Ecover pioneers synthetic biology in consumer products

(Originally published by The Ecologist)

by Jim Thomas

Disappointment, surprise, disbelief.

I think I felt a bit of all of these when I discovered that ‘natural’ soap-maker Ecover had become the first company in the world to reveal its use of synthetic biology in the manufacture of consumer products.

The Belgian multinational revealed in April that it has decided to use an algal oil. What it didn’t explain was that the algae oil was produced by biotech company Solazyme using an experimental set of techniques called synthetic biology.

Like many green-minded folks of my generation, I had been using Ecover products as a trusted ‘natural’ brand for over 20 years. Using synthetic organisms to make oil just didn’t jibe with their ‘eco’ image.

Was this a lapse in judgement that Ecover would rapidly rectify once they realised their mistake? I decided to call up Dirk Develter, Ecover’s head of research, to point out the error.

What I learned surprised me even more

Yes, Mr Develter confirmed, Ecover will be using a synthetic biology oil. And no, it wasn’t a mistake.

It was, he mentioned, a controversial decision inside the company. No, Ecover didn’t mention in their promotional materials that the algal oil was from a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO).

No, they weren’t exactly planning to tell consumers that part of the story. Yes, they could have used coconut oil instead. He sounded a bit like he had just been found out. Which in a way he had.

This is how Ecover stepped into the spotlight of the rapidly emerging controversy over synthetic biology. While some consumer products are already suspected to contain ingredients made by life forms containing human-authored DNA, no company had come right out and admitted it.

At the end of May, when Ecover fessed up to the New York Times that it was using oils derived from synthetic algae in some of its detergents, the ‘green’ brand from Belgium became the unlikely poster child for experimental genetic tinkering.

New tools for the industrialization of life

Synthetic biology (or SynBio) could be considered GMOs on steroids. It has been referred to as “extreme genetic engineering” and “GMOs 2.0”.

Though outrage is stirring based on references to what people already know about GMOs, a complete understanding of synthetic biology is not yet widespread. The implications of commercial synthetic biology are far more disruptive than first-generation GMOs.

Commercial SynBio is a ground-up redesign of life at the cellular level for industrial purposes.

20 years ago, when I first started using Ecover products, the tools available to genetic engineers were rudimentary. The state of the art was cutting and pasting bits of existing DNA between species.

In the intervening years, new techniques have given bioengineers the ability to precisely and directly manipulate DNA and even to create completely novel DNA sequences from scratch, expanding the set of possible DNA codes beyond what exists in any life form.

The industrialist behind the first fully synthetic genome, J. Craig Venter, called his work “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer”.

These days parts of life can be re-made and re-mixed as easily as digital media. We’ve gone from crossfading to autotuning and digital remastering.

Commercial SynBio introduces untold risks

The ethics of ‘playing god’ with the building blocks of life are already philosophically challenging in a pure research setting, but the most disruptive and troubling aspect of synthetic biology comes from its commercialization (‘playing business’).

With the help of robotic genetic engineering setups, technicians can rapidly create thousands of new organisms at a time and pick through them to find the bug they want.

What they are looking for are genetic changes that turn bacteria, yeast and algae into tiny factories that will churn out high-value chemicals such as foods, fragrances, or in Ecover’s case, detergent oils.

What could go wrong?

What could go wrong if microscopic organisms optimized for high rates of reproduction and the production of exotic chemicals got loose? Plenty, according to some ecologists.

Algae, for example, spread quickly and can contaminate waterways or travel through the air. If those algae make soap detergents while they are proliferating in rivers and lakes or being breathed in by wildlife, there may be unforeseen effects on aquatic life.

Or maybe not. It’s too early to be sure. We are dealing with the creation of Synthetically Modified Organisms (SMOs) that we don’t yet understand or know how to control.

Later this month, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will start to grapple with how to create oversight for synthetic biology. For now, the 193 countries of that UN body urge precaution with SynBio technologies.

