Category Archives: geoengineering

from Monsanto with love… lessons on how to rule the world

The trouble with Bond villains is they are all lousy megalomaniacs. They hide out in volcanoes protected only by freakish goons and second-rate ninjas, and there fritter away all hopes of world domination on totally hare-brained schemes. Before attempting to irradiate all the gold in the vaults at Fort Knox or constructing the ultimate death ray or whatever it is, they ought to just take a few steps back and concentrate on what really matters. Just how might they maximise control with the least amount of effort or force? Well they might like to try a more viable and, as it happens, visible approach.

Indeed, they might very well look to some of our leading corporate players as role models. For instance, it has long seemed to me that Monsanto ought to have been cast as a Bond villain, except, of course, that Monsanto is far too villainous even for Bond to take on. But I have ofttimes imagined Monsanto, incarnate, back turned in a leather-upholstered chair, stroking his obligatory cat, and drooling over thoughts of the culmination of his latest and most fiendish scheme. Nothing less than a plan to take control of all of the food production on Earth:

“Have you ever heard of Gurt, Mr Bond? Genetic use restriction technology. Terminator technology. Suicide seeds. Artificial lifeforms that crave for their own extinction. We have broken the circle of life itself, Mr Bond. Want food…? Come to Papa. Beautiful, wouldn’t you agree, Mr Bond? Just a few regulations in our way. But that will change. When the people are ready, and they will be, we shall be ready too – with Terminator 2.1 ‘I’ll be back’, Mr Bond!”

Bond remains impassive. Surreptitiously, he wriggles his hands a little to loosen the shackles, as Monsanto continues to prowl his penthouse suite HQ (since he hardly needs to hide out in a bunker).

“Do you remember Agent Orange, Mr Bond? Half a million deaths and another half a million birth defeats. Vast tracts of Vietnam are still contaminated thanks to Agent Orange. One of mine, Mr Bond, one of mine… Oh yes, Mr Bond, so much already laid waste and yet so much that remains to be contaminated. Inside the borders of that miserable little green speck you are so proud to call home, you can even find my own inimical calling-card. Thousands of tons of the most deadly toxins but just a taste of what will soon come.2 For this game is now drawing to its inevitable conclusion, Mr Bond. Soon I will have the whole world dependent on my patented GMOs and the pesticides required to keep them healthy. Welcome to the vanguard of this gangrene revolution, Mr Bond. Just a pity you won’t be here to see the reign of darkness that is to come when we have complete control your beautiful planet.”

I could be mistaken, of course, casting Monsanto purely in the light of its wretched and deplorable environmental record, whilst judging longer term intent solely on the basis of its stealth monopolisation of worldwide seed production. Indeed, there are others who see Monsanto as a manufacturer of the means to banish famine, and of thus opening the way for a much fairer, less impoverished world. This is certainly what well-known mega-billionaire and nice guy philanthropist Bill Gates thinks, although he tends not to advertise the fact:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is sponsoring the Guardian’s Global development site is being heavily criticised in Africa and the US for getting into bed not just with notorious GM company Monsanto, but also with agribusiness commodity giant Cargill.

Trouble began when a US financial website published the foundation’s annual investment portfolio, which showed it had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares worth around $23m. This was a substantial increase in the last six months and while it is just small change for Bill and Melinda, it has been enough to let loose their fiercest critics.3

The article written by John Vidal, and entitled “Why is the Gates foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto”, was posted more than a year ago on the Guardian‘s “povertymatters” blog, which is itself sponsored by none other than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation!

“The Foundation’s direct investment in Monsanto is problematic on two primary levels,” said Dr. Phil Bereano, University of Washington Professor Emeritus and recognized expert on genetic engineering. “First, Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well-being of small farmers around the world, as well as an appalling environmental track record. The strong connections to Monsanto cast serious doubt on the Foundation’s heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa and purported goal of alleviating poverty and hunger among small-scale farmers. Second, this investment represents an enormous conflict of interests.”4

From one of the reports cited in the same Guardian article, that was released in August 2010 by Seattle-based Agra Watch – a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice.

Another report from the South Africa-based watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety uncovered how the Gates Foundation was also teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to “develop the soya value chain” in Mozambique and elsewhere. Unfortunately the link from the article (copied above) is now dead, but not to worry here’s another report:

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program was launched in 2008 with a $47 million grant from mega-rich philanthropists Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. The program is supposed to help farmers in several African countries increase their yields with drought- and heat-tolerant corn varieties, but a report released last month by the African Centre for Biosafety claims WEMA is threatening Africa’s food sovereignty and opening new markets for agribusiness giants like Monsanto.5

Vidal’s article continues:

The two incidents raise a host of questions for the foundation. Few people doubt that GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naïve by backing two of the world’s most aggressive agri-giants? There is, after all, genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United State’s model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foist on the poorest farmers in the name of “feeding the world”.

