Adopting biobased materials in home building can slash construction costs, but is Europe ready to put aside its fears about GM products?
One of the main contributors of CO2 emissions are the homes we live in. In the EU, buildings are responsible for 36% of CO2emissions and 40% of energy consumption.
Researchers argue that, compared with using traditional mineral-based materials in construction, “eco-friendly” durable composites can slash by half the embodied energy and improve insulation by 20%. This means better efficiency but also reduced building costs. The hitch, though, is what biobased materials to use. And is it advisable to avoid GM products?
GMOs, genetically modified organisms, are among one of the most controversial topics in agriculture. Experts have divergent views. “The current EU GM regulation is very much outdated and dysfunctional. Plant science has in the last 15 years made enormous progress,” says Stefan Jansson, professor in the Department of Plant Physiology at Umea University, Sweden. “Gene transfer from GM crops to wild relatives is no more or no less risky that gene transfer from all other (domesticated) crops to wild relatives, which no-one ever cared about.”
It is important to ask why we are shying away from GMO products, argues Jonathan Jones, a professor at The Sainsbury Laboratory, UK, working on a project to test modified potatoes and their resistance to blight. “The GM method is totally benign and totally safe and it enables you to move genes that do different things from one plant to another,” he says.
However, some groups pioneering the use of natural products in construction have opted to avoid GM materials.
It is the case of the European project ISOBIO, which is developing innovative solutions to boost the use of bio-based materials in construction. They do not use agricultural waste from GMO plants.
Moreover, the companies that joined the consortium source local products, which will be easier to recycle being part of their landscape. Manfred Lemke, from Claytec, a Germany-based developer and producer of clay, points out that they take their straw from the fields around the factory. “Cavac, another partner in the project, sources hemp from local farmers near its base France, rather than importing materials from overseas. ‘Think global act local’ for supply chains, it avoids contamination and further risks of anonymous, global supply chains,” he adds.
“Recycling agricultural waste sounds like a positive aim. If GM crops were involved, then the potential harms would need to be thoroughly, and independently, examined,” argues Liz O’Neill, director of campaign group GM Freeze. “Even the tiniest change to the genome can have unexpected impacts, both within the organism itself and in the ecosystem into which it is introduced, ” she says. According to O’Neill, EU labelling laws help consumers identify products with GM ingredients and avoid them if they wish.
In this context, EU Ecolabel, a voluntary labelling scheme, certifies, among other things that products do not originate from genetically modified organisms.
However we approach the GM issue, looking forward to further research on it, it is certainly important to brand any products containing GMOs to allow consumers to make their own decision.
By Sam Edwards