Eric Hoffman: A Call for Precautionary Oversight of Synthetic Biology - Tarrytown 2011





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Published on May 3, 2012

Eric Hoffman of Friends of the Earth discusses the dangers of synthetic biology, and calls for a percautionary approach at the 2011 Tarrytown Meeting.

The Tarrytown Meetings bring together people working to ensure that human biotechnologies and related emerging technologies support rather than undermine social justice, equality, human rights, ecological integrity and the common good.

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Presentation Excerpt:

Synthetic biology is now a global technology and a global industry...

There are no laws preventing a company from using synthetic organisms that may leak into the environment and no real safeguards to prevent a rouge biologist from synthesizing deadly viruses such as the Spanish Influenza or smallpox -- both of which have already been synthesized and proven to work in a lab. In the U.S. the only regulations on the books involve voluntary guidelines for DNA synthesis companies to flag orders that could be used to produce pathogens -- but this is voluntary.

The organisms currently being re-designed through synthetic biology are also the most common on our planet -- algae, yeast, viruses and E. coli. Craig Venter, for example, is working with Exxon Mobile to create synthetic algae that directly produce petroleum. To highlight some environmental concerns posed by synthetic organisms lets take a moment to reflect on just how important algae are to the global ecosystem, by way of example, and why it may be a bad idea to let Craig Venter reengineer them.

Algae are ubiquitous; they are found in every biosphere on our planet and are the base for most of the planet's food chains. Algae are responsible for up to 40% of the oxygen we breathe, and in fact each and every one of us is breathing in algae as we sit in this room together today. Needless to say, algae are pretty important to all life on earth.

Now - picture Craig Venter reengineering algae with synthetic DNA to produce more oil and in turn less oxygen. Picture that oil-producing algae blowing in the wind out of an open-pond facility into a worker's lungs or into a local river. And picture that algae reproducing every day and flowing into an ocean, and swapping genes with wild algae. These scenarios are all the more troubling since it is impossible to predict how novel organisms will act in the environment and since our government sees little value in actually assessing such risks before these organisms and their products are developed.

Another global concern outside of the environmental release of synthetic organisms is the impact synthetic biology will have on the global economy and what that means for social justice and environmental sustainability.

Synthetic biologists envision a future in which our oil-based economy is replaced by a biomass economy. This "bio-economy" would look like this: Synthetic organisms will be created and tailored to break down any type plant matter imaginable. That means any and all types of plant matter can become the feedstock for synthetic bugs to split out biofuels, chemicals, medicines, and plastics. We've seen the problems that arise from using corn to produce fuels (such as increased food prices due to a major shifting of food-producing land, water, and fertilizers being used to produce fuels), so its not hard to imagine what could happen when we try make fuels from not only corn but any and all plant matter on the planet.

Picture a world where all the earth's arable land that was dedicated to food production has shifted to wide-scale planting of monocultures to feed these synthetic bugs. Since land, water, and fertilizers are already in short supply for food production, the picture that begins to emerge is not looking good. Nearly all the synthetic biology corporations, research, funding and patents are housed in the U.S. and Europe and a vast majority of the planet's biomass -- over 86% of the earth's plant matter - is in the global South. So this picture would not be one of sustainability but rather resource exploitation and a deepening of political and economic injustices by and for the benefit of northern countries.


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