Why Biotech is Betting on Biofuels


There is a new participant in the international deliberations on global warming and agrofuels: the biotechnology industry. The corporate giants of the genetics industry propose new technologies, including genetically modified trees, second generation cellulosic ethanol, and synthetic biology, to wean society off fossil fuels and fight climate change.

The implications for Latin America are breathtaking. The biotechnology industry’s massive move into the energy sector brings together major social and ecological issues in the region, such as agrofuel promotion, genetically modified (GM) crops, and the growth of agribusiness monocultures. Latin American civil society’s aspirations of land reform, environmental protection, alternatives to neoliberalism, and food and energy sovereignty, are at stake.
Biotechnology companies have become some of the main movers in promoting the use of farm crops like corn, soy, and sugar cane to make fuel for motor vehicles. Faced with increasing public resistance to human consumption of their GM crops, the biotech industry sees its salvation in the production of GM agrofuels. By portraying GM crops as the answer to climate change and resource depletion caused by fossil fuels, they hope to cast a more favorable light on biotech plants.

They have a lot at stake: Monsanto, for example, obtains 60% of its revenue from the sale of GM seeds. Riding the tide of the biofuels boom, Monsanto and other companies hope to avoid the human health concerns associated with GM food crops and open up a whole new area of profit from the global warming crisis.

Public Sentiment Against GM Crops

GM organisms contain genetic codes (genomes) that have been altered by genetic engineering—an unprecedented procedure that creates genetic combinations not possible in nature. The main GM products in the U.S. market are corn and soy, which have been genetically modified for resistance to herbicides (usually Monsanto’s Roundup) or to pests (known as Bt crops). These crops are used mostly to feed farm animals and to make additives (such as sweeteners and starch) present in most processed foods.

In spite of the upbeat propaganda of the biotechnology companies, broad sectors of society reject GM products, claiming they are neither safe nor necessary. Thousands of protesters from all over the world swamped three United Nations events that took place in southern Brazil almost simultaneously in March 2006: the biennial conferences of the Biodiversity Convention and the Biosafety Protocol, and the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Local Development. Prominent among their demands was a ban on GM crops.

As the meetings and protests took place, activists of the MST, Brazil’s landless people’s movement, seized a farm in the state of Parana where the Syngenta biotechnology corporation had illegally planted GM corn and soy in the buffer zone of the Iguaçu National Park. On Oct. 21, 2007 armed gunmen violently evicted them, wounding many and murdering 34 year-old Valmir “Keno” Mota de Oliveira, father of three. The MST, Vía Campesina, and countless civil society organizations in Brazil have condemned these acts. They demand that Syngenta take responsibility for the killing, that it be held accountable for its environmental violations, close down its experimental plot, and leave the country.

In February 2007, farmers and animal herders, representatives of civil society groups, social movements, and environmentalists from 17 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe met in Mali to discuss food and farming issues. Together they issued the Bamako Declaration, which, among other things, categorically says NO to genetically modified organisms.

The Bamako Declaration was part of the preparatory process for the World Forum for Food Sovereignty, which took place that same week in Mali. Over 500 men and women from more than 80 countries, and representing organizations of peasants/family farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, migrants, pastoralists, forest communities, women, youth, consumers, and environmental and urban movements, drafted the Nyeleni Declaration.

The declaration rejects GM foods: (We fight against) “technologies and practices that undercut our future food-producing capacities, damage the environment, and put our health at risk. These include transgenic crops and animals, terminator technology, industrial aquaculture and destructive fishing practices, the so-called White Revolution of industrial dairy practices, the so-called ‘old’ and ‘new’ Green Revolutions, and the “Green Deserts” of industrial bio-fuel monocultures and other plantations.”

In March 2008, around 300 women of the MST destroyed a nursery of GM corn seedlings belonging to Monsanto in the southern Brazilian state of São Paulo to protest the government’s biosafety council’s approval of plantings of GM corn. In the days that followed, some 1,500 women protested in front of several Syngenta properties in the state of Parana.

The Bio Boom

Agrofuels, also known as biofuels or energy crops, are fuels made from plants and animal fat. Since they are not derived from underground fossil sources like coal or oil, their supporters claim they can help mitigate global warming. Motor vehicle emissions are responsible for 14% of global warming.

There are two types of agrofuels: ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol can be obtained from sugarcane, molasses, sweet sorghum, and grains, such as corn, wheat, and barley. Ethanol can replace gasoline but its use requires specially adapted motors. It can be mixed with gasoline and used in a regular car motor. Biodiesel is derived from the vegetable oils of plants like canola, soy, and oil palm, as well as from animal fat. It can be used in its pure form in a regular diesel engine without the need for any modification. These uses are considered “generation one” of agrofuels. The second generation, still in the research and development stage, consists of cellulosic fuels.

