Obama Administration's National Bioeconomy Blueprint Ignores Risks
By Eric Hoffman
On the morning of April 26 the White House released its National Bioeconomy Blueprint, which “outlines steps that agencies will take to drive the bioeconomy—economic activity powered by research and innovation in the biosciences—and details ongoing efforts across the federal government to realize this goal.”
Unfortunately, this new bioeconomy is not as green as the Obama administration makes it out to be. The so-called bioeconomy is dependent primarily on the risky, unregulated field of synthetic biology and the use of unsustainably produced biomass to feed synthetic organisms created by these technologies. The National Bioeconomy Blueprint, while offering little in new substantive policy, causes more harm than good by giving the green light to the growth and profit of the synthetic biology industry without making any real effort to protect people and the environment from the novel risks posed by this emerging technology.
Synthetic biology is an extreme form of genetic engineering involving the writing and rewriting of genetic code and biological systems in order to create novel organisms that have never existed before in nature. Novel organisms created through synthetic biology could escape from the lab and become a new class of invasive species or pump out oil into local waterways. Biotech workers are put at risk if organisms are improperly contained and these synthetic bugs get inside their bodies or are carried home on their clothes. Check out our issue brief, Synthetic Biology 101, for more information on what these technologies are and the risks synthetic biology pose.
According to Andrew Pollack at the New York Times, “much of what is in the 43-page-report…is a list of government programs that are already under way. So it is not clear what concrete changes, if any, will result.” But while no new major policy initiatives were announced, the Blueprint appears to be a nod of approval for moving full speed ahead for an unregulated and rapidly developing synthetic biology industry.
You may recall that last month, 113 organizations from around the world called for the proper oversight and regulation of synthetic biology in the Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology. This global coalition demanded that the Precautionary Principle be applied to the governance of synthetic biology and that a moratorium be placed on the environmental release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until proper national and international laws have been established to ensure synthetic biology does not harm people or the environment.
Unfortunately, the Obama White House is moving in the opposite direction with this new initiative. The National Bioeconomy Blueprint calls for expanded development of “essential bioeconomy technologies” such as synthetic biology and to identify points to reduce regulatory barriers for the biotechnology industry. One of the White House’s main strategic objectives is to “unlock the promise of synthetic biology” by making strategic investments that “have the potential to move the bioeconomy forward in all sectors.”
The Blueprint quotes President Obama’s Bioethics Commission, which recommended back in 2010 that federal actions be taken “to ensure that America reaps the benefits of synthetic biology while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks” of synthetic biology. Unfortunately, those recommendations, which were publically criticized by Friends of the Earth and 57 other organizations from around the world, looked to self-regulation to guide developments instead of developing actual laws and regulations that are specifically tailored to the novel risks posed by synthetic biology.
The claim that the government will “minimize identified risks” from synthetic biology sounds great, but so far they have failed to even look at these risks. According to a report from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, of the $430 million spent by the federal government on synthetic biology between 2005 and 2010, zero projects were identified that focused on risk assessments related to the accidental or intentional release of synthetic organisms from the lab. Instead of truly balancing the potential benefits and risks, the Bioeconomy Blueprint gives the industry the green light to rush ahead while turning a blind eye to the risks.
The bioeconomy also carries serious socio-economic risks. As the ETC Group highlighted in its brilliant report, The New Biomassters: Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods, the new bioeconomy is not as green as it seems. The bioeconomy is, in fact, “a red-hot resource grab of the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of peoples in the global South, where most of that biomass is located.” As the report points out, 86 percent of global biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics, and a push for a new bioeconomy, enabled by synthetic biology, will only “accelerate the pace of forest destruction and land acquisition in the South in order to feed the economies of the North.” Biomass, or land on which it is grown, is not an unlimited resource, as the Blueprint seems to assume.
And on April 26, a new report was released by the Global Forest Coalition titled Bio-economy Versus Biodiversity, which argues how the so-called bioeconomy will have “serious negative impacts…on forests, forest-dependent peoples, and biodiversity.” According to Simone Lovera, executive director of the Global Forest Coalition, “the bioeconomy is a massive effort to privatize nature for corporate profit…high-risk technologies like synthetic biology, nanotechnology and genetically engineered trees will only drive the planetary ecosystem further into crisis.” This report concludes by challenging the Obama administration and other global leaders to “abandon the green sheen of biotechnology and market-based conservation schemes, and to affirm the kinds of biocultural approaches demonstrated by Indigenous Peoples and social movements in the Global South that eschew infinite economic growth for sustainable livelihoods, local living economies and integration with the natural world.”
