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Oct 262012
Cross-posted from Thomsen/Reuters, by Roberta Rampton and Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON | Wed Oct 24, 2012 6:48pm EDT

(Reuters) – Biofuels made from algae, promoted by President Barack Obama as a possible way to help wean Americans off foreign oil, cannot be made now on a large scale without using unsustainable amounts of energy, water and fertilizer, the U.S. National Research Council reported on Wednesday.

“Faced with today’s technology, to scale up any more is going to put really big demands on … not only energy input, but water, land and the nutrients you need, like carbon dioxide, nitrate and phosphate,” said Jennie Hunter-Cevera, a microbial physiologist who headed the committee that wrote the report.

Hunter-Cevera stressed that this is not a definitive rejection of algal biofuels, but a recognition that they may not be ready to supply even 5 percent, or approximately 10.3 billion gallons (39 billion liters), of U.S. transportation fuel needs.

“Algal biofuels is still a teenager that needs to be developed and nurtured,” she said by telephone.

The National Research Council is part of the National Academies, a group of private nonprofit institutions that advise government on science, technology and health policy.

Its sustainability assessment was requested by the Department of Energy, which has invested heavily in projects to develop the alternative fuel.

In 2009, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture awarded San Diego-based Sapphire Energy Inc more than $100 million in grants and loan guarantees to help build a plant in New Mexico that will produce commercial quantities of algal biofuel. Two other companies received smaller amounts of federal assistance.

In February, as gasoline prices spiraled, Obama said algal biofuels had the potential to cut U.S. foreign oil dependence. He estimated that U.S. oil imports used for transportation could be cut substantially.

The National Research Council report shows that the government should continue research on algal biofuel as well as other technologies that reduce oil use, an Energy Department spokeswoman said.

“Today’s report outlines the need for continued research and development to make algal biofuel sustainable and cost-competitive, but it also highlights the long-term potential of this technology and why it is worth pursuing,” Jen Stutsman said in a statement.

The council’s report noted that future innovations, and increased production efficiencies, could enhance the viability of algal biofuels.


It said a main reason to use alternative fuels for transportation is to cut climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions created by burning fossil fuel. But estimates of greenhouse emissions from algal biofuels cover a wide range, with some suggesting that over their life cycle, the fuels release more climate-warming gas than petroleum, it said.

The product now made in small quantities by Sapphire uses algae, sunlight and carbon dioxide as feedstocks to make fuel that is not dependent on food crops or farmland. The company calls it “green crude.”

Tim Zenk, a Sapphire vice president, said the company has worked for five years on the sustainability issues examined in the report. “The NRC has acknowledged something that the industry has known about in its infancy and began to address immediately,” he said.

He said Sapphire recycles water and uses land that is not suitable for agriculture at its NewMexico site, where it hopes to make 100 barrels of algal biofuel a day by 2014.

The U.S. Navy used algal biofuel along with fuel made from cooking oil waste as part of its “Green Fleet” military exercises demonstration this summer, drawing fire from Republican lawmakers for its nearly $27 per gallon cost.

The council study also said it was unclear whether producing that much biofuel from algae would actually lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The report shows the strategy is too risky, said Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

“Algae production poses a double-edged threat to our water resources, already strained by the drought,” Michal Rosenoer, a biofuels campaigner with the group, said in a statement.

Industry group Algal Biomass Organization focused on the positives in its statement.

“We hope that policymakers and others involved in the future of the domestic fuel industry will recognize the NRC’s conclusion that sustainability concerns are not a definitive barrier to future growth.”

(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Christopher Wilson)

Aug 062012

From Science Magazine

Germany’s National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina has come down firmly against the use of crops for energy. In a reportissued today from a panel of more than 20 experts who have been working together since 2010, the academy concludes that biofuels should play only a small part in the move toward sustainable sources of energy. Biofuels use more land area, generate more greenhouse gas emissions, and have a greater impact on the environment than other alternative energy sources such as photovoltaic solar energy, solar thermal energy, or wind power. Biofuel crops may also find themselves competing with food crops for valuable land.

Mar 292012

By David Perlman

Thursday, March 29, 2012 — A plan by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to merge its energy labs into a major new research facility in Richmond where scientists would work to develop biofuels through genetic engineering came under fire Wednesday by activists who fear that dangerous new microbes would be created there.

And even if the venture succeeds in transforming plants into biofuels by altering the genes of microbes, the activists argued, the Richmond lab could become an unregulated front for corporate interests and turn millions of acres of croplands used to grow food in underdeveloped countries into huge plantations for energy production.

Their protests reflect deep concerns about the dramatic new science called “synthetic biology,” an unfamiliar term that in part involves engineering the genes of microbes to transform worthless plants like switchgrass into potentially unlimited sources of energy. The controversy also recalls an epic time in science nearly 40 years ago when manipulating genes was in its infancy and the public was deeply fearful that some genetically altered “Andromeda Strain” microbe might escape and imperil the world with unknown diseases.

That fear was largely ended when, after a 1975 conference at Asilomar near Monterey, biologists, lawyers and physicians agreed on enforceable guidelines for proceeding with genetic engineering projects.

It marked the first time that scientists agreed to be regulated and led to the public start of recombinant DNA research and what would become the huge international biotech industry.

