Biogenetics in Agriculture and Pharmaceuticals:
Two Sides of a Critical Issue
An innate sense of survival combined with curiosity and superior intellectual abilities gives humans the unique ability among the Earth’s biological beings to exterminate their natural predators through science, technology, creativity and wit. The controversial issue of biotechnology promises the ability to ignore the barriers of carrying capacity, to prevent and treat predatory diseases, reduced global poverty, hunger and disease.
Critics of biotechnology point to the price that must be paid for these scientific marvels. According to Vandana Shiva, those who can least afford it pay that price. She supports this claim with stories such as the destruction of flora and fauna of ecosystems, the usurpation of indigenous knowledge and the colonization of women, children, the weak and the under-privileged in a concept she calls Biopiracy (Shiva, 1997).
In this paper, we will explore both sides of this issue, including Biopiracy and alternative cooperative regimes.
Biomimicry is an example of a cooperative effort among environmental discourse debates. As a multidisciplinary science described in Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature (1997), author Janine Benyus’ conclusions seem a plausible compromise between radical intervention and complete laissez-faire of indigenous areas and traditional knowledge.
The term biopiracy is loaded with negative connotations, as Shiva meant it to be. Pirates, as witnessed by a currently running television commercial from the cheese industry, are still depicted as the barbaric, uncivilized dregs of society, interested in procuring their fortunes at any cost of life or limb, whether it be theirs or others. This “greed at any cost” mentality is depicted in the cheese commercial by a stereotypical pirate, a patch over one eye, a wooden leg and a silver hook for a hand (or cheese-slicer). Their named legacy comes from their activities of piracy, or thievery, a negative term even in its nominal form.
The roots of the term biomimicry come from Greek origin: “Bios”, meaning life and “mimesis”, meaning imitation. Biomimicry is the imitation of life, not the creation of life, as is the concern of the opponents of biotechnology. Biomimicry also denotes a more positive connection with and study of biological systems. With this comes a new human understanding of biological innovation, invention and imitation.
According to Benyus, biomimicry is based on a three-pronged approach (1997):
1) Nature as model: Biomimicry takes inspiration from biological designs and processes to solve human problems.
2) Nature as measure: Biomimicry uses a 3.8 billion year ecological standard to judge the “rightness of innovation”.
3) Nature as mentor: As a new way of viewing and valuing nature, biomimicry is based not on what we can extract from the world, but what we can learn from it.
Several widely accepted environmental discourses have the ideological elements necessary to support the implementation of cooperative uses of bio-science and technology.
Why do we need biotechnology?
Exponential population growth calls for safe, available and ecologically sound uses of science and technology in agriculture and pharmaceuticals. The lower mortality rates caused by elimination of natural predators through vaccines and pharmaceuticals combined with the mathematical concept of exponential growth and population limits creates a dangerous cycle:
Larger and healthier populations
the need of greater food availability, disease prevention and treatment
lower mortality rates, again creating larger and healthier populations
the need for more food suppliesand on and on.
The late Donella Meadows and other environmental survivalists would argue that such exponential growth would eventually lead to practical limits of capacity (1972). Yet other mathematical concepts such as a logarithmic statistical model would support an asymptotic curve to the exponential model. In other words, populations would reach a certain level, or carrying capacity, and then discontinue to grow. This theory of limits to growth is regularly seen in nature’s own models of undisturbed ecosystems. Though human populations may be greatly expanded in the future and possibly much greater than current estimations, biotechnology holds a promise that the populations will be fed and healthy.
Along the way humankind has learned to eliminate its predatory enemies, often to the point of extinction; pre-historically with the over-hunting of predatory mammals, and in the 20th Century with Dr. Salk’s live polio vaccine created through the use of biotechnological means. A side note here though on the status of viruses as life forms, as they must have a host and cannot survive on their own. Still, there are many examples of vaccines, most recently for the pneumoccocal bacteria in a vaccine called Prevnar, developed by Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories
. Over 17,000 children contract the pneumoccocal bacterium, most commonly as bacterial meningitis, which can cause swelling and the brain and even death.
Insulin is one of the first genetically enhanced organisms. It is created by inserting a human gene into the genetic code of a bacterium. Insulin has saved millions of lives and allowed many diabetics to live a relatively normal life.
Technology similar to the research used in insulin production led to the production of interferon for the treatment of cancer and hepatitis. Biogenetic engineering is also responsible for digoxin, a drug used to treat congestive heart failure and other heart disorders.
