7 Busted Myths About Solazyme's Renewable Oils

Last week I provided the background for the recent activist group backlash against renewable oils manufacturer Solazyme (NASDAQ: SZYM  ) , its first Brazilian feedstock supplier Bunge (NYSE: BG  ) , and Ecover, one its first customers to sell a consumer product while openly admitting that algal oils are a key ingredient. While uneducated consumers might be seduced by the message of fear purported by ETC Group, Friends of the Earth, and others, I think a message containing the facts is even more powerful. Therefore, here are seven busted myths about Solazyme's renewable oils.

Myth 1: Synthetic biology lacks adequate safety protocols and assessments.
There are numerous laws and regulations currently in place that work to mitigate the risks of synthetic biology. Simply ask Solazyme how many pages of paperwork it has filed in the United States and Brazil to deploy each industrial strain in a controlled and enclosed facility, to market its ingredients, and to ensure its quality control systems meet specifications. More specifically, each food ingredient must be certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) and each strain must be given a green light by a Brazilian regulatory body.

Could there be more specific regulations or a dedicated team within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and FDA to review synthetic biology? Absolutely, but regulations often lag behind fast-growing technologies. This is not a problem inherent to synthetic biology.

Myth 2: Solazyme's algal oils are a "false solution" to sustainability and not a solution to palm oil. Ecover could have sourced ingredients from sustainable coconut oil instead.
The Brazilian sugarcane industry is discussed in more detail below, but there is simply no debate when it comes to the sustainability of Solazyme's production process. By fermenting sugar with its industrial biotech platform, Solazyme is able to decentralize the world's oil production and drastically reduce the amount of land required to produce oils compared to agricultural methods. For instance, consider the concentration of eight to 10 carbon oils in Solazyme's oil compared to that found in coconut oil and palm kernel oil.

Source: Solazyme

It would take 427% more coconut oil and 800% more palm kernel oil to attain the same amount of valuable C8-C10 oils as Solazyme's process. Would it really have been plausible or more sustainable for Ecover to source from coconut plantations? This isn't just a reality for the oil profile above, either. Consider Solazyme's hasty improvements in myristic acid (C14).

Source: Solazyme

Improving the efficiency of chemical production through natural means is a critical advantage of synthetic biology over less efficient agricultural production and less sustainable thermochemical processes.

Myth 3: Your [insert consumer product here] is genetically modified.
If you eat an entire corn kernel from a plant that was genetically modified, then you're consuming the genetically altered ingredients, too. The GM or GM-free distinction becomes increasingly more difficult to make as ingredients derived from GM-corn are used -- are you really consuming the GM proteins or an unaltered ingredient from a plant that was genetically modified in a specific way?

There is no such difficult distinction to make for Solazyme or synthetic biology. Consumer products containing ingredients produced from an industrial biotech platform do not contain an iota of genetic material. If Ecover is using an oleochemical purchased from Solazyme in its laundry detergent, then that oleochemical is exactly identical (or superior) to the same chemical from any other source.

Myth 4: If the sugar feeding into Solazyme's Clinton, Iowa, facility is derived from genetically modified corn, then products coming out of Clinton are genetically modified.
While organic dairy must be sourced from livestock fed non-GM animal feed, the origin of sugars doesn't fall under the same guidelines -- and for good reason. When animal feed is consumed, so, too, are all of the proteins and compounds contained within a corn kernel (DDGS contains fewer nutrients, but this still applies). That includes the tiny fraction of proteins altered by modern biotechnology tools.

But sugar is not GM, regardless of its origin. The carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that comprise each molecule formed without genetic modification. It may sound like a loophole, but it's just science. In fact, products in the United States and European Union may be labelled natural if they are "derived directly from an animal or vegetable material". Industrial organisms and the products they produce are natural. 

Myth 5: The rapid expansion of land devoted to growing sugarcane in Brazil is moving back the agricultural frontier, driving forest destruction into the Amazon.
Deforestation is occurring in Brazil and South America for a number of reasons, including livestock production, agriculture cultivation, sugarcane harvesting, and urban advance. But on an acreage basis, Brazil plants twice as much corn and 3x as much soybean as it does sugarcane. The country utilizes nearly 3x more arable land for cattle pasture than agricultural crops. Despite being the most identifiable crop of Brazilian agriculture (the nation harvests more than double the next leading country), sugarcane comprises just 2.6% of the country's total arable land.

