January 26, 2007

The production of biofuels and climate change

All the companies which produce transgenic crops -Syngenta, Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, Bayer, BASF- have investments in crops designed specially for the production of biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. They also have collaboration agreements in a similar vein with Cargill, Archer Daniel Midland, Bunge, transnacional companies which dominate the global trade in grains.

In most cases, research is geared towards obtaining (amongst other things) new types of genetically modified maize, sugar cane, soya - making these crops inedible. This drastically increases the inherent risks of transgenic contamination.

At the global level, companies and governments are waging an intense campaign to present biofuels as environmentally friendly alternatives which could help to combat climate change, substituting a part of the petrol consumption dedicated to fuel for transport.

However, the inner logic is not to abandon petrol, nor to change the consumption patterns which produce climate change, but to take advantage of the situation to create new sources of business, promoting and subsidizing the industrial production of crops to serve these goals.

Studies exist which show that industrial cultivation of biofuels pose many problems. Brian Tokar, from the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, USA, draws attention to two recent studies from Cornell and Minnesota Universities. The studies show that the complete production cycle for biofuels leaves a destructive environmental balance sheet. Given that the processing of these crops requires a significant quantity of energy, their net energetic contribution is very limited.

Although biofuels can replace a large proportion of petrol, they require large areas of intensive industrial agricultural production, increasing the use of agrotoxic chemicals which erode and contaminate the soil and water, as well as entailing competing for use of the land with food production. According to researcher Lester Brown (quoted by Tokar), "Now it is cars, not people, which set the annual demand for grains. The quantity of grains which is required to fill the tank of a single SUV [Sport's Utilities Vehicle] with ethanol is enough to feed one person for a whole year.

The producers of transgenics see an excellent opportunity in all this to increase their profits and to justify genetic engineering as something that is environmentally beneficial. Their investments in biofuels included the development of transgenic crops with a high sugar content (in order to convert into ethanol), high oil content (for biodiesel), and the insertion of genes which emit [Tr: expresan in Spanish original] enzymes in order to make fuel-processing easier.

Sygenta is working in collaboration with Diversa Corporation to develop maize which produces on its own an enzyme which converts the maize into ethanol, originating from an extremofila bacterium which can survive in high temperatures. The bacterium has been taken from the collection of bacteria which the company has garnered from around the world. Diversa has a similar collaboration with Dupont, by way of its subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred, developing a maize which has a higher cellulose and starch content.

They are using an enzyme which comes from a manipulated bacterium (Zymomonas mobilis), which is found naturally in the agave cactus. In both cases, the genetic manipulation compromises the use of maize as a food crop, increasing the chances that contamination could occur.

In this case it is interesting to recall that until 2001 Diversa maintained a bioprospecting agreement with Biotechnology Institute of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to search for extremofilic organisms and bacteria that are unique to Mexico. This contract was later suspended due to the efforts of a broad coordination of organizations and celebrities which started a broad popular rejection of the contract, denouncing it as biopiracy.

Despite this, Diversa never returned to Mexico the samples it had taken during the short amount of time that the contract was in place. It would seem paradoxical that the transnational companies would use microorganisms extracted from our country in order to first genetically manipulate the maize and later try to sell it here as an "environmentally friendly" product.

Regrettably, the initiative of a Law for the Development and Promotion of Bio-energy, which has already been debated in both chambers in the Mexican Congress, promotes this form of development, and is supported by all the political parties. The justification of the initiative simply regurgitates the already endlessly repeated clichés used in industry propaganda in order to continue with the farce. What is more, it is argued that this form of development should indicate a support for small scale agriculture.

In other words, the peasants who created the maize should be ready to sow transgenic seeds of inedible maize, which will sooner or later contaminate the indigenous maize varieties, thus making it useless, are being asked to give it [the transgenic maize] their official endorsement. Or as if with the other crops, such as sugar cane, had to be at the costs of food production in conditions imposed and according to the demands of the agribusiness companies, which would by those who offer the cheapest price from any part of the world. This is why they promote such laws and programs simultaneously in many different countries.

Instead of food sovereignty, we will have more heavily subsidized multinational companies and more transgenic threats for the maize and for peasant economies.

Originally published in La Jornada, México, November 23, 2006. Silvia Ribeiro is researcher at ETC Group.

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