PLAYING GOD WITH SAFFRON & VANILLA: THE IMMINENT THREAT OF GENETICALLY-MODIFIED FRANKENSPICE

 

 

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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?

 

 

 

 

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49 Comments

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49 responses to “PLAYING GOD WITH SAFFRON & VANILLA: THE IMMINENT THREAT OF GENETICALLY-MODIFIED FRANKENSPICE

  1. I am so glad to see this article get serious attention from a knowledgable perfumisto. I am certainly not opposed to synthetics although I think there are some things that naturals do better, but I do seriously oppose the labeling of synthetics in ways that indicate that they are purely natural products, and I strongly oppose endangering small farmers and wildcrafters with confusing labeling which suggests that a yeast labors “naturally” in the same sense that a vanilla farmer does.
    I think that there will always be a difference between the lab stuff and the naturally crafted products, which discerning (obsessed?) consumers will want to seek out. After all, despite extensive commercial use of Ambrox DL, Ambroxan, and other ambergris mimics, real ambergris tincture wAs greatly different the first time I smelled it. I worry more that the mass-produced products will drive so many artisanal producers out of business that a crucial mass of knowledge about how to produce the best will be lost.
    Sounds really pessimistic, I realize, and this is coming from a fairly optimistic reader! I hope I’m wrong.

    • I am with you entirely!

      I am also more optimistic by nature, ultimately, but one CAN plunge, sometimes, especially reading things like this.

      And I don’t know if I am knowledgeable, but I do know that the experience this summer really made me see things in a new light regarding agriculture.

  2. More and more natural ingredients are being banned by IFRA, EU et al, so I guess this is a “natural” development. Which does not mean I think it’s good, it is merely one more sad instance of the sad direction we are all heading in. (Can you tell I am a pessimist?)

  3. Neil, I will back to comment on this most excellent post.

  4. Right, I need to think about this more and do some research but I am so glad that you have highlighted this development to the Perfume Community.

    Perfume as well as evaporating is of course absorbed by the skin and presumably traces of what we wear find their way through our livers and kidneys. I am happy to be corrected here by you or your commentators.

  5. Reblogged this on The Fragrant Man and commented:
    Neil from the Black Narcissus reports his reaction to a story this morning in the New York Times. I will do some further research before I comment myself. What do you think of this development?

  6. You are definitely not being naive. I think you are absolutely correct about not wanting to dilute original scents. I’m all for it. Not only would this take away the authenticity but more importantly affect the farmers who toil hard to produce these crops. I completely agree with the spokesperson for Friends of the Earth who stressed on the deficiency of the love and care that goes into the making of such wonderful plantations! The amalgamation of technology used to overtake nature’s reins and selfish conglomerates will never be able to come up with something as selfless, noble and compassionate as the people who put their heart and soul in it.

  7. Neil I am with you on the growing communities but I would like a grain of yeast musk please.

    • Well you know, regarding the liver, and skin, and what we must be putting into ourselves over the years synthetically as mad perfumistas I am not informed enough to comment on. I actually do sometimes worry about it sometimes, and yeast sounds almost healthy to be honest, in comparison.

      My reactions to the article were very instant and instinctive: I read it, made myself a coffee, came downstairs and just typed the post out while in a rush for work.

      In hindsight, it all probably looks rather childish and one-sided (you can imagine the chilling jeers from Luca Turin or Chandler Burr if they were to read such a thing), but I have a strange policy of just writing; doing a quick edit, and then pressing ‘post’, even where there are things I am not entirely happy with, as I feel it preserves some kind of psychological integrity. Sometimes I wish I could spend days smoothing out and sanding down an article and producing something perfect, like Grain De Musc does on a regular basis, but then I just think fuck it.

    • I think this is an interesting point you know.

      Despite (and here I am about to completely contradict myself) my high and mighty stance on the yeasts, I know exactly what you mean about the musk, and the strangely alluring potential, in a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory way, of being able to just produce any flavour that you want. It’s like Jelly Beans: that thrill of recognition, even though you know you are imbibing a mini chemical orchestra with each one. I do feel the horror of it all (especially in terms of human cost: my thoughts went immediately out to the people I was staying with in Indonesia), but at the same time, humans are humans, and we do love a bit of fiddling, experimentation and new discovery. If you are going for musk, I might ask for a perfect cherry almond – Bakewell Tart in a bottle.

