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Synthesis/Regeneration 14   (Fall 1997)

Biotechnology-The Vital Issue Now

by Andy Zimmerman, Westchester (New York) Greens

In the years since the discovery of the DNA molecule's double helix, scientists have begun to understand how life works at the cellular level. Technology based on their discoveries will transform our daily lives within the next few years. Like all technological revolutions, this one will create opportunities-both for the rich and powerful to consolidate their hold on society, and for activists, by opposing them, to work towards a better world for everyone.

A hundred years ago, robber barons like Morgan, Rockefeller and Carnegie saw their chances in the new technologies of the day: railroads, oil, steel. Using any means necessary, they raced to monopolize these new industries. Now, as the twentieth century ends, we're realizing that the information encoded in the DNA of the world's living things is one of our most precious resources. Today's robber barons realize it too-and they're trying to take the earth's genetic material private.

Mega-corporations like Monsanto and Novartis are buying up not only small biotech companies, but also traditional seed, drug and chemical companies all over the world, forming huge germ plasm conglomerates. They're manipulating governments to claim patent rights over our genetic heritage. They're releasing genetically modified organisms into our environment and insinuating them into our food. They call themselves the "life industry."

Like the nineteenth-century socialists and anarchists who were stirred to action by the rapacity of the robber barons, we must respond to these new genetic buccaneers. And the time to act is now. Now, before our food supply has been irreversibly compromised-before the germ line of thousands of species is contaminated with alien genes-before disaster strikes, and strike it will.

When Three Mile Island melted down, anti-nuclear activists had already worked hard to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear energy. People knew what a meltdown was and who was to blame for it. The result? Nuclear plants can no longer be built in the United States. Let's aim for the same popular awareness of genetic risks. The elements are coming into place for a pure food movement in this country. Americans may be pretty complacent about politics these days. But they do care about the food they eat. When school kids are sickened by tainted raspberries imported under NAFTA, it gets people's attention. One big scare like mad cow disease in England, and the political landscape will shift.

...many of the people involved with healthy food are politically dormant. But biotechnology may be the issue that can galvanize them.

The intertwined vegetarian and animal rights movements have been one of the main growth areas in student activism lately. Most people in the animal rights community are not yet aware of the potential for cruelty inherent in the genetic engineering of animals. Count on them to protest when abuses start to be revealed.

Sales of organic food have increased mightily for the last several years, propelled by suspicions about food safety. Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture, headed by Dan Glickman, biotech industry cheerleader, is about to issue national organic standards. They may permit genetically engineered foods to be labeled as organic. If they do, outrage will be far-reaching and intense.

In each of our American communities stands the supermarket, baleful sentinel of corporate America-and tempting target for anti-biotech actions. But not far from its world of Muzak and cents-off coupons, an alternative food distribution system, amounting almost to an underground economy, is taking root. Farmers' markets, victory gardens, food co-ops, seed exchanges, organic farms and community supported agriculture programs are sprouting everywhere. Visit an organic farm and talk with the new generation of farmers. You'll be amazed by their energy and inventiveness, and moved by their idealism.

It's true that many of the people involved with healthy food are politically dormant. But biotechnology may be the issue that can galvanize them. In Europe, the green movement has led a mass consumer revolt against genetically engineered foods. Across the continent, retailers and distributors are refusing to carry them, and governments are severely restricting them or banning them outright. Out of seven million Austrians, a million signed a petition against genetically engineered foods. Protesters blockading ships full of high-tech soybeans were shot at by the Portuguese navy. Tons of Swiss chocolate were destroyed when they were found to contain genetically engineered soy lecithin.

In the third world, where many of our food and medicinal plants were developed, leaders like Vandana Shiva are crusading against bio- imperialism. So far, we in the United States have lagged behind. The global threat posed by the life industry makes it imperative for us to work with international green activists. Let's fight technology with technology, using the internet to build a strong worldwide movement.

copyright 1997, Andy Zimmerman

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