The Obama administration had a chance to take the driver’s seat and ensure that synthetic biology does not cause more harm than good. Instead, the White House is sitting in the passenger’s seat while the biotechnology industry speeds ahead without proper regulation, safety assessment or oversight.
In the end, the National Bioeconomy Blueprint feels more like an attempt for President Obama to claim he is creating jobs. What we really need is a serious discussion over how we should regulate new technologies and just what kind of future economy we want. If we are to have a truly sustainable economy moving forward, it cannot be based on risky, unregulated (and patented) technologies such as synthetic biology that pose serious harms to the environment and our health. The risks posed by synthetic biology and other biotechnologies must be studied before we rush forward with this new bioeconomy in which industry stands to make large profits while the risks are spread to the public.
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.
1. Fragrance – Avoid It<p>One of the fastest ways to narrow down your product options is immediately eliminating any product that promotes a fragrance, or parfum. That scent of "fresh breeze" or lemon might initially smell good, but the fragrance does not last. What does last? The concoction of various undisclosed and unregulated chemicals that created that fragrance.</p><p>Many fragrances contain phthalates, which are linked to many health risks including reproductive problems and cancer.</p>
2. With Bleach? Do Without<p>Going scent-free should have narrowed down your options substantially – now, check the front of the remaining packaging. Any that include ammonia or chlorine bleach ought to go, as these substances are irritating and corrosive to your body. While bleach is commonly known as a powerful disinfectant, there are safer alternatives that you can use in your home, such as sodium borate or hydrogen peroxide.</p><p>While you're at it, check if there are any warnings on the label – "flammable," "use in ventilated area," etc. – if the product is hazardous, that's a red flag and should be avoided.</p>
3. Check the Back Label<p>Flip to the back of the remaining contenders and check out that ingredient list. Less is more, here. Opt for a shorter ingredient list with words you recognize and/or can pronounce.</p><p>You may notice many products do not have ingredient lists – while this doesn't necessarily mean they contain toxic ingredients, transparency is key. Feel free to look up a list online, or stick to products that are open about their ingredients.</p>
4. Ingredients to Avoid<p>We already mentioned that cleaners containing fragrance or parfum, and bleach or ammonia should be avoided, but there are other ingredients to look out for as well.</p><ul><li>Quaternary ammonium "quats" – lung irritants that contribute to asthma and other breathing problems. Also linger on surfaces long after they've been cleaned.</li><li>Parabens – Known hormone disruptor; can contribute to ailments such as cancer</li><li>Triclosan – triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals are registered with the EPA as pesticides. Triclosan is a known hormone disruptor and can also impact your immune system.</li><li>Formaldehyde – Causes irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; studies suggest formaldehyde exposure is linked with certain varieties of cancer. Can be found in products or become a byproduct of chemical reactions in the air.</li></ul>
Cleaning Products and Toxics: The Bottom Line<p>Do your research. There are many cleaning products available, but taking these steps will drastically reduce your options and help keep your home toxic-free. Protecting your home from bacteria and viruses is important, but make sure you do so in a way that doesn't introduce other health risks into the home.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.ehn.org/how-to-shop-for-cleaning-products-while-avoiding-toxics-2648130273.html" target="_blank">Environmental Health News</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649054624#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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Twenty-five years ago, a food called Tofurky made its debut on grocery store shelves. Since then, the tofu-based roast has become a beloved part of many vegetarians' holiday feasts.
By Jessica Corbett
A leading environmental advocacy group marked Native American Heritage Month on Wednesday by urging President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Kamala Harris, and the entire incoming administration "to honor Indigenous sovereignty and immediately halt the Keystone XL, Dakota Access, and Line 3 pipelines."
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Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
By Jake Johnson
Amid reports that oil industry-friendly former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz remains under consideration to return to his old post in the incoming Biden administration, a diverse coalition of environmental groups is mobilizing for an "all-out push" to keep Moniz away from the White House and demand a cabinet willing to boldly confront the corporations responsible for the climate emergency.