Last week we reviewed the ways enzymes are helping to give textile processes a lighter footprint while at the same time producing better finished goods – at a lower cost. Seems to be a win/win situation, until you begin to unpeel the onion:
It begins with the production of the enzyme: Enzymes have always been obtained from three primary sources, i.e., animal tissue, plants or microbes. By starting with the primary source and “feeding” it properly (known as fermentation), we ended up with our target product – like beer, for example.
But these naturally occurring enzymes are often not readily available in sufficient quantities for industrial use. The production of enzymes – including microorganisms used to produce enzymes – is a pursuit central to the modern biotechnology industry. Until recently, the availability of enzymes have been limited to the quantities that could be produced in the host organism in which they were naturally derived.
Today, the starting point is a vial of a selected strain of microorganisms – microbial hosts which have been selectively bred by industry. They will be nurtured and fed until they multiply many thousand times. Once fermentation is complete, the microorganisms are destroyed, the desired enzymes are recovered from the fermentation broth and sold as a standardized product.
Modern biotechnology has improved enzyme production and enzyme quality in several ways:
1) Increased efficiency of enzyme production resulting in higheryields;
2) Increased enzyme purity through reduction or elimination of side activities;
3) Enhancing the function of specific enzyme proteins, e.g., by increasing the temperature range over which an enzyme is active.
The results, as we discussed last week, are better products, produced more efficiently, often at lower cost and with less environmental impact.
It wasn’t until genetic engineering came about that these biological methods became economically viable. Targeted genetic manipulation has not only enhanced the productivity of these methods, it also has resulted in the production of substances that were previously impossible. To date, up to 60% of all technical enzymes are produced with genetically modified organisms (GMO) – and this number is sure to increase given that GMO-based enzyme production requires 40-50% less energy and raw materials than traditional enzyme production. And therein lies the rub.
Cheese, eggs and milk, for example, may not be genetically modified themselves but may contain ingredients and additives that were produced from genetically modified microorganisms.
Take cheese for example: Traditionally, this enzyme preparation, sometimes known as rennin, was extracted from calf stomachs. The active ingredient is chymosin, an enzyme produced in the stomach of suckling calves needed for breaking down cow’s milk.
It is now possible to produce chymosin in genetically modified fungi. These modified microorganisms contain the gene derived from the stomach of calves that is responsible for producing chymosin. When grown in a bioreactor, they release chymosin into the culture medium. Afterwards, the enzyme is extracted and purified yielding a product that is 80 to 90 percent pure. Natural rennin contains only 4 to 8 percent active enzyme.
Even the nutritive medium used to grow bacteria and fungi is often made from GMOs.
Again, what are the arguments against GMO?
Briefly, because I want to get to how this pertains to the textile industry, here are the most common concerns :
1) What happens when these GMOs interact with other organisms? Already there is concern that GMO crops resistant to weed killers will themselves become uncontrolled weeds in other fields – the GMO plant may cross pollinate with a related species that is a weed which then becomes resistant to weed killers. This is already happening according to many published reports. And it can happen in really subtle ways:
- Since 1986, Novo Nordisk, one of the world’s largest producers of industrial enzymes, has processed the residuals of fermentation processes generated by GMOs into “biomass” or “sludge” called NovoGro. The sludge is dehydrated and freely distributed among farmers. NovoGro is virtually the company’s only possibility to dispose of its massive enzyme production waste. In 1996, 2.2 million cubic meters of NovoGro were produced. Daily about 150 truckloads of NovoGro are spread over 70 hectares of land in Denmark . Total costs are about US$ 13 million per year, all carried by Novo Nordisk. A Danish farmers’ organization protested against the distribution of NovoGro because it suspected pollution by GMOs. There are concerns that risks associated with the use of GMO products is not worth the benefits as long as the environmental impacts are not monitored by third parties.
2) The argument rages about the human health risks of genetically engineered foods – specifically with regard to the rise in food allergies. The British Medical Association (BMA) in a study done in 2003, concluded that the risks to human health associated with GMO foods is negligible, while calling for further research and surveillance.
3) Ethical concern of the “slippery slope”: because it appears to provide costless benefits, so companies and governments may rush into production one or more products of the new technologies that will turn out to be harmful, either to the environment or to humans directly.
The manufacturers and scientists tell us that there are no traces of these GMO microorganisms in the final product, and no microbial DNA is detectable.
Additives (such as enzymes) that are produced with the help of genetically modified microorganisms do not require labeling because GMOs are not directly associated with the final product. In the textile industry, they are known as auxiliaries or processing aids.
In textiles, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) has stated that the use of genetically modified organisms – including their enzymes – is incompatible with the production of textiles labelled as ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic’ under GOTS. According to the GOTS website: “While the IWG Technical Committee acknowledges that there are applications including, and based on GM technologies, that result in a reduction of energy and water use and replace chemicals compared to some conventional textile processes this is only one side of the coin.” They go on to say that it is important to give consumers a choice to actively decide for themselves if they want to purchase a textile product made without using any GMO derived inputs.
As a company which is trying to do the right thing, I don’t know where I stand on this issue. What do you think?
 Pistorius, Robin, “Novo Nordisk’s Environmental Accountability”, Biotechnoloty and Development Monitor, December 1997