issue 217 - March 1991
TEST TUBE COUP
Biotech's GLOBAL TAKEOVER
Scientists can put the genes of an elephant into a daisy.
But should they? Sue Shaw answers the vital question.
LISTEN. Yes, you. I'm talking to you. I'm saying that they do exist: blue roses, luminous tobacco, soybeans containing genes from a fish.1 These are not dreams, no idle fantasies of some science fiction writer. They are real. They were developed through a new science called biotechnology which threatens to transform our world into a nightmare unless we control it.
Human beings can now manipulate at will the inherited characteristics of any living thing and its future generations. Already scientists have transferred animal genes into plants, and human genes into animals. The genetic boundaries that separate species have been breached.
I tell you, they are doing bizarre things. They have put rat genes into mice to make them 'supermice'; put human growth hormone into pigs to make them large; made chicken taste like beef. Some have even created a mouse predisposed to cancer.
Ask 'Why?' But shout it loud or nobody will hear you. Your voice will vanish on the winds of change, for developments in this science are storming along faster than you and I can say 'What for?'
Of course biotechnology could help solve hunger, pollution and other things besides. It might cure horrible diseases like cystic fibrosis. Or even find a vaccine for AIDS. It has already, for example, produced human insulin and a vaccine against Hepatitis B.
But as to the ethics of altering life-forms? That's another matter. You see biotechnology can tell humans how to do many things. But it cannot say what is right or wrong. The motives of scientists and companies do not give audience to the voice which demands: 'What right have you to alter the essence of a creature - as if its only purpose on this earth were to serve human ends?' When they discover a fraction of what there is to know, they think they understand it all. And they don't think through the consequences of applying their fraction of knowledge.
History offers precious little comfort when it comes to the science of genetics. Take criminal behaviour. 'It's in the blood', you hear people say, meaning criminals are born not made. Public opinion applauded loudly when scientists discovered an extra sex chromosome in some male criminals. Conclusion? All men so constructed are destined for a life of crime. This curious and mistaken logic had its consequences in the 1970s.
Maternity hospitals in the US, Canada, Denmark and the UK started screening new-born babies for the trait. The crime and chromosome connection was still unproven. There was no cure. What were parents supposed to do with this information? What self-fulfilling prophecy results from labelling a child delinquent at birth?
Of course some tests can usefully diagnose disorders in fetuses thus enabling early treatment. But there are many ethical and political dilemmas that arise from placing value-judgments on genes.
After all, who decides what traits are good or bad? Or which sections of the population should be screened? Or even which tests are sufficiently reliable to be used? Predicting the future of a person from their genes is often like telling fortunes from a crystal ball: in some cases no-one knows if a trait will manifest itself. And anyway diagnoses far exceed cures.
Yet the screening phenomenon is growing. Employers, insurance companies and others are using this medical facility as a discriminatory tool. The US Air Force Academy excluded black people from its flight school for 10 years, on the grounds that they might develop sickle-cell anaemia.2 But not every black person bears the gene for this disease, and not everyone with the gene falls ill.3
Each one of us is unique genetically. But placing values on our genes can result in seeing differences as 'flaws'. And who knows how big companies or ruthless politicians might interpret and misuse the genetic data that companies are gathering and storing on computers?
Now these fears may sound rather far-fetched, melodramatic even. I certainly thought so until I spoke to plant virologist Dr Roger Hull at an International Plant Science Research Institute in the UK. He helped me understand the mechanisms that drive biotechnology by bringing me face to face with the myth of 'neutral science'.
Consider the question of who decides which areas scientists will research at institutes such as the one where Dr Hull works? The answer is: those who pay the piper call the tune. The research agenda is ultimately set by the agencies that fund it. Broadly speaking they decide which goals will be met. And they are not under any democratic controls.
Scientists at Dr Hull's institute are researching many things from how to make the humble pea produce soybean oil, to the molecular biology of viruses that attack rice. How could such work be used?