Source: Amyris

Additionally, government and industry collaboration has caused Amazon deforestation to fall 70% since 2005 and nearly 80% since 2004. Whereas annual Amazon deforestation averaged 20,000 square kilometers from 1996 to 2005, civilization's advance on the rainforests dropped to just 6,000 square kilometers in 2013. There's surely room for improvement, but it's mighty difficult to not applaud the nearly overnight changes and continued commitment to sustainability in Brazil.

Myth 6: Sugar-hungry synthetic biology platforms will only exacerbate Amazon deforestation.
One driving force behind the reduced deforestation was the establishment of Bonsucro in 2008 -- the last year Amazon deforestation exceeded 10,000 square kilometers (the Great Recession helped, too) -- which is an organization dedicated to promote increasingly strict sustainability standards on global sugarcane producers. Those standards include improving labor rights and biodiversity while bolstering water, soil, and carbon management (among 64 other indicators -- all of which are listed as goals for ETC Group and Friends of the Earth).

Progress has been rapid for Bonsucro. To date, Bonsucro has certified 8,712 square kilometers of sugarcane fields, representing 3.7% of the global harvest. By 2017, the organization aims to certify 20% of the world's harvest.

Source: Bonsucro

Plantation owners, commercial producers, and end-users have all joined the cause. That list even includes Ecover and, specifically, Bunge's Orindiuva mill supplying Solazyme's Moema facility. Many other synthetic biology companies and their feedstock suppliers are certified members. Quite clearly, the industry is committed to sustainability long before it gets out of the gate.

Myth 7: Synthetic biology companies such as Solazyme make DNA from scratch on a computer.
It sure sounds pretty terrifying when you put it like that, but DNA synthesis is not that simple and not that scary. This myth was busted in-depth by Christina Agapakis on Scientific American. To recap, companies such as Solazyme edit large sections of genomes containing many genes and cannot create those genes in a time or cost efficient manner using traditional lab-bench methods with a pipette and test tube of enzymes. The DNA synthesis industry was born to fill the gap, which automates and scales gene manufacturing. Costs are plummeting and new technologies are emerging that could allow researchers to order 10,000 genes in a matter of days. To put that in perspective, the human genome contains roughly 25,000 genes. You could be synthesized in a week!

Foolish bottom line
The strangest thing about activist groups singling out Solazyme and Ecover -- and its continued attack on synthetic biology -- is that the companies and the broader industry are working toward the same exact goals: making the food system more sustainable, more economically viable, and freezing or reducing our environmental footprint. Synthetic biology may not be the easiest industry to understand, but investors and consumers need to think twice before they believe there's a giant conspiracy taking place involving hundreds of companies and garage start-ups across the world. As these seven busted myths demonstrate, Solazyme's renewable oils are quite sustainable and environmentally responsible.

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  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 2:46 PM, lntwo wrote:

    Though I haven't thought much of most of your articles to date, this is a good piece.

    Not to mention the C5 utilization of szym will wring out the most productivity possible from existing ag biomass streams, as well as use a closed loop nutrient cycle.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 3:51 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @Intwo

    Most, if not all, industrial biotech platforms can utilize both C5 and C6 sugars and implement a closed-loop nutrient cycle.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 5:04 PM, DruETC wrote:

    Hi,

    (Sorry for duplicate; couldn't post before.)

    Maxx,

    Your transparency about your financial interest in the outcome of this debate is appreciated. However, your “debunking” either misses the point or doesn’t address it.

    1. Is Syn Bio regulated? Poorly if at all. You debunked your own debunking pretty well here. Of course Synthetic biology companies still have to engage with regulatory bodies. But in the US these regulations are old regulations that predate synthetic biology and they don’t address the risks and novelty that synthetic biology represents. Internationally the UN convention on Biological Diversity has found that the current regulatory mechanisms that could apply to synthetic biology techniques and the components and organisms and products resulting from them is insufficient. A recent review of US regulatory system led by the J Craig Venter Institute (a synthetic biology outfit) reached a similar conclusion.

    2. You demonstrate that there’s more lauric oil in Solazyme’s algae. This doesn’t actually say anything about the sustainability of algal oil, because concentration of a compound in a standard measure is not the same as efficiency of land for the underlying feedstock or other resource use. Accounting for sustainability must take into account land use, effects on ecosystems and on local populations, and renewability of inputs, among other factors. Even then there are further levels of complexity. For example, coconut is grown in mixed agroforestry systems where the land also grows rice and other crops, so even comparing land use doesn’t demonstrated sustainability.

