White biotechnology and enzymes

18 11 2011

For tens of thousands of years, humans relied on nature to provide them with everything they needed to make their lives more comfortable -cotton and wool for clothes, wood for furniture, clay and ceramic for storage containers, even plants for medicines. But this all changed during the first half of the twentieth century, when organic chemistry developed methods to create many of these products from oil.  Oil-derived synthetic polymers, colored with artificial dyes, soon replaced their precursors from the natural world.

But today, with growing concerns about the dependence on imported oil and the awareness that the world’s oil supplies are not limitless, coupled with stricter environmental regulations,  chemical and biotechnology industries are exploring nature’s richness in search of methods to replace petroleum-based synthetics.  As with other forms of biotechnology, industrial biotech involves engineering biological molecules and microbes with desirable new properties. What is different is how they are then used: to replace chemical processes with biological ones. Whether this is to produce chemicals for other processes or to create products such as biopolymers with new properties, there is a  huge effort to harness biology to accomplish what previously needed big, dirty chemical factories, but in cleaner and greener ways.

The public has for a long time perceived biotechnology to mean dangerous meddling with the genes in food and fiber crops.  But biotechnology is about much more than transgenic crops – it also uses microbes to make pharmaceuticals, for example.  Industrial biotechnology is known as “white” biotechnology, as distinct from “red” biotechnology, which is devoted to medical and pharmaceutical purposes, and “green” biotechnology, or the application of biotechnology in agriculture.

From: EuropaBio

Today, the application of biotechnology to industrial processes holds many promises for sustainable development.  One of the first goals on white biotechnology’s agenda has been the production of biodegradable plastics, and in textiles,  DuPont has invested much in the production of textile fibers from corn sugar (Sorona ®) while Cargill Dow has introduced NatureWorks ™, a polymer made from lactic acid which is used in textiles under the brand name Ingeo ®.  And these new processes have resulted in considerable environmental benefits:  In the case of Sorona ®, for example,  DuPont was able to replace the toxic elements of ethylene glycol and carbon monoxide in typical PET fibers with benign corn sugars.

But there are challenges pertaining to these new bioplastics, and the evidence that they’re actually better for the planet is hotly debated.  As Jim Thomas argues in the New Internationalist online magazine:

Strictly speaking a bioplastic is a polymer that has been produced from a plant instead of from petroleum. That is neither a new breakthrough nor a guarantee of ecological soundness. The earliest plastics such as celluloid were made from tree cellulose before petroleum proved itself a cheaper source. Today, with oil prices skyrocketing, it’s cheaper feedstock –  not green principles –  that is driving chemical companies back to bio-based plastics. Bioplastics may bring in the greenbacks for investors but are they actually green for the planet? The evidence is not convincing. For a start bioplastics may or may not be degradable or biodegradable – two terms that mean very different things. Many bio-based plastics – like DuPont’s Sorona – make no claims to break down in the environment. So much for disposal. But replacing fossil fuels with plants has to be a good idea, right? This is the premise on which the green claims of bioplastics mostly rest. Unfortunately, as advocates of biofuels have learned, switching from oil to biomass as the feedstock of our industrial economy carries its own set of problems. Like hunger.

There is nothing sustainable or organic about most industrial agriculture feedstocks. At present genetically modified corn grown using pesticides is probably the leading source of starch for bioplastics.  The link between genetic contamination and bioplastics is strong.

As concerns mount, the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative (SBC) – a network of 16 civil society groups and ethical businesses – is working to define a truly sustainable bioplastic. One of its founders, Tom Lent, explains that the SBC started because ‘the promise of bioplastics was not being realized’.

But biotechnology is not just about bioplastics – it’s actually mostly, these days,  about enzymes.  Biotechnology can provide an unlimited and pure source of enzymes as an alternative to the harsh chemicals traditionally used in industry for accelerating chemical reactions. Enzymes are found in naturally occurring microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and yeast, all of which may or may not be genetically modified.  (We’ll come back to this important point later.)

But what are enzymes?

Enzymes are large protein molecules that  act as  catalysts – substances that start or accelerate chemical reactions without themselves being affected —  and help complex reactions occur everywhere in life.  By their mere presence, and without being consumed in the process, enzymes can speed up chemical processes – reactions occur about a million times faster than they would in the absence of an enzyme. In principle, these reactions could go on forever, but in practice most enzymes have a limited life.   There are many factors that can regulate enzyme activity, including temperature, activators, pH levels, and inhibitors.

Enzymes play a diversified role in many aspects of everyday life including aiding in digestion and the production of food as well as in industrial applications. Enzymes are nature’s catalysts. Humankind has used them for thousands of years to carry out important chemical reactions for making products such as cheese, beer, and wine. Bread and yogurt also owe their flavor and texture to a range of enzyme producing organisms that were domesticated many years ago.