  8. Katy

    I do not want science to be utilized to replace the odors I love with genetically modified versions of them. I want science to find things that smell wonderful and already exist in the world in their natural state. What about remarkable yeast? What is their natural smell? They make beer, wine and bread wonderful. They enhance flour, hops, grapes, malt, grains and grapes. We do not need them to fool our senses. Get busy, science people!

    • That’s a lovely idea, actually. Something totally new, odd, beautiful, coming out of these forays into yeast instead of these odorous, but somewhat sinister, chimera.

      I don’t know. I think I am just slightly ridiculous but just the THOUGHT of a beautiful saffron crocus, and then the knowledge of how gorgeous that smell is, and how precious it is, make anything with real saffron in so much more pleasurable. The knowledge of its travels across the world, its history, its appearance, its beauty. All that can be cancelled out instantly in a moment of beery sludge.

  9. I thought about this overnight, and increasingly it seems to me that there is a strong element of removing us from the natural world that we live in. In all honesty, if yeasts could make a musk that smelled precisely like that of the musk deer I would wear it in perfumes and be thrilled, so I recognize my own hypocrisy here, but so many of our natural ingredients aren’t endangered and do support small agrarian communities, and that lifestyle is endangered enough already. But beyond that, there is an element of assuming that the lab IS the natural world, and that making a distinction between the naturally produced and the extensively engineered is somehow passé.

    • Definitely. Hence my slight embarrassment at the dorky, impassioned adolescence of my post. It DOES feel passe (sorry, don’t know how to activate the French accents when actually within the chambers of the Black Narcissus) to question these things, and for that I think we have writers such as Chandler Burr and Luca Turin to thank for, as they savage, probably quite rightly from a chemist’s point of view, anyone who dares to suggest that ‘natural’ (such a loaded term!) is preferable to synthetic.

      CITRUSES though, I ask you. I personally NEED THOSE NATURAL.

  10. Lilybelle

    I am so with you on all of the above; and you are not being naïve. The environmental and economic consequences of GMOs have not been properly considered, especially in view of the fact that ex-employees & lobbyists of bio tech giant Monsanto, for example, now occupy important positions with the Food & Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they’re the ones doing the analyses reporting these things are “safe” – hmm…no conflict of interest there, I suppose.

  11. I don’t find any of your thought processes about this naive. Isn’t this just how the Green Revolution grains were sold in the 70s: anyone who didn’t like the idea didn’t want to see world hunger end? And that turned out how, exactly?

  12. No need to be embarrassed about starting a deep and meaningful discussion Sir. You gave us a newsflash immediately and passionately. The tempering of that will be the interesting part. Nothing wrong with a human reaction. There is a lot to think about here including yeast infections!

