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Cover Letter:

09 October 2018


Dear Friends and Colleagues

Genetically Engineered Clothes Threaten Farmers’ Livelihoods and Ecosystems

Synthetic biologists are using machine-made DNA to engineer microbial cells that can produce novel substances – including biomaterials that can be spun into fibres. Fledgling synthetic biology companies in the US, Japan and Germany are engineering microbes (e.g. yeast and bacteria) to secrete proteins that mimic the qualities of spider silk or other natural fibres. Most recently, Patagonia Inc. has teamed up with Bolt Threads Inc. in the US to help propel genetically engineered clothes to market.

A new report cautions that any commercial-scale expansion of biotech textiles could undermine farmers worldwide, create a new source of biotech waste, put additional pressure on ecosystems, and divert support away from truly sustainable natural fibre economies. Fibres of plant and animal origin not only contribute to food security, livelihoods and poverty alleviation, they are sustainable, biodegradable resources.

Despite being self-styled as a ‘green’ option, biosynthetic fibres depend on industrial feedstocks like sugar, which is linked to deforestation and diminishing labor conditions. The livelihoods of some 58 million rural households in the Global South depend on farming natural fibres for textiles. The biotech textiles sector could harm labor-friendly and sustainable supply chains for natural fabrics that rehabilitate natural ecosystems. The cost of genetically engineered “spider silk” and other false synthetic biology products in the apparel industry is expected to be borne by the poor farmers and artisans – mainly women – in India, Thailand, and China.

The report calls attention to the potential for new forms of biowaste created by the microorganisms engineered to produce the new materials. So-called “B-waste,” the byproduct of organisms that have never been released into the environment, may be difficult to dispose of safely and creates risks of new microorganisms spreading through the water and air.

Civil society groups are calling for socially-just and truly sustainable natural sources of fibre grown by regenerative and organic farmers. The report makes 4 recommendations: (1) The evaluation of novel fibre technologies must include a system-wide lifecycle approach that considers all phases of fibre production, consumption and disposal including a full assessment of the social, environmental economic and ethical impacts of new fibre technologies; (2) Apparel/fashion companies that use or support the development of bioengineered fibres and materials must be fully transparent, including labels indicating GE fibre content directly on the clothing; (3) Consumers should reduce their consumption of clothing, improve reuse practices, and replace synthetic, plastic-based fibre clothing with natural fibres; and (4) Support place-based fibresheds which foster economic development through livelihood creation, and support and create farming systems grounded in ecological agriculture.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
10400 Penang
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