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New Report: Biotech Fabrics May Threaten Farmer Livelihoods, Ecosystems

Turns out, not everybody is on the biomaterials bandwagon.

Rather than serve as the eco-friendly panacea the fashion industry so desperately craves, bioengineered textiles such as Bolt Threads’ and Spiber’s synthetic “spider silk” and Dupont’s Sorona could disrupt global supply chains and derail natural fiber production, according to a new report by technology watchdog ETC Group and Fibershed, a natural textile collaborative based in California.

Released late Monday, “Genetically Engineered Clothes: Synthetic Biology’s New Spin on Fast Fashion” cautions that any commercial-scale expansion of biosynthetic fabrics, such as those derived from genetically engineered (GE) microorganisms, could exert undue pressures on ecosystems while creating potentially dangerous sources of biotech waste. Worse, by diverting support from so-called “truly sustainable” natural fiber economies, such technologies could also undermine farmers worldwide.

“The livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in the Global South depend on farming natural fibers for textiles—it’s such livelihoods that these Bay Area biotech bros are targeting when they boast they want to ‘disrupt’ apparel,” Neth Daño, the Philippines-based co-executive director of ETC Group, said in a statement. “Many farmers play a key role in protecting regional ecosystems. If their economic lives are disrupted, we’re not just losing a chance to create better fiber systems, but potentially creating land use changes and ripple effects of poverty and ecological crisis that reach far beyond farmers.”

No one yet understands the environmental and health risks these genetically engineered organisms or their biological debris may pose, the report notes. Nor have claims of the long-term degradability of bioengineered fibers, once released into the water or soil, been properly assessed—a critical point in light of mounting microplastic pollution.

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It calls out Patagonia, in particular, for “lending its green credentials” to Bolt Threads despite supporting initiatives that promote the labelling of genetically modified organisms in food and eschewing both GE cotton and polylactic acid (PLA) made from GE corn feedstocks.

“The cost of genetically engineered ‘spider silk’ and other false synthetic biology products in the apparel industry will be borne by the poor farmers and artisans—mainly women—in India, Thailand and China,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute and an expert on development, human rights and agriculture issues. “It is very surprising that a company like Patagonia, renowned for its commitment to sustainability, will opt for a route where the poorest in poor countries bear the punitive costs of its choice.”

ETC Group and Fibershed suggest that the reliance of biosynthetic fibers on industrial, non-food feedstocks such as sugar could also prove problematic, especially when cropland in producer nations is already at a premium.

“Industrial food and industrial fashion have destroyed lives and livelihoods and polluted soils and oceans,” said Vandana Shiva, an Indian food and farm activist who knows how genetic engineering’s promise can rapidly sour. “Over two decades, I have witnessed and studied the crisis for Indian farmers triggered by genetically engineered Bt cotton which was introduced on the promise of pest control and reduction of pesticides, but has created an epidemic of pest attacks, pesticide deaths and farmers suicides.”

Genetically engineered fiber production, the report insists, is risky, unnecessary and guilty of greenwashing compared with plant- and animal-based natural fibers that are renewable, 100 percent biodegradable and support the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and rural communities worldwide.

“We can produce products in a way that not only sustain but also rehabilitate natural ecosystems,” said Ariel Greenwood, a rancher based in Sonoma County, Calif. “Synthetic biology takes market share away from products grown in a natural ecosystem, and that’s a missed opportunity to direct existing demand toward products that actually benefit both land and people.”

Maria Hoff, of Full Circle Wool in Mendocino, Calif., agrees that regional and regenerative textile economies—ones that bolster instead of deplete the environment—are the answer.

“As a sheep rancher who stewards an oak woodland landscape, I can see how our food, fiber, fuel and medicine can be produced with a positive impact on the terrain,” Hoff said. “Agriculture is far from perfect, and we need a lot of investment to make regenerative agriculture the norm—that’s the key to humanity’s success, not new, unregulated synthetic materials.”