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Groups Say Synthetic Biology Is Not Natural or Sustainable
Yesterday, representatives from 17 international environmental, consumer, farming and social justice organizations sent an open letter to Ecover to reconsider its plans to use oils and other ingredients derived from synthetic biology.
Ecover, a leading manufacturer in natural cleaning and personal care products, and its U.S.-based subsidiary Method Products, Inc., announced in March that they would switch to using oils produced by the synthetic biology company Solazyme Inc. via synthetically engineered algae that feeds on sugar. According to Friends of the Earth, such a move will negatively impact the environment due to increased demand for Brazilian sugarcane that Solazyme uses to grow its algae, which drives rainforest destruction and threatens biodiversity, amongst other things.
“While other types of pollution can be cleaned up and do not breed, synbio organisms are designed to reproduce and, once released into the environment, they will be impossible to recall,” said Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth. “Consumers will likely reject these new, risky, unlabeled and virtually unregulated ‘GMOs 2.0.’ and we know that truly green, sustainable companies will as well.”
While Ecover says the move to synthetic oil derived from algae will eliminate the use of palm oil in products—an admirable decision as palm oil plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction—the groups point out that this change is not actually a sustainable alternative.
“We welcome Ecover’s concern about environmentally destructive palm oil, but switching to Brazilian sugarcane and synthetic biology ingredients is not an improvement,” said Jeff Conant, Friends of the Earth international forests campaigner. “Feeding an environmentally destructive material like sugarcane to synthetic organisms does not make it more environmentally friendly; it makes it less so.”
Today, Ecover published a statement on its website in response to the concern they've received from consumers about its plan to switch to algal oil. It says:
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us so far about our intention to trial algal oil as an ingredient in our products. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about this and welcome everyone’s view.
As a green pioneer, we are on a mission to create products that are healthier and more sustainable for our planet, by taking inspiration from nature. As part of this mission, we are looking into the potential use of algal oil in the future, as an alternative to petroleum and palm oil based ingredients. This is because over its lifecycle, algal oil has a much lower environmental footprint (using less land in its production, emitting fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requiring less water) when compared to petroleum and palm oil based ingredients.
The term synthetic biology covers a wide spectrum, and we realize that more extreme uses of this technology exist. Our focus however, is specifically on technology which embraces the natural functions of organisms and which has a proven and significant environmental benefit to offer our planet.
Currently we are in the early trial stages of using algal oil in our products and if we do start using it more widely, we intend to label it clearly. We support your right to know and will continue to support regulations requiring ingredient disclosure in all cleaning products.
We are rigorously evaluating algae-produced oil through our comprehensive ingredient tests—a process that involves a full independent assessment for human and environmental health.
We welcome everyone’s views on this complex subject, and encourage anyone who would like to know more to contact us directly through email@example.com and we would be really happy to talk further.
“As a socially and ecologically responsible alternative to palm kernel oil, which is often from palms grown on clear cut forest land, coconut oil, when obtained from well-managed established plantations, is far better than any solution based on synthetic biology,” explained Jaydee Hanson of Center for Food Safety. "That solution could support tropical farmers and really would be natural rather than misleading consumers."
Synthetic biology is a new and unregulated set of genetic engineering techniques that uses material such as DNA to create new life forms or to attempt to "reprogram" existing organisms, such as yeast and algae. If even a fraction of these synthetic organisms were released, says the press release, the potential effects on health, the environment and farmer’s livelihoods are wide-ranging—from relatively benign to total ecological and economic disruption.
“Synthetic biology is a new area of extreme genetic engineering and there are no regulations yet in place to deal with the implications of these new synthetic organisms. Our ability to even assess the risks is lagging way behind,” said Jim Thomas of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group). “A wider switch to synthetic biology ingredients is likely to cause serious harm to biodiversity and farmers, and it is disappointing that Ecover and Method are leading the charge.”
The New York Times reported last week that companies are quietly using synthetic biology to create ingredients that are rapidly entering consumer products in the absence of adequate health and environmental safety assessments, regulations or labeling.
“We are surprised that Ecover thinks its green-minded customers would want to be associated with an untested and unregulated technology,” says Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports. “We are also disappointed that Ecover and Method have been less than straightforward about their decision. Products derived from synthetically modified organisms should not be marketed as ‘natural,’ or ‘ecological’.”
The announcement in March from Ecover did not disclose that the algal oil it plans to use in its products would be a product of synthetic biology or genetic modification.
“The commercial use of synthetic biology organisms is completely new, unregulated and the effects are unknown,” said Alexis Baden-Mayer of the Organic Consumers Association. “We need companies, individuals and governments to cooperate to put a moratorium on the release of these new organisms until we better understand the consequences of these decisions.”
The letter calls on Ecover to reexamine its "false solution" and to:
- Pledge not to use synthetically modified organisms (SMO)-derived ingredients in its products.
- Acknowledge that descriptors such as "natural," "green," "ecological" and "sustainable" cannot apply to the products of synthetic biology.
