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Indybay Feature
UC's biotech-biofuel benefactors: The power of big finance and bad ideas
by Prof. Miguel A. Altieri and Eric Holt-Gimenez
Sunday Mar 4th, 2007 1:17 PM
by
Miguel A Altieri, Professor, University of California, Berkeley
Eric Holt-Gimenez, Executive Director, Food First. Oakland

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.
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 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% 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 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 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 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.

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 already replacing primary and secondary
tropical forests and grasslands in Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Ecuador, 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 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%. 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.
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