Earth Grab: Geopiracy, the New Biomassters, and Capturing Climate Genes

by Diana Bronson, Hope Shand, Jim Thomas, Kathy Jo Wetter

January 11, 2012

Human induced climate change is rapidly becoming an environmental crisis unprecedented in scope. As the crisis takes hold, with examples such as increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather patterns, unrestrained deforestation, the disappearance of arctic ice, rising global temperatures and the thinning ozone layer becoming more and more obvious, solutions for how best to address the critical situation are taking place worldwide. Approaches that once appeared wildly outlandish are now being taken into serious consideration, and prominent players who previously dismissed the existence of global warming are recognizing it as a potentially catastrophic issue, and one that needs to be solved. A call for technological fixes is currently rising out of the powerful industrial sector, but there is growing concern that many of the companies privately developing the technologies intended to combat the problem are doing so in order to capitalize off the increasingly erratic environment. The seriousness of the situation requires an examination of who is advocating what, as well as the potential side-effects of implementing any and all of the solutions on the table.

Earth Grab, a new three part book written by the ETC Group, discusses the technologies being developed in an effort to combat the effects of climate change. The book is divided into three sections: the first section, titled “Geopiracy”, discusses the push for re-engineering the earth’s environment; the second, “The New Biomassters”, describes the key figures positioning for control of a burgeoning new economy, the bio-economy; and the final section, “Capturing Climate Genes”, details how private companies are looking to patent the genomes of climate-resistant plants. Overall, the book provides detailed descriptions of what the technologies are intended to do, the key players pushing them forward, and the potential effects geoengineering could have on our future. As the environmental activist Vandana Shiva wrote in the foreword, “These three groundbreaking reports pull back the curtain on disturbing technological and corporate trends that are already reshaping our world and that will become crucial battlegrounds for civil society in the years ahead.” Indeed, the topics presented in this book are of utmost importance.

Geopiracy

The first part of the book specifies the arguments for and against depending on geoengineering technologies to counteract the effects of climate change. Geoengineering is defined as “the intentional, large-scale intervention” in earth’s environment. In other words, it is the science of changing the environment of the entire planet, redesigning it in order to better suit man’s needs. A number of theoretical proposals on how best to accomplish this, including managing solar radiation, weather modification and carbon dioxide removal, are currently being discussed within political and technocratic circles as viable options for combating climate change.

There is no question that reengineering the earth is possible, as human activity (both planned and unplanned) has previously altered the environment on a global scale. But is it the best solution? There are a number of issues associated with geoengineering that need to be taken into serious consideration. Problems include the lack of any possible way to accurately test geoengineering technologies without implementing them, the fact that the technologies will likely be privately held by companies looking to profit off of their use, and using geoengineering to justify the continuation of harmful industrial excesses. Without first addressing these issues, it seems extremely foolhardy to expect geoengineering to be a fix-all solution.

There is no way to realistically test geoengineering technologies ahead of time. For there to be adequate field tests, sizeable real-world experiments would need to be conducted, forcing the technologies to be deployed on a massive scale and effectively making them global in scope. While computer models can make predictions within a certain tolerance, there is no way to know what factors that might originally be seen as insignificant can have significant side-effects. This uncertainty plus the lack of any possible field tests means that once deployed, the impact of said technologies could be swift, catastrophic, and most importantly, irreversible. For instance, what would be the response if a plan to cool the earth by a single degree led to widespread temperature declines that decimated food stocks? Even advocates admit that there are many unknown consequences that could conceivably be triggered through geoengineering, making any plan inherently dangerous.

With the climate crisis now beginning, countries are finding themselves forced to choose between adopting socially responsible policies and betting on new technologies that could potentially allow industry to continue polluting the environment. Powerful OECD governments and transnational corporations like Monsanto, BP and DuPont appear to be giving more credence to the latter. Whereas targeting drastic carbon emissions reductions is a realizable, tangible approach that has very little (if any) negative side-effects, countries like the United States are diverting funds away from social responsible and environmentally conscious policies towards ineffective approaches like carbon trading. In these ways the industrial powerhouses are able to maintain the excesses that have brought us to this ecological turning point.

