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Enzymes A Potential Planet-Saver, But Heavy Patenting Necessary

8 April 2009 839 views No Comment

A dominant global producer of enzymes is arguing that enzymes in biotechnology can make a significant contribution to global environment improvement, but this effort comes with heavy patenting by the company.

A representative of Danish biotechnology company Novozymes recently spoke on industrial uses of enzymes. Novozymes holds 47 percent of the global market share and are developing enzymes and microorganisms for a number of different applications such as detergents, starch, fuel ethanol, textile, food and animal feed.

The presentation came at a 31 March event in Geneva sponsored by the Biotechnology Industry Organization and law firm Sidley Austin.

Enzymes are used “all over the world on a daily basis as we do our laundry at home,” said Nickie Inger-Spile, vice president for Europe at Novozymes. In the 1960s in Copenhagen, some of the biggest hospitals turned to Novozymes to help find a solution to eliminate blood stains on linen as the cleaning was consuming a lot of detergent and energy, she said. The company then produced a protein-degrading enzyme, able to degrade the protein in blood, allowing much lower temperatures and less detergent, she said. This was Novozymes’ first enzyme.

Enzymes also can remove the need for phosphate in animal feed, and replace artificial colouring, flavours and preservatives. They are found, for example, in cheese, beer and wine, which could not be manufactured without them.

Enzyme technology is a green technology, Inger-Spile claimed, and contributes to saving resources and reducing water pollution, she said.

Novozymes has produced studies claiming that biotechnology in this field could save a lot of energy. “If you want to claim that this is the most environmentally friendly solution, then you have to do your homework,” she said. The company claims their technology helps save the world emission of carbon dioxide by 28 million tons per year (the equivalent of the emissions of five million cars).

On 25 March, Novozymes started an initiative with global conservation organisation the World Wildlife Fund, which will map how and where low carbon biosolutions can eliminate the first strategic billion tons of carbon dioxide. According to the WWF website, the biotechnology industry is part of the climate solution. Enzymes, for example, act in favour of energy saving when applied to the production of paper, washing powder and bioethanol, they said.

Inger-Spile, however, dismissed criticism by human rights defenders who linked the bioethanol to higher prices of tortilla in Mexico and to rising American corn prices. Production of bioethanol increased domestic demand for corn, they said, and Mexico is dependent on corn imports from the US. She said Novozymes has been challenged by that discussion because “we want to find out what is right and what is wrong.”

“We believe that the way it is done there [in the US Midwest], it is sustainable as only two percent of arable land is used for bioethanol production” and the yield increase by industry paid for itself, she said.

The second generation of biofuel is being researched at the moment, she said, claiming that Novozymes would have a new technology next year. “You will be able to use straw to produce t-shirts,” she said. This technology will allow the use of waste to make fuel, and feedstock containing cellulosic biomass such as stalks, leaves, wood chips and husks of corn could be used. Municipal waste and energy crops such as switch grass could also be used. The technology should allow less fertilizer and several harvests a year.

Aggressive patent policy

With about 5,000 patents and 30 patent officers working on patenting discoveries and following-up their competitors’ patents, Novozymes has a defensive and offensive patent policy, said Inger-Spile. “We are a little aggressive in our patent policy and we patent a lot of what we do,” she said.

Novozymes had some challenges with China, but Inger-Spile said the situation has improved over the last five years because the Chinese authorities have been much more serious about enforcing regulations.

Although enzymes are in everyday life products, consumers are unaware of their use in what they buy as enzymes do not appear in ingredients list on food packaging. They are categorised as processing aids, Inger-Spile later told Intellectual Property Watch.

This is confirmed and clarified by the recently published package of EU regulations on food additives, food enzymes and food flavourings said Youri Skaskevitch from the Association of Manufacturers and Formulators of Enzyme Products, in a later interview. “It is,” he said, “global practice not to require labelling of processing aids on food packaging.”

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