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Synthesis/Regeneration 14   (Fall 1997)

Biotechnology: Resisting the Engineering of Life

by Brian Tokar, Green Council, The Greens/Green Party USA

This past winter, scientists in Edinburgh, Scotland accomplished a feat that had long been speculated about but never before been realized: they produced the first living clone of an adult mammal. The world's media were saturated with photos of this unique newborn sheep, a ewe genetically unrelated to its birth mother, but a nearly exact genetic copy of a six-year-old pregnant ewe of an entirely different breed. The public reaction was immediate, as people faced the staggering implications of this newly unleashed technology. The biotechnology industry's spin doctors immediately set to work to reassure everyone that this did not mean that cloning of human beings was around the corner. Even President Clinton, who has been thoroughly beholden to the biotechnology industry since his first year in office, promised that human cloning would be banned.

...biotechnology may represent a dramatic advance in the control and manipulation of all of life by a powerful few...

Sensational stories such as the cloning of a Scottish sheep have long been the mainstay of media coverage of biotechnology. Biotechnology is most often depicted as a fount of new scientific wonders, which may be disturbing in their immediate implications but will ultimately bring dramatic improvements in our lives. New medicines and genetic therapies, cures for cancer and AIDS, even new methods for cleaning up toxic pollution, have long been promised by biotechnology's proponents. But a closer look reveals a very different side of biotechnology. Increasing numbers of activists see it as the leading edge of corporate efforts to control our food, our environment, and perhaps the future of life on earth. Biotechnologists have been in the forefront of patenting living organisms and their biochemical products. Ultimately, biotechnology may represent a dramatic advance in the control and manipulation of all of life by a powerful few, heightening existing threats to the integrity of living ecosystems and our own communities.

Biotechnology in fact encompasses a wide variety of related technologies, each based upon the successful laboratory simulation of basic biochemical and genetic processes. These include the manipulation of living cells to enhance specific genetic traits, the chemical alteration of protein structures and functions, the test-tube fertilization of eggs, and the artificial implantation of animal and human embryos. The most radical of these technologies, however, is the technique of genetic engineering involving so-called "recombinant DNA." By this method, strands of genetic material from one organism-the genes responsible for a particular biological function or the manufacture of a specific biochemical product-are isolated in a test tube and spliced into the chromosomes of another organism. Genes for proteins found in living cells in only the minutest of quantities have been transferred into bacteria and reproduced in large quantities. Genetic traits seen as commercially desirable are being transferred between plants and animals of different species, sometimes from animals to plants, bacteria to plants, or even humans to animals.

The cloning of a sheep, for example, was not an end in itself for the Scottish researchers, but a step toward producing a breed of animal "bioreactors" that produce commercially viable quantities of various drugs in their milk. Genes for drug production (most often from bacteria or cultured animal cells) would be injected into sheep or goat embryos, and those few animals that successfully incorporated these genes would be patented and reproduced en masse by cloning. The research is funded by a research institute sponsored by the British biotechnology industry, along with a Scottish pharmaceutical company called PPL Therapeutics. Similar experiments are underway in the US as well, most notably on a farm just west of Boston that was purchased in 1995 by the Genzyme Transgenics Corporation.

The widest application of genetic engineering to date has been in agriculture. Since 1990, over 3000 varieties of genetically engineered plants, animals, and bacteria have been developed and field tested in the United States. Plants have been genetically manipulated to resist high doses of herbicides, manufacture insecticidal toxins, resist viruses, ripen more slowly or more uniformly, and display altered chemical compositions. Chemical companies such as Monsanto, Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis), DuPont, and Upjohn, along with many large commercial seed companies (in which chemical companies have invested heavily in the past few years), have steered their sights toward biotechnologies such as genetic engineering in an effort to expand their control over the rapidly monopolizing food industry.

Genetically engineered foods have aroused worldwide controversy ever since Monsanto and other companies began developing a genetically engineered version of the growth hormone BGH as a drug to be administered to dairy cows. Despite company claims that engineered Bovine Growth Hormone would increase milk production with a minimum of side effects, farmers have discovered that the hormone seriously threatens the health of cows and impairs their ability to reproduce normally. Cows injected with BGH also produce larger amounts of a hormone called Insulin Growth Factor 1 that is associated with cancer in human cells. Widespread consumer rejection of dairy products from cows injected with synthetic growth hormone has helped curtail the use of this dangerous and unneeded drug.

In the past two years, several genetically engineered food crops have been approved by the USDA and have begun to appear in our food supply.

In the past two years, several genetically engineered food crops have been approved by the USDA and have begun to appear in our food supply. They include soybeans and corn altered to withstand high doses of toxic herbicides, tomatoes that ripen more slowly for longer shelf life, and potatoes that resist insect damage due to a bacteria-derived toxin that has been cloned into the plant's chromosomes. Corporations have steadfastly resisted labeling these products, aware that the vast majority of people are very wary of engineered foods. In Europe, US refusal to segregate genetically engineered soy and corn exports, and label them accordingly, has aroused public outrage and driven some large food companies to reject ingredients grown in the United States.

