The Environmental Promise(s) of Industrial Biotech

Here’s a useful and substantial article on the environmental promise of industrial, or “white,” biotechnology, from EurActiv.com: Greens embrace enzymes in climate change fight:

Industrial biotechnology is gaining supporters among environmentalists as a way to make significant cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions and eventually move to a society free from fossil fuels.

The lofty idea behind industrial, or white, biotechnology is to use nature’s own ingredients to solve industrial problems.

White biotech industries use enzymes – proteins that speed up chemical reactions – for various applications to increase efficiency of energy and raw-material use and eventually replace fossil fuels.

The WWF [World Wildlife Fund] estimated last September that industrial biotechnology has the potential to prevent emissions of between 1 and 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year by 2030. The NGO sought to draw attention to such existing climate solutions that are easily overlooked by politicians and investors alike….

That, of course, is an interesting development in its own right: environmental groups have, as a whole, generally expressed worries about biotechnology, so it’s interesting to see one of the big ones, the WWF, expressing optimism in this regard. (In fact I blogged about that here.)

The article also discusses the branch of industrial biotech devoted to the development of alternative fuels. Though I’m no expert, I’ve always found it hard to believe that any processing plant could ever produce the sheer volume of fuel that, for example, an oil gusher produces. But beyond that, this article urges caution (though not necessarily pessimism) about the environmental benefits of biofuels. Not all biofuels, for example, offer much in the way of environmental benefits when compared to admittedly-dirty petroleum products:

Corn ethanol is currently estimated to produce only a 12-18% net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline, while cellulosic ethnanol could cut carbon emissions by 86-94%. If land-use changes are included in calculations, corn ethanol could actually double emissions, according to some estimates.

The point, here, is that it’s not enough that a fuel be “clean.” What we care about is net benefit.

One final, interesting point:

“The science in itself is not mature in our view,” [one biotech executive] stated. “Our worry is that you put in place legislation that will stop the future by being overly conservative. If we are too careful, there is a risk that we won’t do anything.”

And of course, biotech companies are always going to have such worries. But there’s a deeper point, here, one that goes beyond the likely (and understandable) biases of an industry insider. And that is that we shouldn’t necessarily judge an entire realm of technology by the success or failure of early products, or the way in which it is initially implemented. The point being made above is that, yes it’s true that early biofuels have not made a huge contribution — but that’s not to say that, as the technology improves, more significant contributions won’t be made. I think the same is true, as another example, for GM crops. Critics have rolled their eyes at what they see as very minimally useful genetic modifications, ones from which consumers for example see no clear benefit. But that’s a complaint about a particular set of applications: it’s not a good argument against the technology itself.

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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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