Monsanto works on Plastic, Activists Opposed

Monsanto works on Plastic, Activists Opposed

Monsanto works on Plastic, Activists Opposed
Crsitopher Lyddon / Reuters 28sep99

Biotechnology giant Monsanto Co confirmed on Tuesday that its engineers could produce plastic from genetically modified plants, but campaigners remained opposed to any use of the technology in agriculture. Monsanto's UK director of corporate affairs Tony Combes told Reuters that the research had been published to the scientific community, not as a press release. "This is science being published in the way it should be, peer reviewed," he said. "It's a public relations stunt using what is perceived as a beneficial use of GM to repair their damaged image," said Friends of the Earth campaigner Pete Riley.

Monsanto's Combes said the company's scientists had been working on the technology since the early 1990s. "We've been looking at producing plastic without using renewable resources like oil," he said. The process involved inserting four genes into oilseed rape or a type of cress. "The great thing about it is that it is biodegradable," he said. "The problem at the moment is that you don't get enough of the polymer. It's at least a decade away from commercialisation." Meanwhile Monsanto would be working to gain acceptance for the technology. "We're obviously going to use this time to talk about this with as many interested parties as possible."


Monsanto is not the first to look at plastic from agricultural crops.

Australia's A$1 billion a year raw sugar industry is moving to follow Brazilian researchers into a new industry producing biodegradable plastic from sugar cane, a researcher told Reuters in August. Australia's sugar-to-plastics plan is based on technology held by Procter & Gamble Co (PG.N) which uses sugarcane genes to produce a plant which produces the polymer poly(3-hydroxibutirate) (PHB).

Brazilian sugar, through the largest industry co-operative Copersucar, is well advanced in an ambitious non-genetic project to produce PHB slightly differently, using bacteria to convert raw sugar.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Riley remained vehemently opposed to the commercialisation of a genetically modified crop. "There's a huge amount of research needed before anything should be contemplated that involves letting it out into the environment," he said. The long term consequences of genetic modification would not be seen for 10 or 20 years and were highly unpredictable. At least where bacteria were used they could be kept in a sealed vessel. "They're trying to make out that what they're doing is not dangerous, but beneficial to the planet," he said. Riley felt society had to address its use of plastics. Monsanto's work was "a technical fix answer to plastic in the environment." But people should not be throwing so much plastic away in the first place. "If we're worried about plastic we need to deal with the human end." And alternatives, like paper wrapping, should be examined more carefully. "We've already got a natural plastic. It's called cellulose." he said.