Equity, Ethics and the Privatization of Life in BioAgriculture

Author(s): Marsha J. Tyson Darling
Date Published: July 16, 2006
Source: Article adapted from a paper presented at "Miracle or Menace?: Genetically Engineered Food," A Symposium on Biotechnology

A year ago, Michael Pollan's article "Playing God in the Garden" in the October 25, 1998 issue of the Sunday, New York Times Magazine, was a wake up call to the millions of Americans who did not know that the potatoes and corn they have been eating are made from genetically engineered seeds. Seeds, that in the case of the New Leaf Superior potato that he profiled, produce their own insecticide. Pollan's article about Monsanto's genetically engineered potato and the biotechnology that has been radically transforming agricultural production wherever it is implemented, took many relatively well informed folks by surprise, because they were not aware that some of their basic staples like corn, potatoes or soybeans are being genetically modified.

As Pollan noted, much of the widespread misinformation or ignorance about these transgenic plants stems in part from the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has failed to require producers of genetically engineered corps to provide identifying labels on biotech foods. Hence, even if you do care that you are eating something with a herbicide or insecticide inside of it, things are set up so that you don't know that you are eating someone else's experiment with your food, and hence your body. When many of us think about all of the above, we wonder what is wrong, especially because we trust that the government will inform, warn and protect us.

While Pollan's article was directed at a popular audience, genetically modified transgenic plants and foods have been at the center of intensely controversial policy debates dating to the early years of this decade. Scholars, policymakers, human rights activists, scientists, legal thinkers, consumer rights protection advocates, and business and governmental leaders have been locked in a struggle over the fundamental question of who, if anyone, will own, patent and exploit human, animal and plant diversity, including genes and seeds. Controversial at every step, the issue of the privatization of human, plant, animal, and seed diversity is a global issue that encompasses all of our concerns about North-South interactions and collaborations. Rooted as it is in decades and centuries of historical relationships and their meanings, this issue is inseparable from the equity concerns of indigenous and poor peoples around the world. And, it is inseparable from the concerns voiced by many feminists that women's far greater involvement in subsistence agriculture is negatively affected by practices that so profoundly affect agricultural cost inputs and food security.

Biotechnology's relationship to agriculture has consequences that should be better understood by specialists and laypersons alike. Given recent events surrounding Monsanto's ownership of agricultural "terminator technology," it seems clear that growing numbers of people in many countries around the world are talking and acting on the necessity to set boundaries on the development of human engineered, genetically modified genes, seeds, plants and animals. Many have observed that when nature alters a gene, seed, plant, or animal, for the most part there's not much harm "evolved" into the plant, especially if it is a staple meant to be eaten. Indeed, traditional agriculture rests on seed genes and hence plants that have been known to be the lifeblood of the human population.

This is no small matter of fact to be taken lightly or discarded in a moment of hopeful thinking about the power of a biotechnology. The centuries-old knowledge that certain plants are edible, and contain life-giving nutrition without making its own poison, is the reason stable economies based on agricultural self-sufficiencies have come this far in the first place.

However, when scientists alter a gene, seed, plant or animal the public can and should involve themselves in being able to consider the ramifications of that decision and its accompanying actions because, unlike nature's emphasis, man's emphasis is in large part stimulated and driven by a desire for shimmering careers and giant profits. The greed factor present in the motivations of powerful men in government agencies that fail to inform the public, which pays tax dollars for federal oversight and protection, and even more powerful men in corporate monopolies, is absent in nature. This is an important point to consider and act on because it has to do with the meaning of our rights as consumers.

In response to assertions that nature is not quite on top of things because insects and weeds afflict agricultural produce, traditional agricultural products do not look so bad, especially when compared to produce inserted with pesticides or insecticides, as though putting these poisons inside of one's food is something ordinary, normal, and good. The notion that we cannot have our produce free of manmade poisons that create toxins in our bodies is ludicrous. It is the kind of thinking that one finds outside of the life-giving force inherent in how nature pursues genetic design. Remember, humans would have perished or developed toxicity diseases many centuries ago if the evolution of nature produced poisons naturally within our most basic staple plant genes. Only man would devise a scheme to engineer poison into a plant or crop in the name of controlling what the plant can and cannot do. Are we to trust the motivations of folks who act as though they do not understand this and who have their hands on the genetic on/off switch?

We might call this effort to control, engineer and exploit genes, seeds, plants, animals and humans the privatization of a "life" industry. In terms of the privatization of life forms, it is important to note that almost every contemporary dilemma we face has a contemporary context and a history. While we have not passed this very same point before, the evolution of a painful, distorted and exploitative North-South dynamic over the past five centuries speaks volumes about narrowly constructed ideas about the way things could and should be. On the one hand, proponents of more unrestrained biotechnology in agriculture say that the problems we seek solutions for are a byproduct of rapid, dazzling, expensive, and efficient technological innovations in need of markets and destinations. Further, they argue that we are on the threshold of solving the problems that science, biotechnology and medicine can best solve. Still further, defenders of bioagriculture patenting and the monopolization of life forms argue that biotechnology is the way to solve the world's food production dilemmas.

