Genetic Engineering and the Patenting of Life

Globalisation spawns Bioexploitation™

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Cover of ‘Is Capitalism Sustainable: Political Economy and the Politics Ecology’, Martin O’Conner (ed). Graphic by Luba Lukova.

Basmati rice, potatoes that glow when “thirsty” and a highland man from Papua New Guinea would seem, on the face of it, to have little in common. In fact, they form part of a rapidly growing group of organisms whose very essence — their DNA — has been patented by corporations seeking to claim private ownership of life itself. The rush to profit from artificially modified plants, animals and, yes, people is as bizarre as it is rapacious. Capitalist biotechnology now threatens to make survival — of human communities and much of the ecosystem — conditional upon returns to shareholders.

While it is marketed as the “solution to world hunger” and “a potential remedy for fatal diseases,” the technology is controlled by a small group of giant corporations, whose clear intention is to seize control of the global food chain and experiment with the health and lives of all of us. Late capitalism is moving to a new, very sinister, level of exploitation.

Selling chemicals. In the world of the chemical monopolies, language is a very flexible tool. Words become their opposites. For example, the inclusion of genes in canola, corn and soya crops which resist the effects of glyphosate poison is said to “reduce” the use of chemicals in agriculture. But it has the opposite effect. As the resistance to poison is increased so is the volume of toxins needed to contain genetically engineered (GE) crops. Worse, no serious research has been permitted by the owners of the “transgenic” species into a phenomenon know as “lateral gene transfer.” It appears that, by some mechanism, possibly insects, the gene for glyphosate resistance can jump from one plant species to another without interbreeding. The chemical companies deny that this occurs, but in Southern Australia a glyphosate-resistant strain of the weed, rye grass, has been detected, despite allegedly “limited” trials of GE canola.

Apart from these practical difficulties, there are fundamental flaws in the theory. It is a statistical certainty that when bacteria and viruses are subjected to a chemical attack, a significant proportion will develop resistance to the poison. This is even true of larger animals. In Australia, both Myxomatosis and Rabbit Calicivirus Disease had a devastating effect upon the feral rabbit population. In fact it was only necessary to introduce Calici because many rabbits had developed immunity to Myxoma. Already some rabbits seem to be showing immunity to the new virus.

“Bt-modified” crops contain a pesticide gene taken from the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Statistically the optimum death rate to promote resistance in a population is to kill off 80% of a population. Sure enough, Bt-cotton kills off 80% of the pests, making it nearly certain that pests will gain immunity from this natural last line of defence.

Even more alarming, a transgenic squash has been developed with an immunity to a virus. We know very little about the ecology of viruses, but we do know that both immunity and susceptibility to viruses will cross between species. Making one plant immune is bad enough if that immunity spreads to a weed. But what about the use of viral material to, say, promote cell division in order to speed up growth? Rapid growth is what makes cancer such a devastating attack on the immune system. So why not, in the interests of “more efficient” farming, introduce a viral cancer gene into a potato crop? Such is the logic of genetic engineering driven by profit.

Never mind the clear risk of permanent harm to ecosystems, the potential to wipe out local food supplies — or the danger of outbreaks of resistant diseases and genetic abnormalities in human populations!

Poisons on the table. Never mind, either, the direct effect of GE foods on human health. Nowhere has there been even the slightest attempt to systematically test for adverse effects of modified organisms on human health. The chemical companies keep their own results secret and invoke their “proprietary” rights to block independent research. Governments could, of course, mandate such testing as a condition of licences. That this hasn’t happened speaks not only to a pro-business bias on the part of regulators. One comes to expect that! It reeks of a high-level system of political lobbying, arm twisting and outright corruption. In Florida, former Fox TV staff are involved in legal action because a program on deaths caused by GE milk was pulled by the network, which fired journalists and production staff after they protested. It is alleged that the chemical cartel leaned directly on Rupert Murdoch or, alternatively, that Murdoch has shares in one or more of the chemical companies and was acting to protect his own interests. Either way, U.S. citizens are prevented from being told that their breakfasts may be deadly. There are other examples. Deaths of people allergic to nuts have been reported after they ate soya products containing a Brazil nut gene. The genetically modified food supplement L-Tryptophan is believed to have caused at least 37 deaths in the U.S. and left 1,500 permanently disabled.

