Ecover must come clean on synthetic biology

[This article was originally published in The Ecologist.]

Following The Ecologist’s revelation about Ecover’s use of synthetic biology to make laundry detergent, the company has put its trials on hold, writes Jim Thomas. But to regain public trust, the company must re-engage honestly with its critics, and its customers.

A month ago, The Ecologist revealed that ‘eco-friendly’ soap maker Ecover was using an algae oil produced using synthetic biology (Syn Bio), sometimes called ‘extreme genetic engineering’.

And now tens of thousands of concerned consumers have signed petitions asking Ecover to stop using ingredients derived from organisms modified using synthetic biology.

And to its credit, Ecover has responded by suspending the use of the controversial algal oil – it has put its trials on hold for 6 months. This shows that Ecover is willing to listen to its customers. And on its own, this move would be laudable.

But in a ‘right to reply’ article in The Ecologist, Ecover also lashed out at its critics, and made several claims that are less welcome.

The company has tried to change the definition of synthetic biology, tried to hide behind a weak certification scheme – and showed signs that it is straying from its long track record of transparency and precaution.

Slippery definitions

“Any allegations that we are using synthetic biology are untrue”, Ecover wrote in its response.

Yet even the synthetic biology industry disagrees. Maxx Chatsko, founder of trade group ‘SynBioBeta’ pointed out on Motley Fool, the oils Ecover has sourced from Solazyme

“are most certainly created with synthetic biology … optimizing metabolic pathways to create high concentrations of lauric oils with next-generation molecular biology tools is called synthetic biology.”

What’s going on here? It seems Ecover may be genetically modifying its language along with the algae. When Ecover first announced their new oil, I contacted them to see if it was Solazyme’s oil produced by synthetic organisms. They confirmed that it was.

In subsequent discussions and after a high profile New York Times article appeared with the same claim, the company didn’t publicly or privately dispute this ‘synthetic biology’ monicker.

A PR strategy is planned

Then in May of this year, synthetic biology companies (including Ecover’s supplier Solazyme) held a meeting to devise a public relations strategy around Syn Bio in food and consumer products. A Friends of the Earth campaigner who attended took note of the key lessons the companies agreed on:

“The term ‘synthetic biology’ is now tainted with negative connotations and should be avoided in public. Consumers prefer natural to synthetic,  and ‘syn’ brings up negative connotations of ‘sin’ … Some alternative terms suggested at the meeting were ‘fermentation derived’ and ‘nature identical’.”

It seems that Ecover is now working from this PR playbook. Ecover’s response declares its Syn Bio ingredients to be “good old fashioned fermentation”, though it admitted in passing that the algae doing the fermenting were genetically modified.

In order to distance itself from ‘synthetic biology’ without changing suppliers or ingredients, Ecover instead re-wrote the definition of Syn Bio, choosing extremely narrow criteria which would exempt Solazyme’s algal oil.

Ecover’s definition concerns only the use of synthetic DNA. However, synthetic biology commonly refers to a wide variety of approaches to engineering genomes, some of which do not use synthetic DNA. See here for a discussion on how Synthetic Biology is more generally defined and why Ecover’s definition is unusually narrow.

Chatsko wrote“Ecover can’t have it both ways … This could backfire if consumers feel they are being lied to or question why Ecover is going back and forth with definitions.”

Bonsucro – ethical sugar?

Ecover went on to defend their use of Brazillian sugar. The sugar that the engineered algae feast on, it pointed out, is certified as ‘sustainable’ by the UK-based Bonsucro standard.

“Bonsucro certification”, Ecover wrote, “ensures that the Sugarcane is grown on existing agricultural land, and that no new land is converted to agriculture.”

Unfortunately it doesn’t ensure that. Sugarcane production comes with a host of serious social and environmental issues that certification doesn’t address.

As an investigation by The Ecologist noted, the Better Sugarcane Initiative (BSI, which later became Bonsucro) may help with some of the environmental and social problems associated with sugar cane, but does not address how sugarcane expansion indirectly drives destruction in the Amazon and Cerrado region.

Under Bonsucro, “existing agricultural land” may have been former soy and cattle farms which are displaced, clearing rainforestas they move. The Ecologist investigation concluded:

“While the BSI [now Bonsucro) may mean ‘sustainable sugar’ becomes a mainstream standard, it won’t necessarily guarantee that the future of sugarcane production – and the myriad products that spring from the resulting sugar compounds – will be sustainable.”

