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Synthesis/Regeneration 18   (Winter 1999)


Resisting Biotechnology and the Commodification of Life

by Brian Tokar, Goddard College, Institute for Social Ecology



Just a few short years ago, biotechnologies such as genetic engineering and the cloning of animals were still widely viewed-by those who were aware of them at all-as strange new ideas, only recently emerged from the annals of science fiction. Compared to more pressing worldly concerns; from the destruction of forests to food contaminated by pesticides and other noxious chemicals, from hunger and homelessness in our own cities to widespread assaults on basic human rights throughout the world, biotechnology appeared to be one problem that could safely be put on the back burner. Clearly, this is no longer the case.

Sixty million acres of genetically engineered crops were grown in the United States in 1998, and nearly 90 million acres worldwide, accounting for nearly 40% of the world's soybean harvest, a third of the canola and 25% of the corn. These crops are rapidly finding their way into everything from processed foods to animal feed, with thoroughly unknown consequences. We are learning more about the effects of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), the first biotech product to significantly impact our food supply, from rising antibiotic use by dairy farmers to increased levels of the potent hormone IGF-1, which promotes the growth of cancer cells. In 1998, Canadian government scientists uncovered long-suppressed evidence of thyroid cysts and lesions in laboratory rats exposed to rBGH. These are only the first hints of how biotechnology will affect our food and our health.


In 1998, Canadian government scientists uncovered long-suppressed evidence of thyroid cysts and lesions in laboratory rats exposed to rBGH. These are only the first hints of how biotechnology will affect our food and our health.

Today, corn, potatoes and other crops are being engineered to secrete pesticides such as the bacterial toxin Bt. News of the damaging effects of these transgenic plants on beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings is slowly getting out, mostly from European laboratories and research stations. Crops are also genetically altered to resist high doses of herbicides, from glyphosate (Roundup), to the virulent carcinogen bromoxynil. In September of 1998, we learned, contrary to a decade of assurances from biotech advocates, that genetically engineered plants may be more likely to exchange pollen with other plants than their non-genetically engineered cousins. Genetic contamination of neighboring crops has now been documented in the case of both corn and rapeseed (canola). Still, the number of scientists studying the ecological consequences of genetic engineering is minuscule compared to the legions of researchers and technicians who are employed to develop the next generation of genetically engineered crop varieties.

The synthetic Terminator gene, which literally sterilizes future generations of a plant's seeds, has helped heighten our understanding of the corporate agenda for genetically engineered agriculture, one in which the choices farmers make each year about their season's crops are systematically appropriated by the agrochemical industry. The Terminator helped reveal the widespread appropriation of farmers' prerogatives that have been mounting in recent years, from the increased patenting of plant varieties, to the raising of crops under contract to a particular vendor. Specific methods, from tillage to pesticide applications, are now often spelled out in advance and certified by contract. Monsanto made headlines in 1998 with its aggressive prosecutions of farmers accused of "pirating" its seed varieties, that is allegedly saving and replanting the company's patented seeds.


. . . This approach leads us even further from meaningfully addressing the underlying social and economic roots of disease and despair.

The cloning of animals-from sheep to mice to cows to embryonic human cells-and the fusion of this technology with recent advances in reproductive techniques such as in vitro fertilization, raises even more profound questions for the future of life as we know it. How far are we from the day when companies will offer clones of their most productive milk and meat producers as commercial livestock? Will animals soon be raised as "bioreactors" to commercially produce drugs, hormones and even human proteins in their milk? Will human cells be cultivated for organ replacements and other therapies? Will parents be urged to select their future offspring from a preselected assortment of possible eggs and sperm-either theirs or someone else's? It is clearly too early to tell how far and how fast this technology will proceed, especially as research and development proceeds with virtually no public oversight or effective discussion. Will we be able to make ethical choices about what is humanly desirable, or will society become progressively more enslaved to the "free-market" dictum that whatever can be done will be done?

At the same time, much of modern medicine has radically shifted its focus from external causes of disease-viruses, bacteria, environmental toxins and the like-toward the identification of internal, inherited susceptibilities. We read glowing accounts of how many people will be helped by new DNA-based methods of drug discovery, genetic screening and even gene therapies, but rarely have the opportunity to consider what medical questions are not being addressed due to this profound imbalance in research priorities. The Council for Responsible Genetics has already documented numerous cases of discrimination in employment; insurance and other areas, based on poorly understood genetic "tendencies." In all probability, this approach leads us even further from meaningfully addressing the underlying social and economic roots of disease and despair.

Historically, all these biotechnologies have their origins in the discovery of DNA as the primary carrier of genetic information in genes and chromosomes. In an astoundingly rapid series of advances, between the 1950s and 1970s, scientists revealed the double helical structure of DNA and the means by which genetic messages are replicated and expressed as cells divide and organisms reproduce. They uncovered the processes by which genetic sequences are transcribed into protein structures in every cell, and began to understand how genes regulate themselves and each other on the cellular and molecular level. Soon, they learned how to cut and splice particular segments of DNA. By manipulating the biochemical means used by viruses to redirect a cell's genetic expression, it became possible to identify and isolate DNA sequences of interest to scientists. With successive refinements, these powerfully manipulative techniques of sequencing and rearranging DNA, and redirecting gene expression, became methods of choice in virtually every area of biological and medical research.