  13. Dearest Ginza
    The Dandy is perhaps out on a limb here, in that I do not object at all to the development of new synthetics or their application to products where they are safely and creatively used ways which enhance rather than diminish our experience.
    The majority of plant varieties cultivated by human beings are strictly speaking ‘synthesised’ as they are the result of inter-species pollination and centuries, if not millennia of intentional cross fertilization by mankind.
    Though I am not ignorant enough to believe that this is the same as the new bio-technologies that are emerging, they are phenomena along the same continuum, surely.
    Holding back the progress of science for the notion that we are currently in possession of ‘the perfect perfume’ or, indeed, on the basis that we should maintain people in a grating but somewhat, to our eyes, picturesque, poverty does indeed seem reactionary, if you’ll forgive me for saying so.
    Equally, given that it was, to a large extent, naive lobbying on the part of ‘environmentalists’ and ‘health campaigners’ who brought us to the ludicrous situation where practically everything natural in perfume is to be removed and only the artificial remain, we should perhaps be mindful of unintended consequences.
    Might banning these new substances ultimately harm the art of fragrance, already hamstrung by IFRA’s interventions, whilst doing nothing to assist the plight of producers of natural products the world over?
    I think so.
    I do agree with others that such products should not be allowed to be emblazoned with “100% Natural” and other spurious advertising claims. I also believe that much could and should be done to control the operations of the major agri business and biotech companies, such as preventing the patenting of pre-existing genetic codes, limiting the length of patents, and protecting the shared knowledge status of processes already used by indigenous and first nations peoples.
    We, as perfume buyers, should also seek to influence the hands of the fragrance and favour businesses that buy natural products in bulk to pay far prices for those commodities, effecting change in the same way as consumer power is leading (slowly) to a revolution in coffee and cocoa production.
    Sitting back and pontificating and pointing fingers at everyone whilst absolving ourselves seems just a mite hypocritical.
    Equally, holding back the endeavour to expand human knowledge, expertise and ingenuity though seems retrogressive to say the least.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • Dearest Dandy, you have caused me to rethink my position, and here’s my reframe: I too am opposed to banning technology, but I am in favor of watching closely whether it needs two kinds of regulation: prevention from being labeled as something that it is not, and prevention from gaining control of the livelihoods of others via a patented technology. We have the example here in the US of a company heavily engaged in engineering crop plants so that its own pesticides and herbicides are required to produce crops, and the pollen of their corn spreading so wildly through wind drift that all nearby fields are heavily pollinated with it, and the company testing the surrounding fields and demanding large royalty payments for the “use” of genetics that the surrounding farmers didn’t even want. Back when the first earnest efforts were made to genetically modify plants to be more adaptable and nutritious, we didn’t imagine that many years later a corporate dragon would be using its multimillion dollar legal department to crush small organic farmers. And that is the kind of nightmare that I don’t want to see happen to the spice and vanilla farmers. I hope that we can think ahead this time and come out with a better balance, but I do think that foresight and prudence are called for, and those are two qualities that tend to be in short supply when profit looms. Just my opinion. Ginza, I think this is one if your most interesting threads ever, and Dandy’s thoughtful contributions always get the rest of us thinking.

      • Dearest Feral
        I’m absolutely with you on the points you make.
        “Accidental” adulteration of entire bio systems by a modified crop should be punishable under a regulatory regime rather than being a gateway to new profits for multinational.
        The key here I feel is in the approach we take to intellectual property. Nothing that is pre-existing should be patentable. Intellectual property must extend only to that created and not discovered.
        So, if it became possible to replicate the vanilla molecule of a particular high quality species produced in a remote part of the world exactly (doubtful) then the resulting molecule would not be subject to patent only the process by which it is created and that only for a relatively short period of time.
        Attempts by corporate behemoths sit behind the blurring of this line and absurd attempts to ‘copyright’ things which occur naturally and have been known to local civilisations ‘forever’.
        The other element in all of this is to examine the complacent conservatism that leads us towards idly protecting the status quo. The fact is that producers of raw materials in the developing (and increasingly, once again the developed) world are continuously exploited and underpaid for their commodities.
        Addressing this is a key concern for living standards of people around the world, rather than standing Knut-like in the face of the tide of unstoppable scientific advancement.
        I’d second your thanks to Ginza for starting this conversation, it has certainly got my grey cells working again!
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

      • Marion

        Dear Dandy, yes there is a long continuum in plant and animal breeding and I can see your argument regarding science. But will we learn from some of the ghastly mass experiments gone wrong? The DDTs, the nitromusks, even glyphosphate, a lynchpin of that dragon behometh, is gathering doubts even while they promote their roundup ready GM as hard and fast as they can…

      • Basically I honestly believe that the current behemoth model is inherently evil, unfair, immoral. The only motivation is financial gain, no matter what the cost; the only real ‘winners’ those highest up in the company.

        Vile.

    • Sanity and clarity lies here.

      You have articulated what I was feeling underneath my top layer emotions.

      Agree about the ‘picturesque’ images of plantation workers as well, actually, though the place I was on did seem like a decent, lovely place (who knows how much was being airbrushed for us, however).

      • Just one more thing though, Dandy.

        Don’t you have any sentimental, poetic, pastoral attachments to the essences of natural plants?

