Hard candy

A Bad Bet on Synthetic Biology

Earlier this month, the international food conglomerate Cargill chose the famous Las Vegas Strip to introduce what it hopes will be its next blockbuster product: EverSweet, a stevia sweetener that contains no stevia. What happened in Vegas should stay in Vegas.

LAS VEGAS – Las Vegas seems to be an apt place to launch a risky corporate gamble that could destroy the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers. Earlier this month, the international food conglomerate Cargill chose the city’s famous Strip to introduce what it hopes will be its next blockbuster product: EverSweet, a sweetener made of “the same sweet components in the stevia plant.”

And yet, despite Cargill’s heavy reliance on stevia in its promotional material, EverSweet does not contain a single leaf of the plant. Cargill’s new product is an example of synthetic biology, a form of genetic engineering that uses modified organisms to manufacture compounds that would never be produced naturally. What makes EverSweet taste sweet is not stevia; it is a compound produced by a bioengineered yeast.

Synthetic biology is high-tech, and it is also potentially high-risk. Even as it attracts billions of dollars in investment, it is the subject of growing international concern. Tellingly, Cargill does not advertise its use of the controversial technology; instead, the company describes EverSweet as the product of “specially crafted baker’s yeast,” as if it were a recipe brewed for centuries in Bavarian villages.

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