The Economist this week has a Special Report on Synthetic Biology , the new field of building artificial life forms from scratch. As is to be expected from the Economist, this is a fairly upbeat assesment of the technology that fails to mention the growing opposition to Synthetic Biology, signalled a few months ago when almost forty civil society groups, trade unions and scientific associations signed an open letter calling for caution.
Here at ETC we have been busy writing our own special report on Synthetic Biology (which we are calling 'Extreme Genetic Engineering' - watch this space!). You can expect it to be a bit more critical than the Economist. One thing that has surprised us is discovering how central Synthetic Biology appears to be in the new biofuels agenda - especially in making ethanol. Some of the biggest names in the technology establishment appear to have fallen in love with ethanol in the past year or so - Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Vinod Khosla, Craig Venter and Paul Allen are just some of the names putting big money into the dream of an ethanol-fuelled economy. Unlike Brazil however where plentiful sugar crops drive ethanol cars, US biofuel enthusiasts can't yet point to easily accessible feedstocks. They are on the lookout for some means of turning cellulose from grass, corn and sawdust into fuel in order to make their buisiness model viable.
This past January US President George Bush used the 2006 State of the Union Address to announce new funding for research in "cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass. - by this he meant more money for synthetic biology. A few months later Bush's top man on energy research, Dr Ari Patrinos (formerly head of the Human Genome Project) jumped ship to become the new president of Craig Venter's latest start-up , Synthetic Genomics Inc - the company that is building the world's first fully artificial organism. Venter believes that he can make a microbe that not only turns agricultural waste into ethanol but turns fossil fuel corporations into.. well fossils. At the recent Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference Venter boasted: "We think this area [Synthetic Biology] has tremendous potential , possibly within a decade, to replace the petrochemical industry.
But replace it with what?? The big buzz in US biofuels rhetoric is 'energy independence' which means shifting industrial cultivation over from agri-food to agri-energy. That might reduce reliance on middle eastern oil imports but its not exactly a model of food sovereignty. As one synthetic biologist has pointed out - it may not be too great for water use either. Meanwhile those waiting in the wings to profit from the coming synthetic agri-energy boom look depressingly familiar. Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill currently own most of the ethanol plants in the US and also monopolise the systems handling the raw materials. Monsanto has just struck a deal with Sandia Laboratory to work on energy crops and is designing a new corn that produces better ethanol. Meanwhile supermarket giant Walmart has signalled its interest in selling ethanol for cars from all of its 3000 US stores. Moreover the increased importance of agriculture for the energy business may lead to new mergers and aquisitions.
Synthetic Biologists maybe able to create new microbes from scratch - but its the same old corporate parasites who will be feeding off the profits and remember: if Monsanto or Syngenta get gobbled up by Exxon or BP - you heard it here first.