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Cargill/Dow--From Frankencorn
to Frankenfleece

Fabric from Corn: Greenfleece, or Greenwash?

By Tom Price
Special to Corpwatch
April 22, 2002

The dramatic ads feature thought provoking tag lines such as "the seeds
of a revolution are sometimes just that," and "unlike every other
revolutionary product, this one won't change the world." Blanketing the
outdoor equipment trade press over the last several months, the ads hype
the biggest environmental breakthrough in fabrics since the creation of
fleece from recycled plastic soda bottles.

The marketing blitz by Cargill Dow heralded the unveiling of a line of
fabrics called "NatureWorks PLA" (polylactic acid), made entirely from
corn. At first blush it seems like the sort of environmental wonder
technology always promised.

Rather than spinning the fuzzy fabric from oil, NatureWorks uses the
natural sugars in corn, an annually renewable crop. Cargill Dow boasts
its invention is a virtually limitless, 'clean' product, free of the
taint of the pollution and controversy of the oil industry.

Even more miraculous, the technology isn't limited to apparel. Cargill
Dow has plans to further "green" the marketplace with a bewildering
array of corn-based products including carpeting, wall panels,
upholstery, interior furnishings, outdoor fabrics, as well as plastics
like film around CDs and golf ball sleeves. These products are even
environmentally friendly when finished -- PLA can be completely recycled
in commercial compost facilities. All this from an engineering process
that cuts fossil fuel use in half compared to traditional oil-based
technologies. What could environmentalists possibly find wrong with
these wonder products?

Behind the Hype

Missing from all the hype is the fact that the source material for these
products is genetically engineered corn.

Missing from all the hype is the fact that the source material for these
products is genetically engineered corn, designed by one of Cargill
Dow's corporate parents, Cargill Inc., a world leader in genetic
engineering. The obvious implication: by creating massive non-food
markers for genetically engineered (GE) products, Cargill and other
biotech companies expect to do an end run around the global campaign to
stop GE proliferation. They hope that by creating so many products with
such an irresistible green appeal, any voices of concern will be drowned
out by the sheer weight of the marketplace.

Of course, this isn't the story Cargill Dow wants you to hear. They'd
rather you logged on to their relentlessly self congratulatory web site,
which boasts that "Cargill Dow is launching an industrial revolution in
which petroleum based products are replaced with annually renewable ones
in other words, unlimited resources to replace limited ones."

"Reducing our environmental impact while at the same time producing a
superior product is why our company exists," gushes the company website.

In fact, Cargill Dow exists to create new markets for the products of
its parent companies. Cargill Dow is a stand-alone company created by
two of the leaders bioengineering, Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical.
Minnesota-based Cargill is both the world's largest privately held
company and the planet's largest producer of corn. In fact, it already
controls about 60% of the corn market in India, despite higher prices
for their GE corn seed. A study by the Dutch banking conglomerate,
Rabobank, estimates the global market for hybridized and genetically
engineered crops at $30 billion and anticipates that it will to $90
billion.

Cargill and Dow spun off the new company to take advantage of strategic
strengths each had, namely biotechnology and advanced chemical
processes, and the first outlet for their products was the
environmentally friendly, health-oriented outdoor clothing industry.

Some PR Gaffs

Unfortunately for Cargill Dow, they stumbled twice right out of the gate
in their promotion of PLA as a "green" alternative to oil-based
products. Their first SNAFU was trying to dupe the company they chose to
market their material. Given that the outdoor apparel industry is always
on the lookout for better/greener products, meant Cargill Dow could have
their pick of companies to team up with. They chose Patagonia, based in
Ventura, California.

"It seemed almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was."
-- Jill Zillengen, Patagonia

It seemed a natural fit: Patagonia is well known for a commitment to
environmental sustainability, and as developer of green technologies.
They jumped at the new technology and spent years working with Cargill
Dow on its development. But the relationship eventually soured. As Jill
Zillegen, Patagonia vice president for Environmental Affairs put it, "At
first, we could barely contain our excitement about the promise of PLAit
seemed almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was."

