Gathering RAGE: Resistance Against Genetic Engineering




This article originally appeared in Z Magazine, January 1999.

One important feature of the actions in Seattle and Washington, DC was many activists’ focus on a serious new threat to our food and health: The rise of genetic engineering as the technology-of-choice in countless new areas of corporate activity; the imposition of new biotechnologies on the developing world via the WTO and World Bank; and the centrality of this technology to the current expansion of global capitalism.

The current crop of genetically engineered foods—90 million acres were grown worldwide in 1999, with over 70 percent of it in the U.S.—represents a profound threat to public health, the integrity of living ecosystems, and the survival of agriculture as we know it. Experimental genetic manipulations of human beings are ushering in a revival of eugenic thinking and practice. Corporate “bioprospectors” are reaping tens of millions of dollars through expropriating genetic information and cultural knowledge from indigenous peoples worldwide. Monopolies over seed distribution, pharmaceutical production and research, and basic health care have expanded to heretofore unimaginable proportions. The bottom line in all these developments is the hegemonic influence of biotechnology companies like Monsanto (now a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical giant Pharmacia), Novartis (formed from the merger of the Swiss chemical giants Ciba Geigy and Sandoz) and DuPont (sole owner of Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world’s largest seed company), along with the emerging technological preeminence of laboratory methods such as genetic engineering and animal cloning.

While the British Isles and much of Europe have been in a veritable state of revolt against genetically modified foods for nearly two years, the passivity of the American public appeared to mute any incipient opposition to genetic engineering on this side of the Atlantic. Various motivations behind the European opposition—mistrust of scientific authority, devotion to regional cuisines, and the presence of visible popular movements against corporate power—were dismissed as merely European pastimes. Here, in the home of Monsanto, new genetically engineered foods would surely continue to be accepted, even embraced as enthusiastically as the latest model of Nike sneakers.

While it was been difficult for opponents of genetic engineering to gain the attention of the corporate media, grassroots opposition to genetic engineering in the U.S. is as old as the technology itself. In the 1970s, residents of many of the best-known American university towns spoke out against plans to build the first generation of containment laboratories for experiments in genetically altering bacteria, plants, and viruses. In the 1980s, people in California spoke out against the first approved open-air releases of genetically modified bacteria into the environment, and applauded quietly in 1987 when almost the entire first crop of strawberry plants slated to be sprayed with genetically engineered bacteria was pulled out of the ground in the dark of night.

In the early 1990s, farmers, environmentalists, and consumer groups delayed the approval of rBGH, Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone, making it clear that the hormone was an economic liability to farmers, and that consumers were prepared to boycott dairy processors that encouraged farmers to inject their cows with this production-enhancing drug. By the late 1990s, activists were engaged in a wide variety of creative strategies to expose the introduction of genetically engineered food ingredients into the U.S. marketplace—the first engineered crops were marketed in 1996—but the opposition paled by European standards. Companies were able to exploit a widespread lack of knowledge about genetic engineering to create the appearance that American consumers tacitly supported this technology.

The tide had clearly turned by March 26 of this year, when nearly 4,000 people gathered in Boston’s Copley Square to protest the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, BIO 2000. This was by far the largest show of opposition to genetic engineering ever in the U.S. and one of the largest protests specifically focused on genetic technologies anywhere in the world. The rally and parade in Boston were preceded by a two-and-a-half day activist conference at Northeastern University and MIT, at which over 1,000 participants listened to panels and workshops. Under the banner of Biodevastation 2000, activists in the northeastern U.S. showed conclusively that the opposition to genetic engineering had become a force to be reckoned with. They also showed that critics of biotechnology in the U.S. were ready to focus their opposition on far more than just genetically engineered foods.

Food politics were indeed one major focus of the Biodevastation 2000 conference and protest, with speakers addressing the health and environmental implications of engineered crops. Lawyer Steven Druker of Iowa, organizer of a lawsuit seeking to overturn the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of genetically engineered foods, described internal documents showing that the agency’s own scientists had expressed serious doubts about the safety of these products. Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, a scientific advisor to many anti-GE groups in Britain and around the world, joined with U.S. scientists and activists to update participants on the potentially severe environmental consequences of genetically engineered crops, the Native Forest Network announced a new international campaign against the genetic engineering of trees, and a determined delegation of Midwestern farmers from the National Family Farm Coalition explained how corporations are controlling the seed supply and promoting genetic engineering at the expense of family farmers nationwide.

Nearly equal attention, however, was devoted to the many other impacts of genetic engineering on our health and medical care, and on the sustainability of indigenous cultures worldwide. We heard about the pitfalls of genetic determinism, and how the mapping of the human genome will not guarantee or even facilitate a healthier future. We learned of the drawbacks of medical research narrowly geared toward genetic explanations—the identification of internal, inherited susceptibilities—at the expense of detailed investigations into the environmental causes of disease. Dr. Marcy Darnovsky of the Berkeley-based Techno-Eugenics newsletter exposed the myths of “gene therapy,” a euphemism for the rapidly expanding field of experimental genetic manipulations of humans, and Alix Fano of the Campaign for Responsible Transplantation described how animals are being severely mutilated in pursuit of the false hope of someday being able to transplant their organs into human beings. Dr. Gregor Wolbring of Calgary, Canada explained how the narrow focus on genetics further marginalizes disabled people, and many participants explained how the patenting of living things—including human genes—has severely distorted the practice of science in service to corporate priorities. Many of today’s public advocates of “germ-line,” i.e., inheritable gene therapies, adamantly defend the notion of “improving” people through genetic intervention, with an arrogant disdain for those who see this new high-tech eugenics as an emerging threat to social equity.

