June has been an important month in Brussels from the point of view of the biotech business. The Commission concluded its consultation on the future of the EU research funding programme and is working on a draft proposal to replace the current programme, FP7, which ends in 2013; and an important vote in the European Parliament on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) also took place on 22nd June, so it was time for the industry to show its teeth.
Late in the afternoon of 31st May, on the 7th floor in the European Parliament in Brussels, the biotech lobby group EuropaBio organised a lobbying event on “The Bioeconomy for Europe – Innovating for Sustainability”. The meeting was chaired by the right-wing Finnish MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen (EPP). The audience was mostly composed of Commission officials, MEP assistants and EuropaBio members. After a short introduction by Pietikäinen stressing the importance of sustainably managing the very precious 'capital' we had inherited from nature, the first panel was a classic lobby event line-up, featuring DG Research Biotechnology director Maive Rute (lobbytarget no1), Lena Ek (lobbytarget no2), a German MEP sitting on the Industry and Research (ITRE) and Agriculture (AGRI) Committees (as a substitute), and EuropaBio's lobbyist Ian Hudson (who is also the President of DuPont Europe) (the messenger).
What is at stake?
The CAP is still the EU's largest budget expense item, representing 41% and about €55 billion a year. But FP7 is also a very significant source of public funding and its successor, called “Horizon 2020” (2014-2020), might become even more so with the European Parliament and Germany recently asking for an increase in its total budget to about €100 billion. Biotechnology lobbies have a strong interest in getting their hands on public research funding and influence agriculture subsidies in order to finance the industry's Research & Development (R&D) programmes (promoting concepts such as 'bioeconomy', 'biomass' and 'biorefineries') and securing markets for their products, particularly GMO seeds and pesticides.
What is the bioeconomy according to industry?
In a nutshell, the industrial vision of the bioeconomy consists of turning living biological material into goods and services. Key concepts here are the ‘bio-based economy’ and the ‘biorefinery’. The “biorefinery” idea is based on the idea of replacing fossil fuels with ‘living carbon’ or ‘biomass’ to produce plastics, chemicals, fuel, synthetic fibre… in other words all existing oil by-products manufactured in conventional refineries and chemical plants.
“Biomass” refers in ecology to the mass of all the living beings in a given place (plants, animals (including humans), fungi, microbes) at a given time. Industry however sees biomass simply as deposits of bulk cellulose and carbon. Large scale exploitation of biomass in their terms means another push for industrial agriculture, extending it into areas not currently used for food production as many more crops are suitable. But whether it involves GM trees or traditional cereals, this monoculture approach has been shown to destroy biodiversity, erode soils, pollute water resources and create rural unemployment. 'Biomass' exploitation will also increase competition with food production, and aggravate problems including land grabbing, deforestation and climate change.There are lots of unanswered questions as to whether the large scale removal of biomass for industrial use is ‘renewable’ as industry often claims. An alliance of 25 US environmental and conservation groups wrote to the US Congress in 2009 that “the removal of biomass, even 'residues and wastes' from forests, grasslands or soils, depletes nutrients and results in declining fertility and biodiversity. While it is possible to re-grow trees and other plant matters, it is not possible to recreate healthy ecosystems” (1).
Lobbying for public research money: European Technology Platforms (ETPs)
Industry lobbying is facilitated by the European Commission which has set up 36 industry-led European Technology Platforms (ETPs). These ETPs have designed “Strategic Research Agendas” for particular sectors (biotechnology, nuclear, chemical industry...) and these in turn helped shape DG Research's annual call for proposals, a feat some of these groups openly acknowledge. In 2008 CEO launched a complaint against the European Biofuels Technology Platform (EBFTP). The EBFTP cooperates with the biotech and other technology platform through the so-called BECOTEPS project, funded (about 700,000€) under FP7 and whose one of objectives is to “promote the KBBE concept with the European Commission, European Parliament and national ministries in the Member States“, in other words do lobbying for corporations with public money.
The symbiotic relationship between these industry-led platforms and DG Research was demonstrated in Rute's presentation, where the first slide on the ‘biorefinery concept’ was copy-pasted from a presentation by the Danish company Novozymes (see above). Novozymes' chief executive Lars Hansen, who is currently the chairman of the EBFTP, also spoke in the meeting and presented the same diagram later. A Dupont executive speaking right after her said there was an “amazing similarity between industry and what has been said”. Rute was trained as an economist and comes from DG Enterprise, generally known to be the most industry-minded part of the European Commission.
The temptation of biomass for industry is to simply switch from one (fossil) carbon resource to another, keeping on the same development path. But our planet will not cater for the growth and consumption patterns industry favours: ecosystems are already collapsing worldwide, and mining them further is not likely to help them recover.
The Dupont lobbyist however claimed that there was enough 'biomass' for everyone, that “we need to put in place the right CAP regime for farmers to be rewarded to grow crops for fuel” and, above all, that “access to raw materials is going to be key to enable this economy to be competitive”. Eighty six per cent of the world's biomass is located in tropical and sub-tropical regions, in other words not in Europe, and indeed the EU has already witnessed aggressive lobbying activities around the raw materials trade strategy in the European Parliament. But industry is not inclined to neglect a potential resource: in the European Parliament report on the CAP, voted on by MEPs on 22nd June, the ITRE Committee had suggested that the Commission should “[...] develop a cross-sectoral biomass policy for next-generation bio-technology including sustainability criteria for biomass as part of the reform of the CAP to enable the development of a sustainable market for biomass [...]” (2). The suggestion was voted through.
Facts vs. corporate myths: a resource
One of the very best resource to counter corporate propaganda on the issue of biomass and related Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy fantasies is a report written by Canadian group ETC in 2010, called “Biomassters: Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods”. A colossal research effort, it looks at all the claims made by industry proponents of these techniques and systematically debunks them. Download the report.
(1) Quoted in “The New Biomassters - Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods”, ETC group, October 2010, p. 26
(2) DESS Report, “The CAP towards 2020: meeting the food, natural resources and territorial challenges of the future” (2011/2051(INI))