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Society may be moving away from paper dependency, but we’re not there yet. Forty-two per cent of the world’s industrial wood harvest goes to the production of paper, and 87 per cent of that paper is used by industrialized western nations like the United States and Canada. And despite its pristine appearance, paper is anything but clean.
The process industrial paper makers use to turn wood pulp into paper has been shown to result in a number of harmful chemical by-products such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, nitrogen oxide, mercury, nitrates, methanol, benzene, chloroform, and dioxins.
Despite its negative side effects wood paper is the only game in town these days, but it wasn’t always that way.
Back in the day hemp paper was a popular and widely used alternative to wood paper. Many of the founding documents of the United States are printed on hemp: two drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Hemp paper doesn’t require bleaching, lasts longer and is more durable than its wood-based brother. So why didn’t it catch on?
Declaration of Independence
At first the reason was a practical one. When the Industrial Revolution took the Western world by storm, people built machines to make larger amounts of paper faster, to meet with the growing demand brought on by the spread of literacy. Hemp, however, proved too much for the first machines. Its fibers were too tough. And so wood pulp based paper became the golden standard.
People didn’t give up on hemp, though. In the early 1920s and ‘30s mechanization was getting more sophisticated and industrial hemp paper production looked like a viable option. Hemp, being a highly renewable resource and relatively easy to grow, had the potential to revolutionize the paper industry (among others). Deforestation could be slowed and many of the harmful chemicals used in the making of paper could be done away with.
But by this time there was a whole industry based around the use and production of wood pulp paper. People had become rich off wood and they wanted to keep the money coming, people like William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst owned a large number of newspapers in the United States. He also owned large tracts of forest and paper mills. Using his newspapers Hearst launched a massive smear campaign against hemp. He published any number of articles with headlines like, “Marihuana Makes Fiends of Boys in 30 Days,” and “Hasheesh Goads Users to Blood Lust.” His articles actually popularized the term Marihuana. Many of the articles published in Hearst’s papers would later be used as evidence against hemp in the mid-1930s when the U.S. government held hearings to consider whether the plant and its relatives should become controlled substances.
In 1937 after various hearings on numerous levels of government, the U.S. adopted the Marihuana Act. This act didn’t criminalize the possession or cultivation of hemp, but it might as well have. A tax was levied on anyone who dealt commercially with hemp (by this time Hearst’s campaign had proved so successful that cannabis and hemp were considered practically the same thing) and strict rules surrounded its production.
Farmers were required to pay $1 a year to register as growers but could be subject to a fine of $2000 or five years in prison if they inadvertently violated the conditions of the Act—for instance should any plant in their crop test above the allowed level of THC (the average income at the time was about $500 a year). Those who chose to pay the tax were required to register their names and place of business with the tax collector who was then obliged to give out that information to anyone who wanted it provided they paid the fee ($1 for every 100 names). Those who wanted to import hemp were charged $1 per ounce of hemp they wished to buy, and were charged a fine of $100 per ounce if found in possession without paying the tax.
As a result most farmers were either too poor or too afraid of the consequences to attempt commercial hemp production and the cost of trying to import hemp into the eager U.S. market became prohibitively high. The technology that would have allowed the large-scale production of hemp paper withered for lack of opportunity, wood pulp kept its monopoly on the paper industry and Hearst continued to make money. The laws that Hearst encouraged with his media blitz are still in place today in the U.S., though in a slightly different form.
The Electric Car
You may have heard of the EV1 and its unfortunate demise. EV1 was the fully electrical car that General Motors released in 1996 and ultimately killed in 2002 and was the subject of the very popular 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?
You may not have heard of NiMH, the Nickle-metal Hybrid battery pack that was the power source for the EV1 and is quite possibly the best battery produced to date. A man named Stanford R. Ovshinsky invented it and turned over the rights to GM, with whom he was working at the time.
