GMO, or genetically modified organisms, have an image problem. They are perceived as unnatural and potentially unsafe, leading to labeling initiatives and the voluntary removal of GMO ingredients by companies like Whole Foods and Chipotle. Although government regulators have deemed GMOs safe, questions persist about their environmental and physiological impact. But for many people, the discomfort with GMOs is largely an emotional one rooted in the somewhat outdated idea that food should come out of the ground and not a lab.

GMO has arguably already lost the public relations battle, but a newer technology—synthetic biology or synbio—is hoping to avoid the same fate by promoting itself as a more sustainable and natural way to genetically engineer food. While GMOs usually means putting the genes from one plant into another plant, synbio involves genetically programming algae or yeast to ferment sugar into a desired product, reports NPR.

Yeast is a natural at transforming sugar into substances we love — that’s what it does with alcohol, of course. And as synthetic biologists are learning, with the right genetic instructions, yeast can ferment sugar into lots of other things, too.

Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. Photo: Flickr/ David Oliver

Yeast is used to ferment beer at breweries such as Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. (Photo: Flickr/ David Oliver)

What kinds of things? According to The New York Times, companies are using synthetic biology to make oils for cosmetics, ingredients for drugs, and rennet for cheese production. NPR reports that synbio vanillin (one of the flavor compounds found in vanilla) was introduced to the U.S. market earlier this year. It was developed by the Swiss company Evolva, which is also working on using yeast to make saffron and the sweetener stevia.

The main advantage of synthetic biology foods, Evolva claims, is that they can be made in a lab, rather than in a field that has to be tended by laborers and is subject to unpredictable variables like weather.

The method is an efficient, cost-effective way to manufacture prized food products which doesn’t require clearing forested land for crops. And although the yeast was genetically modified, the compound it created wasn’t, so synbio vanillin can be marketed as natural whereas artificial vanilla flavoring can’t.

Photo: McCormick

Photo: McCormick

But some environmental and consumer groups are calling the label misleading. Advocacy group Friends of the Earth is concerned that calling synbio vanillin “natural” could devastate vanilla farmers in the developing world as consumers switch to a cheaper product that they mistakenly believe is the same thing.

The group also questions synthetic biology’s green credentials. Synbio yeast requires sugar to feed it, and Friends of the Earth campaigner Dana Perls says that sugarcane plantations have historically threatened biodiversity in sugar growing regions.

Sugarcane in Brazil. (Photo: Flickr/ Sweeter Alternative)

Sugarcane in Brazil. (Photo: Flickr/ Sweeter Alternative)

Lastly, many consumer groups are nervous about the FDA’s classification of synbio vanillin as “Generally Regarded As Safe.” The Times points out that synbio ingredients are currently not subject to the same FDA review processes as older genetic engineering techniques, and while the law has yet to catch up with the new technology, products are already hitting the market.

Synbio oils are currently used in some Ecover detergents, Unilever soaps, and Elizabeth Arden creams; but it’s unknown which food products contain Evolva’s synbio vanillin. This lack of transparency could be the fledgling industry’s first major PR blunder—it gives the appearance of having something to hide, plus the GMO labeling movement has already shown that consumers insist on knowing what’s in their food.

If the synbio industry doesn’t foster public trust from the very beginning, it risks being classed as the new GMO, instead of a GMO alternative.

[via NPR, The New York Times]