While these disarming assertions are intended to focus our attention on valuing a certain construction of cultural and economic development, in reality, at a fundamental level we are dealing with why some of the ideas about what development is are so narrow and regressive as to prioritize the elimination of diversity in the name of markets and profits. I believe that we should look long and hard at the consequences of the ideological frames of reference that are shaping biotechnology's reach into agriculture. Namely, what is the social construction of science, and the relationship between those notions, beliefs and values, and what is developed as science, how is it used, and with what economic, cultural, social, and political consequences? Since there is no such thing as value-free science or technology, we must examine and come to terms with the consequences as well as the intended uses of science and technology.

Instead of just looking at the issue of technologies in search of new markets, we should begin by asking how and why is much of the current approach to the development and utilization of emerging biotechnologies unimaginably destructive, especially of natural diversity. Namely, why would we want to invest in a future where the engineering of genes insures the elimination of positive and good genes not chosen for development? Would the decisions by those in control of that on/off switch be about producing transgenic plants that neither contain toxic chemicals nor require toxic chemicals to be sprayed on plants?

As things stand, it is the world's largest producers of herbicides and pesticides who are also those most interested in expanding the utilization of their chemicals by as many of the world's farmers as possible.

According to an article in last month's issue of Natural History, entitled "Into the Wild," some of the 52,000 acres of transgenic yellow squash and zucchini planted in commercial fields in the United States will be responsible for providing the viral transgenes that during pollination cross into wild populations. Research has confirmed that what was feared has happened, namely that bioengineered genes can travel from a trangenic bioengineered crop to another "wild"crop (a crop that has been here all along). While crossbreeding is not new, we could confront a situation where the original wild seeds of many of the world's staple crops are all effectively hybridized, especially as transgenic seeds are sold in the US and abroad. Those concerned about their own food and global food security, especially the vast majority of the world's farmers, know that having a market-directed transgenic seed revolution transform the genetic basis for original seed variations through inadvertent crossfertilization is really unthinkable, though technically possible.

Let me suggest that it is important to begin our thinking about the privatization of life forms with the ideological beliefs that made tenable the historical processes of enslavement, imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism imposed by Europeans on approximately four-fifths of the world's population of people of color. The ideologically derived choices and decisions that produced the expropriation of people, their children and their labor, was also responsible for the expropriation of people's territories, minerals, and plants. We can discern from this historical legacy of conquest-driven motivations that narrowly constructed utilitarian considerations designed to promote and maximize market performance and profits have fueled a legacy in which regrettably many amongst the powerful in the North are consumed with intensifying the domination of other people, their natural resources, and even their genes, blood and tissues. This next stage of utilitarian conquest and domination is potentially the most horrific because the power and capacity to engineer genes is also the power to play God. And while God's track record over the past five centuries looks pretty good, it is difficult to find another age in which human greed and the misuse of technology have been so much responsible for other people's pain and suffering than the past five centuries.

In the past five centuries, the property movement has not only been about the ownership of material physical things, but also the legal ownership of persons, namely the bodies of persons. Slavery rendered people into units of production; colonialism rendered people, their land, minerals, and plants into utilitarian units of production-useful to other people's industrialization and economic development. The ownership of people's bodies, the exploitation of other people's labor, the expropriation of other people's land and valuable mineral and plant resources over time, are not separate from our current concerns about biopiracy, the patenting of human genes, and the creation of technologies that intensify economic domination and technological dependency for the many. While this issue is particularly acute for nonwhite-skinned peoples who comprise four-fifths of the world's population, the lack of boundaries and serious constraints on biotechnology's reach into privatizing life forms puts every living thing at risk for manipulation, modification and domination by a handful of global corporations. A new form of colonialism is in the making, only this time global food security is at stake, as is the genetic integrity of human beings, animals and plants.

One speaks of the North as industrialized, technological, engaged in capital intensive development, and white. One speaks of the South as reflecting the centuries of underdevelopment fostered by colonialism, namely, poor, unindustrialized, or perhaps in the early stages of industrializing and often prioritizing market relationships with the North at the expense of human and social rights and social services. The South is also engaged in labor intensive subsistence production, rich in mineral and plant resources, and colored. Neo-colonialism has served to retain a core/periphery dependency relationship in much of the world, so much so that it is exceedingly difficult for a country formerly subjected to colonial domination to be taken seriously in the North. Neo-colonialism often insures that raw material exports and even developing markets serve business interests in many industrialized countries. Otherwise, poor and even industrializing nations are hard pressed to arrange for loans, grants and aid from their former colonial masters.

Partnerships with equity are sometimes hard to come by as Western powers accustomed to controlling interactions between themselves and poor nations often want to make bilateral trade agreements and physical arrangements that are "adverse development" for poor nations. One only has to ponder the current policy of debt-for-poison swap to understand that there is something seriously wrong with deals where the terms dole out development with pain for the South. Again, notice the value placed on the utilitarian usefulness of people of color in poor nations, in the case of debt-for-poison, places where radioactive waste and other toxic waste generated in the West can be sent so that it is away from some constitutionally empowered Western consumer populations. Of course, it bears remembering that there is also an ongoing problem of disproportionately targeting communities of people of color in the North for toxic waste dumping. And, partnerships with equity are also sometimes scarce when a traditional plant is located that has far reaching applications not just in its respective traditional context, but also in the West. As one of many examples consider the situation involving Endod, a perennial that is referred to as the African soapberry plant.