It seems everyone is in favor of agrofuels: the United Nations, American politicians from Al Gore to George W. Bush, the European Union, most South American and African governments, and many environmental groups. The alignment of corporate interests in favor of agrofuels is impressive: grain traders (Cargill, Con Agra), auto makers (Volkswagen, Peugeot, Citroen, Renault, SAAB), biotechnology companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dupont), oil corporations (BP, Shell, Exxon), and celebrity investors like Bill Gates, George Soros, and Richard Branson, all investing billions of dollars in this new line of business.

According to the UN report “Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers” released in 2007, agrofuels are the fastest growing sector in world agriculture. The Financial Times estimates that OECD country subsidies for agrofuels amount to a total of $15 billion dollars a year. The industry expects production to increase from 11 billion gallons in 2006 to 87 billion by 2020, and the market to grow from $20.5 billion in 2006 to $80.9 billion in 2016.

Brazil: The New Colossus

Brazil is attracting more investment in agrofuels than any other country ($9 billion in 2006). Brazil got a head start in the industry and has been running hard ever since. It already runs most of its vehicles on sugarcane ethanol, and now has 62% of the world sugar market, compared to only 7% of the market in 1994. Sugarcane monocultures in Brazil cover 6.9 million hectares, with half of those dedicated to ethanol. By 2025 it expects to add 42 million hectares more.

Its biodiesel potential is also massive: 21% of the country’s farmland (almost 20 million hectares) is planted with soy. “In the next 10-15 years, we will see Brazil become the leading producer of biodiesel,” said Brazilian president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva in 2005. Brazil is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s leading soy exporter by the end of 2008.

Agribusiness giant ADM has chosen Brazil as the hub of its South American biodiesel operations. Its new biodiesel refinery in the southern state of Mato Grosso do Sul is Brazil’s biggest and its clients include state governor Blairo Maggi, who also happens to be one of the world’s largest soy farmers.

“To secure its share in the emerging global industry of clean energy, Brazil has adopted quite an impressive strategy on agrofuels, from combining public and private sector interests,” according to a 2008 joint report by the U.S.-based Oakland Institute and Brazil’s Terra de Direitos. Brazil’s “Agroenergy Plan (2006-2011), (is) the most ambitious public policy on agroenergy in the world.”

Far from being rivals, the United States and Brazil are agrofuel partners. Together they produce 70% of the world’s ethanol and are working in tandem to maintain their supremacy in this sector.
In March 2007 Lula traveled to Camp David to sign a memorandum of understanding on ethanol with U.S. President George W. Bush. The agreement forms a bilateral partnership on research and development, feasibility studies, technical assistance, and greater compatibility of standards and codes with the goal of establishing a world commodity market for agrofuels. A few days later, Bush visited Brazil and several other Latin American countries in what is popularly known as the “ethanol tour.”

“Brazil is paving the way in transforming ethanol into an internationally tradable energy commodity,” says Roberto Abdenur, former Brazilian ambassador in the United States. “An improved bilateral relationship is not only necessary and beneficial for Brazilian interests, but U.S. interests as well. The bilateral dialogue is increasingly a two-way street. The United States continues to set the agenda for the international arena; however, Brazil is a decisive player in defining the terms on which that agenda is discussed.”

Ethanol is an important component of Brazil’s ambitious global designs. It has reached agroenergy agreements with countries like Senegal, Benin, South Africa, Nigeria, Japan, China, and India. In October 2007 Lula toured several African countries, including Congo and Angola to, among other things, urge them to join the “biofuels revolution.” Among other aspirations, the country is seeking to join the UN Security Council. Once in the Council, Brazil hopes to be able to exert a decisive influence on the UN’s deliberations related to global warming and therefore any proposed solution, like agrofuels.

Not few political observers contend that the Bush-Lula “ethanol alliance” is a geopolitical maneuver intended to economically isolate the governments of Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, both of whom are funding their social change projects with the export of fossil fuels.

“The political-business alliance between the United States and Brazil around ethanol is a blow against regional integration based on oil and gas that for several years has been loosely constructed between Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and recently Ecuador,” said Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibechi in a 2007 Americas Program report.

According to Zibechi, the Brazil-U.S. alliance breathes new life into the objectives that Bush had to postpone in November 2005 when the Free Trade Area of the Americas foundered in the Americas Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina. “A long term agreement with Brazil would allow the United States to achieve three central objectives: diversify the petroleum matrix, reducing its dependence on imports from Venezuela and the Middle East; weaken Venezuela and its allies; and put brakes on the regional integration powered by hydrocarbons which had taken off in 2006.”