Enzymes are categorized according to the compounds they act upon. Some of the most common include:

  •  proteases which break down proteins,
  •  cellulases which break down cellulose,
  •  lipases which split fats (lipids) into glycerol and fatty acids, and
  •  amylases which break down starch into simple sugars.  Human saliva, for example, contains amylase, an enzyme that helps break down starchy foods into sugars.

In textile treatment, the first enzyme applications, as early as 1857, was the use of barley for removal of starchy size from woven fabrics. The first microbial amylases were used in the 1950s for the same desizing process, which today is routinely used by the industry.

Enzymes are now widely used to prepare the fabrics that your clothing, furniture and other household items are made of.  Increasing demands to reduce pollution caused by the textile industry has fueled biotechnological advances that have replaced harsh chemicals with enzymes in many textile manufacturing processes.  The use of enzymes not only make the process less toxic (by substituting enzymatic treatments for harmful chemical treatments) and eco-friendly, they reduce costs associated with the production process, and consumption of natural resources (water, electricity, fuels), while also improving the quality of the final textile product.

But how do they work?

Rader’s Chem4Kids.com website  has a great explanation, which I’ve quoted below:

Think of enzymes as similar to keys which can open locks.  Just as when you need a key that is just the right shape to fit in a particular lock, enzymes complete very specific jobs and do nothing else.  

From: Chem4Kids

 They are very specific locks and the compounds they work with are the special keys. In the same way there are door keys, car keys, and bike-lock keys, there are enzymes for neural cells, intestinal cells, and your saliva.

Here’s the deal: there are four steps in the process of an enzyme working. 

  1.  An enzyme and a substrate are in the same area. The substrate is the biological molecule that the enzyme will attack. 
  2.  The enzyme grabs onto the substrate with a special area called the active site.  The active site is a specially shaped area of the enzyme that fits around the substrate. The active site is the keyhole of the lock. 
  3. A process called catalysis happens. Catalysis is when the substrate is changed. It could be broken down or combined with another molecule to make something new. 
  4.  Then the enzyme lets go.  When the enzyme lets go, it returns to normal, ready to do another reaction. But the substrate is no longer the same – the substrate is now called the product.

Next, well take a look at how enzymes are helping to make the textile industry’s environmental footprint a bit more benign.

Reasons for concern regarding GMO’s

29 09 2009

From last week’s post, you’ll remember we explained that GMO crops (to date) do not fulfill their promise:

  1. They do not decrease hunger and poverty;
  2. Data shows that GMO crops actually increase pesticide and herbicide use;
  3. They do not yield more; in a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Failure to Yield, data shows that despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.   In fact data points to possibly lower yields than would have been achieved by NOT using GMO seed.

But I still didn’t understand  what the fuss is all about.  After all, companies have been making claims for products forever.  Shouldn’t the product just die by way of non-purchase?  Why should governments get involved and prohibit the use of GMO seeds?  Why are the organic trade associations around the world in such an uproar?

After all, the promise of genetic engineering  is very powerful –  to be able to feed the world as populations increase and agricultural land gets squeezed.   James McWilliams, an associate professor at Texas State University, says that genetic engineering is “a hidden realm of opportunity to feed the world’s impending 9 billion a diet produced in an environmentally responsible way.” Time Magazine reported in September, 2009 that a scientist at Texas A & M University has discovered a way to remove the gossypol (a naturally occurring toxic chemical that protects the plant from infestation) from cottonseeds.  Today cottonseeds can be used for humans only after an extensive refining process to remove the gossypol.  Also in the works are crops that can produce higher yields with less water; a dust from genetically modified ferns that can remove heavy metals from the soil;  crops that can withstand drought or high salt content in soil; and other GM technologies that “have the potential not only to streamline production, but to play a meaningful role in reducing their carbon footprint.”(1)  Sounds pretty good to me.

In the United States, we haven’t heard much about genetic engineering, because in 1992, the
FDA unilaterally decided (in its opinion) that as long as a GM food is no more toxic, allergenic, or any less “substantially equivalent” than its standard counterpart, it need not be labeled to show the process that created it. That is quite different from the European labeling laws, introduced in 1997, which required that any food containing residues of engineered DNA or protein must be recorded as GM.

So what is it about genetic engineering that has these other governments and organizations so concerned?  Part of the problem may be that the scientific community does not like the unknown, and it seems to have not reached a consensus on the safety of these products for our health or for the environment, although it’s hard to determine what interests are behind which studies.

