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Synthesis/Regeneration 16   (Summer 1998)


George Monbiot's Amnesty Lecture

Science with Scruples

by George Monbiot


He who pays the piper calls the tune. The dispossessed of the world, the impoverished of the world, are the least likely to be able to pay, so they are the least likely to have their interests represented by the commercial funding of science. This means, in turn, that they are unlikely to be served by that science. The genetic engineering of crop plants provides a clear example of some of the resultant dangers.

We are told, and many people believe, that the genetic engineering of farmed plants is going to feed the world, that indeed without it we have no prospect of feeding the world. There is no question that genetically engineered crops will, in many cases, produce higher yields than those which haven't been genetically engineered. And there is also no question that, if it is not happening yet, we will soon get to the point at which, in absolute terms, we do not have enough food to feed the people of the world. A straightforward inference is evolved: we need more food, genetic engineering can provide more food, so genetic engineering will save the world from starvation.


Food crises all over the world result less from an absolute shortage of food than from the failure of food to find its way to the mouths of those who need it most. A major component of every famine in modern times has been the withdrawal of food from the needy, and its accumulation by the sated

Unfortunately it is not as simple as that. Food crises all over the world, from the Irish potato famine to the disaster sweeping across northern Kenya today, result less from an absolute shortage of food than from the failure of food to find its way to the mouths of those who need it most. A major component of every famine in modern times has been the withdrawal of food from the needy, and its accumulation by the sated -- as it disappears abroad or is used for feeding intensively-reared farm animals, or as essential staple crops are replaced by luxury foods. There are good reasons to suppose that the genetic engineering of crop plants is likely to contribute to this inequality, and hence to famine.

For a couple of years at the beginning of the 1990s, I worked in Brazil. One of the issues I looked into was the connection between land ownership and food production. Some striking figures came to light. At the time, 1% of the landowners in Brazil owned 49% of the land, while the poorest 56% of landowners, the peasant farmers, farming just 3% of the land, produced nearly all the country's staple crops: the majority of the manioc, maize and beans that Brazil consumed, and 40% of the rice. They were, in other words, feeding much of Brazil. The big landowners, by contrast, with plenty of capital and good international contacts, were using their estates to produce cash crops for export.

I found this very interesting, and so I started asking the same questions in other countries. A pattern began to emerge: those who had the money and the international contacts used these advantages to make much bigger profits than they would earn by growing rice or beans for local people.


...anything which helps small farmers encourages food security; whereas anything which tramples on small farmers reduces the possibility of food security.

They might be growing pineapples or tea or flowers for sale abroad, or cereals on a vast scale to sell to Europe for pig feed. It became clear to me that anything which helps small farmers encourages food security; whereas anything which tramples on small farmers reduces the possibility of food security.

Now the genetic engineering of crop plants relies on what could be described as one-sided intellectual property rights. To ensure that they reap the benefits of their investments, the corporations that produce them are applying for, and obtaining, patents on genetically engineered crop plants. Many of the plants which the big pharmaceutical companies use as their raw material have been developed over hundreds or even thousands of years by peasant cultivators. The corporations take them to their laboratories, play around with them for 18 months, stick in a flounder gene here and a llama gene there, and hope to produce a lucrative new product. It might have a longer growing season, for example, resistance to frost or to pests, or a better response to fertilizer.

Now those crops are expensive, and many of them are made more expensive still because they have been engineered to respond to chemicals which the same companies just happen to produce. But what makes them particularly inaccessible to the small farmer is that he or she can't do what he or she used to do, which is to buy seed just once, thereafter growing and saving seed of their own. Having patented these new germ lines, the big companies are insisting that every time a farmer grows seed for the following year, the corporation should receive a royalty. Small farmers, many of whom work outside the cash economy, simply cannot compete on these terms. As big producers gain access to technologies beyond the reach of the poor, they will secure an even more powerful grip of land tenure and production; we will see an exacerbation of the inequalities inherent in Green Revolution. It is my contention that this will result in a reduction of food security world-wide.


There is one agricultural application of genetic engineering which does have the potential to reduce pesticide use, and that is the production of genetically modified organisms designed to attack crop pests. It sounds like a good idea -- viruses could, in theory, be specifically programmed to kill a single pest species, leaving the rest of the ecosystem intact. In Oxford a couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to witness the first launch of genetically modified organisms into the British environment, courtesy of the Institute of Virology. The Institute proposed to release a genetically engineered virus, designed to attack a species of caterpillar which would be eating some experimental cabbages just outside Wytham Woods, three or four miles from Oxford. The Natural Environmental Research Council, which provides much of the Institute's money, insisted that it publicize the proposed trials and hold a public meeting, at which ordinary people could find out more about the project and raise any concerns they might have. The Institute of Virology conformed to these instructions to the letter. A tiny advert appeared in the classified section of the local paper, giving notice of the public meeting. Fortunately, a resident of Wythom village was glancing through the small ads and stumbled across it. He told his friends what he had found, who in turn got hold of some academics and environmentalists in Oxford, myself among them, hoping to find out more. No one knew anything, so we got in touch with the Institute and applied for tickets to the meeting.


