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Bio-economy versus biodiversity

1.In New U.S. "Bioeconomy", Industry Trumps Environment
2.Developing countries face up to synthetic biology challenges

NOTE: These articles mention 2 important reports:
Bio-economy Versus Biodiversity
The potential impacts of synthetic biology on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity
1.In New U.S. "Bioeconomy", Industry Trumps Environment
Carey L. Biron
IPS, April 27 2012

WASHINGTON The White House on Thursday announced the formulation of the National Bioeconomy Blueprint, aimed at shoring up the U.S. commitment to bioscience-related research.
But critics warn that the new programme focuses too much on economic concerns, placing too little emphasis on either social issues or on the environment itself.

"We're disappointed to see what finally came out," Eric Hoffman, a Washington-based campaigner with Friends of the Earth, an international NGO, told IPS. "This report largely seems to be an endorsement for the biotechnology industry to rush ahead without any real oversight."

The biotechnology industry "says that it has been calling for this type of legislation for long time," Hoffman notes. "That makes sense, given that the industry stands to gain the most from the types of policies laid out in the Blueprint."

Hoffman says that the biotechnology industry includes many of the largest oil and petrochemical producers ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Monsanto, Dow. The lack of plans for government regulation apparent in the Blueprint leaves him pessimistic that much “clean, green” technology will come out of the new effort.

He also points to a recent study by the Woodrow Wilson Center, based here, that found that "zero percent" of federal funding of synthetic biology was going into risk assessment. "That's not how you have an honest policy debate," he says.
The government itself defines the bioeconomy as "economic activity powered by research and innovation in the biosciences". In the Blueprint, the issue of environmental concerns is dealt with only tangentially, although the general push is to phase out fossil fuels and industrial materials in favour of organically based compounds and "green" approaches.

Of the five strategic objectives laid out in the Blueprint, only one specifically mentions the environment. Even then, it arises only in a call to "Develop and reform regulations to reduce barriers, increase the speed and predictability of regulatory processes, and reduce costs while protecting human and environmental health."

The bioeconomy has increasingly emerged as a priority for the Barack Obama administration. Thursday’s announcement followed on initial plans announced by the U.S. government in September 2011, building on legislation passed in 2000 called the Biomass Research and Development Act.

Other developed countries are also increasing their focus on aspects of their nascent bioeconomies, particularly in moving beyond fossil fuels. In February, the European Commission publicised a new strategy to ramp up related efforts. The "green economy" is also a central theme at the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

While many such efforts are to be lauded individually, there is growing understanding of the dangers of state-backed moves towards relying on ecosystem-based products.

"While the idea of using renewable resources instead of fossil fuels is a good idea in theory, the way in which the bio-economy approach proposes to achieve this goal is at best deeply flawed and inequitable, and at worst downright dangerous," states a new report released on Thursday by the Global Forest Coalition, an international umbrella group.

The report, "Bio-economy Versus Biodiversity", notes the spiking demand for land across the world for both food production and human habitat. This has not only led to increased land-based conflict, the report suggests, but has also increased global hunger.

"Without reducing consumption and demand for energy and products, the sheer scale on which biomass would have to produced to meet the demands of a global bio-economy would severely exacerbate these problems," the report states.

Those technologies currently being lauded in the attempt to move beyond fossil fuels such as the use of algae in creating electricity are risky or as yet untested on a wide scale, warns the report. As such, the technologies that would undoubtedly be used in the immediate future and almost certainly beyond would be relatively dirty and wasteful, such as burning biomass.

"The bio-economy approach offers politicians in industrialized countries an opportunity to be seen to be doing something about meeting ill-defined ‘renewable energy targets’, while maximizing opportunities for economic growth and securing a constant supply of energy," the report warns. "There is precious little concern about the environment, or about impacts in other countries, apart from the usual platitudes about providing jobs."

Concerns over this new push towards the bioeconomy coincide with high levels of international anxiety over food security.

