By ETC Group
A massive, deliberate grab on all of Earth's plant life is now underway and accelerating.

This grab on power and plants has in its sights capturing the entire 'primary production' of the planet - that is the full amount of new plant life grown in a year. It aims to collect as much of this as possible for energy, transform it into high value chemicals, fuels, and new "green" materials and ultimately to re-engineer the plants themselves, both to increase their productivity and to reap profits in so-called "ecosystem services".

This grab comes as part of an audacious attempt by high tech companies, in concert with fuel, forestry and agribusiness giants, to capture new market segments while transforming the most abundant organic compounds on the planet - sugars - into a new commodity stream. Many other industrial sectors, including fertilizer companies, coal, pharma, pulp and paper and the nanotechnology industry will also reap profits in the process.  The means for this coup is to progressively replace fossil hydrocarbons (coal, oil, gas) with living carbohydrates (plants) as the principal feedstock of the global economy while monetizing the ecological value of flora, fauna and so-called 'ecosystem services' that underpin biomass production.

The ETC Group report, to be released this spring, is a first attempt to uncover and describe the full scope of that biomass coup before it is too late. It is also an urgent call for resistance. It documents the outlines of an emerging new "biomass economy" that has so far received plenty of investment and political support but very little critical analysis. To date this emerging "bio-based economy" has been largely hyped as a green and clean shift away from petroleum dependence.

The Biomassters report does not dispute or defend the deadly role that fossil fuels have played over the last 200 years, or the toxic legacy of coal, fossil oil and petroleum-based chemicals. Nor does it seek to denigrate the appropriate and sustainable biomass-based economies that traditional communities have arranged themselves in for millennia. Those are now perilously under threat and will become even more so as the new biomass economy gathers momentum. ETC Group is concerned however that in the rush to exit the fossil nightmare well-meaning decision makers (and some elements of civil society) are running headlong into the arms of an equally dangerous alternative that is unjust, unhealthy and unsustainable. That alternative vision assumes that it is possible to maintain current levels of consumption and economic growth while safely switching from fossil carbon sources to a biomass-based economy.  This assumption is wrong. As this report demonstrates biomass use and production have very precise limits on our finite Earth.

A rough budgetary analysis of the planet's available stocks of plant material, accounting for those that must remain untouched for ecosystems to continue functioning, shows that far from having plentiful biomass at our disposal to achieve such a transition, we are in what has been called "earth overshoot" - already appropriating more plant matter than we have available for our use - an ecological 'credit crunch' with dire implications.

Attempting such a crude switch from fossil carbon to biomass will further erode the rights, security and sovereignty of the world's most vulnerable people while worsening rather than solving the multiple environmental crises of climate change, species extinction, water depletion, nitrogen buildup and biodiversity loss. Furthermore, food sovereignty will be deeply eroded as southern countries give over land to producing biomass for the new bio-economy.

The ETC report describes the range of products and services that are switching from fossil carbon feed stocks to biomass. This includes the increased use of biomass for heat and power, particularly the large-scale adoption of biomass burning for generating bio-electricity. It examines the upswing of activity and production in the bio-fuels sector and the switch to bio-based chemicals by the chemicals and plastics industry, as well as proposals to bring all of these areas of production together in what is known as 'integrated bio-refineries, mega facilities that will simultaneously transform harvested plant life and other biomass into heat, power, fuels, chemicals, plastics and fertilizer.

The Report predicts that as the biomass industry attempts to overcome natural barriers to biomass production, corporations will increasingly move into the field of geo-engineering to boost the planet's primary production, expanding plantations, developing algal/ocean biomass options, re-engineering biomass crops and attempting to speed up natural cycles (e.g. nitrogen fixing bacteria, biochar etc). In attempting to address the shortfall of biomass the new biomassters will attempt to develop highly managed synthetic ecosystems that would displace wildlands and traditionally stewarded agri-ecosystems with massive implications for biodiversity, human rights and livelihoods.

The ETC report will be published in the spring of 2010.  For more information on ETC Group see:

ETC Group addresses the socioeconomic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies that could have an impact on the world's poorest and most vulnerable. We investigate ecological erosion (including the erosion of cultures and human rights); the development of new technologies (especially agricultural but also new technologies that work with genomics and matter); and we monitor global governance issues including corporate concentration and trade in technologies. We operate at the global political level. We work closely with partner civil society organizations (CSOs) and social movements, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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