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Biotechnology bets on agrofuels

Biotechnology bets on agrofuels


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By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

There is a new participant in international deliberations around global warming and agrofuels: the biotech industry. The corporate genetics giants are proposing new technologies, such as genetically modified trees, second-generation cellulosic ethanol and synthetic biology, to lift society from its dependence on fossil fuels and combat climate change.


There is a new participant in international deliberations around global warming and agrofuels: the biotech industry. The corporate genetics giants are proposing new technologies, such as genetically modified trees, second-generation cellulosic ethanol and synthetic biology, to lift society from its dependence on fossil fuels and combat climate change.

The implications for Latin America are impressive. The massive move from the biotechnology industry to the energy sector implies the convergence of important social and ecological issues in the region, such as the promotion of agrofuels, transgenic crops and the growth of agribusiness monocultures. At stake are the aspirations of Latin American civil society for agrarian reform, environmental protection, alternatives to neoliberalism, and energy and food sovereignty.

Biotech companies have become the main drivers of using agricultural crops, such as corn, soybeans, and sugar cane, to make fuel for motor vehicles. Faced with the growing resistance of the public to human consumption of its transgenic crops, the industry sees its salvation in the production of transgenic biofuels. By presenting GM products as the response to climate change and resource depletion caused by fossil fuels, they hope to cast a more favorable light on GM plants.

They have a lot at stake. Monsanto, for example, makes 60% of its revenue from the sale of genetically modified seeds. Riding the rising tide of the biofuels boom, Monsanto and other companies hope to evade the human health concerns associated with GM foods while opening up a whole new area of ​​profit at the cost of the global warming crisis.

Public opinion against GMOs

Transgenic organisms have genetic codes (genomes) that have been altered through genetic engineering — an unprecedented procedure that creates genetic combinations that are not possible in nature. The main GMO products on the US market are corn and soybeans, which have been genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides (usually Monsanto's Roundup) or pests (known as Bt crops). These crops are used mostly to feed farm animals and to make additives (such as sweeteners and starch) that are found in most processed products.

Despite the laughing propaganda of biotechnology companies, broad sectors of society reject transgenic products because they understand that they are neither safe nor necessary. In March 2006, thousands of protesters from all over the world overwhelmed three United Nations events that took place almost simultaneously in southern Brazil: the biannual conferences of the Convention on Biodiversity and the Biosafety Protocol, and the World Conference on Reform. Agrarian and Rural Development. Among their demands stood out with prominence the prohibition of transgenic crops.

While official activities and protests were taking place, activists from the MST, Brazil's landless workers movement, occupied a farm in the state of Paraná where the biotechnology corporation Syngenta illegally planted transgenic corn and soybeans in the park's buffer zone. Iguaçu National. On October 21, 2007, gunmen violently evicted them, injuring many and murdering Valmir "Keno" Mota de Oliveira, 34 years old and father of three. The MST, Via Campesina and numerous civil society organizations in Brazil have condemned these events. They demand that Syngenta take responsibility for the murder, be held accountable for its environmental violations, shut down its experimental farm and leave the country.

In February 2007 farmers and herders, representatives of civil society groups, social and environmental movements from 17 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe met in Mali to discuss issues related to food and agriculture. Together they produced the Bamako Declaration, which, among other things, categorically says NO to transgenic organisms.

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

The statement rejects genetically modified foods: (We fight against) "Technologies and practices that erode our future food production capacity, harm the environment and endanger our health. These include transgenic crops and animals, terminator technology, industrial aquaculture and destructive fishing practices, the so-called 'White Revolution' of industrial practices in the dairy sector, the so-called 'New and Old Green Revolutions', and the 'green deserts' of industrial biofuel monocultures and other plantations. "

In March 2008, some 300 MST women destroyed a breeding ground for transgenic corn seedlings that belonged to Monsanto in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, in the south of the country, to protest against the approval by the Brazilian government of the corn planting transgenic. In the days that followed, some 1,500 women protested in front of various Syngenta properties in the state of Paraná.

The bio boom

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

There are two types of biofuels: ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol can be obtained from sugar cane, molasses, sweet sorghum, and grains such as corn, wheat, and barley. Ethanol can replace gasoline, but its use requires specially adapted engines. It can be mixed with gasoline and thus used in a regular car engine. Biodiesel is derived from vegetable oils from plants such as canola, soybeans, and oil palm, as well as from animal fat. It can be used in pure form in a regular diesel engine without the need for modification. These uses are considered "generation one" of biofuels. 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 Bush, the European Union, most South American and African governments, and many environmental groups. The alignment of corporate interests in favor of agrofuels is formidable: grain traders (Cargill, Con Agra), car manufacturers (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 business.

