issue 182 - April 1988
Illustrations: Clive Offley
A molecular Auschwitz
Computers bred from animal genes; animals assembled in a factory
like computers; every species on earth patented, each with its own
registered trademark. This is not science fiction, but the reality
we face - thanks to biotechnology. Dick Russell reports.
Nature has been licked at last. Biotechnology, its fans say, will create a disease-resistant world of mega-crops and super-herds. Using genetic engineering we can now rearrange, synthesize and recombine genes in ways nature never dreamed of. Already this scientific revolution has become a multi-million-dollar business with transnational chemical, energy, agribusiness and pharmaceutical corporations virtually annexing US universities with massive research grants.
But should biotechnology be allowed to play God? The implications are frightening. And alarm bells are being rung, not least by scientists themselves:
'We do not know what life is, and yet we manipulate it as if it were an inorganic salt solution,' says Dr Edwin Chagaff, Professor Emeritus of biochemistry at Columbia University Medical School. 'Science is now the craft of manipulation, modification, substitution and deflection of the forces of nature.'
And we are, he warns, heading toward 'human husbandry' in which embryos will be mass-produced for experimental purposes. 'What I see coming is a gigantic slaughterhouse, a molecular Auschwitz, in which valuable enzymes, hormones and so on will be extracted instead of gold teeth.'
But there is no guarantee that even 'human husbandry' would remain intrinsically human, as another major critic of biotechnology, Jeremy Rifkin, points out. It is already possible to transfer human growth genes into cattle, sheep and pigs to enable them to grow more quickly, thus bringing meat to market more cheaply. Scientists have even fused sheep and goat cells, creating an animal they call, not surprisingly, the 'gheep'.
Rifkin, who heads the Washington-based Economic Trends Foundation, is not over-dramatizing when he asks: 'Do we want our children to grow up in a world where the genes of plants, animals and humans are interchangeable and living things are engineered products with no greater intrinsic value than microwave ovens?'
Last year the US Patent and Trademark Office made the crucial - and disturbing - announcement that all forms of animal on earth, with the exception of homo sapiens, should be considered 'patentable' subject matter. 'All life,' proclaimed the patent officials, can now properly be regarded as a 'manufacture or composition of matter'.
The biotech companies were delighted: 'We're going to make animals that nature never made!' crowed Dr John Hasler, cofounder of an animal biotech outfit in Pennsylvania. And Bruce Mackler of the Association of Biotechnology added in a more subdued but no less chilling tone: 'If we as a nation are to stay competitive in the world, we have to adopt new technologies. The ability to patent animals makes it more attractive economically to conduct research.'
So will farmers be forced to buy patented animals from multinational corporations in the years to come? Or pay a royalty for every piglet and calf they breed?
In the wake of the patent decision a group of 12 animal welfare organizations, including Rifkin's group, delivered a formal petition urging that the policy be rescinded. The US Congress is now involved in debates too and a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives is seeking to postpone any animal-patenting activities for the immediate future.
But if the creation of 'transgenic animals' is permitted, can transgenic people be far behind? Already researchers are working on a project to decipher humanity's genetic endowment, the ultimate goal being to determine the location of each of the three billion chemical molecules that comprise human DNA. Everything from the way we look to how our brains are wired may, within a decade, become a computerized road-map.
The stated aim, of course, is to generate new medical strategies to combat diseases and ageing. But the competition to get there first is no less fierce than it was to develop the atomic bomb or get a person into space. Indeed, Harvard University researcher Walter Gilbert is starting his own company to sequence one entire human genome and has announced that he has a legal right to copyright what he discovers.
When life itself becomes subject to patents and copyrights, the world that Aldous Huxley foresaw in his Brave New World looms ever more like prophecy. And Rifkin's Economic Trends Foundation has emerged as the Cassandra of biotechnology, filing a series of lawsuits to delay release of genetically-altered organisms. What frightens Rifkin is that control of biotechnology is in potentially irresponsible hands. He can see the formation of an unprecedented combination of economic and political power: a multifaceted, multinational, 'life sciences' conglomerate; a huge company that will use genes just as earlier corporate powers used land, minerals or oil.
Even the futuristic linguistic terms now in operation are unnerving. The Japanese, for example, are proposing an international research effort known as the Human Frontier Science Program. Last year they embarked on a 10-year investigation into making computers that would function like the human brain, possibly even using biological substances. The Mitsubishi Chemical Company, with a $233 million annual research budget, now devotes 40 per cent of it to biotechnology.
In the US the dominant powers are the chemical giants. Their contracts with universities have escalated from the six-million-dollar, five-year award that DuPont gave to the Harvard Medical School in 1981 to the seven-year, $50-million research deal Monsanto now has with Washington University. But such bargains may carry a Faustian price.
'Just as nuclear physicists are not trained to assess the effects of radiation on causing cancer,' says Cornell University ecologist Martin Alexander, 'molecular biologists are not usually qualified to evaluate the environmental consequences of releasing genetically-engineered organisms'.
Even if all such lab-created organisms were to prove harmless, the direction in which biotechnology's corporate pioneers appear to be moving is ample cause for alarm. Today the sale of weed-killing herbicides is worth four billion dollars worldwide. The Monsanto chemical company alone sold more than a billion dollars' worth in 1982, nearly half of which was from a herbicide called Round-Up. (Along with a prime competitor, Lasso, Round-Up has been shown to be a probable carcinogen in recent scientific studies.)