New concerns

Concerns about engineering “synthetic biology” are arising anew among activists.

On Wednesday, they gathered at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley to express their concerns that the new research lab would be a poorly regulated entity with ties to unknown energy companies, that the work there would expose employees to dangerous microbes and, if successful, ultimately rob undeveloped nations of their croplands.

“This is a wild, wild, dangerous world,” said Becky McClain, a onetime molecular biologist at a Pfizer lab in Connecticut who claimed that she had been sickened by a genetically engineered virus and was fired for speaking out about it.

“We can’t afford to leave it to the corporations to self-regulate,” said McClain, who won a $1.37 million lawsuit against Pfizer as a whistle-blower.

Gopal Dayaneni, an Oakland organizer, argued that the entire project – with so many engineered microbes – should never be built where earthquake hazards are high.

“The grand promise of getting off fossil fuels to create biofuels is a big pipe dream,” he said. “It’s bubble economics.”

Jim Thomas, a former science researcher for Greenpeace International, called the Richmond project an example of “extreme genetic engineering” for the benefit of what he termed a $1.6 billion energy industry that is already represented by at least 20 Bay Area companies.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is financed by the U.S. Department of Energy, as are the labs and facilities that are being merged into the new Richmond research center.

Protests called baseless

A leader in creating the Richmond venture on Wednesday called the protests baseless.

The engineered microbes to be used in the quest for new biofuels “are the very same microbes that have been used by the biotech industry for the past 40 years,” said Jay D. Keesling, a pioneer in the synthetic biology effort and the founding director of the Berkeley lab’s original synthetic biology department.

They are safe, he insisted, but where they were originally created by biologists, they will now be made even safer by the thoroughness of engineers.

“The whole point of synthetic biology is to make every step in the process more predictable and more reliable, and we’re very aware of the safety concerns and aware too of the social problems involved,” he said.

Using wastelands

Nor would food croplands be sacrificed for new biofuels, Keesling said. The countless acres needed would be wastelands where only otherwise useless plants like switchgrasses would be grown for biofuel, he said. “There’s really no market for that kind of land,” he said.

As to the charge that the new Richmond research center will be dominated by corporate interests, Keesling insisted it will remain completely independent of the energy industry.

“That’s not to say that we won’t interact with industry,” he said.

The Richmond project will have an annual budget of between $200 million and $250 million, Keesling said – 95 percent of it from the U.S. Department of Energy, and a smaller amount from the National Institutes of Health.

It will combine the work of several Bay Area biofuel laboratories: the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek; the Joint Bioenergy Institute in Emeryville, where Keesling is now the chief executive officer; and the Life Science Division of the Berkeley Lab.

David Perlman is a San Francisco Chronicle science editor.

This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Read more:

Mar 272012

From the San Jose Mercury-News

By Emily Smith Beitiks

Special to the Mercury News

Posted:   03/27/2012 01:01:26 PM PDT

Updated:   03/27/2012 02:39:14 PM PDT
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently announced a proposal to build a facility in Richmond at which synthetic biology research will be a major focus. This news should give us pause to consider exactly what risks this little-known field poses for the environment and human health.

Last year, molecular biologist Becky McClain was awarded $1.37 million in a whistle-blower suit against the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer after she was fired for raising safety concerns about the lab where she worked. McClain was infected with a genetically engineered virus being researched in her lab. She continues to experience intermittent paralysis and spinal pain, symptoms consistent with the effects of the pathogen.

McClain’s story offers an important lesson for assessing a new kind of bioengineering: the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology, which has already been called genetic engineering on steroids.

Synthetic biologists build artificial organisms using the building blocks of life. While techniques vary, the intent is the same: to create life from scratch. Proponents promise extraordinary benefits, from curing diseases to replacing fossil fuels. But the unknowns are as serious as they are numerous.

Producing a synthetic organism could have unforeseeable and serious effects on the environment. In May 2006, 38 environmental and social justice organizations wrote an open letter to synthetic biology researchers, asking that governmental safeguards be put in place and studies be conducted to assess the risks posed by synthetic life-forms. Six years later, experiments continue without adequate data to assess risk.

Lab workers and nearby communities would be the first exposed to any artificial life forms that escape from synthetic biology facilities. That the new Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will bring synthetic biology research to Richmond is especially troubling, given the history of toxic exposures in this poor, predominantly of-color community. Yes, the Richmond lab may create jobs, but will they be safe jobs?

Given the pace of synthetic biology’s expansion, especially in California, the slow pace of federal monitoring is unacceptable. In 2010, the Presidential Commission for the Study on Bioethical Issues produced recommendations for governance of synthetic biology. Two years later, of the commission’s 18 recommendations, seven had “no federal activity,” and not one has been completely fulfilled.

UC Berkeley anthropologist Paul Rabinow provided a glimpse inside a lab after he evaluated SynBERC, a Berkeley-based synthetic biology lab. According to the New York Times, Rabinow found the scientists to be “profoundly irresponsible” and indifferent toward their “responsibility to larger society” to ensure public safety above all else.

Supporters of synthetic biology say that the organisms they create are too fragile to have serious environmental health consequences. Perhaps their confidence is warranted. But doesn’t it make sense to put safeguards in place?

