New Internationalist

New Internationalist Editor Nikki Van Der Gaag Finds Out What Is Going On In The Secretive World Of Genetic Engineering.

Issue 293

Gene dream
Nikki van der Gaag finds out what is going on in the secretive world of genetic engineering.

By the year 2007 - in ten years' time - we may be living in a world
very different than the one we inhabit today.
Not because of war, or catastrophe, or disease, but due to something
that most of us think of as a subject we learned at school - biology.
Or, to be more specific, biotechnology: the science of genes.3

So how are genes going to change our lives? We can't be sure, but we do know that two out of three of us die for reasons connected with our genes. More than 4,000 conditions, such as sickle cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis, are caused by damage to a single gene in the foetus. Many others - cancer, AIDS, arthritis - are the result of something going wrong with the genes that defend the body.

If scientists can identify either the gene causing the disease or why the gene is defective, and work out a way to put this right, then the curative potential is enormous. Already genetic testing can tell when a foetus is likely to be born with cystic fibrosis, spina bifida or Downs Syndrome. And by the end of the century the Human Genome Project will have identified the three billion genes that make up a human being. This will provide the complete reference that scientists need to progress with such genetic research.

The possibilities for eradicating disease are enormous and very exciting. But there is a catch. Biotechnology and genetic engineering also have the potential to be used in ways which could take that change into the realms of sci-fi - or horror movies.

'Our society went into the age of nuclear energy blindly and we went into the age of DDT and other pesticides blindly. But we cannot afford to go into the age of genetic engineering blindly. We must move into this exciting new era with an awareness that gene therapy can be used for evil as well as for good.' W French Anderson, Director of Gene Therapy Laboratories.1

The line between evil and good; between dream and nightmare, is an unbelievably fine one. Identifying what genes can do raises the possibility of a new Frankenstein - of thinking that we can 'create' people with 'perfect' genes. Take one example. If we can test for genetic diseases, we can also start to predict more cosmetic features of a foetus - height, weight, hair colour, eye colour. Individual parents might well be able to choose a foetus not on the basis of whether it will suffer through being born, but because they want a blue-eyed blond-haired boy. Aborting foetuses shown by genetic testing to be female is already widespread in many countries. Once the technology is there, the people who can afford it will use it.

We are at the moment in the unique position of being able to draw a line between what is ethical and what is not. Many people would argue strongly that choosing a child for such superficial reasons should not be allowed. But those same people may choose otherwise when it comes to decisions about their own children - provided they can afford to do so.

As George Monbiot, British activist, academic and ecologist put it: 'Not everything that is possible should also be permissible'. And this is where the issue becomes very tricky.

Scientists can already isolate a gene and, by use of a virus, transfer that gene into another species. This means that there are pigs with human genes, mice that glow green in the dark, and tomatoes with fish genes.

Some of these experiments are being done to find the cures for diseases; others to improve crops or to give the food we eat a longer shelf-life. Some are conducted just to see what is possible.

But who decides what is permissible?

The answer is that everyone is passing the buck. The scientists say that they do the science; it is not their job to ask the questions. Although some governments are setting up ethics panels on biotechnology, these are very much in their infancy, and many still say that the decisions belong to the scientists. International legislation is sadly lacking because bodies like Codex (Codex Alimentarius Commission on Food Labelling) are hugely influenced by the biotechnology industry and as a result recently found they couldn't come to a decision at all!

The ethical questions are being put to one side as genetic exploration becomes the new universe, ready for exploration - and exploitation.

The stakes are high. The biotechnology industry is one of the fastest-growing in the world. The Organization for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) estimates that the market for environmental biotechnology will increase from $40 billion in the early 1990s to $75 billion by the year 2000 in OECD countries alone. The corporations who own the industry control what research is being carried out - and who gets the funds. Seventy-five per cent of research in biotechnology is driven by the economics of agribusiness. Scientists find it hard to refuse money for research, although some, like John Fagan, Professor of Molecular Biology in Iowa, rejected $613,000 of US federal grant money on the grounds that the DNA research that was being required of him might lead to 'dangerous applications' of his work.

The corporations make other great claims for their biotech baby. David Evans of DNA Plant Technology in California is not the only one to claim that biotech will feed the world: 'anything that improves the taste, availability and variety of produce for the US consumer should have an overall positive impact on the citizens of the world's health and wealth'. 2 Monsanto, which is rapidly becoming one of the world's largest biotechnology corporations, believes that biotech will revolutionize agriculture: 'we are looking at double the population of today and there are limits to land... we therefore need to improve agriculture'.