This is the tobacco atrocity all over again — actually and potentially deadly products being peddled as “beneficial” to a public kept totally in the dark about the health consequences of their use. No doubt after millions of deaths and decades of litigation we’ll also discover that these foods were being doctored with additives to make them more attractive — like traces of vanilla and other flavourings in cigarettes.

Creating monsters. In activist circles GE produce is called “frankenfood,” a reference to the fact that we are being subjected to a planet-wide experiment with no thought by the initiators about the consequences. Where this can lead to has been alarmingly demonstrated by the advent of Bovine Spongiform Encepalopathy (BSE or “mad cow disease”). In this case, the engineering was not done in test tubes, but in barns and feedlots. A couple of decades ago, somebody in the meat business decided that it would be more “efficient” to fatten up cattle using feed containing meat such as head remains, crushed bones, brains and spinal cords and, most importantly, sheep deemed unfit for human consumption. The fact that cattle are exclusively vegetarian was not allowed to get in the way of a quicker buck.

A proportion of the sheep were afflicted with the disease Scrapie, which causes a fatal wasting disease of the brain. The cause of this disease is a build-up of mutated proteins called prions, which are found in all mammalian brains. This afflicted the cows, and, tragically, people that ate their meat. The human form of this disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, has already killed hundreds in the British Islands. Thousands more are at risk of developing the brain-wasting illness. It spread to Europe and has been found in Japan, Canada and the U.S. Diseased animals are still ending up on supermarket shelves in North America despite the fact that it is now 100% certain that some of them suffered from BSE at the time of slaughter. Cattle are still being fed with animal products. Why? Because the meat industry is strong in states which will be crucial in this year’s presidential elections. BSE has not been detected in Australia — yet. I gave up eating beef years ago.

The Frankenstein reference is accurate in both senses. Agribusiness is manufacturing organisms which are often grotesque and “unnatural” in fundamental ways. Again, searching for quicker returns on investments, there was a “superpig” supposed to mature much more rapidly than normal because it was manufactured with a gene which coded for human growth hormone. The poor beastie was impotent, arthritic, blind and full of ulcers. A “supersalmon” was made with growth genes from another fish. Its misshapen head meant that it couldn’t see, feed and ultimately breathe, and it soon died.

Cloning has been touted as an easy means to replicate successful bloodlines in farm animals. It’s nothing of the sort. Because the animals are cloned from mature specimens, they are deficient in an enzyme crucial to cell division. Most are born dead and all are doomed to die early, and to suffer early onset of diseases such as arthritis. Dolly the sheep looked cute, but she was a monster nevertheless. Animal cloning continues, and some real-life Frankensteins want to clone humans, a technology which must be strongly resisted. Experiments of this nature on people are far too dangerous, and the potential consequences unbelievably cruel. In fact animal cloning should also be halted for its cruelty. One day it may be possible to produce genetically identical organisms. But where it’s being done for profit, it’s being done recklessly.

Biopiracy. The term Trade Related Intellectual Property sounds like common bureaucrat-ese. In fact it’s a legal term for a key part of the neoliberal globalisation system administered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Abbreviated to TRIPs, claims for intellectual property have been made over many plants used by Indigenous peoples for millennia. In the late ’90s, a U.S. company, RiceTec, was granted a patent, 5663484, in support of having “invented” Basmati rice, giving specific details about the height of plants, the length of grains, the aroma when cooked etc. It was an outrageous grab for the benefits of thousands of years of development by Indian farmers, specifically women, to cultivate the best varieties and to perfect yields. After a huge struggle by Indian farmers, the patent was largely struck down, although RiceTec still has a patent on three specific Basmati varieties. It is able to do this because U.S. patent rules do not recognise customary use, particularly outside the United States. It’s as if the rest of the world is Terra Nullius. Unless some person can demonstrate prior private ownership over an idea or practice, it can be claimed as an “invention” by anybody in the U.S. who can fill in a form! It’s only slightly better in other Western jurisdictions such as Europe and Australia.

This is only one example of the use of the imperialist patent system to rip off traditional technologies, medicines and cultural practices. Native American clans who agreed to give blood samples for disease research to a single university were shocked to discover it being traded between institutions across the world. In their belief system it was as if they themselves were being bought and sold. It’s not an isolated case — Pacific Islander peoples have had the same thing happen to them, leading to a claim of “intellectual property rights” over some of the properties of their blood.

Seeds of destruction. “Terminator” is not only the title of a sci-fi movie series. It’s Monsanto’s proprietary name for a gene which prevents plants from setting viable seed. Other chemical companies have similar technologies. While the logic of capitalism means that everything in the natural world can be turned into a commodity, the premise of the Terminator project is extremely sinister. It’s aimed squarely at destroying traditional farming practices, particularly in poor countries.

