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Report: Green economy to be determined by corporate control

By Lynn Herrmann     Jan 2, 2012 in Politics
Ottawa - A new report by a Canadian nongovernmental organization reveals the relationship between the climate and oil crises, corporate power, and new technologies could turn the quest for biomass control and the green economy into a “Greed Economy.”
As global corporations ready themselves for a post-petroleum world, a green economy will be centered on exploiting biomass (food and fiber crops, plant oils, algae, grasses, forest residues, etc.). Supporters of the post-petroleum future involve many of the world’s largest, and most powerful corporations and governments, all touting new technologies - including genomics, nanotechnology and synthetic biology - for transforming biomass into high-value products.
The 60-page report, Who Will Control the Green Economy? (pdf), released in December by the Ottawa-based international NGO Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Conservation (ETC Group), outlines how the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), scheduled for June 20-22. 2012 in Brazil, is helping highlight the growing emphasis on a green economy, the ushering in of an era of sustainable development, but alarmingly notes the movement could be hijacked by corporate motives, stating
The gravitational pull of biomass is creating new constellations of corporate convergence across diverse industry sectors.
The report issues a warning on how the world’s largest companies are riding on the coattails of this growing “Green Economy” by shrewdly concentrating corporate power and releasing privately held technologies, without consultation, into communities unprepared for the associated impacts.
At risk are developing countries where much of the biomass is located. The largest caches of aquatic and
Biomass protester.
Biomass protester.
fotdmike/flickr
terrestrial biomass are situated across the global South, primarily managed by poor peasant farmers, fisher-people, forest dwellers and livestock-keepers whose livelihoods are dependent upon them.
The ETC Group warns
the bioeconomy will spur even greater convergence of corporate power and unleash the most massive resource grab in more than 500 years.
Kathy Jo Wetter, of the ETC Group, said, “The goal is not to reject the green economy or technologies, but these are tools that must be guided by strong social policies. Agenda 21 called for technology assessment back in 1992 and the need for such a precautionary tool, that includes strict oversight of corporate concentration, is now more urgent than ever,” in a news release pdf.
Calling it “their boldest coup to-date,” the ETC Group report reveals how these companies, and governments, are not only creating strategic acquisitions and tapping into new markets, but also penetrating new industrial spheres.
The report points out some of the major players in the move to secure biomass (and its transformative technologies) and their constellation of corporate convergence include: Big Energy (Exxon, BP, Shell, Chevron, Total); Big Pharma (Roche, Merck); Big Food & Ag (Cargill, DuPont, Monsanto, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Bunge); Big Chemical (Dow, DuPont, BASF); and the Mightiest Military (the U.S. military).
The ETC Group report notes that DuPont, already the world’s second largest seed company and sixth-largest in both pesticides and chemicals, has become a “powerhouse” in energy and food ingredients, and in plant-based materials.
Other major players in these categories include Monsanto, Dow Chemical, BASF, Unilver, Syngenta, and the U.S. government. All are making strategic investments in various risky technologies, while creating R&D alliances with plans of turning plant biomass into high value products and corporate profits.
Among the examples listed in the report is Butamax, a joint venture between DuPont (Pioneer) and oil giant BP, which is attempting to commercialize fuels derived from seaweed. In early 2011, DuPont purchased Danisco, a company producing enzymes and specialty food ingredients, even as the two companies had a pre-existing agreement to produce cellulosic ethanol.
Another example is Solazyme, a California-based synthetic biology company, a joint partnership with Dow Chemical, Unilever, Chevron, Bunge Ltd., the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy. According to the report, Solazyme states its market areas as fuels, chemicals, health and nutrition sciences and specialization in transforming “low cost plant sugars into high-value renewable oils.”
Also on Solazyme’s agenda is a partnership with Japan’s San-Ei Gen - a major food ingredient manufacturer and distributor - for developing algae-based food ingredients.
Solazyme is also involved with France’s Roquette Frères to launch the joint venture Solazyme-Roquette Nutritionals, commercializing a set of algae-derived food ingredients.
Mapping and monitoring tropical biomass is now being conducted by satellites and aircraft, using methods previously unheard of. Camera mounted planes use “hyperspectral imaging,” originally developed to locate human burial sites, for analyzing visible and infrared wavelenghts revealing vegetation variations.
