Biotechnology: Enlarging the debate

This article originally appeared in Z Magazine, June 2001.

Later this month, thousands of people will converge on San Diego, California for what may be the largest protest against the biotechnology industry in the United States. Coinciding once again with the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), this year’s Biodevastation events are intended to significantly enhance and broaden the scope of activism in the U.S. around the growing threat of genetic engineering to our food, our health, and the integrity of our communities and the earth’s ecosystems. This year’s gathering will include a public teach-in at San Diego’s Balboa Park on June 23, called “Beyond Biodevastation,” featuring Vandana Shiva, Peter Rossett, Anuradha Mittal, Percy Schmeiser, and RAFI’s Pat Mooney, among others, and several days of rallies and direct actions organized under the name of Biojustice 2001.

Over the past year, news of the hazards of genetically engineered foods has finally broken into the U.S. mainstream media. The contamination of taco shells and some 300 other brand-name products with a variety of engineered corn not approved for human consumption (see April’s Z), the gathering of 4,000 people in Boston last year to demonstrate against the BIO2000 industry convention, and continuing direct actions against fields of genetically engineered crops, have made it impossible for the corporate media to continue ignoring this issue. Continuing coverage of issues as diverse as animal and human cloning, the patenting of life and continuing mega-mergers in the food, pharmaceutical, and health-care industries have helped illuminate the wider dimensions of this issue. Despite its wide-ranging implications, however, genetic engineering is still often cast as just a food safety issue of primary concern to affluent consumers. This year’s Biodevastation/Biojustice events will once again seek to highlight the wide-ranging implications of this technology and strengthen essential links to the broader movement against capitalist globalism.

Meanwhile, the evidence for the unique dangers of genetically engineered foods continues to grow. Even though research on the problems with these products can hardly keep up with 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars devoted toward accelerating their commercialization, each new independent study appears to confirm what biotech critics have been saying all along. From the threat of increased food allergies, antibiotic resistance, and more serious metabolic and developmental problems, to the widely-reported hazard to monarch butterflies and numerous varieties of agriculturally beneficial insects, the evidence increasingly supports the need to halt the commercialization of this technology.

In the past couple of years, we have learned that Bt toxin from engineered corn, canola, and cotton can persist in the soil from one growing season to the next, that herbicide-tolerant soybean plants have extra unexplained lignin in their stems, making them unusually brittle in hot weather, and that engineered traits have indeed spread through cross-pollination, creating in one instance a Canadian canola variety that is tolerant to three different kinds of herbicides. The debate over whether such crops are ultimately beneficial to farmers continues to rage in agricultural circles, with proponents claiming notable yield improvements and decreases in herbicide and pesticide use. Independent researchers such as Idaho’s Charles Benbrook continue to challenge these claims with evidence that, in most locales and for most crops, neither claim is supported by the evidence. This is even more true in the global South, which we are told will ultimately receive the greatest benefits from genetically engineered agriculture. A few months ago, Britain’s New Scientist magazine reviewed experiments in Africa, where simple enhancements of traditional farming methods, combined with techniques perfected by organic growers in the North, are producing yield improvements approaching 100 percent, compared to the best-case gains of just a few percent that might be available with engineered varieties.

There is an emerging consensus that the burden of proof must be shifted onto the proponents of this radically disruptive new technology. But it is crucial that the debate continue to push beyond the limits of what can be documented scientifically, beyond what social ecologist Chaia Heller has described as the discourse of risk. The more that officials of the U.S. government and of global institutions such as the WTO insist that only known, quantifiable risks are legitimate areas for public policy, the more imperative it becomes for activists to insist upon raising the larger questions: What does this new technology mean for our society, for the exercise of political and economic power and for the possibilities of actualizing a free and ecological society? How can we fully comprehend all the disturbing social consequences of the new genetic technologies?

A meaningful discussion of the implications of the new biotechnologies needs to begin with the concept of commodification. In the 19th century, Marx introduced the notion of the commodity as an “external object,”a product of human labor that has been torn asunder from the ages-old means by which people work to satisfy their basic life needs. Capitalism creates “exchange values,” divorced from traditional, social “use-values,” and tied to the disciplines and strictures of the commercial marketplace. The commodification of basic needs, including the appropriation of land and human labor as principles of exchange, was a central development underlying the founding stages of capitalism. It is a main tenet of the long-range ideological project of dominating and controlling external nature.