    3. It’s missing the point to say that solazyme’s oil has no genetic material. There is a likelihood of environmental release (especially in the absence of specific regulations) of modified organisms whether the final product contains genetic material or not, and in any case consumers have a right to know whether they’re helping finance experimental organisms. International labelling regulations (such as in the EU) on what is considered genetically modified extend to derivatives such as oils and starches and focus on process rather than final presence.

    4. Regarding GMO corn use as a feedstock by Solazyme, Ecover has a policy not to use raw ingredients that are derived from GMO organisms released to the environment. Their own policy states they can’t make their plastic from starch derived from GMO corn. So making their oils from GMO corn is inconsistent with their own GMO policy.

    5. On the question of sugar and rainforest destruction. Applauding the fact that “only” 6,000 km2 of rainforest (that’s a lot!) are destroyed every year and claiming that a product is sustainable are not the same thing. The link between Brazillian sugar expansion and rainforest destruction is well documented. see for example http://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/sugar_can...

    6. Bonsucro is not a fix. Ecover has said publically that they don’t trust certification schemes for palm oil. Nor shoudl they rely on Bonsucro. Bonsucro’s certification has massive loopholes that allow companies to choose which of the standards they meet while evading others, and the option exists to buy offsets to cover land where they’re not meeting the standard. Perversely, such offset behaviour could drive further expansion. The standard itself guarantees very little.

    7. Life from scratch? No one said companies are making up genetic codes out of thin air by typing the entire sequence into a computer. However, DNA synthesizers do create DNA from scratch in the sense that they mix together the base chemicals based on codes stored in a computer. This gives lab technicians fine-grained control over the DNA that is “printed”.

    For anyone who wants to find out more about what groups opposed to commercial and environmental release of synthetic biology are actually saying, visit:

    http://www.syntheticisnotnatural.com/ecover-petition/method-...

    http://synbiowatch.org/

    http://www.etcgroup.org/issues/synthetic-biology

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 6:02 PM, Ghoztdawg wrote:

    ...And for anybody that wants to know what the Worlds' leading Health & Scientific Organizations are saying vs. the Flat Earth Society here are a few snippets. The anti-gmo crowd is very similar to the climate change denier crown. The scientific consensus is CLEAR...

    The American Medical Association (USA)

    “There is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods. Bio-engineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer reviewed literature.”

    The National Academy of Sciences (USA)

    “To date more than 98 million acres of genetically modified crops have been grown worldwide. No evidence of human health problems associated with the ingestion of these crops or resulting food products have been identified."

    Food Standards Australia New Zealand (Australia & NZ)

    “Gene technology has not been shown to introduce any new or altered hazards into the food supply, therefore the potential for long term risks associated with GM foods is considered to be no different to that for conventional foods already in the food supply.”

    The French Academy of Science (France)

    “All criticisms against GMOs can be largely rejected on strictly scientific criteria."

    The Royal Society of Medicine (UK)

    “Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA."

    The European Commission (Belgium)

    “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.”

    The Union of German Academics of Sciences and Humanities (Germany)

    “In consuming food derived from GM plants approved in the EU and in the USA, the risk is in no way higher than in the consumption of food from conventionally grown plants. On the contrary, in some cases food from GM plants appears to be superior in respect to health.“

    Seven of the World’s Leading Academies of Sciences (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Third World Academy of Sciences, The Royal Society, & The National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.)

    “Foods can be produced through the use of GM technology that are more nutritious, stable in storage, and health promoting—bringing benefits to consumers in both industrialized and developing nations.”

    World Health Organization (Switzerland)

    “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 6:16 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @DruETC

    Thanks for your comment and linking to the same misinformation I'm trying to defeat. You should have begun by stating the goals of ETC Group, which explicitly target the synthetic biology industry. You could also state that your organization has a well-documented history of claiming to provide a voice for small farmers in impoverished nations (a noble cause) while only targeting synthetic biology companies harming such farmers. For natural vanillin products you targeted synthetic biology company Evolva, but not industrial fermentation processes from Solvay. For artemisinin you targeted synthetic biology from Sanofi/Amyris, but not photochemical processes from ArtemiFlow or others.

    (Yes, ETC Group opposed stabilizing the world supply of the most effective anti-malarial compound in favor of erratic and archaic agricultural production methods. Malaria kills over 600,000 people every year.)

    Myth 1: I didn't state that regulations were perfect, but you could name a dozen industries where that held. Additionally, the report from JCVI said that there were likely to be gaps as the field expanded rapidly in coming years, which is what I stated. Again, it's not a problem inherent to synthetic biology.

    http://www.jcvi.org/cms/research/projects/synthetic-biology-...