In 2008 as gas prices soared and the world eagerly waited for an alternative to paying at the pump, many people questioned GM about why they weren’t re-releasing the EV1, an electric car that had already proven itself on the market. Instead the company announced its plans for the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, a car that was only capable of driving 40 miles on electric power before its gas powered engine had to kick in (about one third of the distance the EV1 was capable of before it had to recharge)
When GM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on June 1, 2009, some saying because the company was out of touch with consumer trends, producing large cars for a market that wanted to downsize, critics asked why GM didn’t dig into its blueprints and bring back the EV. The answer is simple; they couldn’t.
On October 10, 2000 GM sold its controlling shares in Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., Ovshinsky’s research and development company, and therefore the patent rights for the NiMH battery to Texaco, who later merged with Chevron, an oil company. They quickly quashed the wide-scale us of NiMH technology.
When Ovshinsky initially created the battery his company granted permission to use it to a number of car companies, Toyota included. Toyota decided to use the battery in their RAV4-EV, a limited distance electric car. In March 2002 after taking control of the patent, Chevron sued Toyota for 30 million dollars for patent infringement. Nine months later the two companies came to an agreement; Toyota would stop making NiMH batteries and discontinue its line of RAV4-EVs. After the settlement the car company refused to extend any leases and began collecting what cars they could to have them destroyed.
Some argue that Chevron just wanted to stay in control of the distribution of the technology and hasn’t received any viable offers from car manufacturers to use the NiMH recently. But as recently as August of this year, Chevron (and therefore Energy Conversion Devices, Inc.) announced it was pulling its funding out of the only company that was manufacturing large NiMH batteries, dooming a deal it had established with Mercedes to let the company use the power source to run its new line of hybrid SUVs
In the mean time there are a number of small start ups which are taking advantage of government technology investment programs. A new group of entrepreneurs the world over a looking into cheap renewable fuel sources (e.g. bio fuel companies that receive funding from government grants Canada programs).
Despite how you might feel about genetically modified foods, the story of Golden Rice is a good example of a large corporation trying to strangle a noble idea.
For centuries people have been breeding plants in an effort to come up with the strongest, most nutritious varieties possible, and for just about that long they’ve been trying to protect the secrets of their successes.
In the 1930s the first Plant Patents were passed in the U.S. though law-makers were careful to exclude food plants, saying food was too important to allow monopolization. But these high moral sentiments wouldn’t last long. By 1980 patent laws were redefined to allow the patenting of genetic organisms, by extension allowing a monopoly of all biological products and processes associated with the patent. By 1985 whole plants could be patented. By 1987 animals were patentable.
This has left us in a situation where 10 companies control one third of the global seed industry and two companies—Dupont and Monsanto—own 73 per cent of the seed and corn market in the U.S. This doesn’t affect most North Americans substantially, but it has a huge effect on people trying to breed new plant strains.
In 1992 scientists Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg and Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology started a project to create a new strain of rice that would help children suffering from Vitamin A deficiencies in the developing world, a condition that results in approximately one to two million deaths and about half a million cases of blindness annually. Their idea: create a strain of rice that produced beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, as many of the countries whose populations suffer from Vitamin A deficiencies rely on rice as their staple food.
Researchers toiled on the science for eight years trying to get it right. Finally in 2000, they released their findings. Right off the bat Golden Rice faced about 30 intellectual property right violation claims. The researchers had had to use over 70 patented processes to create the new strain of rice. This situation could have killed off Golden Rice entirely; It could have stayed locked away in a Swiss greenhouse forever.
Luckily, the media was on the side of the inventors. Neither of the inventors wanted to profit off of the invention. In fact, Potrykus wanted to distribute the rice for free to communities at risk of Vitamin A deficiencies. He was featured on the cover of TIME magazine next to the headline “This Rice Could Save A Million Kids A Year” the same year the two men announced their discovery. The patent owners—Monsanto among them—eventually granted Golden Rice a Humanitarian Use License and the product is in its second generation, now containing even more provitamin A than ever.