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close this bookLife Industry: Biodiversity, People and Profits (WWF, 1996)
close this folderPart 1 - The tools of control
close this folder2. Science, markets and power
View the document2.1. Changes in the genetic supply industry
View the document2.2. Genetic engineering and biotechnology in industry
View the document2.3. Biodiversity newspeak

2.1. Changes in the genetic supply industry


Whose reality counts?

The history of the genetic supply industry is both fascinating and instructive. The analysis of history can tell us a great deal about the present and the future: seeing where we are coming from can help us see where we are headed. And because our understanding of history materially shapes what we do in the present and how we envision our future, contending interests struggle to shape how history is written. History therefore represents a social struggle.

I recently came across a six-page advertisement in the New York Times, the first page of which read like this:

1944, Bretton Woods . the IMF and the World Bank
1945, San Francisco: the United Nations
1994, Marrakesh: The World Trade Organization
History knows where it's going
It's in Morocco that 124 countries are signing the GATT agreement

Now that's a different view of history from the one I have. The corporate interests that placed the advertisement assert that the International Monetary Fund was just out there waiting to be discovered as part of a natural evolutionary flow, that it's the most natural thing in the world for countries to sign up to GATT and join the 'Marrakesh Express' on a fast track to the future. 'History knows where it's going', they say. But this statement obscures the reality of the struggle through which history is created and written. The people who placed this advertisement want us to believe that their view of the future is the only view.

The advertisement makes the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) look natural and inevitable, just as the pharmaceutical company Monsanto would have us believe genetic engineering is a 'natural science'. But how 'natural? is transferring fish genes into tomatoes, or chicken genes into potatoes?

Taking sides

I don't see history that way. I see it as a social creation, the result of the bump and grind of people with different interests, and with different and often conflicting ideas about what the present and future should look like. The formation of the World Trade Organization was not inevitable. Genetic engineering is not inevitable. In the history of plant breeding there were choices to be made, options that were shut down and paths that weren't pursued. When considering history, there are sides to be taken and it is important to recognize which side you are on. I know which side I am on. I am not on the side of Monsanto, and I am not on the side of the WTO or the North American Free Trade Agreement. I am not on the side of those who want to see this wonderfully diverse world flattened biologically and socially to accommodate the free flow of capital and commodities. I am not on the side of those who would make plants and American Indians raw materials for the gene industry. I am not on the side of those who want to continue to cut up the world and parcel it out for sale. This process must be seen as part of the larger historical process of global commodification in which nothing is sacred and anything can be bought and sold.

Development of the genetic supply industry

A number of constants have supported the development of the global genetic supply industry:

o Commodification of genetic resources. This process of commodification is nothing new - it has been a constant throughout the development of the genetic supply industry.

o Imperialist vision. Northern capitalist nations use military and political force to create and enforce the conditions in which business and intellectual property rights can operate. The projection of military and political power was a precondition for United Fruit's cultivation of bananas in Guatemala in 1935, and it remains a precondition for obtaining oil or genes today. Northern states - acting unilaterally or jointly in international forums such as the WTO continue to use military and political power as the essential foundation for the acquisition of genes.

o Scientific version of the imperialist vision. This is the Northern scientists' assumption that they can go wherever they like and take whatever they wish. The World Was My Garden, is the title that David Fairchild, one of the US Department of Agriculture's principal plant explorers, gave to his autobiography in 1945. The attitude encapsulated in the title of his book continues to pervade scientific attitudes today, as the planet is combed in the name of the twin gods of science and Mammon.

o Simultaneous and complementary appropriation of genetic and cultural information. Access to genetic resources has frequently been facilitated by access to local and indigenous knowledge. It is not just the rainforest, but also Indians and peasants who have something that we want. Methods of extracting information may be kinder and gentler now - trust has often replaced guns as the instrument of persuasion - but neocolonial explorers are still searching the jungles for riches. The end result is the same. Northern corporate interests get what they want.

o Defaulting on the genetic debt Northern industries have realized enormous gains from the genetic and cultural information collected by corporate and academic scientists. The vulnerable, thoroughbred strains of modern agriculture on which the North is dependent are constructed from the germplasm, seeds and tubers produced and reproduced by farmers and indigenous peoples of the South. The same is true for many drugs. The genetic resources gleaned by science and industry are not simply the gift of nature they contain centuries of labour by the people from whom these resources are appropriated. Not only has this labour been uncompensated in the past, it is only recently that it has even begun to he acknowledged. Genetic resources leave the fields of farmers and indigenous peoples as 'common heritage', but once they pass through corporate and academic laboratories they become commodities that must be paid for.

