Biotechnology and the Commodification of Life
The U.S.government's aggressive advocacy for the biotechnology industry, and its potentially disastrous agenda of reshaping world agriculture, has finally made international headlines. At the end of February, representatives of 163 nations met for a week in Cartagena, Colombia for what was supposed to be the final round of negotiations toward an international protocol on the safety of genetically engineered organisms. Third World governments have taken a leading role on this issue over the past six years, and helped shaped a plan that would append a Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, one of the agreements that emerged from the much-touted 1992 U.N. "Earth Summit". But thanks to U.S.intervention, the delegates returned from Colombia with no agreement at all.
The United States has not even signed the biodiversity convention, and thus was not an official party to these negotiations. But U.S. officials have played a consistently obstructionist role as discussions of biosafety have unfolded over the past several years. On issues from labeling to liability, the U.S. has pressured its allies into taking an uncompromising stand in support of the biotechnology industry. Before the Cartagena meeting, representatives from the United States, Canada, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay -- all significant exporters of genetically engineered crops -- met in Miami to plan their strategy. Unified in their refusal to allow any international regulation of trade in engineered crops, the so-called Miami Group was able to ultimately block approval of an agreement that was supported by all the other countries present. Third World governments are understandably worried about how the proliferation of engineered organisms will affect their own indigenous agricultures. It now seems to be up to the rather reluctant European Union to add its diplomatic and economic weight to resist this latest wave of biotech imperialism.
Just a few short years ago, biotechnologies such as genetic engineering and the cloning of animals were still widely viewed -- by those who were aware of them at all -- as strange new ideas, only recently emerged from the annals of science fiction. Compared to more pressing worldly concerns, from the destruction of forests to food contaminated by pesticides and other noxious chemicals, from hunger and homelessness in our own cities to widespread assaults on basic human rights throughout the world, biotechnology appeared to be one problem that could safely be put on the back burner. Clearly, this is no longer possible.
Fifty million acres of genetically engineered crops were grown in the United States in 1998, and nearly 70 million acres worldwide, including over 40 percent of the U.S.soybean harvest, 25 percent of the corn, and a third of Canada's canola. These crops are rapidly finding their way into everything from processed foods to animal feed, with thoroughly unknown consequences. A British scientist, Dr.Arpad Pusztai, recently released a report which led to his abrupt firing last August from Scotland's Rowett Institute. Pusztai's research offered direct scientific confirmation of what biotech opponents have been saying for ten years: that genetically engineered foods can be harmful to health. He fed laboratory rats potatoes that had been engineered for pest resistance (similar to Monsanto's Bt potatoes that are already widely grown in the U.S.), and found that these potatoes had 20% less protein, were higher in toxic lectins, and that many of the rats' vital organs were significantly decreased in size. This revelation has created a political firestorm in Britain, with the Labor government struggling to justify its long standing support of genetic engineering.
Of all the world's leading biotech companies, the St.Louis-based Monsanto is easily the most aggressive promoter of genetic engineering in agriculture. Over the past two years, Monsanto has acquired many of the largest, most established seed companies in the United States. Monsanto owns Holdens Foundation Seeds, supplier of germplasm used on 25-35 percent of U.S.corn acreage, and Asgrow Agronomics, which Monsanto describes as "the leading soybean breeder, developer and distributor in the United States." In 1997, they purchased Sementes Agroceres, a major Brazilian producer of corn seed, and in 1998 they bought Cargill's international seed division and Unilever's plant breeding operation, Plant Breeding International, which was once a public institution based at Cambridge University. The Justice Department has just approved Monsanto's purchase of DeKalb Genetics, the second largest seed company in the United States and the ninth largest in the world, and plans are underway to purchase Delta and Pine Land, the largest U.S.cotton seed company and developer (along with the USDA) of the notorious "Terminator" seed technology (Brian Dominick will describe this in a future commentary). If the Delta and Pine acquisition gains regulatory approval, Monsanto will control 85 percent of the entire U.S.cotton seed market.
Scientific evidence for the long-suspected health and environmental consequences of genetic engineering is slowly beginning to catch up with the accelerated pace of biotech product development. U.S.and European labs have documented deleterious effects on beneficial insects, destruction of essential soil microorganisms, and high rates of cross-pollination with native plant varieties. But in the long run, the most significant, overarching impact of biotechnology may well be the industry's overwhelming drive to commodify all that is alive, to bring all of life into the realm of commercial products. This takes a number of different forms. Biotechnology seeks to alter the patterns of nature so as to better conform to the needs of the capitalist market. Where the patterns of nature are not well suited to continued exploitation, biotechnology offers the means to redesign life forms to satisfy the demands of the system. Biotechnology is thus seen as the perfect solution for an economic system that would impose capitalist standards of productivity on everything that is alive, while continuing its assaults on the integrity of living ecosystems. The industry has played a leading role in the commercialization of science and research, most notably "basic" research supported by public funds and carried out in public institutions.
The biotechnology industry is also in the forefront of patenting living organisms. They have brought the agenda of life patenting into the European Parliament, as well as international agreements such as the GATT. The U.S.government has threatened trade sanctions against coutries such as India that resist the patenting of life. Corporate bioprospectors are combing the entire biosphere, from the arctic, to the tropics, to deep within the earth's boiling hot geysers, in search of DNA sequences to study, manipulate and patent. The patenting of human genes is also proceeding at a staggering pace, despite successful campaigns on behalf of three indigenous nations (from Panama, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea) to overturn the patenting of their genes by the U.S.National Institutes of Health. In agriculture, biotech companies like Monsanto are aggressively prosecuting "seed pirates" who dare carry on the age-old practice of saving and replanting seeds.
Despite a steady barrage of headlines and media presentations of biotechnology's wonders, most people who are aware of this issue remain genuinely concerned about both the immediate hazards and the long-range implications for life as we know it. In a later commentary, I will address the emerging worldwide opposition to biotechnology and what it means for us here in the proverbial belly of the beast.
"From Green to Gene Revolution: The Environmental Risks of Genetically Engineered Crops," by Ricarda Steinbrecher, The Ecologist, Vol.26, No.2, Dec.1996
Biotechnology vs.Biodiversity, by Brian Tokar, Wild Earth, Spring 1996
Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food by Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey, Common Courage Press, 1998
Transgenic Transgression of Species Integerity and Species Boundaries, by Mae-Wan Ho (Open University of London) and Beatrix Tappesser (Inst.of Applied Ecology, Freiburg, Germany)
The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops by Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon, MIT Press, 1996