Most synthetic biologists argue that we should trust scientists to regulate themselves. But many of them have received corporate funding. Synthetic biology pioneer Craig Venter’s company, for example, has a $600 million dollar deal with Exxon. Will corporate profits come before public safety?

As plans for the Richmond lab proceed, we must demand that synthetic biologists revisit the basic lesson from high school chemistry class: safety first.

Safety for communities, workers, and the environment will be the focus of a forum in Berkeley on March 29 where these issues will be discussed. Called Unmasking the Bay Area Bio Lab and Synthetic Biology, this will be the first open forum on synthetic biology brought together not with an industry-driven agenda, but in the public interest. To learn more, go

Emily Smith Beitiks is the senior program associate with the Center for Genetics and Society, a Berkeley-based social justice non-profit. She wrote this for this newspaper.


Gene Drive Resources


Here are five new gene drive organisms that various forces are planning to release into the wild in the near future:

“Bee Subordinate”

Species: Apis mellifera, Apis cerana indica
Developed by: Elwha LLC
Status: Patent filed; technology theoretical
Hype claim: Wild bees engineered to only
pollinate fields that emit a certain light
Reality: Corporate power over agricultural

A US company has filed a patent for genetically modifying the most common honey bees, proposing to install engineered ‘optogenetic’ genes into the honey bee population.[1]

These would theoretically be switched on and off by an external light beam, influencing which fields they pollinate.

Will a genetic tractor bee-m actually change which fields bees pollinate? Bee experts are skeptical [2].

[1] Maxim, L., & van der Sluijs, J. (2013). Seed-dressing systemic insecticides and honeybees. In European Environment Agency. Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation. European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[2] Patent: US2016/0310754A1

“No More Minnie”

Species: Mus, Rattus
Developed by: GBIRD Project, DARPA, Roslin Institute UK
Status: Active research
Hype claim: Eliminate invasive rodents, save endangered birds on islands
Reality: May be applied in agribusiness and spread to wild populations

Rodents cause losses for large-scale agricultural operations estimated in the tens of billions. One proposed solution is to eradicate them using “X-shredder” technology – so named because it disables x chromosomes, resulting in all-male offspring.[3]

Meanwhile the GBIRd project (Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents), also proposes using “daughterless” gene drive organisms to remove rodents from islands by genetic targeting. However, GBIRd is mainly funded by the US Department of Defense, so when it comes to disappearing Minnie Mouse, there may be more than meets the eye.[4]

[3] McFarlane, G. R., Whitelaw, C. B. A.,   Lillico, S. G. (2018). CRISPR-Based Gene Drives for Pest Control. Trends in biotechnology, 36(2), 130-133.

[4] Esvelt, Kevin M, Andrea L Smidler, Flaminia Catteruccia, and George M Church. ‘Concerning RNA-Guided Gene Drives for the Alteration of Wild Populations.’ ELife 3. Accessed June 20, 2018.

“Goodbye Kitty”

Species: Felis Catus
Developed by: Australian Wildlife Conservancy, CSIRO
Status: Theoretical
Hype claim: “Male only” gene drive cat will wipe out feral cats, protect birds
Reality: May spread into domestic and endangered cat species

Cats down under are in the crosshairs of gene drive extinction technology. A billionaire banker is funding Australian scientists to produce a “goodbye kitty” gene drive. They hope to release a gene-drive cat to mate with feral cats. Theoretically, the offspring would all be male, eventually reducing feral cat numbers–and attacks on birds. If the drive works, it will likely will cross over to domestic cat populations. If Australian cats reach other continents, they may endanger wild cat populations. Almost no genetically engineered mammals have been released into the wild, so a “goodbye kitty” gene drive would cross many risky new frontiers.[5]

[5] See:

“Adios Amaranth”

Species: Amaranthus palmeri
Proposed by: Kevin Esvelt
Status: Theoretical
Hype claim: Make pigweed more vulnerable to glyphosate herbicide
Reality: Could spread to wild and domestic varieties of Amaranth, an important Indigenous food crop

As weeds become more resistant to the chemicals used to kill them, agribusiness giants are seeing a decline in value. For example, Bayer-Monsanto’s roundup (glyphosate) is less and less effective against pigweed (aka Palmer Amaranth).[6]

According to one report, the company could use gene drives to “re-sensitize” pigweed to Roundup. Among other effects, such a move could result in permanent changes to the genetic code of other kinds of Amaranth, which are an important crop for central american Indigenous nations.[7]

[6] Esvelt, Kevin M., Andrea L. Smidler, Flaminia Catteruccia, and George M. Church. ‘Emerging Technology: Concerning RNA-Guided Gene Drives for the Alteration of Wild Populations.’ ELife 3 (July 17, 2014): e03401.