According to the UN report "Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers", published in 2007, agrofuels are the fastest growing sector in world agriculture. The Financial Times newspaper estimates that OECD country subsidies for agrofuels total $ 15 billion 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 attracts more investment in agrofuels than any other country ($ 9 billion in 2006). He came into the game early and has been playing hard ever since. It already runs most of its vehicles on sugar cane ethanol, and now owns 62% of the world sugar market, compared to just 7% of the market in 1994. Sugarcane monocultures in Brazil cover 6.9 million hectares, with half of these dedicated to ethanol. By 2025 he hopes to add 42 million more hectares.


Its biodiesel potential is also massive: 21% of agricultural lands (almost 20 million hectares) are planted with soybeans. "In the next 15 to 20 years, Brazil will become the world's leading producer of biodiesel," Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva said in 2005. In 2008, Brazil is expected to catch up with the United States to become the world's largest soybean exporter.

Agribusiness giant ADM has chosen Brazil as the hub of its biodiesel operations in South America. Its new biodiesel refinery in the southern state of Mato Grosso do Sul is the largest in the country and its clients include the state's governor, Blairo Maggi, who is also one of the world's largest soybean farmers.

"To secure a slice of the emerging global clean energy industry, Brazil has adopted an impressive agrofuel strategy, combining public and private sector interests," according to a joint report by the Oakland Institute of the United States and Terra de Direitos de Brazil, published in 2008. "The (Brazilian) 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 partners in agribusiness. Together they produce 70% of the world's ethanol and work together to maintain their supremacy in this sector.

In March 2007 Lula traveled to Camp David to sign a memorandum of understanding on ethanol with US President George Bush. The agreement is part of a bilateral alliance for research and development, feasibility studies, technical assistance and greater compatibility of criteria and codes with the goal of establishing a global market for agrofuels. A few days later, Bush visited Brazil and several other Latin American countries in what was popularly known as the "ethanol tour."

"Brazil is paving the way to transform ethanol into an internationally tradable energy commodity," says Roberto Abdenur, former Brazilian ambassador to the United States. "An improved bilateral relationship is not only necessary and beneficial for Brazilian interests, but for US interests as well. 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 in which the agenda is discussed. "

Ethanol is an important component of Brazil's ambitious global designs. It has reached agroenergy agreements with Senegal, Benin, South Africa, Nigeria, Japan, China and India. In October 2007 Lula went on a tour of several African countries, including Congo and Angola, to, among other things, urge them to join the "biofuel revolution". Among other aspirations, the country seeks to enter the UN Security Council. Once in the Council, Brazil hopes to be able to exert a decisive influence on the deliberations of the UN regarding global warming and therefore any solution that is proposed, such as agrofuels.

Not a few political observers understand that the Bush-Lula "ethanol alliance" is a geopolitical maneuver to economically isolate the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, which are financing their social change projects with the export of fossil fuels.

"The political-business alliance between the United States and Brazil around ethanol is a bomb against regional integration based on oil and gas, which for some years Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and now Ecuador have been shaping," said the journalist Uruguayan Raúl Zibechi in 2007 in a report for the Americas Program.

According to Zibechi, the alliance between Brazil and the United States gives new life to the objectives that Bush had to postpone in November 2005, when the Free Trade Area of ​​the Americas failed at the Mar del Plata Summit. "A long-term agreement with Brazil would allow the United States three central objectives: to diversify the oil matrix, reducing its dependence on imports from Venezuela and the Middle East; to weaken Venezuela and its allies, and to halt regional integration powered by hydrocarbons. which had taken off in 2006 ".

The negative environmental balance of agrofuels

September 2007: The OECD publishes a critical report titled "Biofuels: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease?" According to the document, the race to energy crops threatens to cause food shortages and damage biodiversity in exchange for limited benefits. Its authors argue that in the best of cases, agrofuels can reduce energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by 3%.

October 2007: The UN rapporteur for the right to food Jean Ziegler declares at the organization's headquarters in New York that the increasing use of food crops for fuel constitutes a crime against humanity and calls for a five-year moratorium on what sustainable alternatives are being developed.

