The Culture War of Biotechnology Versus Clean Technology for Consumer Products is Coming

And why it’s critical for the planet that you care…

Everything old is new again. Scientists are using biotechnology to make a host of new consumer products intended to provide more environmentally conscious options. You can now buy burgers from plants that taste like blood, vegan leather pocketbooks and vegan silk fabrics. Biotechnologies have been changing products at industry and enterprise scale for years. However, consumers generally don’t know this is happening, so there has been little cultural impact. The use of GMOs in food production is the exception. Historically, GMOs in farming have enabled environmentally destructive agricultural methods that increased pesticide and herbicide use. Groups like the “GMO project” then formed to advocate against the use of GMOs for environmentally-sound reasons. This irresponsible use of biotechnology in agriculture could negatively frame how people will perceive all types of amazing and environmentally clean technologies being developed right now for consumer use. The success and impact of these new products may hinge on whether consumers collectively perceive these innovations as “clean technology” or “biotechnology.”

We are entering an era where consumers both buy products transformed by biotechnologies AND KNOW they are buying a biotechnology for consumer use. People care more than ever about how things are made. Emerging biotechnologies can be powerful clean technologies when applied to making consumer products in a more environmentally conscious and sustainable way. Two great emerging product examples are biosynthetic palm oil and lab-created meat.

Palm oil is in every aisle at the grocery store. Soaps, cookies, lipstick, ice cream, skincare, bread, shampoo, instant meals, margarine, detergent, pizza dough and on and on. Palm oil has unique chemical properties that make it solid at room temperature and liquid at body temperature. It is a great emulsifier, thickener, binder and natural preservative for food and beauty products. Palm oil can make the things we love in a way that other oils cannot. But there is an enormous downside to Palm oil. Oil Palms only grow near the equator. Accelerating global demand for palm oil has resulted in tropical deforestation of apocalyptic scale. Burning rainforests to make palm oil is now responsible for a whopping 2–3% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. The frightening thing about burning rainforests is the density of carbon released. The peatlands underneath rainforests function as carbon sinks. When burned, these peatlands can continue to release carbon for up to 12 years. Yikes! The exact same story is happening with tropical deforestation for meat production. Burning rainforests to clear land to produce meat emits even more carbon and is now responsible for 5–6 % of all greenhouse gas emissions. If we could get everyone on the planet to stop eating meat and buying cosmetics, cleaning supplies and processed foods- that would be ideal but that’s unlikely to work right now. The next best thing is making meat and palm oil using biotechnology leveraged as a clean technology. Biosynthetic palm oil for skincare and cosmetics enters the consumer market this year. Lab-created meat is coming just behind.

When applied at scale, these two technologies alone can save the planet 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. WOW! However, if we do not properly educate consumers, a negative cultural perception of GMOs and biotechnology may kill this enormous potential. The savvy consumer will understand the difference between how GMOs have negatively impacted agriculture versus using biotech as cleantech for consumer products. Whether technologic innovation is “good” or “bad” based on a value system is fully dependent how the technology is applied. In coming days, watch for meat producers and large corporations entrenched in palm oil supply chains to talk a lot about the harms of GMOs and biotechnology. Don’t listen. This rhetoric will come from a resistance to changes that may save us from accelerating environmental destruction. Evaluate how these emerging technologies are being applied to the product you are about to buy. Is this biotechnology being used to increase corporate profits or is it used as a clean technology to reduce environmental cost of production and/or use? If successful, biotechnologies will eventually both increase profits and dramatically benefit the earth. Then tension will resolve. However, before we get to that promised land, a lot of supply chain pain is necessary. That pain will only happen at the will of the consumer. The adoption and environmental impact of these emerging clean technologies will hinge on our collective consumer perception of what biotechnology is and can be.

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