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Technology (like GMOs) and its Discontents

Thanks to the wonders of internet technology (specifically, online newspapers, e-mail, and Twitter), I have been immersed today in a veritable blizzard of communications about whether particular technologies are bad for us or for the planet, and what should be done about them. Truly, a wide range of people, opinions, and actions.

GMOs
I much enjoyed a radio interview/debate about legislation that would force food makers to label food containing genetically modified organisms. If you have a few spare minutes, check out this KPBS San Diego piece featuring Steven Briggs, Distinguished Professor, Section of Cell and Developmental Biology, UC San Diego, and David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.

http://www.kpbs.org/audioclips/17711/
[the interview starts at about minute 1:10]

The show addresses a bit of background: Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced a GMO labeling bill in the Senate. A state referendum in California to require labeling was defeated in the recent election. And a recent poll claims that 91% of consumers are in favor of labeling.

In the interview, Briggs states that efforts to require GMO labeling are based on confusion about GMOs and are not about nutrition or safety but about ideology (specifically anti-corporate ideology). Bronner, on the other side, says consumers want information about GMOs and have a right to know. He says that while our experience so far does not show that GMOs have caused health problems, the consumers want to understand what method of agriculture produced their food. He also states that GMOs promote non-sustainable farming.

In the interview, Bronner mentions two aspects of GM technology that you can read about in C&EN:
A new GM apple
http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i14/Engineered-Apples-Near-Approval.html
And new seed traits that confer tolerance to older herbicides 2,4 D and Dicamba http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i21/War-Weeds.html

For a longer, though more one-sided discussion of the possible benefits of GMOs, there is a new book out, called the God Species by Mark Lynas, a historian and writer of global warming warning books. He recently did an eco-about-face and came out in favor of GM technologies. Prior to that coming out, he had been an anti-GMO activist.

For a hefty dose of his thinking, you can read an essay here: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/04/time-to-call-out-the-anti-gmo-conspiracy-theory/

He would probably not be in favor of requiring GMO labels on food. In the essay (actually a speech) is this line: “Allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate policymaking on biotechnology is like putting homeopaths in charge of the health service, or asking anti-vaccine campaigners to take the lead in eradicating polio.”

Cosmetics Ingredients/Industrial Chemicals
I also got an e-mail titled “Shareholders urge Avon to Detox.” An investor fund with strong activist leanings, the Green Century Equity Fund, has filed a shareholder resolution asking Avon Corporation to phase out what it calls hazardous chemicals in its cosmetics and personal care products. Green Century urges Avon to follow the lead of Johnson and Johnson, which said it would phase out certain ingredients starting with its baby products.

The fund lists 1,4-dioxane, retinyl palmitate, formaldehyde, triclosan, and phthalates as some of the hazardous chemicals of concern commonly found in many personal care products.

The general outlines of this campaign has been in the works for a good while – you can read more in a C&EN feature from back in 2010: Preservatives Under Fire
http://cen.acs.org/articles/88/i20/Preservatives-Under-Fire.html

Taking a much broader scope, public health historians David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz have collaborated on a book detailing the political history of lead exposure and public health. They wrote an essay that got picked up and republished on Bill Moyers website. The title would make any chemical firm’s PR department clench: Your Body Is a Corporate Test Tube. The gist is that the decades-long fight to reduce children’s exposure to harmful lead will be fought again against today’s common stuff like vinyl, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, and polychlorinated biphenyls.

http://billmoyers.com/2013/04/29/your-body-is-a-corporate-test-tube/

Nuclear Weapons
I’m including this mostly because it involves terrific story telling. Three outsiders on a peace mission from God broke into nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge National Lab. As profiled in the Washington Post.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2013/04/29/the-prophets-of-oak-ridge/

Fast Food Fight Over Biofuels

Will the U.S. government’s biofuels mandate increase the cost of your favorite “dollar menu” item?

A trade group of chain restaurants – which includes fast service joints – called the National Council of Chain Restaurants, has put out a report saying that the EPA’s Renewable Fuels Standard will increase restaurant food costs. According to NCCR, the RFS will cause the cost of corn to rise by 27% (according to two studies) or perhaps by only 4% (according to one study).

In addition to mandating ethanol made from corn, the RFS is the mandate driving the new industry of cellulosic ethanol. Biofuels producers of all kinds love mandates. Love is not a strong enough word, actually. I’m not sure what word DuPont would use. It just broke ground on a 30 million gal/year cellulosic ethanol facility in Nevada, Iowa.