Failing at biofuels, SynBio looks elsewhere for profits

In the past eight years, SynBio startups received billions of dollars on the promise that they could engineer algae or bacteria that would eat plant matter and produce jet fuels or exotic biofuels.

They successfully made new organisms that did this, but they ran into trouble achieving production on a scale that made it competitive.

When the first wave of SynBio investment failed to deliver, farmers globally exhaled a sigh of relief. Massive monocultures for biomass uses such as biofuels are already displacing food production in Africa and Asia, and it must have felt like they dodged a bullet.

But the companies started searching for new applications for their sophisticated labs. Now, they believe they have found a quick way to monetize synthetic biology. Their answer is to engineer microorganisms to synthesize food, fragrance and other consumer products. That puts farmers back in the crosshairs.

Saffron, vanilla, fragrances, pharmaceuticals …

After laundry detergents, hard-to-cultivate spices like saffron and vanilla are the next step for the synthetic biology industry.

They may be profitable (saffron is the world’s most expensive spice) but If SynBio companies successfully ‘disrupt’ these markets, it could put hundreds of thousands of farmers out of work.

Without high-end cash crops to tilt the scales toward sustainable harvesting, huge biodiverse areas could be turned into monocultures for sugar and other feedstocks. The specialized skills and labour of generations of tropical farmers could be replaced by a steel vat full of microbes.

It’s not quite that easy. Who will buy or eat computer-engineered synthetic ingredients by choice? To get SynBio past the palates of discerning consumers, these companies need to pass this highly artificial technology off as ‘cultured’ rather than synthetic and ‘green’ rather than clearcutting. They need access to a key word: ‘natural’.

An unlikely poster child

Enter Ecover. Starting in a small town outside of Antwerp, the company has built a global brand around words like “natural” and ‘eco-friendly’. It also prides itself on transparency and responsiveness to customer input.

It seems that somewhere along the line, an executive at Ecover drank the SynBio kool-aid (of the electric acid test variety), and became convinced that synthetic algae was a sustainable alternative to palm kernel oil.

Palm oil is indeed a favourite of investors who are grabbing land in Africa and Asia, cutting down forests to turn a quick profit. The negative effects of palm oil expansion are well-established.

According to Ecover’s promotional materials, synthetic algae that produces lauric acid, an ingredient in detergents, is more ‘eco-friendly’ than palm kernel oil.

But either because they didn’t do their homework or because of other internal dynamics, Ecover neglected two important facts:

  1. Sugar, which is used to feed synthetic algae, also drives rainforest destruction, albeit in South America and not Africa and Asia. Same problem, different crop.
  2. A more sustainable alternative already exists in coconut oil, which is typically grown in small plots along with other crops and boosts the livelihoods of 25 million people in the Philippines alone.

Ecover risking reputation to sell SynBio to ethical buyers

One way or another, Ecover sidestepped reality, backed an extreme biotech oil, and put their brand reputation on the line.

It might have been a bad move. Ecover is now beginning to bear the brunt of a consumer backlash against synthetic biology. In the space of a fortnight, tens of thousands worldwide have signed petitions calling on Ecover to stop using synthetic biology.

Perhaps unwittingly, Ecover now finds itself a target on the battleground of what one pro-GMO writer called “the next front in the GMO war”.

How odd that Ecover thinks the green-minded eco-homemakers that buy its soaps will line up in support of synthetic biology.

A question of trust

Will the soaps and food of the near future be grown in vats by experimental microscopic life forms that are the progeny of computers? The decision that Ecover’s leadership makes in the coming weeks won’t be the final word, but it may tilt the battlefield one way or the other.

And depending on whether consumers decide that SynBio ingredients will be accepted as ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’, it may decide the fate of Ecover’s reputation and success as a brand.

I know one thing: after 20 years of washing my clothes, they have broken my trust.

Jim Thomas is Programme Director with ETC Group, an international civil society research and advocacy organization which for over 30 years has tracked developments in emerging technologies and worked with social movements to defend farmers rights.