Report: Who Owns Nature? Corporate Power and the Final Frontier in the Commodification of Life

48-page report from the ETC Group, reviewed by David Bollier.

The report can be downloaded here.

David Bollier:

The ETC Group has long prowled the frontiers of the life sciences and the troubling long-term agendas of those industry sectors. In a new report, the Ottawa-based public interest group describes the alarming concentration of the life sciences and their plans for manipulating nature to create entirely new sorts of markets. “Who Owns Nature? Corporate Power and the Final Frontier in the Commodification of Life,” (pdf file ) notes how concentration in various industries is fueling some of the new plans.

Despite a diversity of researchers and sellers a few decades ago, now ten companies control more than two-thirds of proprietary seed sales worldwide. Ten companies control nearly 90% of agrochemical sales worldwide. Ten companies now control 55% of the global drug market.

As industry concentration intensifies in the seed, chemical, pharmaceutical and biotech industries, consumers not only suffer from less competition and higher prices, the industries are dominating our vision of the future. They are crowding out research that might serve the public good and they can dictate public policies and trade policies that might otherwise let countries develop their own “food sovereignty.”

The ETC Group writes: “Concentration in the life industry has allowed a handful of powerful corporations to seize the research agenda, dictate national and international trade agreements and agricultural policies, and engineer the acceptance of new technologies as the ‘science-based’ solution to increase crop yields, feed the hungry and save the planet.”

Now the various industries that control seeds, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and biotech research are converging as part of a larger effort to turn the stuff of life into new markets. Pat Mooney, who has long tracked these trends for the ETC Group, has concluded that about one-quarter of the world’s biomass has been commodified by agribusiness companies. Nanotechnology is one major attempt to gain control over key building blocks of matter so that companies can “take private” basic compounds and build new markets around them.

“Synthetic Biology” is another frontier field that is trying to create “biological manufacturing platforms” using plant-derived sugars to power them. The idea behind this “sugar economy” is to extract sugars from agricultural crops, grasses, forest residues, plant oils and algae, among other plants, and then ferment and convert the biomass into high-value products. “Synthethic microbes” are being designed to serve as “living chemical factories” that run on massive quantities of plant biomass, says Mooney. The imperatives of synthetic biology will turns “unused” biomass into commodities, and in the process, accelerate the decline of biodiversity, deplete soil and water and displace marginalized farmers.

As Mooney puts it, “With extreme genetic engineering, we’re seeing new corporate strategies to capture and commodify the three-quarters of the world’s biomasss that has, until now, remained beyond the market economy.” The synthetic biology movement positions itself as an enlightened alternative to oil, but in fact it only entrenches us more deeply. The ETC Group report concludes: “In the name of moving ‘beyond petroleum,’ we’re seeing a new convergence of corporate power that is poised to appropriate and further commodify biological resources in every part of the globe – while keeping the root causes of climate change intact.

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