While the roots of organized persuasion and the creation of artificial needs can in some ways be traced to precapitalist institutions, 20th century capitalism extended its reach far deeper into private life and everyday consciousness. In a 1983 essay, Murray Bookchin wrote, “From the 1950s onward, the market economy has not only imperialized every aspect of conventional life, it has also dissolved the memory of the alternative lifeways that precede it.” He proposed a renewal of a society and politics—and even means of exchanging goods—guided by ethics and cultural norms, rather than the tyranny of the capitalist “free market.”

The project of modern biotechnology takes processes of commodification many steps further, extending its reach to literally encompass all of organic life. It is perhaps the apex of the capitalist project of domination and control over human and non-human nature. Biotechnology literally seeks to bring all of life, down to the cellular and molecular levels, into the sphere of commercial products. From microorganisms that lie deep within the boiling geysers of Yellowstone National Park—found to be the subject of a secret agreement between the U.S. National Park Service and a San Diego-based biotechnology company called Diversa (see—to the human DNA sequences being mapped by both public and private agencies, all of life on earth is being reduced to a set of objects and codes to be bought, sold, and patented under the domain of the capitalist marketplace.

Furthermore, biotechnology seeks to alter the fundamental patterns of non-human nature so as to better satisfy the demands of the market. Wherever natural patterns are not well suited to continued exploitation, biotechnology raises the possibility of redesigning life forms to satisfy capitalist demands. Where soil fertility and plant health are undermined by monocropping and chemical fertilizers, biotechnologists make crops tolerant to herbicides so growers can use more noxious chemicals to destroy weeds, and also make them secrete bacterial toxins to attack various crop pests. Where industrial-scale irrigation lowers the water table and makes the soil saltier, they offer to make food crops more resistant to drought and to salt, perpetuating our society’s ability to ignore the underlying causes of these problems.

Where marketable fish species like salmon have difficulties surviving year round in far northern hatcheries, genetic engineers seek to splice in frost resistance from cold-water species such as flounder, and also make them grow dramatically faster. If naturally bred livestock cannot satisfy the demand for ever-increasing profit margins, commercial breeders aim to offer clones of their most productive animals. Timber companies want to raise plantations of genetically engineered trees that grow faster, and have an altered biochemical makeup that may be more amenable to chemical processing for paper pulp. In each instance, biotechnology dramatically furthers the process of replacing the organic with the synthetic, perpetuating the myth that the inherent ecological limitations of a thoroughly nature-denying economic and social system can simply be engineered out of existence.

The biotechnology industry is also in the forefront of patenting living things, having mobilized the power of the World Trade Organization to impose regimes of life patenting on all the world’s legal systems. India has been in the forefront of resisting the imposition of life patenting, with wide-ranging parliamentary debates and massive demonstrations of farmers in opposition to corporate control over seeds. At the same time, corporate “bioprospectors” (many call them “biopirates”) are surveying the entire biosphere, from the arctic to the tropics, in search of plants, animals, and DNA sequences—including millions of fragments of human DNA—to study, manipulate, and patent. The ownership of life is proceeding on a macroscopic scale as well. For-profit fertility clinics purchase human eggs and sperm from willing “volunteers” and offer them for sale. Recent breakthroughs in animal cloning have suggested the very real possibility that an above- ground market in human cells, tissues, and even laboratory-created organs may soon complement the shadowy but lucrative international trade in human organs for transplantation. With the emergence of well-funded efforts to genetically “enhance” animal and ultimately human embryos, the spectre of a new, thoroughly market-driven form of eugenics looms ominously on the horizon.

This unprecedented commodification of life has very real and immediate consequences. In economic terms, the biotechnology industry represents an unprecedented concentration of corporate power over our food and our health. The late 1990s saw a heretofore unimaginable wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions in virtually every economic sector, and now the three pivotal areas of seeds, pharma- ceuticals, and agricultural chemicals are increasingly dominated by a small handful of transnational giants, all centrally committed to the advancement of biotechnology. By 1999, five companies—Monsanto, AstraZeneca, DuPont (owner of Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world’s largest seed company), Novartis, and Aventis, controlled 60 percent of the global pesticide market, 23 percent of the commercial seed market, and nearly all of the world’s genetically modified seeds.