The fact is that Cargill is a faceless agri-giant that controls most of the world’s food commodities and Monsanto has been blundering around poor Asian countries for a decade giving itself and the US a lousy name for corporate bullying. Does Gates know it is in danger of being caught up in their reputations, or does the foundation actually share their corporate vision of farming and intend to work with them more in future?

A year ago, the New York Times described the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as “the world’s principal private funder of agricultural research”6. Nothing so far as I’m aware has changed since, which, reading between the lines, means that it is difficult to draw any clear-cut distinction between the interests of the Gates Foundations and those of Big Agra.

Click here to read John Vidal’s full report.

Now, as I was in the middle of writing this, and wondering if I wasn’t coming down too hard on the saintly Bill Gates, I came across another piece of news [Feb 6th] about Bill Gates ambitions for bringing change to the world. It was also written by the excellent John Vidal:

A small group of leading climate scientists, financially supported by billionaires including Bill Gates, are lobbying governments and international bodies to back experiments into manipulating the climate on a global scale to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The scientists, who advocate geoengineering methods such as spraying millions of tonnes of reflective particles of sulphur dioxide 30 miles above earth, argue that a “plan B” for climate change will be needed if the UN and politicians cannot agree to making the necessary cuts in greenhouse gases, and say the US government and others should pay for a major programme of international research.

Solar geoengineering techniques are highly controversial: while some climate scientists believe they may prove a quick and relatively cheap way to slow global warming, others fear that when conducted in the upper atmosphere, they could irrevocably alter rainfall patterns and interfere with the earth’s climate.7

Click here to read John Vidal’s latest report on Bill Gates’ environmental lobbying.

Geoengineering. Such a grand sounding name for a subject. Engineering, however, is generally applied to very, very well understood systems – usually ones that we ourselves designed in fact. And it is a subject that always builds safety tolerances into its solutions. What weight does that beam need to withstand? Okay, let’s double it just in case. Why? Because in the real world of engineering, unlike the idealised worlds of pure science, you are expected to expect the unexpected.

So what of geoengineering, which is the preferred shorthand for schemes designed for ‘re-engineering the world’s climate’. Well firstly, the climate system is extremely complex. It involves the movement of two different fluids, air and water, around convoluted islands and basins, and the exchange of energy and material between them. Before ‘re-engineering’ it then, we need first to fully understand the movement of those fluids and at all levels: up to the high altitude jet streams and down to the deep ocean currents. We also need to understand how the composition of those fluids varies, the concentrations of salt in the ocean and of the gases (and, most importantly, of water vapour) in the atmosphere, not to mention the distribution and structures of clouds and even the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface (or its albedo).

Whilst all of this is happening on Earth, the energy available to drive these interconnected feedback systems arrives only from the Sun. So we must know how the output of the Sun varies, but not only in terms of radiative output (or ‘sunlight’), which is helpfully constant (at least over the short term) but in other ways that might influence the Earth’s climate. We need to understand how a constant stream of plasma called the solar wind interacts with the upper atmosphere, and what effects changes there might have at lower altitudes.8 To understand long term variations (such as ice ages), we also need to precisely factor all effects due to changes in the Earth’s position relative to the Sun. Steady changes in the orientation of the Earth’s orbit and spin axis, and more subtle changes in the shape of our orbit around the Sun9.

‘Extremely complex’ simply doesn’t do justice to the enormity of the task involved in fully understanding our climate systems, especially when we remind ourselves that beyond all the physics and chemistry, there is also biology to take into account. Life interacts with the atmosphere and the oceans, no less than sunlight and gravity. Hardly surprisingly, we are only now beginning to understand how all the cogs turn together. Sure there are models of climate behaviour, but these models simply ignore or approximate many of the influences on our weather and ocean systems. They go so far, but should very definitely not be mistaken as the sorts of ‘high fidelity’ models that exist, say, to test the performance of bridges or to predict the motion of the planets in our Solar System.

So Geoengineering is about intervening with something that is far from fully understood, yet at the same time very, very precious, and quite probably fragile (certainly from the point of view of securing continued human habitation). On top of that, it isn’t properly engineering at all, and ought to really to be called ‘geoexperimenting’: an experiment that some experts say “could irrevocably alter rainfall patterns and interfere with the earth’s climate.” Irrevocably being a very, very long time.

