Anglo American, the tenth largest company on the FTSE100, announced a major medical breakthrough and a new strategy at its investors’ briefing in London yesterday. A new cure for malaria was first on the agenda, as the Anglo Research Division confirmed its organic plant derivative had proved successful in clinical trials.
The Anglo subsidiary Mondi Ventures becomes one of the first major resource conglo-merates to diversify into BioPharming, turning some of its land previously reserved for forests into bio-factories, by planting modified trees, sugar-cane, bananas and corn.
“We had a choice – continue to grow forests for the raw material of paper production, or use the land and its biological potential to grow higher-value products, such as plastics, packaging, food, drugs and vaccines,” said an Anglo spokesperson. “When you look around you and see forests and fields, we see biological factories that could produce almost anything in the future. Our banana plantations in Africa are delivering a cure for one of the world’s most prevalent diseases, whilst in Russia and Asia we are growing the raw materials to produce bio-plastics.”
Anglo also announced that Mondi’s automotive industry clients plan to make more than 30% of their components from organic materials within the next year.
To look at a forest and see a factory would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. The advances announced by Anglo show how the world can benefit from the responsible genetic manipulation of plants, to create products for the future. Mondi Ventures’ new advertising campaign stresses the ‘natural’ way – ‘Spend a weekend in our factory!’ The movie shows a family barbecue in a lush, green Asian forest.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
1998: Clinical trials with ‘grown vaccines’
Transgenic plants are developed that hold the potential of producing important medicines and vaccines. A human gene has been added to corn, causing it to secrete human antibodies designed to stick to and kill tumour cells. In the fall of 1997, these antibodies entered clinical trials on cancer patients.
Genetically-altered soybeans are developed, which produce human antibodies against herpes simplex virus II. The hope is to produce an anti-herpes drug that can be added to contraceptives.
1999: Third World GM crop boom
GM crops, such as cotton and maize, help tens of thousands of Third World farmers produce greater yields, in marginally suitable areas. These produce less pesticide residues, resulting in cleaner, safer local water supplies. The benefits are improved health and faster economic development.
2000: New recycling laws
In April, Japan passes new laws which add the costs of recycling plastics to the base price. It gives a massive competitive advantage to recyclable products.
2001: Cargill Dow builds corn plastics plant
Commodities giants, Cargill Inc and Dow Chemical Co, build the world’s first large-scale facility for manufacturing plastics from corn, through JV Cargill Dow Polymers. The plant is expected to consume 14 million bushels of corn per year. The process produces pellets of polymer resin, ‘polylactide’ (PLA), by fermenting the sugar in corn syrup into lactic acid, then turning it into spin fibers. The PLA is sold under the name ‘NatureWorks PLA’. It is used to manufacture a wide range of bio-degradable consumer goods from food packaging and furnishings, to cups, automotive components, textiles and bedding, mattresses, pillows and rugs.
Since the base material of bio-plastic is a plant, (which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air as it grows), the production process contributes to the prevention of global warming – unlike conventional petroleum-based plastics. Bio-plastics can be produced with bio-degradable properties that allow them to be broken down into water and carbon dioxide by micro-organisms in the ground, thus helping to solve waste disposal problems. As such, bio-plastics can make a significant contribution to reducing environmental impact.
2002: GM trees to reduce lignin
The first trees are modified to reduce their lignin content by up to 50%. Lignin is a component of plant cell walls and is one of the major waste products in pulp and paper mills. It typically needs to be extracted using extremely toxic chemicals. The lignin-reduced GM trees will lower the cost of paper production, by reducing the amount of chemicals used, and make the process more environmentally-friendly. The plan is to turn the remaining 50% lignin into a bio-degradable plastic within the next few years.
2003: Toyota and Cargill Dow embrace bio-plastics
In May, Toyota launches the Raum passenger vehicle using bio-plastic components to improve durability, heat resistance and environmental impact. Toyota announces construction of a new plant to produce bio-plastics made from renewable resources, such as sugar-cane. The facility is designed to produce 1,000 tons of bio-plastics a year. Toyota also announces that it plans to adapt the technology to a wide range of plastic products that pervade peoples’ daily lives outside the automotive field.
