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Biomass is the next biofuel 'land grab' on tropical forests, warn campaigners

Tom Levitt

5th December, 2011

Just as biofuels have gobbled up farmland that should have been growing food so the push on biomass by Monsanto, Cargill and others will see an 'unprecedented' grab on land, plants and biodiverse-rich forests

The world is on the brink of a new land grab, with companies like Cargill and Monsanto part of a wider attempt to 'grab' control of the productive capacity of the planet, argues a new book 'Earth Grab'.

So far humans use one-quarter of the planet's land-based biomass, essentially the earth's living matter, to provide food, heat and shelter.

Corporate plans for the coming 'green economy' will transform the earth's biomass, including grasses, woodchip and algae into the next generation of biofuels. We've already started using it to create biofuels, but thanks to technological advances we'll soon be able to use much more of it for generating electricity, fertilisers and chemicals.

The result, according to the authors, will be a grab on the planet's last remaining suitable biomass, mostly biodiverse-rich tropical forests in Africa, Asia and South America.

'What is being sold as a benign and beneficial switch from black carbon to green carbon is in fact a red-hot resource grab from the global north to south to capture a new source of wealth,' explains the book written by the campaigning ETC Group.

The remaining global biomass is already struggling to carry out the ecological functions needed to stablise the planet, such as regulating the atmosphere, recycling water and nitrogen and replenishing the soils.

This book, like other research, questions the ability of the earth to support large-scale schemes to substitute biomass for fossil fuels while continuing to perform vital ecosystem services. 'Unlike coal or petroleum, biomass already has an essential role in a greener future - as living plants not as dead plastics,' one of the book's authors Jim Thomas has argued.

'Just as the first generation of biofuels have gobbled up farmland that should have been prioritised for food production, so the bigger requirements for biomass in this coming bioeconomy will see a grab on plants and land on an unprecedented scale in order to keep the new bioeconomy satiated with feedstocks,' adds Thomas.

Citing the example of sugar cane in Brazil, Thomas says the chemical-intensive and water-hungry crop is harvested by an 'army of landless mistreated workers, many in slave conditions' and that the expansion of the crop to furnish the bioeconomy has come at the expense of the fragile Cerrado, a biodiverse watershed region that supplies the Amazon.

Sugar cane expansion is also pushing other production such as soya deeper into the Amazon rainforest.

'Pillaging fragile ecosystems for their carbon and sugar stocks is a murderous move on an already overstressed planet. Instead of embracing the false promises of a new clean green bioeconomy, civil society should reject the new biomassters and their latest assault on land, livelihoods and our living world,' concludes the book.

Who are the new Biomassters?

Forestry and agribusiness giants that already control land and biological resources worldwide are at the forefront of developing the bioeconomy and the new market in biomass, including Cargill, Bunge and Tate & Lyle.

High-tech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta are providing the new tools to transform, measure and exploit the biological world, helping to develop genetic information as a commodity.

Pharma, chemical and energy companies including DuPont, BASF, Shell, BP and ExxonMobil are partnering with the new bio-entrepreneurs to switch their production processes and feedstock sourcing.

Financial services companies and investment banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are drawing up new ecosystem securities, trading markets and land investments.

Consumer products and food companies including Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and Coca-Cola are turning to biobased products, packagaing and ingrediets to make 'green' marketing claims.

'Earth Grab' is published by Pambazuka Press

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