But the fast food group argues that the RFS means higher corn costs and higher costs for everything from wheat and soybeans to beef, poultry and eggs. The average fast food restaurant spent just over $180,000 in 2011 on food commodities. Once the RFS is fully phased in, the cost of that food would go up, they claim, by 10% in the worst scenario and 1.6% in the best.

Recently, when the EPA denied requests by governors and members of congress (many representing the cattle and poultry industry concerned about rising costs of feed), it said its own estimates showed corn prices were affected only slightly by demand for ethanol – by about 1%.

The NCCR report contains the following statement:

“Increased demand for corn for use in ethanol will cause corn prices to increase, in the absence of adjustments to the supply of corn.”

But according to the USDA, both corn acreage, and importantly, yield per acre, have soared in recent years due to the additional demand from ethanol:

Corn production has risen over time, as higher yields followed improvements in technology (seed varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery) and in production practices (reduced tillage, irrigation, crop rotations, and pest management systems).

Strong demand for ethanol production has resulted in higher corn prices and has provided incentives to increase corn acreage. In many cases, farmers have increased corn acreage by adjusting crop rotations between corn and soybeans, which has caused soybean plantings to decrease. Other sources of land for increased corn plantings include cropland used as pasture, reduced fallow, acreage returning to production from expiring Conservation Reserve Program contracts, and shifts from other crops, such as cotton.

Companies that are building facilities to produce advanced biofuels (not derived from food sources) are probably more dependent on the RFS than their corn-consuming counterparts. With corn ethanol selling for $2 a gallon, fuel blenders will likely seek it out even without a mandate. While it would be more comfortable to ignore this food fight, the future of the RFS could make or break the future of advanced biofuels.

[Not surprisingly, the Renewable Fuels Association has issued a response to the NCCR's report]

 

Energy Crops: the sweet and the sour

Switchgrass, miscanthus, hybrid poplar – these are just the first three plants I think of when I hear the term “energy crop.” But I heard of a new one a few weeks ago when I attended a conference (story fortcoming) about commercializing biobased chemicals and fuels. Let me introduce you to a very big “weed” called Arundo donax.

Arundo donax is a giant reed from Asia. Credit: USDA

While most energy crops produce a few tons of dry biomass per acre, Arundo – a tall bamboo-like reed – can produce several. Like switchgrass, it is a perennial. Like Kudzu, however, it is self-propagating and possibly horribly invasive.

It looks like the huge plant (it’s a weed when it grows where it isn’t wanted, like in California), may become a lot more well-known in biofuels circles. Chemtex will use it, along with wheat straw, in its first commercial facility in Crescentino, Italy. This plant is already humming, and commercial ethanol production is expected to begin early next year.

Chemtex plans to construct another ethanol plant in eastern North Carolina. Through a USDA program intended to promote rural development through the cultivation of energy crops, the company was offered a $99 million loan guarantee to plant “high yielding energy grasses, including miscanthus and switchgrass.” According to a fascinating look at Arundo cultivation – and eradication – by the Associated Press, it looks like the giant weed may also be part of the mix.

Meanwhile, a much sweeter crop, a high-sugar variety of sorghum, may be edging its way into Brazil’s famous sugar-growing regions. Plant biotech firm Ceres, and agribusiness firm Syngenta plant to run test plots of hybrid sweet sorghum destined for ethanol production. The press release says that Brazil’s ethanol industry has created a shortage of sugar cane, and the country views sorghum as a strategic crop.

While Arundo would be harvested just for its biomass, sorghum is usually grown for its seed which is used in animal feed.

Giant Gobs of Algae Coming From Solazyme

Starting soon, oil-producing algae will be replicating at B-horror-movie quantities. Imagine a lab coat-wearing scientist running into the street shouting “300,000 metric tons!” while scores of screaming people run by, pursued by a giant wave of green slime.

But be not worried, the algae in question will be safely confined to fermentation tanks thanks their overlords at Solazyme. And many of those tanks will be in Brazil (so the people would be screaming in Portuguese, I guess.)

Earlier this week, Solazyme says that it has agreed with its sugar-producing partner Bunge to increase the production capacity for algal oils from an original 100,000 metric ton amount to 300,000 metric tons. It seems from the press release that Bunge will have a hand in marketing the tailored oils to the edible oil market in Brazil.

If you happen to live in the U.S. and have a craving for oil derived from algae, you’ll be pleased to learn that another large blob will be coming to Clinton, Iowa, starting in early 2014. Solazyme and its little green workers plan to ooze into the idle Archer Daniels Midland plant formerly occupied by Metabolix’s bioplastics operation. The plant will start out making 20,000 metric tons, but aims to grow to 100,000 metric tons.

