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Corporations Have Big Plans to Profit from Global Warming

A bunch of multinationals have figured out how to make their pollution-based businesses seem like the solution to the climate crisis.
 
 
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With the world's leading scientists in agreement on the science behind global warming, how are multinational corporations preparing for climate change? Some, like Exxon Mobile, continue to squeeze the last drops of profit out of any oil field they get their hands on while paying scientists to deny climate change. Some see profitability in adapting to a more energy-efficient world. And then there's the third group: the greenwashers -- those hoping to come off as enviro-friendly while they make a buck (or a few million) off our global crisis.

Greenwashing is nothing new, but there's a huge difference between covering up environmentally damaging activities with an eco-friendly gesture or two and touting your pollution-based business as the solution to the climate crisis.

An example of the former would be Wal-Mart patting itself on the back for selling millions of energy-efficient lightbulbs while simultaneously selling cheap junk from China by the truckload. Nobody will be fooled by a few compact fluorescents into believing that Wal-Mart is up there with the Sierra Club in defending our planet.

But how about companies like Bayer, which is currently working to produce drought-resistant plants to help farmers face a post-global warming reality? And then there's corn ethanol, a fuel that requires so much oil to produce that it hardly represents a move away from petroleum products at all, and yet it is the darling of politicians on both sides of the aisle. To many, these products are undetectable as greenwashing. And that's not by accident.

During a conversation on climate change at this month's Slow Food Nation festival, author and activist Anna Lappé said, "What scares me about this historic moment is that as we collectively raise the consciousness about the connection between the food system and climate change -- that there is one, that we need to do something about it -- at the very same time what we're seeing is some of the biggest agribusiness companies and also the biggest biotech companies taking advantage of that consciousness-raising to present themselves as the solution, and that I think is very dangerous."

For example, proponents of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), an artificial hormone that boosts a cow's milk production, now cite a study published at Cornell University "proving" that using rBGH is green. When the study came out, newspapers wrote clever headlines about reducing cows' carbon "hoofprint." Yet the basis of the study (that cows treated with rBGH eat the same amount as cows not treated with the hormone) was flawed, and the study was written by a group including Dale Bauman (who has received funding from Monsanto, the company then behind rBGH, in the past) and a Monsanto consultant. (Monsanto owned rBGH and marketed it under the brand name Posilac until it sold the product to Eli Lilly and Company last month.)

In reality, the way to reduce a dairy cow's carbon hoofprint is to allow her to graze on pasture to reduce the amount of grain in her diet. As a perennial, grass does not require annual planting. Nor does it require fertilizer (beyond the manure fertilizer the cows apply to the pasture themselves). The cows also replace the machinery to harvest, process and transport their food that would be required for a diet of grain. But a cow receiving rBGH cannot enjoy a diet of mostly grass; she simply cannot take in enough calories a day via grazing to support increased milk production. Only a higher-calorie grain diet -- one that makes cows sick -- can support the metabolism of a cow on drugs.

Americans aren't falling for the lie about rBGH (as evidenced by companies as big as Wal-Mart, Kroger and Kraft moving away from the hormone), but will they buy the line from companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer that genetically modified foods are the key to surviving the impending climate crisis? To most people, the news that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, can save the day is quite believable -- and even a huge relief. In fact, many employees of biotech companies probably also believe they are doing the world a huge service by engineering new varieties of plants that can survive heat and drought. But in reality, the GM crops created by these companies merely perpetuate the kind of agriculture that got us into this mess.

We landed ourselves in our current oil-addicted predicament by relying on an agricultural system driven by commodity crops -- mostly corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton. Commodity crops can be stored, fed to animals or processed and then dressed up with artificial flavors to appear new and innovative to consumers. It's a system that runs on massive amounts of oil and further contributes to climate change by methane and nitrous oxide emissions from factory farms and erosion of topsoil that previously served to sequester carbon. The biotech industry relies on it for one simple reason: It can best recoup R&D expenses and make a profit by engineering only the most widely grown crops. For example, 92 percent of soybeans, 86 percent of cotton and 80 percent of corn grown in the United States were genetically modified in 2008.

It may be true that "biotech crop varieties require less cultivation and future pesticide applications, thereby saving fuel and reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the air," as the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) boasted in a press release this summer. But that is only if we examine a small part of the picture, comparing GM crops grown in our current bad system with non-GM crops grown in our current bad system. The true path to sustainability lies in reforming the bad system, not entrenching it further.

Unlike genetic engineering, which typically selects for one specific desirable trait (such as drought resistance), sustainable farming can produce many desirable traits all at once. A genetically modified plant designed for drought resistance will not necessarily also provide high yields or pest resistance. But when farmers nourish the microbes in the soil, they are rewarded with plants that can tolerate pests, droughts, floods, heat and cold better than plants in inferior soil.

Healthy, living soil on sustainable farms also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, fighting back against global warming. Furthermore, some studies find that organically grown plants produce higher yields and higher antioxidant contents than conventionally grown foods.

Also, whereas GM crops must be designed one at a time, existing methods of sustainable farming can already be applied to every crop. Anna Lappé summarized the benefits of sustainable agriculture over GMOs, saying that compared to biotechnology, "agroecology and organic farming techniques are proving to better preserve biodiversity, sequester carbon, foster resiliency and conserve water -- exactly what we need for farming in a climate-chaos future."

Another massive and environmentally damaging greenwashing campaign also centers on corn: ethanol. In some ways, ethanol may seem a brilliant alternative to oil: It's renewable, it's a currently available technology, and it can be produced domestically. For these reasons, candidates in both major political parties have embraced it (although the Republican Party just officially switched its stance from pro-ethanol to anti-ethanol this year). It's not just politicians who have been touting ethanol as an energy solution: A new ad campaign by the ethanol trade association, the Renewable Fuels Association, will commend ethanol producers for leading the way to a more secure energy future.

In reality, ethanol requires almost as much oil to make as it saves: oil to plant, fertilize and harvest corn, to process into ethanol, and to transport by truck or train to the gas pump (ethanol cannot travel by pipeline). By encouraging Americans to grow more corn, ethanol also hurts the environment as increased fertilizer runoff from cornfields creates larger dead zones in the ocean, including a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. It's true we need to find an alternative to oil -- and fast -- but we could probably save the same amount of oil that ethanol saves (or more) by increasing efficiency of cars and appliances and improving building insulation.

Run-of-the-mill greenwashing may influence the purchasing decisions of a consumer or two, but in the cases of rBGH, GMOs and corn ethanol, it results in government handouts or other favors. Several states require that gas stations sell E10 -- a mix of 10 percent ethanol with 90 percent gasoline -- and the government offers reduced rates for crop insurance to farmers planting GMOs. To repeat an overused metaphor, advertising your polluting product as the solution to global warming is nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig -- or in this case, on a barrel of oil.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. Her first book, about food politics, is due out in June 2009.

 
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