Bioctechnology, colonialism, and the spice trade

Genetically engineered yeasts are producing high-value organic chemicals by incorporating biosynthesis from other plants. This is way cool from a scientific point of view, as the bio technologists engineer the plant mechanisms that make valuable flavors like vanillin or an anti-malaria drug.

But the article discusses the negative impact bioengineered products like this might have on third-world growers of these spices and flavorings. Right now, the “real” vanilla extract you buy comes from places like Madagascar where the vanilla beans are grown. Artificial vanilla extract, mostly pure vanillin, has a less interestingly complex flavor. The artificial flavor certainly competes with natural bean vanilla, but the bioengineering is just a (potentially) better way to make the product than the current synthesis from wood pulp by-products or petrochemicals.

Where does the colonialism come in? Vanilla (and chocolate) is native to Central America. It was brought back to Europe in the 16th century as the expanding trade empires sought new flavors. Gold is a scarce and finite resource. Exotic spices are renewable and, while less glamorous, were probably a better business proposition in the long run. The vanilla plants were transported around the world to other tropical areas where they could be grown away from the Spanish empire. Over a few centuries, vanilla plantations developed to supply the demand. However, the huge demand for vanilla flavor led to several syntheses of vanillin.

Currently, natural vanilla only accounts for some 15% of the market. The first synthesis was from clove oil, which seems like it would limit the value added since you’re starting with another tropical spice. The synthesis from lignin (wood pulp waste) was dominant for most of the 20th century, but now the major method is from guiacol or, as organic chemists might name it, ortho-methoxyphenol.

So, should we be concerned about the poor vanilla farmers? Not really, since the demand for vanilla is still much higher than the growers can supply. And really good synthetic vanillin still won’t have the complex flavors that the natural beans generate through hundreds of other components.

I say, relax and be happy. The vanilla story is just a microcosm of what biotech can do – and better chemicals are no doubt in the pipeline. Now I think I might just have some ice cream….

Our motto: Surfing Wikipedia so you don’t have to.

Update: while I’m here enlightening the masses, my loving family has EATEN ALL THE ]{}}#*^{#+ ICE CREAM!!!!!!!!


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