GMOs, engineered to make better food

GMO_s_300_300_100With some reluctance, I’m again writing this week about  genetically-modified organisms. My reluctance stems from the fact that on this topic, most people’s minds appear to be made up. People tend to be for ’em or agin’ em, and for whatever reason, most aren’t open to listening to arguments that challenge their settled view.

My own views are undecided when it comes to the debate over labeling, and the environmental benefits, if any, of GMOs. I’m persuaded that the health risks of eating GMOs, which most Americans do every day, are zero or close to zero although, again, I’m not going to try to change the minds of those who believe otherwise. I’m concerned, finally, about the intellectual property issues surrounding GMOs, although, again, this is complicated because it takes many years and millions of dollars of investment to develop new crops.

Today’s story took root (pun alert!) last winter when I visited the Johnston, Iowa, headquarters of Pioneer, the big seed company owned by DuPont. (It’s near Des Moines, where I moderated a panel on food security at Drake University.) I toured a couple of labs — one for conventional breeding, another for genetic engineering, and chatted with scientists and executives. Pioneer has a fascinating history, by the way: It was founded in 1926 by Henry A. Wallace, who learned about plants as a young boy from his neighbor, George Washington Carver, and went on to become FDR’s secretary of agriculture and vice president.

In any event, while at Pioneer, I heard about genetically-engineered soybeans that have been branded as Plenish. They were designed to make soybean oil that is free of trans fats, and thus healthier than conventional soybean oil. Earlier, I’d heard about a biotech potato under development called Innate, which reduces black spots and thereby means fewer potatoes are wasted. These are among the first biotech crops to promise direct, tangible benefits to consumers, and I decided that was worth a story for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

It’s easy to understand why many Americans are unenthusiastic about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Although supermarket aisles are lined with foods made from biotech crops – most cereals, frozen foods, canned soups, vegetable oils, soft drinks, baby formula, tofu and even milk contain GMOs – consumers have yet to see tangible benefits from GMOs. The biotech industry has been slow to develop food that is healthier, better tasting or longer lasting – to its political detriment.

As Food and Water Watch, a critic of GMOs, has argued, hyperbolically: “The only ones experiencing any benefits from GE crops are the few, massive corporations that are controlling the food system at every step and seeing large profit margins.”

That is about to change.

Pioneer, the big seed company owned by DuPont, is bringing to the market a brand of genetically engineered soybean called Plenish that the company says will produce a healthier oil, free of transfats. Plenish oils have been designed to replace the unhealthy partially hydrogenated oils used to fry food and to keep cookies and crackers, crackers and chips from going stale.

Meantime, the JR Simplot Co, the US’s biggest potato processor, is seeking regulatory approval for genetically engineered potatoes branded as Innate. Simplot says the Innate potatoes will limit black spots from bruising, deliver improved taste and reduce the formation of acrylamide, a naturally occurring chemical that has been identified as a potential carcinogen and is created when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures.

You can think of these new products as GMOs 2.0 – biotech foods designed not just for farmers but for consumers, too. Other examplesinclude the Arctic Apple, which like the Innate potato is engineered not to go brown, and a soybean oil enriched with Omega-3 fatty acids from Monsanto.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Climate change: It’s time to get ready

This blogpost about climate preparedness is part of the 2012 State of Green Business Report, published by GreenBiz, where I’m a senior writer. You can download a copy of the full report here.

Last December, government officials, corporate executives and activists met in Durban, South Africa, for high-level climate talks. They went home with an agreement … to keep talking. Meanwhile, we’re emitting more carbon dioxide every year, and atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are steadily rising. If CO2 levels were somehow to stabilize now–they won’t–the world will keep warming. The bottom line: Climate change is inevitable. The world needs to learn how to prepare for it.

Increasingly, smart businesses are starting to do just that. Utilities, the oil and gas industry, agricultural companies and insurers are building assumptions about rising temperatures and extreme weather events into their scenario planning. This is what’s being called climate adaptation or climate preparedness.

The payoff from investing in adaptation could be substantial.  In 2011, insured losses in the U.S. from natural catastrophes, including tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, topped $105 billion, breaking the record of $101 billion set in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina, according to Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm. Some of those losses had nothing to do with climate change, but others did. [click to continue…]

In search of the perfect biofuel

Funny thing about the biofuels business. Roughly 200 companies are pursuing the perfect biofuel—as cheap as fossil fuels, adaptable to today’s infrastructure, low-carbon, sustainable and no threat to the food supply or to tropical forests. But even cutting-edge startups that say they have the puzzle just about solved can’t raise the money they need to get into commercial production.