- Join the call to the Convention on Biological Diversity and national governments to establish a moratorium on the commercial use and environmental release of synthetically modified organisms.
The organization signatories on the letter include: Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Women’s Voices for the Earth, Clean Production Action, Organic Consumers Association, GRAIN, Movement Generation and ETC Group, as well as others.
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The coronavirus is certainly scary, but despite the constant reporting on total cases and a climbing death toll, the reality is that the vast majority of people who come down with COVID-19 survive it. Just as the number of cases grows, so does another number: those who have recovered.
In mid-March, the number of patients in the U.S. who had officially recovered from the virus was close to zero. That number is now in the tens of thousands and is climbing every day. But recovering from COVID-19 is more complicated than simply feeling better. Recovery involves biology, epidemiology and a little bit of bureaucracy too.
How does your body fight off COVID-19?<p>Once a person is exposed the coronavirus, the body starts producing <a href="https://www.mblintl.com/products/what-are-antibodies-mbli/" target="_blank">proteins called antibodies to fight the infection</a>. As these <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/27/serological-tests-reveal-immune-coronavirus/" target="_blank">antibodies start to successfully contain the virus</a> and keep it from replicating in the body, symptoms usually begin to lessen and you start to feel better. Eventually, if all goes well, your immune system will completely destroy all of the virus in your system. A person who was infected with and survived a virus with no long-term health effects or disabilities has "recovered."</p><p>On average, a person who is infected with SARS-CoV-2 will feel ill for about seven days from the onset of symptoms. Even after symptoms disappear, there still may be small amounts of the virus in a patient's system, and they should stay <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html" target="_blank">isolated for an additional three days</a> to ensure they have truly <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">recovered and are no longer infectious</a>.</p>
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Why have so few people officially recovered in the US?<p>This is a dangerous virus, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being extremely careful when deciding what it means to recover from COVID-19. Both medical and testing criteria must be met before a person is <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/disposition-in-home-patients.html" target="_blank">officially declared recovered</a>.</p><p>Medically, a person must be fever-free without fever-reducing medications for three consecutive days. They must show an improvement in their other symptoms, including reduced coughing and shortness of breath. And it must be at least seven full days <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">since the symptoms began</a>.</p><p>In addition to those requirements, the CDC guidelines say that a person must test negative for the coronavirus twice, with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/care-for-someone.html" target="_blank">tests taken at least 24 hours apart</a>.</p><p>Only then, if both the symptom and testing conditions are met, is a person officially considered recovered by the CDC.</p><p>This second testing requirement is likely why there were so few official recovered cases in the U.S. until late March. Initially, there was a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/health/coronavirus-test-shortages-face-masks-swabs.html" target="_blank">massive shortage of testing in the U.S.</a> So while many people were certainly recovering over the last few weeks, this could not be officially confirmed. As the country enters the height of the pandemic in the coming weeks, focus is still on <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/hcp/clinical-criteria.html" target="_blank">testing those who are infected</a>, not those who have likely recovered.</p><p>Many more people are being tested now that states and private companies have begun <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/testing-in-us.html" target="_blank">producing and distributing tests</a>. As <a href="https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200406/coronavirus-in-ohio-from-its-rocky-start-testing-for-covid-19-slowly-ramping-up" target="_blank">the number of available tests increases</a> and the pandemic eventually slows in the country, more testing will be available for those who have appeared to recover. As people who have already recovered are tested, the appearance of any new infections will help researchers learn <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/24/we-need-smart-coronavirus-testing-not-just-more-testing/" target="_blank">how long immunity can be expected to last</a>.</p>
Once a person has recovered, what can they do?<p>Knowing whether or not people are immune to COVID-19 after they recover is going to determine what individuals, communities and society at large can do going forward. If scientists can show that recovered patients are immune to the coronavirus, then a person who has recovered could in theory <a href="https://www.vox.com/2020/3/30/21186822/immunity-to-covid-19-test-coronavirus-rt-pcr-antibody" target="_blank">help support the health care system</a> by caring for those who are infected.</p><p>Once communities pass the peak of the epidemic, the number of new infections will decline, while the number of <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/china-says-passed-peak-coronavirus-epidemic-covid-19-1491863" target="_blank">recovered people will increase</a>. As these trends continue, the risk of transmission will fall. Once the risk of transmission has fallen enough, community-level isolation and social distancing orders will begin to relax and businesses will start to reopen. Based on what other countries have gone through, it will be <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00154-w" target="_blank">months until the risk of transmission is low</a> in the U.S.</p><p>But before any of this can happen, the U.S. and the world need to make it through the peak of this pandemic. Social distancing works to slow the spread of infectious diseases and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/what-you-can-do.html" target="_blank">is working for COVID-19</a>. Many people will <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/2019-novel-coronavirus/" target="_blank">need medical help to recover</a>, and social distancing will slow this virus down and give people the best chance to do so.</p>
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The future for the world's oceans often looks grim. Fisheries are set to collapse by 2048, according to one study, and 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year, causing considerable damage to delicate marine ecosystems. Yet a new study in Nature offers an alternative, and more optimistic view on the ocean's future: it asserts that the entire marine environment could be substantially rebuilt by 2050, if humanity is able to step up to the challenge.