There is a catch here too. It is true that genetically engineered crops are likely to have higher yields. And people are going hungry. But the equation is not such a simple one. Hunger is about distribution, not just about quantity. As Julie Shepard, a consultant at the British Genetics Forum, points out: 'The world's starving do not make good customers.' She begs corporations to 'please stop promoting biotechnology as a technical fix for hunger. It is misleading since it ignores all other underlying causes of starvation'.And it doesn't bode well for the Third World. Margaret Mellon, director of the agriculture and biotechnology program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US, is quite clear about this: 'Companies go where the money is, and there is more money to be made in cantaloupe for Americans than in cassava for Africans.' Vandana Shiva, physicist, ecologist and leading campaigner against the biotechnology industry, is even more categorical: 'Bullshit! Far from feeding the world, people are going to starve because of genetically engineered foods. More and more peasants will see their crops substituted through biotechnology.'3

Biotechnology goes hand-in-hand with intensive agriculture, with single crops grown in huge fields. A man and his maize, Angola. Genetic engineering would force him to pay tribute to corporations. Photo by Tygve Bolstad/Panos Pictures. The majority of Third World farmers are small-scale, farming a number of crops. By switching to genetically engineered seeds they have to change their traditional practices. They are also in thrall to the transnational corporations which provide the seeds. Corporations like Monsanto (see Flying pigs and featherless chickens). In India, farmers using Monsanto's genetically engineered seeds pay an extra $50-$65 per acre as a 'technical fee' over and above the price of the seed. There are other conditions as well, says Vandana Shiva: 'They have a contract which allows Monsanto to come in and investigate their farms three years after they have planted the seed. In addition, the farmer and heirs are liable to Monsanto - they can only use Monsanto chemicals and if they are found using anyone else's chemicals they can be fined by Monsanto. I call it totalitarianism.'

So if genetic engineering is not going to feed the world, is it at least better for the enviromnent? Unfortunately, again, the answer is "No'.

First, the results of genetically engineered crops are at best mixed and at worst disastrous. Both weeds and insects in the surrounding areas have been known to develop immunities which turn them into superweeds and superpests.

Second, biotechnology actually reduces the world's biodiversity by promoting certain species over others. Of the world's 220,000 plant species, only 150 are grown commercially and just 20 provide over 90 per cent of the world's dietary energy. We are already massively over-dependent on a fraction of the species available. Genetically-engineered (and transnational-controlled) seeds will reduce this active stock even further. 5 Farmers in countries such as India are setting up their own seed banks in order to preserve the existing variety of seeds rather than having to use those promoted by the biotechnology corporations, for whom the Third World is a huge potential market.

A market to sell to, but also a resource to plunder. The World Resources Institute reckons that more than half the world's plant and animal species live in the rainforests of the South. For the biotechnology corporations, these species could be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The gene from a wild Asian strain of sugarcane saved the sugarcane industry in the south-eastern US from collapse. The gene which is the cure for a potential (usually Western) disease could also be hiding somewhere just waiting to be 'discovered'. It's a bit like a replay of Columbus 'discovering' America.

The corporations call it 'bioprospecting' - though some call it 'biopiracy'. Scientists seek out unusual plant, animal - or even human - genes from places relatively untouched and unexplored by the West. They bring them home. If they are lucky, they find a useful application for the gene. And the corporations which funded the original research make a lot of money. According to the US consulting firm Frost and Sullivan, the worldwide market for cell lines and tissue cultures brought in $427.6 million in corporate revenues in 1996. 4

Corporations are particularly interested on the genes of indigenous peoples, who have lived isolated from the rest of the world. The Human Genome Diversity Project, a multi-million dollar scheme which aims specifically to gather indigenous peoples' genes, has met with huge opposition. This is partly because the indigenous peoples object to the commodification of life and partly because they feel they are being exploited. They see Northern corporations making big money out of their plants, out of their own genes - and they get nothing in return: 'Over the last 200 years non-Aboriginal people have taken our land, language, culture, health - even our children. Now they want to take the genetic material which makes us Aboriginal people as well,' complains John Liddle, Director of the Australian Aboriginal Congress. 5

In order to make money, corporations argue they must have exclusive rights to the genes. This means patenting them. Technically, a patent is an exclusive private property right which lasts between 17 and 20 years. Originally, patents protected inventors and anyone seeking a patent still technically has to prove that it is an 'invention'.