'You must stop asking me that,' said Dr Hull. 'My job is to increase basic knowledge, to adapt existing concepts and create new ones [about the way viruses attack plants]. What we produce might be exploited, but that is not our remit. We are not here to make value judgements.'
This is the classic justification that scientists use for not thinking about the consequences of their work. 'If it's misused by society,' they say, 'it's not our fault.'
But there are many ethical considerations in the kind of work being carried out at this institute. For knowledge produced here could be used in many ways. Take the project to produce soybean oil from peas. This development might release the West from its dependence on some vegetable oil imports. And that could bankrupt Third World farmers whose livelihood ultimately depends on such sales.4
Or consider the rice project on which Dr Hull works. Hopefully it will eventually result in a pest-resistant rice - a lifeline for hungry people. But theoretically data on viruses could also help create a biological weapon which would destroy Third World rice crops. Scientists have little control over how their work is used once it is published. And some don't care.
Big companies are among those funding work at Dr Hull's institute. They look at the scientists' research and when they see something they can develop and sell, they patent it, to make users pay for the 'invention' and stop competitors from copying the idea. You see, biotechnology is propelled by the same motor that drives any other business - the quest for profit. The difference is that the technology is powerful enough to transform life itself. And because many companies are indifferent to ethical and environmental considerations, unless controlled, their projects might cause serious harm.
Already companies are pressing to be allowed to 'set the conditions of sale' over every life-form they claim to have invented. This is no joke. If they succeed, they will have absolute control over whatever they create.
Giving them monopolies is like saying: 'Go ahead. Change life as you will and sell it for as much as you can.' As if we owned life to give away. Or had neither the right - nor the responsibility - to choose how biotech affects our world.
Even now scientists and companies are releasing into the environment engineered microbes, like those designed to digest oil slicks, detoxify waste and the like. Such bugs are safe, they say.
But think. Viruses mutate. Who knows what form they'll take? And microbes fashioned to alter plants or animals could infest humans. For once released they cannot be controlled. The voice of common-sense says we should wait until we know more.
But as laws stand, research is often secret. Consider milk. Are you aware that some milk sold in the US and UK is spiked with a new hormone called bovine somatatrophine or BST which is injected into cattle to increase their yield?5 Even though the drug has not been formally released the milk being produced experimentally is being sold in cartons that don't distinguish it from the ordinary kind.
Ask: 'Why wasn't I informed?' You have a right to know. The answer is that most research into the hormone's safety has been done by the companies that make it, like Monsanto or Eli Lily. Their data is rarely public, lest it damage sales.
There are even fewer laws protecting people in Third World countries. And companies that can't release 'inventions' at home have in the past taken experiments abroad. India even agreed in 1987 that the US could test its genetically engineered vaccines on her citizens.5 No wonder some protested at being used as guinea pigs for vaccines not approved for use in the US.
But these outrages pale beside experiments conducted by the US military. Virtually everyone in San Francisco was exposed to a supposedly harmless bacterium when the US Navy 'attacked' the city with it for six days in 1950.1 How many died? No-one knows. For the bug is not as harmless as first thought. Over 200 top-secret experiments of this nature were conducted by the US military between 1945 and 1969.6
Knowing this, wouldn't you like more information about the way military research is employing biotechnology? For the US Department of Defence has no fewer than 100 US corporate and university laboratories plus 18 government laboratories running projects using genetic engineering.7 It's anybody's guess what silly schemes they may devise. One CIA plot to topple Fidel Castro involved exposing him to a powder that would make his beard fall out, thereby rendering him less charismatic. Or so the rumour goes.
Harder evidence connects the CIA with African Swine Fever which killed half a million hogs in Cuba.8 And the company called Molecular Genetics has won a contract worth nearly two-million dollars from the US Department of Defence to work on Rift Valley Fever Virus, which affects cattle and people in the Middle East. For what purpose we can only guess...