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Bread has been a source of basic nutrition for centuries, the holy trinity being wheat, maize and rice. It has also been the reason for a lot of innovation in science and technology, from millstones to microbiological investigations into a family of single-cell fungi called Saccharomyces.
Chemical leavening<p>If you like a little heft in your loaf, you will need a leavening agent.</p><p>For those short on time, you can use baking soda. That's a chemical compound of sodium bicarbonate mixed with potassium bitartrate, or cream of tartar.</p><p>Soda breads have their traditions in parts of eastern and central Europe, and in Ireland and Scotland, with Melrose loaves and "farls."</p><p>They can taste a bit bland, though, and are often considered only as an emergency solution on Sundays. No disrespect intended: They taste just fine fresh from the oven.</p><p>Whether it's chemical or more "natural," leavening relies largely on the production of carbon dioxide.</p><p>When you mix an acid, such as vinegar, buttermilk, yogurt or apple cider, with an alkaline compound like baking soda, you get CO2. That CO2 creates bubbles, which in turn capture steam in the oven and allow a bread to rise.</p><p><span></span>But it's better with yeast. Tastes better, too. It just takes more time. </p>
What is yeast?<p>There are yeasts all around us — on grains, in the air, in biofuels. It even lives inside us, but that's not always a good thing.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1090575/pdf/1471-2334-5-22.pdf" target="_blank">Candida yeast</a> can cause infections of the skin, feet, mouth, penis or vagina if it builds up too much in the body.</p><p>One of the most common yeasts, however, is <em>Saccharomyces cerevisiae</em>. That's <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/an-early-beer-archaeologists-tap-ground-at-worlds-oldest-brewery/a-45480731" target="_blank">"brewer's"</a> or "baker's" yeast.</p><p>You can get fresh baker's yeast, often in 42-gram (1.48-ounce) cubes, or as dried yeast (quick action or active, which requires rehydration) in a sachet of 7 grams.</p><p>There's little difference: One is compressed and the other is dehydrated and granulated. But they do the same thing, essentially. </p><p>Some commercial yeast producers add molasses and other nutrients. But natural yeast has plenty of useful nutrients in it anyway, including B group vitamins, so who knows whether it's good or necessary to add them. </p>
How does yeast work?<p>When you mix flour, yeast and water, you set off a veritable chain reaction. Enzymes in the wheat convert starch into sugar. And the yeast creates enzymes of its own to convert those sugars into a form it can absorb.</p><p>The yeast "feeds" on the sugars to create carbon dioxide and alcohol. The yeast burps and farts, releasing gases into the mix, and that creates bubbles to trap CO2. </p><p>It's a vital fermentation process that breaks down the gluten in the flour and helps make your bread more digestible.</p><p>The yeast cells split and reproduce, generating lactic and carbonic acid, raising the temperature and ultimately adding flavor to the mix.</p><p>The longer you leave the yeast to do its thing, the better for your bread. Time is more important than the amount of yeast. </p><p>In fact, that's an enduring question — how much yeast? I'll use 20 grams fresh yeast for 500 grams of flour. Others say that's enough yeast for 1 kilo. If you are converting a dry-yeast recipe to fresh yeast, some bakers advise tripling the weight. So, if a sachet of dried yeast is 7 grams, your fresh yeast is 21 grams.</p><p><span></span>But that also depends on the flours you are using, temperatures in the bowl and the room, and a host of other things. You'll just have to experiment and see. No number of books (and I've read a stack on bread) will help as much as trial and error.</p>
Wild yeast: Sourdough<p>So, good bread needs time. If you have a lot of time, why not move it up a notch and grow wild yeast — a sourdough starter — in your own home?</p><p>A sourdough starter is not to be mistaken (as it often is) for the leaven, or "mother," "sponge," or <em>levain</em>. That's more a second stage, a descendant of the starter. You take a scoop from your starter and add it to another flour and water mixture when you prepare the dough for a new loaf. </p><p>The sourdough process utilizes yeasts naturally present in flour and … yet more time. A longer fermentation process allows a richer lactic acid bacteria <em>lactobacilli</em> or LAB to evolve, and that can be healthy for your gut microbiome.</p><p>It's simple enough to start a sourdough starter. All you need is flour, warm water and time.</p><p>Some suggest equal measures of whole-grain flour and water at 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), some say room temperature — just don't let the water exceed 40 C or the yeasts will die. Some suggest two parts flour to three parts water. But it's up to you whether you want a drier or wetter starter. You will know only through experimentation. </p><p>Some say you should filter tap water to remove chemicals like fluoride and avoid using water that's boiled and then cooled. Others say that really doesn't matter.</p><p>The main thing is, keep it clean and give it time. Days, weeks, months and years.</p>
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