New developments in synthetic biology could have far-reaching impacts on the market for biodiversity-derived natural products and the livelihoods of those who produce them. Cosmetic giants like Unilver and L’Oreal can source squalene from plant sources (olive oil, amaranth seeds, wheat germ, etc.) instead of harvesting the livers of 6 million deep sea sharks per year. This is a positive development. Now, Amyris is producing squalene from engineered microbes in fermentation tanks that are fueled by biomass – up to two million tons of crushed sugarcane annually. Who decides what is the most sustainable and socially just use of biomass and farmland?
No inter-governmental body is addressing the potential impacts of synthetic biology on the conservation and use of biodiversity and on the livelihoods of those who depend on agricultural export commodities (including high-value flavors, fragrances, cosmetics, essential oils, etc). The Convention on Biological Diversity is the most appropriate forum to address this new and emerging issue.