BioEthics & Pandora's Box of Genetic Engineering
Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Mutants
BioEthics and the Pandora's Box of Genetic Engineering
by Charles Shaw
This article appeared in the March 2006 issue of Lumpen
Few people who have seen David Cronenberg's 1986 classic, The Fly, could ever wish upon themselves the horror and personal tragedy that the genetic disaster in that film ultimately created. This touching, yet profoundly disturbing gross-out fest told the story of eccentric scientist Seth Brundle who, in pursuit of teleportation technology, accidentally has his DNA fused with that of a common housefly. The resulting mutation, "Brundlefly", seems at first to be an inexhaustible Superman with tremendous strength, heightened senses, lightning-fast mental acuity, and the marathon sexual proclivities of an African lion. Eventually, though, Brundle loses all human traits, transforming into a hideous monster that has no place within this world. In the end, knowing that he presented a clear and present danger to the human race, he chooses to be destroyed rather than continue living as an abomination of nature.
Even though the gene-splicing in The Fly was accidental, the film was eerily prescient as a precautionary tale of the dangers of toying with DNA. Its message is all the more relevant today, 20 years later, as genetic engineering technology stands on the precipice of making "Brundlefly" a terrifying reality.
Cronenberg was heavily influenced by the work of Beat author William S. Burroughs, whose surrealist novel Naked Lunch dealt in part with themes of biological mutations a quarter-century before their scientific inception. In the book, Burroughs lays out "basic biologic law", "Rule One" of which states, "hybrids are permitted only between closely related species…" To innovate, to cross-breed using alien genetic material, means to violate this law and to assume the risks of "biologic and social chaos."
Postmodern biotechnology throws any concept of "biologic law" right out the window. According to technoscience professor Donna Haraway, "no objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other…" The genetic engineering of the early 21st century is most concentrated in the creation of "Frankenfoods", in which DNA is taken from one organism, say, a fish, and inserted into another, unrelated organism, like a strawberry. With this new technology, engineers are able to cross the boundaries between species in ways that have never been possible in the history of the world.
Moth genes are being fused with potatoes. Pigs are given human growth genes; fish, cattle growth genes. Tomatoes are "bred" with flounders. The possibilities are literally endless.
These new organisms are being developed and patented to create an agricultural "monoculture" which permits big agribusiness firms like Monsanto to own and control the entire food chain, from seed to store. Genetically modified crops are being released into the food supply at an alarming rate, with virtually no data on their long term effects or safety.
In the plainest sense, genetic engineers are playing God, minus, of course, the necessary omniscience to do so effectively.
Sadly, the widespread use of this technology, and its harmful effects, have been intentionally hidden from the public by the biotechnology industry, which continues to plow ahead with new forms of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with virtually no regulation or oversight. The biotech companies themselves are left to "test" their products for safety, then deliver their "evidence" to the FDA for "review".
Critics argue passionately for some form of independent review, and claim the current system is in place because the end goal of the biotech industry is pure power and profit. They see in the industry a mad dash to patent and control as much life as possible, damn the consequences to man and the environment.
Biotechnology has been rolled out to investors and policy makers as the next great hope to feed the world and cure disease, a noble enough claim in and of itself. But these claims have largely been a chimera. Whereas genetically modified crops such as corn and soybeans have led to a surplus of actual food, because of deregulated "free" trade their distribution has been limited to "competitive" markets in the developed world, driving down prices below the cost of production and leaving close to a billion poor people to continue to starve every day.
What may be worse is that developing nations who borrow money from the World Bank and the IMF are being forced by the United States and the WTO to allow transnational agribusiness firms to come in and grow these crops in order to pay back their debt. This has led to the displacement of millions of subsistence farmers from their land. In India, 25,000 farmers have committed suicide after losing their livelihoods to factory farming. To them, it is better to die than to face life in the diseased slums and shanty towns of an Indian megalopolis.
This lack of regulation has created a system in which, theoretically, a biotech firm can legally produce genetically modified food which may give you obesity or cancer, while at the same time developing new drugs which combat these illnesses, creating an all-encompassing cycle of profit with no liability.
Best reflected in the words of Phil Angell, Monsanto's Director of Corporate Communications and chief PR guy: "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food.... Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job." Angell neglected to mention in his statement that safety testing is voluntary, and need only be done by the producer, that the FDA only "reviews" those results but does no testing of its own, and that Monsanto and other Biotech companies made sure that some of their attorneys and executives were appointed to positions in the FDA and EPA in order to craft policy favorable to the Biotech industry. And all of this regulatory hullabaloo is without even mentioning the ethical perils of cloning, or of bioweaponry.
Enter the emerging field of bioethics, formally defined as "a discipline dealing with the ethical implications of biological research and applications" which asks such basic yet fundamentally important questions as, "should life be patented?"