If you were worried about the switch on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, then you really shouldn’t have been, because the fuss about black holes and so forth was really just a load of media hype – quite possibly cooked up by some of the scientists who knew better, of course, but perhaps thought it worthwhile to play the media circus for greater publicity. And for a few weeks, the media couldn’t get enough of the LHC. Everyone was talking about hadrons. Geoengineering, on the other hand, which, if ever implemented (and judging by the levels of investment, looks set to be coming), must be considered a genuine threat to our continuing existence on Earth, yet rarely gets a mention.

In June 2010, Democracy Now! hosted an interesting debate between Indian environmentalist and scientist, Vandana Shiva, and geopolitical analyst and columnist, Gwynne Dyer. Here are some of the carefully considered reasons Vandana Shiva gave for rejecting geoengineering solutions:

It’s an engineering paradigm that created the fossil fuel age, that gave us climate change. And Einstein warned us and said you can’t solve problems with the same mindset that created them. Geoengineering is trying to solve the problems with the same old mindset of controlling nature. And the phrase that was used, of cheating — let’s cheat — you can’t cheat nature. That’s something people should recognize by now. There is no cheating possible. Eventually, the laws of Gaia determine the final outcome. […]

I work on ecological agriculture. We need that sunlight for photosynthesis. The geoengineers don’t realize, sunshine is not a curse on the planet. The sun is not the problem. The problem is the mess of pollution we are creating. So, again, we can’t cheat.

Well, the first thing is, there’s never enough time, but you have to find the solutions. And to use the excuse of immediacy and urgency to take the wrong action is not a solution. In terms of time, we do organic farming, and again, in my book Soil Not Oil, we’ve shown that a localized ecological biodiverse system of farming could solve 40 percent of the climate problem, because 40 percent emissions are coming from food miles, nitrogen oxide emissions, cutting down the Amazon forest, all linked to a globalized industrialized food system. Tomorrow we can do that. In three years’ time, all of the world’s farming could be ecological, absorbing the carbon dioxide and putting fertility back in the soil. It’s not a fifty-year experiment. It’s an assured, guaranteed path that has been shown to work.

Click here to watch the video and read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.

So just why would Bill Gates choose to blemish his reputation by getting so deeply involved in an enterprise as controversial as geoengineering? To save the planet from climate change? So he says, although it seems that he does have another incentive too – I wonder if you can guess:

As well as Gates, other wealthy individuals including Sir Richard Branson, tar sands magnate Murray Edwards and the co-founder of Skype, Niklas Zennström, have funded a series of official reports into future use of the technology. Branson, who has frequently called for geoengineering to combat climate change, helped fund the Royal Society’s inquiry into solar radiation management last year through his Carbon War Room charity. It is not known how much he contributed.

Professors David Keith, of Harvard University, and Ken Caldeira of Stanford, are the world’s two leading advocates of major research into geoengineering the upper atmosphere to provide earth with a reflective shield. They have so far received over $4.6m from Gates to run the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (Ficer). Nearly half Ficer’s money, which comes directly from Gates’s personal funds, has so far been used for their own research, but the rest is disbursed by them to fund the work of other advocates of large-scale interventions.

According to statements of financial interests, Keith receives an undisclosed sum from Bill Gates each year, and is the president and majority owner of the geoengineering company Carbon Engineering, in which both Gates and Edwards have major stakes – believed to be together worth over $10m.

Another Edwards company, Canadian Natural Resources, has plans to spend $25bn to turn the bitumen-bearing sand found in northern Alberta into barrels of crude oil. Caldeira says he receives $375,000 a year from Gates, holds a carbon capture patent and works for Intellectual Ventures, a private geoegineering research company part-owned by Gates and run by Nathan Myhrvold, former head of technology at Microsoft.

Click here for John Vidal’s full article (which reads like an almanack of conflicts of interest).

Here in Yorkshire, there is a saying that “where there’s muck there’s money”, and when it comes to geoengineering there is muck aplenty. Stuff like sulphur dioxide that we’ve been scrubbing from our industrial chimneys for many years, in efforts to prevent acid rain and to clean up the air quality of our cities. But here the idea is to spray sulphur dioxide and other muck directly into the high atmosphere in order to ‘provide earth with a reflective shield’.10 In other words, to block out the sun by increasing pollution, which is sufficiently hare-brained to have been dreamt up by Blofeld.

All of which now causes me to wonder who is the more dangerous: the more or less openly diabolical Monsanto or such ‘eco-friendly’ meddlers as Gates, Buffett and Branson to name but a few. Whatever the case, the lesson for those intent on world domination remains the same. And aspiring Bond villains will please take note – Forget about your mountain hideouts and armies of incompetents, what you really need is good publicity, and best of all, the backing of a respectable charitable foundation. Just knock it off with all of that “no, I expect you to die Mr Bond”, and try gently rattling a tin instead. “Welcome Mr Bond,” you might say, politely adding “have you ever considered making a small donation to save the planet?”

