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New fuels, same old bio-piracy

New fuels, same old bio-piracy

by Silvia Ribeiro, Mientras Tanto, in Rebelión

In recent months, critical reports from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, international institutions crucial in developing neoliberalism, have joined numerous voices from civil society warning of the social, economic and environmental impact of the new wave of biofuels.

One of the explanations for the sudden apparent fit of conscience of that type of organization is that, cloaked in those criticisms, they can promote as a solution new technologies with high risks for the environment and for society but big profits for those who control them. These institutions refrain from asking about fundamental problems like the matrix for energy production and the enormous inequalities of consumption and impacts.

On the other hand, they try and make us think that the "solution" will be technological, via, for example, a "second generation" of biofuels. To that end, they promote and justify (with no real proof of their usefulness nor any mention of their impact) genetically manipulated crops and trees along with the development of even worse technologies like synthetic biology or "extreme genetic engineering" as we in the ETC Group call it.

Synthetic biology, the synthetic creation of DNA, proposes to build living artificial micro-organisms, or to change existing micro-organisms' natural metabolisms with artificial sequences of DNA, so as to process cellulose more efficiently or to produce new fuels. Under the pretext of saving the planet from global warming but with the real motive of taking advantage of global crises to make bigger profits, they have not the least scruple in trying to create hitherto unknown living beings with unpredictable effects.

One example of this kind of activity is the contract announced on April 22nd this year between Amyris Biotechnologies and the Brazilian sugar and ethanol group Crystalsev which proposes to process sugarcane with altered micro-organisms for the production of bio-diesel.

Another example, more directly related to Mexico is the Synthetic Genomics company, created by the controversial geneticist Craig Ventner in 2005 with capital from Monterey businessman Alfonso Romo and the participation of another Mexican, biotechnologist Juan Enríquez Cabot. In June 2007, they allied with the oil company BP to develop synthetic biology and artificial life for biofuels.The most important Mexican contribution to Ventner's private profit was made by Valeria Souza, a researcher in the Ecology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

In fact, the reserve of microbe resources Ventner's business has available for its experiments in synthetic biology and the millions of profits it augurs, derives from the global journeying Ventner has done sailing the planet's megadiverse seas, taking samples of microbial life in his laboratory ship, Sorcerer 2. Ventner alleged his expedition was "non-profit".

Suspicious, with good reason, other countries' authorities, including Ecuador, Polynesia and Australia, demanded that he sign extensive contracts to prevent the privatization and commercial use of the resources he obtained. They have not been very effective in impeding Ventner's commercial objectives.

But in Mexico he had no trouble at all. It sufficed for him to establish a "collaboration" with Souza - not even with the institution where she does her research - which seems, in exchange for her name in some publications, to have facilitated permission for scientific collection so as to carry off samples of microbe life unique to Yucatán, with no more control than a "declaration of understanding" from Ventner's institution, now defunct.

Valeria Souza already had a similar antecedent, having facilitated studies and extraction of microbe resources unique to Cuatro Ciénagas in Cohauila for the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Paradoxically, NASA, among other things, was looking for extremophyle micro-organisms, as too was the Diversa Corporation. Diversa did in fact sign a contract with the UNAM - to extract much less than what Souza enabled Ventner to carry off - but this was cancelled because the Federal Office for Environmental Protection declared that UNAM could not take decisions about the Mexican Federation's genetic resources.

In the Souza-Ventner case, much shadier and broader with regard to both the resources extracted and the procedure undertaken, as well as the vast repercussions of their possible future use, neither the UNAM nor the authorities have taken any measures at all. It is not too late to do so.


Silvia Ribeiro is a researcher for the Erosion, Technology and Concentration Group -

Translation copyleft Tortilla con Sal

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