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Synthetic Biology and the “Bioeconomy”: Feeding Fuel to the Fire of Landgrabs and
Biodiversity Loss

by Eric Hoffman and Jeff ConantGlobal Forest Coalition
February 14th, 2013

Forests of the future? Photo courtesy of E. Hoffman, FoE-US

[For footnotes, see here]

The industrial revolution replaced wood for fossil fuels as the driver of the engine of progress, leaving living plants to take a back seat in energy production. Now, with the advent of a set of technologies known as synthetic biology, industry groups and the US Department of Energy are celebrating the advent of a new “bioeconomy” – an energy and materials economy in which products and processes previously derived from petroleum will be produced through the exploitation of biomass and biotechnology. By employing the rapidly expanding techniques of synthetic biology, the new industrialists want to turn microbes into “living chemical factories” engineered to produce substances they would not produce naturally, such as biofuels, bio-plastics, industrial chemicals and oils, and even medicines.

However, early indications show that such an approach likely harbors all of the ill-effects of the fossil fuel economy – simply swapping out black carbon for green – combined with the assault on biodiversity brought on by biotechnologies such as genetic engineering of crops. Humans have already caused a state-shift in the global ecosystem, bringing the planet into a new geological era - the Anthropocene – where the collective impact of human technology has outstripped nature as the most potent force driving ecological cycles. So what happens when we turn to biomass and synthetic biology to run our industrial energy, food, and materials production systems?

Synthetic biology is a broad term used to describe a collection of new biotechnologies that push the limits of what was previously possible with “conventional” genetic engineering. Rather than moving one or two genes between different organisms, synthetic biology is enabling the writing and re-writing of genetic code on a computer, working with hundreds and thousands of DNA sequences at a time and even trying to reengineerentire biological systems. Synthetic biology’s technique, scale, and its use of novel and synthetic genetic sequences make it, in essence, an extreme form of genetic engineering.

Synthetic biology is a nascent but rapidly growing field, worth over $1.6 billion in annual sales today and expected to grow to 10.8 billion by 2016. Many of the largest energy, chemical, forestry, pharmaceutical, food and agribusiness corporations are investing in synthetic biology R&D or establishing joint ventures in a race for the holy grail of biotech. A handful of products derived from synthetic biology have already reached the commercial market. Many others are in pre-commercial stages.

These microbial production processes depend on industrial-scale supplies of feedstocks, including sugars derived from agricultural and forest biomass, both from natural forests and from monoculture tree plantations. Increased demand for biomass to feed synthetic microbes for a new bioeconomy could have enormous impacts on biodiversity and the livelihoods and food security of local and indigenous communities. With an estimated 86% of global biomass stored in the tropics or subtropics, developing countries are already being tapped as a major source of biomass to supply industrial-scale feedstock for fermentation tanks and biorefineries. But as the first signs of this biomass and forest grab begin to emerge, the temperate forests of the north are not off the hook either.

A company called Mascoma, for example, has patented a technology it calls Consolidated Bioprocessing (CBP) in which “genetically modified yeast and bacteria convert cellulosic biomass into high-value end-products in a single step that combines hydrolysis and fermentation.” In 2011 ethanol producer Valero Energy offered $50 million to build a refinery that would use Mascoma’s CBP process to turn wood into ethanol. The plant, in the US state of Michigan, is expected to initially produce 20 million gallons of ethanol and eventually expand production up to 80 million gallons per year.

According to the environmental assessment of the Mascoma plant, the plant’s mid-range production, 40 million gallons of ethanol a year, would require 71,000 acres of timber annually (roughly one acre of forest to produce 563 gallons of ethanol). What does this look like at scale? The US renewable fuel standard calls for no less than 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel by 2022. At 563 gallons per acre, that would require 28,419,182 acres of forest per year – an area of forest just shy of the entire state of New York, to be eaten by synthetic bugs and burned up as fuel - hardly what you’d think of as ‘sustainable.’ And, as Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch has pointed out, that is just for a portion of liquid transport fuels, on top of rapidly expanding plans to burn biomass for electricity.

The dream of cellulosic biofuels is that they will, so goes the theory, avoid the food-for-fuel conundrum that was a major factor in the world food crisis of 2007. In fact, so-called “next generation” fuels will only exacerbate this problem by transforming “low-value” forest and agricultural “wastes” such as straw, leaves and branches into high-value feedstocks, and by growing biomass for chemical and energy companies on “marginal” lands. For land-based people in the global South, no lands are “marginal”, and for the complex dynamics of forests and agro-ecosystems, what industry posits as “wastes” are important components of the soil’s ability to recycle nutrients, promote biodiversity, and sequester CO2.

The innovation of using synthetic microbes to break down cellulose makes all biomass potential fodder for fuelproduction. While this may sound desirable from an industrial growth perspective, it will further incentivize the expansion of existing ethanol feedstocks, such as sugar and eucalyptus, into sensitive areas like the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado, accompanied by huge demands for water, fertilizer, and cheap labor; and it will put the entire terrestrial biosphere up for grabs as a fuel source.

While Mascoma is preparing to chip up the north woods of the US with cellulose-eating microbes, another company leading the bioeconomy land rush, ArborGen, is genetically engineering trees to grow with less lignin – the woody stuff that makes trees stand up – in order to be more easily converted into sugar for “drop-in biofuels”. Through their work sequencing the genomes of eucalyptus, pine, and poplar, ArborGen is tied to the US Department of Energy’s National Laboratories and to the Joint Bioenergy Institute, a public-private venture whose primary mission is to develop the next generation of biofuels.

With the advent of the bioeconomy, our approach to energy is poised to wreak havoc on the planet’s remaining biodiversity. Yet despite the technologies’ rapid growth, there are no national or international regulations to insulate biodiversity and livelihoods from the potential ravages of synthetic biology and biomass energy. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has started to look at these issues, but failed to implement a moratorium at its recent negotiations in October 2012.

In the face of this new bio-industrial revolution, civil society, social movements, NGOs and governments must come together to bring an end to all forms of land and biomass grabbing. In addition, there must be a moratorium on synthetic biology to ensure this emerging technology is properly regulated and does not threaten the environment, biodiversity, human health, or social justice.

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