The Coming "Sugar Economy" -- Sweet for Multinationals, but a Bitter Pill for Everyone Else
Peak oil, skyrocketing fuel costs, and the climate crisis are driving corporate enthusiasm for a "biological engineering revolution" that some predict will dramatically transform industrial production of food, energy, materials, medicine, and the ecosystem. Advocates of converging technologies promise a greener, cleaner post-petroleum future, where the production of economically important compounds depends not on fossil fuels but on biological manufacturing platforms fueled by plant sugars. It may sound sweet and clean. But the "sugar economy" will be the catalyst for a corporate grab on all plant matter as well as the destruction of biodiversity on a massive scale.
The future bioeconomy will rely on "extreme genetic engineering," a suite of technologies currently in early stages of development. It includes cheap and fast gene sequencing, made-to-order biological parts, genome engineering and design, and nano-scale materials fabrication and operating systems. The common denominator is that all these technologies -- biotech, nanotech, synthetic biology -- involve engineering of living organisms at the nano-scale. This technological convergence is also driving a convergence of corporate power. New bioengineering technologies attract billions of dollars in corporate funding from energy, chemical, and agribusiness giants, including DuPont, BP, Shell, Chevron, and Cargill. The 21st century's bio-based future is called the "sugar economy," or the "carbohydrate economy," because industrial production will be based on biological feedstocks (agricultural crops, grasses, forest residues, plant oils, algae, etc.) whose sugars are extracted, fermented, and converted into high-value chemicals, polymers or other molecular building blocks. The director of Cargill's industrial bioproducts division explains: "With advances in biotechnology, any chemical made from the carbon in oil could be made from the carbon found in plants."
Biological engineering has the potential to affect virtually every sector of the economy that relies on fossil fuels -- not only transportation fuels but also plastics, paints, cosmetics, adhesives, carpets, textiles, and thousands more consumer products. Advocates assure us that the "food vs. fuel" debate will be irrelevant in the future sugar economy because feedstocks will come from cheap and plentiful "cellulosic biomass" -- plant matter composed of cellulose fibers (including crop residues such as rice straw, corn stalks, wheat straw, and wood chips as well as dedicated "energy crops" such as switchgrass, fast-growing trees, algae, and even municipal waste). The giant stumbling block is that breaking down biological feedstocks into sugar requires a lot of energy and traditional chemistry has failed to provide a cost-effective process. Proponents insist that "next generation" feedstocks will use old and new biotechnologies, as well as breakthrough fermentation technologies, to succeed where chemistry failed.
Crystallizing Corporate Power
Eschewing fossil fuels as the planet's economic fulcrum won't happen overnight. It's too soon to tell if sugarcoated visions of the carbohydrate economy are mostly technological hype and hubris, or if bio-based production processes can compete with their petrochemical counterparts. Some of the world's largest corporations are beginning to shift some production away from petrochemicals to bio-based processes. The quest for the sugar economy is fueling high-dollar deals in the university-industry complex, most notably the $500 million alliance between BP and University of California, Berkeley. Unprecedented corporate alliances also involve synthetic biology startups and some of the world's largest corporations, including those in the oil, pharmaceutical, chemical, agribusiness, automobile, and forest-product industries. For example:
- Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Metabolix formed a joint venture (Telles Co.) to commercialize bioplastics made from corn sugar. The company's biorefinery will produce 110 million pounds of plastic resin per year starting in late 2008.
- DuPont partnered with sugar giant Tate & Lyle and Genencor to develop a commercial bio-based product -- a fiber called "Sorona."
- BP is partnering with Mendel Biotechnologies to develop genetically engineered perennial grass for fuel.
- Chevron has an agreement with synthetic biology startup Solazyme to develop an industrial process to transform algae into diesel fuel.
- The U.S. Department of Energy is investing $385 million in six commercial-scale cellulosic biorefineries. Corporate partners include Cargill, Dow, DuPont, Shell, and Iogen.
Today's industrial bio-economy focuses primarily on fuel, especially ethanol and biodiesel. Nature Biotechnology's Emily Waltz explains: "The market for fuels swamps that of chemical and material markets, and the prospect of commanding just a piece of it is a draw that many entrepreneurs, governments, and investors cannot resist." Since the 1970s, 70% of all U.S. government funding for R&D in biomass has gone to biofuels. In the United States, energy applications account for 94% of fossil fuel consumption while petrochemicals account for the rest. Bio-Economic Research Associates predicts that bio-based chemical processes could capture more than $70 billion in revenues by 2010 -- more than 10% of the global chemical industry total. (One analyst predicts that the market for bio-plastics will expand from $1 billion in 2007 to over $10 billion by 2020.) The biofuels sector could reach $40 billion by 2010 and $110-150 billion by 2020. Revenues from vaccines developed with next-generation DNA technologies could reach $20 billion by 2010. Recent experience with industrial agrofuels offers a modern day parable about the dangers of techno-fixes that are promoted as green and sustainable solutions to peak oil and climate change. By mid-2008, even some countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) were admitting that industrial agrofuels have been a tragic boondoggle that can't be remotely described as a socially or ecologically sustainable response to climate change. Not only are industrial agrofuels driving the world's poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty, they are the single greatest factor contributing to soaring food prices and have pushed over 30 million additional people from subsistence to hunger. Recent scientific papers conclude that industrial agrofuels are not arresting climate change but accelerating it.