The strategy is this: Members of the chemical cartel take out patents on staple foods (like basmati rice!), then institute a licencing system on the seeds. The licences need not be expensive, but just enough to form the basis of an intellectual property claim which can then be used under WTO rules to coerce a country to recognise and enforce the licence system. This has already happened in India. The next stage is to jack up the licence fee to a point where it begins to hurt. Run a test case in the local courts to make your intellectual property claim stick.  Finally, introduce your GE Terminator seeds at a generous discount to the natural variety. Pretty soon you have a near monopoly over the local production of the staple food. Then, of course, you can ratchet up the price of the GE seeds.

If this sounds like a conspiracy theory there’s a lot of evidence that the large chemical companies are in cahoots, such as the  large number of legal cases over price-fixing of vitamin supplements. It’s also closely analogous to what the car, tyre and oil companies did to destroy the tram systems in many countries and particularly in North America.

Monsanto and the other Gene Giants claim to have shelved the Terminator project. Unless they’ve engineered a flying pig, that has to be a lie. Potentially, the whole scheme is much too profitable to be stopped just because people object to it. Add to this the potential for economic control and the temptation is too great. Trade deals could be made to stick through the threat of food shortages. The locals elect a hostile government? No problem, just withhold seeds until they come to their senses.

Women held to ransom. Claims of ownership over human genetic material are perhaps the most perverse and disturbing aspect of the globalised biotech industry. A case in point is the granting of patents on breast cancer genes to Myriad Genetics. The genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, are important indicators for a predilection to developing cancer. The granting of this patent was a green light for the rapacious company to rampage around the world trying to impose licence fees from public institutions using the common test for the gene. This threatened to make a vital early warning too expensive for most women and to end testing in all public institutions. But it was an example of Biopiracy — much of the work in identifying the genes was done in European public institutions. Many public institutions were already using the so-called invention. A huge outcry went up in Europe, Canada and elsewhere. As a result of this, Cancer Research UK was granted a Europe-wide patent BRCA2 in February and promptly granted a free licence to publicly-owned laboratories. Then in May, the European Patent Office revoked Myriad’s patent because Myriad had not invented anything. This was a great victory for women’s health across the world.

Resistance grows. Recently, two members of the chemical cartel, Monsanto and Bayer, suspended all GE work in Australia, citing legal obstacles put in place by state governments sensitive to widespread public opposition to GE foods. In New Zealand a majority of people want to maintain the country’s reputation for natural food production. From Dublin to Tokyo and even in the U.S. itself, public alarm has led to restrictions of imports of GE foods that are beginning to hurt the Gene Giants and pose a threat to U.S. agriculture. The impoverished central African country of Zambia even refuses to accept U.S. food aid because its government will not tolerate GE contamination of its precarious agricultural sector.

Much of the resistance seems to be as a result of the BSE disaster, but there’s a fairly natural revulsion to anybody meddling with food. GE foods are perceived as tainted, even poisoned. Many of them are. In fact, without a strict scientific system of testing, all of these products should be treated with deep suspicion. But not because the technology is intrinsically suspect. In Cuba, for example, the state-controlled biotech industry has developed vaccines for some head, neck, breast and lung cancers, Meningococcal Disease and Hepatitis B. It’s just that, from asbestos to tobacco to DDT and Thalidomide, the chemical companies have been all too willing to maim and kill people in the interests of maximising profits.

Not inevitable. Capitalism and democracy have always been in contradiction. Minority private control of public wealth — created by the vast majority of the population — is profoundly anti-democratic. Globalisation itself is not new. Capitalism was founded upon the plunder of less powerful nations by the tiny ruling classes of the powerful few. Imperialism achieved world hegemony by the beginning of last century. What is new is the consolidation of monopoly control of the global economy in conjunction with technologies which, in the absence of public supervision, make the imposition of a global dictatorship feasible. But not unavoidable.

What is needed is a rejuvenation of the global anti-corporate resistance movement, but with an explicit anti-capitalist leadership. Another Earth is possible, one where technology is put to use for the genuine enrichment of all of humanity. Where the point of biotechnical research is to eradicate disease and to free billions from precarious subsistence farming. No technology is a threat if we use it to collectively manage the planet as a sustainable resource, rather than a quarry and a garbage dump.

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