Harbinger Vol. 2 No. 1 — Biotechnology: Radicalizing the Debate




Biotechnology & Society  |   Vol. 2, No. 1

Radicalizing the Debate

By Brian Tokar

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 other products with a variety of engineered corn not
approved for human consumption, the gathering of 4000 people last March
to demonstrate against the biotechnology industry convention in Boston
(an event initiated and partly organized by the Institute for Social
Ecology), and continuing direct actions against fields of genetically
engineered crops, have helped made it impossible for the corporate media
to continue to ignore this issue.  For those of us at the ISE who have
been working on biotech issues for many years, this is clearly an
important breakthrough, but it also makes it imperative that we continue
working to broaden and radicalize the debate.

Evidence for the unique dangers of genetically engineered foods
continues to mount.  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 for caution.

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 and other
concerned citizens 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
genuinely free society?  How can we fully comprehend all the disturbing
social consequences of the new genetic technologies?

Commodified PeasA meaningful discussion of the implications of the new
biotechnologies needs to begin with the concept of commodification.  In
the 19^th century, Marx introduced the notion of the commodity as an
“external object,” [1] 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,” [2] 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.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the processes of
commodification were extended to all spheres of social life, popular
culture, and even the most intimate realms of personal experience.  The
Frankfurt School critiqued the fast-growing culture industry as an
extension of the larger project of domination in society; for
Horkheimer, Adorno and others, the domination of humanity and nature
appeared to be a regrettable, albeit sometimes horrific, historical
necessity, while social ecology casts ideas of “dominating nature” as a
direct consequence of patterns of domination in society.  Murray
Bookchin, in /Re-enchanting Humanity/, described the all-pervasive
qualities of commercial culture:

“Today, the unbridled expansion of the market transforms nearly all
traditional personal relationships into commodity ties, fostering a
belief in the merits of consumption and a highly synthetic image of ?the
good life.?” [3]

While the roots of organized persuasion and the creation of artificial
needs can be traced back to precapitalist institutions, 20th century
capitalism extended its reach far deeper into private life and everyday

“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.” [4]

The project of modern biotechnology takes this process 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 ? 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.

Food as Capital

The biotechnology industry is also at 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.  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.

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, pharmaceuticals 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.

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, agriculturally-focused
company 85% 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 many 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.

The leading institutions of global capitalism, particularly the WTO and
the World Bank, along with the new 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 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 genetic aspects of human identity, we are still in the
midst of a massive diversion of scientific resources toward a narrow
focus on genetics.  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.  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 capitalism began to decline in
the late twentieth century, investors sought out new forms of
information-centered production as the basis for renewed economic
expansion.  In her chapter in the new collection /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.” [5]

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 US 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 merely 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 citizenship and human liberation over
consumption and the stranglehold of the capitalist market.

Will we have biotechnology in a free society?  This
question has often arisen in our discussions of biotechnology at the
ISE.  Perhaps we will, but as with all the other technologies social
ecologists have discussed and critiqued 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.  And,
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, social ecology will 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.


1. Karl Marx, /Capital: Vol. 1/ (New York: Vintage, 1977) , p. 125.
2. /Ibid,/ p. 131.
3. Murray Bookchin, /Re-enchanting Humanity/ (London: Cassell, 1995),
p. 155.
4. Murray Bookchin, “Moral Economy or Market Economy,”//in /The
Modern Crisis /(Philadelphia: New Society Publisher, 1986), p. 82.
5. Chaia Heller, “McDonalds, MTV and Monsanto: Resisting
Biotechnology in the Age of Informational Capital,” in
/Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic
Engineering/, Brian Tokar, ed. (London: Zed Books, 2001), p. 413.

Brian Tokar is on the faculty of the Institute for Social Ecology
in Plainfield, Vermont.  His most recent book is
Redesigning Life?
The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering (Zed Books