UC’s Biotech Benefactors: The power of big finance and bad ideas
With royal fanfare, British Petroleum just donated $500 million in research funds for UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory 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 10. 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 “joining some of the world’s best science and engineering talent to meet the demand for low carbon energy … we will be working to improve and expand the production of clean, renewable energy through the development of better crops…” 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 or environmentally sound.
Dedicating all present U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12 percent of our gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand. Total U.S. cropland reaches 625,000 square miles. To replace U.S. oil consumption with biofuels, we would need 1.4 million square miles of corn for ethanol and 8.8 million square miles of soybean for biodiesel. Biofuels are expected to turn Iowa and South Dakota into corn-importers by 2008.
Dedicating all present U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12 percent of our gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand.
The biofuel energy balance—the amount of fossil energy put into 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 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 produce “superweeds.” Both monocultures produce massive topsoil erosion and surface and groundwater pollution from pesticides and fertilizer runoff. Each gallon of ethanol sucks up three to four 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 percent of corn, 89 percent of soy, and 50 percent of canola in the United States is 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.
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Obviously the United States 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 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.
Obviously the United States 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 already replacing primary and secondary tropical forests and grasslands in Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Ecuador and Malaysia.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of small-scale peasant farmers are being displaced by soybeans 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 percent. 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 towards.
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 plant’s food and fuel systems and concentrating 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.
Miguel A. Altieri is a professor at UC Berkeley and Eric Holt-Giménez is Executive Director of Food First.