This article originally apeared in Earth First! Journal, Spring 1999.
It used to be possible for some activists to dismiss genetic engineering and other biotechnologies as ideas recently emerged from science fiction, as problems that could safely be put on the back burner. Compared to the rapid loss of species and habitat, global climate changes, and the chemical poisoning of our air, water and soil, biotechnology seemed to be a relatively distant concern. Today, the situation looks very different.
Last year, 50 million acres of genetically engineered crops were grown in the U.S., and almost 70 million acres worldwide. We learned of the successful cloning of mice, cows and even human embryos. Monsanto, the main purveyor of PCBs, dioxin, Agent Orange and Roundup, continued buying up major commercial seed companies, controlling 25-35 percent of U.S. corn acreage, and potentially 85 percent of the U.S. cotton seed market. Monsanto is the most aggressive promoter of genetic engineering in agriculture, and is attempting to license (from the USDA) the so-called Terminator technology, which renders seeds sterile. But it is only of the global biotech giants that now pose a serious threat to the survival of life on earth.
The profound ecological consequences of genetic engineering are just beginning to be appreciated by environmentalists. But the more we know, the more we uncover potentially catastrophic long-range consequences. For example, researchers at Oregon State University have demonstrated that genetically engineered bacteria developed to digest crop wastes can suppress the growth of plants and severely alter the properties of soils. They encourage the spread of root-feeding nematodes and suppress populations of mycorrhizal soil fungi, which impart disease resistance and sustain the metabolism of old-growth trees and other native species. Many species of plants simply will not grow in the presence of these mutant microbes, as activists in Louisiana recently learned just in time to stop a planned series of field tests.
By crossing the species barrier, genetic engineers endow plants, animals and bacteria with unique combinations of genetic traits that have likely not previously existed in nature. Traits such as herbicide tolerance and pest resistance (the two most common uses of genetic engineering in agriculture today) are known to spread via pollen to neighboring crops, and potentially to wild plants as well, creating “superweeds” and other ecological disruptions. By creating “populations of organisms with novel combinations of adaptive traits,” ecologist Philip Regal of the University of Minnesota has written, “genetic engineering does have the potential to create types of organisms that can interact with particular ecosystems and biological communities in novel competitive or functional ways . . .” Two European biologists recently reviewed the scientific evidence and concluded that the widespread use of altered bacteria and viruses, developed in laboratories to aid the genetic engineering of plants and animals, may be responsible for a rise in increasingly virulent plant, animal and human diseases.
Genetically engineered food and fiber crops being grown commercially in the U.S. are mostly of two types: those designed to resist high doses of toxic herbicides, from Roundup to the potent carcinogen bromoxynil, and those which secrete bacterial pesticides. Most of the new pest-resistant crops—potatoes, corn, cotton, rapeseed (canola), and others—contain a bacterial pesticide from Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Sprays containing Bt bacteria have been used safely by organic growers for two decades, and have also been used to inoculate forests against spruce budworm and gypsy moths. These large-scale sprayings began to reveal the side effects of Bt, particularly its toxic effects on a wide variety of other moths and butterflies. The activated form of Bt toxin secreted by genetically engineered Bt crops has proved harmful to insects considered beneficial for agriculture, such as honeybees, ladybugs and lacewings.
Biotechnology is beginning to influence forestry practices as well. Corporations and university and government laboratories are developing genetically altered nursery stocks that grow faster, resist insects, viruses, frost or drought, and produce wood that is easier to process into lumber or pulp. The Canadian Forest Service is actively field testing genetically altered varieties of poplar, spruce and larch (introducing various corn and wheat genes, among others), and is also pursuing biotechnology research on insect viruses, and on herbicides derived from fungi. An Australian company working in Indonesia has developed a cloned variety of eucalyptus tree that grows 40 feet in just a year, and researchers at the University of Georgia are developing engineered poplars that absorb mercury and other toxic wastes.
The implications of biotechnology for animal welfare are even more severe. By combining the technologies of genetic engineering, cloning, and in vitro fertilization, new breeding stocks of domestic animals are being developed, and some are being raised as “bioreactors” to commercially produce drugs, hormones and even human proteins in their milk. We may not be far from the day when companies offer clones of their most productive livestock for sale to farmers, perhaps with genetic modifications that severely compromise the animals’ health. We have already seen a glimpse of this with the rise in udder infections, reproductive disorders, birth defects, and other problems as a result of the use of genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in dairy cows.
The human consequences are equally troubling. Soon, human cells may be cultivated in commercial laboratories for organ replacements and other therapies. Parents may soon be urged to select their future offspring from a preselected assortment of possible eggs and sperm. We are seeing the rise of a new eugenics movement, with scientists encouraging the development of inheritable forms of gene therapy There often appears to be no end to the excesses of this powerful technology, nor to the hubris of its leading proponents. Ethical choices are pushed aside, as society becomes ever more enslaved to the “free-market” dictum that whatever can be done will be done?
Life as Product
Biotechnology ultimately seeks to commodify all that is alive, to bring all of life into the realm of commercial products, while altering the patterns of nature so as to better satisfy the demands of the marketplace. Where nature is not well suited to continued exploitation, biotechnology offers the means to redesign life forms to meet the demands of the system. Genetic engineering for herbicide resistance is advertised as the answer to the problems of monocrop agriculture. Where irrigation systems are faltering, they will make crops more resistant to drought and salt, instead of changing farm practices and decentralizing our food system. To solve the management problems of northern fish farms, they are trying to splice frost resistant genes from flounder into salmon. Biotechnology is seen as the perfect solution for a system that would impose capitalist standards of productivity on everything that is alive, while continuing its assaults on the integrity of living ecosystems.
