Methodology

The original list of ingredients for the GMO 2.0 Ingredients Database were identified by ETC Group during a six month desk research project undertaken between September 2016 and February 2017. Drawing on a decade of experience monitoring developments in the field of synthetic biology including a previous set of case study reports (See here) ETC Group undertook an initial scan of the literature to identify companies, products, ingredients and processes that were identified as either ‘synthetic biology,’ ‘white biotechnology,’ ‘metabolic engineering,’ ‘genome editing,’ ‘biosynthetic’ or where techniques of modern biotechnology were used in a fermentation production process.

 

Following this initial scan, ETC Group then examined other applications by those commercial entities who appeared to be using next generation genetic engineering techniques – drawing on patent documents, website information, trade press, news releases and technical and scientific papers. In most cases, therefore, the ingredient entries in this database were identified by beginning with the technology and exploring where it has been applied (technology-led approach) rather than starting with the ingredient and exploring if a GMO 2.0 version had been developed (ingredient-led approach). In limited instances ETC Group also pursued an ingredient-led approach, looking into key ingredients to determine if biosynthetic versions of those ingredients were yet under development or in use.

 

Where ETC Group has determined an ingredient is likely to be from a GMO 2.0 source according to the definition given below, we have included it on this database with as much identifying information as we have available (e.g., ingredient brand names, partner companies, CAS no.). However, such determinations are only indicative and provisional. If a company contacts ETC Group stating in writing that an ingredient in question is not from a GMO 2.0 source we will review any information provided to us and are happy to amend our database in light of such information. We are also glad to receive information regarding GMO 2.0 ingredients we have overlooked in our research and any additional identifying information.

 

ETC Group has coded ingredients on this database as either red, orange or yellow according to how close they are to commercial use.

  • Red indicates GMO 2.0 ingredients for which we have found evidence that indicates the ingredient is already on the commercial market

  • Orange indicates GMO 2.0 ingredients where a commercial player has signalled an intention or timeline to bring the ingredient onto the market

  • Yellow indicates GMO 2.0 ingredients that are under research and development (either commercially or otherwise), but for which there is not specific information regarding plans to bring the ingredient to the commercial market.

 

Definition of ‘GMO 2.0’

 

The term GMO 2.0 is not a legally-defined term. In the context of this database, its meaning is taken to be largely synonymous with ’synthetic biology,’ which is also a term with varied definitions. The most authoritative definition for synthetic biology is currently the operational definition developed by the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) on Synthetic Biology under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This broad definition places synthetic biology as a set of further developments in modern biotechnology on a continuum with previous genetic engineering:

“Synthetic biology is a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.”

 

In December 2016, 196 countries formally adopted this definition as a starting point for technical and scientific discussions under the UN Biodiversity Convention.

 

For the purpose of assembling this database ETC Group looked particularly for applications of modern biotechnology in the manufacturing of ingredients that included some of the following as hallmarks:

 

  • Use of genetically engineered microbes where genetic engineering includes DNA synthesis, genome editing, directed evolution or so-called ‘new breeding techniques’.

  • Construction, editing or other deliberate re-engineering of metabolic pathways within a production organism to produce a novel desired compound or to increase production of a compound.

  • Where an engineered organism acts as a fermentation agent. In general we did not include simple use of enzymes derived from genetically modified microbes unless the enzymatic process had been deemed ‘synthetic biology’ by the company using the method or by a third party.

 

Clarifying questions were often asked directly to companies, only some of whom chose to reply.

Lack of transparency and misleading terms

In the course of researching this database, ETC Group discovered that there is a tremendous lack of transparency regarding the use of next generation genetic engineering techniques for commercial ingredient production. We learned that several prominent synthetic biology companies (E.g., Amyris, Evolva, Gingko Bioworks) were working on and producing portfolio’s of undisclosed ingredients often for undisclosed commercial partners, described only by code names. We heard allegations that large fragrance, flavour and ingredient suppliers were believed to be routinely mixing synthetic, including biosynthetic, compounds into their ingredients and mixes or spiking botanical sources with synthetic compounds with little to no transparency. We learned that terms including ‘natural,’ ‘non-GMO,’ ‘nature-identical,’ ‘cultured’ and ‘fermented’ were being routinely used by companies to describe GMO 2.0 ingredients, misleading producers and consumers alike. ETC Group suspects that use of GMO 2.0 ingredients is much wider than we have been able to uncover.