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. ******
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 Nature suggests 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 Economist naïvely 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.
Hope Shand is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and the director of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC Group).