Not all the standards need be met, nor all the land certified

According to Dr Ben Richardson, a representative of the Network on ‘Ethical Sugar’, the problem of Bonsucro’s limited enforcement measures are exacerbated by the dependent relationship between Bonsucro and the companies funding the scheme.

Bonsucro also requires that only some, not all, of its standards are met. This effectively allows companies to cherrypick which standards they want to overlook. Nor does  all the land supplying the sugar mill have to be certified. Rather, the mill decides which cane farms will fall within the certification scope.

Worst of all, Bonsucro includes an offset scheme that allows the companies to use uncertified sugar cane whilst presenting themselves as having ethical sourcing practices by buying Bonsucro credits from certified mills.

That alone might be considered a ‘perverse incentive’ to increase sugar expansion while hiding the damage from new plantings behind certified offsets.

The certification of tropical commodities as ‘sustainable’ has proven quite controversial in general. Indeed, Ecover’s attempted move away from palm oil is a tacit admission that the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (which they are part of) is failing to meet the challenge of ensuring truly ‘sustainable palm oil’.

Bonsucro is certainly not the watertight guarantee of sustainability that Ecover would like to claim.

Escaping algae?

Could the synthetic algae developed by Solazyme escape? Ecover doesn’t think so: “Both Ecover and our supplier have full chain of custody over the algae from start to finish of the process, meaning that from raw material to final product the algae are fully contained.”

Containment is hard to guarantee. Even discounting natural disasters (Solazyme’s labs are a few miles from California’s San Andreas fault), unintended spills from industrial facilities are routine.

Synthetic biology company Amyris, for example, reported that synthetic organisms escaped from its Brazillian plant last year. Escaping algae can pollute waterways, become invasive and rapidly reproduce, mutate and spread.

Reliable containment begins with a clear assessment of the risks involved. As yet, noecological risk assessment protocols for synthetically modified organisms have been established.

Ecover and Solazyme haven’t publicly disclosed what techniques are being used, so its impossible to properly evaluate their containment measures.

Should coconuts make soap?

In their response Ecover argued that because land should first be prioritized for food uses coconut oil (a possible alternative feedstock) should also be prioritized for food use not chemical production.

ETC Group would agree that food takes priority over soap.  But the more relevant question here  is whether sourcing Ecover’s lauric oils from sugarcane, coconut or palm oil has least impact on food sovereignty.

Unfortunately sugar doesn’t appear to be much an improvement over palm oil when it comes to assuring food sovereignty. Sugarcane, like palm oil, is dominated by a few large processors like Bunge, Cargill and ADM.

And it’s a water-hungry, chemical-drenched monoculture crop that in Brazil is harvested in significant part by landless migrant workers. Globally, sugar is one of the main crops expanding due to land grabs.

Coconut production is a little different. In the Philippines (which produces around half of the world’s coconut oil) farms are mostly small-scale – 2.4 hectares on average – and about two thirds are owner-operated.

Cultivation generally does not require chemical inputs, and food crops are often grown in the shade of the tall trees. Growing coconut for oil therefore does not need to block off land use for food in the way that sugarcane does. It can co-exist with farmer-controlled food production, and lends itself to agroecological methods that improve food sovereignty.

Phillipine coconut suppliers have told us they believe they can scale up coconut oil production sustainably, drawing on agro-ecological methods. For the quantities Ecover requires, it would not be difficult to source sustainable coconut oil that supports food sovereignty and farmer’s rights.

Regulation, oversight and precaution?

When Ecover announced their switch to algal oil to the press and labelled their 6,000 trial bottles, it did not disclose that it was derived from synthetic biology or even genetic modification. Labels are only useful when they are provide accurate information to those reading them.

Ecover insists that it has developed sustainable products in the absence of regulation or oversight and can do so again with Syn Bio, but they are referring to developing products from natural materials that address environmental harms that government have not yet legislated on: acting in a precautionary way to reduce harm.

With synthetic biology, Ecover is actively promoting a controversial technology that could create new ecological dangers. A recent UN document pointed out the potential“catastrophic risks” on an international level that synthetic biology could engender.

In that context, a go-it-alone approach to releasing Syn Bio products before regulations are in place is far from responsible.

We applaud Ecover for putting their plans for this risky technology on hold. We hope that moving forward the company genuinely engages in discussion and listens to consumers worldwide that are asking for Ecover to drop its use of Syn Bio algal oil, and to instead use ingredients which are proven to be ecologically safe, just and natural.

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.

ETC group is part of the Synbiowatch collaborative of organisations.

Petition: ‘Synthetic Biology is Not Natural’, calls on Ecover to ‘keep it natural’ and drop Synthetic Biology.