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12 April 2016

Algae oil on trial

Conflicting views of technology and nature
This report describes the debate initiated by civil society organisations who have criticised the use of oil from genetically engineered algae as a basic ingredient in consumer cleaning products. It is the result of a study undertaken in the context of a Rathenau project focussing on the role of industrial biotechnology and synthetic biology in the emerging bio-based economy.





In this report we have identified salient issues emerging from controversy over the use of engineered algae, including the question of whether decentralised production is preferable to centralised production, the effect of market dynamics on vulnerable small-scale farmers, the nature and management of the risks posed by engineering organisms, the future prospects for more sustainable innovations, and the role of LCAs and other assessment schemes.

We have also highlighted three worldviews which are especially relevant to this controversy: “nature as resource/market forces logic”, “vulnerable nature/civil society logic” and “nature controlled/global governance logic”. These worldviews can be positioned at the ends of two axes: individualism vs. collectivism and global vs. local. A third defining element is the perspective on nature as either a robust resource that can be freely exploited with technological means, a resource that can be controlled but not without risks as an issue of concern, or a fragile resource that first of all needs to be protected.

The different positions of individual actors in this debate, can be understood as being structured by particular worldviews. These worldviews provide for a better understanding of diverging perspectives by pointing to a wider body of concerns and background beliefs that inform the particular positions of the relevant actors. As such, these worldviews can provide valuable input to an agenda for public debate.

One important issue to be discussed in such a debate is how the sustainability of existing biomass chains might be evaluated. In debating this issue, it is important not to define the meaning of sustainability in advance, but instead to enable a meaningful dialogue in which different interpretations can be articulated. This deliberation might start with an examination of “formal” assessments like LCAs, followed by an exploration of how these assessments relate to broader, more “informal” ways of evaluating sustainability, and an articulation of the values and frames which inform these differing views of sustainability. An important question in this context is how formal and informal assessments might be linked to each other.

In such a debate, we might also evaluate a range of possible industrial biotechnology biomass chains, in order to generate more comprehensive visions of a future bio-economy. Taking this “big picture” approach, we can also focus the discussion more specifically on particular product development cases, and on the role of technology, i.e. synthetic biology. Again, we might start with formally established road-mapping exercises to examine whether the technical and commercial opportunities envisaged can be seen as viable steps towards a more sustainable future, and to identify alternative, more desirable, innovation trajectories, and the values and worldviews which they embody. On the basis of such a dialogue, we would hope to identify important conditions and challenges for a collective process of learning about sustainable futures for industrial biotechnology.


Preferred citation:
Asveld L. & D. Stemerding (2016) Algae oil on trial. Conflicting views of technology and nature, Den Haag, Rathenau Instituut. 


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