Biotechnology Promises Industrial Benefits

Published August 1, 2004

Two reports issued in June 2004 document the potential for the use of genetic engineering in industrial processes to reduce air and water pollution, expand the production of new fuels, reduce the amounts of energy and raw materials required in manufacturing, and provide a host of other benefits.

The new reports answer a call from the May 2003 issue of the Economist for humans to investigate the industrial benefits possible through genetic engineering. The Economist‘s May 2003 editorial stated, “What is needed is an industry that delivers the benefits without the costs. And the glimmerings of just such an industry can now be discerned. That industry is based on biotechnology. At the moment, biotech’s main uses are in medicine and agriculture. But its biggest long-term impact may be industrial.”

Cleaner, Safer Manufacturing

“New Biotech Tools for a Cleaner Environment,” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), and Plants for the Future, by the European Commission’s (EC) Office of Community Research, both underscore the potential of biotech … and warn how government interference could slow the achievement of that potential.

Biotech already has improved the production of paper, textiles, plastics, chemicals, fuels, and pharmaceuticals, speeding the production process and reducing water, energy, and raw material inputs as well as pollution. For example, bleaching pulp for paper through biotech processes can reduce the use of chlorine-based chemicals by up to 15 percent, and energy use by a third or more.

Replacing petrochemicals with feedstocks made from organic material like corn stalks can reduce demand for petrochemicals by 20 to 80 percent and produce biodegradable plastics that eliminate up to 80 percent of the plastics in community waste streams. Biotechnology also makes it easier to produce medicines such as riboflavin (vitamin B2), according to the BIO report.

Industrial biotech researchers examine bacteria, microbes, and other natural material with DNA probes to identify enzymes with certain capabilities, such as the ability to bleach paper or break down plant matter, which can thereby enable or speed industrially useful biochemical reactions. In some cases, scientists genetically engineer enzymes to further improve their performance.

The biotech processes are “more robust, adaptable, and inherently cleaner than old-line manufacturing methods,” said BIO Vice President Brent Erickson in a June 7 Greenwire article. These advantages, which are often coupled with significant cost savings, should encourage industries to adopt biotechnologies.

Battling Third World Hunger

Plants for the Future calls making agricultural biotechnology available to developing countries a “moral imperative.” With “more mouths to feed” and “less arable land with which to do it,” farming must become more productive and diversified, the report states. It urges European consumers and policymakers to distinguish more effectively between real and hypothetical risks.

For example, notes the report, gene-spliced crops could greatly improve nutrition and food security, reduce soil erosion, cut fertilizer and pesticide use, require less water, produce more food from less land (thus saving habitats and wildlife), increase shelf-life for foods (even without refrigeration), eliminate allergens, and decrease contamination from fungal mycotoxins.

One such toxin, fumonisin, has been clearly linked to neural tube defects like spina bifida in Hispanic babies in Texas and Guatemala. Recent studies found fumonisin levels in organic corn nine to 40 times higher than the maximum allowed by the UK Food Safety Agency. Fumonisin levels in biotech (Bt) corn were close to zero.

Suspicion Blemishes All Biotech

“These new tools cannot help us move toward a more sustainable future,” BIO warned, “unless government policymakers, corporate leaders, and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] comprehend their value, support their adoption, and take proactive steps to incorporate them in a wide array of manufacturing processes.” The EC report noted Europe’s scientific and economic “position is declining as a consequence of the political inertia caused by the polarized and increasingly heated debate between opponents and advocates” of biotechnology. The report pointed out that 27 percent of European research projects in plant genomics and biotech, and 63 percent of industrial research projects, have been aborted in recent years.

Some environmental activist groups distinguish between agricultural and industrial biotechnology. Enzymes modified for industrial use are designed to thrive in very specific, contained environments, usually under high heat and pressure, which means that their ability to survive in the natural environment is greatly reduced, according to Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Most environmental groups, however, campaign against all forms of biotechnology. Greenpeace claims on its Web site that gene-spliced crops “have the potential to threaten biodiversity, wildlife, and sustainable forms of agriculture.” In a biotechnology policy statement adopted in May 2000, the board of directors of the Sierra Club calls for “a moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops and the release of all GEOs [genetically engineered organisms] into the environment, including those now approved.”

The anti-biotech stance of leading environmental activist organizations “underscores their intellectual and moral bankruptcy,” says Greenpeace co-founder Dr. Patrick Moore, who has voiced his support for biotechnology in speeches and in a March 2004 article for the IPA Review (Australia), “Battle for Biotech Progress.”

Anti-technology activists, Moore notes, voice concern for poor people but support policies that perpetuate poverty and misery. Some 740 million people around the world go to bed every night on empty stomachs and nearly 30,000 (half of them children) die every day from malnutrition.

Paul Driessen is senior fellow for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power–Black Death. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

“Climbing the Helical Staircase,” from the May 27, 2003 issue of the Economist, is available online at

“New Biotech Tools for a Cleaner Environment,” issued in June 2004 by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), is available online at

Plants for the Future, issued in June 2004 by the European Commission and European Association for Bioindustries, is available online at