A disturbing article appeared in The New York Times this morning, detailing the work in progress by fragrance and flavouring congomerates such as IFF, Sanofi and Evolva to produce (with ‘extensive genetic rejiggering’), synthetic substitutes of vanilla, saffron, and patchouli using GM yeasts. Utilizing a new technique called synthetic biology, lab technicians are able to not only approximate the scent of these biologically complex aromas, but will also, because they originate from organically active yeasts, be able to make claims for them as ‘all natural products’, destined for products including icecreams, confectionery, and perfume. While I hate to come across as reactionary, I must say that I find the idea of these beautiful, naturally harvested crops being potentially usurped by money-grabbing mega-corporations quite horrifying. While ‘supporters’ of the new technology (read shareholders) cite advantages for ‘consumers’ in the lowering of prices for fluctuating commodities such as vanilla and saffron, I’m afraid I can only play the cynic and believe that the only benefits to the destruction of livelihoods in vanilla-producing countries such as Madagascar and Java, the saffron-crocus fields of Iran, would be for the executives of these bio-perverting companies, in the form of added bonuses for their doubtlessly already overflowing retirement portfolios.
No, I am far more inclined to agree with the spokesperson for Friends of the Earth who states: “There’s nothing ‘natural’ about a genetically engineered yeast that excretes vanilla flavouring”. And having spent those five magical days on the Villa Domba vanilla plantation in western Java this August, seeing first hand how much love, care and attention goes into the production of just one ripe, deliciously scented vanilla bean, all in a magically atmospheric community of people who are involved, heart and soul, with the manual labour required to produce a beautiful plant destined to give so much pleasure to people all around the world, I could weep when I imagine that such family-run enterprises might become obsolete, or else damaged financially, when their circumstances are already precarious at best. Any further losses to the vanilla farmers of Madagascar, for example, already some of the poorest people on earth, could be truly devastating.
I am no fool. I am of course aware that the vanillin used in my beloved Shalimar and other perfumes originates in petrochemicals, from the by-product of wood-processing and other means. And I am not averse to synthetics in perfumes per se, particularly when they allow novel olfactory experimentation and produce new aromas that never existed before ( I recently bumped into a friend, Aru, who was wearing one of the perfumes by Escentric Molecules, for example, and I thought he smelled really lovely: fresh, clean, woody in a way that was quite arresting). One of the joys of modern perfumery is certainly the apparent limitlessness of the perfumer’s imagination when such an enormous palette of ingredients lies waiting at his or her fingertips. The true fragrance lover wants authenticity and novelty in perfume; to be surprised and comforted simultaneously. But surely there are limits to what must be re-created,? Particularly when the original natural is perfection itself?
Even more shocking to me in some ways in this article were the descriptions of the work currently being done by biochemists on the chemical compounds valencene and nootkatone, synthetic flavourings that aim to replicate oranges and grapefruit respectively. When I think of the sense-rushingly lovely scent of natural citrus fruit, not to mention their inherently healthful properties, not only for our bodies but our also psyches, I feel a mournful sense of helplessness in reading that there are people out there who would willingly decimate the livelihoods of citrus farmers across the world in order to replace them with these supposedly ‘environmentally friendly’ bastardizations. As Jim Thomas, a researcher at the ETC group, a Canadian technology watchdog, says, ” They are going after pockets of tropical farmers around the world”.
Am I being just too much of a romantic, too naïve? Is it only me who finds a vision of a synthetic dystopia upsetting, or do you also find the idea of natural spices and other plants, the wonderful oranges, patchouli, saffron and vanilla that we love in our perfumes and food, being replaced by these tampered, mass-produced frankenyeasts repugant and deplorable?