The promise of biotechnology

4 05 2011

Plastics are a problem – and becoming more of a problem as time goes on because of our voracious appetite for the stuff: global plastic production grew by more than 500% over the past 30 years.  And we have limited fossil fuels available –  that fact alone dwarfs the plastics problem because we depend on fossil fuels for so much more than plastic.  So, many are looking to biotechnology as a solution.  Biotechnology can be defined as  a variety of techniques that involve the use and manipulation of living organisms to make commercial products.

According to David Garman, US Under Secretary for Energy, Science and Environment under George W. Bush,  “Many think of biomass mainly as a source for liquid fuel products such as ethanol and biodiesel. But biomass can also be converted to a multitude of products we use every day. In fact, there are very few products that are made today from a petroleum base, including paints, inks, adhesives, plastics and other value-added products, that cannot be produced from biomass.”  And J. Craig Venter, founder of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (which, according to their website, was founded to commercialize genomic-driven technologies), said “We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy.”

The ETC Group, which focuses on the social and economic impacts of new bio technologies,  has just published a new report, “The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (click here to download the report) in which they critique what the OECD countries are calling the “new bioeconomy”:   From generating electricity to producing fuels, fertilizers and chemicals,  they say that shifts are already underway to claim biomass as a critical component in the global industrial economy. But contrary to what I expected, it’s not a pretty picture.

According to The New Biomassters report:

“What is being sold as a benign and beneficial switch from black carbon to green carbon is in fact a red hot resource grab (from South to North) to capture a new source of wealth. If the grab succeeds, then plundering the biomass of the South to cheaply run the industrial economies of the North will be an act of 21st century imperialism that deepens injustice and worsens poverty and hunger. Moreover, pillaging fragile ecosystems for their carbon and sugar stocks is a murderous move on an already overstressed planet. Instead of embracing the false promises of a new clean green bioeconomy, civil society should reject the new biomassters and their latest assault on land, livelihoods and our living world.”

In the world of fabrics and furnishings, the new biotech products which are being heavily promoted now are PLA (DuPont’s Ingeo and Sorona fibers) and soy-based foam for upholstery.

A summary of the report is given in the Sustainable Plastics web site  which I’ve reproduced here:

  • Provides an overview of the bio-based economy being envisioned by many OECD countries and Fortune 500 corporations and being sold to the global South as “clean development,” as well as a comprehensive consideration of its wider implications — a first from civil society.
  • Analyzes the impact of next-generation biofuels, the production of bio-based chemicals and plastics and the industrial burning of biomass for electricity, arguing that civil society needs to critique and confront the combined threats arising from these developments.
  • Unmasks the industrial players intent on commodifying the 76% of terrestrial living material that is not yet incorporated into the global economy. Sectors with an interest in the new bioeconomy (energy, chemical, plastics, food , textiles, pharmaceuticals, carbon trade and forestry industries) flex a combined economic muscle of over US$17 trillion a year. Visible players in the new bioeconomy include BP, Shell, Total, Exxon, Cargill, ADM, Du Pont, BASF, Weyerhaeuser and Syngenta.
  • Explores the safety concerns and threats to livelihoods inherent in the high-risk, game-changing field of synthetic biology. Relying on synthetic biology to provide higher yields and transform sugars could open a Pandora’s box of consequences. See pages 36-41.
  • Surveys the industrial landscape of next generation biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, algal biofuels, sugar cane, jatropha and synthetic hydrocarbon, and sets out the case for why this next generation may be as ecologically and socially dangerous as the first. See pages 43- 50.
  • Poses challenging questions about the ‘green’ credentials of bio-based plastics and chemicals and their future impact on food supplies and world hunger. See pages 50-56.
  • Raises important political questions about land grabbing: 86% of global biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics, a simple fact driving an industrial grab that threatens to accelerate the pace of forest destruction and land acquisition in the South in order to feed the economies of the North. See pages 15-18.
  • Tallies the investments, subsidies and financial promises being made for the biomass economy. Predictions for the market value of biomass-based goods and services total over five hundred billion dollars by 2020, with the biggest turnover expected in biofuels and biomass electricity. See pages 13-14.
  • Challenges common myths of industrial biomass use, including the claims that switching to biomass is carbon-neutral, renewable and green. In fact, burning biomass can even produce more CO2 per energy unit than burning coal. See pages 19-20.
  • Details how a key error in the UN climate convention is driving destructive policies. By considering biomass energy as ‘carbon neutral,’ the UN has enabled destructive national renewables policies, carbon trading, and technology transfer activities. This report also examines the new REDD+ provisions in the context of the biomass economy. See pages 20- 24.
  • Sets out why we cannot afford any increase in the amount of biomass taken from already overstressed ecosystems. Indeed, industrial civilization may already be taking too much biomass from the systems we depend upon. See pages 24- 26.
  • Explores the new suite of technological strategies being proposed by biomass advocates to boost global stocks of biomass, including the genetic engineering of crops, trees and algae. Meanwhile, the geoengineering agenda is increasingly converging on biomass. See pages 27-30.
  • Exposes the switch to algae, purported to be the next ‘clean green’ feedstock and argues the case against industrial algal production. See pages 47-50.

So here I was thinking that bio polymers would be the wave of the future.   Now I don’t know what to think!  Looks like I’m in for a lot of reading.  If any of you have insights into these issues, I’d love to hear them.


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2 responses

10 05 2011
Steve in New Forest UK

I’m as shocked as you are. In an attempt to reduce CO2 emissions, it appears that trying to move towards greener fuels will only make matters worse. Not related to this article, I read an article on windmills to produce electricity, thereby replacing conventional power stations. No good – too expensive to build and run for very little end product produced. Oil is running out so I’m led to believe and if we do not find a greener alternative, then we are all going to be in terrible trouble in the future. Many thanks for the information.

11 05 2011
Karen Rodriguez

Thanks for this interesting article and the outline of the The ETC Group’s report. I’ll be doing some reading too.

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