"The current U.S. mandate prescribes a huge increase in the generation of energy from land,” Ujjayant Chakravorty, a professor at the Alberta School of Economics, told IPS. "Forty percent of U.S. corn is already used for energy rather than food, and that number will go up in the next 10 years.”

In the U.S. in particular, any major new push towards mass reliance on biofuels would almost certainly have a direct impact on wellbeing in other parts of the world.

For instance, Chakravorty says that rice, wheat and sugar constitute around two-thirds of daily calories for many people in India, as they do for much of the developing world. If more land in India were to be sown for non-edible biofuels, prices for these necessities would almost certainly rise.

"The U.S. has a quarter of the world’s vehicles," Chakravorty says. "In India alone, the U.S. biofuel policy could directly result in 15 to 40 million people dropping below the poverty line."
2.Developing countries face up to synthetic biology challenges
Yojana Sharma
SciDev.Net, 27 April 2012

As commercial synthetic biology production gathers speed, there are growing calls for greater regulation, reports Yojana Sharma.

Debate about the governance of the emerging field of synthetic biology is likely to see disagreements among developing countries at a meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) in Montreal, Canada, next week (30 April 5 May).

While some want tighter regulation and are concerned that commercial products could threaten the livelihoods of farmers cultivating natural versions of these products, others are happy to press ahead with what could become a major new industry.

The meeting will draft a decision on whether to include synthetic biology under 'new and emerging issues', which the CBD Conference of the Parties (COP) will negotiate in Hyderabad, India in October, and which may include a moratorium on research.

"We expect that the negotiations that were at deadlock in Nagoya in 2010 will further advance, with inputs on the latest developments in synthetic biology," says Elenita Dano, Philippines programme officer for the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group).

Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature, and its proponents are starting to develop commercial products. It holds the promise of a wide range of applications in areas such as new and improved diagnostics; new drugs and vaccines; biosensors; and bioremediation tools to process contaminants.

But international regulations have been lagging far behind scientific advances, which include the announcement of the first artificial organism in 2010.

Many of the potential benefits, such as the cheaper production of medicines, could be particularly useful in developing countries. For example, OneWorld Health, which runs a non-profit drug development programme in the United States, is scaling up production of a cheap synthetic version of the frontline anti-malarial drug, artemisinin.

"We will be ready to start producing a synthetic artemisinin by the second half of this year," says Tue Nguyen, vice-president of research and pre-clinical development at OneWorld Health, adding that roughly ten tonnes of the drug could be produced in 2012, rising to 60 tonnes by 2013.

"We are aiming to make about 30 50 per cent of [the] world supply with this method," says Nguyen. That would mean around 150 tonnes a year.

Vigilance is called for

But there are two big concerns about synthetic biology products; their potential to disrupt environments and biodiversity, and the threat they pose to existing industries in the developing world, such as the farming of Artemisia annua, from which artemisinin is currently produced, in China, East Africa and Vietnam.

The first concern stems from a lack of capacity in developing countries to cope with any unintended consequences, says Joyce Thomas Peters, delegate to the CBD from Grenada, in the Caribbean.

"Synthetic biology research can only be done by countries that have the science capacity other countries have no idea how to assess it, and that is why we are raising the issue in international bodies like CBD," she says.

Thomas Peters, a former SBSTTA working group chair, adds: "At the very least we want regulation by the CBD, but a moratorium on the release of synthetic organisms would also be good".

And David Rejeski, director of the science and technology innovation programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington DC, United States, says: "Research on environmental and ethical issues can be shared across nations. In other emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, it was the basis of a lot of dialogue."

The centre has been pushing for an inventory of companies and organisations involved in synthetic biology, how near products are to entering the market, and details of any risks they might pose to the environment and human health.

"We need this at an international level," Rejeski says. "Some products are already appearing, and although they are not yet at an industrial level there is a need for vigilance. There needs to be money available for risk assessments."

Are crops under threat?

Then there are the fears that artificially created products could compete with crops farmed in developing countries.