Who is BIO, and why are they coming here?
The Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) was established in July 1993, according to GM Watch (www.gmwatch.org). The world's largest biotech lobbying organization, BIO represents corporations such as Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and Syngenta, university departments, and state biotechnology centers from 34 countries. Between 1993 and 2004, BIO grew from a 16-employee operation with a $2.1 million budget to an almost 100-member staff with a budget of $40 million, representing over 1100 organizations.
A report in the Capital Eye, a newsletter published by the Center for Responsive Politics, listed BIO's four major lobbying priorities as follows:
- Blocking government price controls of biotech drugs
- Promoting genetically modified foods
- Working with Congress and the FDA to "streamline the regulatory process" for biotech products
- Supporting tax incentives for the industry
BIO spent $14.1 million on lobbying from 1998 to 2002. Biotech pharmaceutical companies and BIO have given American politicians more than $13 million in campaign contributions since 1989, according to information on the GM Watch website. President Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan spoke at BIO's 2003 convention. It is also estimated that BIO has spent at least $5 million each year to obtain favorable media coverage.
BIO will hold its 2006 national convention in Chicago April 9-12. Over 18,000 industry professionals and 1500 companies are scheduled to attend. This annual convention and exhibition is touted as "the largest biotechnology event in the world." The 2005 convention in Philadelphia drew more than 17,000 participants and coverage from hundreds of media outlets.
However, as the conference has grown in size in recent years, so has national and international opposition to the technology and products BIO promotes. At every BIO convention since the 2000 meeting in Boston, farmers, concerned citizens, and organizations have concurrently mobilized to denounce genetically engineered foods and agribusiness corporations' consolidation of the food supply. This counter-movement advocates for necessary and appropriate regulation of the industry and promotes locally-based, sustainable agricultural systems like "biodynamics", the oldest non-chemical agricultural movement (predating the organic agriculture movement by some twenty years), which works with the health-giving forces of nature; organic farmers markets; and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), where the residents of a given community deal directly with the farmers in their area, purchasing food ahead of time in order to fund the growing season.
These concerned citizens are known as the "BioEthics" community, and they are planning their own convention in Chicago the same week to raise awareness about the issues left out of the multi-million dollar BIO marketing juggernaut.
What is BioEthics 2006 all about?
Those members of the BioEthics movement are quick to point out that they are not defined by their opposition to biotechnology, but instead support consumer choice, and the safe application of biotechnology.
"BioEthics 2006 represents a global concern to address the issues that have been systematically shut out of the BIO convention," said co-coordinator Christine Phillips. "BIO is a slick corporate conglomerate that hides behind statements of supposed ethical principles, but it's all a bunch of lip service crafted by lawyers and PR firms. They have never made engaging in ethical discussions of biotechnology with each other or the public a part of their conference. The only ethics this industry has ever practiced is the ethics and aesthetics of pleasing its shareholders with millions of dollars of taxpayer money to pay for entertainment, fancy hotels, and meals for their rank and file."
BIO appears to convince the general public of the "inevitability" of biotechnology by playing into the public's hopes and dreams, touting biotechnology as a Philosopher's Stone for the American economy, promising limitless economic development and elusive cures to some of mankind's most terrible and terminal diseases. But these claims are specious at best. Yes, biotechnology may someday cure cancer and cause an economic boom, but right now its most common application, GMOs, may in fact be causing cancer, and a 2002 study by the Brookings Institute found that not one Biotech firm is among the 25 largest private employers in any metropolitan area. Biotech averages only about 3.5% of manufacturing employment in the 9 leading centers, and most firms stay small, or end up selling or licensing their products to the pharmaceutical industry.
Understanding this, the BioEthics community is rational in their message and agrees that not everything involving genetic technology is bad. Thus, they find themselves precariously balanced between the rabid "Pro-GE" faction, who act as if all GE is good, and the radical "Anti-GE" faction, who acts as if all GE is bad. In reality, we're most likely to end up with an environment in which some GE is legal, and other GE is illegal, and the boundary is policed by an entity like the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Perils of GMOs
In 2003 an independent study undertaken by the Institute of Science in Society, billed as "the strongest, most complete dossier of evidence ever compiled on the problems and hazards of GM crops as well as the manifold benefits of sustainable agriculture," called for a ban on GM crops to make way for all forms of sustainable agriculture.
The report cited, among many conclusions, that genetically modified food has not been proven safe by any regulatory agency including the FDA (in fact, 40 countries have banned their use). It has failed to deliver the promised benefits which the industry touted in order to sell it to American farmers, and in fact has caused great hardship to many. GMOs cross-pollinate with and contaminate non-GM food and fields, and have the potential to produce super viruses by the use of virus and bacteria material to manipulate cells and DNA. An even more dire consequence is that GMOs may cause cancer and a host of other auto-immune disorders, including potentially fatal allergic reactions and broad-spectrum resistance to antibiotics, which could lead to a real global pandemic.