[7] See:

“PR Buzz Mosquito”

Species: Aedes aegypti, Anopheles gambiae
Developed by: Target Malaria, DARPA, UC Riverside, UC San Diego
Status: Active research
Hype claim: Eliminate diseases by killing off the mosquitoes that spread them
Reality: Likely won’t work; covers up the real story of gene drives

Just as GMO crops used golden rice as a humanitarian smokescreen, gene drive organisms have mosquitoes. The idea is simple: use gene drives to prevent malaria-carrying mosquitoes from producing female offspring, or change them to be repelled by human scent. Changing entire species in the wild using genetic technology that we don’t yet understand could have many unintended consequences and probably won’t eliminate malaria, but the most dangerous effect could be clearing the way for other gene drive applications. In this respect, the US Military’s $100 million investment in extinction technologies is cause for concern.[8]

[8] See: gene drive files:

Dec 042017

Gates Foundation paying $1.6 million to influence UN Expert Process

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over 1,200 emails released under open records requests reveal that the U.S. military is now the top funder and influencer behind a controversial genetic extinction technology known as “gene drives” – pumping $100 million into the field. The trove of emails, obtained via open records requests, also shed light on a $1.6 million dollar UN gene drive advocacy operation paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Emerging Ag,” a private PR firm paid by the Gates Foundation, is working behind the scenes to stack key UN advisory processes with gene drive-friendly scientists, and has recruited ostensibly independent academics and public officials into a private collaboration to counteract proposed regulations and to resist calls by scientists and conservationists for an international moratorium. Some of those recruited entered into the UN discussions without divulging their conflicts of interest or the role that paid political consultants played in shaping their inputs.

The files, dubbed “The Gene Drive Files,” additionally cast a spotlight on the central role of the shadowy U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as the key funder now accelerating gene drive development. For example, DARPA is now revealed as the major financial backer of efforts to develop gene drive mammals (mice) that are led by a U.S. environmental NGO, although DARPA has no biodiversity conservation mission, raising questions about the defense agency’s intent. These revelations come on the heels of a public warning issued by a leading gene drive researcher Dr. Kevin Esvelt that current gene drives are too powerful to be used in conservation.

“Gene drives are a powerful and dangerous new technology and potential biological weapons that could have disastrous impacts on peace, food security and the environment, especially if misused,” said Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “The fact that gene drive development is now being primarily funded and structured by the U.S. military raises alarming questions about this entire field.”

“Gene drives could have profound global impacts, and these emails reveal a secretive attempt to game the system by gene drive proponents aiming to minimize essential regulations and oversight,” said Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth, U.S. “We need more transparency about who is influencing critical decisions about the future of global ecosystems, people’s livelihoods, or our food system.”

“In response to this news that the integrity of technical processes under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) may have been compromised, civil society groups will urgently raise the need for better disclosure of interests within a framework for addressing conflict of interest at the CBD,” said Lim Li Ching of Third World Network.

“Mosquitoes containing gene drives are being proposed for malaria control in Africa. While claiming potential health benefits, any application of such powerful technologies should be subject to the highest standards of transparency and disclosure. Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Releasing risky GM organisms into the environments of these African countries is outrageous and deeply worrying,” said Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of The African Centre for Biodiversity.

Information revealed in the Gene Drive files includes:

  • The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is reported to have given approximately $100 million for gene drive research, $35 million more than previously reported. If confirmed, DARPA appears to be the largest single funder of gene drive research on the planet.
  • Emerging Ag, a privately-held public relations firm, received over $1.6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work on gene drive topics and to focus on exerting influence on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the key body for gene drive governance. Following calls in 2016 for a globalmoratorium on the use of gene drive technology, the CBD sought input from scientists and experts in an online forum. According to the Gene Drive Files, Emerging Ag recruited and coordinated over 65 experts, including a Gates Foundation senior official, a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) official, and government and university scientists, in an private attempt to flood the official UN process with their coordinated inputs.
  • The attempt to covertly influence the UN process online centrally involved three members of an associated UN expert committee (The Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology). Two of them are from institutions that together received over $100 million in U.S. military and other funds expressly to develop and test gene drive systems. One served as “stakeholder engagement lead” for a Gene Drive development project. The Expert committee meets this week in Montreal Canada.
  • The secretive JASON group of military advisors have undertaken two classified studies on genome editing and gene drives at the request of the U.S. government. The gene drive study, which included input by a Monsanto executive, focuses on hostile use of gene drives and use of gene drives in agriculture.
  • DARPA is revealed to be funding a high profile UK team of researchers targeting African communities with gene drive mosquitos. This funding was not previously made public.
  • The files reveal how far along the two leading gene drive teams (Target Malaria for the UK and GBIRD, based in North Carolina) have proceeded towards building gene drive organisms and are preparing for open field trials, including steps to select test sites in Australia, New Zealand, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Mali and Ghana, and to create government and community acceptance of the use of gene drives in key testing sites.



The Gene Drive Files may be accessed at:

The Gene Drive Files consist of records recently released in response to U.S. and Canadian open records requests. The bulk of the files are from North Carolina State University, and were released on 27 October 2017 under a request by Edward Hammond/Third World Network. The files also include records from Texas A&M University, also requested by Edward Hammond/Third World Network and released on 21 August 2017 (Request TAMU R001428). Additional records from an Access to Information request filed in Canada by ETC Group are also included at the same site.

Please take note of the information provided (readme file) on proper citation of the records.

Background on Gene Drives:

For more information, see letter from civil society to the Convention on Biodiversity Executive Secretary: “Addressing conflict of interest issues in the CBD, its Protocols and subsidiary bodies,” published December 4, 2017

Aug 222017

Documents show that makers of the “Impossible Burger” ignored FDA’s warnings about safety of burger’s key GMO ingredient

Cross-posted from ETC Group. 

