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.
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).
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.
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.
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.