The biotechnology industry is also in the forefront of patenting living things. 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.
Like many other technology-based industries in the recent past, biotechnology promises a future of health, prosperity, and the limitless expansion of human possibilities. The pronouncements of biotech advocates combine a rosy futurism with the air of scientific authority and inevitability. Still, most people remain skeptical. Despite a steady barrage of headlines and media presentations of biotechnology’s wonders, people are genuinely concerned about both the immediate hazards and the long-range implications for life as we know it. Activists in Europe, India 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. Activists in Europe have pressured their governments 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 put aside for disposal as toxic waste. 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. Canadian activists joined with skeptical government scientists to successfully pressure their government to renew a moratorium on the use of a genetically engineered growth hormone for dairy cows. Many people, in these pages and elsewhere, have asked, why don’t we have a movement like this in the United States?
A U.S. Movement?
Actually, both the movement against biotechnology and its use of direct action originated right here in the U.S. In the 1970s, community activists and skeptical scientists joined to oppose the construction of special containment labs for early experiments in gene splicing in a number of university communities. Citizen review boards were established in several cities to monitor researchers’ compliance with safety and ethics guidelines.
In 1983, researchers at the University of California obtained the federal government’s approval for the first outdoor release of a genetically engineered organism, a soil bacterium altered to resist frost. The release was held up for several years by lawsuits and other interventions, but finally took place in the spring of 1987, under the auspices of a private company spun off from the university. The night before the so-called Frostban bacteria were to be tested on a field of strawberry blossoms, Earth First!ers and others scaled a barbed wire fence and evaded onsite security, pulling nearly 2000 plants out of the ground without being detected (see, “The Strawberry Liberation Front,” Earth First! Journal, Litha 1987, pg. 1). At daybreak, the company hurriedly stuffed the uprooted strawberry plants back into the ground so its spraying of engineered bacteria could be staged for the scores of reporters and TV cameras that had assembled for this historic occasion.
Two more actions were staged, both at university and corporate test plots, and by 1989, the company that aspired to symbolize the dawning of the Age of Biotechnology had withdrawn its application for any further tests in California. A communique following one action near the Oregon border explained, in language strikingly uncharacteristic of Earth First! during that period:
“The genetic engineering industry is only the most recent example of this civilization’s drive to subjugate nature to its own ends. This world view has resulted in unprecedented attacks against the ecosystems we depend on for life. We need to evolve beyond the worldview that pits humanity against nature, and which is a product of the conjunction of patriarchy and capitalism.”
By the middle 1990s, both corporations and universities were actively developing genetically engineered crops, and hundreds of field tests were carried out, with permits from the USDA and EPA, in nearly every state in the U.S. Two staff members at the National Wildlife Federation, now with the Union of Concerned Scientists, initiated a quarterly newsletter documenting these tests and summarizing their pioneering research on the possible ecological consequences of these experiments. Unfortunately, activist energies were largely focused elsewhere.
One positive development during this period was partly due to the initiative of a lone Wisconsin dairy farmer named John Kinsman. Kinsman discovered that the student union at the University of Wisconsin in Madison was serving ice cream made with milk from cows that were being injected with experimental rBGH. He traveled to Madison in mid-winter and began standing in front of the union with a sign explaining what the students were unknowingly consuming. Kinsman’s one-person campaign helped spark a nationwide alliance of farmers and citizens that delayed by several years the government’s approval for commercial use of Monsanto’s brand of the engineered Bovine Growth Hormone.
Once Monsanto’s rBGH became the first genetically engineered product to significantly impact our food supply, efforts to sustain public opposition to the hormone focused largely on media and legislative approaches. Meanwhile, the Minnesota-based Pure Food Campaign coordinated demonstrations in response to the FDA’s approval of the hormone, including several high-profile public milk-dumpings in major cities. Over 100 school districts from Chicago to Los Angeles passed resolutions against rBGH products in their cafeterias, and lawsuits were filed against the FDA for blatant conflicts of interest among the staff responsible for the product’s approval. But activists around the country focused much of their effort on trying to label rBGH dairy products.
The Vermont legislature passed the first mandatory labeling bill for rBGH-tainted dairy products in March of 1994, and other states developed considerably milder labeling proposals. The Vermont law was ultimately thrown out by a federal judge claiming that it violated Monsanto’s first amendment right to refuse to speak, since the state had defended its law on grounds of consumer preference rather than public health. Still, labeling continued to be the primary strategy of biotech opponents. One organization, the Vermont-based food safety group Food & Water, opted for a campaign targeting corporations for promoting the use of rBGH. However, this effort lost much of its momentum when the organization was viciously attacked for targeting a well-known Vermont creamery. Consumer and farmer opposition to rBGH continues to be strong, but it has been difficult for activists to develop the kind of comprehensive campaigns against genetically engineered foods that have proved successful in so many other countries.
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. by the governments of 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 traveled across Europe threatening a trade war if European countries restrict imports of biotech crops. It is may be too late for field actions, such as those in California in the 1980s and across Europe in 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 looking into the sources of genetically engineered seeds. Many 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, is being targeted for a boycott due to a disclaimer in their 1999 catalog saying that they may carry genetically engineered seeds in the future. We are also investigating the growing ties between the region’s leading state universities and the biotechnology industry and are planning a series of teach-ins and demonstrations 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 headquarters in suburban Creve Coeur, hopefully the first of many. Three Global Days of Action Against Genetic Engineering in 1997 and ’98 brought people into the streets of dozens of U.S. cities.
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. 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.