August 8, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Creators of a fake-meat burger made with a high-profile genetically engineered ingredient may have landed their experimental industry in a sizzling food safety mess, casting doubt on a Silicon Valley foodtech investor bubble.

As reported on in today’s New York Times, recently obtained documents from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reveal that Impossible Foods, maker of the Impossible Burger, the meatless burger that supposedly “bleeds,” was told by FDA officials that it hadn’t provided adequate proof of safety for a genetically engineered protein that gives the burger its meat-like taste and color. Impossible Foods put the genetically engineered product on the market for public consumption even though the company privately admitted to the FDA that it had not conducted or designed safety tests. The FOIA-produced documents state that the “FDA believes that the arguments presented, individually and collectively, do not establish the safety of SLH for consumption, nor do they point to a general recognition of safety.”

“The FDA told Impossible Foods that its burger was not going to meet government safety standards, and the company admitted it didn’t know all of its constituents. Yet it sold it anyway to thousands of unwitting consumers. Responsible food companies don’t treat customers this way,” said Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “Impossible Foods should pull the burgers from the market unless and until safety can be established by the FDA and apologize to those whose safety it may have risked.”

“Under no circumstances should any food company ignore FDA safety warnings and put consumers’ health at risk,” Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “The FDA must be the authority when it comes to determining food safety, and that means overhauling the broken regulatory process so that companies like Impossible Foods cannot self-regulate and rubber stamp their products as safe.”

The FDA’s safety designation of “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) allows a manufacturer, like Impossible Foods, to decide for itself, without FDA input, whether or not a product is safe. The self-determination does not require notice to the public or the FDA, and may apply to food chemicals regardless of industry conflicts of interest, or whether the chemicals are new or not widely studied.

U.S. government documents, obtained by ETC Group and Friends of the Earth U.S. through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that Impossible Foods was warned by FDA officials that its key genetically engineered ingredient, “soy leghemeglobin” (SLH), would not meet the basic FDA GRAS status. SLH, or “heme,” is a bio-engineered protein additive that adds meat-like taste and color. Impossible Foods recognizes that SLH has never been widespread in the human diet in its natural or genetically engineered form. Despite touting the color properties of the engineered “heme,” Impossible Foods did not seek FDA approval as a color additive, which has stricter safety regulations.

In discussion with FDA, Impossible Foods also admitted that up to a quarter of its “heme” ingredient was composed of 46 “unexpected” additional proteins, some of which are unidentified and none of which were assessed for safety in the dossier.

The case of Impossible Burger raises concerns that surpass this one patty and implicates the extreme genetic engineering field of synthetic biology, particularly the new high-tech investor trend of “vat-itarian” foods (meat, dairy, and other animal proteins grown in a biotech vat instead of from an animal). While Impossible Burger is the poster child for this vat-grown approach, other companies such as Perfect Day (synthetic biology cow milk) and Clara Foods (synthetic biology egg whites) appear also to be racing to market. Just as biofuels were pitched as a “clean tech” fix to climate change a decade ago, the vat-itarian venture capitalists are now attempting to capitalize on animal welfare concerns through “molecular farming.”

While the health and environmental damage caused by large-scale industrial livestock production should not be minimized, the success of non-animal burgers like the non-GMO Beyond Burger demonstrates that plant-based animal substitutes can succeed without resorting to genetic engineering.

A 2013 US National Survey by Hart Research found that 61% of respondents felt negative about synthetic biology-produced food additives. Polls also show that consumers increasingly want GMOs to be labeled as such, but so far, most companies selling products with synthetic biology ingredients, including Impossible Foods, are not labeling on the products or menus.

Friends of the Earth and ETC Group reached out last week to Impossible Foods, inviting the company to a discussion on the safety of the Impossible Burger.


Impossible Burger FOIA documents are available here.

For further information and analysis see ETC Group’s on-line searchable database of synthetic biology derived ingredients, including Impossible Food’s “heme”.

See Friends of the Earth’s blog on synthetic biology animal replacement products “Is ‘Food-Tech’ the Future of Food?” and website for additional information on synthetic biology’s risks to our health and environment.

Expert Contacts: Dana Perls, +1(925) 705-1074,, Jim Thomas, +1 (514) 516-5759,, Pat Mooney, +1 (613) 240-0045,, Michael Hansen, +1(917) 774-3801,

Communications Contacts: Friends of the Earth, Erin Jensen, (202) 222-0722,; ETC Group, Pat Mooney, (613) 240-0045,

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Jun 042017

Photo: KennethR

via Biofuelwatch:

Biotechnology for Biofuels includes in-depth investigations of three biofuel companies – Algenol, Mascoma, and Solazyme/TerraVia, and will be updated with forthcoming reports on algal and ligno-cellulosic biofuels, followed by further materials.

Policy-makers and industry leaders are pinning their hopes on biofuels and an entire bioeconomy where fuels, consumer goods, plastics, chemicals and materials currently derived from fossil biomass (oil, coal, natural gas) will instead be produced from living biomass (trees, crops, microbes). They mistakenly view this as a solution to climate change.