Other speakers at Biodevastation 2000 brought their experiences of activism from as far away as India, South Africa, and Uruguay. Reflecting on the experience of Seattle and the World Bank/IMF demonstrations in Washington, some of the most engaged discussions revolved around issues of corporate dominance, and the central role of biotechnology in advancing corporate globalism. With biotech companies seeking to bring all that is alive into the sphere of commodities that are bought, sold, and traded in the global marketplace, there is a heightened expectation in the world’s financial markets that biotechnology will be the next new source of mega-profits. Huge fortunes increasingly rest on the public response to new developments in genome sequencing, animal cloning, and interventions into the processes of human genetics. Biotechnology companies are at the center of an unprecedented concentration of corporate control over seeds, food distribution and pharmaceutical production and research. While there was considerable focus on the specific threats posed by particular genetically engineered products, activists at Biodevastation 2000 were at least as vocal in their opposition to the patenting of life and the role of global corporations in promoting genetic engineering.

In the long run the most significant impact of biotechnology may be the drive to bring all of life into the realm of commercial products. This takes a number of different forms. First, and most fundamentally, biotechnology alters 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.

If soil fertility is being destroyed by mono-cropping and chemical fertilizers, they will make crops resistant to herbicides so they can use more noxious chemicals to blast out the weeds, and try to make cereal grains fix nitrogen like legumes. If industrial-scale irrigation lowers the water table and makes the soil saltier, they seek to engineer food crops to make them more resistant to drought and to salt. If marketable fish species like salmon have trouble surviving year round in far northern hatcheries, they will try to splice in frost resistance from cold-water species such as flounder, notwithstanding the effect on native populations. If naturally bred livestock cannot satisfy the demand for ever-increasing profit margins, companies will instead offer clones of their most productive animals, and genetically transform them into “bioreactors” for drug production. Nothing in nature, from the bacteria that live deep within the boiling hot geysers of Yellowstone National Park to the molecules that form the human immune and reproductive systems, would be immune from such exploitation and, where possible, redesign. Biotechnology offers a way to ignore underlying problems.

To realize profits from these developments, the biotechnology industry has aggressively promoted the worldwide patenting of living things, bringing the agenda of life patenting into international negotiations such as the 1994 GATT agreement. Countries that resist the patenting of life, such as India, are threatened with trade sanctions by the U.S., which has used the authority of the WTO’s TRIPs (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) provisions to try to force other countries’ patent laws to conform with our own. The patenting of human genes is 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 during the mid-1990s. Once the U.S. Patent Office opened the door to patenting fragments of DNA, even when they are not fully characterized, it was flooded with millions of requests for such patents by researchers seeking to accelerate and privatize the work of the Human Genome Project. At the same time, the World Bank’s Biotechnology Task Force is actively promoting the development of agricultural genetic engineering in countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and Mexico, echoing the industry’s fraudulent claims that biotechnology is somehow the key to feeding the world.

While many NGOs in the U.S. are mainly focused on particular hazards of genetically engineered foods, and rallying around campaigns for labeling, better government oversight and regulation, organizers of Biodevastation 2000 tried to articulate a more comprehensive set of demands for a movement that is prepared to reach beyond near-term concerns. Labeling is seen as a band-aid measure at best; at worst it would legitimize a food system in which most people will consume genetically engineered food, while products free of such ingredients are merely another niche market for affluent consumers. Defying the prevalence of labeling-centered strategies among many anti-genetic engineering campaigns in the U.S., Biodevastation 2000 organizers called for:

  • Ending the commercialization of genetically engineered products and holding corporations fully liable for the negative consequences of what has already been released.
  • Abolishing the ownership of all forms of life, including the patenting of seeds, plants, animals, genes, and cell lines. Criminalize biopiracy and protect the rights of people around the world to sustain and strengthen traditional land-based livelihoods.
  • Strengthening public regulation over potentially dangerous technologies, recognizing the inherent uncertainty of genetic manipulation and placing the burden of proof on its proponents to demonstrate that its proposed products are safe.
  • Ending corporate control over food and health, as enforced by institutions such as the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and reclaiming public accountability and democratic control over the decisions that affect our lives.

These were presented in Boston in a festive atmosphere, to wide acclaim, amidst giant puppets, costume-theater and comedy sketches. Seize the Day, the eclectic folk-rock group from Devon, England that has become the “house band” of anti-genetic engineering events in Britain, brought their music and their humor as well. Vermont’s world-famous Bread and Puppet Theater, which has brought their biting satirical wit to major street mobilizations since the Vietnam War, helped lead the parade down Boston’s fashionable Boylston Street, to the Hynes Convention Center, where some 8,000 biotech executives were beginning their week-long convention.