Agrofuels’ Negative Environmental Balance Sheet

Is there enough land on the planet to satisfy a significant part of world energy demand using first-generation agrofuels? Or will they exacerbate global warming and other environmental problems? How will agrofuel production affect indigenous and rural peoples?
According to GRAIN, a Europe-based NGO that advocates the protection of agricultural biodiversity, if the United States dedicated its whole corn and soy harvests to make fuel, it would cover less than one-eighth of its oil demand and barely 6% of its diesel demand. The figures are even more sobering considering the United States grows around 44% of the world’s corn—more than China, the European Union, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico combined. This means that if world corn production were to be quadrupled and dedicated entirely to ethanol production, it could satisfy U.S. demand, but would leave the rest of the world’s motor vehicle fleet still running on oil, while drivers starved.

The situation in Europe does not look much better. In his 2007 book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, British researcher George Monbiot calculates that running all cars and buses in the United Kingdom on biodiesel would require 25.9 million hectares, but England has no more than 5.7 million hectares of farmland in total.

World agrofuel production must be quintupled to merely keep up with rising energy demand, according to the Interamerican Development Bank report “A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas.” If this is achieved, agrofuels will cover 5% of world energy demand by 2020.

Various Latin America-based organizations, including Oilwatch South America and the Latin American Network against Tree Monocultures declared in 2006 that “energy crops will expand … at the expense of our natural ecosystems. Soy is projected to be one of the main sources for diesel production, but it is a fact that soy monocultures are the main cause of the destruction of native forest in Argentina, the tropical Amazon rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia, and the Mata Atlántica in Brazil and Paraguay.”

“Sugarcane plantations and ethanol production in Brazil are the business of an oligopoly that utilizes slave labor,” said the declaration, titled “The Land Should Feed People, Not Cars.” “Palm oil plantations grow at the expense of jungles and territories of indigenous populations and other traditional populations of Colombia, Ecuador, and other countries, increasingly oriented to biodiesel production.”

One of the signatory organizations, the World Rainforest Movement, affirmed in early 2007 that “the cultivation of these fuels means death. Death of entire communities; death of cultures; death of people; death of nature. Be these oil palm or eucalyptus plantations, be these sugarcane or transgenic soybean monoculture plantations, be they promoted by ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ governments. Death.”

“All of these crops, and all of this monoculture expansion, are direct causes of deforestation, eviction of local communities from their lands, water and air pollution, soil erosion, and destruction of biodiversity,” stated GRAIN in 2007 in a manifesto titled “Stop the Agrofuels Craze!” “They also lead, paradoxically, to a massive increase of CO2 emissions, due to the burning of the forests and peat lands to make way for agrofuel plantations.”

“In a country like Brazil, way ahead of everybody else in producing ethanol for transport fuel, it turns out that 80% of the country’s greenhouse gases come not from cars but from deforestation, partly caused by the expanding soya and sugarcane plantations. Recent studies have shown that the production of one ton of palm-oil biodiesel from peatlands in Southeast Asia creates 2-8 times more CO2 than is emitted by burning one ton of fossil-fuel diesel. While scientists debate whether the ‘net energy balance’ of crops such as maize, soya, sugar cane, and oil palm is positive or negative, the emissions caused by the creation of many of the agrofuels plantations send any potential benefit, literally, up in smoke.”
Some 260 representatives of over 100 organizations, including civil society and academia, from Brazil, United States, Europe, El Salvador, Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica, and all regions of Mexico, met in Mexico City in August 2007 for a forum on agrofuels and food sovereignty. The forum’s conclusions were hardly flattering to the agrofuels industry.

“In a context of crisis in the countryside and of campesino and indigenous agriculture, of agrarian conflicts against communities and the ejido, of attempts to privatize water and the resources of communities, agrofuels can be a new threat of the neoliberal model,” said their final declaration. “We declare ourselves in permanent defense of peasant and indigenous territories, the ejido, and the community. We will not permit the expansion of crops for agroindustrial fuels at the expense of the dispossession of their territories and resources. We revindicate again the demand for recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and their right to self-determination.”

CARMELO RUIZ MARRERO is a Puerto Rican independent environmental journalist and environmental analyst for the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org), a fellow of the Oakland Institute and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, and founder/director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (bioseguridad.blogspot.com). His bilingual web page (carmeloruiz.blogspot.com) is devoted to global environment and development issues.






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Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist.

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