Public Comment

Commentary: Oakland Should Not Bet on the Wrong ‘Green’ Horse

By Nazreen Kadir
Tuesday December 18, 2007

I can understand why Oakland’s elected officials would want to be seen as team players in the Bay Area Green Corridor grand scheme. After all, Oakland was not even included in the biosciences industry Bay Area life sciences strategic planning several years back, yet when it was time to lobby for the stem cell institute to be located in the Bay Area, the same industry lobby wasted no time obtaining letters from Oakland City Council members endorsing the project and offering up land in Oakland. Earlier this year, an outside consulting firm, linked to the same industry lobby, referred to Oakland as a “hole-in-a-donut” when it comes to promoting technological innovation. 

The same industry lobby is now pushing the bio-fuels agenda. But Oakland should not be fooled by the massive infusion of greenbacks that British Petroleum is using to green-wash its genetically-engineered agri-fuel crops bio-fuels agenda. There’s nothing green in propagating genetically-engineered switchgrass all over the planet, the British Petroleum and the U.S. Department of Energy’s national labs’ vision for replacing fossil fuel oil. The people of Oakland will not benefit from this, economically, except for a handful of venture capitalists, university faculty scientists, and patent attorneys. The unemployed and underemployed, who their elected officials should focus on if they really want to reduce poverty and crime, will not benefit from this green corridor hype. No reduction in carbon emissions and asthma in West Oakland will occur from this scientific research scheme. Even the World Bank has cast doubts on this technology in its recent agriculture-focused world development report. The United Nations has asked for a five-year moratorium on bio-fuels. Germany’s Tinplant Biotechnik sold its switchgrass germplasm collection to British Petroleum-backed Mendel Biotechnology (one of the chief players in the University of California’s deal with British Petroleum) after it conducted field tests of GM-switchgrass in Southern Germany. The United Kingdom, British Petroleum’s homeland, will not grow this; the European Union will not support this; Australia will not pollute its continent with this; and Oakland should not support this technology-based “green” imperial strategy. It will not lead to sustainability on the planet. 

British Petroleum has informed the U.S. government that bio-refineries will need to be located within 30 miles of where the genetically-engineered agri-fuel crops will be grown. The company is banking on convincing poor farmers in the developing countries, especially in Africa, that this ‘economic development plan’ will lift them out of poverty. Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is reported to have stated that Africa should be converted to a bio-fuels production zone. This would be the same old cheap labor, export-led exploitation scheme. Richard Branson’s, owner of Virgin Airlines, interview in the New Yorker magazine early this year revealed his neo-colonial survival-of-the-richest bias in the global oil depletion scenario. The West is running scared and scrambling for solutions on the backs of the poor.  

The truth of the matter is that the United States Armed Forces is a big consumer of oil. One wonders how much oil was consumed in invading Iraq, in order to control the flow of Middle East oil. This seems a hole-in-the-head strategy if greening the planet was a priority. Of course, the big oil companies, including British Petroleum, have been war-profiteers from this failed strategy. Under the British Petroleum-backed-Amyris-influenced and British Petroleum-led Proprietary Component of the flawed University of California deal, may flow some designer bugs that may be used in bio-warfare, since genetic re-engineering of organisms using systems biology is what Amyris brings to the research, but don’t expect alternative fuel anytime soon from this deal. This is not an ecological systems biology approach. And the Mendel folks are looking to add value to their switchgrass germplasm collection they purchased from Tinplant; the latter collected germplasm from various countries while it was a public nursery collective and subsequently privatized the collection prior to the sale. What better place than the largest university patent machinery than the University of California? Patent license and royalty fees are part of the proposed bio-fuels economic development model.  

But a similar patent license plan failed in the U.S. cotton belt when Monsanto tried it with Bt-cotton, and it will surely fail in the developing countries. It may succeed in China, so that’s where the research should be tried; not here with scientists imported from China. Patent license fees was the same bait that the same industry lobby used with the State of California to push through the stem cell proposition, then the same University of California switched its tune after the public bond funding was approved, claiming its patent ownership privileges under the Bayh-Dole Act.  

Oakland may be viewed as the hole-in-the-donut, but, hopefully, the people of Oakland have their morals, integrity, and priorities intact. Its current Mayor played a major part in the move to end apartheid in South Africa. Its U.S. Congresswoman was a sole voice opposing the Iraq invasion. Its elected city officials should not buy into a “green” pyramid scheme that may end up like the bust and exploit poor people. It should not bet on the British Petroleum greenback horse. 


Nazreen Kadir is a scholar in science and public policy at the Western Institute of Social Research.