    Myth 2: How is using much less land, achieving higher and more stable yields (land yields differ from country to country), and shortening the supply chain (upstream inputs and final products from same facility) not more sustainable? Sure, small farmers won't be able to grow palm or sweet wormwood, but they're the ones wielding the less efficient technology. That's how innovation works. Sustainability is certainly complex, but Solazyme reduces the complexity while achieving greater sustainability.

    Myth 3: These hypothetical release scenarios are quite intriguing. Please point me to one such instance of this occurring or explain how an organism would escape its closed system of steel and flourish in the wild.

    Myth 4: If true, then I'm glad Ecover is coming to its senses.

    Myth 5: If you're somehow appalled by an 80% reduction in annual Amazon deforestation since 2004, then please offer your solution for an overnight fix. And no, linking to a Friends of the Earth website doesn't debunk my claim (although it may further prove your ignorance). Similar to Foolish investing, many things take a long-term approach.

    Myth 6: Is Bonsucro better than no Bonsucro, or are activist groups going to whine about and twist everything to fit their story?

    Myth 7: The New York Times article (since corrected about the "unregulated" comments originally published) stated that gene synthesis was a process "in which DNA is created on computers and inserted into organisms". I've personally seen over 80% of the world's DNA synthesis capacity and know how it works. Do you?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/31/business/biofuel-tools-app...

    I encourage everyone to view the ETC Group website and decide for yourself. Just remember to use facts from unbiased regulatory bodies to support your findings.

    Best,

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 6:16 PM, Ghoztdawg wrote:

    In 2013, more than 18 million farmers in 27 countries across the world made independent choices to grow biotech crops.

    Yet, despite these figures showing a technology on the upward trajectory in terms of adoption, the anti-GMO lobby has continued to hold its position that farmers shouldn't grow biotech crops due to a myriad of excuses. It is important to note such excuses are perpetuated through the most advanced and efficient use of information and communication technologies.

    How then can this contradiction be explained? Is it okay for one segment of society to access the best technology available for their communication (or is it mis-communication?) but unacceptable to avail similar opportunities and choices to farmers to make farming more efficient? Could such a large number of farmers be fooled for nearly two decades with a technology that is not delivering? Would the governments of these countries growing or approving use of biotech crops be so indifferent and reckless as to allow and support application of the technology in their territories?

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 6:17 PM, Ghoztdawg wrote:

    At least 90 per cent of the 18 million farmers who grew biotech crops in 2013 were small-scale resource-poor farmers in developing countries. One of the findings in the ISAAA report, for instance, shows that national benefits to Bt cotton farmers in Burkina Faso were estimated at US$26 million, representing 67 per cent of total benefits with only US$12 million accruing to the technology developers.

    Other documented benefits of biotech crops go beyond agricultural improvement to climate change mitigation and environmental sustainability. GM technology has demonstrated the power to provide a better environment and breed crops resilient to harsh climatic conditions such as drought.

    For instance, in 2012 biotech crops alone contributed to a reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 26.7 billion kilograms, which is equivalent to taking 11.8 million cars off the road for one year. [2] By reducing the amount of chemical sprays by more than half for a crop such as biotech cotton, GM technology is probably the only agricultural technology that can boast of making this kind of contribution to environmental conservation.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 6:18 PM, Ghoztdawg wrote:

    Hidden agenda of activists

    The second problem is overcoming vested interest. A look into the source of funding for anti-GM activities reveals that although they are often portrayed as grassroots movements, many are part of a much larger coalition of social activists, environmental NGOs and social-investment organisations backed by a reservoir of funding from special interest foundations.

    Almost all anti-GM activists back, and in turn receive support from, organic or so called ‘socially responsible’ investment industries. Competition from cheaper and safer biotech products is seen as a threat, thus the use of anti-biotechnology rhetoric and support for activist groups to validate their products and grow their markets.

    The third problem is a strong desire by some interest groups to romanticize poverty and hunger. Ironically, poverty and food insecurity provide booming businesses and a form of ‘tourism’ for several anti-GM lobbyists who know nothing about farming, especially in Africa. While lobbyists spend three quarters of their time globe-trotting and peddling unsubstantiated claims against biotech foods, farmers — especially women — are breaking their backs weeding with their hands and scouting for pests in a merciless scorching sun.