 

Soon You’ll be Thankful for #foodchem Microbes

Cleantech Chemistry dives into the #foodchem carnival this week!

This is a good time to get your Thanksgiving menu planning started. This time of year I use a lot of spices. Have you ever noticed how expensive they are? I’ve paid $14 for two vanilla pods. The problem with vanilla is that it comes from the seed pod of a kind of orchid. Having tried to grow orchids, well, let’s just say I can imagine this is not an easy crop. Also, vanilla is commonly grown in Madagascar. Not exactly a locavore treat.

Natural vanilla. Credit: Shutterstock

I’ve had better luck with growing crocuses, but I’ve not grown my own saffron. Maybe I should, because saffron, which comes from the flower of the saffron crocus, sells for about $2,000 per kg.

Microbiologists and chemists are ready to come to the rescue of cooks (and food makers) who love spices but don’t want to break the bank. One start-up, based in Switzerland, is Evolva. Evolva plans to use biotechnology to make high value ingredients for health, wellness, and nutrition. Two of its first target products are vanilla and saffron.

So far, it’s been a rather quiet company, but its CEO, Neil Goldsmith, came over to Philadelphia this week to talk about the firm to attendees of the first gathering of SCD-iBIO. This group was formed to promote a strong value chain for biobased products in order to commercialize the output of industrial biotechnology.

In the context of the meeting, Goldsmith said the firm’s background in pharmaceuticals (the company started with ideas of supplying the drug market) means it is well positioned to deal in the regulated food industry. As a small company, Evolva has purposely targeted high-value, non-commodity products. Also a the meeting were Solazyme and Amyris. Both are larger and public biobased companies that are targeting the pricey wellness market (personal care and fragrances). Both firms had initially said they would target biofuels.

Evolva says flavor molecules like those in vanilla and saffron can be made much more cheaply by fermentation. Most vanilla-flavored foods are made with synthetic vanilla, a product called vanillin. But natural vanilla is a complex mixture of flavor molecules and Evolva says it can make more than just vanillin. In addition, using sugar as a feedstock helps in an industry looking to avoid synthetic ingredients derived from petroleum.

The stevia plant also contains a number of molecules that produce its characteristic sweetness. Stevia sweeteners, which are derived from the plant, are now a $300 million per year market. The sweeteners are commonly used in beverages, but are pricier than sugar, HFCS, and synthetic sweeteners.

Goldsmith pointed out that the best stevia molecules for use in sweetening beverages (without the characteristic bitter aftertaste of some stevia products) occur in very small amounts in the natural source (the plant). So Evolva plans to make those less-common molecules via fermentation. The implication is that this version of the biobased sweetener could also be made more cheaply than the plant-based version.

Read more:

About making flavors and fragrances with microbes: Sweet Smell of Microbes

About sweeteners made from stevia

DowAgro Satisfies Growers on 2,4 D Drift Dangers

[With a note on some confusion about wheat, and if it has been genetically modified (see below)]

The herbicide 2,4 D is pretty powerful stuff. It has recently been in the news because it kills weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate (brand name Roundup). In May, I wrote about efforts by Dow AgroSciences to bring a new genetically modified corn to market that has been engineered to be tolerant to 2,4 D.

The idea is that the new corn would withstand applications of both glyphosate and 2,4 D, and that farmers would use those two herbicides, and presumably a rotation of at least one other chemical control, to kill weeds and prevent new occurrences of resistant weeds.

Along with the new corn, Dow scientists created a new version of 2,4 D, called 2,4 D Choline, that is less likely to drift off the fields where it has been applied. Now, one group of growers, the Save Our Crops Coalition, has issued a joint statement with Dow saying that the information Dow has supplied about reduced drift and volatility, along with the company’s pledge to investigate non-target claims, has gone a long way to satisfy its concerns about migrating herbicide. Both SOCC and Dow say they have “agreed to modify positions with respect to pending regulatory matters around 2,4-D tolerant crops.”

Prior to this agreement, the Save Our Crops Coalition had used the USDA’s open comment period to request an environmental impact statement to assess the likelihood of drift from 2,4 D applications.

They pointed out that since not all farmers will be growing 2,4 D tolerant crops, drift to non-intended targets could result in significant crop damage, since it would be applied during the growing season (imaging a field of vegetables that got smogged by 2,4 D – the plants would croak along with the weeds).