Farmers face an increasingly monopolized seed market, along with increasing integration of the entire food industry; one recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece suggested that farmers will soon become “more like Detroit’s auto parts makers,” mere subcontractors to a tiny handful of global corporations. In March, a Canadian federal court ruled in favor of Monsanto in the case of canola farmer Percy Schmeiser: Monsanto claimed that he was illegally growing a Roundup-tolerant variety without ever having purchased seed from them, while Schmeiser insisted that their pollen and drifting seeds had contaminated his fields. His non-use of Roundup herbicide and widespread evidence for such contamination throughout Canada appeared to argue strongly in Schmeiser’s favor, but the court instead ordered that he pay the company their $15,000 “technology fee” plus a large share of his annual revenues. Unless Schmeiser can prevail on appeal, this case bodes ill for the future of all farmers who seek to remain GE-free in regions where engineered crops are widely grown.

When the food biotech sector began running into problems with investors in 1999, many of the “gene giants” began divesting their agricultural divisions into separate companies. The once seemingly-invincible Monsanto, for example, is now a much smaller, agrochemical-focused company 85 percent owned by the pharmaceutical giant Pharmacia. The financial links between these sectors, however, remain largely intact, and the project of creating a comprehensive, worldwide “life science” industry controlled by a few of the world’s largest chemical companies continues, albeit in an institutionally weakened form. Commercial seed production worldwide is still increasingly dominated by companies that specialize in chemical production and biotechnology. Monsanto, for example, has retained its ownership of commercial seed giants such as DeKalb, Asgrow, and Holden’s, along with major seed companies in Britain, India, Brazil, and other countries.

The leading institutions of global capitalism, particularly the WTO and the World Bank, along with the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, also play a central role in the proliferation of biotechnology, and are heavily supported by the biotech industry. Biotech companies played a key role in formulating the WTO’s “TRIPs” (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) provisions, and TRIPs has become the main leverage for imposing life-patenting regimes on those countries where the opposition is the strongest. The WTO’s “dispute settlement” mechanisms have been used by the U.S. government to try to compel European governments to accept imports of hormone-treated beef, Central American bananas, and other unwanted products. Only the fear of political isolation in the face of massive public opposition has kept the biotech industry from utilizing the same direct pressure tactics. World Bank development loans are often tied to “capacity building” aimed at shifting recipient countries toward biotech agriculture, and U.S. food “aid” shipments to impoverished regions are often heavily tainted with genetically engineered products, including the “Starlink” corn that is deemed unfit for human consumption in the United States.

A radical critique of biotechnology also needs to encompass the various new human genetic technologies that are most often described—often misleadingly— as breakthroughs in medical research. While some research using modern biotech methods has proved fruitful, and the sequencing of the human genome has in some ways broadened critical discourse on the very limited genetic aspects of human identity, we are still in the midst of a massive diversion of scientific resources toward a narrow focus on genetics. In the midst of last year’s media focus on all the purported wonders that would emerge from the mapping of the human genome, Dr. Neil Holtzman of Johns Hopkins Medical School wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “No interventions based on the identification of disease-related genes have yet proved safe and effective.” Still, the hype continues unabated.

Capitalist medicine prefers to remain largely ignorant of the underlying causes of disease, preferring to identify genetic correlates that can be tested for, and used to weed out those who may be most susceptible. For example, in the mid-1990s, the EPA committed some $60 million to an Environmental Genome Project devoted to identifying genetic markers for increased susceptibility to genetic disease. These funds could have been much better spent studying the underlying causes and processes of environmental disease; such work could be of real benefit to suffering individuals, and would probably make it easier to hold corporate culprits liable. Instead, the rhetoric of alleviating suffering is appropriated in the interest of isolating potential sufferers, so that the engines of capitalism can roll on unimpeded. Commentators on the right have been ahead of much of the left in labeling human cloning and steps toward “designer children” as harbingers of a new form of slavery, even as they wax enthusiastic about steps toward a new, largely market- rather than state-driven form of eugenics.

