Ecover refutes allegations that it has been using ‘synthetic biology’ to make soap ingredients from algae. On the contrary, write Tom Domen & Dirk Develter, it’s just old fashioned fermentation, and the company remains at the forefront of sustainability and responsible practice…
On June 16, Jim Thomas of the ETC wrote an article forThe Ecologist that makes several incorrect and misleading claims about Ecover’s use of algal oil as an alternative to petroleum and palm oil based ingredients.
These assertions relate to algae being produced by a process known as ‘synthetic biology’ that the process causes deforestation and potentially dangerous environmental release, and that better alternatives exist.
Several of these claims are factually inaccurate, others are misleading, and all of them unfairly characterise Ecover as irresponsible.
The article states that Ecover “revealed … that it has decided to use an algal oil … produced by … an experimental set of techniques called synthetic biology”. This statement is factually incorrect.
Synthetic biology is the process of creating DNA from scratch or inserting human-made DNA into an organism. The author himself states “Synbio is the ground-up redesign of life at the cellular level for industrial purposes”. This is not what is being done.
The genetic modification process used by the supplier of our algal oil employs the natural mutation process of algae and standard industrial fermentation.
Our supplier uses microalgae strains that have been in existence longer than we have, and they work within their natural oil producing pathways using decades-old molecular biology techniques to produce algal oil.
Any allegations that we are using synthetic biology are untrue.
The article also states that “sugar, which is used to feed the synthetic algae, also drives rainforest destruction”. This statement implies that Ecover is using sugar that causes deforestation.
This is not true. The sugar cane used in the process is certified sustainable by Bonsucro. Bonsucro certification ensures that the sugar cane is grown on existing agricultural land, and that no new land is converted to agriculture.
The article’s author was told this information, and chose to leave this fact out of his communication on the issue.
Hazards of environmental release?
The article posits “What could go wrong if microscopic organisms optimised for high rates of reproduction and the production of exotic chemicals got loose? … If those algae make soap detergents while they are proliferating in rivers and lakes or being breathed by wildlife, there may be unforeseen effects on aquatic life?”
This statement contains several factual inaccuracies, and misleadingly implies that precautions are not being taken to prevent environmental release.
Both Ecover and our supplier have full chain of custody over the algae from start to finish of the process, meaning that from raw material to final product the algae are fully contained.
After the algae produce algal oil, they are incinerated in a cogeneration facility that produces power. This process is fully traceable.
The statements that if released the algae could produce “exotic chemicals” and that they could produce detergents in waterways are incorrect.
The algae produce the oil that the algae produce naturally; they do not and cannot produce detergent. Algal oil is fully biodegradable and is certainly not “exotic”.
Coconuts are best used for food!
The article makes the assertion that “a more sustainable alternative already exists in coconut oil”. Firstly, the author’s organisation, The ETC Group, represents coconut plantation owners, so they have a vested interest in the issue. [Editor’s note – this seems improbable – see the pages on ETC funding sources and its mission. See also response, below, by Jim Thomas.]
Secondly, Ecover believes coconuts are best used for their highest value use – food. Global demand for coconuts is rising and that will continue regardless if they are used to make chemicals.
We believe we need to delink the chemical supply chain from resource use by using ingredients, like algal oil, that do not compete with food. The use of coconut oil contributes to higher food prices for those in developing countries very vulnerable to a rise in the cost of food.
This may simply be a philosophical difference between Ecover and the author of this article, but Ecover believes that putting ever more hectares of land under cultivation for chemical production while ignoring technologies that significantly reduce environmental impacts is unrealistic and irresponsible.
Furthermore, existing agricultural practices for natural feedstocks are far from sustainable, which is why we think that our efforts in identifying sustainable agricultural sources, like sustainable coconut oil, locally grown rapeseed oil, and agricultural waste streams, are just as important as finding alternative sustainable technologies.
We have been open and transparent
Finally, there are two other misleading statements that have been made regarding Ecover’s use of algal oil that need to be corrected.
The first is that we have not been transparent about our use of this material. Some articles have accused us of “quietly switching” to algal oil. This is not true. On April 2nd, we announced in a press release and an article in The Guardian that we were pioneering this promising new material, in a test batch of 6000 bottles of laundry detergent in the UK.
These bottles are labelled with the algal oil ingredient, and to date, this is the full extent of product we have produced using algal oil worldwide.
Articles have also suggested that synthetic biology should not be used until a global regulatory framework exists to govern it. We support the development of a global regulatory framework.
And while we are not using synthetic biology, as with any new technology, we strongly support the development of proper oversight to ensure technology is used for societal benefit and does not create preventable risks.
Our deep ethical roots
For nearly 40 years, Ecover has operated in an industry that has no regulation or oversight whatsoever, and yet we’ve proven that with the right ethical framework, diligence, and scientific rigour, a company can create real, lasting environmental and social benefit through more sustainable product design and enlightened business practice.
Our approach to any new technology, including biotechnology, is always the same. We seek to understand it fully first, and to employ it only if we can be certain it will create real environmental and social benefits.
That’s why following our initial trial, we are leading a phase of consultancy with key NGO’s and stakeholders to have an informed, science-based discussion about the responsible use of biotechnology.
Only after this debate has happened will we then decide what our future plans are regarding the possible usage of specific types of biotechnology.
Ecover remains committed, as we have always been committed, to pioneering a sustainable future. This is an important debate and we are happy to lead it and remain neutral.
We ask that all parties are open to the same approach. We will listen and respond to all considered arguments as we progress along this journey.
Tom Domen is Long Term Innovation Manager at Ecover, and Dirk Develter is R&D Manager at Ecover.
The original article: Ecover pioneers ‘synthetic biology’ in consumer products, by Jim Thomas of ETC Group.
See also in the New York Times: Companies Quietly Apply Biofuel Tools to Household Products.
Response by Jim Thomas, 26th June 2014:
While there is much in this article to reply to substantively on the topic of Synthetic Biology regarding Ecover’s use of Solazyme’s engineered algal oil I am writing to you in this instance because we are extremely concerned by the following allegation that you made in that article:
“The ETC Group, represents coconut plantation owners, so they have a vested interest in the issue.”
This is an absolutely incorrect claim and I cannot understand why you made this allegation or from whence it came.
The ETC Group does not in any way represent ‘coconut plantation owners’ – either individually or as a group. The ETC Group is a civil society organisation established as a registered charity in Canada.
ETC Group is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights. To this end, ETC Group supports socially responsible developments of technologies useful to the poor and marginalized and it addresses international governance issues and corporate power.
You will find our statement of mission at http://www.etcgroup.org/mission and an archive of the past 20 years of our financial and annual reports at http://www.etcgroup.org/recent-annual-reports. These documents give a true and audited picture of what ETC Group ‘represents’ and there is certainly no affiliation, funding or any other formal association with ‘coconut plantation owners’.
May I ask you to publically retract this statement, to provide a correction to the article and to inform any other parties to whom you have made this allegation that it is based on false information.
As to the other issues of substance that your raise in your article, let me assure you we will address these presently. In the meantime we very much await a reply to the open letter that was co-signed initially by 17 organizations and emailed to your company almost a month ago.
Jim Thomas, ETC Group (Montreal)
Photo caption: The ‘green wall’ that Ecover has planned for its new offices will feature adjustable lattices to take advantage of low latitude sun for space heating, while reflecting off surplus summer heat. Image: Ecover.
View original article at: Ecover is as green as ever!