1 “The vast majority of the world’s 500m farmers still collect their best seeds each year and replant them. Preventing a process followed since farming began 10,000 years ago has been seen as endangering their way of life.

The problem for Monsanto and other companies is that in developing countries terminator has become synonymous with GM and a symbol of the increasing control of world agriculture by big foreign corporations.

In Monsanto’s version, seeds are soaked in the antibiotic tetracycline, which sets in motion a genetic chain reaction that ultimately instructs the plant to kill its own seeds.

Monsanto’s chief executive, Robert Shapiro, in a letter to the Rockefeller Foundation in New York which announced the terminator’s development, said the company intended to continue research into sophisticated “trait technologies”.

These have been dubbed “terminator 2”, or “gene-switchers”, and would allow a company to develop crops that grow only if sprayed with a regimen of chemicals that include its herbicides or insecticides.”

From an article entitled “World braced for terminator 2”, written by John Vidal, published in the Guardian on October 6, 1999.

2 “Previously unseen Environment Agency documents from 2005 show that almost 30 years after being filled, Brofiscin [a quarry in South Wales where Monsanto dumped waste from its chemical works in Newport and elsewhere] is one of the most contaminated places in Britain. According to engineering company WS Atkins, in a report prepared for the agency and the local authority in 2005 but never made public, the site contains at least 67 toxic chemicals. Seven PCBs have been identified, along with vinyl chlorides and naphthalene.”

From an article entitled “The wasteland: how years of secret chemical dumping left a toxic legacy – Monsanto helped to create one of the most contaminated sites in Britain”, written by John Vidal, published in the Guardian on February 12, 2007.

3 From an article entitled “Why is the Gates foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto? – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s investments in Monsanto and Cargill have come under heavy criticism. Is it time for the foundation to come clean on its visions for argiculture in developing countries?” written by John Vidal, published by the Guardian on September 29, 2010.

4 From a report by the Community Alliance for Global Justice, posted on August 25, 2010.

5 From an article entitled “Monsanto and Gates Foundation Push GE Crops on Africa”, written by Mike Ludwig, published by Truthout on July 12, 2011.

6 According to an article entitled “The Struggle for Daily Bread”, written by David Rieff, published by the New York Times on October 14, 2011.

7 From an article entitled “Bill Gates backs climate scientists lobbying for large-scale geoengineering: Other wealthy individuals have also funded a series of reports into the future use of technologies to geoengineer the climate”, written by John Vidal, published in the Guardian on February 6, 2012.

8 Over the short term of a few decades, the output of solar radiation is nearly constant (varying by up to about 0.1%), but the Sun also produces a continuous stream of charged particles known as the solar wind, which is far from constant, varying considerably depending on solar activity. Although the stream is deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field, some of the particles do nevertheless interact with the Earth’s upper atmosphere, producing the wonderful aurora whilst also heating the ionosphere. In addition to this, the solar wind helps to reduce the influx of cosmic rays. Does any of this affect the climate at lower levels in the Earth’s atmosphere? The answer is that we simply don’t know precisely how processes in the upper atmosphere affect the climate below. There are theories that cosmic rays are important for cloud formation, whilst it could also be the case that changes in the ionosphere can shift the position of the high altitude jet streams. In both cases, the effects on the climate would be very significant.

9 To read more about the theory of how changes in the Earth’s movement and orientation affect climate see the wikipedia entry on Milankovitch cycles

10 Sulphur dioxide is noxious enough, but “potential types of particles for injection include sulfur dioxide, aluminum oxide dust or even designer self-levitating aerosols [which are one of David Keith’s ideas]…”. These would then need to be ‘replenished’ every year or two years. Replenished because it will all slowly but surely fall back to Earth. In this case of ‘aluminium oxide dust’ and the ‘designer aerosols’ this means clouds of nanoparticles that would then fall out over land and sea, building up in concentration in our rivers, our soil and our homes. Could these it toxic? Well, there is still much debate about the toxicity of aluminium oxide, but certainly reasons for concern, and especially given evidence of its adverse effects on the germination of seeds and growth of plants – something that Monsanto could no doubt help out with later.

Read more of these proposals in “Unilateral Geoengineering: Non-technical Briefing Notes for a Workshop at the Council on Foreign Relations”, published April 15, 2008. (Quote taken from p.4)

Leave a comment

Filed under analysis & opinion, geoengineering, global warming, GMO, Uncategorized