When it comes to corporate development of bioagriculture, the fragility of the idea of partnership is most intense for people of color and indigenous peoples who live near tropical rain forests or equatorial areas, for their cells, microbes, and plants are the most sought after. This is in large measure because many of the largest chemical corporations, agrochemical giants like US based Monsanto and DuPont, German based Bayer and AgrEvo, Swiss based Novartis, and UK based Zeneca have shifted much of their research and development spending priorities into biology. Changes in US Patent Law have been a very important factor in the decisions made by agrochemical and pharmaceutical companies. Also, mergers and takeovers of companies engaged in production and modification of seeds, food, agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, and veterinary medicine have factored prominently in the exponential expansion and intensification of privatization efforts among agrochemical multinationals.

Consider the following points. The first has to do with far reaching changes in United States patent law, initiated by the landmark 1980 Supreme Court decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty. This landmark decision validated the idea that any living thing could be patented. Since that time, the United States Patent Office has interpreted the Court's decision to encompass microbes, cells, genes, plants and animals. Notice that the willingness to patent human genes is included in this broad and far sweeping two tiered decision and Patent Office policy affecting 1) the scale of permission, and 2) exclusive ownership.

If you are wondering whether the Court should have been more restrained in it posture, it bears noting that throughout most of the decades in this century emerging technologies have often been unfettered in their quest for protection from the Courts. The elevation of genetics science to a point where it is dangerously near exemption from serious and meaningful ethical constraints has unleashed genetic engineering into nearly as many venues as is conceivable. Arguably, the absence of containment in the early decades of genetic engineering has brought us to the painful point where we are now. From an ethical point of view, it is indeed worrisome and problematic when technology and the market use the Court to create a body of law and legal precedent with which to empower in this case privatization and monopolization. In terms of development, it must be a recipe for pain over the short and long run. It also suggests the role of handmaiden as opposed to guardian for US Courts.

The posture of the Court and the subsequent generosity of the US Patent Office were influenced by two other trends, namely the crafty and subversive manner in which a number of leading scientists involved in biomedical research moved a genetic engineering agenda forward despite the strong ethical and social concerns of many. When public alarms about genetic engineering were raised in the early 1970s, some in the biomedical research community responded by carefully controlling how the public came to think about genetically modifying life. Too often the ethical concerns or apprehensions about worst case scenarios were repressed, denied or ignored by too many scientists. Essentially, bioengineering accelerated with very little containment as a constraint policy.

While equity concerns about the nature of partnerships between multinational corporations and poor countries were often swept aside, the most visible casualties of bioprospecting were and still are indigenous peoples. Consider for instance that agricultural and botanical knowledge and healing is something that is held collectively by groups, clans, and villages in indigenous societies, as opposed to owned by individual monopoly. The equity issues that arise out of the marginalization of the claims and concerns of indigenous people are longstanding and extend from a past based on exploitative relationships in internal as well as external colonialist contexts. According to the Indigenous Peoples' Biodiversity Network and the Rural Advancement Foundation International, while the challenges confronting poor nations extend to what they call "biopiracy," the global farming community is at risk of what RAFI (www.rafi.org) calls "bioserfdom." Chemical and pharmaceutical companies have as their goal the manufacture of new drugs for sale in expensive Western markets and the industrial production of patented biopesticides and patented transgenic plants. They are also involved in the genetic manipulation of animals into transgenic production centers for the growth of human proteins like lactoferrin. Clearly, it is rich ecosystems of the South that will furnish much of the raw materials for the genetic patenting revolution.

In conclusion, there are a number of significant factors that necessitate that we set enforceable boundaries in our North-South interactions. Many more of us have to concern ourselves with the challenges and opportunities for enhanced global security predicated on a new paradigm of shared involvement in global development and not the old model of colonial domination or paternalism. The challenge before us here in the North is the necessity to seek balance, and to challenge the notion that greed, hoarding and resource domination by one-fifth of the world's population is somehow inevitable and good. Such a neo-colonial paradigm for the 21st century cannot bring about equity, and without equity there will be neither justice nor peace. In specific reference to genetics and biotechology, we all know about the much heralded medical interventions that have come from allowing some scientific research in genetics to go forward. But I would argue that this is not a scenario where we can safely say that we have to take the bad with the good because the stakes for accepting the bad are monstrous, especially when the bad could be prevented or avoided through more careful and measured ethical consideration and analysis. Mistakes do occur even when we practice good sound science. But the headlong plunge into controlling nature and extinquishing diversity cannot bode well for any of us.

Dr. Marsha Darling is a professor of Women's Studies and History at Georgetown University. This past year she has been a Rockefeller Fellow in the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University where she is collecting and using oral narratives to compile research on the development of formal and informal sector microenterprises by low income women of color in NYC.