International environmental regimes provide incentives for the creation of new science and protect indigenous knowledge by recognizing and preserving it.
A premise that runs throughout regime theories, is that in exploiting our earth’s ecosystems to dangerous levels, we are also destroying the traditional knowledge that has kept many of the worlds most biologically diverse areas sustainable. Destruction of traditional knowledge contributes to further degradation of the environment-and so the cycle repeats until it ends through apocrypha or salvation.
It is easy to understand how traditional people around the world would be wary of national and international systems that have already stripped much of their land, denied them representation in declaring protected lands, and assumed management of those lands. Then, those governments and organizations suddenly promise under IPA and similar plans, to give back control. This will only be accomplished with a “respect” for these traditional people. Such a need for respect is a telling statement of how far conservationists and governments must go before mutually satisfying partnerships can be created. True respect for the other can take generations to develop, and even then such relationships can remain tenuous.
Perhaps there is some important biological niche that disease causing bacteria hold, besides those that are responsible for decomposition properties. The first thing that comes to mind is human Population Control as a predatory species.
The Argument Against Biogenetic Engineering
Critics against the biogenetic engineering of food and medicine base their arguments on two fronts. First, biogenetic engineering is founded in the question of food security on a global basis; for example critics argue that multinational corporations, through mechanisms provided by the World Trade Organization (WTO), are attempting to “hijack” the global food supply. This process is argued to be detrimental to the rural poor, or those who are on the margins of industrial food production. This view contends that the continuing monopolization of the food supply will eventually endanger the food security for the entire human population. The WTO, through Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), allows corporations to patent genetically engineered food, thus giving them the legal right to realize and use their discovery in any way which they please.
This argument also contends that with increased corporate control over the global food supply through biogenetic foodstuffs, people will lose the ability to be self sufficient food producers, and thus their autonomy and freedom. People, it is argued, will essentially be relegated to a dependent mode of life contingent on the whims of multinational corporations and their central principles of short-term profiteering and capital accumulation. Once corporations control the food supply, it is argued, they will also possess the ability to control life itself.
The second front of the argument against biogenetic engineering has not only to do with the security and nature of the food supply, but also to the integrity of nature itself. Critics contend that the science of biogenetic engineering is lacking in understanding all possible results that may happen to the physical environment due to the introduction of altered species. The cost benefit calculations do provide for a sufficiently rational basis for implementing such technologies. Once an altered organism is released into the environment, there is no way to undo or take back what has been done in the case of unseen or unrealized damage made possible by introducing genetically modified organisms (GMO) into nature. The ripple effect that a GMO may have in ecosystems could cause the life web of ecosystems to be unalterably damaged, thus destroying the foundations and integrity of life itself.
This portion of the paper will discuss these critical concerns in more depth to provide the reader with a clear understanding of what critics contend is wrong with current plans of implementing GMO’s to our food supply, as medicines, and to our physical environment.
The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply
Introduction to the global food supply argue that through Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), multinational corporations will be given the legal ability to monopolize food production on a global basis. TRIPS allow multinational food companies such as Philip Morris, Cargill, ADM, or Monsanto to monopolize food production by allowing these companies to decide what the best use is for their “novel” discoveries. Today only 10 multinational corporations control 32% of the global commercial seed market (Shiva 2000). This implies that individuals and farmers will no longer control their ability to grow food because property rights protect GMO seeds. This gives the multinational corporation power to decide what is the best role for food production with the intentions toward profits, not feeding the global population (Shiva 2000).
This process is argued to be a continuation and extension of global economic forces that are already threatening the livelihoods of farmers and many others on a global scale. The modern process of the globalization of food production threatens food security by making production a truly global process where food is produced and travels vast distances. These corporations have no allegiance to any community; thus global food production can easily leave out many people that are not profitable to feed (Krebs 1996).
Once GMO seeds are entirely controlled through TRIPS by multinational corporations, this process will be drastically exacerbated. Not only will global food production be controlled by multinational corporations, but it will also be illegal for hungry people to grow food with these seeds without permission or paying royalties to these corporations (Shiva 2000). This nightmare scenario includes the possibility that one day multinationals will withhold food from those who are hungry. Meanwhile, our legal codes will make it illegal to use seeds without corporate permission.
The continued growth in using GMO seeds on a global scale further enables the multinational corporation to “bio-colonize” nature, and to steal indigenous knowledge in food production, such as thousands of years of selective breeding and medicines through “bio-piracy”.