As big producers gain access to technologies beyond the reach of the poor, they will secure an even more powerful grip of land tenure and production this will result in a reduction of food security world-wide.

We were told it was sold out. We found this a little odd, as the advert had only just been published, and it wasn't exactly eye-catching. So we asked a friend of ours in London, with good scientific credentials and who was known to the Institute, to apply. She was sent a ticket right away. We called the Institute and asked what was happening. Tickets, they told us, were to be handed out only to people selected by the director. Now to my mind there was an evident public need to know what was going on, how the experiment was going to be run, and what, if any, dangers it posed to the ecosystem. We turned up at the meeting, but they wouldn't let us in. So we got into our sleeping bags, put on red noses and antennae and, as giant human caterpillars, clambered over the roofs of the Institute.


...we, the public, are becoming less and less likely to hear about what science is doing, until that science is turned into technology, and it's too late to ask the critical ethical questions.

It worked. We succeeded in luring out representatives of the Institute, to explain to us what was going on. There were, we came to see, several causes for continued alarm. The field trials, for example, had not been preceded by experiments in a "biological greenhouse," in which field conditions are simulated to see whether or not there was any danger of the virus escaping. The virus had not been genetically disabled. Nor was it as specific to the host caterpillar as the institute had suggested. It turned out that 43 butterfly and moth species were known to be susceptible to the virus, with the possibility that other organisms could also be affected. We discovered that the means of containing the virus and preventing it from leaving the cabbage patch consisted of a coarse plastic mesh. We discovered that the leading virologist on the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which licensed the experiment, was also a member of staff at the Institute of Virology.

There can scarcely be a clearer illustration of the need for transparency and accountability at all stages of research and development. When the public is kept in the dark, it is bad not only for democracy, but also, in the long run, for science, which loses credibility and public confidence. Unfortunately, especially when their work is commercially funded, faculties seem, if anything, to be tightening their grip on information about what they're doing. One of the principal reasons is the patentability of both genetic material and the processes required to manipulate that material. If you are hoping to monopolize the fruits of your labors, the last thing you want to do is to disclose your evidence before you file your patent application. In other words we, the public, are becoming less and less likely to hear about what science is doing, until that science is turned into technology, and it's too late to ask the critical ethical questions.

Patent law also raises its own problems. In 1995 the European Commission, for the first time ever, had a draft directive rejected by the European Parliament. The directive was attempting to expand the range of biological "inventions" that could be patented. European parliamentarians, particularly the German MEPs, were concerned that it was so loosely drafted as more or less to confer patentability on life itself. In response, the European Commission has now produced a new draft directive. Far from solving the problem, it seems merely to have made the situation even more confused.



George Monbiot describes himself "as a writer, broadcaster and academic, currently Visiting Fellow of the Green College Center for Environmental Policy and Understanding, Green College, Oxford. I was an Open Scholar of Brasenose College, Oxford, where I studied Zoology. On graduating I joined the BBCs Natural History Unit as a radio producer, making natural history and environmental programs. I left the Natural History Unit to work briefly as a current affairs producer and presenter for the BBC's World Service, before leaving the BBC to research and write my first book. My second book, Amazon Watershed, is of relevance to the MacLibel case. I spent approximately two years in Brazil, over the course of seven journeys (1989-92), investigating the causes of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The book won the Sir Peter Kent Award for Conservation Writing. On reading it, the President of Brazil promised to change some of his governments policies in the Amazon."

This is an excerpt from a much longer article of which S/R became aware through Reclaim the Streets, PO BOX 9656, London, N4 43Y England rts@gn.apc.org



The ethics of ownership are surely never more pressing than when applied to human genetic material. But here again, the European draft directive has fudged the issue. It says that you cannot apply for a patent on human genetic material inside the body, but you can get a patent on precisely the same chemicals extracted from the body and purified. This, of course, is no real barrier at all: the material only becomes commercially useful when it has been extracted and purified. The sloppy drafting of patent law is already beginning to precipitate some surreal and, I feel, outrageous situations. I recently visited a very eminent geneticist at the company Smith Kline Beecham and, in passing, asked him if he had any patents of his own. He thought for a moment, then suddenly remembered. "Ah yes", he said, "I own the gene for human maleness."




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