“It’s like saying that milk is made from grass”

This post was written by Josh Geuze, an MSc student in International Development at Wageningen University.

blog-1-afbeeldingForget all the empty promises, the real problems that need to be addressed are being carefully kept off the table by the CFS.

To many people it will not come as a surprise to hear that capacity exists to create our own DNA codes. Current technologies offer us the opportunity to take out the DNA code of a cell and insert a completely new one. By using computer programs, it is possible to design a new DNA code. This code is printed and implemented in an emptied cell. This process is called synthetic biology.

The range of opportunities this creates is endless. It is even possible to synthetically print out from scratch all the DNA of a living organism. Craig Venter, an American biotechnologist, succeeded in creating a microbe completely consisting of machine-created DNA. He called this “the first self-replicating species on the planet whose parent is a computer”.

To some this might sound alarming, others will see the potential. The question is, why should we bother?

Synthetic biology related to food

At first sight this technology offers potential when it comes to food. Food crops can be manipulated in such a way that only those seeds that will lead to an optimal production are cultivated.

Civil society, in combination with some academics and states, has been asking for attention on the problematic aspect of this development. There is a reasonable chance that cultivation crops will start spreading and out-competing other types of species. Another problem is that biological products can easily pass borders, bypassing all current international regulations. All that needs to be done is simply transferring the data.

Civil society expressed concerns about a different problem: synthetic biology is not a problem for the future. It is already up and running and is spreading with a threatening speed.

This year it was announced that Bayer would acquire Monsanto, making them an enormous player within the seed production market. The current situation is that 3 companies are occupying 60% of the global seed market, and 70% of the worldwide pesticides sales. Why is this problematic?

To illustrate the problem let us take a look at the case of Madagscar. This country is the second leading vanilla producing country in the world. The vanilla production is labour intensive and therefore offering many jobs to the local population. The traditional way that Madagscar uses to produce its vanilla is sustainable and fits within the natural ecosystems. The problem is Madagscar cannot compete with the seeds that are produced by the leading companies. There is a high chance that within a few years the production of vanilla could completely disappear within Madagascar.

This is only a broad overview of the problems that using synthetic biology in food production is bringing. Companies that are using this way of producing are not required to be transparent. Regulations also allow them to continue to label their products as 100% natural. According to Marie Pier, part of the ECT action group, such claims are comparable to stating that milk is made of grass, it’s not. It’s made by cows. The production process, whether this is a cow or a computer, should at least be mentioned to the consumer.

Those these happening and there are predictions that they will completely conquer the market within a short period of time. According to Jim Thomas, researcher and member of the ETC group, some academics address this as a big threat currently facing humankind.  Yet, there is no international institution dealing with it. As Jim Thomas rightly remarks: “Maybe it is time the CFS starts thinking about saying something”.

Role of the CFS

The CFS is highly praised for being the most inclusive platform for food security in the world. Almost all of its participants emphasize the fact that it functions as a leading example for all other United Nations’ institutions to follow. CFS is distinguishing itself by its inclusive character. It has proved itself to be able to deal with issues that are left out of the negotiations from other institutions. This leaves me to ask: if CFS is not going to address this, who will?

Still, some actors at the CFS are blocking every opportunity to get this topic incorporated into the agenda. The general statement is that the CFS cannot deal with all issues. A representative from a Scandinavian country phrases is as follows: “The CFS needs to pick its battles”.  The question that the remaining question is, why do CFS actors not consider this urgent problem as important enough to start battling for?

A member of the civil society mechanism provided some insights into the interests of the different actors. It turns out that a majority of the smaller companies, as well as many nation-states share the concerns of civil society and the researchers. The group that is preventing this issue from being discussed seems to be a minority of powerful actors.

This issue touches upon a fundamental point. The CFS should function as a platform for people who are close to the ground to express their concerns. However, instead of paying extra attention to those alarming concerns, several stakeholders feel ignored. The main message I would like to conclude with is the fact that the CFS should provide more flexibility to include urgent and emerging issues to the discussion.  If the CFS fails to acknowledge the fundamental importance of raising such concerns, it actually is nothing better than all those other international institutions that are not willing to acknowledge that it takes more than just grass to produce milk.

Blogpost by Josh Geuze, josh.geuze(a)wur.nl

Photo Credit: ETC Group http://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/files/synbio_comics-complete_letter_size_rev.pdf .

Original animation of Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre, www.synbiowatch.org/2014/10/synthetic_biology_explained/


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