In a way, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not really news anymore, since farmers have had access to that technology for a couple of decades already. So what is the new frontier in food production?
The latest step in genetic engineering — at least as it pertains to our food system — is called synthetic biology, which applies the principles of engineering to the fundamental components of biology. Instead of mixing one engineered gene into an existing organism (which is what happens with most of today’s GMOs), these scientists are creating large clusters of genes synthetically. They can essentially design organisms.
“Recent advances...have enabled scientists to make new sequences of DNA from scratch,” according to the Synthetic Biology Project website. “By combining these advances with the principles of modern engineering, scientists can now use computers and laboratory chemicals to design organisms that do new things — like produce biofuels or excrete the precursors of medical drugs.”
Or create food products, like the most recent “synbio” products entering the market, such as synbio vanillin, which came to the U.S. market this summer from a company called Evolva. Vanillin is the most important component in vanilla, which is naturally created in the seed pods of the vanilla orchid. Harvesting those pods is expensive, so synthetic vanillin has been widely used.
But now Evolva has developed a synbio vanillin through a yeast-based fermentation system, which it claims offers superior taste and competitive pricing, according to its website, and is chemically identical to the one from natural sources (no “GMO” label needed). The company is working on synbio saffron and stevia, a sweetener derived from stevia plants, which are expected to arrive on the market in the next couple of years.
Increased efficiency and lower cost are two major benefits to producing these products, the company says. Saffron, for example, is one of the most labor-intensive and expensive crops in the world: a $450 million crop, most of which is grown in Iran. “Producing the key saffron components by fermentation has three main benefits,” the Evolva website says. “Firstly, it will allow saffron to be available at a much lower price than currently, which will both expand existing markets and open new ones. Secondly, it will eliminate the many complexities involved in the current supply chain. Finally, by making each of the key components separately it will enable the production of customized forms that are, for example, particularly rich in aroma, taste or color and that can be adapted to specific food formulations and regional preferences.”
Could these products also be better for the planet? After all, they require no land, because they’re made in a lab, the company points out, not fields tended by farmworkers. There, each production phase can be controlled, allowing for not just customized products but sterile conditions. Synbio dairy products, for example, which are also in the works right now, could not only be made lactose free, or cholesterol free, but also bacteria free, resulting in a longer shelf life.
Making meat this way will present a tougher challenge, but other synbio products are likely to be entering our food system in the years to come. The technology could transform the way we produce many foods. By 2018, industry experts predict synbio foods could be a $16 billion industry worldwide.