Cargill Dow launches a bio-plastic container – the latest technological development in the ‘green’ packaging revolution. The new package looks like plastic, but is made from corn, and bio-degrades completely after disposal. Wild Oats Inc is the first grocery chain in the United States to introduce the packaging. Its ranges of salads, desserts and deli products receive an extremely positive response in Japan and Europe.
2004: Banana genome sequenced
Bananas and plantain are the world’s most-eaten fruit and the staple starch source in the diet for millions of people in the developing world. They are also one of the most highly-sprayed crops.
2005: Edible vaccines produced in transgenic plants
British scientists develop a banana with a malaria vaccine built into its genetic structure. The bananas are engineered to be pink instead of yellow, to differentiate the vaccine product from the pure fruit.
A team of researchers at the University of California develops a transgenic potato plant that carries the vaccine against cholera. The potatoes supply non-toxic cholera toxin B (CTB), a harmless protein that sparks an immune response to the disease. Third World countries, (where more than a million people die each year from such preventable diseases), stand to benefit from this cheap, convenient source of disease prevention, which is estimated to be available commercially within three years.
2006: New health-enhanced crops
Vegetables with higher vitamin E content are expected to help fight heart disease. An improved strain of rice, with enhanced levels of vitamin A and iron, will help battle nutritional deficiencies in many peoples’ diets.
A host of new products from GM plants is announced: bio-inks used in newspapers, new fuels and lubricants, cosmetics, animal feeds, foodstuffs, dyes and adhesives.
Mondi Ventures establishes its first major ‘Factory Plantations’ in Russia, Africa and South-East Asia.
2007: Commercial ‘BioPharming’ emerges>
Despite controversy over possible safety issues, the combination of farming, bio-technology and pharmaceuticals appears to produce better health, a cleaner, safer environment and vastly increased production.
The use of transgenic plants to produce drugs proves cheaper than obtaining them through traditional means. A transgenic tobacco plant, for example, is developed which manufactures the enzyme, glucocerebrosidase in its leaves. Obtaining this enzyme by conventional methods is very expensive. People who suffer from Gaucher’s disease, (and who cannot make this crucial enzyme in their bodies), currently pay up to US$160,000 per year to obtain it. Another example is an anti-clotting agent used in coronary-bypass operations: using transgenic plants this can be produced at US$1-2 per gram, compared with around US$150 by bio-reactor production. Besides turning out drugs cheaply, these technologies are easy and inexpensive to scale up.
Allergies become a major target for BioPharming. Lactose and wheat intolerance could become a thing of the past, if allergens in milk and wheat products are eliminated or greatly reduced.
A new cure for certain types of cancer is announced: Taxol, a secondary plant product derived from the bark and needles of genetically-modified Pacific Yew trees.
A joint venture between Mondi Ventures and Canada’s Nexia Biotechnologies Inc, instals the first herds of goats underneath the forest canopies to produce BioSteel®. This product is based on recombinant spider silk proteins and is produced in the milk of transgenic goats. Spider silk has long been admired by material scientists for its unique combination of high-performance properties including toughness, strength, lightness and flexibility.
Anglo American encourages small farmers to engage in BioSteel® production, by using the company’s land and regional milk processing facilities in return for a small share of any profits made.
2008: Strategic repositioning for Anglo
Anglo American, through its subsidiary, Mondi Ventures, becomes one of the first major resource conglomerates to diversify into BioPharming, turning some of its forests into bio-factories powered by trees, sugar-cane and corn. Faced with the choice of continuing to grow forest for the raw material for paper production alone, Mondi chooses to release the biological potential. These new ‘biological factories’ will be able to produce almost anything in the future. Mondi’s marketing campaign stresses the ‘natural’ way.
2009: The next big boom
McKinsey estimates that within five years, BioPharming will produce one fifth of the world’s food, drug and chemical output by value, with an estimated annual value of US$500 billion.