The Coming "Sugar Economy" -- Sweet for Multinationals, but a Bitter Pill for Everyone Else

Peak oil, skyrocketing fuel costs, and the climate crisis are driving corporate enthusiasm for a "biological engineering revolution" that some predict will dramatically transform industrial production of food, energy, materials, medicine, and the ecosystem. Advocates of converging technologies promise a greener, cleaner post-petroleum future, where the production of economically important compounds depends not on fossil fuels but on biological manufacturing platforms fueled by plant sugars. It may sound sweet and clean. But the "sugar economy" will be the catalyst for a corporate grab on all plant matter as well as the destruction of biodiversity on a massive scale.

The future bioeconomy will rely on "extreme genetic engineering," a suite of technologies currently in early stages of development. It includes cheap and fast gene sequencing, made-to-order biological parts, genome engineering and design, and nano-scale materials fabrication and operating systems. The common denominator is that all these technologies -- biotech, nanotech, synthetic biology -- involve engineering of living organisms at the nano-scale. This technological convergence is also driving a convergence of corporate power. New bioengineering technologies attract billions of dollars in corporate funding from energy, chemical, and agribusiness giants, including DuPont, BP, Shell, Chevron, and Cargill. The 21st century's bio-based future is called the "sugar economy," or the "carbohydrate economy," because industrial production will be based on biological feedstocks (agricultural crops, grasses, forest residues, plant oils, algae, etc.) whose sugars are extracted, fermented, and converted into high-value chemicals, polymers or other molecular building blocks. The director of Cargill's industrial bioproducts division explains: "With advances in biotechnology, any chemical made from the carbon in oil could be made from the carbon found in plants."

Biological engineering has the potential to affect virtually every sector of the economy that relies on fossil fuels -- not only transportation fuels but also plastics, paints, cosmetics, adhesives, carpets, textiles, and thousands more consumer products. Advocates assure us that the "food vs. fuel" debate will be irrelevant in the future sugar economy because feedstocks will come from cheap and plentiful "cellulosic biomass" -- plant matter composed of cellulose fibers (including crop residues such as rice straw, corn stalks, wheat straw, and wood chips as well as dedicated "energy crops" such as switchgrass, fast-growing trees, algae, and even municipal waste). The giant stumbling block is that breaking down biological feedstocks into sugar requires a lot of energy and traditional chemistry has failed to provide a cost-effective process. Proponents insist that "next generation" feedstocks will use old and new biotechnologies, as well as breakthrough fermentation technologies, to succeed where chemistry failed.

Crystallizing Corporate Power

Eschewing fossil fuels as the planet's economic fulcrum won't happen overnight. It's too soon to tell if sugarcoated visions of the carbohydrate economy are mostly technological hype and hubris, or if bio-based production processes can compete with their petrochemical counterparts. Some of the world's largest corporations are beginning to shift some production away from petrochemicals to bio-based processes. The quest for the sugar economy is fueling high-dollar deals in the university-industry complex, most notably the $500 million alliance between BP and University of California, Berkeley. Unprecedented corporate alliances also involve synthetic biology startups and some of the world's largest corporations, including those in the oil, pharmaceutical, chemical, agribusiness, automobile, and forest-product industries. For example:

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