But this seems to be only the tip of the iceberg, and the industry seems to be toying more and more with mutations in the manner of the "Brundlefly". The Pioneer Seed Corporation has used 490 acres of Illinois farmland to engineer corn that is fused with genes from jellyfish. And in September of 2003 political writer Thom Hartmann wrote about the Genetically Modified Bomb imagined by the Neoconservative think tank, Project for a New American Century:
"Imagine a bomb that only kills Caucasians with red hair. Or short people. Or Arabs. Or Chinese. Now imagine that this new bomb could be set off anywhere in the world, and that within a matter of days, weeks, or months it would kill every person on the planet who fits the bomb's profile, although the rest of us would be left standing. And the bomb could go off silently, without anybody realizing it had been released - or even where it was released - until its victims started dying in mass numbers."
If there can be a Genetic Bomb, how far away can we be from the "Gattaca Factor", where all future generations are engineered from conception to be free of disease and defect, and all naturally conceived babies are labeled "invalid" and shut out of society? Using this technology, Hitler's eugenic dreams of a pure race could finally be realized!
The agricultural wing of the biotech industry finds itself at a critical time for its success. It has been ten years since the industry began its "nonconsensual" experiment on the world's food supply. Not surprisingly, advance program material for the 2006 conference seems to be laying the ground for framing any doubts about the science in terms of fiscal liability and investment potential only.
So what's not being discussed at BIO that needs to be addressed? To begin with, BioEthics people say, there are questions of liability when genetic contamination does occur. Under the present legal structure, the biotech company that created the GMO is not liable. In fact, Monsanto has sued some 200-plus American and Canadian farmers for having Monsanto-patented GM crops on their land, even though the crops got there under mysterious circumstances by no apparent fault of the farmers themselves.
Then there is the question of what legislation exists to protect the health of the environment and the consumers. Whereas most of the industrialized world has rejected GMOs based upon sound science, the United States continues to force feed GMOs to whomever it can, eschewing even the basic labeling of genetically modified food for the benefit of the consumer. Without proper mandatory labeling of GM foods, there is no trail for doctors and researchers (or, eventually, lawyers) to track back in the event of illness or harm.
Then there is the ongoing infiltration of corporate research funding in the university system, which threatens to completely eliminate ethical science. Recently, environmentalist David Suzuki told students at the University of Manitoba that "the cozy relationship between researchers and industry giants is compromising science and environmental security, and is fueling the premature use of biotechnology in areas like genetically modified crops and the end result could be disastrous."
Suzuki said the tremendous amount of money being offered to researchers in the area of genetic modification is pushing the technology to be applied to foods, crops, and other organisms before it has been properly tested.
"[Suzuki] compared current researchers to Dr. Frankenstein who believed he was working towards the common good but instead created a monster because he didn't fully consider the implications and ramifications of his work, and [said] that genetic modification may well produce unexpected and disastrous results, stating, "The vast majority of this science is being applied in sheer ignorance. It becomes downright dangerous," and that he was "sickened" by the lack of debate around environmental issues in the recent federal election." (GM WATCH daily, http://www.gmwatch.org, Jan. 6, 2006)
Additionally, schools like the University of Chicago and Boston University, among others, are building high-level (3 and 4) biohazard research labs with federal funding. Aside from having a facility with the potential to release a deadly pandemic located in densely populated metropolises, the federal money obligates them to allocate a certain amount of their work to bioweaponry for the Pentagon.
This is not to say that biotech cannot in fact change the world for the better. The problem is one of regulation and conflict of interest. Michael Duffy, Associate Director of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, has said:
"Biotechnology is an extremely powerful tool. It has the potential to create many useful products as well as many unforeseen problems. As with any new technology, it must be evaluated carefully. It is not prudent to expect private companies to develop products for the public good. Companies are in the business of making money and the products they pursue are designed for that end. To expect any other result from private research is not appropriate or realistic."
Based upon their history, and the current "marketing" focus of biotech as an economic cure-all, the people behind the BioEthics movement do not expect the public good to be an issue for biotech developers until companies are forced to make it an issue.
"If their economic bottom line is all they care about, then the public and environmental good may need to be realized by affecting biotech's bottom line," said BioEthics co-coordinator Brian Murray. "Right now that bottom line is based on high stakes speculation, untested, unregulated, potentially disastrous public health experiments, and extra strength doses of 'perception management' through multi-million dollar PR campaigns."
Who do you trust growing your food: farmers or CEOs?
