Food and Technology Blog

In fighting deforestation, lets celebrate our victories: but beware the law of unintended consequences

Posted Aug. 13, 2014 / Posted by: Jeff Conant

Campaigns to transform the palm oil industry are having clear success on many fronts:

  • Over twenty companies worldwide, including Unilever, Cargill, Wilmar, and Pepsico, have adopted sustainable palm oil policies of varying strengths in the past few years alone;
  • Singapore is poised to pass a groundbreaking law to hold companies accountable for burning rain forest in nearby Sumatra;
  • In Honduras, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation is increasingly under fire for failing to observe its own lending policies to one of the world’s most notorious palm oil companies.

This is all great news. But, viewed in the context of another development -- the emergence of a potential substitute for palm oil derived from the extreme genetic engineering of algae -- these victories demand that we keep our eyes on what we are ultimately fighting for, lest the law of unintended consequences take over and other potentially grave problems arise.

In shifting the palm oil sector, the most significant victories go beyond merely “protecting forests” -- though that is of course crucial -- towards efforts to build transparency, to hold corporations accountable for the harmful impacts they cause, and, in our view, to undo the unsustainable consumption and investment patterns that are root causes of the problems we are combating. 

Testament to this concern is the worrying emergence of technical efforts to replace palm oil in consumer products with newly invented oils derived through synthetic biology -- a set of extreme genetic engineering technologies that, at this juncture, is virtually unregulated and profoundly non-transparent.

Synthetic biology is a rapidly emerging biotechnology field that involves stripping organisms of their natural genes and replacing them with digitally created DNA codes to create new forms of life. Instead of swapping genes from one species to another (as in conventional genetic engineering), synthetic biology involves artificially constructing genetic material, to either create entirely new forms of life or attempt to reprogram existing organisms to do something unintended by nature. For example, algae and yeast have been "programmed" with genes that cause them to produce substances -- such as lauric acid, a palm oil and coconut derivative used in soaps and detergents -- that can replace nature's own compounds and be sold for a higher profit.

Because Friends of the Earth campaigns on both palm oil and synthetic biology, we have recently found ourselves in the midst of an ongoing dispute about whether to not it’s a good idea to “replace” palm oil with synthetic oils produced by genetically manipulated microbes. A blog post that Friends of the Earth's president Erich Pica published in the Huffington Post this week addresses a certain well-known, green company that we think is taking the wrong approach, and gets to the heart of a fairly complex matter.

One concern is that as the synthetic biology industry scales up it may increase the demand for sugar -- a plantation crop with local impacts every bit as bad as palm oil.

While the industry claims that synthetic biology could reduce impacts on land by producing products in labs rather than in forests and fields, these artificial organisms require sugar to live and reproduce. Increased demand for sugar would likely exacerbate the destruction of biodiversity hotspots, including Brazil's fragile cerrado and tropical forests in Latin America, Africa and South East Asia, as well as the notorious slavery-like working conditions prevalent in sugarcane plantations across the tropics.

For anyone who thinks we can get out of the deforestation dilemma merely by substituting palm oil for other ingredients without addressing the unsustainable production and consumption that is at the heart of our untenable relationship with the natural world, please give the HuffPo article a read. It might make you think again.

Image credit: Andrzej Krauze/New Scientist

 

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