I reported on Dow’s work to reduce migration of 2,4 D in the C&EN feature story. Here’s the relevant background:

David E. Hillger, an application technology specialist at Dow AgroSciences, explains that rather than traditional ester or amine forms of the molecule, which can volatilize in the environment, the new version is a more stable quaternary ammonium salt.

In addition, Hillger says Dow’s proprietary manufacturing process produces a product with less particle drift when application directions are followed. Dow recently reported that field tests of the formula showed a 92% reduction in volatility and a 90% reduction in drift.

Crops that contain the 2,4-D tolerance- trait will also tolerate older versions of 2,4-D. However, Dow has developed a stewardship program that obligates farmers to use a premixed combination of 2,4-D choline and glyphosate. The program includes farmer education about using multiple herbicide modes of action, the requirement to use Dow’s new herbicide mixture, and labeling instructions for proper application. State pesticide regulations generally require farmers to follow labeling guidelines when using herbicides.

For now DowAgrosciences is waiting on regulatory authorizations for 2,4-D tolerant corn, but the company says it plans to get the green light in time for the 2013 growing season.

Certainly there are other criticisms of the 2,4 D-tolerant crops still out there. One important concern is that farmers may use chemical fertilizers in such a way as to promote even more herbicide-resistant weeds – ones that cannot be killed with 2,4 D or glyphosate. Another is the possibility that the amount of 2,4 D used on crops will dramatically increase (glyphosate, though used in large amounts, breaks down rather quickly in soil).

And of course, foes of all types of GMO crops abound, and anyone who is against Roundup Ready corn is not likely to be in favor of the new varieties.

Speaking of which, I’ve noted a number of commentaries relating to wheat lately, apparently due to the rise of anti-gluten eating. Many leave the reader with the impression that the U.S. is awash in genetically modified wheat. This is incorrect – there are many wheat hybrids on the market today, but none have been genetically engineered.

I find it handy to refer to an online USDA list – updated seemingly daily – which lists pending GM crops as well as those that have been approved already (in the section titled Determinations of Nonregulated Status). You may want to bookmark it, or have it printed on handy cards to give to people.

http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/not_reg.html

Taking Odds on Possible BPA Ban by FDA

The Food and Drug Administration will have to decide by March 31 whether to ban the use of BPA in food and beverage packaging, due to a settlement between the FDA and the watchdog group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

 

Which way will the FDA go? Will it ban BPA? Why or why not? How will the government weigh the science, the economics, industry pressure, non-profit pressure, the lack of well studied alternatives? Even if you are unsure, what odds are you giving the ban? We can assume that food and packaging industries are working on alternatives – and probably already have some, though they may be more expensive or less convenient than BPA.

C&EN’s coverage of the BPA controversy has been like the epoxy coating on a soup can – pretty darned comprehensive. I was going to post a list of stories, but the search page returned 100 of them. So for timeliness and brevity I direct you to Steve Ritter’s two part cover story. Go back and refresh your memory on Debating BPA’s Toxicity and Exposure Routes Confound BPA Debate.

Or, here’s the shortest possible summary of the status right now:

NRDC’s says that a ban is warranted because it is a “chemical that causes brain damage in developing babies, infants and young children.”

The American Chemistry Council, the main trade group for U.S. chemical manufacturers, recently agreed that the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups should be banned (though they did so after manufacturers had already stopped using it in those applications). ACC continues to say that BPA is  safe in food and beverage containers.

Add your insights to the comments section.

Finally, Peer-reviewed Research on BPA Levels in U.S. Foods

canned food in grocery store

Canned food was part of a new BPA study. Credit: Melody Voith

It’s always heartening to see facts start to catch up to controversy. My colleague Kellyn Betts reports on a new study in Environmental Science & Technology that analyzed a market basket of food products, including canned food, for traces of Bisphenol A. BPA is used as a plasticizer in some food packaging and to make epoxy resins in food cans, and has come under scrutiny for possible health effects, especially on infants and children.

C&EN has covered activist, government, and tradegroup takes on the BPA controversy, as well as efforts taken by chemical makers and food brands to do away with BPA. Recently, a survey by Green Century Capital Management found that canned food manufacturers were making real progress replacing BPA. That’s why it’s rather surprising to read what is now being called the very first peer-reviewed study to look at how much BPA actually migrates into food sold and consumed in the U.S. This seems like vital data that would be needed to make public policy decisions. One area of controversy, for example, is whether the EPA’s recommended limit for BPA consumption is too high. So it’s helpful to note that the research suggests a U.S. consumer’s possible “body burden” of BPA is below the recommended threshold, but perhaps at or above a threshold where there may be concern.