Algae biofuel claims overhyped – GE algae risks to environment if they escape
A new report suggests that industrial scale production of biofuels and chemicals via genetically engineered (GE) microorganisms such as GE algae pose serious environmental and health risks. Microalgae Biofuels: Myths and Risks and a companion briefing, published by Biofuelwatch and Friends of the Earth US., reveals that even after decades of investment, viable commercial production of algae biofuels has failed and is unlikely to succeed. There are already problems caused by algal blooms in some places, and it therefore seems very unwise to be encouraging mass-scale production – with the inevitable accidental release of GE microalgae into the environment. Many of the traits that are being engineered to create algal ‘chemical factories’ could result in their outcompeting and proliferating out of control in the wild. These organisms could become ‘living pollution’ that is impossible to recall. The continued market hype about GE algae biofuels as sustainable, claims of unrealistic productivity, and historic promises of commercial viability just over the horizon perpetuate the myth of a “miracle fuel” and that unsustainable energy consumption may continue “business as usual.”
Genetically engineered algae pose risks to environment
26.9.2017 (Friends of the Earth)
SAN DIEGO, C.A. – As the Bio-Based Live Americas conference begins today to discuss topics including industrial scale production of biofuels and chemicals via genetically engineered (GE) microorganisms such as GE algae, a new report suggests that these organisms pose serious environmental and health risks.
Microalgae Biofuels: Myths and Risks and a companion briefing, released today by Biofuelwatch and Friends of the Earth U.S., reveals that even after decades of investment, viable commercial production of algae biofuels has failed and is unlikely to succeed. Meanwhile, genetically engineering microalgae to produce fuels, chemicals and other products poses under-recognized, serious threats to the environment and public health.
“As we are witnessing more frequent toxic algae blooms such as those currently plaguing the Finger Lakes region in New York, it seems particularly unwise to be encouraging mass-scale production and inevitable release of GE microalgae,” said Dr. Rachel Smolker, Co-Director of Biofuelwatch. “Scientists are clear that GE microalgae will inevitably escape from cultivation facilities. Many of the traits that are being engineered to create algal ‘chemical factories’ could result in their outcompeting and proliferating out of control in the wild.”
“Rushing genetically engineered algae into production ahead of safety assessments and oversight could result in serious unintended consequences. These organisms could become ‘living pollution’ that is impossible to recall,” said Dana Perls, Senior Food and Technology Campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S. “We need a common sense moratorium on the commercial cultivation of GE microalgae, and investment should be redirected toward more promising and sustainable solutions.”
Key findings of the report include:
- Even after decades and millions of dollars in public and private of investment, production of algae biofuels has failed to become commercially viable.
- Genetically engineering microalgae to produce fuels, chemicals, and other products poses serious threats to the environment and public health: invasive algae outcompeting native species, potential for increased harmful algal blooms, and land use impacts from chemical, energy and water intensive feedstock production.
- Several major companies invested in producing genetically engineered algae are turning to low volume, high-value products to remain economically viable, with some such products already on the market, including ingredients for food and consumer products, all of which are derived from GE algae.
- Government agencies, including Department of Energy (DOE) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with various state and private sources, continue to invest heavily in algae biofuels.
- The continued market hype about GE algae biofuels as sustainable, claims of unrealistic productivity, and historic promises of commercial viability just over the horizon perpetuate the myth of a “miracle fuel” and that unsustainable energy consumption may continue “business as usual.”
The report explores the biological and technical barriers to algae biofuel production, providing perspective as to why decades of investment and hype has yet to yield any commercial biofuels. It argues that whether it is for biofuels, “bio-products”, or face creams, the large-scale cultivation of GE microalgae poses unacceptable risks, perpetuates the myth that algae biofuels will provide a viable and substantial alternative to fossil fuels, and diverts attention, funding and resources from safer solutions. The report calls for more sustainable and proven solutions to climate and energy concerns, such as efficiency, solar and wind energy, relocalization, expanded public transportation, and regenerative agriculture.
Expert contacts: Dana Perls, (925) 705-1074, firstname.lastname@example.org; Dr. Rachel Smolker, (802) 482-2848, email@example.com
Communications contacts: Erin Jensen, (202) 222-0722, firstname.lastname@example.org; Keith Brunner, (802) 363-9615, email@example.com
How are microalgae cultivated and can they be contained?
Industrial-scale cultivation of microalgae is typically done in either open ponds or photobioreactors (PBRs).20 PBRs hold the algae in tubes, flat plates or columns, and may only consist of thin plastic.21 There are problems with each method. Open ponds are more vulnerable to weather and evaporation, as well as invading pathogens, which can ruin the algae.22 PBRs provide more control, but are more costly.23 Open ponds require more stringent permitting processes because they are not “contained structures.”24, 25 PBRs, although they are made from thin plastic and must be periodically cleaned out, are considered to be a “contained use.”26 In reality, due to their very small (microscopic) size and their capacity to become airborne, microalgae will inevitably escape from any industrial cultivation facility.27
What risks do genetically engineered microalgae pose to the environment?
• Escape is inevitable. In addition, once the algae escape, it will be virtually impossible to recall them.28
• Escaped microalgae may outcompete native species and proliferate.29 Researchers and industry representatives claim that engineered microalgae are unlikely to survive in the wild, but there is little basis for this claim.30,31 In fact, the traits that are being engineered are often precisely those that could provide a competitive advantage in natural ecosystems.32 For example, microalgae are being genetically engineered to withstand the stressful conditions of mass cultivation,33 which may include resistance to pathogens or chemical controls such as herbicides and insecticides.34 They may also be engineered with the capacity to grow rapidly by using light and nutrients more efficiently.35
• Potential for harmful algae blooms (HABs).
Microalgae are also being engineered to directly secrete chemicals such as ethanol, alkanes and isoprene, as well as specific kinds of lipids (fats).36,37 Such microalgae could be unappetizing to predators that normally keep wild algae populations in check, and as a result they may proliferate.38 HABs occur when algae proliferate and secrete toxins, some of which can be lethal to wildlife and even to humans,39 rendering fisheries and waterways unusable.40 HABs have already become increasingly common due to increased runoff of pollution that supports algae growth and warming waters symptomatic of climate change.41 Introduction of engineered microalgae, or even microalgae that are not engineered but are nonnative species, could result in potentially disastrous algae blooms.
• How the engineered traits will evolve is unpredictable.
Microalgae can transfer genetic material not only to their direct progeny, but also to other organisms in the environment through horizontal gene transfer (HGT).42 It is possible that engineered traits will move into other species or even enter the human food chain.43 Furthermore, given high mutation rates, traits may not remain stable over time, leading to unpredictable consequences.44
• Researchers do not know enough about algae to predict and control the risks associated with release of GE microalgae into natural ecosystems 45.
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