An Ice Cream Sundae Topped with Sprinkles and Synthetic Biology?

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As trends in food science creep towards sci-fi status, it is nice to know that there are some people who are keeping a wary eye. The world synthetic biology (appropriately referred to in impeccable sci-fi form as “syn-bio”) reprograms the DNA of existing organisms (usually yeasts) so that they can create products like medicines and food flavoring, and boasts a bordering limitless potential. There’s some pretty cool stuff about it, but it also raises a few red flags.

Tom Philpott explains in Mother Jones this week that while malaria medicine is a vital tool for global health and glowing trees might be a great way to light up our sidewalks, there are some potential regulatory issues with this technology. Referring to a syn-bio company, Evolva, that has manufactured a vanilla substitute among other things, he writes:

Well, like genetic engineering, synbio falls into a regulatory void that often allows products to go from lab to grocery store with little or no oversight. Evolva's vanillin and resveratrol will likely sail through the Food and Drug Administration's approval process—and end up in your food without any special labeling—because they are versions of already-existing compounds and thus have "generally recognized as safe" [GRAS] status."

We’ve certainly seen some problems with the GRAS designation as of late, so it makes sense that some folks might be a little trepidatious about a full-scale embracement of syn-bio. Atlease one icecream company seems to feel the same way. In response to a letter written by Friends of the Earth (FOE) and endorsed by many like minded people, the parent companies that own Häagen-Dazs ice cream have confirmed that they will not source Evolva’s vanilla for their ice cream.

FOE views syn-bio as an extreme form of GMO’s and believes, for the same reasons that Philpott explains above, that they should not be in our food. In their press release on the Häagen-Dazs decision:

Häagen-Dazs and other leading ice cream companies are doing the right thing by listening to the growing number of consumers who don’t want synbio vanilla and other extreme GMOs in their foods,” said Dana Perls, food and technology policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “Unilever and other companies using and investing in synbio ingredients must follow suit and give consumers what they want: transparency and responsible sourcing of truly natural, sustainable, non-GMO ingredients.”

We sit with a watchful eye on syn-bio,  curious about the possibilities as well as the consequences. Stay tuned!

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