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Fashioning New Uses for Crops

Apparel makers are turning to biotechnology for fibers. Some environmentalists are concerned.

July 24, 2006|Paul Elias | The Associated Press

In a sneak peek of what could be fashion's future, leggy models draped in dresses by designers such as Oscar de la Renta and Versace strut their stuff on the runway.

But this is no Paris or New York fashion show. Rather, the scene is a Toronto biotechnology conference and the dresses are made from a new fiber called Ingeo, made largely from genetically engineered corn.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, based in Washington, used the fashion statement this month to burnish its battered image as an environmental scourge.

Biotechnology is quietly playing a growing role in an apparel industry waking up to its customers' concerns about the environment and the country's reliance on foreign oil used to make synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon. But the trend is raising concerns among some environmental purists who oppose genetically engineered crops of any kind.

"Ingeo still supports genetically engineered crops and we really view it as a slippery slope," said Jill Dumain of Ventura-based Patagonia Inc., which pays a premium to use only organic cotton in its clothes.

But other clothiers are developing biodegradable fabrics from natural fibers that come from genetically engineered crops.

Of course, cotton is still by far the most popular natural fiber. But chances are even the T-shirt you're wearing is made at least partly from genetically engineered crops. That's because 52% of cotton grown last year was genetically engineered with a bacteria gene to resist bugs without the need for pesticides, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now, with more apparel manufacturers turning to Ingeo, more clothes on the rack will have gotten their start in a gene lab. Nearly half the nation's corn crops are genetically engineered to withstand sprayings of a popular weed killer.

NatureWorks, a Minnesota-based company that turns corn into Ingeo, said it doesn't separate the genetically engineered crop from the conventionally grown crop that comes into its factory. So there's a good chance that just about every Ingeo product is derived, at least in part, from genetically engineered corn.

"We think there is a tremendous future for it, particularly because the consumer world is starting to wake up and recognize that it makes sense to employ some of these different materials as an alternative to both energy and fabric," said Martin Dudziak, research director for Linda Loudermilk Inc., a designer making Ingeo clothes.

Depending on how it's finally used, the fiber can feel like cotton or polyester.

"It has all of the attributes of polyester," said Steve Davies of NatureWorks, "and is much more environmentally friendly."

Next year, Linda Loudermilk will begin selling five different items, including jeans, made from Ingeo.

Many other clothing companies, such as the sock maker Fox River Mills Inc. of Osage, Iowa, plan to follow suit.

Biotech's largely unseen hand in creating natural fibers has set off a debate among apparel makers who consider themselves environmentally sensitive. Many critics of agricultural biotechnology -- including organic farmers and the Sierra Club -- fear the engineered crops will co-mingle with conventionally grown plants.

Others draw a distinction between genetic engineering in food crops and those used in fashion.

"Would I prefer that the world was nothing but organic agriculture? Yes," said Leslie Hoffmann, director of the nonprofit environmental group Earth Pledge, which hosted the Toronto fashion show and staged a similar event in April at the biotechnology industry's annual convention in Chicago.

"But on the other hand, [genetically engineered crops] have a much higher yield per acre and use less pesticides," Hoffmann said.

There are even plans to develop for the U.S. market corn-based, disposable diapers that biodegrade quickly rather than fill landfills.

An Ingeo diaper is already being sold in Italy and Spain, but making an inexpensive diaper to compete with disposable products in the United States remains a hurdle.

NatureWorks makes the raw materials for Ingeo, fermenting sugar extracted from corn and turning it into plastic-like pellets that are made into the fabric sold to apparel makers such as Linda Loudermilk.

Other uses for NatureWorks' pellets include the produce packaging found in Wal-Mart stores. But the small subsidiary of food and agricultural products company Cargill Inc. sees a big future cracking into the $181-billion apparel industry with its pellets.

NatureWorks declined to discuss Ingeo sales figures.

Because NatureWorks doesn't separate genetically engineered corn from conventionally grown corn, it can't serve companies who demand biotech-free Ingeo. For its European customers, who are notoriously averse to genetically engineered crops, the company promises to buy an amount of organic corn equal to the amount of corn it took to produce their Ingeo orders.

That still isn't enough for some environmental purists.

"They can't separate it," said Dumain, "and that's our problem."

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