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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/

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

Sustainable Packaging

It may harken to a more Victorian past, but I can’t help thinking of Mondays as laundry days. Modern-day laundry-doers – whether they do the chore on Monday or not – have at least two opportunities to decide how sustainably they want to clean their clothes.

Seventh Generation's new laundry bottle. Credit: Seventh Generation

First is the choice of laundry detergent – there are options including super-duper-concentrated, made with bio-based/renewable materials, free of dyes or fragrance, and cold water compatable. It’s important to realize, however, that the real sustainability choice comes later when and if consumers flip the wash dial to cold water.

But back to the suds. Seventh Generation has upped the ante in sustainable detergent with a new packaging scheme. Along with all of the above features, this detergent has a jug where the rigidity comes from a formed cardboard-like ”fiber bottle” which can be recycled with paper or composted. The liquid is inside a #4 recyclable plastic pouch. The lid? Like most plastic bottle lids, in many areas it is just trash.

The package claims to be made with 66% less plastic than a comparable product, however, the comparison is to a 100 oz bottle and not the 50 oz super concentrated Seventh Generation size. 

According to Gwynne Rogers of the Natural Marketing Institute (a market research firm) sustainable packaging does win over consumers. In a recent article, she points out that “more than three-quarters [of consumers] think products are over-packaged, and for some, that changes behavior. More than one-quarter says that when they see something over-packaged, they look for something else to buy. …In the U.S., the importance of recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable packaging has risen significantly (5-9% annually) since 2007.”

Cereplast's new bio-materials symbol

Another important signal that packaging sends is when it carries labels promoting the sustainability of the contents. For Earth Day, Cereplast, a maker of bio-based plastics, unveiled a design for a symbol that denotes products made from bio-based materials.

Laura Howard, a design student from the University of Louisville in Kentucky, won the firm’s design contest (and $25,000) with her winning entry. Keep an eye out for this symbol when you shop – products that carry it also likely contain some interesting chemistry.