Earth Grab


From the Desk of Sheila Petzold, Unitarian Service Committee of Canada

Earth Grab: The rush to make agriculture the new fuel for the global economy

Whether we’re talking about global energy, climate change, food security or commodity trade -- agriculture has quickly taken centre stage in the new global economy.  It’s an economy worth trillions -- and it all starts with plants.
The world’s biggest corporations are rushing to grab and convert living plant matter – called “biomass” --- into fuel, chemicals, and other profitable products. Corn and sugarcane are already being converted to biofuels on a large scale, but trees, grasslands and algae could be next.   The fossil fuel economy is transforming rapidly into a ‘bio-economy’, says Jim Thomas of ETC Group, an international research institute based in Ottawa.  “Plants, trees and forests are the new oil fields.  They’re above the ground, and they’re easy to grab”, says Thomas.  
Thomas, and farm movement leaders from Brazil, Mali and Haiti spoke last week at Earth Grab, a public forum in Montreal to kick of Food Secure Canada’s national conference.
The New Bio-economy:  A ‘red-hot resource grab’.
A recent ETC Group report, “The New Biomassters” shows how global energy, forestry, agribusiness, chemical, and biotech companies are busy constructing a bio-economy built on converting biomass into fuels and other products.  “The emerging global bio-economy is worth trillions, and it threatens to eat up our crops, forests and other plant life,” says Thomas.  “However, what’s being sold as a ‘green’ switch from fossil fuels to plant-based production, is in fact a red-hot resource grab on the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of the peoples of the Global South.” 
That would make Brazil the number one bio-energy oilfield, according to Camila Moreno, of Friends of the Earth, Brazil.  “Brazil wants to become the Saudi Arabia of biofuels”, says Moreno.  “Not only are our country’s land and biomass up for grabs, but Brazilian corporations are actively grabbing land in other countries”, she says.  Sub-Saharan Africa is seen as a second major region for grabbing resources for fuel.
Biomass and Biofuels:  False Solutions to Climate Change?
On the eve of the Cancun climate talks, Moreno says the emphasis on biomass-based energy solutions sidesteps the real issues. “We can’t really address climate change by replacing our fossil fuel addiction with a bio-energy addiction”, she says.  “We actually have to set real targets to reduce our emissions.  And the evidence is piling up that growing crops commercially for fuels could be even more damaging to the environment, and make our carbon footprint worse”.
Biomass and Food Security:  Choosing fuel over hunger?
According to Susan Walsh, Executive Director of USC Canada, just as the demand for corn ethanol led to higher food prices and hunger, the massive biomass-grab will have devastating consequences for people and our environment, here and in developing countries.  
All signs indicate that we could be months away from another devastating global ‘food crisis’ like we witnessed in 2008, says Walsh.  Skyrocketing prices of basic agricultural commodities such as corn and wheat, combined with low reserves for some grains, make the situation highly precarious.
“With additional pressures from climate change, diverting any grain production for biofuels puts food security in direct conflict with energy security”, says Walsh.   “Will our appetite for fuel crush our ability to produce enough food for an ever-hungry world?  What’s more, those who produce 70% of the world’s food – small holder farmers – will be most affected by land and resource grabs, says Walsh. 
Instead, Walsh suggests turning to the world’s majority – small farmers – for real and time-tested solutions that feed people and respond to climate change.  This requires a transformation from ‘industrial’ to ‘ecological’ principles, says Walsh.  “Ecological farming is proven to be far more resilient, socially just, and innovative than the high-input, monoculture model that comes with so many risks, and has a huge ecological footprint” she says. 
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