The new biomassters and their assault on livelihoods
2010-10-07, Issue 499Around the world, corporate and government strategies concerning climate change, energy, agriculture, technology and materials production are increasingly converging around one telling term: biomass.
Biomass encompasses over 230 billion tonnes of living things  that the earth produces every year such as trees, bushes, grasses, algae, crops and microbes. This annual bounty, known as the earth’s ‘primary production’, is most abundantly found in the global South - in tropical oceans, forests and fast growing grasslands. It sustains the livelihoods, cultures and basic needs of most of the world’s inhabitants. So far, human beings use only one quarter of land-based biomass for basic needs and industrial production, and hardly any oceanic biomass, leaving over 90 per cent of the planet’s full biomass production still yet to be commoditised by industrial society.
But now, thanks to technological changes, particularly in the fields of nanotechnology and synthetic biology, this stock of annual biomass is being targeted by industry as a source of living ‘green’ carbon to replace or supplement the supplies of ‘black’ fossil carbons of oil, coal and gas that currently underpin northern industrial economies. From generating electricity to producing fuels, fertilisers and chemicals, shifts are already underway to purportedly elevate the importance of biomass as a critical component in the global industrial economy.
However, what is usually presented as a benign and beneficial switch from black carbon to green carbon is in fact a red hot resource grab (from South to North) in an attempt to capture biomass as a new source of wealth. Plundering the biomass of the South to cheaply run the industrial economies of the North is a deeply unjust aspect of 21st century imperialism that will almost certainly deepen inequality, and exacerbate poverty, hunger, disease and other social problems. Liquidating fragile ecosystems for their carbon and sugar stocks is also a suicidal move on an already overstressed planet. Far from embracing the false promises of a new clean and green bio-economy, we should be extremely wary of the new biomassters and their inflated claims as they launch their latest assault on land, livelihoods and our living world.
Here comes the bio-economy.
It is now over two years since a sharp escalation in food prices created a crisis that broke into front-page headlines around the world. Suddenly, ‘bio-fuels’ was a topic of intense controversy and opposition among rural communities, particularly in the global South. The headlines at the time that focused on industry’s enthusiasm for palm oil and corn ethanol were actually only the visible tip of a much deeper transition and trajectory in industrial policy that is still gaining momentum. That new trajectory, variously called the ‘new bio-economy’ or the bio-based economy, is gathering speed, political clout and many billions of dollars in public subsidies and private investment. Whether it delivers on its promises, the payload of the bio-economy carries even more threat to people, livelihoods and life on the planet than that portended by the ethanol rush.
Bio-economy describes the idea of an industrial order that relies on biological materials, processes and services. Since many existing parts of the global economy are already biologically based (agriculture, fishing, forestry), proponents often talk of a ‘new bio-economy’ to describe their particular re-invention of the global economy - one that more closely enmeshes neoliberal economies and financing mechanisms with new biological technologies and modes of production.
The rhetoric of the ‘new’ bio-economy, however imprecise, is woven throughout current agendas and headlines, wrapped in the post-millennial buzzwords of the ‘green economy’, ‘clean tech’ and ‘clean development’ that permeate environmental, industrial and development policies. When described in these contexts the new bio-economy appears positively: ‘clean’, ‘green’, ‘fair’, ‘profitable’, ‘modern’ and ‘renewable’.
But an assault on older ‘bio-based’ economies is hiding in the rhetoric. Standing in the way of a new bio-economy are the billions of people who have preexisting claims on the land and coastal waters where biomass grows. Their knowledge systems are interdependent with a complex array of organisms that sustain us all: the biomass that has nurtured and been nurtured through millennia. Such communities co-exist in a traditional bio-economy, using seeds for food production, firewood and animals for energy, and harnessing local biodiversity for material and medicinal needs.
Indeed, those diverse biological organisms that are now recast as ‘biomass’ are not merely an inert resource for livelihoods and survival, but are interdependent with the communities that nurture them. To those who have found themselves on the receiving end of new industrial waves before, the story of a new bio-economy is all too familiar. It is yet another heist on the commons that will displace them and destroy their homes and livelihoods. Despite promises of ‘development’, human progress, and environmental rescue, the ‘new’ bio-economy is in fact another strategy to advance the corporate interests of the North.
The new bio-economy as currently planned by forestry, agribusiness biotech, and energy and chemical firms furthers the ongoing transformation and enclosure of the natural world by appropriating plant matter for transformation into industrial commodities so they perform as industrial factories, and redefining and refitting ecosystems as if they were just another set of industrial support ‘services’.
The same transnational companies who fostered dependence on the petroleum economy during the 20th century are now establishing themselves as the new biomassters. If that coup is completed, many familiar corporate players will still be sitting at the head of the global economic order. But whether their cars run on biofuel, their computers run on bioelectricity and their credit cards are made of bioplastic, they will still have achieved a controlling clutch on the natural systems upon which we all depend.
What is being switched?
‘Many think of biomass mainly as a source for liquid fuel products such as ethanol and biodiesel. But biomass can also be converted to a multitude of products we use every day. In fact, there are very few products that are made today from a petroleum base, including paints, inks, adhesives, plastics and other value-added products, that cannot be produced from biomass.’ - David K. Graman, US acting under-secretary to energy, science and environment for George W. Bush. 
A simple way to understand the ambition of the new biomass economy is to glance at a list of products and services currently being produced with fossil fuels. Then, imagine each sector switching its feedstock from fossilised to living plant matter.
Transport fuels: Currently an estimated 70 per cent of petroleum ends up as liquid fuels for cars, trucks, airplanes and heating. Biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel mark just the beginning of converting the liquid fuel market to biomass. A next generation of hydrocarbon biofuels directly mimics gasoline and jet fuel.
Electricity: Coal, natural gas and petroleum are currently responsible for 67 per cent of global electricity production (International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics, 2008). However, co-firing of coal with biomass is on the increase and there is a growing move in many industrial cities to burn woodchips, vegetable oils and municipal waste as the fuel for electricity production. Meanwhile, corporate interests are investigating ways to use nano cellulose and synthetic bacteria to make electric current from living cells, turning biomass to electricity without the need for turbines.
Chemicals and plastics: Currently around 10 per cent of global petroleum reserves are converted into plastics and petrochemicals. However, to hedge against rising petroleum prices, large chemical companies such as Du Pont are setting ambitious targets to switch to supposedly ‘renewable’ biomass feedstocks such as sugar for the production of bioplastics, textiles, fine and bulk chemicals.
Fertiliser: Global fertiliser production via the Haber Bosch process is an intensive user of natural gas. Proponents of biochar (carbonised biomass) claim that they have a bio-based replacement for improving soil fertility that could be produced on an industrial scale.
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