Finally, it is important to understand the ways biotechnology has become a centerpiece of today’s information-centered capitalism. As the profitability of conventional industrial production began to decline in the late 20th century, investors sought out new forms of information-centered production as the basis for renewed economic expansion. In her chapter in Redesigning Life?, Chaia Heller describes the central role of biotechnology in the consolidation of a new, postmodern form of service-oriented, flexible, “organic” capitalism, in which dispersed, interchangeable, and culturally-mediated forms of economic activity are largely supplanting conventional modes of industrial production and profit extraction. In this respect, biotechnology is essentially “the systematic conversion of biological nature into informational capital,” according to Heller, and all the gene sequencers and gene hunters (i.e., “biopirates”) are merely “attempt[ing] to map out future colonial territories within the cells of human beings [as well as] within the biological nature of plants, animals and other organisms.”

If we believe that a free, ecological society is possible, then our activism against biotechnology needs to fully reflect that understanding. Many well-known and widely-supported organizations are focused entirely on getting genetically engineered foods labeled or petitioning government agencies to require independent testing, and perhaps more comprehensive regulation, in place of today’s thoroughly dubious “consultations” between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the biotech and agribusiness industries. Today’s non-regulations are founded on a myth of “substantial equivalence”—the transparently false notion that there is nothing qualitatively different about a genetically engineered variety of a given crop, no discernable health and environmental problems that are unique consequences of this technology. But exposing and overturning this myth, and even eliminating GE foods entirely, are only first steps toward a democratic society that can feed everyone fresh, healthy food in an ecologically sound manner.

Demanding justice from an inherently unjust system can be a step toward creating a free society or it can perpetuate self-defeating attempts to reform the system strictly on its own terms. It depends on whether the movement is ready to view its immediate goals in the context of a broader reconstructive social and political vision. Is our goal merely the labeling of GE food—or even its abolition—or is it a truly ecological food system that abolishes the stranglehold of agribusiness megacorporations on our food supply and our lives? What kinds of strategies can serve to dismantle the unaccountable and life-denying power of these institutions and the system they serve? How can our opposition to genetic engineering be grounded in a political strategy aiming at genuine community empowerment and a society freed from the confines of the capitalist war of all against all? There have been important successes in the past few years; the hegemony of companies like Monsanto over our food, our health and our future has been seriously shaken, but we clearly have much further to go. We need to ground our opposition to biotechnology in our dreams of community empowerment, of the triumph of human liberation over consumption and the stranglehold of the capitalist market.

Will we have biotechnology in a free society? Perhaps we will, but as with all the other new technologies activists have confronted over the years, an ecologically-informed biological technology will be a fundamentally different kind of undertaking than the biotechnology that dominates today’s discussions. Today’s biotechnology industry has flourished largely at the expense of more benign, ecological technologies, from sophisticated refinements of organic food raising and permaculture methods to holistic approaches to medical care that are grounded in both traditional knowledge and a non-mechanistic outlook on the inner ecology of the human organism. We have seen how research into alternative technologies has been systematically devalued and de-funded in recent years, even in our theoretically public land-grant universities; now we need to envision a society where these technologies can flourish.

Technologies are always a product of their social context and powerful technologies serve to reinforce the social and political structures that produce them. Today’s biotechnology is fundamentally about manipulation and control—that is what capitalism thrives upon. Future biological technologies, on the other hand, can aim to work with the patterns of nature and enhance human participation and harmony with the rest of the natural world. Genetics will likely play a role, as will a wealth of whole organism-centered approaches to scientific research that have been largely relegated to the margins of academia in recent decades. Perhaps most important, communities of people will reclaim decision-making power around what kinds of technologies are most amenable to the creation of an ecological future. Communities can debate and decide how to allocate resources toward research and discovery in a free, open and directly democratic forum, instead of corporate executives and government bureaucrats deciding largely in secret. As we continue to explore the wider implications of today’s biotechnologies, it is critical that we continue to look toward the development of a science—and a social and participatory political context for that science—that truly represents the full realization of human possibilities.

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