These areas of concern, in addition to those of the plants developing increasing tolerances to pesticides and herbicides, include :

  1. The concept of “drift”:   that is,  pollen from genetically engineered plants will spread by insects and the winds to affect non-GMO plants.  (After all, a bee can travel up to 30 km or more.)  This contaminates both conventional and organic fields.  And farmers or food processors lose money because of unwanted contamination.   The  Organic Trade Association of Canada recently reported the discovery of contaminated flax seed in some German food products;  native corn in Mexico (where it is illegal to plant genetically engineered corn) was reported to have new GM genes found in the genome, where they could interfere with the plant’s normal genes.(2)   “It’s time for biotech companies to be good parents and take responsibility for their children. The owners of GE crops need to assume the liability for loss of market access due to their technologies appearing in countries or products in which they are not wanted. As GE products are not permitted under organic standards, the organic sector in Canada is extremely concerned by the prospect of losing access to its essential markets in Europe, Asia and around the world,” said Matthew Holmes, managing director of OTA in Canada.  According to the U.S. Organic Trade Association,  “Bt contamination is  a trespass, a nuisance, unwanted, and can lead to significant economic losses for organic farmers.  This is a clear example of potentially disastrous environmental degradation, with the added problem that consumers seeking products that contain no genetically engineered materials may be denied this choice because of inadvertent contamination.”
  2. Concerns regarding human health: These are classed into those that fall under “unknown effect on human health” and allergenicity.   With regard to unknown effects, a study published by the Austrian government found that mice fed a type of genetically engineered corn produced fewer offspring and more females with no offspring, than mice fed conventional corn.  The effects were particularly pronounced in the third and fourth litters, after the mice had eaten the GE corn for a longer period of time.  Another study published in Lancet claimed that there are appreciable differences in the intestines of rats fed genetically engineered potatoes and those fed unmodified potatoes.(3)  The milk from cows injected with genetically engineered  bovine growth hormone rBGH  (sometimes called rBST)  has been found to have much higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone considered to be a high risk factor for breast, prostate, colon, lung and other cancers – and the milk has lowered nutritional value! (4). “This … should serve as a wake-up call to governments around the world that genetically engineered foods could cause long-term health damage,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety.       With regard to allergenicity, there is the possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may cause a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. When DNA from one organism is spliced into another, can it turn a non-allergenic food into one that will cause an allergic reaction in some people?
  3. Concerns regarding agricultural diversity:  The 1st conference on animal and plant breeding of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) was held in August, 2009.  Speakers at the conference made it clear that we are in a battle to save the diversity of today’s food in order to have future food.  According to Vandana Shivam,  who spoke at the conference, unprecendented weather is occurring in India with the disruption of life-giving monsoons which used to appear as regularly as clockwork.  Farmers growing GMO rice could not plant their seedlings because of lack of rain, while farmers who had access to heirloom drought-tolerant varieties were able to plant and get a crop.  Traditional farming used to include over 250 crops.  Now there are a mere 2 crops.  Community seed banks are springing up around India to preserve traditional varieities, and “freedom villages” are forming to prohibit GMOs because of their threat to traditional seeds.  You can learn more about the situation in India by reading “Stop the Biopiracy of Climate Resilient Crops” by clicking here. The Wall Street Journal ran an article on how organic farming, even with reduced yields, is more profitable for Indian farmers than conventional crops, because the farmers  no longer are subjected to high up front costs for chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and they can save  seeds from year to year.
  4. Concerns regarding the safety of wildlife in the surrounding areas of GM crops: A major study performed by the British government and published by the Royal Society,   found that GM crops had 33% fewer seeds for birds to eat at the end of the season, and even two years later there were still 25% fewer seeds.  As the study puts it: “While reduction or removal of the visible flora temporarily reduces the food available to farmland animals, the key to longer-term impacts is the ‘seed rain’ (seeds falling from weeds) and its contribution to the seedbank (weed seeds left in soil).” (5)  They concluded that over time this would have a dramatic impact on the bird populations which are dependent on these seeds.  There are also fewer bees, beetles, butterflies and other insects in the GM crops. Such invertebrates are food for mammals, birds and other animals, and many are important for controlling pests or recycling nutrients within the soil.
  5. Concerns regarding the use of Bt crops and organic agriculture:  Bt is often used in organic agriculture;  it is an excellent biological control for corn and cotton insect pests.  It is the most widely used biological control in organic agriculture.    But Bt engineered plants will lead quickly to significant insect resistance, depriving organic farmers of one of their most useful tools.
  6. Concerns regarding the business of corporate agriculture: Many are concerned that farmers are turning dependent on large multinational corporations (MNCs) for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs while also becoming more vulnerable to pressures to produce genetically engineered crops.   They fear the predatory nature of corporate agriculture and its attempts to corner the entire chain of food production from seeds to sales of food products.  Three companies — Cargill, Archer Daniels and Bunge — control nearly 90 per cent of global grain trade while DuPont and Monsanto dominate the global seed market. Eleven firms account for about half the world sales of seeds, of which about a quarter are sales of genetically engineered seeds. (6)  And agrichemical sales are concentrated in 6 firms which together control 85% of the annual pesticide market. (7)   The research into GMO crops is very expensive, meaning only large, well funded companies can afford the research.  It’s this last concern, that of “vertical integration” (i.e., a corporation taking over the entire food production cycle from the development of proprietary strains of DNA and the sales of seeds to farmers down to contracts with farmers that determine what is produced, how and for whom, and at what price and quality), that I want to focus on.

