I prepared this overview of the issues around this particular debate for the UK Synthetic Biology Leadership Council Governance Sub-Group meeting at the end of last year and thought someone may be interested.
NGO campaign against Synbio in cleaning materials
In Spring of 2014 Ecover and Method (brands owned by Ecover) came under pressure from a group of 24 NGOs in the US, Europe and South America, led by Canadian ETC Group and Friends of the Earth US, for a plan to replace palm oil used in its laundry detergent by algal oil produced by the US based biotech company Solazyme.
The campaign focused on the use of synthetic biology “referred to by critics of the technology as extreme genetic engineering’ or ‘synthetically modified organisms’ (SMOs). The substance of the complaint was that there were potential risks associated with the technology, a lack of a synthetic biology-specific regulatory framework, social justice challenges with their sugar cane feedstock, and the availability of an alternative oil source. They propose commitments not to use ‘SMO’s’, acknowledge that descriptors such as ‘natural’ and ‘green’ can’t be applied to the products of synbio and call on the Convention on Biological Diversity & governments to apply a moratorium on the commercial use and environmental release of SMOs. (The product is labelled Ecover Natural Laundry Liquid
This ‘Open Letter’ was circulated widely to green and national media and through social media. The coverage in the green media appears substantial, a petition was allegedly raised and some national coverage achieved in some countries (New York Times, Guardian & others). However, though some coverage has been negative, it has also stimulated a constructive discussion in many areas about the benefits and risks associated with synthetic biology.
Both Ecover and Solazyme were shocked and surprised by this turn of events. Ecover, having established a strong reputation with deep green markets, chose this new ingredient to this to avoid the unsustainable aspects of using palm oil. This campaign had the potential to seriously affect their brand. They had debated internally whether their product should be considered to be and labelled as ‘natural’ – part of a societal debate over what we define as natural.
Unilever is supposedly using the same or similar ingredient from Solazyme in their Lux soap but has declined to comment. Solazyme also has its own cosmetics range Algenist, which is widely available, using algal oil though it is not produced using a genetically engineered process I am lead to understand.
It is acknowledged by all parties that the detergent itself doesn’t contain genetically altered material, it is the organism producing the oil which is altered.
I am unclear whether Ecover and Solazyme previously referred to the ingredient as synbio, and really if it is synbio and whether both companies have changed their positions in response to the campaign, as alleged in an article here by ETC in the Guardian. Whether or not this is the case, there remains an unhelpful lack of clarity about what is and isn’t synbio which is not helping those trying to develop collaborative approaches to responsibility.
Here is Ecover’s current statement and description of their use of Algal Oil and discussion of the issues raised by the NGOS.
Current stakeholder consultation in the UK
Forum for the Future/FOE UK/BBSRC collaboration
In the UK, Forum for the Future, Friends of the Earth in the UK (FoE EWNI) and BBSRC are collaborating on a multi-stakeholder initiative to map the issues, perspectives and stakeholders as a preamble to producing some guidelines or lessons for different stakeholder groups based on the premise ‘is there a role for this technology in a sustainable world? What would need to be true for that to be the case?’. They aim to produce something that will help stakeholders to make their own decisions based on a more informed stand point. This is currently underway with many stakeholder engagement points including a workshop likely to take place in Spring 2015.
More detail on the project is available on their website here: http://www.forumforthefuture.org/project/enabling-conversation-novel-biotech/overview
Though the process has been positively received, I understand ETC had challenged the independence of the process, partly because Forum’s Founder Director Jonathan Porritt in 2013 wrote a report ‘IB Done Well’ commissioned by the IBLF exploring the responsibilities of companies involved in industrial biotechnology which was very positive about the role of IB and outlined issues which must be addressed in its use. Forum and FoE EWNI responded to their concerns and proposed further assistance and engagement. They have agreed.
FoE EWNI appear to be taking a different, more exploratory position on this issue to some other branches of FoE.
Solazyme/Robertsbridge Round Tables
The Solazyme roundtables took place in the UK and California in October and were facilitated by Robertsbridge, a sustainability consultancy which includes ex-senior members of Friends of the Earth.
This ongoing stakeholder engagement process is designed to focus on Solazyme’s business practices to explore, and get feedback on, what would constitute a best-practice sustainability operating approach for the company. Solazyme’s engagement process is not seeking to develop a cross industry sustainability approach (through sector guidelines for example) but the company has said it is more than willing to contribute to any efforts that do, including that envisaged by Forum for the Future.
The event was considered constructive and successful by its conveners, though they were disappointed that some NGOs declined the invitation to be part of the process, some because of the short notice and others because of the overall framing of the Roundtables.
I understand that Solazyme will be looking to engage with FoE US and ETC directly.
SYNENERGENE is a four-year mobilization and mutual learning action plan (MMLAP) supported by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Programme. The project aims to contribute to Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in synthetic biology by establishing an open dialogue between stakeholders concerning SynBio’s potential benefits and risks, and by exploring possibilities for its collaborative shaping on the basis of public participation.
This is a diverse group of mainly academic institutions, and also includes the ETC NGO.
Descriptions and definitions
An ongoing hobby horse of mine is the seeming disinclination of the sector to make clearly understood distinctions about the different types of synbio. It would be helpful for so many reasons, not necessarily to have a scientific definitions, but just some clarity on what it is and isn’t and where it fits with comparable technology distinctions such as systems biology and genetic modification. I have no idea why this is proving so problematic.
Prof Andrew Maynard director of The Risk Science Centre in Univ Michigan in a blog raises questions, which may provide some points of discussion about the requirements and difficulties of definitions based on his work with nanotechnologies (see here in Nature article):
Can definitions be developed that are truly effective in both protecting people and the environment while empowering responsible innovation?
Is it possible to avoid the debate over regulatory definitions being hijacked by interests that are not related to direct health and environmental impacts? And
If a broadly accepted working definition for regulatory purposes is developed, who will be evaluating the risks of those organisms and products that slip through the net, yet may still represent significant concerns?
The UK consultation and research projects appear to be well designed and will make a useful contribution to the debate. It’s unclear if sales of Ecover or Method products have been affected or if Solazyme have found business issues associated with the campaign.
What a shame that these initiatives had not taken place much earlier, as the concept of Responsible Innovation proposes. It may not have headed off the campaign, but the ‘battleground’ i.e. the areas of genuine contention, may have been clearer and the debate focused more constructively on specific issues.
At the very least the organisations concerned would have been able to demonstrate to their stakeholders, including investors, that they had considered the issues and been able to give constructive, well considered and supported responses to criticisms.
I think governance arrangements and protocols within iGEM in particular require attention. There is an increasing fervour around iGEM which rings alarm bells with me across media and social media. I notice on the Synenergene website: It’s Jamboree Time! The iGEM Giant Jamboree 2014 has started, with more than 2.500 participants expected. SYNENERGENE is proud to contribute to the jamboree by collaborating with eight iGEM teams and by offering two workshops in Boston. NG: Jamboree = a large celebration or party, typically a lavish & boisterous one!!
There is some constructive work going on on RRI & iGEM, and through Synenergene process, and on the iGEM website, but would like to think more about the safety and security issues certainly in the UK universities involved.