First-generation biofuels from corn, sugar, palm oil and soya are linked to deforestation and land conversion, competition with food, loss of biodiversity, land grabs and human rights abuses; along with reliance upon genetically engineered crops. But we are told that the “next generation” of ligno-cellulosic and algal fuels, made from “non food” biomass, will be better.

After at least a century of unsuccessful attempts to turn solid biomass into liquid biofuels through the use of heat and pressure, researchers and companies are focussing on biotechnology as key to cellulosic biofuel production and to a wider bioeconomy. This includes the use of potent new biotechnology tools, i.e. synthetic biology (aka “new breeding technologies”). 

Cyanobacteria in flask. Photo: Willem van Aken, CSIRO

Researchers are engineering trees and crops to produce massive amounts of biomass designed for refinery processes, and are manipulating the genome of microbes, including micro-algae to secrete oils, enzymes and other chemicals of commercial and industrial interest. This is a primary focus of biotechnology, with a massive wave of new patent applications and the lure of large profits. But these engineered organisms are largely unregulated and poorly understood. They pose a serious threat to ecosystems and human health if they are released or escape into nature, which is inevitable.

Even after decades of research, there is no commercial production of ligno-cellulosic and algal biofuels. Companies are turning instead to using their genetically engineered organisms to production small quantities of high end consumer goods – expensive cosmetics, flavorings, nutraceuticals and various coproducts to maintain their profit margins. Some genetically engineered microorganisms are also being used to make conventional corn ethanol production more efficient.

Taxpayers are footing the bill, strung along by grossly hyped up claims about new technological breakthroughs just over the horizon – breakthroughs that will finally provide a clean, green and sustainable path to “consumerism as usual.” However, there is little basis for assuming that ligno-cellulosic and algal biofuels, if they were to ever be produced on a commercial scale, would in fact represent any improvement over first generation biofuels, since they too require land, water and agrochemicals as well as genetically engineered  microbes.

Meantime, genetic engineering of trees and crops is being justified by the quest for a ‘bioeconomy’, too. 

Photo: Aqua Mechanical

It is time to ask ourselves: are the risks worth it?

Algenol: Case study of an unsuccessful algae biofuels venture

Algenol is a Florida-based biotechnology company that has received considerable attention as one of the supposedly most promising algae biofuel startups, receiving $35-50 million in grants from the US government. However, after facing significant economic and technological hurdles to commercialization, the company shifted to producing algae products for food and fertilizer. Click here to read the report.

TerraVia/Solazyme: Synthetic biology company claimed to be capable of replacing palm oil struggles to stay afloat

TerraVia (formerly Solazyme) is a California-based algal oil company that received $22 million from the US government to produce algae biofuels. The company is now producing food and nutritional products after operating at a consistent financial loss for years. Click here to read the report.

Cyanotech microalgae ponds, Hawaii. Photo: Cyanotech

Mascoma: The biggest misspending of public funds for cellulosic biofuels ever?

Mascoma is a synthetic biology company based in New Hampshire which received at least $100 and possibly over $155 million from the US government for cellulosic ethanol refineries that were largely never built.Click here to read the report.



Campaign to Stop GE Trees

ETC Group



‘New breeding techniques’ and synthetic biology – genetic engineering by another name. April 4, 2017 in The Ecologist

Biofuel or biofraud? The vast taxpayer cost of failed cellulosic and algal biofuels. March 14, 2016 in Independent Science News.

Reckless Driving: Gene drives and the end of nature, Briefing by the Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives which includes Biofuelwatch, Econexus, ETC Group, Friends of the Earth US, Hawai’i SEED and Navdanya

Beware false promises: Algal oils and other products of synthetic biology aren’t about to save the orangutan…but carry serious new risks, Joint briefing by Friends of the Earth US and Biofuelwatch, February 2016

Cashing in on cellulosic ethanol: Subsidy loophole set to rescue corn ethanol profits, Almuth Ernsting, Independent Science News, August 2016

Biofuel or Biofraud? The Vast Taxpayer Cost of Failed Cellulosic and Algal Biofuels, Almuth Ernsting, Independent Science News, March 2016

Oil: $30-35 per barrel. Synthetic biology diesel: $3,180 to $7,949 per barrel. Game over?, Almuth Ernsting, The Ecologist, February 2016

Re-engineering life? The dangers of ‘next-generation’ biofuels, Almuth Ernsting, The Ecologist, September 2015

“Jurassic Park” and the Dinosaurs in the USDA, Rachel Smolker, Truthout, June 2015

Is Toxic Algae good for you?, Rachel Smolker, Huffington Post, August 2014

Consultation responses:

Biofuelwatch response to the Consultation on the “Updated report and synthesis of views in response to paragraph 7(b) of decision XII/24” and the “Report of the meeting of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology”, January 2016

Comments submitted to: EPA Workshop for Public Input on Considerations for Risk Assessment of Genetically Engineered Algae, Rachel Smolker, October 2015

Submission of information on synthetic biology too the Convention on Biological Diversity, Rachel Smolker, April 2015

May 092017

Cross-posted from Biofuelwatch

Green algae covering a lake

Cyanobacteria. Credit: Christian Fischer.

