As natural cleaning brands explore new ways to use synthetically engineered algae oil, the genetic engineering conversation is muddied.
More than ever, shoppers are choosing to avoid ingredients made with GMOs. The Non-GMO Project Verification seal is flourishing, and Whole Foods Market is primed to achieve full GMO transparency by 2018. So while GMO-containing foods are prolifically scrutinized, other uses for genetic engineering have flown well below the radar.
“Consumer products containing ingredients made using an advanced form of engineering known as synthetic biology are beginning to show up more often on grocery and department store shelves,” reports a recent article in the New York Times. Natural cleaning manufacturers like Ecover are using genetically engineered algae to produce oil for their soaps and cleaning agents.
The oil comes from a company called Solazyme, that has “pioneered an industrial biotechnology platform that harnesses the prolific oil-producing ability of microalgae,” according to their website.
The benefit, say supporters, is that synthetic algae oil reduces reliance on other ingredients like palm oil—a common natural cleaner ingredient that’s difficult to harvest sustainably.
But this method of oil production has drawn criticism from advocacy organizations like Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union and Fair World Project, who with thirteen other organizations recently sent an open letter to Ecover and their subsidiary Method that berates their use of biotech algae oil. “It is our view that, given the significant gaps in knowledge, it is premature to bring synthetic biology and its products into commercial use,” the letter said.
Adding to the confusion, the advocacy groups urged Ecover and Method to refrain from describing their products as “green,” “natural,” or “sustainable”—arguments that echo the debate over how to classify foods containing GMOs.