Synthetic Biology to the Rescue?
But techno-optimists aren't worried because there are plenty more fixes on the launching pad. Venture capitalists, corporate titans, and the U.S. Department of Energy are betting that advances in the field of synthetic biology -- the creation of designer organisms built from synthetic DNA -- will overcome the technological bottlenecks that threaten to delay the sugar economy. Synthetic biology, they tell us, will enable next-generation cellulosic feedstocks to be far more efficient and sustainable, and won't compete with land and resources needed to grow conventional food crops. Today, synthetic biologists are pursuing a variety of methods to efficiently extract sugars from biomass feedstocks. For example, they are trying to use synthetic microbes to break down cellulosic biomass, and they are also converting microbial cells into "living chemical factories" that manufacture new bio-based products.
Jump-started by U.S. government subsidies -- by 2022, U.S. energy policy dictates that 44% of U.S. production of biofuels must come from cellulosic feedstocks -- venture capitalists and corporations are supporting in-house R&D as well as alliances with synthetic biology startups.
Amyris Biotechnologies, a California-based synthetic biology startup, aims to engineer new metabolic pathways in microbes so they will produce novel or rare compounds. Although best known for its high-profile efforts to coax engineered cells to produce an anti-malarial compound, the company's primary goal is to modify the genetic pathways of yeast so that it efficiently ferments sugars to produce longer chain molecules of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. In 2007, Amyris raised $70 million in venture capital to develop synthetic fuel technology. In April 2008 Amyris announced a joint venture with Brazil's Crystalsev to commercialize "advanced renewable fuels" made from sugarcane in 2010 -- including diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline. In the longer term, Amyris wants to create new production pathways in engineered microbes to churn out pharmaceuticals, flavors, fragrances, and nutraceuticals. In September 2008 California-based synthetic biology company, Solazyme, Inc., announced that it has successfully produced the world's first microbial-derived jet fuel by engineering algae to produce oil in fermentation tanks. The company describes it as the first step towards achieving fuel alternatives on a large scale and claims that its production process can employ a variety of non-food feedstocks, including cellulosic materials such as agricultural residues and high-productivity grasses.
DuPont already manufactures a sugar-based biomaterial via engineered microbes. Using a proprietary process developed through partnerships with Genentech and Tate & Lyle, the company engineers the cellular machinery of an E. coli bacterium so that it can ferment corn sugar to produce 1,3 propanediol, the main ingredient in the company's popular Sorona fiber. DuPont's goal is to one day produce Bio-PDO from cellulosic plant material instead of milled corn. DuPont predicts that Sorona, which can be turned into anything from underwear to carpeting, will eventually replace nylon. Although Sorona fiber is neither compostable nor biodegradable, DuPont boasts that it's environmentally friendly because its production requires 40% less energy and results in 20% less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum-based propanediol. But it takes six million bushels of corn to produce 100 million pounds of Bio-PDO -- the estimated annual output of DuPont's Tennessee-based (USA) bio-refinery. And that's just one example of one biorefinery producing just one bio-based material for a single year. In other words, synthetic biology's sugar-dependent biorefineries will create a massive demand for agricultural feedstocks. According to biotech industry estimates, a moderately sized commercial-scale biorefinery requires a minimum of 500,000 acres of cropland (and its residues or "wastes").
Synthetic biology's grand vision of a post-petroleum economy depends on biomass -- whether derived from "energy crops," trees, agricultural "wastes," crop residues, or algae. If the vision of a sugar economy advances, will all plant matter become a potential feedstock? Who decides what qualifies as agricultural waste or residue? Whose land will grow the feedstocks? An article in the February 2008 issue of Naturesuggests that synthetic biology approaches "might be tailored to marginal lands [emphasis added] where the soil wouldn't support food crops." The implications, especially for marginalized farming communities and poor people in the South, are profound. At a May 2006 meeting of synthetic biologists, Nobel laureate Dr. Steven Chu pointed out that there is "quite a bit" of arable land suitable for rain-fed energy crops, and that Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa are areas best suited for biomass generation. Failing to learn from the first-generation agrofuel trainwreck, The EconomistnaÃƒÂ¯vely suggests that "there's plenty of biomass to go around" and that "the world's hitherto impoverished tropics may find themselves in the middle of an unexpected and welcome industrial revolution."
Advocates of synthetic biology and the bio-based sugar economy assume that unlimited supplies of cellulosic biomass will be available. But can massive quantities of biomass be harvested sustainably without eroding or degrading soils, destroying biodiversity, increasing food insecurity, and displacing marginalized peoples? Can synthetic microbes work predictably? Can they be safely contained and controlled? No one knows the answers to these questions, but that's not curbing corporate enthusiasm. In the current social and economic context, the global grab for next-generation cellulosic feedstocks threatens to repeat the mistakes of first-generation agrofuels on a massive scale.
The pattern is familiar. Once again, to satisfy its voracious consumption addiction, the North is poised to exploit the land, labor, and biological resources of the global South. In the name of moving "beyond petroleum" corporate power is converging to appropriate and commodify biological resources in every part of the globe -- while leaving the root causes of climate change intact.