“Everyone wants to be the first to finance the second plant,” says Arnold Klann, the CEO of biofuels firm Blue Fire Ethanol. “No one one wants to be first to finance the first one.”

“Banks are not willing to lend,” Klann said. “They’re risk averse.” The industry needs the support of banks or the public markets because a commercial scale will cost upwards of $100 million, more than the venture capitalists now financing the industry want to put at risk. Publicly-traded Blue Fire makes ethanol from wood wastes, urban trash, rice and wheat straws, and it was awarded a $40 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, but it has been slow to get to commercial production and investors are skeptical. The firm’s market capitalization is only about $25 million.

Biofuels are on my mind because I  spent the day at BIO International, a sprawling (14,000 attendees) biotech industry convention in Atlanta. I’ve written very little about biofuels, mostly because the science of turning plants into fuel is quite complicated, and so it’s hard to separate companies with a shot at making it big from those with no hope. That’s not just a challenge for me—the corn ethanol industry has destroyed many millions of dollars of capital from investors who rushed in too quickly.

Still, there are strong forces driving biofuels, most of them emanating from Washington where Congress has adopted biofuels mandates. The historic Waxman-Markey climate change bill just passed by the House energy committee will, if it becomes law, provide another boost to biofuels by raising the price of gasoline and diesel fuels.

At BIO, Laurence Alexander, the managing director of investment bank Jefferies & Co., moderated an excellent panel that taught me a bunch of things. Some highlights:

It takes a lot of feedstock to make biofuels. For ethanol to account for 5% of U.S. gasoline use, it would require turning 33% of the U.S. corn crop into ethanol. Globally, it would take 100% of the soy, rapeseed and palm oil production to produce 10% of the global supply of diesel. That’s at current yields, of course, which is why it’s so vital to drive up yields.

Biofuels have an image problem. “Glib critics,” Alexander said, “could shift the policy debate.” The industry needs to prepare to answer tough questions, even if they are only loosely based on reality: How many children did you starve to drive to work today? Can we run out of arable land? Will biofuels drain the acquifers?

Not all feedstocks are created equal. I knew that, of course, but the variations in productivity are dramatic. In terms of gallons of fuel that can be produced per acre, according to Aristides Patrinos, the president of a company called Synthetic Genomics, sugar cane (800) and switchgrass (500) outperform corn (375) and jatropha (202). Still, his company, which was started by Craig Venter, is excited about jatropha because it yields a high quality oil, grows in poor soils and can live in semi-arid regions. “That’s in our view an ideal fuel because it doesn’t really compete for the same land where you can grow food,” Patrinos said. It’s ripe for significant genetic modification to improve yields. “We’ve just recently announced the sequencing of the jatropha genome,” he said. Who knew?

Two well-funded startups delivered impressive presentations. One was Amyris Biotechnologies, which I knew about. A fascinating company, backed by Kleiner Perkins, that first produced a low-cost anti-malaria drug for the Gates Foundation and is now making diesel fuel at a pilot plant in northern California. (Jack Newman, a co-founder, has twice been a popular speaker at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green.) The other was Solazyme, another Bay Area firm that uses algae to convert cellulosic feedstocks into fuel. Harrison Dillon, the president and chief technology officer, who also happens to be a patent lawyer, said the firm is able to make oil-based fuels at a commercial scale but that its cost are still higher than fossil fuels.

Because of capital constraints, it may be that well-established players will have to enter the market to take biofuels to scaleor . DuPont and Genencor, a division of a Danish firm called Danisco, formed a joint venture last year to develop a cellulosic ethanol business using corn stover or switchgrass in Tennessee, which has provided grants to the plant and pays farmers to plant switchgrass. (It takes three years to develop the first group)  DuPont–whose Pioneer division hired me to moderate a panel at BIO–and Genencor have committed to a three-year investment of $140 million. They obviously have the capacity to invest more if needed.

They’ve also got a track record.  DuPont and Genencor got together nearly 15 years ago to research the process that now produces a renewable material known as bio-PDO, which is made from corn starch, that goes into carpets, textiles and shampoos. It’s one of the big successes of the bio-materials biz.