    Blocking novel technologies may mean an end to dependency on others for food and diminishing control and access to the continent’s natural resources and ‘free tourism’ disguised in numerous ‘monitoring and farming inspection’ trips. Continuing to deny farmers the choice of proven, safe and efficient agri-biotechnologies would be equated to ‘protecting poverty’ and obstructing them from optimizing chances of enhancing their social welfare as well.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 6:19 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @Ghoztdawg

    I appreciate your efforts and the information on both articles on this topic, but biotech crops are not in the same conversation as industrial biotech platforms powered by synthetic biology. However, much of the misinformation is the same and you're certainly touching on that.

    Best,

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 6:29 PM, Ghoztdawg wrote:

    Thanks Max, and I don't want to overdo it so I won't post any more, thanks for bringing some truth to the anti-gmo conversation. I'm an an environmentalist and a big supporter of Renewable Energy and fighting Climate Change/AGW, and I have to argue with shills from the Fossil Fuel companies and other vested interests all the time...unfortunately these anti-gmo protesters do not realize that they are being supported by the same vested interests who have much to lose financially from this new technology...better to stomp it out while it's young...and why not trick some uninformed "environmentalists" to fight your battle for you. They WANT business as usual.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 6:34 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @Ghoztdawg

    "They WANT business as usual."

    Yes, I'm fully aware. Why else would these groups stamp out a sustainable industrial method for producing 1/3 of the world's demand for the malaria wonder compound artemisinin (which takes about 3 months) in favor of less efficient agricultural methods (which take over 12 months) and are limited by drought and erratic harvests?

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2014, at 1:07 AM, lntwo wrote:

    Leyser O (2014) Moving beyond the GM Debate. PLoS Biol 12(6): e1001887. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001887

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2014, at 6:22 AM, RogerKnights wrote:

    Here are a couple of relevant papers I found after Googling for expansion of sugarcane in Brazil:

    “Brazilian Sugarcane Ethanol: Get the Facts Right and Kill the Myths”

    Three pages of text rebut seven “myths.”

    http://www.brazil.org.uk/publications/index_files/mythsvsfac...

    OR http://goo.gl/vLgf35

    Here’s a 32–page June 2013 report from Brazil’s Institute for International Trade Negotiations.

    “Evidences on Sugarcane Expansion and Agricultural Land Use Changes in Brazil”

    [Brazilian] Institute for International Trade Negotiations

    http://sugarcane.org/resource-library/studies/evidences_on_s...

    OR http://goo.gl/9FLWID

    Its Executive Summary says:

    "This paper presents several evidences supporting the argument that sugarcane ethanol is a low ILUC [Indirect Land Use Change] risk biofuel. The first evidence this paper put forward is that Brazilian agriculture is undergoing a process of intensification and efficiency gains that reduces the need for converting new land to accommodate crops that are expanding (Figures 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and Table 1).

    "The second evidence discussed in this paper is that sugarcane is predominantly expanding over pastures used for cattle production, and pasture-fed cattle is the production system that is increasing productivity faster in the Brazilian agricultural sector. Leakage and cascading effects, therefore, cannot be assumed as a significant source of ILUC. In sugarcane expansion regions, cattle are facing cane-induced intensification (Figure 11).

    "The third evidence is that the development of integrated production systems aiming to maximize the efficiency is already happening in Brazil. Double cropping systems are growing fast allowing corn production to expand without any impact on land use change (Figure 7). Food production in sugarcane renovation areas is neglected by all models, which ignore the relevant land use credit that sugarcane ethanol ought to be receiving (Figures 10 and 12).

    "The fourth evidence is that sugarcane ethanol expansion has no impact on food prices. This is true not only because the sugar market has not suffered prices peaks because more cane has been used for ethanol, but also because historical data shows that sugarcane shortage leads to adjustments in the ethanol market and not in the sugar market (Figures 13, 14 and 15)."

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2014, at 6:27 AM, RogerKnights wrote:

    ETC’s Jim Thomas said, "A more sustainable alternative already exists in coconut oil, which is typically grown in small plots along with other crops and boosts the livelihoods of 25 million people in the Philippines alone."

    But why aren't companies using coconut oil already? This needs to be investigated and the results posted.

    There are probably a handful of reasons why it would be an inferior alternative. I suspect that it's due to things like reliability, steady vs. seasonal production, predictable (and lower) cost, quality of the natural vs. artificial oil, etc. And it would probably take over five years for new trees to become productive—and even then there wouldn’t be nearly enough acreage planted to cope with the massive quantities that would be needed to replace palm oil. Realistically, a switchover to coconut oil might take 15 years before it began to cut into palm oil’s market share—during 10 years of which palm oil acreage would continue to gnaw away at SE Asian forests.

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