The new bioeconomy

15 05 2012

Last week we explored using biomass as fuel, and some of the implications in doing that.  Previously we looked at using biomass in the world of fabrics and furnishings,  which include the new biotech products polylactic acid (PLA) (DuPont’s Ingeo and Sorona fibers) and soy-based foam for upholstery  (click  here and here to see our posts).  The ideas being presented by new bio technologies are not new – in the 19th century Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold – and the idea has always held a fascination for humans.

There is a new report called “The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (click here to download the report) published by The ETC Group, which focuses on the social and economic impacts of new bio technologies.  This report paints an even more troubling picture than what I’ve been able to uncover to date, and the information contained in this post comes from that report:

“Under the pretext of addressing environmental degredation, climate change and the energy and food crisis, and using the rhetoric of the “new” bioeconomy  (“sustainability”, “green economy”, “clean tech”, “clean development”) industry is talking about  solving these problems by substituting fossil carbon for that of living matter.    The term “bioeconomy” is based on the notion that biological systems and resources can be harnessed to maintain current industrial systems of production, consumption and capital accumulation.” 

Sold as an ecological switch from a ‘black carbon’ (i.e. fossil) economy to a ‘green carbon’ (plant-based) – and therefore a “clean” form of development –  this emerging bioeconomy is in fact, according to ETC,  “a red-hot resource grab of the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of peoples in the global South” (because 86% of that biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics).

What does a new bioeconomy look like?  According to the ETC:   “as the DNA found in living cells is decoded into genetic information for use in biotechnology applications, genetic sequences  acquire a new value as the building blocks of designed biological production systems. By hijacking the ‘genetic instructions’ of cells … to force them to produce industrial products, industry transforms synthetic organisms into bio-factories that can be deployed elsewhere on the globe – either in private vats or plantations.  Nature is altered to meet business interests.”

They go on to say that as ecosystems collapse and biodiversity declines, new markets in ecosystem “services” will enable the trading of ecological ‘credits.’   The declared aim is to “incentivize conservation” by creating a profit motive in order to justify interventions in large-scale natural systems such as hydrological cycles, the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle.[1] Like the ‘services’ of an industrial production system, these ‘ecosystem services,’ created to privatize natural processes, will become progressively more effective at serving the interests of business.

It seems to be all about profit.

The ETC report states that concerted attempts are already underway by many industrial players to shift industrial production feedstocks from fossil fuels to the 230 billion tons of ‘biomass’ (living stuff) that the Earth produces every year -not just for liquid fuels but also for production of power, chemicals, plastics and more.

The visible players involved in commodifying the 76% of terrestrial living material that is not yet incorporated in the global economy include BP, Shell, Total, Exxon, Cargill, DuPont, BASF, Syngenta and Weyerhaeuser.   Enabling this attempt is the adoption of synthetic biology techniques (extreme genetic engineering) by these well-funded companies.

“We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy.”

– J. Craig Venter, founder Synthetic Genomics, Inc.[2]

There is lots more in the ETC report, here’s just a summary of some other issues:

  • The report examines the next generation biofuels, including algal biofuels and synthetic hydrocarbons, and establishes the case for why this generation may be as ecologically and socially dangerous as the first.  Even leading companies and scientists involved in synthetic biology agree that some oversight is necessary – currently it’s being mostly ignored and is not on the agenda for the Rio+20 summit to be held in Brazil in June.
  • Today’s synthetic biology is unpredictable, untested and poorly understood.  Could open a Pandora’s box of consequences.  See:  http://www.cbd.int/doc/emerging-issues/foe-synthetic-biology-for-biofuels-2011-013-en.pdf
  • The “green” credentials of current bio-based plastics and chemicals are called into question.  (See our posts on biopolymers – click here and here).
  • How much biomass is enough?  “Attempting to set an ‘acceptable level’ of biomass extraction is as inappropriate as forcing a blood donation from a hemorrhaging patient. Already struggling to maintain life support, the planet simply does not have any biomass to spare. Human beings already capture on-fourth of land based biomass for food, heat and shelter; attempts to define a limit beyond which ecosystems lose resilience and begin to break down reveal that we consumed past such limits 20 years ago.”
  • Biomass is considered a “renewable resource” – and it is true that while plants may be renewable in a short period of time, the soils and ecosystem that they depend on may not be.  Industrial agriculture and forest biomass extraction rob soils of nutrients, organic matter, water and structure, decreasing fertility and leaving ecosystems more vulnerable or even prone to collapse. Associated use of industrial chemicals and poor land management can make things worse. In practice, therefore, biomass is often only truly renewable when extracted in such small amounts that they are not of interest to industry.
  • The claim that biomass technology will be a stepping stone to a new mix of energy sources misses the whole point – that we are facing a crisis of overproduction and consumption.  Reducing our overall energy demands is critical, as it boosting support for decentralized peasant agriculture.

[1] See for example, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity:

Ecological and Economic Foundations. Edited By Pushpam Kumar. An

output of TEEB: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity,

Earthscan Oct. 2010

[2] Michael Graham Richard, “Geneticist Craig Venter Wants to Create Fuel from CO2,” Treehugger, 29 February 2008. Available online at: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/02/craig-venter-fuel-co2-tedconference.php

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