Transparency is only way for GMO technology to thrive, exec says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Ginkgo Bioworks photo.
Ginkgo Bioworks photo.
Openness and transparency is the only way for genetic engineering technology to thrive in the supply of dietary ingredients, said an official with a company engaged in the practice.

Christina Agapakis, creative director of Gingko Bioworks, spoke with NutraIngredients-USA about that firm’s development of production systems based on biology,  The Boston-based firm bills itself as “The Organism Company” and calls biology “the most advanced manufacturing technology on the planet.”

Gingko Bioworks uses an automated approach to organism design that features rapid prototyping. The biological approach is used to optimize enzymatic production systems for a wide variety of products including cheese, pharmaceuticals and even stonewashed jeans.  In the food and dietary supplement realm, the technology has been used to product food, fragrance and flavor ingredients and can be applied to other functional ingredients as well. The term “synthetic biology” has been applied to this approach, and it’s a term that Agapakis feels might obfuscate the issue.

“I did my PhD in synthetic biology.  I can see that as a useful term to describe a certain academic community.  In practice, though, the tools we are using are similar to what’s been used before,” ​Agapakis said.

Old technique, new tools

ginkgo bioworks

Agapakis said using fermentation as a production method is almost as old as food itself.  She pointed to the production of certain vitamins as an example. The basis idea is to identify certain microorganisms that secrete chemicals of interest and then modify those organisms to do that better, or to secrete a slightly different molecule.

“A ton of vitamins are already being produced in this way.  The production of CoQ10 is another example.  Almost any bioactive molecule, if it is produced biologically, can be produced using our technology,”​ she said.

“Historically, biotech has not been much involved in the production of food ingredients, but as the cost comes down, it makes more sense.  We are making it possible to do genetic engineering more cheaply,”​ Agapakis said.

One major concern about the use of the technology is how it is presented on labels and to consumers.  With still no formal legal definition of what’s “natural,” some producers have felt comfortable making the case that as fermentation is common process in nature, ingredinets produced this way should also be branded as natural.  Opponents take issue when some of the parts of this process use components, such as engineered microorganisms, that are not found in nature.  

For consumers, this has been less of an issue in the dietary supplement realm where synthetic ingredients have been used in supplements for decades.  But in the food realm its a burning issue. In the case of ingredients such as vanilla, for example, suppliers who use actual vanilla beans to produce their flavor ingredients are concerned that they will be unable to compete with cheaper “natural” vanillin produced via synthetic biology.

For Agapakis, the answer is clear:  be as upfront and transparent as possible about the technology.  

“We really value openness and transparency when it comes to technology. We support GMO labeling.  WE don’t want there to be hidden GMO ingredients. We are actually quite inspired by how much people care about where their foods and other products come from,” ​she said.

“Transparency is really vital for these technologies to grow and to have an open conversation about them,” ​Agapakis said.

Uphill PR battle

A big issue with the application of GMO technology has been the public relations disaster the technology has become.  GMO has been used to benefit the companies owning the technology, not to benefit the public per se, or so the thinking goes. In addition, fears have been raised, whether rightly or wrongly, about the hidden dangers of messing with Mother Nature, so to speak. Apocalyptic visions in the Twittersphere of the dangers of Frankenfoods and possible escape of superbugs abound.

“We recognize that a lot of the concerns around GMOs do go way beyond the technology itself and go into these questions of ethics and business practices.  We want to be a good player, but we recognize that history and we know it’s an uphill battle,” ​she said.

“There is no one thing I could say to allay all these concerns. But from our point of view, biology is the ultimate green chemistry. It takes place at ambient temperatures and pressures and uses all food grade starting materials. There is that fear among companies that if you say something is GMO it will be rejected and that drives them to try to do things secretly.  We believe openness and transparency is the only way to cut through that fear,”​ Agapakis said.

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