For example, more than 7,500 Kenyan farmers cultivate the artemisinin tree, A. annua, according to the ETC Group. Cheaper, synthetic versions of the drug could put their livelihoods at risk, critics say.

Besides artemisinin, there are commercial investigations into synthetic versions of rubber, vanilla, saffron and the sweetener stevia all of which are currently produced from natural products grown in East Asia, Latin America and South-East Asia.

Vanilla produced using a synthetic biology process using yeast "is moving from the laboratory to a test facility", says Paul Verbraeken, investor relations manager at Evolva, the Swiss company carrying out the work.

"If things go to plan it could be available sometime next year or in 2014." He also predicts synthetic stevia could be on the market by 2015.

But he argues that synthetically produced vanilla will not displace existing production it will be an additional source. "Our product will not replace the natural product, for which there will always be demand. Top chefs will always want it."

Significant research is also underway into synthetic solutions for the next generation of biofuels. Such innovations include photosynthetic algae, which can continuously secrete oil through their cell walls, and which can be harvested for fuel.

"There is a lot of production of synthetic algae with investment by Japanese and Korean companies in the coastal areas of the Philippines and no one knows what the environmental risks may be," says Dano.

Conflicts of interest

Concerns have also been raised about synthetic organisms used in industrial-sized vats, on the basis that they could require large amounts of biomass to power them, which would compete with cash crops for land.

But here, the interests of developing countries diverge. Some countries, such as Brazil, may benefit from selling biomass for synthetic organism production, and could also host production factories.

Because the implications go beyond environmental concerns, agriculture and trade ministries have also been calling for more information on, and assessment of, the underlying science.

This issue was evident at COP 10, the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biodiversity, which included a ministerial summit at Nagoya, in Japan, in 2010.

At Nagoya, the Philippine government pushed for a resolution to prevent any release of synthetic life, cell or genome into the environment. "The Philippines says it may not be against synthetic biology, but wants to exercise the principle of precaution, because there are potential impacts on biodiversity," says Dano, from the ETC Group.

The Philippines was backed at Nagoya by a number of African countries, including Cameroon, Kenya, Liberia and South Africa. In Latin America, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic also supported the precautionary approach.

But Argentina, Brazil and some European Union countries opposed a moratorium on field release, agreeing only to convene an expert group on synthetic biology. Yet, insiders say, little has been done since then, and some critics worry that if the upcoming COP meeting does not address the issue it may go unresolved.

In particular, the position of Argentina and Brazil has made it difficult for developing countries to build consensus. "Brazil has jumped on the synthetic biology bandwagon. It sees it as a future source of sustainable products," says Eric Hoffman, from Friends of the Earth in the United States.

Governance: on the road to Rio

Several countries are now keen that next week's SBSTTA meeting should not be another missed opportunity.

The ETC Group, Friends of the Earth and others, under the umbrella International Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology have produced a submission stating that "SBSTTA must not defer its consideration of synthetic biology as a new and emerging issue requiring governance". [1]

They point out that no intergovernmental body is currently addressing the potential disruptive impacts of synthetic biology on developing economies, particularly those that depend on agricultural exports.

CBD officials say the issues will be covered.

"Synthetic biology is definitely not going to be pushed aside," says Robert Höft, environmental affairs officer at CBD. "The chances are something will be done and my expectation is some form of expert process to look at the various types of synthetic biology and the potential impacts on biodiversity, as well as the social issues."

Some have said they will make sure the topic is raised at the forthcoming Rio+20 meeting in Brazil in June. "Rio+20 is about the green economy and these issues are part of that," says Grenada's Thomas Peters.

"Because Rio was the place where the early biodiversity conventions came from, it is the appropriate place to go back to," she adds.

"Science has overtaken the current convention. You have to reshape the conventions or the mechanisms to keep up with changes that are taking place. The existing convention does not cater for organisms created from scratch."


[1] The potential impacts of synthetic biology on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity    [1.98MB] (International Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology, 2011)