The so-called "genetic revolution" has sparked an unprecedented consolidation of corporate control over all aspects of food and medicine.

The new biotechnologies have more in common, however, than a set of research methods and laboratory techniques, or a unifying scientific paradigm. The so-called "genetic revolution" has sparked an unprecedented consolidation of corporate control over all aspects of food and medicine. A small number of powerful transnational companies has come to increasingly dominate the fields of seed production, agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals. One company, the Swiss multinational Novartis, is already one of the world's three largest companies (measured by annual sales) in all three areas. The recently aborted merger of Monsanto and American Home Products would have produced a second, and the impending merger of the French agrochemical giant Rhone Poulenc and the German pharmaceutical leader Hoechst may have a similar worldwide impact.

Monsanto's role as probably the most incessant promoter of genetic engineering in agriculture has been bolstered by its acquisitions of many of the largest, most established seed companies in the US. Monsanto owns Holdens Foundation Seeds, supplier of germplasm used on 25-35% of US corn acreage, according to RAFI, and Asgrow Agronomics, which Monsanto describes as "the leading soybean breeder, developer and distributor in the United States." In 1997, they purchased Sementes Agroceres, a major Brazilian producer of corn seed, and in 1998 they bought Cargill's international seed division and Unilever's plant breeding operation, Plant Breeding International, which was once a public institution based at Cambridge University. Last year, Monsanto also completed its acquisition of De Kalb Genetics, the second largest seed company in the United States and the ninth largest in the world, and announced plans to purchase Delta and Pine Land, the largest US cotton seed company. If the Delta and Pine acquisition gains regulatory approval, Monsanto will control 85% of the entire US cottonseed market.

As the biotechnology industry has heightened its control over so many spheres of life, public skepticism and opposition have increased, almost in proportion. High profile public campaigns, especially in Europe, India and East Asia, have put serious constraints on the biotech industry's long range expansion plans. Biotechnology companies, in an ironic and cynical twist, are in response attempting to recast their activities in the language of environmentalism and sustainability. Monsanto has spent 1 million in Britain seeking to "green" their image, including an ad signed by prominent individuals from the developing world proclaiming that biotechnology is necessary to fight world hunger. In the US, Monsanto is the main sponsor of a lavish new research institute based at the renowned Missouri Botanical Garden and the elaborate new Biodiversity Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

In the language of Monsanto's ad campaigns, Roundup is not a toxic herbicide at all, it is an essential "tool" to minimize tillage and decrease soil erosion. Genetically engineered crops are not just about profits for biotechnology companies, they're needed to solve the inexorable problem of population growth. Biotechnology is not forcing everything alive into the realm of commodities-items to be bought and sold, marketed and patented-but is in fact a harbinger of "decommoditization:" the replacement of mass-produced agricultural products with a vast array of specialized, made-to-order alternatives. Instead of generic soybeans sold by the container load, for example, they promise specialized varieties, each genetically engineered to satisfy a particular market niche. In the language of Monsanto's public relations, this is "decommoditization;" for those in the know, it is Newspeak of the highest order.


. . . The most significant, overarching impact of biotechnology may very well be the industry's overwhelming drive to commodify all that is alive. . .

In the long run the most significant, overarching impact of biotechnology may very well be the industry's overwhelming drive to commodify all that is alive, to bring all of life into the realm of commercial products. This takes a number of different forms. First and most fundamentally, biotechnology alters the patterns of nature so as to better conform to the needs of the capitalist market. Where the patterns of nature are not well suited to continued exploitation, biotechnology offers the means to redesign life forms to satisfy the demands of the system.

If soil fertility is being destroyed by monocropping and chemical fertilizers, they will make crops resistant to herbicides so they can use more noxious chemicals to blast out the weeds, and try to make cereal grains fix nitrogen like legumes. If industrial-scale irrigation lowers the water table and makes the soil saltier, they will engineer food crops to make them more resistant to drought and to salt. If marketable fish species like salmon have trouble surviving year round in far northern hatcheries; they will try to splice in frost resistance from cold-water species such as flounder. If naturally bred livestock cannot satisfy the demand for ever-increasing profit margins, companies will instead offer clones of their most productive animals. Nothing in nature, from the bacteria that live deep within boiling hot geysers to the molecules that form the human immune and reproductive systems, would be immune from such exploitation and, where possible, redesign. Biotechnology offers a way to continue ignoring underlying problems, and perpetuates the myth that the inherent ecological limitations of a nature-denying way of life can simply be engineered out of existence.

