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The great biomass grab

Although three-quarters of the world’s biomass has remained beyond the grasp of the market economy, corporations are now poised to appropriate and further commodify biological products and processes in every part of the globe – as well as further destroy biodiversity, deplete soil and water and displace marginalised farmers.

Amidst a world food crisis, collapsing ecosystems, financial crisis and climate chaos, new technologies are once again being promoted by international institutions, governments and big business as the “magic bullet” for boosting food production and saving the planet. They are certain, of course, to have the exact opposite impact on people and planet.

A dramatic new report, Who owns nature? published by the Canadian-based ETC Group, which has been monitoring corporate power in the industrial life sciences for the past 30 years, outlines the threat. The report indicts government for “stepping aside” and “working hand-in-hand with corporations to reinforce the very institutions and policies that are the root causes of today’s agro-industrial food crisis”.

The 48-page report exposes corporate concentration in commercial food, farming, health and the strategic push to commodify the planet's remaining natural resources. It reveals that:

Who Owns Nature? warns that against a background of ecological, economic and financial crises, and with engineering of living organisms at the nano-scale, “industry is setting the stage for a corporate grab that extends to all of nature”. ETC Group's Pat Mooney explains:

About one-quarter of the world's biomass has already been commodified. With extreme genetic engineering, we're seeing new corporate strategies to capture and commodify the three-quarters of the world's biomass that has, until now, remained beyond the market economy.

Advocates of synthetic biology – the creation of designer organisms built from synthetic DNA – are, says the report, promising a “post-petroleum future” where fuels, chemicals, drugs and other high-value products depend on biological manufacturing platforms fuelled by plant sugars. Industrial production will be based on biological feedstocks (agricultural crops, grasses, forest residues, plant oils, algae, etc.) whose sugars are extracted, fermented and converted into high-value products. Synthetic microbes will become "living chemical factories" that require massive quantities of plant biomass. The report concludes:

When the food crisis is defined as food scarcity and hungry people, the market-based prescription is to further liberalise markets and boost agricultural production with heavy doses of new technology. The real disaster is the corporate controlled agro-industrial food system. This system has entrenched corporate power while undermining the ability of small-scale producers to produce food for their own communities. No matter how much new technology is employed in the name of boosting food production, the agro-industrial food system is incapable of feeding hungry people. And that’s because hunger and poverty are the consequences of inequitable systems – not food scarcity or inadequate technologies.

However, ETC Group’s Kathy Jo Wetter then goes on to call for “monitoring and oversight of corporations” by the same governments and institutions that the report correctly identifies as joint villains of the piece. This is simply not going to happen, especially as the economic recession will be used to give corporations a green light to do whatever it takes to boost growth and profits. There is no “vacuum in governance”, as the report claims, but an out-of-control global capitalist system and compliant governments. Wresting power out of their hands is the only way to go.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
20 November 2008

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