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Happy woman takes bottle of milk out of fridge, test on left reads "Food grown on soil, not in a lab. #DAIRYMONTH with the Non-GMO Project"June is National Dairy Month! We're celebrating natural dairy by investigating an interloper in the dairy aisle, a wolf in cow's clothing: synthetic biology dairy proteins. Synbio proteins have fed the biotech's growing dairy presence in recent years, spawning a range of products made with non-animal dairy proteins.

So far, these products include GMO milk, cheese spread and ice cream. It's important to note they aren't the same as plant-based dairy alternatives like oat milk or coconut milk ice cream. Plant-based products can be made naturally, and many are Non-GMO Project Verified options

Non-animal dairy proteins, on the other hand, are another (non) animal altogether.

What is synbio dairy, precisely?

Non-animal dairy proteins are made through synthetic biology ("synbio"). Synbio techniques generally use genetically engineered microorganisms to produce novel compounds (in this case, dairy proteins) through fermentation. 

Rows of fermentation tanks in an industrial buildingPicture this: Massive steel fermentation tanks housed in warehouses are populated with genetically engineered microorganisms such as yeast. The GMO microorganisms are fed a steady diet of simple sugars, which are broken down through fermentation. Genetic engineering instructs those microorganisms to produce dairy proteins. Then, the dairy proteins are separated from the growth medium, and combined with flavorings, texturizers, colorants, etc. to create synthetic milk products.  

The synbio process is antithetical to a non-GMO or regenerative dairy operation. On a real dairy farm, the livestock is cows, not herds of microorganisms. The cows eat grass, non-GMO feed or a combination of the two, while microorganisms are fed simple sugars. Cows produce whole milk, and the byproduct is cow manure, which is a natural fertilizer. Microorganisms produce dairy proteins through a combination of genetic engineering and fermentation. The byproducts include significant biohazardous waste. Milk and cream are whole foods, whereas the ingredient panel on non-animal milk comprises more than a dozen other ingredients.

Synthetic biology isn't just for dairy proteins. It can be used to generate a wide range of compounds, including flavors, scents, vitamins or other additives. Currently, synbio ingredients show up in virtually every aisle in the grocery store. The companies behind these products use the marketing term "precision fermentation" to describe synthetic biology to their customers, but the products it describes are precisely unnatural.

Venture capital and future outlook

In the last five years, the Non-GMO Project's biotechnology research team has tracked a sharp increase in biotech developers exploring synthetic biology. That proliferation reflects the staggering private investment and the exponential growth of unnatural synbio ingredients.

In the words of SynBioBeta founder John Cumbers, "Once synthetic biology can direct cells to change identity, the possibilities could be only limited by our imagination." As the technology evolves to include new methods and products, synbio's presence in the supply chain grows. 

"Just about all of this new food technology is heavily funded by tech oligarchs, venture capitalists, or the occasional celebrity," writes author and industry expert Errol Schweizer. (Schweizer serves on the Non-GMO Project's Board of Directors and is a panelist in the upcoming seminar, How Do You Milk a Microbe? How Synbio is Disrupting the Dairy Industry). Investors are focused on monopolizing emerging markets. "Think: Uber, Doordash, Instacart, Amazon. The investors throwing billions of dollars at such enterprises are not altruists, even if some are motivated by animal rights or climate change." 

You are what you eat

Synbio dairy isn't the first GMO to impact the dairy industry. 

Traditional GMOs, such as genetically engineered corn, soy, cotton and alfalfa, are common ingredients in conventional livestock feed, and their production dominates North American agricultural land. Other ingredients that appear in synbio dairy product formulations — such as sweeteners and starches — are assumed to be sourced from GMOs. Non-GMO Project verification ensures that your favorite dairy products meet the highest standard for GMO avoidance.

While livestock farming can involve various practices and outcomes, we believe the future is non-GMO and regenerative. We continue to work toward reducing the dairy industry's environmental impact, moving towards carbon sequestration, healthy people, animals and soil. Join us next week when we explore the regenerative potential of dairy operations and compare synbio's environmental footprint.

