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Synthesis/Regeneration 35   (Fall 2004)

Resisting Biotechnology and Global Injustice

by Brian Tokar

[The article below is excerpted from the introductory chapter of Gene Traders: Biotechnology, World Trade and the Globalization of Hunger, Edited by Brian Tokar. (Burlington, Vermont: Toward Freedom, May, 2004)]

In November of 1999, tens of thousands of people—union members, students, environmentalists, parents and many others—converged in Seattle to nonviolently challenge the biennial Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). While media accounts focused on the Seattle police’s unprecedented brutality toward demonstrators—and on the actions of small numbers who chose to fight back—the importance of Seattle went far beyond the debates surrounding the police and protesters’ tactics.

WTO delegates representing countries from around the world were newly emboldened by this first tangible sign that people in the US were ready to join millions of others worldwide in opposing the Brave New World of corporate globalism. The delegates were able to successfully resist US pressure to launch a new “Millennium Round” of global trade talks, aimed at greatly expanding the purview of the WTO, and the meeting ended with no substantive agreement. Similar scenarios would be played out at future meetings as well. Twenty-two countries of the global walked out of WTO negotiations in Cancun, Mexico in 2003, and the US conceded to a considerably narrowed vision of its proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas later that same year.

The Seattle protests embraced a breathtaking scope of social, economic and environmental issues, equal in breadth to the vast array of policies, affecting all the world’s peoples, over which the WTO was seeking dominion. In the face of worldwide resistance to expanding global “free market” policies—also known as “neoliberalism” [1]—global elites had come to see international trade agreements as a means to impose policies that would never withstand the scrutiny of democratic debate in most countries. The most notable of these measures, codified in the founding documents of the WTO, condemned public policies aimed at protecting people and the environment as barriers to global trade—barriers that could be contested, and ultimately overturned, by a secretive body of international trade officials.

…global elites had come to see international trade agreements as a means to impose policies that would never withstand the scrutiny of democratic debate in most countries.

As the images of Seattle passed into history, people in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world continued as before to confront the biotechnology industry as a central manifestation of global corporate control. In the US, however, biotech and global justice activists followed rather divergent paths. US global justice campaigners, empowered by the outcome of Seattle, felt for the first time that it was possible to directly confront the core institutions of global capitalism. Economic issues rose to the forefront and environmental concerns, including genetic engineering, were seen as less central to the core mission of challenging the WTO and other global institutions.

For some US activists, GE issues were too technical and too specific, a distraction from the heady opportunity to challenge global capitalism as a whole. Others were put off, sometimes justifiably, by the common framing of genetic engineering as a consumer issue. While some campaigners continued to emphasize the fundamental links between genetic engineering and globalization, particularly around the series of “Biodevastation” events that usually coincide with the annual biotech industry conventions in various cities, [2] the two movements proceeded for some years along largely independent paths.

Meanwhile, throughout much of Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, popular movements around global economics, genetic engineering, and local food sovereignty evolved along a far more unified course. Wherever global corporations threatened the integrity of local food cultures and agricultural practices, wherever the WTO, World Bank and International Monetary Fund were supporting policies that forced traditional food growers off their land, wherever threats to the integrity of living forests, rivers and coastlines directly impacted traditional agrarian communities, resistance to biotechnology grew hand in hand with resistance to globalization.

In 2001, as tens of thousands of people gathered for the first World Social Forum in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, some 1200 residents of MST-organized communities stormed a regional Monsanto research facility, pulled experimental GE corn and soybean plants out of the ground, and set up hammocks and mattresses for a long-term occupation. [3] José Bové and other farmer activists from around the world, who were gathered in Brazil for the Social Forum, traveled to the site to join the MST protest. A 2003 decision by the popular Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to temporarily permit the growing of GE soybeans in Brazil led to a protracted political standoff, as the country risked losing its status as the world’s largest supplier of non-GE soybeans.

