Friends of the Earth Reacts to Exxon-Synthetic Genomics Deal to Develop Novel Algae Biofuel
The $600M investment by Exxon into Synthetic Genomics, J. Craig Venter's synthetic biology company, is just the latest in a string of controversial and what should be eyebrow-raising investment deals between the oil industry and synthetic biology research ventures. The BP-Berkeley deal was the first major investment by Big Oil into synthetic biology research, in which BP invested $500M over 10 years to fund researching synthetic biology for the development of new biofuels in 2007. Since then, almost all major oil companies have invested, steeply, in synthetic biology research for biofuels. Here is a report from ETC Group outlining all of these investments.
Friends of the Earth is concerned with synthetic biology because it is an extreme form of genetic engineering where engineers are using biology to re-design and design from scratch life using its most basic component -- DNA. Scientists are making DNA from scratch in an attempt to create new, streamlined life that will do things they want. While this particular science is fascinating, it also potentially presents a vast array of harms and ethical concerns, such as environmental safety, emergence of new disease, control and ownership of life, bioweapons, and sustainable energy development. Although we only hear about the potential promises of synthetic biology, we also must think of the potential dangers. One scenario is that these super microorganisms could mutate to overcome the genetic control switch that is supposed to prevent it from surviving in nature and started digesting all cellulosic material. Until we have strict oversight to protect human health and the environment, we do not think this technology should be commercialized.
In general, while it is promising to see the oil industry investigate alternative sources of energy production, investing in biofuels is not necessarily sustainable or "green." Biofuels, if anything, are a short-term way to transition us from using fossil fuels to more long-term, truly sustainable sources of energy like wind and solar power. The oil industry invests heavily in these new types of biofuels because it is the easiest way for them to stay in business and guarantee their place in the energy market. Many of these oil companies are making steep investments in synthetic biology because they can literally own the very microorganisms that aim to produce fuel because of the current patentability of DNA. If synthetic biology proves successful, Big Oil will not only own the fuel itself, but own the very life form that produces it.
The biofuel industry is currently facing a shift from conventional, first-generation biofuels to so-called advanced biofuels as it becomes more clear that corn-based ethanol and soybean biodiesel are neither ecologically, socially or economically sustainable. Advanced biofuels -- algae, synthetic biology, cellulosic -- are still being researched, and it is still uncertain whether many of these potential fuels will be sustainable. However, each of these types of biofuel will require a massive amount of plant material. This means that some sort of plant will have to be mass produced and harvested, which corporate agribusiness has demonstrated is unsustainable, and even then it is estimated that we cannot produce enough biomass to meet current fuel demand projections.
Exxon is one of the dirtiest companies that exist today. It is amazing that they were the biggest global warming deniers, yet today they are the latest Big Oil company to be investing in alternative energy technologies. We need to see if this is purely a public relations stunt -- will they spend the same amount of money advertising this investment as the investment itself? Are they investing in any truly "green" technology such as wind or solar? The jury is out.
In summary, biofuels, even these super so-called advanced biofuels, are not a solution to our climate and energy problems. Today's biofuels can create far more global warming pollution than gasoline, and it is unclear whether tomorrow's biofuels will be any better. Instead of investing in biofuels in order to wean ourselves from oil and gasoline, we should be looking at our transportation sector in a holistic way. We must invest in truly sustainable sources of energy, such as wind and solar. And we must electrify our transportation sector to no longer run off of liquid fuels and instead be energized from a green and clean electrical grid. Additionally, we must look critically on the demand for transportation energy and make investments in green transportation infrastructure that give people affordable transportation options, such as high-speed passenger rail, public transportation, transit, and infrastructure for biking and walking. We should not be wasting money and time on these unsustainable and potentially dangerous technologies.
For more information, see Friends of the Earth's position on synthetic biology.