Resisting Genetic Engineering
While the biotechnology industry continues to promise miracles-- new ways to feed the world, solutions to intractable medical problems, enhanced "freedom of choice" in human reproduction, and more -- activists worldwide have recently stepped up their opposition. For those who look beyond the often extravagant claims of biotech proponents, this technology represents a profound threat to human health, ecological integrity and the future of agriculture as we know it. Widely advertised medical "miracles" are opening the door to new kinds of genetic discrimination and, more ominously, the rise of a new and extremely blatant scientific eugenics movement.
So far, most of the opposition has centered on biotechnology's agenda for agriculture. Monsanto and other companies say they want to get genetically engineered traits into 90-100 percent of commercial seeds in the next five years, at the expense of both traditional and modern alternative methods. Recent revelations about suppressed data on the damaging effects of genetically engineered foods on health have created a political firestorm in Britain, and this is only the beginning.
Activists throughout Europe, south Asia and elsewhere have not only exposed the profound underlying hazards of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies, but tapped into a deeply ingrained skepticism toward views of people and the rest of nature as objects to be manipulated and controlled. In Europe, the specter of Nazi eugenics hangs over discussions of genetic engineering and cloning; in India, the seed is a powerful cultural symbol and its manipulation and appropriation by capital is an abomination.
These concerns have bred powerful grassroots movements against genetic engineering and other biotechnologies. European activists have pressured their governments to seek to limit imports of engineered corn and soybeans from the U.S., and taken direct action against test plots of genetically engineered crops. In Britain, Germany and Switzerland, plants have been pulled out of the ground and delivered to officials for disposal as toxic waste. Several British supermarket chains, food processors, and even fast food merchants, have pledged to exclude genetically engineered products and ingredients. Greenpeace has blockaded U.S. grain shipments in many northern European ports, protesting the shippers' refusal to separate genetically engineered varieties from conventional ones. In India, hundreds of thousands of farmers have demonstrated against corporate control of seeds, and some have burned test plots of Monsanto's pesticide-secreting cotton varieties, proclaiming "Operation Cremation Monsanto." Canadian activists last year joined with skeptical government scientists to successfully pressure their government to renew a moratorium on the use of Monsanto's genetically engineered growth hormone (rBGH) for dairy cows. Why don't we have a movement like this in the United States?
While actions against genetic engineering have not received the kind of public attention in the United States that has become commonplace elsewhere in the world, biotechnology has indeed proved far more controversial here than one would surmise from mainstream media accounts. In the 1970s, concerned scientists pressed for national guidelines on gene splicing research, and a few supported community-based opposition to the construction of special containment laboratories for these experiments. In the 1980s, activists in California successfully delayed the first approved outdoor test of genetically engineered organisms (in this case, a strain of bacteria that had been altered to limit frost damage to plants) and, when the test was finally approved, pulled nearly 2000 strawberry plants out of the ground the night before they were to be sprayed with the experimental bacteria. In the early 1990s, widespread public opposition first delayed FDA approval of Monsanto's rBGH by several years, then helped convince many processors, particularly in the northern dairy states, to prohibit farmers from using it.
Today, genetic engineering in agriculture has reached far beyond the experimental stage. Not only are tens of millions of acres of engineered crops being grown -- with virtually no monitoring of the consequences -- but the U.S. government is aggressively promoting these crops worldwide. Efforts to limit imports of engineered corn and soybeans from the U.S. into Ireland and France were met with forceful counter-lobbying by top officials of the Clinton administration, including National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, and "environmental" Vice President Al Gore. Dan Glickman, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, has threatened a trade war if European countries restrict imports of biotech crops. It is may be too late now for field actions, such as those in California in the 1980s and across Europe throughout the nineties, to have a significant impact on the development of genetic engineering in the United States.
In New England, we are working on a somewhat different approach. Along with expanded public education in the streets, town halls, and even the aisles of our local supermarkets, we are investigating the sources of genetically engineered seeds. Farmers are being sold on new "herbicide tolerant" and "pest resistant" varieties of corn, potatoes, soybeans and other crops without being told that they are genetically engineered. We are researching the companies responsible for these sales efforts and plan to focus actions toward them, rather than the farmers. One company well-renowned by organic farmers and gardeners in New England, Johnny's Selected Seeds (email@example.com) has received many hundreds of letters objecting to a disclaimer in their 1999 catalog saying that they may carry genetically engineered seeds in the future. A possible boycott is in the offing. A new regional network, Northeast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering (NERAGE) is investigating the growing ties between the region's leading state universities and the biotechnology industry, and planning a series of teach-ins and demonstrations this spring to expose them.
Demonstrations in the streets and at supermarkets around the country are being staged to highlight both the horror and the absurdity of genetically engineered food. Activists with the Hexterminators collective in Berkeley, California have been hitting the streets in costume, explaining the hazards of biotechnology to their neighbors, and a national campaign focusing on the Monsanto corporation's threat to life and health is also being planned. An international conference of biotech opponents in St. Louis last summer featured a colorful demonstration at Monsanto's headquarters in suburban Creve Coeur, hopefully the first of many.
There is lots of new energy in the movement against genetic engineering, but this is just a beginning. Over 200,000 people wrote to the USDA last year to object to government plans to allow genetically engineered foods to be labeled organic. But the urgency of stopping commercial uses of genetic engineering reaches far beyond food issues. Geneticists such as Princeton's Lee Silver are seeking to popularize a new high-tech eugenics, almost wholly justified by market imperatives and the desire of parents for "freedom of choice." We need to learn from our sisters and brothers in Europe and Asia, and develop a people's movement against biotechnology that can meaningfully hold back this industry's mounting assaults on the integrity of life on earth.
"The Monsanto Files: Can we survive genetic engineering?", Special issue of The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 1998
Proceedings of the First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering, Synthesis/Regeneration Number 18, January 1999 (See Gateway Greens address below).
NERAGE, c/o Institute for Social Ecology, P.O. Box 89, Plainfield, VT 05667 Gateway Green Alliance, P.O. Box 8094, St. Louis, MO 63156 Genetic Engineering Network listserv (International news) firstname.lastname@example.org Bioengineering Action Network (activist listserv) email@example.com
Brian Tokar is the author of Earth for Sale (South End Press) and The Green Alternative (New Society Publishers). He teaches at the Institute for Social Ecology and Goddard College in Vermont, and is a founding member of Northeast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering.