Sustainable household products? Not if anti-GMO “green” groups have their way

“Green” household cleaning products are innovating cutting-edge biotechnology to become more environmentally friendly—but criticism from “green groups” could scuttle these advances.

A liquid laundry detergent made by Ecover, a Belgian household product company, contains an oil produced by genetically altered algae. It replaces palm kernel oil, which is associated with widespread deforestation as tropical rainforests give way to palm oil plantations. In other words, Ecover’s choice to use the algae-produced oil could help preserve fragile ecosystems and protect endangered species.

“Finding a sustainable source of palm oil is, of course, difficult,” Ecover’s manager for longterm innovation Tom Domen told the New York Times. “This new oil is a more sustainable alternative from a new technology.” Ecover’s detergent is one of several products using synthetic biology and other advanced biotechnology methods to improve their sustainability profile.

But anti-GMO groups, many of which are suspicious of genetics and technology, are having nothing of it. Canada-based organization ETC group, which tracks emerging technologies, representing 16 like-minded organizations and activists (including Consumer Reports’ lead anti-GMO campaigner Michael Hansen) is campaigning for a halt in the use of ingredients produced from synthetic biology:

We are writing as representatives of several international environmental, consumer and social justice organisations to formally ask Ecover and Method to reconsider its decision to use ingredients derived from synthetic biology in its products. … Ecover announced that it would replace some of the palm oil used in its laundry detergent with algal oil produced by Solazyme Inc. of California (USA), which is derived from the fermentation of Brazilian sugarcane. As you are aware, Solazyme’s proprietary product is ‘genetically tailored oil’ fermented in vats of bioengineered algae that were created using the tools of synthetic biology – often referred to as ‘extreme genetic engineering.’

Synthetic biology is a relatively new field of research that has been around for 20 years. A general focus in the field is to produce novel biological systems tailored for specific purposes. This occurs by using techniques in genetic engineering to create new strains of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts and algae. Many of the methods used are similar to traditional genetic engineering, but in synthetic biology, a greater degree of manipulation is involved. For example, a method called artificial gene synthesis is commonly used, which involves designing and creating DNA on computers and inserting the new DNA into microorganisms.

Another commonly used method is to create combinations of genetic material that are not present in nature. James Collins, a prominent researcher in synthetic biology at Boston University, calls it “genetic engineering on steroids.” Because scientists are able to manipulate microorganisms to such great extents, they can potentially coax the microorganisms to produce complex, valuable molecules with applications ranging from pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, biofuels and even food. These microorganisms could replace energy-intensive chemical processes traditionally used to produce those molecules by essentially being biological “factories.”

Related article:  Consumers Union claims ideology not issue, cites "safety and economic concerns" for proposed GMO ban in Jackson, Oregon

The benefits of replacing chemical factories with microbial factories range from reducing carbon footprint to eliminating the use of toxic chemicals to replacing environmentally destructive practices altogether. In Ecover’s case, substituting palm kernel oil with algae-produced oil lowers the pressure for ongoing widespread deforestation of tropical rainforests in Indonesia, which in turn destroys wildlife habitat, releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and exacerbates climate change.

While the field of synthetic biology that takes genetic engineering of microorganisms to a higher level is new, the idea of using genetically engineered microorganisms to produce useful molecules is not. There are several successful examples where traditional, resource-consuming processes for making important products have already been replaced largely with less resource-intensive microbial processes. These include the use of fermentation-produced chymosin in cheese, in which an essential coagulant rennet is produced from genetically engineered microbes as opposed to calf stomachs, and the production of insulin for diabetics from genetically engineered microbes rather than from pigs or cows.

These production methods have both been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and passed regulations. Fermentation-produced chymosin was approved with Generally Regarded As Safe status in 1990 while biotech insulin was approved in 1982. Synthetic biology also has its own prominent success story. For example, a group of scientists led by professor Jay Keasling at the University of California Berkeley managed to coax a type of yeast to produce a precursor molecule to the anti-malarial drug artemisinin using synthetic biology. Traditionally, artemisinin is produced from a plant Artemisia artua, and global supply of the drug came almost exclusively from farmers who cultivated the plant.

The uncertainty involved with the crop success affected the availability of the drug for patients afflicted with malaria, who numbered 207 million cases worldwide in 2012. Using the yeast to produce the precursor to artemisinin greatly stabilized the supply of the drug and the method has since been approved by the World Health Organization. However, anti-GMO groups do not see the benefits associated with synthetic biology, dubbing the microorganisms Synthetically Modified Organisms, or SMOs and launching campaigns to pressure companies like Ecover to remove ingredients produced with synthetic biology from their products.

In reality, the molecular products that come from microorganisms produced using synthetic biology are no different from those harvested in crops such as palm kernels or Artemisia artua, in animals like pigs and cows, or produced from chemical processes. As Eric Sawyer comments in Scitable, a Nature Education blog: “Cells really are little factories, and they are amazingly efficient at what they do.”

XiaoZhi Lim is a freelance journalist and former GLP editor and writer.

14 thoughts on “Sustainable household products? Not if anti-GMO “green” groups have their way”

  1. I hope Ecover tells them to stuff it. If these twerps keep palm oil substitutes away from consumers, it will be a major fail of so-called enviros.

  2. Truly bizarre is the presence of Consumers Union on the list of signers. They’ve jumped the shark — gone from straight science-based testing & advocating for safe consumer products to getting in bed with some pretty far out anti-biotech scaremongers. Sad to see a once-solid organization go down this rabbit hole. Credibility is hard to win and easy to lose.

    Call me doubtful that this campaign will get much traction. It doesn’t have the same salience as “OMG! There are genes in your food”.

