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Biotechnology: Still Fueling Controversy

As America responds to its oil addiction, the biotech industry is once again promising to save the world. And this time, they just might mean it.
 
 
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It should have been one of the more earth-shattering admissions of the last hundred years when George W. Bush -- the former Texas oilman who steadfastly denies that oil ever played a part in our decision to invade Iraq -- announced that America was in fact "addicted to oil."

Instead, America's response was more akin to hearing one's 55-year-old effeminate bachelor uncle come out of the closet to the family at a holiday dinner: Everyone knew it already, but no one ever expected him to say it.

However, the evidence is indeed staggering. The United States of America uses more than a quarter of the world's annual oil production; the current administration is comprised of oil executives; our foreign policy apparatus consists of a reckless form of petro-diplomacy that requires us to prop up brutal regimes or overthrow unfriendly governments.

The situation has made our economic well-being so dependent on oil that even the slightest interruption to the oil supply has far-reaching ramifications, as we saw first with the removal of Iraqi oil from the world market, and then the refinery catastrophe in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

And it seems to be getting worse. Oil refineries are producing at full capacity, supply has either peaked or is rapidly approaching the peak, even as demand is projected to grow 50 percent by 2025, spurred by the massive economic growth of China, India and Brazil.

As a result of all these factors, oil prices have increased more than 500 percent from the 1998 price of $13 a barrel. And when we consider the very real possibility of another mega-hurricane season, or a terrorist attack on the Saudi refining operation, even an oil-addicted president realizes that we need to make serious changes -- and fast -- or else we may not be around to pick up the pieces.

Enter BIO 2006, the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, held last week in Chicago. Nearly 20,000 attendees converged on the city to hawk new technologies, hook up with investment opportunities, or pitch their city or state as the perfect destination for the burgeoning biotech and life-science sector, which, according to the Department of Commerce, will comprise 18 percent of the U.S. GDP by 2020, or nearly 3 trillion dollars.

And this year, "biofuels" -- renewable fuels made from plant materials -- were the center of attention, with biodiesel and ethanol as the industry's two leading hopes for spurring renewed interest and investment.

On the heels of Bush's "addicted to oil" speech, heading into the convention, BIO released a letter to Congress on March 13 requesting full funding for programs that would support research and development into ethanol production. This would all be made possible through the introduction of the newest scintillating field of biotechnology, known as "White" industrial biotechnology.

EuropaBio, the European equivalent of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is advancing the cause of "White Biotechnology" with claims that it will reduce pollution and waste through using renewable organic resources and recycling waste for more efficient energy supplies.

In the March 13 release, BIO CEO Jim Greenwood said industrial biotech is a force that can "end our national addiction to oil. We need to rapidly move forward commercializing these technologies for cellulosic ethanol production, which will strengthen our energy and national security."

The timing of it all couldn't have been better, especially for an industry that has been reeling in a steady stream of bad PR in recent years. There have been serious problems with the introduction of the first two fields of biotech, "green" bio-agriculture -- genetically modified crops -- and "red" biomedical technology like stem-cell science.

"Green" biotech especially has resulted in a series of black eyes for the industry. News out of India last year showed that since 1997 some 25,000 farmers have committed suicide after going bankrupt when Monsanto's pesticide resistant cotton didn't work as promised. And on March 17 of this year, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who spent four years engaged in a court battle with Monsanto, joined with European NGOs to file suit against Monsanto and the agricultural biotech industry at the UN High Commission for Human Rights, alleging that the industry has destroyed farmers' lives and livelihoods around the world.

With the advent of "white" biotechnology, the industry is once again offering a one-size-fits-all solution to our ills. Naturally, skeptics and critics abound. But are there the same concerns with these new technologies? And what precisely do supporters mean when they talk about creating a "bio-based economy"?

The bio-based economy

Through recombinant DNA technology, scientists can use microorganisms in new and exciting ways to manufacture polymers, vitamins, enzymes or transportation fuel. By harnessing the natural power of enzymes or whole cell systems, and using sugars as feedstock for product manufacture, industrial biotech companies can work with nature to help us move from a petroleum-based economy to a "bio-based economy."
-- BIO website

At a BIO conference plenary session on biofuels, former CIA head R. James Woolsey claimed that "Biotechnology will be for the 21st century what physics was to the 20th," unlocking the secret potential of the planet in ways never before imagined, while at the same time rescuing us from the social and environmental perils of the petrochemical system.

