Jeff Conant: You and your colleagues at ETC Group are strong
advocates of taking what I would call a reasoned approach to the
deployment of new technologies; you're best known for having led the
charge for a global ban on the infamous
Terminator Seed, and you've
just had a tremendous victory by winning a global moratorium on geo-engineering experiments (see
last week's piece on AlterNet).
you're releasing a report on another impending technological
concern: synthetic biology.
Jim Thomas: The report is called "The New Biomassters
Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods."
an exposť and argument against the new "bioeconomy" most OECD
countries are now promoting as the next (supposedly "green") wave of
industrial production - switching from fossil fuels to biological
material (biomass) as the key feedstock of the economy.
As such, it
encompasses biofuels, burning biomass for electricity, and using
biomass for chemicals, plastics and other materials formerly sourced
JC: But isn't this exactly what a lot of enviros want: an end to
fossil fuel development in favor of renewables? What's the concern?
JT: The bioeconomy reimagines plant life as just another source of
carbon - a sort of above-ground oil reserve that can fuel the same
economy we already have with just a little technological tweaking - moving from black fossil carbon to green living carbon.
shift in carbon feedstocks may be dressed up as a green "switch," it
is in fact a red-hot imperial resource grab - on plants, land,
genes and the entire "primary production" of the planet.
grabbing fossil carbon has displaced communities and fueled wars, so
those who will suffer in the development of this new bioeconomy will
be the traditional communities of the old bioeconomy. Another
concern is, there is simply not enough biomass to make such a
transition - indeed, industrial civilization is already taking too
There's an assumption embedded in the
UNFCCC and other climate
policy that biomass is a carbon neutral energy source. That is
wrong, dangerously so.
Another mistaken assumptions is that
so-called next-generation biofuels (cellulosic fuels or algae fuels)
are better than the disastrous first-generation biofuels.
JC: Disastrous, in that the sudden rise in investment in biofuels
led to an equally sudden displacement of food crops and helped cause
the food crisis that began in 2008?
JT: That, yes; but beyond that, the point that biofuels were shown
to have an equal or greater net carbon footprint than fossil fuels.
I don't think most people realize that when you burn biomass for
energy you can release more CO2 than coal.
Of course its assumed
that CO2 will get fixed again by theoretical replacement plants over
some unspecified time period, but in the process there are massive
unaccounted - for greenhouse gas emissions from disturbing soils, use
of fertilizers and pesticides, harvesting, transport, refining, and
consuming - it can only be called disastrous.
JC: What about algal fuels? Aren't they a way out of the biofuel
JT: Not really. Lifecycle analysis shows that the usual way of
growing algae for fuel has a bigger greenhouse footprint than corn
ethanol because there is no soil, so you need to pump a lot of
fertilizer into the water. Fertilizer production is a massive energy
Then there is the problem of land. Algae production has to be
spread out thinly because sunlight doesn't penetrate very far into
algae. So you're talking about facilities the size of San Francisco.
And then there's massive water use and the risks of invasive species
and the fact that to make algae efficient you will probably need to
genetically engineer it... and so on.
JC: And the other next-generation biofuels?
JT: With so-called next-generation biofuels we're talking about
expanding monoculture industrial plantations, either harvesting
industrial crop wastes like rice straw and corn stover - rather
than allowing them to replenish soil nutrients - or expanding tree
plantations on so-called marginal lands where people actually live
Already, industrial agriculture may account for more
than half of global greenhouse gas emissions. Relying further on
industrial agriculture to meet energy demands is hardly an improvement on the
JC: Yet, the
Obama administration has just promised increasing
investment in biofuels.
You say in the report that the first rush to
promote "renewable fuels" and other supposedly green alternatives
"was only a visible tip of a much deeper transition and trajectory
in industrial policy," which you call the bioeconomy.
What do you
mean by this?
OECD nations and corporate lobby groups talk about the bioeconomy they're describing a switch from industrial feedstocks to
biomass across several areas - fuels, chemicals, electricity, and
beyond - everything from corn ethanol to bioplastics to biomass
incineration for electricity.