In response to the University of California San Diego and Sapphire Energy’s publication of results from open pond testing of genetically engineered microalgae, Biofuelwatch warns that such tests are far more risky than most people realize, and should be cause for concern, not celebration.

It is assumed, and these tests in fact confirmed, that GE microalgae will almost certainly escape into the wild from open air ponds. Once escaped, these single celled organisms can become air or water borne, and disperse widely, or even globally. There is no telling what impact they will have and no way to reverse their dispersal once it occurs.

Biofuelwatch considers it irresponsible to allow such tests to proceed, and recognizes this may be the first open pond test, but it is likely only the beginning given the very rapid pace of research and development of GMO algae for biofuels and a slew of other consumer “bioproducts”, which is proceeding with very little regulatory oversight.

Industry enthusiasts claim that GE microalgae will not likely survive in the wild, but there is no scientific basis for that assumption. In fact, many of the traits that are desirable for fuel and chemical production and industrial cultivation are precisely the traits that would lend a competitive advantage in nature. Those include traits like “improved” photosynthesis, resistance to predators and pests, hardiness and resilience that make them tolerant of industrial cultivation, or the ability to more effectively access and convert available nutrients etc.

Further, microalgae reproduce very rapidly, which means that engineered traits can quickly spread. Microalgae (cyanobacteria especially) are capable of “horizontal gene transfer” meaning that genes can be passed on not only to their direct progeny, but also to other unrelated individuals, and even to other species. Further, there is concern that engineered traits may not remain stable over time. All of these characteristics suggest introduced genes could spread rapidly out of control and change over time in unpredictable ways.

Biofuelwatch further points out that microalgae are notorious for producing “harmful algae blooms”(HABs) under the right conditions. With warming waters and nutrient runoff from agriculture, the “right conditions” are becoming ever more commonplace and we are seeing a dramatic uptick in algae blooms, including those that release toxins such as domoic acid, a potentially lethal neurotoxin.

Microalgae play a key role in regulating fundamental earth systems, as the source of more than half of the oxygen in our atmosphere, and as the base of aquatic food chains. In an article titled “Monster Potential Meets Potential Monster,” the authors point out that microalgae that have been engineered to produce chemicals and fuels will have altered stoichiometry – making them unpalatable to the zooplankton predators and grazers that normally keep populations in check in the wild and could “become a harmful algae bloom species par excellence”. They further state that “…given the ease with which GM microalgae could be transferred around the planet, the potential risk of GM algae to nature should not be underestimated…accordingly a strong argument could be made for the regulation of GM microalgae at the international level because the potential for damage could have global consequences, echoing recent concerns over geoengineering.”

Billions have been invested in developing algae biofuels to no avail, and with little basis for assuming they will ever be viable. Continuing the hype only perpetuates the illusion that we can continue “transportation as usual” in the face of a deepening climate crisis. Meanwhile, microalgae research and development is now focussing on niche markets for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and many other consumer products. The UCSD tests are associated with the startup Sapphire Energy, which has received vast amounts of taxpayer dollars, and is apparently marketing algae derived surfboards. Another company, Solazyme – also a recipient of vast sums to produce biofuels – is producing little other than anti-wrinkle face cream.

The tests performed by UCSD scientists were of very limited scope and little assurance that GMO microalgae are “safe”. Meanwhile, we need to ask ourselves: are these products worth the money and worth the risks to our health and environment?

Dec 202016

UN Biodiversity Convention grapples with threats posed by extreme biotech industry

CANCUN, MEXICO — This week, 196 countries meeting at the 2016 UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) Conference of the Parties made progress on the global governance and oversight of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology (syn bio) has become one of the most fiercely debated topics at the Biodiversity Convention, almost 7 years after civil society first brought the need for precaution and regulation of the new set of biotechnologies to this UN body.

During the 13th Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the CBD, countries agreed to investigate how digital genetic sequences may be used to commit biopiracy and warned against a risky new genetic extinction technology called gene drives. They also agreed on a working definition of synthetic biology (2) and to support an ongoing expert group to move forward international discussions on the topic. However, this progress was undermined by a significant ‘move backwards’ in safety oversight and risk assessment when a key standing expert group expected to issue risk assessment guidelines for synthetic biology was dissolved.

“Syn bio was among the hottest topics on the negotiating table,” explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group, who sits on the CBD’s expert group on Synthetic Biology. “Governments now get it: they need to urgently grapple with how synthetic biology and other fast moving, risky technologies are threatening biodiversity, local economies and the rights of farmers and Indigenous Peoples.”

Parties took a big step forward in addressing the controversial issue of digital biopiracy, a fast-emerging loophole in the Biodiversity Convention through which companies and others can access gene sequences of plants and seeds on the internet and then use them, including by re-creating physical DNA via synthetic biology techniques, without the agreement of (or any benefit to) biodiverse countries or communities from whom the genes originated.  While some rich countries with large biotech industries (e.g. Canada) tried to take the topic of digital biopiracy off the table, eventually all agreed the topic needed further examination at future meetings.

“We are pleased that there is a specific and agreed plan to address piracy of gene sequences over the next two years,” said Edward Hammond of Third World Network who is another member of the CBD expert group on syn bio. “Wealthy countries can no longer plead that they are unprepared to discuss this loophole. Fast-moving technology demands an equally fast decision, and there can be no more pretending that understandings of genetic resources based on the biotechnology of the 1990s suffice to regulate the field today.”

