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Production Of Synthetic Artemisinin An Attack Against Farmers Currently Growing The Plant

“On Thursday, the founder of Amyris Biotech triumphantly announced production of 70 million doses of the anti-malarial compound artemisinin,” Jim Thomas, research program director for ETC group, a technology watchdog that works with farmers’ organizations, writes in The Guardian’s “Poverty Matters” blog. “This sounds like good news for poor people but may be a step backwards — the start of a new hi-tech assault on farmers,” he continues, noting, “Until this week, artemisinin for drugs was sourced entirely from the delicate leaves of artemesia annua (sweet wormwood), following sustained efforts to develop artemesia growing as doubly beneficial: a source of livelihood for African and Asian farmers, and a public health good.” He adds, “What makes Amyris’ breakthrough significant is that its version has never been near a wormwood shrub. It comes from an industrial vat of bioengineered yeast.”

“Vat-grown artemisinin is highly attractive to large pharmaceutical companies such as Sanofi Aventis,” as “[t]hey will now avoid the complexity of sourcing from thousands of farmers and 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) in Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique, India, Vietnam and China,” Thomas writes. “As for artemesia farmers, this announcement is an assault on their livelihoods,” he adds. But Jay Keasling, the key synthetic biologist behind the project, “argues that putting artemesia growers out of business accompanies a laudable public health move: some growers sell to producers of questionable artemisinin monotherapies, which in turn may give rise to artemisinin resistance,” he notes, adding, “Farmers are unfortunate collateral damaged.” Thomas states, “Unfortunately, far from an isolated story, today’s artemisinin threat is just an opening salvo in a volley of potentially damaging market disruptions involving [synthetic biology (synbio)],” concluding, “In the fight between people and microbes, bioengineered microbes may have just opened up a new economic line of attack” (4/12).