After the Seattle protests against the WTO, the police vowed to prepare for “trouble.” Indeed, police officers from Seattle came to Boston several weeks before Biodevastation 2000 to brief the Boston police on crowd control methods. They came with wildly exaggerated tales of activists bringing elaborate homemade weapons to attack the police, and even more exaggerated estimates of the property damage that occurred in Seattle. It proved challenging for everyone involved in the preparations for Biodevastation 2000 in Boston to break through the media’s obsession with “Seattle” and “violence” and bring some serious attention to the dangers of genetic engineering. In the end, however, the real spirit of Seattle was in the air in Boston, and it obviously had nothing to do with “violence.” For Seattle was not about violence, but rather about solidarity, the promise of alliance-building, and the determination that the actions of an engaged civil society can have an impact.

Throughout the week following the Biodevastation 2000 conference and rally, a variety of creative actions were carried out in Boston, dampening the celebrations of the thousands of biotech executives. Protests convened around official receptions for the biotech executives at venues as diverse as the city’s major art and science museums, the John F. Kennedy Library, and Boston’s convention center. One group from New York City staged a dumping of genetically engineered foods at the official replica of the Boston Tea Party ship. Other groups dumped engineered soybeans in front of the convention center, set up a public debate table (complete with loudspeaker) one lunch hour, marched with a crowd of costumed children across the Boston Common to the site of a newly dug guerrilla garden, and staged a funeral march for Biodiversity, where the coffin turned out in the end to really be for the Biotech Industry. Several people infiltrated the biotech convention to observe the industry’s strategy sessions, and on a few occasions to disrupt the proceedings with persistent denunciations of industry practices.

Everyone is now expecting that this year’s U.S. crop of genetically engineered corn, soybeans, and cotton will be substantially smaller than last year’s. After the American Corn Growers’ Association last fall called biotech crops an “albatross around the neck of farmers” and urged members to “consider alternatives” to engineered varieties, companies like Monsanto, DuPont, and Cargill intervened rapidly to assure farmers that, despite “problems” in Europe, there would continue to be a reliable market for their engineered crops. Biotech companies in the U.S. have also launched a massive new advertising campaign, to the tune of $50 million, to put a humanitarian face on their Frankenstein creations.

Following the Biodevastation gathering—which was actually the fourth in a series of international grassroots events that began two years ago in Monsanto’s hometown of St. Louis—U.S. activists are stepping up their campaigns as well. It is clear that the industry’s heavily financed ad campaign can only be effectively countered by activists working in highly visible ways in communities throughout the United States. While a few NGOs will likely gather the resources to put large ads in national newspapers—and maybe even do a few TV ads of their own—a wide-ranging, face-to-face, grassroots campaign will most effectively arm people in cities and towns across the U.S. with the knowledge and confidence to see through the industry blitz. This will certainly need to be combined with a wide array of creative approaches, from strategic lawsuits to, hopefully, a new wave of crop-pulling actions following on the nearly 20 early “harvests” of GM crops that occurred in the U.S. last summer and fall. Grassroots networks of activists opposed to genetic engineering have emerged under the rubric of Resistance Against Genetic Engineering in the Northeast (NERAGE), San Francisco Bay Area (BayRAGE), Pacific Northwest (NW- RAGE), mid-south (DownSouthRAGE), upper Midwest (GrainRAGE), and desert Southwest (DesertRAGE).

As social ecologist Chaia Heller often points out, a meaningful activist approach to the problem of genetic engineering requires that we move beyond the discourse of “risk” that is so prevalent in the environmental NGO community, understand the importance of biotechnology to the development of the information-centered capitalist “new economy,” and comprehend all the ways that the new genetic technologies threaten the quality-of-life of people worldwide. Activists realize that it is necessary in the short term to demand that government agencies revoke the rules that make it possible for genetically engineered foods to be sold without independent, long-term safety testing, and to demand that supermarkets and food processors cease using these ingredients in their products. Numerous companies have indeed begun responding to public pressure in recent months and pledged to take such measures.

But this is not enough. If we are to develop a movement than can stop the excesses of today’s biotechnologies, and also have a lasting impact on the quality of our lives, we need to assert the right of our communities to make choices about the technologies that affect us. To respond to genetic engineering, the inequities of the global trading system, and the scourge of global poverty, we need to reassert the power of a genuinely democratic public sphere, where communities of people can debate issues and make real decisions in open, accountable, face-to-face settings. Confederations of democratic, self-governing communities can provide a genuine counterpower to unaccountable institutions such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF. Creating a different kind of world will require many more occasions where tens of thousands—perhaps millions—of people take to the streets in defiance of unjust ruling institutions. It will also require a living alternative, built from the ground up, through which people can begin to take back control over the decisions that affect our lives. It is through such a creative interplay of oppositional and reconstructive approaches that we can begin to collectively discover what democracy really looks like.