But how can a human gene be an 'invention'? It couldn't - until 1980 when the US Supreme Court in the case of Diamond v.Chakraborty granted a patent on bacteria that could digest oil, developed by Ananda Chakraborty, an employee of General Electric. By a four-to-five margin the Court ruled that the 'relevant distinction is not between animate and inanimate things but whether living products could be seen as 'human-made inventions'. Andrew Kimbrell, an attorney and President of the US-based International Centre for Technology Assessment called it 'one of the most important judicial decisions of the twentieth century'.6

Since then, thousands of patent applications have been filed - 99 per cent by Northern corporations. These include plants, seeds, animals and human tissue. Patenting has become a cut-throat business. In the US, the number of new litigations over biotech is up 69 per cent over the two previous years. 9 It is also a secretive one: as corporations rush to patent, the scientists have to protect the results of their work. The US-based Council for Responsible Genetics points out that this 'stifles innovation and impedes scientific progress'.

Many governments in the South were clear about their objection to biotech patenting, but Northern ones, strongly influenced by the powerful corporate lobbies, muscled in. At the negotiations over GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) the US argued that in trying to prevent patenting, the developing countries were attempting to impose unfair trade barriers. In 1992 the TRIPS (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) was agreed under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This agreement made it compulsory for all countries belonging to the WTO to allow patenting - or 'intellectual property rights' as it was grandly called. The power of the transnationals seemed complete.

And yet the debate is by no means ended. Perhaps the most important legislation in relation to biotech currently under consideration is the European Union's Patent Directive, which is a draft law to give special protection to the biotech industry, especially genetic engineering. If it goes through it will mean that virtually every living thing (plants and animals, though not humans) and every one of its parts and genes (including those of human beings) may be patented so long as their production incorporates a process 'which nature cannot accomplish by itself'. Animal suffering is tolerated as long as it is not 'disproportionate to the objective pursued'.

If passed later this year it will give a green light to similar legislation in the rest of the world.

At the moment the light is still on amber. As Nicanor Perlas of the Center for Alternative Development Initiatives in the Philippines points out: 'We are the first generation in human history to have the opportunity to scrutinize this technology in advance of its widespread application and commercialization.'8

But time is running out. If we are to join our voices to those who campaign against the genetic bulldozer which sweeps aside all the ethical questions for the sake of profit we need to be clear where we stand. Blanket condemnation serves no purpose other than ruling out research which could truly benefit the human race. We need to be specific.

First, there is no need for genetically engineered foods. They should be banned, or, at the very least, clearly labelled so that people have a choice. Various polls have shown that in Europe, the majority of people are against eating genetically engineered foods.

Second, there should be no patents on life. Life cannot be owned; nor can human genes or human tissue.

Third, the Human Genome Diversity Project should be stopped. The South has been exploited enough already. We need to support indigenous peoples in their current struggles - not try to preserve their genes.

Fourth, we should not be carrying out field trials or genetic research without examining the ethical and environmental implications. There need to be more controls over who owns the research and what research is ethical or not. Moves to set up national and international bioethics bodies are a step in the right direction - provided they remain independent of the biotechnology corporations. There need to be more global agreements on genetics.

Finally the public should be involved in the decisions that are being taken. They affect us all. They are our concern as well as our responsibility, for they will help to shape the future of our world. In order to do this, we all - from Indian farmers to Western consumers - have to take responsibility for the gene dream before it turns into a nightmare.

As Vandana Shiva put it: 'I call biotech and patenting and so on the colonization of the future. And I think it is something we can't allow to be colonized. The colonization of the past only has some victims in the world. The colonization of the future has us all in solidarity'.


1 W French Anderson, 'Gene Therapy' in Scientific American, September 1995.
2 Ricarda Steinbrecher, 'From Green to Gene Revolution', The Ecologist Vol 26 No 6 Nov/Dec 1996.
3 Interview with Nikki van der Gaag.
4 RAFI Communique The Human Tissue Trade Jan/Feb 1997.
5 RAFI Communique Biopiracy Update:A Global Pandemic Sept/Oct 1996.
6 Andrew Kimbrell 'Breaking the Law of Life' in Resurgence May/June 1997 Issue 182.
7 Nature Biotechnology Vol 14 May 1996.
8 Nicanor Perlas, Overcoming illusions about Biotechnology Third World Network, 1994.

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