If geoengineering is an emergency back-up plan, the question of climate-profiteering needs to be addressed. Only a handful of corporations own the patents for geoengineering technologies, and private control effectively restricts the diffusion of information in a way that is counterproductive to an emergency scenario. But whereas protecting intellectual property slows down the process of development, patenting geoengineering technology would be extremely profitable for the firms who control them.

Companies who utilize technologies that have accelerated the environmental crisis are the same ones looking to profit from it in the future. There is no reason to assume that these companies will have the interest of all people in mind. The consequences would almost certainly not be the same for all people and nations, raising a number of political and ethical questions. A one-sided relationship exists between those who can implement geoengineering technologies and those who will be affected, and at the moment, geoengineering lacks any real governance. Since the effects will undoubtedly be global, it is imperative for a multinational discussion on the possible consequences. The ETC Group stresses the need for banning unilateral attempts at manipulating the ecosystem.

The New Biomassters

The second section of the book describes the how major figures are positioning themselves for a new biologically-based economy, the “bioeconomy.” While the long-term use of fossil fuels becomes increasingly unsustainable, the search for a “green” carbon-neutral replacement has become a race. Biomass, or living material (plants, animals, bacteria, etc.) reduced to its base cellulose and carbon, has been targeted as a possible substitute. Biomass is found in abundance, and can be transformed into biofuels through multiple techniques, including combustion, chemistry, genetic engineering and nanotechnology. In other words, using biomass for fuel production helps break a dependency on fossil fuels, thereby making biofuels the new industry standard. The recent scramble to claim biomass worldwide makes it clear that the material is expected to be a critical part of the developing bioeconomy. More than a shift of resources, the rush is a resource grab by those aiming to be the energy masters of the future.

At the moment, more than three-quarters of the world’s biomass remains untouched by man, but this figure is poised to rapidly decline in the coming years. Previously out of reach areas like grasslands, deserts and wetlands are being targeted for future biomass cultivation. Meanwhile, plans for replacing natural forests with monoculture tree plantations are coming closer to reality. Agricultural zones, which have already been designed for harvesting, storing and transporting goods to market, have begun to be converted into biomass production sites. Crops are expected to be diverted away from being used as a food source towards biomass-powered agrofuel in the future, effectively adding pressure to an already overextended food market.

The diversion of food crops is a significant issue. As the world’s population continues to grow, restrictions on the growth and distribution of the food supply would have increasingly negative impacts on those who are unable to acquire basis sustenance. Environmental factors like droughts and pollution will be more catastrophic, as an already stressed food supply is far less flexible and capable of absorbing such hits. In short order, strategically redirecting food crops towards biofuel production is done at the expense of the world’s poor. It is not difficult to realize how an incredibly large number of human deaths could result from such a scenario.

It is of little surprise that while the companies looking to appropriate unclaimed biomass are from the Northern hemisphere, the vast majority of living material lies in the South. If the rush to appropriate the material is successful, then the removal of Southern biomass to allow Northern industries to operate cheaply can be accurately described as a form of imperialism that further intensifies poverty and hunger. Marginal lands not currently utilized for mass industrial production are often inhabited by people who depend upon the biodiversity for survival, making outside attempts to uniform agriculture particularly threatening for them. It seems inevitable that biomass production will be controlled by foreign investors at the expense of local communities, replacing small time peasant farmers with large scale agricultural firms. The land grab for biofuels represents a corporate grab on Southern land and resources.

Whereas it is possible to re-grow plant matter, the conception of all living material as renewable is problematic. While it is plausible for devastated forests to be regrown, the length of time it takes for trees to fully mature makes deforestation a long-term problem with serious consequences. For example, expansion of sugar cane and soya plantations in the Amazon Basin is causing deforestation to such an extent that a region-wide death of trees appears imminent. This will undoubtedly affect weather patterns throughout and beyond the continent. It is also important to weigh the economic value of harvesting plants against the vital ecological value of living plants. Practices associated with biomass extraction can easily destroy entire ecosystems, and there is no assurance that they can be successfully redeveloped through human coaxing.