"For every billion dollars we shift from foreign oil to domestic biofuels, we can add anywhere from 10-20,000 American jobs," Woolsey said, "and at least half of our gasoline needs can be grown here with cellulose".

This, at least, has become the new conventional wisdom. The January 27 issue of Science Magazine featured "The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials," a self-described road map to developing a sustainable industrial society without worrying about greenhouse gases.

As of now, ethanol makes up only 2 percent of U.S. transportation fuels, and biodiesel accounts for less than .01 percent. But the U.S. Department of Energy has set goals to replace 30 percent of the liquid petroleum transport fuel with biofuels, and to replace 25 percent of industrial chemicals with biomass-derived chemicals by 2025.

The resulting cry to build an infrastructure around biofuels has come from all quarters. As one European biotech executive put it, "The Stone Age did not come to an end because of a lack of stones. So too, the Oil Age will not come to an end because of a lack of oil."

The benefits of biofuels

There is good reason for the hype around biofuels. On paper, they promise a huge improvement over our fossil-fueled society. Being plant-based, both biodiesel and ethanol are renewable, whereas oil and gas are a finite and dwindling resource. In addition to offering a sustainable fuel supply, a switch to biofuels will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And because diesel fuel outperforms both ethanol and gasoline -- a gallon of diesel will take you as far as 1.5 gallons of gasoline and two gallons of ethanol -- the economic savings can be at least as enticing as the environmental ones.

But it's the economic incentives that are most likely to drive the shift, according to Matt Atwood, an organic chemist and project manager for Biodiesel Systems, a Madison, Wis.-based biodiesel company. "The creation of the biodiesel industry in the U.S. is imperative," Atwood says. "If we don't begin to solve this problem now, there is a possibility the U.S. economy may collapse. If we can't get products to market, we're in big trouble."

One often-proposed first step is to increase fuel efficiency in automobiles. Unfortunately, Americans have shown that they are unwilling to drive less unless the price of gas goes too high, and we've not yet found out how high "too high" is. But increasing fuel efficiency is just a first step. Converting passenger vehicles to biodiesel could have widespread effects as well.

Atwood says the 'monstrous' diesel market in Europe is a good example. "50 percent of [Europeans'] autos are diesel-powered, as opposed to less than 1 percent in America," he says, "and they get approximately 100 mpg." Once Americans start to see the benefits of biofuels, he believes the market will grow substantially.

Assuming that moving from fossil fuels to biofuels is inevitable -- which it clearly is not -- the question remains: Is it the best long-term solution to our economic and environmental concerns? Here again is where the agricultural biotech industry enters the picture.

While these crop-based fuels promise to be a boon to America's cash-strapped farmers, critics of this technology -- many of them farmers who were convinced to convert their farms to GMOs in the mid-'90s -- are surfacing with big questions, objections and heartfelt recriminations against the ag-biotech industry, whom they have learned to distrust.

Feedstocks and the lingering problem of GMOs

"Feedstocks" are the raw material required for an industrial process, and biofuels use plants and biomass as its feedstock and life-blood. Biodiesel Systems feedstock, as with most biofuel startups, will primarily be soy, grown by farmers in the Midwest. Soybeans are converted to soy oil that is sold on the commodities market. Although there's no sure way to say how much soy-based biodiesel comes from genetically modified stock, as of 2003, 81 percent of the U.S. soy harvest was genetically modified.

"I understand the concerns with using GMOs in the biofuel supply," Atwood says, "but fundamentally, as a scientist, you have to weigh the benefits against the detriments. Do I have a problem with GMO-only fuel crops? I feel the benefits far outweigh the negatives, and nobody really knows the full negatives yet."

At present, feedstocks are the bottleneck for biodiesel production. The Department of Energy estimates U.S. biomass crop potential at around 160 million tons a year, which the say will save us 1 million barrels of oil a day. Unfortunately, right now, our oil consumption is around 21 million per day. So we're going to have to do much better than that.