        Your progressive egalitarianism genuinely impresses me, making me feel like an irrational old fool. At the same time, my love of essential oils, and of plants and nature in general, is so potent that I will be forever biased on the flowers’ behalf. They live. They breathe. Who knows, they might even think. We cull their life force; this speaks through the perfume.

  14. This article nearly brings me to tears as i think of my dear friends in Indonesia, Laos and Madagascar who depend on crops for livelihood. I realize that there is exploitation in many of these markets and that this exploitation is further enhanced by 1st world buyers who support imperialist spice traders and who would rather pay $100 for 30 ml of semi-real product than $160 for 15 ml of ethically cultivated nature. You are being naive if you think that these chemicals will enhance our olfactory palette, sounds like substitution is the goal and with the FDA being run by former CEOs of agribusiness and pharma the patents are no doubt on their way.

    • Ugh. I am very inclined to agree with you, unless some kind of coexistence is possible, with the discerning going for the naturals.

      Still, the growers will doubtlessly suffer….

      • There is a part of me, the natural perfumer part, that kind of likes the idea of a stable resource outlet. I make a perfume with 6 natural ingredients + iso E and of the 6 naturals I have had to substitute 3 in my latest iteration and the changes are noticeable and i play this game where i tweak concentrations until i come very close to the original. Perfumers always say stock up on something you’re going to do in volume but even then the original pow factor of the fresh opoponax is lost after sitting for a few years.

      • Very interesting. What kind of perfumes do you make?
        Are they commercially available?

  15. L.

    Very interesting post, and I very much enjoyed reading the discussion that spawned from it.

    I am in two minds about this. As a scientist myself of course I am greatly supportive of scientific advancement… but with caveats. Nor am I necessarily opposed to machines doing the work of human beings; convenience is what technical advancement is about after all. There is no doubt that synthetics enhance the perfumer’s palette, and indeed are practically necessary to fine perfumery, but the developments in synthetics detailed in your post sound as if they intend to substitute elements on the palette rather than add to it. Of course, there will be people out there still willing to pay for the original, real vanilla and saffron, but there’s no doubt that the demand for these original commodities will greatly diminish, especially given that “all natural” tag..

    Of course as other commenters in this post have noted, there are the overarching problems of exploitation, poor working conditions etc. of most people in production/gathering of exported goods in developing countries. However, I hardly see how the development of substitute synthetics will improve matters for Indonesian vanilla farmers. (Not that I have the answers either… the problem lies in the typical consumer’s inclination toward cheap food, cheap fashion, etc.) There are complicated labour economics at play here, and a big portion of the people who would still buy natural vanilla, saffron etc even with the availability of synthetic ingredients – blithely “eco-aware” individuals, who will buy things so long as a “100% organic” label is attached – will now have a cheaper “all natural” option… personally I do not have much sentimental attachment regarding natural essences and products; for me it is the underlying picture of economy and ethics.

    I too am disgusted with the corporate mindset which I consider responsible for many problems that persist in the world today. (Simply talking to one of my cousins, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, is enough to make me despair for humanity ) Tangentially related, but I am not opposed to buying clothes and products made in developing countries- people there need to eat too!- if I knew that my shirts were being made in human working conditions. But of course, mass U.S. retailers refuse to be held accountable for the ethics of their products (http://jezebel.com/your-favorite-stores-arent-signing-the-bangladesh-safe-508184391) Mass corporations are not concerned with such trivialities like the safety and livelihood of 3rd world workers when there is a profit to be made.

  16. Scary. We will not know what is real and what is not.

  17. robert

    I just want to add that we should embrace the natural world AND synthetic biology at the same time. I always feel the two are placed opposite one another. We live in the 21st century, we should use the tools at our disposal to face the future.
    btw great article and comments !

  18. My relatives always say that I am wasting my time here at net, but I know I am getting know-how every
    day by reading such nice articles or reviews.

    • Thank you. It’s very easy to get addicted to the internet, but how we can stop? There is so much to find out on there.

      At the same time, it’s sometimes nice to just switch it off for a weekend and experience the ‘unplugged’ life, as it used to be.

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