In an equity research paper done by Deutsche Banc of DuPont in 1999, they stated that they were willing to believe that GMOs were safe and “may provide a benefit for the environment” but that the perception wars are being lost by the industry.     “Not a day goes by lately where concerns and/or rebuttals are not in the press somewhere in the world. Domestic concerns regarding agbiotechnology are clearly on the rise, with the Monarch butterfly but one example of negative press causing a rethink of the future. For the most part, though, it has not yet gotten the attention of the ordinary U.S. citizen, but when it does – look out.”

The corporations which have so much at stake here know that they need a more aggressive marketing technique to promote the impression that GMOs are good and safe to use.  Agrichemical lobbyists are trying to convince the public that the industry is “science-based”.  A new global federation of agrichemical multinational corporations, Crop Life International, is the new representative of the “plant science industry”.  Crop Life’s annual report for 2007 makes the breathtaking claim that pesticides are actually good for the environment for a host of reasons, including “lower carbon dioxide emissions associated with the switch to no-till/reduced tillage farming systems, and less frequent pesticide applications made possible by biotech crops fuel savings.”

The agrichemical companies are vertically integrated, based on the law of efficiency similar to economies of scale which favors big corporations.  Antonio Tujan, Jr., international director of the Ibon Foundation Inc. (a research and educational institution specializing in socio-economic issues) says that “integration destroys the free market as it becomes increasingly dominated by the giants, which are able to dictate profits and what is produced.”  This turns the market into a sellers’ market, and farmers have little or no choice.  Farmers are forced to accept whatever they are asked to use such as seeds and pesticides.  A democratic market, in contrast, is a consumers’ market.

The big companies have a lot at stake, and the squabbling and double dealing – not to mention lawsuits and counter suits –  are worthy of a good thriller.   Monsanto, after years of acquiring seed companies while trying to become the major seed producer in the world,  filed a lawsuit in the spring accusing DuPont of patent infringement; DuPont countersued saying Monsanto wanted to protect its franchise at the expense of giving farmers access to better technology.   But in June, DuPont sued BASF over the same kind of alleged violations Monsanto sued it for in the spring – and of course, BASF countersued!

A more disturbing set of statistics is the number of lawsuits that Monsanto has filed against farmers who are accused of violating its patents.  It has built a department of 75 employees and set aside an annual budget of $10 million for the sole purpose of investigating and prosecuting farmers for patent infringement. For cases with recorded judgments, farmers have paid a mean of $412,259.54.  (Click here to read the entire report.) The table below gives the number of cases by year:

Number of Lawsuits by Year

Source:  The Center for Food Safety,  January 2005

According to Tom Wiley, a North Dakota farmer, farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they “did not buy, do not want,  will not use and cannot sell.”

This just in:   Monsanto announced on  August 13 that it would be raising prices for its genetically modifed seeds from 17% to 42% – saying that these new seeds will boost yields; this is part of the company’s drive to double profits by 2012. (8)

(1) Brandon, Hembree, “GMO rejection – ‘Fatal rush to judgment'”, June 3, 2009, Southeast Farm Press

(2) “Chapala Vindicated”, Organic Consumers Association, March 5, 2009, http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_17133.cfm

(3) “Effect of diets containing genetically mofidied potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine”, Lancet, Vol 354, No 9187, pp 1353-1354, Oct 1999

(4) http://www.preventcancer.com/consumers/general/milk.htm

(5) http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GMCHW.php

(6) Netto, Anil, “GMO Seeds:  “MNCs Gaining Total Control Over Farming”, December 12, 2007, Center for Research on Globalization

(7) Ibid.

(8) “A Seed Company Some Love to Hate”, Jim Jubak blog on MSN Money, http://blogs.moneycentral.msn.com/topstocks/archive/2009/08/14/a-seed-company-some-love-to-hate.aspx