  3. You don’t see these groups opposing all the valuable human drugs being made with these sorts of technologies. That might get the public to say, “hey, wait a minute – someone like me or someone I love might need that…”

  4. reworking the genetics of algae oil into something that can replace Palm oil is hardly the Frankenstein equivalent of what Monsanto has done….. you gotta pick your fights, and picking one with Solazyme is going to battle with somebody who is basically on your side,…. the Green side.

    • You don’t know that. You are guessing. Using linear thinking is fine for simple things that are well understood. I am not against genetic manipulation as a science in theory. But I have years of industry experience to know that many products once thought to be safe were later taken off the market. The list is too long to display here….but what have we learned from that experience? We have learned this: if we are to err it should be on the side of caution, not profit. A mistake made, careless or otherwise, could be catastrophic.

      • Then you also know that those unsafe products are outnumbered by the safe ones by several orders of magnitude. Once again the anti-gmo prediction of catastrophe is brought to bear and yet the gmo products have demonstrated a level of safety that organic products can only dream of.

    • What Frankenstein did any biotech company produce?

      (Strictly speaking, Frankenstein wasn’t even a hybrid, much less a GMO. He would be a grafted organism. If he were to have children, they would inherit whatever genes the donor of his genitals had).

  5. So basically these anti-GMO groups are being extremely short sighted and would rather have future generations inherit a non-sustainable world full of deforestation rather than a sustainable world with drastically reduced CO2 load. This sounds extremely selfish to me, caring only about their short term, short sighted agenda. To me, synthetic biology is paying forward a sustainable future for generations to come.

    • I respectfully disagree. If there exists a bias, the playing field is stacked in favor of business interests — not the interests groups with suspicions (regardless of merit) concerning genetically modified products. Such suspicions exist thanks to the quasi-regulated business interests. For example, it used to be that a new product (esp a new technology such as releasing genetic modified products) had to prove both safety and efficacy. No longer. The FDA is staffed by industry insiders who have conveniently changed the dynamic 180 degrees such that these industries, by-and-large, are self regulated. This institution bias does and should breed suspicion due to the obvious conflict of interest. Moreover, I see a pattern of immunity from liability should some non-disclosure or unintended consequence occur causing damages. In essence, under the new rules, the risks are socialized while the rewards are privatized. The notion that a genetically engineered product is “sustainable” is ridiculous on its face. Obviously sustainable is a political movement with nothing to do with true science (why would a household cleaner require the use of palm oil anyway? Surely substitutes exist that would negate the use of this product in any cleaner). Furthermore, mention of “CO2” is an obvious nonsequitur. Where the connection to genetically modified products? As a chemist the #1 greenhouse gas is water…..CO2 is so small….it is of little consequence. Mention of this serves only to confuse the reader or to make some emotional tie-in to trendiness — none of which has any real science behind it. Sorry…..the burden of safety needs to be on the manufacturer with independent studies — not corporate self-serving studies. This is just common sense…something I find lacking in the politically correct world of today.

      • ETC Group, Friends of the Earth, and the International Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology (a coalition organized largely by ETC Group and
        Friends of the Earth) are all agenda driven extremists, that are just looking for the next hype they can use to get more funding.

        All their FUD they are trying to spread is not peer-reviewed nor based on empirical analysis.

        They have no idea what they are talking about and because they lack any real evidence for their insane claims they use scary words like “extreme” and scary images for their simple minded followers.

        • Do you use language like ‘agenda driven extremists’ because you lack evidence for your claims?

          GMO is an emerging science with a very dodgy history. ‘Altered Genes Twisted Truths’ by Druker is an excellent read and should alarm any true scientist.

          It is clear that the science is not impartial and nowhere near as long term and thorough as a rational thinker would want it to be before being industrialised.

          We simply do not fully understand gene expression or epigenetics properly yet so while it appears to be safe we do not know the long term effects of genetic manipulation. Short term lab studies are simply not a reflection of the complex processes in nature.

          Our incredible faith (and it is faith in the main part, not rational at all) in science has lead to our species contributing to a max extinction event and changing the climate (or do you think claims of climate change is not scientific because the ‘extremist groups’ shout loudly about that too, and have done so in the face of ridicule for decades).

          The science on the many different harmful effects of many human activities is clear and sound. These ‘extremist’ groups often base their campaigns on this science or urge caution and seek to raise awareness where there is a lack of thorough science. They have led successful campaigns against many harmful practices from leaded fuel to pesticides, overfishing, dumping chemicals in water etc. If it were not for them and their ilk campaigning and raising public awareness about so many issues we would probably be in much worse condition than we are now.

          In this case it is a simple fact is that these products do not need to use GMO. Other ecologically sound products do not. Progress for progresses sake is what has led humans in creating the absolute mess they have made of the planet in the last couple of hundred years. Too busy being clever to be wise.

  6. Thanks for the article.
    All those eco-fanatics are attacking the wrong companies.
    All those “activist groups” are terribly misguided.
    They are agenda driven and blind in their hatred against every new technology, even if it will help this planet.

  7. Berkely raises only one point that I see to be valid to a degree. The “socialism” of risk. I do not like the degree of protection from liability offered to corporate stockholders and officers. Were this to be altered I believe that such problems as spraying agent orange in Nam may have prevented by execs who could have told the gov’t no. Too much liability for us to ship that overheated batch. Also the preponderance of safe products over those later found to have unacceptable side effects might be even higher than it has been. Further would you engage in day trading if owning Monsanto stock for a few minutes might cause you to lose your house? Encouraging investing instead of speculating would be a beneficial side effect.

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