Civil society at the CBD also urged governments to apply strong precaution on gene drives, a new gene-editing technology that enables species-wide genetic engineering by aggressively spreading genetic changes through the wild. The issue was brought to the negotiating table after more than 170 civil society organizations called on governments at the Biodiversity Convention to place a moratorium on the development and release of gene drives because of their potential for unpredictable, and possibly uncontrollable, impacts on biodiversity, wildlife and ecosystems.

Many governments were very alarmed about this new technology. Countries agreed to approach gene drives with precaution and to establish risk assessment and regulation (4), even though Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil, countries with close ties to the biotech industry, bluntly opposed even mentioning the issue. A global meeting of governments and civil society at IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in September 2016 had already adopted highly precautionary language on gene drives.

“The explicit mention of gene drives in the decision is an alert to all governments that they need to pay close attention to this new high-risk technology that is intentionally designed to aggressively spread into wild species and the environment, with potential serious transboundary effects,” added Silvia Ribeiro from ETC Group.

“Gene drives are a false solution to the real problem of biodiversity loss,” said Dana Perls, with Friends of the Earth International. “We should not release dangerous gene drives into our environment without robust systems to evaluate the risks and without an international governance mechanism in place. We want to see real, sustainable, community-based conservation efforts, not a live testing-zone that could allow new destructive agricultural practices or cause permanent damage to ecosystems.”

Unfortunately, the positive decisions addressing definitions, future work, digital sequences and gene drives were accompanied by a slide backwards following a decision on risk assessment of genetically modified organisms under the CBD’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

“Given the rapid advances in technological developments, it is crucial to understand the risks that each of these holds for the environment or human health,” said Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, representing the Federation of German Scientists. “Guidance on risk assessment is very much needed, yet parties failed their duty. They not only blocked the development of new risk assessment guidance for synthetic biology, gene drives or genetically modified fish, but they also closed down the expert group that could have developed such guidance in the future.”

The next Conference of the Parties will convene in 2018 in Egypt, and the expert group on synthetic biology will meet again before that.


Expert contacts:

Jim Thomas, + 1 (514) 516-5759,

Dana Perls, +1(925) 705-1074,

Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher,

Ed Hammond,

Silvia Ribeiro: +52 1 55 2653 3330,

Communications contacts: Trudi Zundel, +1 (226) 979-0993,; Marie-Pia Rieublanc, +52 (1) 967-140-4432,

More information on synthetic biology and gene drives at:

Notes to editors:

1.     The full text of the decisions on Synthetic Biology and Digital Sequence Information on Genetic resources from CBD COP 13 are available at The relevant decisions are:



UNEP/CBD/NP/COP-MOP/2/L11 (available at

2.     Synthetic biology is an emerging biotechnology industry expected to reach almost $40 billion by 2020. The definition of Synthetic Biology now agreed under the Biodiversity Convention is: “Synthetic biology is a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.”

3.     Civil society has been calling on countries to assess synthetic biology in light of possible impacts on people, communities and the environment for over a decade and first raised the topic of synthetic biology at the CBD in 2010.The topic was taken up as a new and emerging issue under the CBD following submissions of information by the International Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology – a network of international organizations that currently includes Friends of the Earth, ETC Group, Third World Network, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Ecoropa,  Econexus and the Federation of German Scientists.

4.     The text of the decision on gene drives:

2. Reiterates paragraph 3 of decision XII/24 and notes that it can also apply to some living modified organisms containing gene drives;

Paragraph 3 of decision XII/24:

3. Urges Parties and invites other Governments to take a precautionary approach, in accordance with paragraph 4 of decision XI/11 and:

(a) To establish, or have in place, effective risk assessment and management procedures and/or regulatory systems to regulate environmental release of any organisms, components or products resulting from synthetic biology techniques, consistent with Article 3 of the Convention;

(b) To approve organisms resulting from synthetic biology techniques for field trials only after appropriate risk assessments have been carried out in accordance with national, regional and/or international frameworks, as appropriate;

(c) To carry out scientific assessments concerning organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques with regard to potential effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account risks to human health and addressing, as appropriate, and according to national and/or regional legislation, other issues such as food security and socioeconomic considerations with, where appropriate, the full participation of indigenous and local communities;

(d) To encourage the provision of funding for research into synthetic biology risk assessment methodologies and into the positive and negative impacts of synthetic biology on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and to promote interdisciplinary research that includes related socioeconomic considerations;

(e)To cooperate in the development and/or strengthening of human resources and institutional capacities, including on methodologies for risk assessments in synthetic biology and its potential impacts on biodiversity, in developing countries, in particular the least developed countries and small island developing States, and countries with economies in transition, including through existing global, regional and national institutions and organizations and, as appropriate, by facilitating civil society involvement. The needs of developing country Parties, in particular the least developed countries and small island developing States among them, and Parties with economies in transition, for financial resources; access to and transfer of technology consistent with Article 16 of the Convention; establishing or strengthening regulatory frameworks; and the management of risks related to the release of organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques, should be taken fully into account in this regard;