What is happening to farmers across the world has been described as the "pusher" model, or farmers being forced into using a monoculture-inducing GMO seed to stay competitive in the market, and stay on good terms with their industry suppliers and subsidizers, like Monsanto. Those who resist run the risk of unaccountable contamination and corporate litigation for genetic patent infringement. Their crops then cannot be sold for a profit and they risk losing their farms entirely, as most farms are run on razor thin profit margins.
Mark Beorkrem of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a citizen's organization that promotes a safe and nutritious food system and family farming, says: "When we entrust corporations to decide what food should be grown, how it should be grown, and who should eat it, we are giving up a very basic part of our ability to make choices, influence decisions, and maintain the accountability of what we eat."
It is in the farmer's interest to grow the best quality crop possible to get the best price possible, and to keep the land diverse, productive and healthy. This tradition is the result of generations of expert experience. As any farmer can tell you, the character of farm land changes from county to county. It is nuanced and complex in ways that only a farmer in direct connection to the land can appreciate and understand.
Conversely, the BioAg CEO's job is to make the most money for his company and shareholders selling seeds and chemicals to farmers, irrespective of whether they make animal feed or food for your table, or whether either is safe. Food quality is not an issue for the business world; food is simply another "widget". Any efforts to address health concerns, environmental concerns, and long term sustainability are considered obstacles to economic growth.
"This industrialized approach treats soil like a Petri dish that just needs a few specific elements sprinkled on it each year to grow one particular crop," said Fred Kirschenman of the Leopold Center. "In fact this treats the soil as if it was a non-living system that required no attention to soil health and so leaves it unable to sustain the microorganisms that make up the base of the food chain that ultimately supports us, and the land dies. This lack of attention to whole living systems has parallels to the Irish potato famine, in which farmers failed to pay attention to genetic diversity and as a result over a million people died. It means the entire growing cycle gets replaced with a vacuum that is completely unsustainable."
Science has shown that species endure best when a rich diversity of genetic traits exist to buffer against ever changing environmental adversities. Science has also shown that species perish when they lack the complexity to adapt and endure such adversities.
Independent research and a preponderance of empirical evidence have shown clearly that untested genetically engineered organisms cannot coexist with their original species without genetic contamination occurring.
"If biotech is not held in check we will all be eating more and more untested, unregulated, unlabeled widgets," said Christine Phillips. "To let CEOs make your food is to expect to perish through ignorance. The choice to leave farming to farmers and demand product transparency, to consumers, seems simple. The real challenge is making the legislation happen that can enable this. And the first step towards getting legislation is making sure the people know just what they are putting into their bodies, and just what the biotech industry is putting over on them."
Before, perhaps, they spring the "Brundlefly" on us, and open up Pandora's Box for good.
Bringing it back to the Heartland
The Midwest has always been known as the "breadbasket of America," and Chicago-as the third largest intermodal hub in the world behind Hong King and Singapore-is the place where all of the nation's food and commodities are bought and sold and transported. If ever there is a place where the issues of agriculture, sustainability, investment, and economic transformation meet, it is here in the Big City on the Lake.
In this most American of cities, the battle of the common man against the titans of industry has raged for over 130 years. And like the early feudal days of industrial capitalism, the early 21st century is a time when shareholder profit is valued over social responsibility. But as with all interdependent dynamics, when this one is stretched too thin it will snap, and change will be demanded. As it stands, the BioEthics community is a steadily growing collection of farmers, organic food retailers, school boards and PTAs, scientists, doctors, environmentalists, social activists, soccer moms, enlightened vegans, food industry workers, farm laborers, and nutritionists who care about what their children are eating, and the earth they will inhabit. They are those actively working to change the status quo of a food system tied to corporate technologies and control over these technologies. Their numbers are small now in this nation, but as they join up with the diverse, global movement of likeminded individuals determined to defend themselves, their families, and this entire ecosystem from the interests of the corporate Leviathans, tucked away in their minds are the inspirational words of the late Margaret Mead, so inimical to profit and the power structure:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
LINKS FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
For more information about the field of BioEthics go to http://bioethics.net/ or http://www.nih.gov/sigs/bioethics/
To learn about the Biotechnology Industry Organization, go to http://www.bio.org/
To read the Independent Science Panel on GM go to http://www.i-sis.org.uk/ispr-summary.php
For information on GeneWise, and to get information and a schedule of events for "BioEthics 2006" visit http://www.genewise.org/
The Genetic Engineering Action Network (GEAN) - http://www.geaction.org/
See Contaminated, by Josh Shore and the Guerrilla News Network - http://gnn.tv/videos/21/Contaminated
See The Future of Food by Debra Koons Garcia -http://www.futureoffood.com/