In the summer of 2002, southern African countries facing a threat of growing food shortages shocked the world by refusing a US offer of food aid in the form of GE corn. African leaders were concerned about the health consequences for their people, who often rely on corn for upwards of 90% of their daily calories, as well as the imminent threat of contamination of local corn varieties if any of the aid corn were to be planted. Several countries ultimately accepted the GE corn, though many required that the corn first be ground into meal to avoid inadvertent planting. Only Zambia, where officials launched a nationwide public debate on GE food, stood firm in refusing this aid.

The convergence of biotechnology and corporate globalism once again came into sharp focus in the North in May 2003, when the US announced that it would seek WTO action against Europe’s de facto moratorium on approving new GE crop varieties. Literally speaking, Europe as a whole had never legislated such a moratorium. However, no new GE varieties had been approved for import into Europe since 1998, individual countries were raising increasingly determined obstacles to GMOs, and there was a virtual freeze on growing GE crops in Europe, except for a small amount in Spain. Bush administration officials proclaimed that an intervention at the WTO level was necessary to protect American farmers, seeking to paint a populist face on their typically aggressive intervention on behalf of US agribusiness interests.

Almost immediately, people on both sides of the Atlantic raised objections to this move. At the seventh annual Biodevastation gathering—held that year in Monsanto’s home town of St. Louis, and highlighting the essential links between genetic engineering, corporate control and environmental racism—the participants approved a declaration opposing the WTO intervention. The statement supported European resistance to GMOs, condemned the Bush administration’s action, endorsed precautionary measures to protect public health and the environment, and demanded that commercial developers of hazardous chemicals and GE technologies be held fully liable for the damage they cause. [4] In the lead-up to the 2003 WTO meeting in Cancun, this evolved into a Global Citizen’s GMO Challenge, focusing on the need for precaution, people’s right to protect their food choices and intervene in international proceedings, and the prevalence of alternatives to GMOs. The Challenge, along with a European counterpart initiated by Friends of the Earth, attracted the endorsement of hundreds of organizations from around the world. [5]

Why has the technology of genetic engineering inspired such widespread and determined opposition all throughout the world? First and foremost, it is the most visible means by which global corporations are consolidating their control over our food and health, a development that has evolved over several decades. As growing environmental awareness during the 1970s and eighties aroused fears on the part of agribusiness executives that the age of chemical agriculture could be coming to an end, they came to see their possible salvation in the brand new technology of gene splicing, or “recombinant DNA.” But the story began even earlier than that.

With pesticide sales increasing a hundredfold since the 1940s, companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Dow had acquired tremendous leverage to advise farmers, and ultimately determine how most of our food is grown. After DDT was banned in the US in 1972, and prohibitions on other toxic pesticides soon followed, the companies anxiously sought other means to sustain this control. Genetic engineering appeared to be the solution. By shifting their technological interventions right into the genetic makeup of seeds, companies could make farmers highly dependent on new patented seed varieties, as well as on the particular chemicals with which those seeds were “designed” to grow. In the late 1990s, Monsanto alone spent at least $8 billion acquiring several of the leading commercial seed companies in the US and around the world. [6] The company now spends $10 million each year bringing lawsuits against farmers who are believed to be growing Monsanto’s GE crop varieties in ways that violate the company’s mandatory licensing agreements and patents. [7]

Since the introduction of the first commercial GE crop varieties in 1996, independent scientists have discovered a host of disturbing human health and environmental consequences.

Popular concerns around genetic engineering reach far beyond those directly involved in agriculture, however. Since the introduction of the first commercial GE crop varieties in 1996, independent scientists have discovered a host of disturbing human health and environmental consequences. For example, proteins that cause allergic reactions are passed from one organism to another through genetic engineering, and GE foods may be introducing brand new allergens into our diet, as with the StarLink variety of GE corn that was never approved for human consumption, and forced the recall of well over 300 contaminated US food products in 2000 and 2001