Most of the uncritical support of biomass cultivation assumes that experimental technologies will not only solve the problems of climate change and food demand, but will actually let us advance our consumption of natural resources. Using plant-based biological material to replace petrol fuels is a technological fix that fails to address the policies causing climate change to begin with. With all things taken into consideration, the need for strict global governance limiting the use of large-scale biomass technologies becomes clear.

Capturing Climate Genes

The third report details how a few large corporations are licensing and monopolizing the genetic sequences of “climate-ready” crops. ETC Group reports that just six so-called “gene giants” (DuPont, BASF, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and Monsanto) hold the patents for approximately two-thirds of all such crops. These companies are pumping billions of dollars into identifying and engineering genomes that allow plants to cope with environmental stresses. As weather patterns become more extreme and unpredictable, these companies are pushing genetically modified plants as a solution to the problems associated with climate change. They are banking on a world where such crops will be considered essential, and hope to expand a large-scale industrial model of agriculture based around their reprogrammed organisms.

The rush to develop more resilient genetically engineered crops for harsher climates presents a double edged sword. On one hand, they will allow crops to be grown in places that have otherwise been unavailable for agriculture, which will help combat food shortages. On the other hand, monopolizing genomes leads to a concentrated control of industrial agriculture by a few private entities, resulting in rising costs for small time farmers and a decline in overall plant diversity.

Centralized manipulation of the agro-industrial food system inherently allows a small minority to dictate the conditions of food production for the vast majority of the world. By patenting chemical DNA sequences rather than the particular genomes of individual crops, the gene giants are able to license traits found in a number of different plants. Such patents give corporations broader rights that are often extended to harvested material and feed products. In other words, the move to patent climate-proof genes is an attempt to control both the world’s food stocks and future bioeconomy.

Unsurprisingly, these biotech companies have been met with a certain amount of resistance. Corporate attempts to monopolize molecular level patents have been met with legal restrictions on the number of DNA sequences that can be claimed in a patent application have kept the genomes of most of our staple crops in the public domain. Although such rulings are a blow to the gene giants, they haven’t slowed down the corporate blitz for genetic patents. The companies are currently courting government agencies in an attempt to gain political favor, and the push for so-called “green” technologies is partially done to placate a public growing weary of what is perceived to be corporate negligence in regards to climate change. These biotech companies are working with philanthropic groups under the guise of advancing third-world agricultural techniques, while in reality the gene giants are looking to create ‘enabling environments’ that will help bring genetically engineered crops and their related technologies to market.

If the gene giants are allowed to continue conducting business along the same lines as they have previously, there is no reason to assume they will try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without financial incentive. Dumping much needed capital into proprietary research on genetically engineered crops effectively diverts it from more controllable approaches in dealing with climate change. The ETC Group recommends focusing on more decentralized approaches to dealing with climate change, including targeting carbon emissions reductions and farmer-led agricultural strategies. Small farming communities, with their hands on approach to local conditions, have a diverse knowledge that is worth exploring, and it seems reasonable to keep them involved in setting priorities and strategies for climate adaptation. The ETC group maintains the need to suspend all patents on genes and traits, to recognize and invigorate farmer-based breeding, and to provide access to seeds and germplasm.

The collective information presented in “Earth Grab” suggests that venture capital investment in the new bioeconomy merely represents capitalist opportunism. It is a movement based on the calculated interest of the corporate bottom line. They are not replacing the petroleum economy but rather retrofitting it for a new biological source of carbon. The same corporations that created and control a dependence on the petroleum economies in the last century plan on maintaining their position in the future. Scientists predict that the poor living in the global South will be most negatively impacted by climate change, and it is clear that corporate private interests are being given greater weight than the interests of the rest of humanity. Relying on technological fixes to solve the world’s problems is an unsound proposal, especially when the system developing the tools is controlled by a handful of private corporations, whose ultimate goal lies in the realization of profit.

Michael Abouzelof earned his M.S. in Economics from the University of Utah. He currently works as a freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. “Earth Grab” is available in both paperback and as a downloadable pdf file from Pambazuka Press (http://fahamubooks.org/book/?GCOI=90638100969040 ). The individual reports are reviewable without charge on the ETC Group’s website, http://www.etcgroup.org/.

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