the experimental techniques of synthetic biology, also known as ‘extreme genetic engineering’. This biotechnology has yet to be properly tested or regulated by any government and the arrival of this new ingredient may threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of tropical vanilla farmers, and their families, in countries such as Madagascar and Uganda. You can read more at my blog post “Synthetic Biology – the next generation of genetic engineering”.

The companies behind this ingredient hope to get away with labeling their novel genetically engineered flavor as ‘natural’. If this happens, you won’t even know when you are consuming it in your food. The ETC Group and Friends of the Earth believe consumers need to know the real story behind this extreme biotech ingredient.

Since this synthetically engineered vanilla flavor hasn’t been named yet, they think it deserves a good one. Both organizations came up with a few ideas, such as  Vat-nilla, Frankenilla, Syn-illa. But they reckon that there are a few geniuses out there who can do better.  So they are launching a competition!

They are seeking your creative assistance to make this invisible, unique and new ‘syn-bio’ ingredient more visible so that consumers aren’t duped into buying or eating it. If you are a designer, artist, activist, consumer advocate or just have that wild bit of creative flair, they want your help. This syn-bio vanilla needs to be branded! Send them your suggestions for an appropriate name, design, graphic logo, label or even a catchy advertisement. Winners will be publically hailed as a true champion of syn-bio labeling and receive bountiful truly vanilla prizes.

Know the facts about syn-bio

To take part in this competition, you should first read a bit more about the syn-bio vanilla. Please reference my previous blog “Synthetic Biology – the next generation of genetic engineering”.    Synthetic biology is the name given to an extreme form of genetic engineering that is becoming the basis of a controversial new industry. Unlike previous genetic engineering, which uses naturally occurring DNA, synthetic biologists print out strands of artificial DNA from a computer and then piece them together. These machine-made DNA strands then hijack the genetic workings of organism such as yeast, instructing them to produce new compounds. The synthetically engineered yeast is then grown in large vats of sugar, which ferment into vanillin. In early 2014, this new ingredient will be sold into the market. You can read more at Friends of the Earth’s article ” Synthetic Biology Vanillin: Not natural, not sustainable, not likely to be labeled and coming to an ice cream cone near you

How consumers are fooled and farmers are hurt

The re-engineered yeast used to make syn-bio vanilla is not naturally occurring. However, certain laws regarding fermentation as a natural process create a loophole that may enable companies to label their syn-bio vanilla as ”natural” on consumer packaging.   In this way, they hope to avoid drawing attention to the use of synthetic biology altogether. If this occurs the lab-grown vanilla, mislabeled as natural, will be directly competing with truly natural vanilla produced from vanilla pods. Truly natural vanilla is grown by hundreds of thousands of small indigenous farmers in the tropics. The process of care, pollination, harvest and curing all provide jobs and economic security.  Truly natural vanilla production is often integrated with rainforest protection because the vines on which vanilla orchids grow require both shade and bushes for support. If natural vanilla production is negatively impacted by the introduction of syn-bio vanilla, then these farmers and their families, as well as the rainforests they protect, will bear the brunt of any economic damage. You can read more from the ETC Group article “Synthetic Biology, Livelihoods and Biodiversity – Vanilla case study

How can you participate?  

The competition will run from November 14th until February 1st, 2014.    The entry form can be found HERE and you can submit your graphic designs as digital files and upload them HERE. All entries will be moderated for appropriateness and posted to an online gallery. A panel of distinguished experts from the world of Vanilla production, natural foods marketing, arts, advertising and the global food movement will judge the entries.  The winners will receive a basket of all-natural vanilla-themed goodies and these entries will be displayed in a special exhibition in Veracruz Mexico – in the heart of the original farming communities who first developed vanilla.

Remember a few things as your creative concepts bubble forth:  

–          The engineered yeast used to produce syn-bio vanilla is not natural and should more accurately be communicated as synthetic, artificial or manmade

–          Calling it ”natural” on a label is fooling consumers

–          Calling it ”natural” on a label threatens farmer livelihoods and associated rainforest protection

–          No government in the world has yet established the means for assessment and oversight of synthetic biology products , particularly not in food and consumer products

It’s now time to get those creative juices flowing. Use your ingenuity and imaginative sparks of inspiration to help us brand syn-bio vanilla. It’s the first step in saying no to syn-bio in our food and yes to syn-bio being properly labeled. If you’re not interested in the competition but want to learn more about developing a company policy, send an email to Friends of the Earth.  Let’s not let this one get by us as traditional GMO labeling did.  Syn-bio vanilla needs your full attention now.

4 thoughts on “The next generation of extreme biotechnology needs you!”

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