Synthetic biologists, a brave new breed of science entrepreneurs who engineer life-forms from scratch, are holding their largest-ever global gathering in Hong Kong this week, known as “Synthetic Biology 4.0.”

Although most people have never heard of synthetic biology, it’s moving full speed ahead fueled by giant agribusiness, energy and chemical corporations with little debate about who will control the technology, how it will be regulated (or not) and despite grave concerns surrounding the safety and security risks of designer organisms. Corporate investors/partners include BP, Chevron, Shell, Virgin Fuels, DuPont, Microsoft, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland.

“Bankrolled by Fortune 500 corporations, synthetic biologists meeting in Hong Kong are promising a green, clean post-petroleum future where the production of economically important compounds depends not on fossil fuels — but on biological manufacturing platforms fueled by plant sugars,” explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group.

“It may sound sweet and clean, but this so-called sugar economy will catalyze an unprecedented corporate grab on all plant matter as well as destruction of biodiversity on a massive scale,” warns Thomas. ETC Group and other civil society activists will speak on a panel during SynBio 4.0.

A new 12-page report from ETC Group, “Commodifying Nature’s Last Straw? Extreme Genetic Engineering and the Post-Petroleum Sugar Economy,” warns that corporate biorefineries fueled by plant sugars will create a massive demand for agricultural feedstocks, which threatens to devastate marginalized farming communities, deplete soil and water, and destroy biodiversity.

The future bio-economy will rely on “extreme genetic engineering.” This suite of technologies is still in early stages of development. It includes cheap and fast gene sequencing, made-to-order biological parts, genome engineering and design, and nano-scale materials fabrication and operating systems.

The common denominator is that all these technologies — biotech, nanotech, synthetic biology — involve engineering of living organisms at the nano-scale. This technological convergence is also driving a convergence of corporate power.

Synthetic biology enthusiasts envision a sugar economy” where industrial production will be based on biological feedstocks (agricultural crops, grasses, forest residues, plant oils, algae, etc.) whose sugars are extracted, fermented and converted into high-value chemicals, polymers or other molecular building blocks.

The quest for the sugar economy is fueling high-dollar deals in the university-industrial complex, most notably the $500 million alliance between BP and University of California Berkeley. Corporate alliances also involve synthetic biology start-ups and some of the world’s largest corporations – including Big Oil, Big Pharma, chemical firms, agribusiness giants, automobile manufacturers, forest product companies, and more. For example:

• Amyris Biotechnology is attempting to modify the genetic pathways of yeast so that it ferments sugars to produce longer chain molecules of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. It recently signed a deal with Brazil’s largest sugar producer Crystalsev to turn sugar into commercially available diesel fuel within two years.

• Solazyme, Inc., which partners with Chevron, recently announced that it has successfully produced the world’s first microbial-derived jet fuel by synthetically engineering algae to produce oil in fermentation tanks.

• DuPont, in partnership with Genentech and sugar giant Tate & Lyle, engineered the cellular machinery of an E. coli bacterium so that it ferments corn sugar to produce Sorona fiber – a product that Dupont says will eventually replace nylon. It takes six million bushels of corn to produce 100 million pounds of the key ingredient in Sorona fiber – the annual output of DuPont’s Tennessee-based (USA) bio-refinery.

According to biotech industry estimates, it takes a minimum of 500,000 acres of cropland (that is, the crop residues or “wastes” from that area) to sustain a moderately-sized, commercial-scale biorefinery.  Advocates insist that the “food vs. fuel” debate will be irrelevant because feedstocks will eventually come from cheap and plentiful “cellulosic biomass”- plant matter composed of cellulose fibers (including crop residues such as rice straw, corn stalks, wheat straw; wood chips; and dedicated “energy crops” such as switchgrass, fast-growing trees, algae, etc.).

Synthetic biology’s grand vision of a post-petroleum economy depends on biomass – whether derived from “energy crops,” trees (including GE trees), agricultural “wastes,” crop residues or algae. If the vision of a sugar economy advances, all plant matter become a potential feedstock. Who decides what qualifies as agricultural waste or residue? Whose land will grow the feedstocks? An article in the February 2008 issue of Nature suggests that synthetic biology approaches “might be tailored to marginal lands where the soil wouldn’t support food crops.” (emphasis added)

The implications, especially for marginalized farming communities and poor people in the South, are profound. At a May 2006 meeting of synthetic biologists, Nobel laureate Dr. Steven Chu pointed out that there is “quite a bit” of arable land suitable for rain-fed energy crops, and that Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa are areas best suited for biomass generation. Failing to learn from the first-generation agrofuel train wreck, The Economist naively suggests that “there’s plenty of biomass to go around” and that “the world’s hitherto impoverished tropics may find themselves in the middle of an unexpected and welcome industrial revolution.”

“Haven’t we learned anything from the disaster of first generation agrofuels?” asks Camila Moreno of Terra de Direitos in Brazil. “Industrial agrofuels are driving the world’s poorest farmers and indigenous peoples off their lands. Agrofuels are the single greatest factor contributing to soaring food prices, pushing millions from subsistence to hunger. With synthetic biology’s sugar economy, the demand for plant biomass will increase exponentially — not just for transportation fuels, but for plastics and chemicals as well. We’re about to repeat the debacle of first-generation agrofuels on a more massive scale,” said Moreno, who will be speaking at SynBio4.0.

Advocates of synthetic biology and the bio-based sugar economy assume that unlimited supplies of cellulosic biomass will be available. But can massive quantities of biomass be harvested sustainably without eroding/degrading soils, destroying biodiversity, increasing food insecurity and displacing marginalized peoples? Can synthetic microbes work predictably? Can they be safely contained and controlled? How will they be regulated?

No one knows the answers to these questions, but corporate enthusiasm for a sugar-coated, bio-engineered future is plowing forward.

“Once again, land, labor and biological resources in the global South are in danger of being exploited to satisfy the North’s voracious consumption and reckless waste,” observes Neth Dano of Third World Network, who will also be speaking at the conference. “We’re seeing a new convergence of corporate power that is poised to appropriate and further commodify biological resources in every part of the globe,” said Dano.

ETC Group will be blogging from Hong Kong during SynBio 4.0. Watch for updates.