Although satellites were able to map and record vegetation and disturbances - the Carnegie Institution announced in 2010 it had, in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund and the Peruvian government, mapped more than 16,600 square miles of the Amazon forest, an area roughly equal to the size of Switzerland - aircraft utilizing Carnegie’s proprietary LiDAR technology (light detection and ranging) were able to create a 3-D structure of the area’s vegetation.
From those maps, and in conjunction with field plots on the ground, scientists were able to convert structural data into carbon density. While the effort helped advise Peru the region’s total forest carbon storage weighed in at around 395 million metric tonnes, with 630,000 tonnes per year in emissions, the ETC Group report pointed out the cost factor of the data (the Peru map costs $0.08 per hectare while a similar map in Madagascar came in at $0.06 per hectare) could be of benefit to those involved in biopiracy.
For instance, near term possibilities include aerial identification of crops and/or livestock containing unique gene traits or DNA markers and, just as importantly for local and indigenous communities, an opportunity for triangulating soils, microbes or plants which may contribute to industrial uses.
Industry or governments could then “cherry-pick” the biodiversity they consider most important while discarding the rest. The technology may also allow the tracking of forest people which might then influence land rights negotiations.
There is now synthetic biology, with the promise of converting any type of biomass into any kind of plastic, fuel, chemical, or food, and has led petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies which, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, once searched for ways of monopolizing living carbon, back into the biomass arena, and the report notes
the combination of Peak Oil, BP oil spills and, especially, alarm over greenhouse gases and climate change have made the future profitability of fossil carbon more challenging and so the dinosaurs are returning to their historic habitat.
The report also provides data on the major players in DNA data generation, including “third generation” sequencing technologies, commercial gene synthesis companies, the seaweed industry (China leads the world in farmed seaweed, with a 63 percent share of global production), microalgal biofuel companies and their corporate/government partners (12 of the top 14 are headquartered in the U.S.), and the world’s top fishing and aquaculture companies (four of the top five and five of the top 10 are Japanese companies).
At the root of the bioeconomy movement are commercial seeds, the starting point in the agro-industrial food web. It is the first link for crop-based feedstocks which will produce not just food, fiber and feed, but also high-value consumer and chemical products such as plastics and pharmaceuticals.
Monsanto is the globe’s largest seed company, fourth largest pesticide company, and is in control of 27 percent of the commercial seed market.
The commercial seed market and agrochemical sector have a complicit link, with five of the top six agrochemical companies on the list of the worlds largest seed companies. The only one who isn’t - BASF - has serious partnerships with the major seed company players.
The seed starting point evolves into gene banks, fertilizer and mining, forestry and paper, oilseed, grain and sugar processors and traders, industrial animal feed producers, the animal pharmaceutical industry, livestock genetics, food and beverage processors, pharmaceutical and biotech industries, and finally the food retail industry.
The world’s largest food retailer is Walmart, headquartered in the U.S., carrying a 25% percent market share. Industry analysts predict China will overtake the U.S. in 2012 as the world’s biggest grocery market.
Walmart is China’s sixth largest export market, and the report notes more than 12 percent of China’s exports to the U.S. land on Walmart shelves.
In its attempt to solidify its rank as the world’s leading food retailer, Walmart received a green light in May 2011 to purchase Massmart Holdings Ltd., based in South Africa. The chain is Africa’s third largest retailer, operating in 14 sub-Saharan countries.
The report quotes Michael Bride, deputy organizing director of U.S.-based United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, who said, “Walmart exerts never-ending downward pressure on its suppliers to provide it with increasingly lower prices that simply aren’t sustainable...In short Walmart’s bad business practices don’t just have an impact on workers in its retail stores, but [also] on workers up and down the supply chain.”
It should come as no surprise then that new data on wealth in the U.S. finds the six Walton heirs of the Walmart fortune had a 2007 combined net worth of $69.7 billion, which equaled the bottom 30 percent of Americans.
Alberto Gomez, of La Via Campesina, added in the ETC Group news release, “Corporate control over our food system threatens peasant farmers around the world. We already produce 70% of the world’s food, but our ability to do so in an agro-ecological way is being undermined by the kind of corporate control this report documents.”
The report concludes by calling for innovative and authoritative anti-trust mechanisms (currently nonexistent) to be created for reining in corporate power. The current disconnect between climate policy, food security and agriculture must be bridged by international policy makers, noting food sovereignty must be the overall framework in addressing these issues.
ETC Group also states
All negotiations must be informed by strong participation of social movements and civil society.
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