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Synthetic biology and the “bioeconomy”: Feeding fuel to the fire of landgrabs and biodiversity loss

Posted Feb. 18, 2013 / Posted by: Jeff Conant and Eric Hoffman

When our friends at Global Forest Coalition asked us to write an article examining the links between the synthetic biology industry and trends in the forest sector, we were happy to put together the following article, a version of which has just run in their magazine, Forest Cover. -- Eric Hoffman and Jeff Conant

One of the driving factors in the first industrial revolution was the large-scale substitution of fossil fuels for wood, which had been the primary source of energy for millennia: when it came to energy production, trees took a back seat to oil and coal. Now, after our fossil fuel addiction has ravaged the global ecosystem, a second industrial revolution is underway which promises to reverse this paradigm – but not necessarily for the better. 

With the rapid development of a set of new technologies collectively known as ‘synthetic biology’, industry groups and the US Department of Energy are celebrating the advent of a new ‘bioeconomy’ — an energy and materials economy being promoted in the US, the EU and other countries, in which products and processes previously derived from petroleum will be produced by using biotechnology. By employing the rapidly expanding techniques of synthetic biology, the new industrialists want to turn microbes into ‘living chemical factories’. These genetically-altered microbes — yeasts, e-coli, algae and other living organisms — are now being engineered to break down biomass — living plants — to produce substances they would not produce naturally, such as biofuels, bio-plastics, industrial chemicals and oils, and even medicines.

There is of course a great need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, and a great imperative to employ the best science at our disposal to enable the transition. However, early indications show that simply swapping out petrochemicals for biomass-based fuels likely harbors all of the ill-effects of the fossil fuel economy, and brings the additional threat of ramping up the assault on biodiversity brought on by biotechnologies such as genetic engineering of crops.

Humans have already caused a state-shift in the global ecosystem, bringing the planet into a new geological era - the Anthropocene – where the collective impact of human technology has outstripped nature as the most potent force driving ecological cycles. So what happens when we turn to biomass and synthetic biology to run our industrial energy, food, and materials production systems?

These new ‘synthetic biology’ technologies push the limits of what was previously possible with ‘conventional’ genetic engineering. Rather than moving one or two genes between different organisms, as conventional genetic engineering does, synthetic biology is enabling the writing and re-writing of genetic code on a computer, working with hundreds and thousands of DNA sequences at a time, and even trying to re-engineer entire biological systems. Synthetic biology’s technique, scale, and its use of entirely new, artificial genetic sequences make it, in essence, an extreme and highly unpredictable form of genetic engineering.

Synthetic biology is a nascent but rapidly growing field, worth over US$1.6 billion in annual global sales today and expected to grow to US$10.8 billion by 2016. Many of the largest energy, chemical, forestry, pharmaceutical, food and agribusiness corporations are investing in synthetic biology research and development, or establishing joint ventures, in a race for this holy grail of biotech. A handful of products derived from synthetic biology have already reached the commercial market. Many others are in pre-commercial stages.

Critically, all these microbial production processes depend on the availability of industrial-scale supplies of feedstocks for fermentation tanks and bio-refineries. These include sugars derived from agricultural and forest biomass (both from natural forests and from monoculture tree plantations). This could have enormous impacts on biodiversity, and the livelihoods and food security of local and indigenous communities. With an estimated 86% of global biomass stored in the tropics or subtropics, developing countries are already being tapped as the major source of biomass.

But as the first signs of this biomass- and forest-grabbing begin to emerge, the temperate forests of the North are not off the hook either. A company called Mascoma, for example, has patented a technology it calls Consolidated Bioprocessing (CBP) in which “genetically modified yeast and bacteria convert cellulosic biomass into high-value end-products in a single step that combines hydrolysis and fermentation.” In 2011, ethanol producer Valero Energy offered US$50 million to build a refinery that would use Mascoma’s CBP process to turn wood into ethanol. The plant, in northern Michigan, is expected to produce 20 million gallons of ethanol a year to begin with, but eventually expand production to 80 million gallons per year.

According to the environmental assessment of the Mascoma plant, its mid-range production, 40 million gallons of ethanol a year, would require 71,000 acres of timber annually (given that it takes roughly one acre of forest to produce 563 gallons of ethanol).

What does this look like at scale? The US renewable fuel standard calls for no less than 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel by 2022. At 563 gallons per acre, that would require 28,419,182 acres of forest per year — an area of forest just shy of the entire state of New York, to be eaten by synthetic bugs and burned up as fuel every year — hardly what you’d think of as ‘sustainable.’ And, as Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch has pointed out, that is just for a portion of liquid transport fuels, on top of rapidly expanding plans to burn biomass for electricity and to manufacture a wide range of industrial products.

The dream of cellulosic biofuels is that they will (or so goes the theory) avoid the food-for-fuel conundrum that was a major factor in the world food crisis of 2007. In fact, so-called ‘next generation’ fuels will only exacerbate this problem, by transforming ‘low-value’ forest and agricultural ‘wastes’ such as straw, leaves and branches into high-value feedstocks. The  chemical and energy companies boosting synthetic biology and biofuels argue that they will grow biomass on unused ‘marginal’ lands. But, for land-based people in the global South, no lands are ‘marginal’; and for the complex dynamics of forests and agro-ecosystems, what industry posits as ‘wastes’ are important components the recycling of nutrients in soil, promoting biodiversity, and sequestering CO2.

Furthermore, the innovation of using synthetic microbes to break down cellulose makes all biomass potential fodder for fuel-production. While this may sound desirable from an industrial growth perspective, it will further incentivize the expansion of existing ethanol feedstocks, such as sugar and eucalyptus, into sensitive areas like the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado, accompanied by huge demands for water, fertilizer, and cheap labor. It will also put the entire terrestrial biosphere up for grabs as a fuel source.

While Mascoma is preparing to transform America’s northern woods into chips with its cellulose-eating microbes, another company leading the bioeconomy land rush, ArborGen, is genetically engineering trees to grow with less lignin – the woody stuff that makes trees stand up – so that they can be more easily converted into sugar for  biofuels. Through their work sequencing the genomes of eucalyptus, pine, and poplar, ArborGen is tied to the US Department of Energy’s National Laboratories and to the Joint Bioenergy Institute, a public-private venture whose primary mission is to develop the next generation of biofuels.

With the advent of the bioeconomy, our approach to energy, manufacturing and consumption is poised to wreak havoc on the planet’s remaining biodiversity. Yet despite these technologies’ rapid growth, there are no national or international regulations to insulate biodiversity and livelihoods from the potential ravages of synthetic biology and biomass energy and production. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has started to look at these issues, but failed to implement a moratorium at its recent negotiations in October 2012.

In the face of this new bio-industrial revolution, civil society, social movements, NGOs and governments must come together to bring an end to all forms of land and biomass grabbing. In addition, there must be a moratorium on synthetic biology – something Friends of the Earth is pushing for internationally – to ensure this emerging technology is properly regulated and does not threaten the environment, biodiversity, human health, or social justice. 

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