January 2008: Representatives of the Rainforest Action Network, Student Trade Justice Campaign, Food First, Global Justice Ecology and Grassroots International protest in the city of San Francisco in front of the office of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, leader of the State House of Representatives United, to call for a moratorium on incentives for agrofuels until it can be shown that they are a definitive improvement over fossil fuels and that they will not exacerbate hunger in the world.

Is there enough land on the planet to meet an appreciable part of global energy demand using first generation agrofuels? Or will they exacerbate global warming and other environmental problems? How will its production affect indigenous and rural peoples?

According to GRAIN, a European-based NGO that advocates for the protection of agricultural biodiversity, if the United States were to dedicate its entire corn and soybean crops to fuel, it would cover less than one-eighth of its oil demand and just 6% of its demand for diesel. These figures are all the more discouraging when considering that the United States grows about 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 devoted entirely to ethanol production, it would satisfy American demand, but leave the rest of the world's vehicle fleet still running on oil, while drivers starve. .

The situation in Europe doesn't look much better. In his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, published in 2007, English researcher George Monbiot estimates that operating all cars and buses in the UK on biodiesel would require 25.9 million hectares, but England has no more than 5.7 million hectares of agricultural land.

World agrofuel production must be increased fivefold to merely keep up with growing demand for energy, according to a report from the Inter-American Development Bank, entitled "A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas." If this is achieved, agrofuels will cover five percent of the world's energy demand by 2020.

Several Latin American-based organizations, such as Oilwatch South America and the Latin American Network Against Tree Monocultures, declared in 2006 that "energy crops will grow ... at the expense of our natural ecosystems. Soy is projected as one of the main sources for biodiesel production. , but it is a fact that soy monocultures are the main cause of destruction of the native forest in Argentina, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia, and the Atlantic Forest in Brazil and Paraguay. "

"Sugarcane plantations and ethanol production in Brazil are the business of an oligopoly that uses slave labor," reads the statement, titled "Land should feed people, not cars." "Oil palm plantations are expanding at the expense of the jungles and territories of indigenous populations and other traditional communities in Colombia, Ecuador and other countries, increasingly oriented towards the production of biodiesel."

One of the signatory organizations, the World Movement for Tropical Forests, stated in early 2007 that "the cultivation of these fuels means death. Death of entire communities, death of cultures, death of people, death of nature. Call it plantations of oil palm or eucalyptus, whether it be sugar cane or transgenic soybean monocultures, promoted by 'progressive' or 'conservative' governments. Death. "

"All these crops, and all this expansion of monocultures, are direct causes of deforestation, eviction of local communities from their lands, water and air pollution, soil erosion and destruction of biological diversity," GRAIN declared in 2007 in a manifesto entitled 'Let's stop the agrofuel fever!' "They also lead, paradoxically, to a massive increase in CO2 emissions due to the burning of forests and peat lands to make room for agrofuel plantations."

"In a country like Brazil, which is far ahead of any other in the production of ethanol for fuel for transportation, it turns out that 80% of greenhouse gases come not from cars but from deforestation, partly caused due to the expansion of soy and sugar cane plantations Recent studies have shown that the production of one ton of palm oil biodiesel from the peat lands of Southeast Asia produces two to eight times more CO2 emissions than fossil fuel diesel combustion.While scientists debate whether the 'net energy balance' of crops such as corn, soybeans, sugarcane and oil palm is positive or negative, the emissions caused by the installation from many of the agrofuel plantations literally smoke any possible profit. "

Over 260 representatives from more than one hundred organizations, including civil society and academia, from Brazil, the United States, Europe, El Salvador, Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica, and all regions of Mexico, met in Mexico City in August 2007 to carry out a forum on agrofuels and food sovereignty. The conclusions of the forum were not very flattering for the agrofuel industry.

"In a context of crisis in the countryside and peasant and indigenous agriculture, of agrarian conflicts against communities and the ejido, of claims to privatize water and community resources, agrofuels may be a new threat to the neoliberal model. We declare ourselves in permanent defense of the peasant and indigenous territories, the ejido and the community. We will not allow the expansion of crops for agroindustrial fuels to come at the cost of dispossession of their territories and resources. We again demand the demand for recognition of rights of Indigenous Peoples and the right to self-determination. "

* Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an independent environmental journalist and environmental analyst for the CIP Americas Program ( www.ircamericas.org ), a fellow from the Oakland Institute and a senior fellow from the Environmental Leadership Program, as well as founder and director of the Puerto Rico Biosafety Project ( http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com ). Your bilingual website ( http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com ) is dedicated to global environment and development issues - CIP Americas Program ( www.ircamericas.org )


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