Opposition to genetically engineered foods largely hinges on the likely health effects of these highly experimental new products. The ability to provoke an allergic reaction, for example, can be accidentally transferred from one plant to another in the course of transferring genes. Researchers at the University of Nebraska have demonstrated that soybeans engineered to contain genes from Brazil nuts provoke strong allergic reactions in people sensitive to Brazil nuts. Most engineered crops are resistant to antibiotics, which are used as experimental markers to easily distinguish altered plant cells from their normal relatives. Antibiotic resistance can be passed on to bacteria in the soil, or in the human digestive tract. Herbicide resistant crops encourage increased use of chemicals in agriculture, the main goal for companies such as Monsanto that are counting on these crops to help boost herbicide sales. Levels of toxic substances ordinarily found at below-detectable levels in foods may be increased, and unique combinations of genetic traits might even have an effect on our ability to digest food properly.

The environmental consequences of genetically engineered crops are a matter of widespread concern, but although research aimed at developing new genetically engineered crops is proceeding at lightning speed, research to improve our understanding of their environmental effects creeps along at less than a snail's pace. A 1993 study commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists outlined many scenarios by which genetically altered varieties of common food crops can either become invasive weeds or pass their unique combinations of genes on to native plants with unpredictable consequences. Inserted genes can spread into the wild through pollen and through various bacterial and viral carriers. The most likely scenario in the US is in the case of crops such as rapeseed (canola) and sunflowers that have many common wild relatives here. As genetic experimentation spreads into tropical regions from which the majority of common food crops originate, the risk factor multiplies many fold.

In October of 1993, half a million farmers joined a day-long procession and rally in Bangalore to protest corporate control of agriculture, the patenting of seeds and other life forms, and the new trade and patent rules required by the GATT agreement.

Virologists at Michigan State University have demonstrated that virus genes implanted into plant cells can be transferred into the DNA of other viruses that the plants come into contact with. Dr. Richard F. Allison told the New York Times that this could lead to the unintentional creation of new, and perhaps more virulent, plant viruses. Various studies have suggested that viruses can also transfer genes among plants and perhaps animals as well.

Dr. Elaine Ingham, a plant pathologist at Oregon State University, became concerned about the environmental consequences of her colleagues' efforts to alter the genetics of a common variety of bacteria found in the root systems of most plants. The bacteria were being enabled to digest crop residues and produce ethyl alcohol for use as a fuel. Ingham discovered that the altered bacteria survived easily and often outcompeted their parent strains, something biotech advocates used to say could never happen. But the effects on native grasses were even more unexpected. In sandy soil, most of the grasses died from alcohol poisoning. In clay soils, however, the grass also died, but from an entirely different cause. The altered bacteria apparently increased the numbers of root-feeding nematodes and decreased populations of beneficial soil fungi that help grasses resist common diseases.

"...biotechnology products will have a range of impacts much greater than just the engineered organism."

"We must understand the effects on the whole system, not just isolated portions," Ingham has written, "because biotechnology products will have a range of impacts much greater than just the engineered organism." In forest soils, for example, native tree species depend on root-dwelling fungi for proper absorption of nutrients and water from the soil. What would happen if these bacteria spread from a farmstead into nearby forests? Other studies have demonstrated effects such as altered carbon dioxide levels, increased plant disease, and changes in the distribution of other essential soil microbes from the introduction of genetically altered organisms and their byproducts.

For years, arguments for the safety of engineered organisms depended on claims that they simply could not survive outside the controlled environment of laboratories and experimental farm plots. Beatrix Tappeser of the Institute of Applied Ecology in Frankfurt, Germany undertook a comprehensive survey of experiments designed to test this claim, and found numerous cases of genetically altered life forms surviving in surface water, drinking water, wastewater, soil, and even clothing at rates comparable to their natural relatives. In addition, isolated fragments of DNA not only survive, but are often protected from natural degradation in sewage sludge, and in particles suspended in soil, water, and animal feces. These findings compound the range of plausible scenarios for the uncontrolled spread of genetic traits such as resistance to antibiotics and herbicides, production of substances toxic to various insects, ability to grow better in salty and otherwise degraded soils, and other more subtle biochemical changes.

While opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture and other areas has gained little mainstream attention in the US, activists in other parts of the world have made their concerns widely heard. In Germany, long-term encampments on fields where engineered crops are to be tested have delayed field tests by companies such as the chemical giant Hoechst. Greenpeace has blockaded shipments of genetically engineered soybeans from the United States in ports across northern Europe. Greens have achieved moratoria on the sale of engineered foods in several European countries, and the use of synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone is banned in Europe until the year 2000. Proposals to allow the patenting of living organisms-seen in the corporate world as essential to the profitability of biotechnology-have sparked widespread controversy in the European Parliament and in many Third World countries. Farmers in India are in the forefront of resisting the patenting of seeds and the increasing corporate control of agriculture ushered in by the biotechnology industry (see sidebar). Third World governments are uniting behind efforts to add a Protocol on Biosafety to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which originated at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil.

While opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture and other areas has gained little mainstream attention in the US, activists in other parts of the world have made their concerns widely heard.

Activists worldwide see 1997 as a crucial year to halt the spread of genetically engineered foods. Monsanto has reportedly contracted with farmers to plant more than five million acres of their herbicide resistant soybeans in the US this year, and dozens of new engineered crops are in the regulatory pipeline. In April the first Global Week of Action against genetically engineered foods saw demonstrations and educational events in 27 countries and at least 19 US cities. Another week of actions has been called for early October. Greenpeace and other groups are petitioning the USDA to assure that the use of engineered foods and ingredients will not be permitted under new federal standards for organic foods. The specter of human cloning aroused by the sheep experiments in Scotland has widened the ethical debate around genetic engineering. It is time to demonstrate that the Brave New World of biotechnology will not be as inevitable as its corporate promoters would have us believe.

Biopiracy and Genetic Imperialism      [excerpt]

Multinational corporations have set out to colonize the genetic resources and indigenous knowledge of peoples throughout the world. The pleas of rainforest activists in the 1980s that tropical forests should be protected for the wealth of useful, largely unknown biological products they contain have been transformed into a new agenda of biological colonialism. Corporations are surveying remote areas of the world for medicinal plants, indigenous relatives of common food crops, exotic sweeteners, sources of naturally occurring pesticides, and even the genetic material of once-isolated indigenous peoples. The biotechnology industry has proved particularly solicitous of plants, animals, and people that display unique genetic traits which can be transferred using recombinant DNA technology into common crop varieties, bacteria, and other life forms for future study and commercial exploitation.

For activists around the world, these developments represent a qualitatively new stage in the exploitation of the South's resources by northern economic interests.

The traditional peoples who are largely responsible for the centuries-long cultivation and protection of beneficial plants and animals receive little if any benefit from these activities. Samples are collected, often by university-based researchers, with the aid of local people who are most knowledgeable about local foods and medicines. The samples are sent to laboratories in urban centers where genetic traits are studied, products are developed, and patents are obtained, which grant the company that supported the research a proprietary right to their findings. Biotechnology companies often seek sweeping patents that offer a monopoly on all possible products from a given natural source; traditional knowledge is thus transformed into a source of commercial products to be sold worldwide at a substantial profit.

For example, India's neem tree has been tapped as a source of insecticidal oil, medicines, and other products, many of which have been used since ancient times, but are now becoming the property of western corporations such as the chemical giant W. R. Grace. Anti-cancer drugs extracted from the rosy periwinkle of Madagascar have produced well over $100 million in profits for the Eli Lilly company, but are unlikely to be made available in their country of origin. The prospecting and patenting of living material reached a new height in 1995 when the US National Institutes of Health received a patent on living cells cultured from the tissues of an indigenous Hagahai person from the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea. Activists saw this as an alarming step toward the establishment of a worldwide trade in human genetic material, and ultimately succeeded in pressuring NIH to renounce this patent.

For activists around the world, these developments represent a qualitatively new stage in the exploitation of the South's resources by northern economic interests. The protocol on Trade-Related Intellectual Property contained in the 1994 GATT agreement empowers the World Trade Organization to compel countries to enforce patent rules developed by Northern governments, including the widespread patenting of living organisms and their genetic material. So far, only India has resisted this pressure: in March of 1995, the upper house of the Indian parliament indefinitely tabled a proposal that would have brought the country's patent laws into compliance.

India's resistance to patenting life is the culmination of many years of activism by Indian farmers against the corporate control of agriculture. Farmers in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, for example, have focused on the increasing dominance of Cargill and other transnational corporations, and the threat they pose to land, water, and regional food security. In 1992, activists entered Cargill's regional office in Bangalore, removed records and supplies of seeds, and tossed them into a bonfire, reminiscent of the bonfires of British textiles during India's independence movement. The following summer, 200 members of the state's peasant organization dismantled Cargill's regional seed storage unit and razed it to the ground. In October of 1993, half a million farmers joined a day-long procession and rally in Bangalore to protest corporate control of agriculture, the patenting of seeds and other life forms, and the new trade and patent rules required by the GATT agreement. Their demands included a strong affirmation of the tradition of free cultivation and exchange of seeds by India's farmers.

—from Brian Tokar's Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash (South End Press, 1997).

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