Leading ice cream company Häagen-Dazs has confirmed that it will not use vanilla produced via synthetic biology, a new set of “extreme” genetic engineering techniques. Synthetic biology, or synbio, vanilla is designed to replace natural vanillin flavoring from vanilla beans, and is made in labs using artificial DNA and reprogrammed, genetically engineered yeast. Evolva (SWX: EVE) and International Flavors and Fragrances (NYSE: IFF), intend to sell synbio vanilla flavoring this year, and have been marketing it as “natural.”
Nestlé (NSRGY: OTC US), which produces Häagen-Dazs in Canada and the U.S., and General Mills (NYSE: GIS), which produces Häagen-Dazs outside of North America, confirmed to Friends of the Earth that Häagen Dazs, “...will not source vanilla flavor produced through synthetic biology.” Three Twins Ice Cream, Straus Family Creamery, and Luna & Larry's Coconut Bliss have similarly confirmed their products will not include any vanilla derived from synthetic biology.
“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.”
Friends of the Earth and allies sent a letter to major ice cream companies requesting that they not use synthetic biology vanilla, which is the first major synthetic biology ingredient likely to enter food and beverages. Like “traditional” GMOs, synthetic biology ingredients are entering food and consumer products in absence of adequate health and environmental safety assessment, regulations or labeling.
"It’s wonderful that Häagen Dazs has confirmed that it won't use vanilla produced using synthetic biology, since ingredients derived from synthetic biology are not natural," said Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union, the public policy arm of Consumer Reports.
Synthetic biology is a new set of genetic engineering techniques that involve artificially constructing genetic material such as DNA in order to create new forms of life, or to attempt to “reprogram” existing organisms, such as yeast and algae. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will likely allow synthetic biology vanilla and other similarly created food and cosmetic ingredients to enter the market classified as “Generally Regarded As Safe.” This classification, however, is derived through an outdated process with minimal testing requirements that rely on companies to self-evaluate the safety of their products.
Because the FDA allows such products to be marketed as “natural,” many ingredients currently produced by small farmers in the Global South, including vanilla, stevia, saffron, coconut, cacao, vetiver and patchouli, may be displaced by synthetic biology ingredients.
“Without a market for truly natural vanilla, grown and harvested by hand in rain forests in countries such as Madagascar and Mexico, both the vanilla farmers and the forests they preserve may be displaced in favor of industrial-scale plantations for soy, beef and sugar,” Perls said.
“To put a natural label on synbio products is a dishonest act which will unleash devastation on small scale farmers who cultivate the real plant, caring for real people and real forests,” warns Alejandrino Garcia Castaño, a vanilla farmer from Veracruz, Mexico. “We have fought to maintain our dignity as farmers and producers in a competitive market. We want to continue in a way that will not sacrifice the world’s forests, soils, identities and traditions.”
While the industry claims that synthetic biology could reduce impacts on land by producing products in labs rather than in farm fields, currently commercialized artificial organisms (synbio yeast and algae) feed on sugar. If these synthetic-biology applications scale up, it could exacerbate the current destruction of biodiversity hotspots, including Brazil's cerrado and tropical forests in Latin America, Africa and South East Asia, for increased sugarcane production, an industry notorious for "slavery-like" working conditions. In addition, while other types of pollution can be cleaned up and do not breed, synbio organisms are designed to reproduce. And, once released into the environment, they will be impossible to recall.
Consumers’ growing distrust of GMOs and desire for transparency in ingredient sourcing is driving a growing number of companies to avoid and/or label GMOs. Chipotle (NYSE: CMG) is removing and labeling GMOs and Whole Foods (NASDAQ: WFM) will require GMO foods in its stores to be labeled by 2018. Cereal giant General Mills recently removed GMO ingredients from Cheerios and Post (NYSE: POST) quickly followed suit, removing GMOs from Grape Nuts. McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) and Gerber (OTN: NSRGY) have said they have no plans to buy the GMO apple currently awaiting USDA approval.