This means we cannot simply grow our way to diesel independence. To reach our national consumption in diesel we would need twice the arable land we have now, all growing soy. And planting that much soy means planting genetically modified soy.

There are alternatives to soy-based biofuels, including corn (which raises many of the same GMO concerns) and jatropha, a nonedible oil seed, which is a dual-use crop that produces both oil for biodiesel and biomass for ethanol.

Jatropha can produce 200 gallons of oil per acre planted, compared with 75 gallons of oil per acre of soy planted, and 150 gallons per acre of canola. Moreover, jatropha is grown in arid climes, where the agricultural footprint is small to negligible. Additionally, coconut produces 300 gallons of oil, and palm oil can produce a yield as high as 650 gallons.

But controversy ensues even with a purported miracle product like palm oil. In June 2005 British journalist George Monbiot published a column titled " Worse than Fossil Fuel: Biodiesel enthusiasts have accidentally invented the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth." In the column, Monbiot cited a September 2004 Friends of the Earth report about the impacts of palm oil production, which stated that "In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria," mostly due to massive deforestation efforts in Southeast Asia in order to create palm plantations.

Atwood believes Monbiot is overstating the case and insists that the technology is sound. He points to a five-year incentive program of the National Biodiesel Board, which estimates it will add $1 billion to U.S. farm income and create 50,000 new jobs.

But certain people simply aren't convinced. In an op-ed printed last month, John Peck of the National Family Farm Coalition responded to BIO CEO Jim Greenwood's statement that biotechnology will end our national addiction to oil by stating, " nothing could be further from the truth":

"Thanks to Monsanto, farmers are now stuck producing vast quantities of low quality Bt corn that has hardly any market. This unwanted biotech corn must then be dumped -- at taxpayer expense -- into domestic ethanol production or factory livestock farms, or abroad in places like Mexico. There it contaminates indigenous varieties, undercuts peasant farmers and creates desperate people who have no choice but to cross the border. And in the wake of the Starlink disaster, in which genetically modified corn not intended for human consumption found its way into fast-food tacos and elsewhere, one can only imagine the consumer safety threat posed by fields of high-starch, low-fiber biotech corn, engineered with an ethanol enzyme, growing adjacent to sweet corn across the Midwest."

Peck also points out that the conventional ethanol industry is dominated by factory-farm giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a company with as high a contempt factor as Monsanto, and that many family farmers "have lost their shirts investing in co-op ethanol projects that get gobbled up by ADM when times get tough." Peck and his colleagues are concerned that the millions of dollars Jim Greenwood is asking Congress to approve will end up going right into the pockets of Monsanto and ADM.

The solution, according to Peck, is simple: "Rather than going to war or trusting in biotech," he writes, "the United States would do much better by investing in comprehensive energy conservation, decentralized energy production, and genuine renewable alternatives such as wind, solar and biodiesel."

Where is this ship headed?

Experts at the BIO convention pointed to the United States as the world's No. 1 growth market for ethanol, and they expect to see a series of biorefineries develop in the "corn belt" of America, which will produce fuels, natural biodegradable plastics and food products. ADM has a commercial ethanol plant that is scheduled to come online in 2008, and with congressional approval of the $91 million in energy appropriations, we can expect to see more companies getting in on the act.

Because of this, we should not expect the present system of corporate control to change much unless efforts are made to create a locally based, competitive biomass market. "White biotechnology will require a heavy application of green biotechnology to become successful," said Steen Riisgaard, CEO of Novozymes, a bioengineering firm. "And eventually, white will transform into green when plants are bioengineered to be optimal fuel stocks. This will not please the opponents of GMOs."

But as biotechnology continues to grow as an industry, and the science behind it becomes more sound, it is clear than one can no longer effectively lump biotech into one monolithic category.

For that reason, it is crucial for the opposition to begin to sort out the demonstrably horrible behavior of the Monsantos of the world from more promising technologies that may offer alternative fuels and plastics and biomedical cures for diseases like cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer's.

The jury is still out on the "bio-based society," but from where most of us are sitting, it can't be any worse than what we have now.

Charles Shaw is a regular contributor to AlterNet.