The bio-colonization of nature is the patenting of living life forms. Critics argue that multinational corporations can essentially introduce a GMO into the physical environment where unmodified plants and seeds will become adulterated with the altered genetic makeup of the introduced GMO. Theoretically, food production throughout the globe could be adulterated with the “novel” GMO makeup protected by TRIPS, thus making all farming illegal without expressed consent of the patent controlling multinational corporation.
Bio-piracy is the practice employed by multinational corporations where they “discover” a cultural knowledge and practice in food production or medical use, alter the plant to make it a “novel” discovery protected by TRIPS, then deny the host culture the ability to gain or even use their time honored cultural knowledge (Shiva 2000). This has already happened with Basmati Rice where Rice-Tec, a multinational corporation is claiming that their novel genetic discovery allows them exclusive rights to the Basmati strain (Shiva 2000). Critics argue that this threatens indigenous cultural knowledge throughout the globe, and that U.S. laws are promoting such theft from the rural farming community.
This critical argument culminates into the question of democracy and control over the necessary process of food production and cultural integrity on which civilization is based. Critics maintain that through TRIPS, the WTO will allow multinational corporations to eventually control the entire process of global food production, making humanity essentially reliant on these corporations to feed themselves. This argument contends that this process derails local authority and undermines democracy.
The control of food could also possibly be employed as the ultimate biological weapon. For example, if a corporation disagrees with a country’s public policies, or if it is determined to be unprofitable to distribute seeds to developing countries, then the corporation will have the power to withhold food from whomever it wants to at any time.
Scientific Uncertainty: GMO’s and Nature
Scientists admit that the ecological impacts of splicing and recombining the sequences of genetic information are very difficult to determine (Miller 1994). Examples of GMO organisms are tomatoes altered with the genes of fish to resist cold temperatures, and soybeans that are engineered to grow healthy only with Round Up Ready pesticide (Shiva 2000). Critics argue that taking a natural organism, altering it in a lab setting, then reintroducing it into complex ecosystems is an impending disaster. This possibility stems from our lack of understanding of the Second Law of Ecology, which asserts that everything is connected to and intermingled with everything else (Miller 1994).
A multinational corporation can introduce a GMO to nature with the intent of increasing crop yields; but it is virtually impossible for them to predict all of the possible side effects that the GMO will have on the ecosystem. For example, a genetic alteration could transmit from one organism to another until the integrity of the ecosystems natural functions is damaged thus leading to the death of life in the ecosystem.
What is commonly called “frankenfood” is an example of the uncertain dangers that GMO’s may have on the human body and the natural environment (Shiva 2000). Do certain genetic manipulations cause health problems when ingested? Critics argue that it would take years of studies to be reasonably certain, yet for now governments are unwilling to stop the biotech industry from genetically manipulating the food supply.
The Critics Solutions and Alternatives
Proponents of GMO’s argue that with biotechnology they can increase food security and medicinal effectiveness. Critics argue that there exist better ways of achieving these goals.
First, agriculture should be organic (no unnatural fertilizers or GMO’s) and that to provide for food security all communities should be organized toward local sustainability first, and export needs last. (Berry. 414) This puts primary emphasis on decentralized local economies that are largely autonomous from outside interference and control. This is argued to be a more reasonable plan for promoting food security for the global human population. Exporting and economic interdependence will not be coercive of forced, but cooperative in selective situations where both sides will benefit.
Health is best protected in this view by preventative or holistic medicine where living healthy will lower the need for the utilization of medical services. The benefits of Western medical technology is not denied in this view, but is seen as a last resort to medical needs rather than a mechanism for curing the effects caused by pollution, bad eating habits, and sedentary lifestyles. GMO’s, in helping increase the benefits of medicine, could do much more harm than good by creating super diseases immune from the techniques employed by current medical understanding.
In conclusion, critics argue that GMO’s are not being introduced into food production and medicine to help people, but to grow corporate power through profits and market share. The science of biotechnology is lacking in understanding all possible negative effects that GMO introduction into the environment may entail. GMO’s should not be utilized due to the possible ecological catastrophes. The problems that GMO’s and biotechnology claim to solve are better healed naturally and holistically, where local concerns take precedence over global power concerns. Success for society is to be found by operating within nature’s processes, not by altering nature to fit unnatural lifestyles and social organizations.
The debate is wide regarding biotechnology issues suggesting the need for common ground. Although a good understanding of the possible dangers in biotechnology is essential for harm-reduction and best-use praxis, they must be weighed against the contribution to reducing hunger and disease. Once again, the importance of integrating science and policy is an important factor in creating a good and sustainable world.
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