You know, if turning food into fuel is
an unacceptable trade-off, then turning food into plastic bags is
To enable this transition, they'll need to secure stocks
of biomass in the same way they previously secured oil fields and
gas pipelines. For me the shocking thing was to discover that fully
86 percent of the world's biomass is in the tropics - the global
South - where it's already sustaining the livelihoods, cultures,
and basic needs of most of the world's people.
So a switch to
biomass at any meaningful scale necessarily involves a corporate
grab on the land and resources of the South. As with any previous
industrial transition, what's behind this is not high ideals, but
the calculated interest of the corporate bottom line.
JC: Who's behind the bioeconomy?
JT: We call them the new biomassters - but they aren't really
BP, Shell, DuPont, Chevron, Syngenta, Archer Daniels Midland,
In other words, those driving the new bioeconomy
are the same inequitable and polluting industries that captain the
There's virtually no question that they regard the
dash to biomass as a means of retooling the existing global economy
without changing underlying patterns of consumption and production.
If you calculate the combined worth of all the sectors that have
vested interests in a new bioeconomy - energy, chemicals,
agribusiness, forestry and finance corporations - you find they
have a combined total worth of $17 trillion.
That's a lot of muscle.
But it's not just the private sector:
the United Nations Environment
Program is aggressively promoting what it's calling the Green
in 2009 the United Nations launched the "Global Green New
Deal for a Sustainable Economy"
commodifying plantlife as a biomass
carbon source is right there in the framing of the United Nations REDD Program
(Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation)
the very concept of "ecosystem services" - the erroneous idea that
we can best protect and preserve biodiversity by putting a price on
it, that all of nature is at our service to use as we please
JC: The new report broadly covers two aspects of the bioeconomy: the
rush on biomass as a feedstock, and the conversion of organic matter
into what you call "a platform of production" through emerging tools
of synthetic biology.
Can you elaborate?
JT: Synthetic biology refers to a set of "extreme genetic
engineering" techniques where you insert synthetic DNA into a cell
to hijack the cell's machinery in order to produce substances that
aren't produced naturally.
It's repurposing simple cells like yeast
and bacteria to create pharmaceutical products, jet fuels, polymers,
synthetic foods. In the last five years, it's moved from being a
fringe science to attracting intense interest and investment.
those who want to turn plant life into high value commodities,
synthetic biology is a game changer - but the game they're changing
is a game we can no longer afford to play.
JC: What are the hazards?
JT: One is, again, the land grab, or rather, an Earth grab, because
ultimately the advocates of the bioeconomy are seeking to gain
control over the full organic production of the planet. A second
hazard is the further concentration of bio-technological power in a
handful of unaccountable private interests.
And of course there's
the frightening possibility of deliberate or accidental
environmental release of synthetic organisms such as crops and
algae, and accidental escape from the biorefineries that are already
being built and operated but are little more than glorified
Since organisms like E Coli, yeast, and algae are
incredibly common, there's the very real possibility of out-crossing
with natural species and contamination of microbial communities in
soils, seas, and animals - including us.
Perhaps most significantly, if it works,
synthetic biology allows
private companies to move the production of natural materials such
as rubber or medicinal compounds out of the hands of farmers working
in fields and into the control of private interests controlling vats
of proprietary microbes.
We are actually seeing that happen with a
For example, Goodyear is using synthetic biology to
make rubber from synthetic yeast. If they can do that at scale it
could impact the economies of rubber-producing nations such as
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
JC: If switching from black energy to
green energy won't save the
climate, what will?
JT: Firstly, restraint on the bloated economies of the north whose
system of overproduction has fueled the collapse of biodiversity,
global inequity and the climate crisis.
Secondly, democratic control
over high-risk and unjust technologies.
Thirdly, measures to
protect and build the resilience of those whose ways of life
actively improve things - that is, the diverse and decentralized
peasant farming systems that rebuild degraded soils, reinforce food
sovereignty, and strengthen community and culture.
These existing bioeconomies, which are
biodiversity-based rather than
biomass-based, do a far better job of cooling the planet in a truly
renewable way than any amount of biomass burners, biofuel
refineries, or chemical factories of genetically-engineered microbes