Monsanto Claims Its
GM Plants Make
Biodegradable Plastic
By Paul Brown and James Meikle
Monsanto makes genetic engineering 'breakthrough' in search for the ultimate disposable and biodegradable substance of the future
It sounds like a classic April fool joke: the prospect of fields of plants growing plastic leaves and seeds to turn into credit cards, nappy liners or compact discs.
And the inventors of this extraordinary new technology are the company that environmentalists love to hate - Monsanto.
The US-based multinational yesterday claimed it could all come true and that their genetically modified plants could produce the ultimate green product for the throwaway society - a plastic that harmlessly rots into the ground.
The drawback is that it currently costs more than the traditional oil-based plastic and it would take at least 10 years to put it on the market.
The potential revolution in plant plastic was revealed in a research paper published by a team of 13 scientists working at Monsanto's laboratories in St Louis, Missouri. They have successfully genetically engineered oil seed rape and cress so that plants produce polymers which can be turned into plastic.
Watching and waiting
The revelation in the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology sparked accusations from critics of genetic modification that Monsanto was trying to generate positive spin for the controversial technology, but the company itself seems to have been caught on the hop. It says the research is currently "on the back burner" and no work is being done while the financial and commercial implications are considered.
The journal says that before plastic was produced from oil, many products were made from plants like cotton and flax which have similar properties but not the same flexibility or durability. The Monsanto scientists made the breakthrough after developing earlier successes of ICI, which 15 years ago used bacteria in a fermentation process to make plastic.
The problem was that it was too expensive - about three times as much per kilo as oil-based plastic. It did have the advantage of rotting on contact with soil but at the time ICI decided the market was "not ready".
The Monsanto scientists hit on the idea of introducing the gene that naturally produced polymers in bacteria into plants to get the plant to produce the raw materialfor plastic in the same way.
Professor Yves Poitier from Lausanne university in Switzerland reviewed their work. "With the growing awareness that petroleum is a finite resource and that the indestructibility of plastics can be, in many cases, more of a nuisance than a benefit, there has been growing interest in producing biodegradable plastics from renewable resources," he said.
Disposable solution
Although the plastic produced from plants was currently too brittle, he regarded the genetically engineered technique as "a breakthrough".
Dr Ken Gruys, leader of the Monsanto team, said: "All this is still at a very early stage. It may be a decade or more to see whether something like this does work out in the end. We can do it but there are many things that have to happen to really reach the levels at which this is meaningful from a commercial standpoint."
He admitted he could not yet picture how the polymers would be extracted but said the process developed by ICI had indicated products plastics for cups and plates, golf tees, bottles, nappies, razor blades and credit cards could be made. "Basically we are talking about disposables that could actually go into the compost and be biodegraded within a year."
Monsanto's UK spokesman, Tony Combes, said the company would be talking to "as many interested parties as possible" but made clear no decisions had been reached on the future of the work.
Next week Robert Shapiro, Monsanto's chief executive, will attend the Greenpeace business conference in London. The company has met increasing resistance to its flagship product, genetically engineered soya, which many supermarkets have refused to stock.
Greenpeace's Blake Lee Harwood said: "If Monsanto had started with plant plastic and GM sugar beet that made you thin, witty and attractive then they would not be in such a difficult position. The fact is their main GM products have no consumer benefits and this looks very like a PR exercise to hoodwink the public in advance of Mr Shapiro's visit."
Greenpeace's own non-GM, PVC plastic credit card with the Cooperative Bank is produced from a Monsanto-owned process that uses sugar syrup, minerals and organic acids.
The by-product that became the century's most versatile material
Plastic is a by-product of oil and natural gas production worth £18bn a year to British industry
Plastic is produced in oil from naphtha, a substance which smells like old-fashioned mothballs and which is put through a "steam cracker" machine to break it down into the basic atoms which form plastic
Natural gas is broken down in the same way to produce ethylene and propylene
In 1909 Bakelite became the first patented plastic. Its potential was not immediately recognised but poured into moulds it could become any shape. In the 1920s it became fashionable and was widely used for clock cases, telephones and radios, toilet cisterns and seats
It was closely followed by Cellophane, first patented in 1910, which revolutionised the food packaging industry. It was followed by polythene in 1933
By the 1960s plastic was a by-word for cheap and second rate but the technology took off and now around 5,000 companies make and use plastics, especially hi-tech industries
Simple, flexible plastics like polyethylene are used for supermarket plastic bags and harder ones like polypropylene for car bumpers.
Complex plastics have added chemicals for hardness, are scratch resistant and can be expensive to use - to make CDs for example
Plastic can be lighter and stronger than steel. Some cars are now 25% plastic and nearly all dashboards and many engine parts are hard engineered plastic.