Until then, look for the Butterfly in the dairy aisle and beyond!

This spring we’re exploring biotech’s biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series Are GMOs really going to save the world?  

In our final piece of our three-part series, we examine the prospect of a global lab-based food system. Could synthetic biology be the key to producing food in a changing climate, or just a lot of hot air? Don't forget to check out Part One of the series, Genetically Engineered Golden Rice: Real Hope or Misplaced Hype? and Part Two, How Useful are GMOs on a Warming Planet?

Since the rise of industrial agriculture during the 20th century, our food system has been writing checks the earth can't cash. The biotech industry continues to develop new GMOs for human consumption, marketing some of them as must-haves for feeding a growing population on a warming planet. But, do biotech's promises hold when we examine them in detail?

New GMOs' performance in yield and adaptability is uncertain. Still, some downstream impacts are foreseeable: Patented GMOs will nearly certainly usher in a new era of privatization in the food supply, resource monopolies and even more industrialization. 

What do you think — could the solution to industrialization in our food system be more industrialization? 

We're skeptical, too.

Old MacDonald had a "ferm"

Have you heard of "precision fermentation"? It's a genetic engineering technique popping up at trade shows and in the media. Precision fermentation is a marketing term for synthetic biology (or "synbio"), a process that generally uses genetically modified microorganisms to produce a variety of compounds for food or industrial use. Synbio vanillin, some scents or flavors, synthetic vitamins and specialty ingredients such as Impossible Burger's blood-like "heme" are produced using this technique.

According to activist and writer George Manbiot, synbio (aka precision fermentation) will save us all.

In 2020, Manbiot penned a controversial article for the Guardian proposing synthetic biology as the ideal production model for most human food. Farming, he wrote, must be replaced by "ferming," a system under which proteins, egg and dairy replacements would come from giant vats in labs and warehouses, and the remaining carbohydrate residue would be transformed into our favorite comfort foods. By adopting a lab-based food system, Manbiot argues we could rewild agricultural landscapes and curb environmental disaster.

Leaving aside for a moment what we imagine would be a tidal wave of unforeseen impacts and micronutrient deficiencies, is such a future even possible? 

The first issue concerns practicality: Global "ferming" would involve a dizzying amount of new infrastructure. A lab-based food system takes production indoors, requiring immense amounts of energy. Even if we were to convert to green energy, completely replacing the natural and elegant process of photosynthesis  and moving our food production indoors isn’t efficient.

There's also another kind of fuel to consider — the "food" needed to sustain those genetically modified microorganisms so they can churn out the compounds we'll later consume. Synbio frequently employs simple sugars such as sugar cane, genetically modified corn or genetically modified sugar beets. Growing enough food for our food brings back the industrial monocultures of GMO crops that "ferming" was meant to replace.

Finally, there's the issue of food system monopolization, which results in negative impacts for just about everyone who eats. Currently, just four agrichemical companies own more than 60% of the global seed supply and a handful of food manufacturers control the most popular grocery store products. Global "ferming" would likely increase our dependence on private ownership. A recent article in Forbes summed up the problem of precision fermentation and privatization: "What will be the implications for a single company to own the formula for milk, honey or eggs?" (The article's author Errol Schweizer serves on the Non-GMO Project Board of Directors). Keep in mind, market monopolies work wonderfully for the corporations who hold them, but "consumers, farmers, small food companies and the planet lose out if the top four firms control 40% or more of total sales." 

Unsurprisingly, industrial systems tend to approach complex and interconnected problems with industrial-style solutions. However, extractive approaches badly distort the issues and root causes of serious problems, preventing meaningful and effective remedies. Additionally, the biotech industry's genetically engineered solutions — such as "precision fermentation" and other new GMOs — prioritize costly quick fixes over systemic changes and accelerate the privatization of the world's food supply.

Thankfully, the path forward needn't be so grim. There are authentic, agroecological solutions to our most grave problems, solutions that prioritize the welfare of people and the planet over shareholder profits. New pathways emerge by working holistically with the whole food system — and the people whose work drives it.

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