Genomics & Biotechnology

ETC Group has tracked developments in the genetic engineering of plants, animals and microorganisms since the early 1980s and tracked the transition of the biotechnology industry into a broader 'life sciences' industry spanning agriculture, pharmaceuticals, energy and chemicals production. Today, biotechnology encompasses a variety of techniques that involve the use and manipulation of living organisms to make commercial products (including cell and tissue culture, recombinant DNA technology and synthetic biology). Underlying the commercial manipulation of life are ever more powerful genomics technologies (gene-mapping) that enable companies to quickly 'read,' store and digitally analyze genetic information -- either of single organisms or entire ecosystems (known as metagenomics). ETC Group (then RAFI) was one of the first organizations to warn of the downside of genetic engineering of crops and livestock and has since kept an eye on developments in human biotech, synthetic biology, biowarfare and industrial biotech.

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Issue: Due to problems with scale-up, some synthetic biology companies are shifting focus away from biofuels to high-value / low-volume products – especially compounds found in plants (e.g., essential oils, flavours, fragrances, colourants and pharmaceuticals) – which are traditionally cultivated by farming communities in the global South. Synthetic biology companies are engineering ‘metabolic pathways’ in microbes to act as ‘biological factories’ that produce desired compounds.

Issue: The use of biotechnology to produce the intensely sweet thaumatin protein.

Plant: Thaumatin is derived from a fruit of a West-African rain forest shrub.

Countries affected: Product will be marketed as a low-calorie sweetener in Europe, Japan, USA

Impact: In combination with other newly developed sweeteners, these products offer the potential to erode traditional sugar markets

While some ETC Group staff were in Caracas strategizing with partners to strengthen the global opposition to Terminator, others of us were subjected to the slog of the CBD meeting in Granada. And one of us was spending a few days with unlimited access to free chocolate at Swiss Re's opulent Centre for Global Dialogue near Zurich.