The spread of antibiotic resistance is another unexpected consequence of genetic engineering. Scientists insert genes for antibiotic resistance (so-called “marker genes”) as a means to identify the tiny fraction of cells that are “successfully” genetically engineered in their laboratories, and the DNA conferring antibiotic resistance can ultimately be passed along to disease-causing bacteria. A senior scientist working in a Scottish genetic engineering lab discovered even more disturbing effects of GE food on laboratory rats, including a depressed immune response, inflammation of their intestines, and dramatic alterations in the sizes and weights of many vital organs. [8] Overall, very few laboratories around the world have the funds to carry out experiments on GE food effects. Agribusiness corporations have tremendous economic and political leverage over the priorities in agricultural research, and have aggressively intervened to discredit dissenting scientists. Still, every year brings further confirmation of the suspicion that GE foods are harmful to human health.

Genetic engineering also raises a host of other ethical, political, and even cultural and aesthetic concerns. Tampering with the underlying structures of life—by means that overturn the very processes of genetic regulation that help make us who we are—raises alarm for reasons that are sometimes very personal. In the short term, genetic engineering can violate religious strictures against consuming certain foods or combinations of foods, especially where they cannot be clearly identified. But it also raises much wider concerns about the integrity and very meaning of life on earth, whether viewed in a religious or secular context.

Genetic engineering… raises much wider concerns about the integrity and very meaning of life on earth…

The technology also opens the door to far more disturbing interventions in the medium and long-term future, including the growing practice—thus far experimental—of genetic engineering animals and, perhaps before long, the genetic engineering of human beings. Some biotech advocates celebrate the arrival of a “post-human” future in which “we” (or, more likely, powerful institutions outside of our control) directly intervene in the genetic makeup of our children. Modern biotechnology has the means to reduce all of life on earth to a set of patentable gene sequences and other commodities, available to be bought, sold and traded in the commercial marketplace. The announcement by Korean scientists in early 2004 that they had successfully created 30 cloned human embryos raised these concerns to a newly heightened level of alarm. [9]

In the US today, industry-funded advocacy groups like the Biotechnology Industry Organization, CropLife America, and the Council for Biotechnology Information spend well over $50 million per year trying to convince a skeptical public that genetic engineering has important benefits and is worthy of support. [10] Even local campaigns to label GE foods or halt the use of GMOs have faced massively funded opposition. Biotech companies spent at least $5 million to defeat a statewide GE food labeling initiative in Oregon in 2002, and proponents of a 2004 referendum to prohibit the raising of engineered plants and animals in Mendocino County, California had to overcome over $700,000 in industry PR to win passage of their proposed ban. [11] The industry’s benefactors have spent over $100 million to develop the so-called “golden” vitamin A rice, which is aggressively promoted as evidence that GMOs will “feed the world.” This despite the observation that a person would have to consume massive quantities of rice every day to satisfy their requirement for vitamin A, and would still require sufficient body fat for the vitamin A precursor in the rice to be properly metabolized . This led author and New York Times commentator Michael Pollan to accurately describe vitamin A rice as “the world’s first purely rhetorical technology” [12]

The myth that biotechnology is poised to “feed the world” is perhaps the most pervasive of the numerous false hopes that the developers of this technology have aroused. Indeed, people around the world have had to work overtime to dispel this myth, and expose the many ways genetically engineered agriculture is undermining food security and the survival of land-based peoples. In 2001, for example, the world renowned scientist and activist Vandana Shiva denounced the unapproved planting of almost 3000 acres of GE cotton in western India—by a MAHYCO-Monsanto joint venture—as an illegal act of bioterrorism, with no measures in place to protect the region’s 130 indigenous cotton varieties from contamination. [13] In 2003, an alliance of indigenous and campesino organizations throughout Mexico discovered that the transgenic contamination of ancient traditional corn varieties—which had aroused a worldwide scientific debate when initially discovered two years earlier—had spread to at least 33 communities in nine Mexican states, despite a continuing prohibition against growing GMOs in Mexico. [14]

Feeding the world is only possible if people can exercise the fundamental ability and right to feed themselves, and genetic contamination from GMOs threatens this in myriad new and profound ways, as we will see. This is especially clear when contrasted with the alternatives. While GE crop varieties have a neutral-at-best effect on crop yields, research combining indigenous knowledge with the scientific application of organic crop improvement methods has led to far more consistent benefits. [15] Crop rotations, natural soil amendments, and detailed studies of the life cycles of various “pest” species—a focus of worldwide research until the dawn of the pesticide era that immediately followed World War II—have far more to offer the world’s farmers than the endless cutting and splicing of DNA in pursuit of new commercially viable and patentable “products.”

