The following is a response to 7 Busted Myths About Solazyme’s Renewable Oils, an article which purports to debunk the claims of groups campaigning against use of synthetic biology in consumer products.
Your transparency about your financial interest in the outcome of this debate is appreciated. However, your “debunking” either misses the point or doesn’t address it.
1. Is Syn Bio regulated? Poorly if at all. You debunked your own debunking pretty well here. Of course Synthetic biology companies still have to engage with regulatory bodies. But in the US these regulations are old regulations that predate synthetic biology and they don’t address the risks and novelty that synthetic biology represents. Internationally the UN convention on Biological Diversity has found that the current regulatory mechanisms that could apply to synthetic biology techniques and the components and organisms and products resulting from them is insufficient. A recent review of US regulatory system led by the J Craig Venter Institute (a synthetic biology outfit) reached a similar conclusion.
2. You demonstrate that there’s more lauric oil in Solazyme’s algae. This doesn’t actually say anything about the sustainability of algal oil, because concentration of a compound in a standard measure is not the same as efficiency of land for the underlying feedstock or other resource use. Accounting for sustainability must take into account land use, effects on ecosystems and on local populations, and renewability of inputs, among other factors. Even then there are further levels of complexity. For example, coconut is grown in mixed agroforestry systems where the land also grows rice and other crops, so even comparing land use doesn’t demonstrated sustainability.
3. It’s missing the point to say that solazyme’s oil has no genetic material. There is a likelihood of environmental release (especially in the absence of specific regulations) of modified organisms whether the final product contains genetic material or not, and in any case consumers have a right to know whether they’re helping finance experimental organisms. International labelling regulations (such as in the EU) on what is considered genetically modified extend to derivatives such as oils and starches and focus on process rather than final presence.
4. Regarding GMO corn use as a feedstock by Solazyme, Ecover has a policy not to use raw ingredients that are derived from GMO organisms released to the environment. Their own policy states they can’t make their plastic from starch derived from GMO corn. So making their oils from GMO corn is inconsistent with their own GMO policy.
5. On the question of sugar and rainforest destruction. Applauding the fact that “only” 6,000 km2 of rainforest (that’s a lot!) are destroyed every year and claiming that a product is sustainable are not the same thing. The link between Brazillian sugar expansion and rainforest destruction is well documented. see for example http://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/sugar_cane_and_land_use_ch.pdf
6. Bonsucro is not a fix. Ecover has said publically that they don’t trust certification schemes for palm oil. Nor shoudl they rely on Bonsucro. Bonsucro’s certification has massive loopholes that allow companies to choose which of the standards they meet while evading others, and the option exists to buy offsets to cover land where they’re not meeting the standard. Perversely, such offset behaviour could drive further expansion. The standard itself guarantees very little.
7. Life from scratch? No one said companies are making up genetic codes out of thin air by typing the entire sequence into a computer. However, DNA synthesizers do create DNA from scratch in the sense that they mix together the base chemicals based on codes stored in a computer. This gives lab technicians fine-grained control over the DNA that is “printed”.
For anyone who wants to find out more about what groups opposed to commercial and environmental release of synthetic biology are actually saying, visit: