Africa’s farm products could be pushed out of global market by synthetic biology

Tuesday April 14 2015

Genetically modified grape vines in France. The extreme form of genetic engineering threatens to deny Africa its share of the global market for some agricultural products. PHOTO | AFP

An ongoing expansion of an extreme form of genetic engineering threatens to deny Africa its share of the global market for some of its most lucrative agricultural products.

The technology enables companies to synthetically produce some farm products more cheaply than they are produced naturally on the continent. They do this by manufacturing the basic biological ingredient of a crop (DNA), and injecting it into unrelated plants for mass production.

Some of the crops being produced through this genetic engineering are stevia, cocoa butter, artemisia and vanilla. In Africa, these crops are grown in Kenya, Uganda, Madagascar, Ghana, Comoros and Reunion Islands.

Major oil companies have supported the production of compounds that can convert plant material into biofuels and plastics. Already, there are reports that major consumers have been entering into contracts with biotech companies for the supply of cheap vanilla, Artemisia, cocoa butter and other products.

Some multinationals are said to have contracted lS9 Inc for the development of microbes that can ferment plant cellulose into synthetic petrol, jet fuel or plastics.

If this scheme succeeds, then major oil producing countries such as Nigeria may lose business. US biotech giant DuPont has been converting about 40,000 acres of maize into plastic using synthetically produced yeast.


Big oil companies are said to have financially supported Synthetic Genomics Inc. On its website, Synthetic Genomics Inc says: “We are using this technology, and developing new and more advanced methods, to create the next generation of renewable and sustainably produced biology-based products. From new vaccines and therapeutics, food and nutritional products to humanised organs for transplant, biofuels, bio-based-chemicals, and agricultural solutions, we are producing products through our own programmes and with industry leading partners.”

A leading multinational consumer goods company is said to be funding the synthetic production of palm oil, which may affect prices for palm oil produced in Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

READ: Multinationals say they use biotech because some natural products are hard to find

Across Africa, there is lack of information on synthetic biology and the risk it poses for health and markets of some products from the continent. The African Union has asked civil society bodies that have been involved in an anti-synthetic biology campaign to involve governments in the cause.

Among the corporations investing in synthetic biology are six of the leading 10 chemical companies globally, six of the top 10 energy companies, six of the top 10 grain traders and the top seven pharmaceutical companies.

The United Nations has called for an investigation into the technology following a unanimous decision last November during global talks held in South Korea when 194 countries called for its regulation. The fear is that its application has been taking place at a time when there is no information on its effects on human health and no regulations to control it.

“The danger is that, unlike normal genetic engineering, which is regulated by the Cartagena Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), there is no international agreement or convention on synthetic biology, nor are there national or local systems of regulating it,” Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, a Nigerian legal expert from the ETC Group, told The EastAfrican.

ETC (Erosion, Technology and Concentration) addresses socio-economic and ecological issues created by new technologies.

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana), a natural sweetener originating from Paraguay, is grown in Meru, Bomet, Nandi, Nakuru, Baringo, Kericho and Laikipia in Kenya. Reputed to be 350 times sweeter than ordinary sugar, stevia is used to control diabetes and can be harvested six times each year.

It is used in the production of 5,000 food products and drinks whose global sales were $110 million in 2013 and are expected to rise to $565.2 million by 2020, capturing 15 per cent of the global sweetener market. Coca-Cola uses stevia in the production of 45 of its products.

Stevia was introduced into Kenya by a Malaysian company, Pure Circle Inc, which is reputed to be the global leader in its production and buys about 20,000 tonnes of stevia leaves each month from more than 2,000 Kenyan farmers.

But two companies, Cargill and Evolva Holding SA, are using synthetic biology to produce two equivalents of stevia — Rebaudioside M (or Reb M) and Rebaudioside D (or Reb D).

On May 20, 2014, the two companies announced that they would jointly develop the compounds responsible for the sweet taste of stevia leaves (called steviol glycosides). They plan to launch the products in 2016 and are expected to market them to Coca-Cola.

Artemisia (also called wormwood), cultivated for the production of artermisinin, the highly expensive active ingredient used in Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy (ACT) that is recommended by WHO in treating malaria, is produced by about 100,000 Asian and African farmers and has an annual market of $90 million.

The ACT drug (also known as Coartem) is owned by Novartis, a giant pharmaceutical company that has a monopoly on ACT drugs and buys most of the world’s artemisia from tens of thousands of smallholder farmers in China, Vietnam, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Uganda, Gambia, Ghana, Senegal and Brazil. ETC Group says that in East Africa, about 1,000 small-scale farmers and 100 larger scale farmers currently grow artemisia.

“In light of global demand and recent campaigns to reinvigorate the fight against malaria, that figure is expected to grow to approximately 5,000 smallholders and 500 larger-scale farmers,” ETC said.

A report by the Royal Tropical Institute of the Netherlands says that Africa would be instrumental in bridging the global shortfall in artemisia, if 17,000-27,000 hectares are put under the plant.

But this is now threatened by the ongoing attempts to synthetically produce artemisinin.

“Growing artemisia is risky and will not be profitable for long because of the synthetic production that is expected to begin in the near future,” the ETC Group said.

Artificial production of artemisinin has its origins in a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which reportedly gave $53.3 million to researchers based at the University of California-Berkeley, who synthetically produced artemisinic acid and converted into artemisinin.

It was then licensed to an Italian company, Sanofi, which began the world’s first commercial production of synthetic artemisinin in April 2013.

Consequently, “prices crashed from more than $1,100 per kilogramme to around $200 per kilogramme, driving 80 processors and many small farmers out of business,” said ETC Group in a report, Sythetic Biology, Biodiversity and Farmers; Artemisinin, a SynBio Case Study.

Other crops facing similar threats are coconut oil, which is a base for the production of oleochemicals (chemicals derived from plant fats); saffron, considered the world’s most valuable spice, 90 per cent of which is produced by Iran; and vetiver oil, a fragrance used in cosmetics, on which 60,000 Haitians depend.

Madagascar, Comoros and Reunion account for 75 per cent of the global production of vanilla beans from which vanillin, a highly useful fragrance and flavour, is derived and whose global trade rose to $150 million in 2013.

But the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers in Kenya, Uganda, DRC, Tanzania, Malawi and India is threatened as Evolva and US-based International Flavours & Fragrances have joined hands to artificially produce the key flavour compounds found in vanilla.

On their part, Unilever and Ecover, the Belgium-based plastics and detergent-making company, have incorporated synthetically produced algae oil into the manufacture of soaps.

The rise in synthetic biology has also created international controversy pitting giant multinational biotech companies and industrial nations against developing countries and civil society groups.

In October 2014, at the UN talks, industrialised nations Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Japan, Brazil and the European Union, openly differed with developing countries from Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean over the need to regulate it.

Industrialised countries were more concerned about catering for the interests of domestic biotech industries, while developing countries expressed fears for the livelihoods and interests of millions of small-scale farmers.

“What we are seeing here is a fight between a handful of rich states and the poor states of the global South, whose farmers and biodiversity are threatened by the new synthetic biology industry,” Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America director for ETC Group, was quoted as saying.

African farmers rely on the natural production of useful plants not just for food but also for individual and family incomes while countries depend on them to earn foreign exchange.

About 80 per cent of the population in East African Community partner states depend on agriculture for their livelihood while the sector accounts for 34 per cent of GDP in Burundi, 32 per cent in Rwanda, 29 per cent in Kenya, 25 per cent in Tanzania and 23 per cent in Uganda.