New Internationalist

The Facts

Issue 217

new internationalist
issue 217 - March 1991

BIOTECHNOLOGY - THE FACTS

Illustration: Hector Cattolica
Biotechnology is one of the most powerful technologies
the world has ever known. It will affect us all.
NI looks at the direction it is taking.

1. CONTROLLING COMPANIES

By the year 2000 the global seed market will probably be controlled by just 12 seed and chemical giants.1

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Biotechnology is a growth area. The table below shows the number of firms involved in biotechnology, according to country in 1985. Most of the companies are involved in medical diagnosis, agriculture, chemicals and fermentation.2

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2. HERBICIDES BOOM

The genetics industry promotes the use of chemicals. Ciba-Geigy coats its sorghum seeds with three different chemicals - one of them to protect the seed from a herbicide that Ciba-Geigy itself manufactures.

Photo by MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES . US State and Federal agricultural institutions have devoted $10.5 million of taxpayers money to fund genetics research to make crops and trees herbicide-tolerant over the past few years.4 Thirty crop and forest-tree species - including cotton, corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, soybeans and sunflowers - are being modified to withstand lethal or damaging doses of herbicides.

. At least 27 corporations - including Ciba-Geigy, ICI, Monsanto and Bayer4 - have initiated 63 programmes to develop herbicide-tolerant crops, the market value of which is expected to touch $6 billion by the year 2000.3

. According to industry projections, use of crops tolerant to Hoechst's herbicide, Basta, would increase it's global sales by $200 million a year.

. Strong evidence links alachlor - the most popular herbicide in the US - to malignant tumours. It contaminates groundwater in 12 US states.4

 

3. NEGLECTED NEEDS

Third World needs are rarely met by the new biotechnologies.3

  What is needed? What is being done? What could be done?
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Poor people's crops need conserving and improving to make them more pest-resistant, more nourishing and higher yielding.

Instead of making crops pest-resistant some companies are making them chemical resistant to increase chemical sales. In general only major cash crops are being bred to yield more. Traditional crop varieties could be conserved and new crops selectively bred for hardiness.
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Third World people need clean water, preventative health care, improved sanitation and nutrition most of all. Next come new vaccines for tropical diseases. Tools for medical diagnosis (rather than treatment) are being developed, along with hormone production and drugs to prevent aging and cancer. Organ transplants and gene therapy are also top priority. Biotechnology could provide better techniques for water testing and vaccine production.
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Poor people need cheap, nourishing non-perishable food produced in a culturally and enviromentally-friendly way. Raw materials are being reduced or substituted by artificial ones and agricultural products are being produced in factories. Traditional biotechnological methods of food preservation like fermentation could be further developed.
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The Third World needs to conserve its genetic diversity. Poor people need livestock which live longer and produce more.

Attention is directed at complete control over animal reproduction, developing uniform (but very vulnerable) breeds of animals, and veterinary drugs and equipment. Vaccines and ways of diagnosing diseases could be developed. Cross breeding could create healthier, more efficient livestock.


4. GENETIC EROSION

Of 75 types of vegetables available during the early 20th century, approximately 97% of varieties of each type are now extinct. The table below shows a sample of US vegetable varieties that disappeared between 1903 and 1983.5

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5. STEALING SPECIES

Western countries are plundering the Third World's genetic resources.

. Wild species of plants and animals (many of which come from the Third World) contributed $340 million per year to the US between 1976 and 1980. The total contribution of wild species to the US economy has been estimated at $66 billion - more than the total international debt of Mexico and the Philippines combined.

. A wild tomato variety taken from Peru in 1962 has contributed $8 million a year to the US tomato-processing industry. None of these profits or benefits have been shared with Peru.

. The periwinkle plant from Madagascar is the source of 60 alkaloids which can treat childhood leukemia and Hodgkin's Disease. Drugs derived from this plant bring the US $160 million a year. And another plant, Rauwolfa Serpentina, from India is the base for drugs which sell for up to $260 million a year in the US alone.

. The value of the South's genetic material for the pharmaceutical industry ranges from an estimated $4.7 billion now to $47 billion by the year 2000.6

 

6. GALLOPING SCIENCE

Biotechnology developments are racing ahead of legislation to control them.

. The number of unclassified US Department of Defence projects using genetic engineering technology and monoclonal antibodies jumped from zero in 1980 to over one hundred in 1984; spending on the US programme increased by over 900 per cent between 1979 and 1986. Over 100 corporate and university laboratories plus 18 government laboratories are now involved in this work.3

. In 1988 the US Department of Energy allocated $10 million and the US National Institutes of Health a little over $17 million to a major programme to map the human genes (Human Genome Project).7

. The market for genetic tests and tests for predispositions to genetic disease is predicted to reach between $50 million to $1 billion by 1992.8

. An estimated 400 companies worldwide are developing genetically-engineered products. By the year 2000 over 1,000 new products will be on the market at a value of over $50 billion.3

 

1 The Frankenstein Syndrome, Agscene, March 1988.
2 The Gene Hunters, Calestous Juma (Zed Books 1989).
3 The Laws of Life, Development Dialogue Journal 1-2, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Uppsala, 1988.
4 Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest, Biotechnology Working Group, Washington DC, March 1990.
5 Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney, (University of Arizona Press1990).
6 Biodiversity Conservation: The Threat to Ecological Conservation from Commercial Interests, Vandana Shiva, (Third World Network) 1990.
7 The Bio-Revolution: Cornucopia or Pandora's Box?, Peter Wheal and Ruth McNally, (Pluto Press 1990).
8 Genewatch Vol 6 Nos 4-5, 1989.

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