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Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

UC’s biotech-biofuel benefactors: The power of big finance and bad ideas

Miguel A Altieri, Professor, University of California, Berkeley
Eric Holt-Gimenez, Executive Director, Food First. Oakland
Guerrilla News Network, Feb. 6, 2007

With royal fanfare, British Petroleum just donated big monies in research funds for UC Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and the University of Illinois to develop new sources of energy — primarily biotechnology to produce biofuel crops. This comes on the anniversary of Berkeley’s hapless research deal with seed giant Novartis ten years ago. However, at half a billion dollars, the BP grant dwarfs Novartis’ investment by a factor of ten. The graphics of the announcement were unmistakable: BP’s corporate logo is perfectly aligned with the flags of the Nation, the State, and the University.

CEO/Chairman Robert A. Malone proclaimed BP was “[J]oining some of the world’s best science and engineering talent to meet the demand for low carbon energyŠ we will be working to improve and expand the production of clean, renewable energy through the development of better cropsŠ” This partnership reflects the rapid, unchecked and unprecedented global corporate alignment of the world’s largest agribusiness (ADM, Cargill and Bunge), biotech (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dupont), petroleum (BP, TOTAL, Shell), and automotive industries (Volkswagen, Peugeot, Citroen, Renault, SAAB). With what for them is a relatively small investment, these industries will appropriate academic expertise built over decades of public support, translating into billions in revenues for these global partners.

Could this be a “win-win” agenda for the University, the public, the environment and industry? Hardly. In addition to overwhelming the University’s research agenda, what scientists behind this blatantly private business venture fail to mention, is that the apparent free lunch of crop-based fuel can’t satisfy our energy appetite, and it will not be free, nor environmentally sound.

Dedicating all present U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12% of our gasoline demand and 6% of diesel demand. Total US cropland reaches 625,000 sq.mi. To replace US oil consumption with biofuels we would need 1.4 million sq.mi. of corn for ethanol and 8.8 million sq. mi. of soybean for biodiesel. Biofuels are expected to turn Iowa and South Dakota into corn-importers by 2008.

The biofuel energy balance — the amount of fossil energy put in to producing crop biomass compared to that coming out — is anything but promising. Researchers Patzek and Pimentel see serious negative energy balances with biofuels. Other researchers see only 1.2 to 1.8 fold returns, for ethanol, at best, with the jury still lukewarm on cellulosic biofuels.

Industrial methods of corn and soybean production depend on large scale monocultures. Industrial corn requires high levels of chemical nitrogen fertilizer (largely responsible for the dead zone in Gulf of Mexico) and the herbicide atrazine, an endocrine disruptor. Soybeans require massive amounts of non selective, Roundup herbicide that upsets soil ecology and produces “superweeds.” Both monocultures produce massive topsoil erosion and surface and groundwater pollution from pesticides and fertilizer runoff. Each gallon of ethanol sucks up 3-4 gallons of water in the production of biomass. The expansion of irrigated “fuel on the cob” into drier areas in the Midwest will draw down the already suffering Ogallala aquifer.

One of the more surreptitious industrial motives of the biofuels agenda — and the reason Monsanto and company are key players — is the opportunity to irreversibly convert agriculture to genetically engineered crops (GMOs). Presently, 52% of corn, 89% of soy, and 50% of canola in the US are GMO. The expansion of biofuels with “designer corn” genetically tailored for special ethanol processing plants will remove all practical barriers to the permanent contamination of all non-GMO crops.

Obviously the US can’t satisfy its energy appetite with biofuels. Instead, fuel crops will be grown in the developing world on large scale plantations of sugarcane, oil palm and soybean, which are already replacing primary and secondary tropical forests and grasslands in Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Malaysia. Soybeans have already caused the destruction of over 91 million acres of forests and grasslands in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. To satisfy world market demands, Brasil alone will need to clear 148 million additional acres of forest. Reduction of greenhouse gases is lost when carbon-capturing forests are felled to make way for biofuel crops.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of small-scale peasant farmers are being displaced by soybean expansion. Many more stand to lose their land under the biofuels stampede. Already, the expanding cropland planted to yellow corn for ethanol has reduced the supply of white corn for tortillas in Mexico, sending prices up 400%. This led peasant leaders at the recent World Social Forum in Nairobi to demand, “No full tanks when there are still empty bellies!”

By promoting large scale mechanized monocultures which require agrochemical inputs and machinery, and as carbon-capturing forests are felled to make way for biofuel crops, CO2 emissions will increase not decrease. The only way to stop global warming is to promote small scale organic agriculture and decrease the use of all fuels, which requires major reductions in consumption patterns and development of massive public transportation systems, areas that the University of California should be actively researching and that BP and the other biofuel partners will never invest one penny toward.

The potential consequences for the environment and society of BP’s funding are deeply disturbing. In the wake of the report of the external review of the UCB-Novartis agreement, that recommended that the University not enter into such agreements in the future, how could such a major deal be announced without wide consultation of the UC Faculty? The University has been recruited into a corporate partnership that may irreversibly transform the planet’s food and fuel systems and concentrate tremendous power in the hands of a few corporate partners.

It is up to the citizens of California to hold the University accountable to research that supports truly sustainable alternatives to the energy crisis. A serious public debate on this new program is long overdue.

 

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