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Corporations, agro-fuels and GM seeds

Corporations, agro-fuels and GM seeds


Silvia Ribeiro, La Jornada, Rebelion, September 16th 2007

The wave of bio-fuels continues to advance, not because it is good for the environment or offers some solution to global climate change - de facto it will worsen it - but rather because the most powerful industries on the planet see it as a source of juicy profits and so make sure that many governments help them with laws and subsidies. The main interests are the motor vehicle companies (who hope that with the new fuel people will have to change their cars), the oil companies (who control fuel distribution), the companies controlling world grain production (who will win both from increased demand for bio-fuels and from higher prices for foods trying to compete with them) and the multinationals producing genetically modified agricultural products.

Other sectors on the lookout for bio-fuel business are the big forestry and cellulose multinationals (Stora Enso, Aracruz, Arauco, Botnia, Ence and others), currently producing for the paper industry, but who with minimal technological changes can convert production to ethanol processing plants. Likewise, the industrial producers of cattle and chicken feed concentrate like Tyson Foods have made alliances with oil companies (in Tyson's case with Conoco-Phillips) to make bio-diesel from animal fat.

Why the multinational interest in genetically manipulated (GM) seeds? To begin with they are practically the same outfits that control most of the sales of commercial seeds. Currently, all the GM seeds commercially sown in the world are controlled by Monsanto (about 90%), Syngenta, Dupont, Bayer, Dow and BASF. At the same time the top three, Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont, together own 44 per cent of the sales of patented seeds worldwide. If they manage to consolidate new sales niches "needing" their patented seeds, they will increase their profits and their control of seed - key to the whole human and animal food chain - with a venture into another key sector : fuels.

All the transnationals that control GM seeds already have investment in research and development on bio-fuels. The majority are GM crops with a high oil content, like sugar or starch, but also with enzymes and GM bacteria which would be incorporated into crops or trees so as to accelerate post-harvest processing.

Those transnationals already win a great deal with the expansion of bio-fuels, for example with the devastating growth of GM soya cultivation in the Southern Cone and throughout Brazil and with the growth of GM maize in the US. With the advent of their use for biofuels, or in some cases combining forage and fuels, they hope to introduce new GM seeds to the market. Such seed would certainly be unable to get approval from regulatory agencies for human consumption, thus introducing new risks of contamination of crops and grains for human use.
But above all, this handful of multinationals dominating world seed markets aims at taking ownership of more of their existing market at the same time as they extend it towards small farmers who currently use little or no commercial seed but, with the bait of contract planting to produce bio-fuels, will begin to do so.

All this is creating new powerful corporate alliances. For example, Monsanto and Dow have just signed an agreement to create GM seeds that will combine in the same plant both resistance to 8 herbicides as well as making them insecticides. This in part reflects the recognition that GM seeds create resistance to herbicides and therefore require more and more. And if the seeds are not for human use it will be possible to use more toxic herbicides in greater quantities.

Monsanto also allied with BASF with an investment of US$1.5bn to create new GM seeds for maize, soya, cotton and canola. Together with Cargill it created the Renessen company dedicated to GM maize and soya for biofuels and forage. For Monsanto all this means augmenting its monopoly as it tries to displace its nearest competitors, Syngenta and Dupont, from the biofuel market.

For its part Dupont created with Bunge (one of the world's biggest cereal companies) the Treus company dedicated to maize and soya hybrids for biofuels and also made an alliance with British Petroleum to produce ethanol from wheat and bio-butanol. Syngenta signed a 10-year collabortion deal with the Diversa Corporation (a worldwide bio-pirate of micro-organisms) to develop GM enzymes for production of ethanol, either for incorporation straight into seeds or during processing. Syngenta works with sugar cane producers in Brazil on this and is the first of the giant GM companies to seek approval in the United States for a maize with an enzyme specially designed for biofuels.

The next step in this escalating threat to humanity and the planet's common good for the sake of private profit is synthetic biology, seeking to create living entities built from scratch. For example, Synthetic Genomics, the company created by controversial geneticist Craig Ventner, is working on the creation of totally artificial living organisms for producing energy.
Along with the plans of multinationals and scientists in the service of unscrupulous profit, resistance and awareness on a global scale is growing. With all that is at stake, it will without any doubt be a hard battle.

*************

Sylvia Ribeiro is a researcher of the ETC Group

translations copyleft Tortilla Con Sal

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