Why, then, is Monsanto currently devoting about five million dollars to biotechnology? The reason is that many herbicides damage crops at the same time as wiping out weeds. Round-Up, for instance, causes no problems for corn. But soybeans, which are grown in rotation with corn, readily fall victim to the potent herbicide because it lingers in the soil. If soybeans could be implanted with a gene that tolerates Round-Up, one biotech consulting firm has predicted that farmers might triple their use of the herbicide and increase its sales by about $12 million a year.
That is precisely what Monsanto and other chemical outfits are hoping for. In the spring of 1987, scientists at the University of Wisconsin successfully inserted a gene for herbicide resistance into a woody plant. Thirty-three companies and at least a dozen private universities are embarked on similar research.
Dr Frederick Buttel, a prominent rural sociologist at Cornell University, believes the companies intend to use biotechnology 'to develop markets for broad-spectrum herbicides that might otherwise not be used. Attempts at even tighter packaging of seeds and agrichemicals are expected, where the use of a particular crop variety and an agrichemical are mutually obligatory'. In other words farmers will not be able to buy the seed without the herbicide that accompanies it. Since the chemical companies now own nearly all of the seed companies in the US, the scenario is scarcely far-fetched.
The multinationals which brought seed-pesticide packages to the Third World under the double-speak name of the 'Green Revolution' are now seeking a different brand of stranglehold: 'Seed Wars'. It centers around the fact that the US has no primary native crops, while the tropics and Southern hemisphere contain large numbers of useful seeds. For more than a century the West has garnered seeds freely from the underdeveloped countries.
Getting hold of the prime raw material is crucial to genetic engineers. Most varieties are stored in a US Department of Agriculture seed bank in Fort Collins, Colorado. The idea is for multinationals to withdraw a rare seed from, say, Bolivia from the seed bank, then genetically engineer and patent a new strain - then sell it right back to the farmers in Bolivia.
In anticipation of this, 100 Third World nations meeting in Rome late in 1986 accused the West of 'genetic imperialism' and threatened to seize control of other seed banks supported by the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. The US retaliated by threatening to cut off its contribution to the FAO, which amounts to 25 per cent of its budget.
Genetic Fort Knox
'Whoever controls germ plasm, and therefore genetic engineering, is now as important as who controls oil,' says Rifkin. 'With the big chemical companies moving in to collect seeds and patent animal embryos, they potentially will have power over many of the living things of the future. The US has now collected most of the rare seeds, making Fort Collins the Fort Knox of the genetic age. The biggest danger here is that they're preserving only those strains that have market value. With genetic engineering you can streamline mono-cultures of wheat and corn much more rapidly. But in breeding more and more for uniformity, we may not have the genetic diversity left to maintain resistance against changing conditions in the environment.'
If all this were not ominous enough, there is yet another chilling application of biotechnology. Responding to a lawsuit by Rifkin's organization, the Pentagon was forced to admit that it has been conducting 'defensive' research programs in biological warfare at 127 sites around the US. Science magazine subsequently reported that the Defense Department 'is applying recombinant DNA techniques in research and production of a range of pathogens and toxins, including botulism, anthrax and yellow fever'.
This effort has increased dramatically under the Reagan Administration, undermining the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972. In an out-of-court settlement, the Pentagon agreed to file an Environmental Impact Statement on all of its biotech programs, indicating possible health risks to surrounding communities.
But what if there was an accident? 'A major concern is the potential of a virus to establish a reservoir that we have no experience with,' says the Boston-based Committee for Responsible Genetics. 'The virus could potentially live, without killing its host, provide a continual source of infection to the population, and be difficult - if not impossible - to wipe out'.
Similar questions continue to arise, of course, over the release of supposedly more benign genetically-manipulated strains into the environment. Last year the first three such outdoor tests overcame Rifkin's legal logjam. A company called Advanced Genetic Sciences conducted two controversial experiments on a strawberry patch in California with a lab-altered bacteria designed to prevent crops from freezing in hard frost.
So far no environmental problems have occurred. But once hundreds, even thousands, of new human-manipulated organisms are let loose, the results are unpredictable. Agronomists have noted that, while many non-native natural species brought to the US have adapted, others - such as the gypsy moth, kudzu vine, Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight - have unexpectedly run amok and wreaked havoc with other species. Genetic engineering vastly increases the chances of such eventualities.
And policing of biotechnology experiments is lax - to put it mildly. The potential for abuse surfaced in 1987 when Dr Gary Strobel, a plant pathologist at Montana State University, failed to wait for the required approval before experimenting. He used an engineered bacteria on 14 trees, seeking a new means to treat Dutch elm disease. Calling his action 'civil disobedience' in the face of 'almost ludicrous' standards, Strobel admitted having released another altered microbe three years earlier - also without Government permission or his university's approval.
While the Environmental Protection Agency slapped his wrists with what it termed a 'mild sanction', it was left to citizens like Tufts University Professor Sheldon Krimsky to express the outrage. 'You do not commit civil disobedience in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King by placing society at risk,' said Krimsky. A tearful, but not contrite, Strobel did agree to cut down the affected trees.
In the face of the monumental sums of money being spent by some of the large corporations in the world, the Reagan Administration has not surprisingly pushed for more and more research. Meanwhile Congress has been reluctant to insist on tighter regulatory controls. Apart from Rifkin and a few other watchdog groups, the environmental organizations have held back from jumping into the fray.
It may be too late to put the genie of biotechnology back into the lamp. But one thing is clear. Biotechnology has no conscience. Only humanity can provide that - if we choose.
Dick Russell is a freelance writer, based in Boston and Los Angeles, specializing in environmental concerns.
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