History of Biotechnology - Single-cell Protein and Gasohol Projects

Single-cell Protein and Gasohol Projects

Even greater expectations of biotechnology were raised during the 1960s by a process that grew single-cell protein. When the so-called protein gap threatened world hunger, producing food locally by growing it from waste seemed to offer a solution. It was the possibilities of growing microorganisms on oil that captured the imagination of scientists, policy makers, and commerce. Major companies such as British Petroleum (BP) staked their futures on it. In 1962, BP built a pilot plant at Cap de Lavera in Southern France to publicize its product, Toprina. Initial research work at Lavera was done by Alfred Champagnat, In 1963, construction started on BP's second pilot plant at Grangemouth Oil Refinery in Britain.

As there was no well-accepted term to describe the new foods, in 1966 the term "single-cell protein" (SCP) was coined at MIT to provide an acceptable and exciting new title, avoiding the unpleasant connotations of microbial or bacterial.

The "food from oil" idea became quite popular by the 1970s, when facilities for growing yeast fed by n-paraffins were built in a number of countries. The Soviets were particularly enthusiastic, opening large "BVK" (belkovo-vitaminny kontsentrat, i.e., "protein-vitamin concentrate") plants next to their oil refineries in Kstovo (1973) and Kirishi (1974).

By the late 1970s, however, the cultural climate had completely changed, as the growth in SCP interest had taken place against a shifting economic and cultural scene (136). First, the price of oil rose catastrophically in 1974, so that its cost per barrel was five times greater than it had been two years earlier. Second, despite continuing hunger around the world, anticipated demand also began to shift from humans to animals. The program had begun with the vision of growing food for Third World people, yet the product was instead launched as an animal food for the developed world. The rapidly rising demand for animal feed made that market appear economically more attractive. The ultimate downfall of the SCP project, however, came from public resistance.

This was particularly vocal in Japan, where production came closest to fruition. For all their enthusiasm for innovation and traditional interest in microbiologically produced foods, the Japanese were the first to ban the production of single-cell proteins. The Japanese ultimately were unable to separate the idea of their new "natural" foods from the far from natural connotation of oil. These arguments were made against a background of suspicion of heavy industry in which anxiety over minute traces of petroleum was expressed. Thus, public resistance to an unnatural product led to the end of the SCP project as an attempt to solve world hunger.

Also, in 1989 in the USSR, the public environmental concerns made the government decide to close down (or convert to different technilogies) all 8 paraffin-fed-yeast plants that the Soviet Ministry of Microbiological Industry had by that time.

In the late 1970s, biotechnology offered another possible solution to a societal crisis. The escalation in the price of oil in 1974 increased the cost of the Western world's energy tenfold. In response, the U.S. government promoted the production of gasohol, gasoline with 10 percent alcohol added, as an answer to the energy crisis. In 1979, when the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan, the Carter administration cut off its supplies to agricultural produce in retaliation, creating a surplus of agriculture in the U.S. As a result, fermenting the agricultural surpluses to synthesize fuel seemed to be an economical solution to the shortage of oil threatened by the Iran-Iraq war. Before the new direction could be taken, however, the political wind changed again: the Reagan administration came to power in January 1981 and, with the declining oil prices of the 1980s, ended support for the gasohol industry before it was born.

Biotechnology seemed to be the solution for major social problems, including world hunger and energy crises. In the 1960s, radical measures would be needed to meet world starvation, and biotechnology seemed to provide an answer. However, the solutions proved to be too expensive and socially unacceptable, and solving world hunger through SCP food was dismissed. In the 1970s, the food crisis was succeeded by the energy crisis, and here too, biotechnology seemed to provide an answer. But once again, costs proved prohibitive as oil prices slumped in the 1980s. Thus, in practice, the implications of biotechnology were not fully realized in these situations. But this would soon change with the rise of genetic engineering.

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