Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles on concerns arising from UC Berkeley $500 million biofuel program. Part 1 ran in the Nov. 20 issue.
Supporters of the $500 million biofuel research pact between UC Berkeley and British oil giant BP have compared it to the Manhattan Project.
And one inevitable parallel stems from the visions of cheap, world-saving energy supplies promised from the technology spawned by that massive World War II effort to build war-ending nuclear weapons.
“Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter” declared Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chair Lewis L. Strauss to science writers in 1964, promising as well as the end of “great periodic regional famines in the world.”
And all of it the gift of nuclear power.
The AEC, eloquent promoter of nuclear power in the 20th century, was later renamed and elevated to cabinet status as the Department of Energy, today the ultimate sponsor of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where the BP-sponsored Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) will be headquartered.
It’s the very same lab was the site of critical discoveries at the dawn of the atomic era, further cementing the Manhattan Project legacy.
But a look backward at the history of atomic energy reveals a different and far more complex story, with a darker legacy woven in.
While nuclear reactors do supply a significant portion of Europe’s electricity, the atomic legacy has also created massive contamination and hazards. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island weren’t factored into the original equations, nor the legacies of radiation-contaminated water and farmlands and the threats of cancer and long-term debilities.
So too the promised energy bonanzas flowing from the Berkeley and Illinois labs of the Energy Biosciences Institute may have other legacies, perhaps those raised by critics such as UC Berkeley scientists Miguel Altieri and Ignacio Chapela.
They and other scientists and social researchers warn of biological hazards and charge that lands which grow food to feed hungry billions in the Third World will be co-opted by corporate giants to sate the fuel demands of American vehicles, leading to grave social consequences.
Land and patents
Critics of what EBI and its proponents call biofuels use another word to describe fuels harvested from planted crops: Agrofuels.
Environmental activists and supporters of indigenous people and the poor campesinos of Latin America charge that large-scale growing of genetically engineered crops for fuels have already scarred the global landscape, threatened critical food supplies and led to shootings of indigenous peoples who resist the powerful owners of the vast plantations of South America.
Soy plantation owners of Paraguay—the people behind the 2005 shootings witnessed by a UC Davis doctoral student—are recent Brazilian immigrants who have been buying up small tracts and consolidating the land into same kinds of plantations already thriving in their former homeland.
Brazilian government raiders earlier this year freed more than a thousand slaves on plantations where sugar cane is grown to produce ethanol, currently the world’s leading agrofuel.
Meanwhile, Monsanto has found itself in confrontations with Latin American countries where it contends that its patented pesticide-resistant soy strains are being planted illegally on biofuel plantations without payment of royalties to the North American patent holder.
That St. Louis-based company is also a major funding source for the private research company created by Chris Somerville, executive director of EBI.
Critics contend that the high prices paid for patented seeds of Monsanto and other gene-tweaking companies are too high for small farmers, driving them from the land and paving the way for a new era of giant latifundia.
During a June breakfast meeting of the United States Energy Association, Berkeley nuclear physicist Dan Kammen, who sits on EBI’s executive committee, said that BP had already funded three Berkeley students to head to India and Africa in search of native plants—“germ plasm,” in Kammen’s words—that might serve as new fuel crops.
Kammen told the gathering that “from the beginning,” EBI researchers would be “looking at the social dynamics that you’ve got to work with, not against, to make sure the fuels that you start to work on are supported by communities (and) lead to better food security.”
Kammen’s own lab is in Nairobi, Kenya.
U.S. land worries
As for the U.S., EBI’s Somerville told the gathering that most crops for domestic biofuel production would be grown “east of the Mississippi [where] there is adequate rainfall to grow very highly productive species.”
That focus was the reason that led UC Berkeley and LBNL to team up with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), in the heart of America’s farm belt.
While EBI backers say the farmlands will be marginal for food crops, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations warn that Acting Secretary of
griculture Chuck Conner has announced that he is thinking of opening up some of the country’s most environmentally sensitive protected lands to farming because of the push for agrofuels.
Conner’s department may allow farmers to withdraw from the 22-year-old Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) without incurring the currently mandated penalties.
Farmers have currently enrolled 34 million acres of easily eroded land in the CRP program, acreage which environmentalists say provides critically needed wildlife habitat.
Crops and GMOs
The major research effort of EBI seeks an economical way to make fuels from plant fiber, rather than the more easily refined sugars found in the juices of such crops as corn, soybeans and sugarcane—currently the main staples of ethanol production.
They also seek more efficient fuels than ethanol, which is considerably less energy-charged than gasoline and other petroleum distillates.
The EBI’s project relies heavily on genetic modification to produce both the “feedstock,” as fuel-makers refer to crops, and the microorganisms they plan to engineer to break down the complex sugars in plant fibers for refinement into fuels.
While Somerville has focused on switchgrass, Steve Long, another member of the EBI executive committee, focused on another grass, miscanthus, in his lab at UIUC.
“Steve has calculated that, in his plots in Illinois, that on an annual basis he’s getting about two percent of the solar energy fixed by the plants into useful energy,” said Somerville.
If production proves feasible at those levels, he said, “we’re talking slightly more than one percent of the terrestrial surface to meet all human fuel needs. That’s why so many of us feel optimistic about the long-term potential of the field.”
But research projects aimed at creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have emerged as a stormy political issue across the globe because they give ownership of the stuff of life to corporations which create an economy of scale that favors massive plantations in place of traditional small holdings.
Other concerns focus on the wisdom of large-scale introduction of man-made genes into a vastly complex biosphere, while others worry that GMOs could produce unknown forms of illness.
EBI boss Somerville has ridiculed GMO health fears, contending that the worst result that's ever happened “has been a mild rash,” while opponents cite reports of intestinal ailments in GMO-fed animals killed to provide meat for human tables. Others point to the infiltration of GMO strains into native foodstuffs, an issue which almost cost Chapela his job at UCB.
Economic pressures resulting from GMO rice strains in India have led to suicide, and Australia currently bans GMO crops, while three million Italians just signed a petition calling for a ban on GMOs in their country.
But GMOs have played little part in the media coverage of EBI.
While the EBI proponents say they are confident they can develop crops that will reduce the global emissions of the greenhouse gasses cited as the key factor in the ongoing global warming crisis, other scientists aren’t convinced.
Leading biofuel critics include Rajendra K. Pachauri, chair of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change—the organization which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.
The two best-known American biofuel critics are UC Berkeley’s Tad Patzek and David Pimentel of Cornell University.
They have been joined by Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), who has urged immediate adoption of standards that ensure that biofuel crop production doesn’t lead to destruction of more rain forests.
Forests in Steiner’s native country of Brazil have been cleared to make way for fields planted in genetically modified soybeans and for sugarcane.
Steiner also told BBC news that biofuel producers should be required to prove their fuels don’t produce more carbon dioxide emissions than they eliminate.
Burning of forests to make way for palm trees for biofuel production have sent CO2 emissions soaring in Indonesia, as well as destroying the habitats of endangered species, including the orangutan.
Meanwhile, BP is hedging its bets. On Nov. 5 the company announced that it was funding collaborative research at Arizona State University on transforming photosynthetic cyanobacteria into a feedstock for high energy transportation fuels.
While no dollar amount was revealed, the university described the project as “significant.”
BP also provides $1 million a year to the University of Texas as part of energy consortium which hopes to develop microscopic “nanosensors” to map oilfields.