Who will control the Green Economy? Who will control the Green Economy?

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In the lead-up to the June 2012 Earth Summit (Rio+20), the notion of a “great green technological transformation” enabling a “green economy” is being widely promoted as the key to our planet’s survival.3 The big idea is to replace the extraction of petroleum with the exploitation of biomass (food and fibre crops, grasses, forest residues, plant oils, algae, etc.). Proponents envision a post-petroleum future where industrial production (of plastics, chemicals, fuels, drugs, energy, etc.) depends – not on fossil fuels – but on biological feedstocks transformed through high technology bioengineering platforms. Many of the world’s largest corporations and most powerful governments are touting the use of new technologies

  • including genomics, nanotechnology and synthetic biology
  • to transform biomass into high-value products.




The greatest storehouses of terrestrial and aquatic biomass are located across the global South, and they are safeguarded primarily by the peasant farmers, livestock-keepers, fisher people and forest dwellers whose livelihoods depend on them. ETC Group warns that the bioeconomy will spur even greater convergence of corporate power and unleash the most massive resource grab in more than 500 years. The corporate “BioMassters” are poised to commodify nature on an unprecedented scale, destroy biodiversity and displace marginalized peoples.




The quest to secure biomass (and the technology platforms that can transform it) is driving corporate alliances and creating new constellations of corporate power. Major players include: Big Energy (Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell, Total); Big Pharma (Roche, Merck); Big Food & Ag (Unilever, Cargill, DuPont, Monsanto, Bunge, Procter & Gamble); Big Chemical (Dow, DuPont, BASF); and the Mightiest Military (the US military).



In the face of climate chaos, financial and ecological meltdowns, and pervasive hunger, governments preparing for Rio+20 will be eager to embrace a technological transformation (of any color) that promises a politically expedient Plan B for the planet. But if business as usual is not an option, governance as usual is not an option either. New, more socially and ecologically sustainable economic models are needed to safeguard the integrity of planetary systems for our and future generations. Authoritative and innovative anti-trust mechanisms (that do not currently exist) must be created to rein in corporate power. International policymakers must bridge the current disconnect between food security, agriculture and climate policy – especially by supporting food sovereignty as the overall framework for addressing these issues. All negotiations must be informed by strong participation of social movements and civil society. In the absence of bold action by governments and the creation of new governance structures, the Green Economy will perpetuate the Greed Economy.


What’s in this report and why

Where we’ve been


For more than 30 years, ETC Group (first as RAFI) has monitored corporate mergers & acquisitions (M&As) in the agro-industrial food chain. Throughout the 1970s, we witnessed petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies (e.g., Royal Dutch/Shell, Occidental Petroleum, Ciba-Geigy, Union Carbide, Upjohn Pharmaceutical) scoop up thousands of small, family-owned seed companies. By the 1980s, a “life industry” had emerged – seeds, agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals (both livestock and human) – which became all the more entangled by the development and commercialisation of proprietary biotechnologies (genetic engineering). Corporate concentration in the commercial seed sector meant a dramatic loss of genetic diversity as companies offered only the most profitable lines of seeds for sale and abandoned the rest. Intellectual property regimes (primarily patents and Plant Breeders’ Rights) soon extended to all biological products and processes, and further rewarded uniformity.


With the privatisation of plant breeding, public breeding programs withered, reinforcing corporate consolidation in the seed and agrochemical industry. Throughout the 1990s, the life industry was shaken by a dizzying number of M&As and corporate spin-offs. Monsanto, for example, traditionally known as a chemical corporation, merged with pharmaceutical company Pharmacia & Upjohn (which was itself the product of a 1995 merger).4 Monsanto was spun off as an independent company focusing on agrochemicals and seeds two years later. Keeping up with corporate M&As is more than just a tedious intellectual exercise, however. M&As mean big money changing hands – 2009 saw 64,981 M&A deals across the globe worth $3.6 trillion5 – but the implications of the capital shuffle can’t be understood in isolation. By the early 1980s, for example, it was well known that the petrochemical industry’s motivation for its aggressive and decade-long acquisition of seed companies was to sell seed and agrochemicals together as a package deal.6 It was a new technology – specifically, the genetic engineering of plants to tolerate proprietary herbicides and pesticides – that turned vision into reality.


Where we are and where we’re going


Today we may be on the cusp of the boldest and most ambitious corporate/techno coup to-date. At the turn of the millennium, the vision of a bio-based economy began taking shape: the capture of living (or recently-alive) matter, referred to as biomass, and its transformation into high-value products. The nascent biomass economy quickly acquired a patina of ‘green,’ promising to solve the problem of Peak Oil, to arrest climate change and to usher in an era of sustainable development. A diverse group of advocates – governments, corporations, venture capitalists, some NGOs – is promoting the technologies that make (or will make) it possible to convert biomass into commercial products.  These technologies include genetic engineering, synthetic biology and nanotechnology.


Proponents argue that today less than one-quarter of the Earth’s annual supply of terrestrial biomass reaches the commercial market, leaving behind three-quarters of it – primarily in the South – as a green but ripe commodity, ready to be plucked. The resource grab reflected in today’s M&As– especially in the South – is largely driven by the quest to achieve “raw material security:” the acquisition of strategic natural resources that include arable land, traditional bulk commodities, mined minerals and metals, and now generic plant material for biomass feedstocks. Many of the actors promoting the bioeconomy are also calling for market-based mechanisms to allow the quantification and then commodification of the Earth’s natural processes, re-branded as ‘ecosystem services’ (the cycling of carbon, soil nutrients and water, for example).7 What we’re witnessing is the birth of a greatly expanded life industry. Companies are no longer content to control the genetic material found in seeds, plants, animals, microbes and humans (i.e., all living things); they also want to control the reproductive capacity of the planet.


In the absence of effective and socially responsive governance and government oversight, the bio-based, global economy will result in further environmental degradation, unprecedented loss of biodiversity and the disappearance of the remaining commons. It represents an assault on the lives and livelihoods of small farmers, livestock-keepers, forest-dependent people and fisher folk – the communities that feed the majority of the world’s population and offer our best hope for combating climate change.


In this report on corporate power, ETC Group expands its traditional focus on the agro-industrial and life industry sectors to encompass the bio-energy, aquafarming, chemical and synthetic biology companies that are elbowing their way into the fold of the life industry. We also examine bio-information companies, which remain largely behind the scenes but are nonetheless indispensable for maximizing biomass – and profits.


Note: The corporate rankings in this report are based largely on 2009 revenues. We’ve used 2009 figures for the sake of greater consistency, allowing for lag time in corporate reporting and variances in fiscal year calendars. (Our last major report on trends in corporate power, Who Owns Nature?, was based on 2007 revenues.) Financial results for 2009 are noteworthy because the global crisis of capital is clearly reflected in the numbers; several  sectors saw flat growth or even sharp declines in revenue from 2008. But that doesn’t mean CEOs and shareholders suffered unduly; on the contrary, corporate profits continued to swell. Looking back on 2009, industry analysts noted with admiration that companies across all sectors somehow managed to “do more with less” (e.g., fewer workers, fewer worker benefits).8 Not surprisingly, the quest to increase corporate revenues in a depressed market meant pursuing new customers. Capturing emerging markets in the global South – also home to the largest stocks of biomass – remained at the top of company to-do lists.



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