There are no easy solutions to these dilemmas. All we can do is keep a sharp eye and a firm grip on developments. Biotech is a science in the making. If we act fast there is still time to turn it round. Educating the public is one priority. Demanding research be exposed to public scrutiny is another. We need national and international guidelines about the release of organisms. And committees to defend our rights. Companies should be made liable for damage their products cause. And the time has come to demand that our scientists adhere to a code of moral conduct. They must be held accountable for what they do.
1 The Laws of Life, Cary Fowler, Eva Lachokvics, Pat Mooney and Hope Shand, Development Dialogue, 1-2, 1988.
2 Until 1981, when pressure of a lawsuit forced them to stop.
3 Genethics - The Ethics of Engineering Life, David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson, (Unwin Paperbacks, 1988).
4 Substitutes are also being developed for vanilla, gum arabic, sugar, cocoa and other major Third World crops. This spells economic disaster for Third World economies dependent on these cash crops and particularly the small-scale farmers who have no other sources of income.
5 Genetic Engineering - Catastrophe or Utopia?, Peter Wheale and Ruth McNally, (Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1988).
6 'Return to Biological Warfare Outdoor Testing?' Genewatch, (vol 4 No 4-5, 1987).
7 'Biological Warfare: The Present State of the Issue', Susan Wright, Statement given to NSF! RAF Citizens Forum, Washington DC, May 8,1987.
8 The Killing Winds: The Menace of Biological Warfare, Jeanne McDermott, (Arbor House, 1987).
. Four years ago, a new, live micro-organism, genetically engineered by US scientists as an experimental rabies vaccine, was smuggled in a diplomatic pouch into Argentina - a country with no laws regulating biotechnology. The vaccine was then secretly injected into cows without the knowledge of the Argentine Government. A year and a half later blood samples from 17 cow-hands who had been allowed to freely handle the animals and drink their unpasteurized milk, revealed that they had been infected with the virus. More than 130 Argentine scientists charged the private, Philadelphia-based Wistar Institute which had arranged the experiment through the Pan American Health Organization - with conducting an immoral experiment that would never have been allowed to take place in the US. Forbes, the leading US business magazine, later stated that such an adventure was understandable given the 'inconvenient' safety regulations in the US.
. At an agricultural research station in Aotearoa (NZ) in 1986, American researchers inoculated 37 calves, 16 chickens and four sheep with a live genetically-engineered vaccine against the sindbis virus, an insect-borne virus which causes flu-like symptoms. The researchers, from Oregon State University, obtained permission and funding for the overseas experiment from the US Department of Agriculture, and subsequently from the Government of Aotearoa (NZ). Alvin Smith, a member of the US team, bluntly stated the reasons for conducting the experiment so far from home: 'In the US, these tests have been held up by inadequate regulations, lack of government agency co-ordination, court injunctions and public protests.' He might as well have said that lack of public awareness and government regulation of biotechnology in Aotearoa (NZ) made the country an ideal open-air laboratory.
. Without asking or notifying anyone, Gary Strobel, a pathologist with Montana State University, field-tested in four US states an experimental genetically engineered bacterium to fix nitrogen in alfalfa. Three years later, in 1987, Strobel again ignored federal regulations and injected another genetically altered microbe into 14 elm trees to study its effect on Dutch elm disease. Strobel has since been reprimanded by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the 14 trees were burned.
. In 1985 Advanced Genetic Sciences of Oakland, California, received the first Federal permit to test a genetically engineered organism outside the laboratory; a microbe designed to prevent frost from forming on crops such as strawberries. It was soon learned, however, that the company had already illicitly tested the bacterium out-of-doors and had failed to report damage caused by the organism to trees. The Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its permit and fined the company.
Carol Grunewald is an animal rights and environmental activist in Washington DC. She is currently working on a book about politics and the environment.
This special report appeared in the test tube coup - biotech's global takeover issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.