To realize profits from these developments, the biotechnology industry has continually pushed the limits of patenting of life forms. "Monsanto invests many years and millions of dollars in biotechnology research to bring growers new technologies sooner rather than later," explained the company's press release justifying their prosecution of so-called seed "pirates." "When growers save and replant patented seed, there is less incentive for companies to invest in future technologies that will ultimately benefit farmers." To further such "innovation," biotech companies would not only have farmers pay more for seeds, but enough to recoup any possible losses in revenue from fluctuating pesticide sales. Each year's seeds will be genetically enhanced to address the problems created by last year's "mistakes," and seed sterilization technologies will assure that no one can resort to the time-worn practice of simply saving last year's seeds for replanting. Meanwhile, the vast diversity of agroecosystems worldwide would increasingly be replaced by genetically manipulated variants of a relatively small number of genetically well-characterized varieties.


In europe, the specter of Nazi eugenics hangs over discussions of genetic engineering and cloning; in India, the seed is a powerful cultural symbol and its manipulation and appropriation by capital is an abomination.

Biotech companies have also been in the forefront of bringing the agenda of life patenting into international agreements such as the GATT. Countries that resist the patenting of living beings, such as India, are threatened with trade sanctions by the US, which is mobilizing the authority of the World Trade Organization to force other countries' patent laws into conformance with its own. The patenting of human genes is proceeding at a staggering pace, despite successful campaigns on behalf of three indigenous nations (from Panama, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea) to overturn the patenting of their genes by the US National Institutes of Health. A ruling last October paved the way for something biotechnologists have long sought: The patenting of short fragments of DNA that do not even constitute complete characterized genes. The US Patent Office has been flooded with literally millions of requests for patents for so-called "expressed sequence tags," which are a primary analytical tool for researchers who are working to accelerate and ultimately privatize the work of the Human Genome Project.

In addition to commodifying nature and imposing far-reaching patent regimes to profit from it, the biotechnology industry is in the forefront of broadening the range of living "materials" that are available to be bought, sold and marketed as commodities. Genes and gene sequences are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Several hundred for-profit fertility clinics throughout the US are purchasing human eggs and sperm from willing "volunteers" and offering them for sale, and there have been lawsuits since the late 1980s over the status of frozen human embryos. Recent breakthroughs in cloning have suggested the very real possibility that an aboveground market in human cells, tissues and laboratory-created organs may soon supplement the shadowy but lucrative international trade in human organs for transplantation. Will our consumer society have the ethical fortitude to resist a future where human embryos, selected for particular genetic traits, will be available on the open market as well?

Finally, the biotechnology industry has played a leading role in the commercialization of science and research, most notably "basic" research supported by public funds and carried out in public institutions. This is most apparent in agriculture, where biotechnology and agribusiness giants increasingly shape the research activities of our public land-grant colleges. Research to enhance organic methods and other low-input alternatives is being displaced by well-funded programs in plant genetics and genetic engineering, usually with direct corporate support. A 1990 study revealed that from 10% up to one third of biomedical researchers at prestigious universities such as Stanford and MIT had direct corporate ties. With the rapid rise of the biotechnology industry in the past decade, today's figures are without doubt much higher. Congress has pledged to double its budget for health research in the next five years, at the same time that Wall Street is beginning to look more skeptically at biotech R&D startups. Will this return some semblance of public accountability to the funding of biomedical research, or will it simply divert more public funds to support the research agenda of the biotech industry?

Like many other technology-based industries in the recent past, biotechnology promises a future of health, prosperity, and the limitless expansion of human possibilities. The pronouncements of biotech advocates combine a rosy futurism with the air of scientific authority and inevitability. But a closer look reveals a dearth of genuine altruism, and a striking, quasi-religious belief in technical progress and the wonders of the market. Many who hear the promises are indeed dazzled by the possibilities, and willing to trust science to solve whatever near-term problems may result from the technology's excesses.

Still, most people remain skeptical. Despite a steady barrage of headlines and media presentations of biotechnology's wonders, people are still genuinely concerned about both the immediate hazards and the long-range implications for life, as we know it. Activists in Europe, India and elsewhere have not only exposed the profound underlying hazards of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies, but tapped into a deeply ingrained skepticism toward views of people and the rest of nature as objects to be manipulated and controlled. In Europe, the specter of Nazi eugenics hangs over discussions of genetic engineering and cloning; in India, the seed is a powerful cultural symbol and its manipulation and appropriation by capital is an abomination.

Here in the US, we confront the cultural myth of untrammeled consumerism and a popular science-fiction outlook toward the future. But we also share an ethical commitment to democracy, freedom and love for the land, however manipulated these ideas have been in the past. Biotechnology seeks to rally the public behind its sense of future possibility and dazzle them with its wonders. Our movement, if it is to succeed, must peel away the science fiction blinders, deepen our understanding of the integrity of the natural world, and restore confidence in our ability to question the structures of power in society.

Brian Tokar is the author of Earth for Sale and The Green Alternative, and editor of a forthcoming collection on the implications of biotechnology.




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