|Biotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)|
When I was about to finish this book, and in the process of the final checking of language, footnotes, sources and other little details, I allowed myself to escape a few days from the solitude of writing and accepted an invitation from the European Parliament to address a hearing on the patenting of life forms. I admit that I was not thoroughly prepared. Most of the preparations for my talk in Brussels took place in a cramped airplane seat on a flight that took less than two hours. Still, some of the reactions to my talk, in which I pointed to the negative implications of life patents, were breathtaking. Especially revealing were the reactive comments from the representatives of the European Commission. Berthold Schwab, leading the Commission's crusade for life patents, tried to convince the Parliament with arguments I thought nobody dared to use anymore. 'If we want to prevent half of the [world's] population from dying of starvation in the coming century, then we obviously cannot reach that objective with biological methods only', he exclaimed when reacting to comments that questioned some of the bright promises of biotechnology for developing countries. 'Of course, if you say we accept that several billion people are going to starve to death as a result of not accepting the patent system, then that is a position the European Commission cannot support', was his response to those criticizing the patenting of life forms.
On the plane back to Barcelona, I was not quite sure what to think. While the other invited experts who addressed the hearing had probably gone home with the firm conviction never to go back to Brussels again, I was still reflecting on the hysterical reactions from officials of a Commission which is supposed to be preparing the future of several hundred millions of Europeans. If pronounced by a speaker from any public interest group they would have definitely destroyed the credibility and fundraising potential of that organization in a flash.
The mere exclamation that we need biotechnology - and patents to promote it - as the only solution to the world's problems is still a message that many want to hear. When starting to write this book I was wondering whether the arguments against this view, written so many years ago, in which I insisted that biotechnology is not a solution but merely a tool, had not now become superfluous. One day's visit to Europe's future decision making body convinced me that such a message is still needed, especially for those who have the power to decide.
This book will undoubtedly be seen by some as biased. Maybe it is, in that it does focus more on the structural changes that the big-revolution is provoking, than on the individual improvements that the new biotechnologies might bring to the farmer's field. Its analysis of how the technology is being controlled by industrialized countries and their corporations, and being used to transform the input and the output of today's agriculture to the detriment of the poor in the South, might be considered by some as too pessimistic. I sincerely hope it is, but I am not convinced.
What is perhaps most disturbing in the current approach of the new biotechnologists is the lack of recognition of the impressive contributions that the 'original' biotechnologists are already making. Throughout the book I have argued that these contributions should be taken as a starting point for scientific research, rather than its products just being taken as a basic raw material. Nevertheless, just as there are dangers in painting bright pictures of the potential of the new biotechnologies for the world's poor, romanticizing the practices of subsistence farmers should also be eschewed. Science - and biotechnology - can and should contribute together to the improvement of such farming systems, provided that the parameters of research are set on the basis of the local situation and in collaboration with farmers and their communities. This necessarily means that the resulting solutions will often be primarily of local significance, rather than automatically applicable at the global level.
Schwab's statement that the world's food problems are beyond solution with current biological techniques is an intriguing one. It insinuates that biotechnology is something separate from biology. It assumes that we now have this something much better than the good old life sciences. Most of all, it represents the viewpoint that universal solutions should be found for global problems. It was precisely this approach that made David Ehrenfeld, writing for New Scientist, exclaim:
This is the age of generality; diversity is out of style. In biology, diversity held its own until the formulation of the central dogma of molecular biology: DNA makes RNA protein. From then diversity makes its descent into the second rate and the second class.'
Yet, today more than ever, the fourth resource and its diversity form the crucial cornerstone for survival. A biotechnology that expands on such diversity, rather than diminishing it, would be the type of tool welcome to farmers and consumers everywhere. Much of the outcome of the bio-revolution will depend on whether the public in general, and public institutions in particular, will retain or recover a voice in priority setting. Biotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture was written with the conviction that this is something worth fighting for.
Notes and references
1. Quoted in B. Edehnan, M A. Hermitte (eds), 'L'Homme, la nature et le droit', Christian Bourgeois Editeur, 1988, pp. 282-3.