Patagonia bailed out of the project when executives found out that
Cargill Dow couldn't -- or wouldn't -- guarantee a GE-free source of
corn for the new fabrics. Currently about 30% of domestic corn is
Genetically Engineered. But as Dan Dye, vice president of the North
American Grain Group for Cargill Inc., points out keeping them separate
is "neither practical nor economically viable" for the company.

So, despite the obvious production and marketing benefits of using PLA,
Patagonia passed. "We have invested a significant amount of time,
research, and even hope in PLA, explained Zillegen. After many difficult
discussions she says the company decided that "using inadequately
tested, genetically engineered organisms is not a solution to the
environmental crisis."

Unfortunately for Cargill Dow, the clothing company didn't go quietly.
At the Outdoor Retailer trade show where PLA was unveiled, Patagonia
devoted two full pages of their catalogue and put up large billboards
explaining why they weren't using the product.

At the same show, Cargill Dow was forced into an embarrassing about
face, after they were caught implying an endorsement for their products
from eco-group Greenpeace. In the weeks leading up to the unveiling,
Cargill Dow PR executive Vicki Bausman brandished an article in a
Greenpeace, UK magazine by Cargill Dow VP for Technology Dr. Pat
Gruber extolling the virtue of PLA process, hinting that it was an implicit
endorsement by the environmental group. After repeated questioning by
reporters she admitted that Gruber never told Greenpeace, a long-time
opponent of genetically engineered crops, that Cargill Dow intended to
use GE corn as their source material.

Not surprisingly, when Greenpeace activists caught wind of Cargill Dow's
plans, they were furious. "The proliferation of genetic pollution through
these GE crops has the potential to be the greatest environmental
disaster in history, and it is highly disingenuous to claim this is green
when it uses GE corn," said Craig Culp of Greenpeace USA.

A Green Company?

Meanwhile corporate parent Cargill is attempting an image makeover as an
eco-friendly business in the face of growing worldwide opposition to its
genetically engineered products. In February executives unveiled a new
corporate logo featuring a green leaf, and ads displaying a butterfly
with the tag line "there's a new Cargill taking shape, " a move sure to
make GE activists wince, since Monarch butterflies have been among the
signature species impacted by GE pollen. Their TV ads feature young
children standing outside in rain-drenched fields and in front of
green-power windmills.

"Kellogg's has Franken-food, and Cargill Dow is now making
Franken-fleece."
-- Craig Culp, Greenpeace

Most recently, Cargill quietly bankrolled a new "academic organization"
in Thailand aimed at extolling the virtues of GE crops, according to the
Bangkok Post. Activists, like Isabella Meister of Greenpeace, believe
that the biotech giant chose Thailand because it "the only country in
the region that has formulated a clear policy about GMOs, such as a ban
on the import and commercial plantation of GM seeds." While the new
institute's director denies any ties to international biotechnology
companies, her group's website admits it is funded by those same
companies.

Back in the US, Cargill Dow presses ahead with their plans to create not
just the raw material, but the finished product as well as marketplace
for their GE corn. While the potential benefits of this technology to
reduce dependence on non-renewable sources is indeed enormous, it
remains to be seen whether Cargill Dow will follow through on their
promises to create non-GE sources for PLA such as straw. Until they do,
critics of bio-engineered crops see no difference between PLA and the GE
corn Kellogg's uses in its cereal. "Kellogg's has Franken-food, and
Cargill Dow is now making Franken-fleece," explained Craig Culp of
Greenpeace.

Still unanswered is the question of whether enough concern will be
raised about PLA products, before they are so deeply entrenched in the
marketplace that removing them becomes impossible.

Cargill Dow isn't waiting around to find out. On April 2nd, they
announced the opening of a new $750 million factory, the largest
producer of polylactic acid on the planet. Sprawling over sixteen acres
of former cornfields in Blair, Nebraska, the massive facility can
generate more than 300 million pounds of Natureworks PLA per year, using
some 40,000 bushels of Cargill corn every day in the process.

After spending eight years working as a conservationist on Capitol Hill,
Tom Price returned to his home town of Salt Lake City. He now works as a
freelance journalist covering environment, culture and travel.


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