Today’s biotech advocates often describe their technology as the harbinger of a “new Green Revolution.” With the presumed “benefits” of genetically engineered agriculture far more speculative than those of earlier agricultural technologies, it is essential that their plans continue to be viewed with skepticism and determined opposition.


1. The terminology of “neoliberalism” evokes the original meaning of “liberalism” in Western discourse: the view that a self-regulating “free market” should be the sole arbiter of social and economic policies. On the origins of the “free market” myth in Europe, see Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston: Beacon Press: 1957.

2. These events have featured several of the largest-ever protests against genetic engineering in North America. See www.biodev.org.

3. “Brazilian farmers storm Monsanto, uproot plants,” Reuters, January 26, 2001.

4. The full text is available at http://www.biodev.org/archives/000170.php.

5. See http://www.biodev.org/archives/000185.php and http://www.bite-back.org.

6. See Brian Tokar, “Monsanto: A Profile of Corporate Arrogance,” in Edward Goldsmith and Jerry Mander, eds., The Case Against the Global Economy, London: Earthscan, 2001, and “Monsanto: A Checkered History,” The Ecologist, September/October 1998.

7. Peter Shinkle, “Monsanto reaps some anger with hard line on reusing seed,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 12, 2003.

8. Stanley W.B. Ewen and Arpad Pusztai, “Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine,” The Lancet, Vol. 354, No. 9187, 16 October 1999, pp. 1353-54. For a narrative of Dr. Pusztai’s experiments and his subsequent blacklisting by the UK scientific establishment, see Jeffrey Smith, Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry & Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating, Fairfield, IA: Yes Books, 2003.

9. The experiment required 242 human eggs, “donated” by 16 women, presumably under the influence of drugs designed to massively increase egg production (su-perovulation). See, for example, Gina Kolata, “Cloning Creates Human Embryos,” New York Times, February 12, 2004.

10. Bill Lambrecht, “Biotech rivals team up in effort to sell altered food,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, April 4, 2000.

11. See, for example, Bill Lambrecht, “Monsanto battles effort to require labeling of genetically modified food,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 19, 2002; “CF&M Heads Anti-Label PR Push for Biotechs,” O’Dwyer’s PR Daily, Sept. 30, 2002, at http://www.odwyerpr.com/archived_stories_2002/september/0930gen.htm; Norfolk (UK) Genetic Information Net-work, “Biotech money-in-politics,” Weekly Watch No. 34, at http://www.gmwatch.org; Ken Garcia,” Mendocino sows seeds of dissent,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 8, 2004.

12. Michael Pollan, “The Great Yellow Hype,” New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2001. Also Vandana Shiva, “Genetically Engineered ‘Vitamin A Rice’: A Blind Approach to Blindness Prevention,” in Brian Tokar, ed., Redesigning Life? pp. 40-43.

13. Vandana Shiva, “Biotech Companies As Bioterrorists,” ZNet Commentary, November 6, 2001, at http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2001-11/06shiva.cfm.

14. ETC Group, “Maize Rage in Mexico: GM maize con-tamination in Mexico, 2 years later,” ETC Group Genotypes, October 10, 2003, at http://www.etcgroup.org.

15. Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine, Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture: A Summary of New Evidence, University of Essex, UK, February 2001; Fred Pearce, “An Ordinary Miracle,” New Scientist Vol. 169, No. 2276, February 3, 2001 p. 16; Jules Pretty, “Against the Grain: Could we feed the world without causing further environmental damage?” The Guardian, January 17, 2001.

[17 aug 04]

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