Is Industrial Biotech the Same as Green Chemistry?

Most people have never heard of “industrial biotechnology.” They’ve heard of the kind of biotech that is going to “revolutionize” health-care, and they’ve heard of agricultural biotech (via the debate over GM foods). But aside from a few vague references to “biofuels,” most people aren’t aware of the notion of using the tools of biotech to improve industrial processes, clean up oil-spills, leach valuable minerals out of rocks, and so on. So it’s nice to see industrial biotech getting some press.

Check out this story, from the Star Tribune: Biotech’s third wave

On a day when Minnesota said it lost 13,000 jobs, pushing Minnesota’s unemployment rate to a 25-year high, Segetis’ new pilot production plant was pumping out “green” chemicals used in plastics, nylon, and foam — bio-based materials that experts say could become the state’s next growth industry.

Green chemistry, also known as industrial biotechnology, is often called the “third wave of biotechnology,” following genetically modified crops and biofuels such as ethanol. Through chemical reactions, scientists can create new molecules that form the building blocks of non-petroleum-based materials used in everyday products such as sneakers, car seats and shampoo bottles.

So what exactly is “green chemistry?” The Environmental Protection Agency has an entire website to explain it. One small problem: the EPA’s main page explaining green chemistry doesn’t mention biotechnology at all.

Green chemistry consists of chemicals and chemical processes designed to reduce or eliminate negative environmental impacts. The use and production of these chemicals may involve reduced waste products, non-toxic components, and improved efficiency….

Nor, for that matter, does the Wikipedia page for green chemistry mention biotech at all.

So, what gives? Did the Star Tribune reporter get it wrong? Or did the biotech researchers and entrepreneurs he interviewed mislead him? Or is the term “green chemistry” really up for grabs, such that the biotech industry wants to wrestle the term away from those who use it the way the EPA does? I suspect that industrial biotech has a big contribution to make, and part of that contribution probably is in the area of improved environmental performance. But blurring the concepts doesn’t seem particularly helpful, or particularly honest.

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About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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