Are plants and Indians becoming raw materials for industry? Of course they are - they have been commodities for centuries already. These five historical constants have assured the supply of these raw materials and shaped the distribution of benefits. The last constant is the only one that may be changing slightly: there are now initiatives afoot to offer cash compensation to the stewards of the South. But does paying them make everything all right?

Trajectories of change

To answer that question we have to look at a number of changing historical trajectories:

o The corporations involved in the extraction of genetic and cultural resources are growing in size and power. Through mergers and buyouts, they are creating more and more powerful entities with an enlarged interest in the control of genetic resources. Seed companies are being consumed by the petrochemical giants. These transnational corporations are looking to expand the reach and breadth of the existing global markets for agricultural and industrial products.

o Through pressure from business interests, intellectual property rights are being continually strengthened. But it has been a hard struggle - it was not inevitable that plants should be patentable. It has taken 100 years of pressure from business to get to where we are today. The struggle continues in GATT and other forums.

o Biological diversity is being lost as the world industrializes. Concern began in the 1970s as Green Revolution seed varieties replaced local varieties. In the 1980s rainforests were the big issue. In the 1990s the focus has broadened out to biodiversity as a whole. Why? Because underpinning the organismic world is the reductionist world of DNA and it is now clear that we are losing diversity just at the point when we can really manipulate it to feed our needs and desires. An advertisement from Pioneer Hi-bred, one of the largest seed companies in the world, asks the question, Biotechnology science or alchemy,' Actually it's troth. The alchemists sought to change base metals into gold: biotechnology turns base life into money. All biodiversity is now seen as being potentially useful and potentially lucrative. Who knows where the cure for cancer lies? So everything must be checked out - insects, bromeliads, marine life, even humans, especially the endangered ones. The DNA molecule has become highly valuable and now forms the trunk of the 'money tree'.

o Conservationists are cutting deals with industry. The anthropocentric and utilitarian rationale of the 'price it to save it' method does not sit well with all conservationists. But increasingly conservation biology is embracing such an approach. In his book, The Diversity of Life, E.O. Wilson talks of 'unmined riches' and describes what he calls the New Environmentalism:

The race is on to develop methods, to draw more income from the wildlands without killing them, and so to give the invisible hand of free-market economics a green thumb.

Whose side is he on? Whose side are you on?

o Genetic resources are being. In the South, states, bureaucrats, scientists, farmers and indigenous people are beginning to realize the potential wealth to he gained from their lost treasure. The tug of war for their share of the benefits began with the Seed Wars at the FAO in the 1970s and has spread to many other forums, such as the Biodiversity Convention.

o Business is now willing to pay for access to genetic information. Companies were not willing to play by their own rules of the market in the past. They preferred piracy to payment. But now they are beginning to see that it is in their own interest to pay for their raw materials and they are making a virtue out of necessity. The pharmaceutical company, Merck and Co, broke into this new territory with its deal in Costa Rica (see p. 100). This is the new model for bioprospecting for the green gold of genetic resources: trilateral deals, contracts for genes, and corporations in control. Ultimately, this is all that the Biodiversity Convention is about. It legitimizes and institutionalizes the status quo: 'What's good for the world is good for industry' is how Genetic Engineering News reported on the drawing up of the Convention. President Clinton's letter of interpretation reduces the treaty to it's essence: that is, 'we'll pay' hut ion mutually agreed terms'.

Bioprospecting is increasingly being embraced by governments, industry and even NGOs as the way ahead. But these deals are characterized by inadequate compensation, inadequate consultation with the stewards of the resources, and the extension of the reach of the global market. I know of no case of bioprospecting that I would regard as just, in the sense of informed consent by all parties and adequate compensation for all parties.

So, what do we have to show for fifteen years of biotechnology research, a trillion dollars of research expenditure by the agricultural biotechnology companies, and countless hours of scientific labour? There is bovine growth hormone, which cost more than $500 million to develop and which is so socially unsustainable that the European Community has taken the unprecedented step of proposing to hen its use on economic grounds. And there is the Flavr Savr, a $25 million genetically-engineered tomato with a mere 3-5 day shelf-life advantage over existing commercial tomato varieties. I have no doubt that industry will eventually have a great many biotechnological products on offer, but developing them is far more difficult and orders of magnitude more expensive than anyone had anticipated. The irony is that we have many examples of sustainable agriculture before us now, hut they are largely ignored as scientists pursue their genetic philosophers' stone. It is time to stop looking for new tools and learn to use well the ones we have already.

Corporate and academic biotechnologists have recently begun to focus on human genetic information as a raw material. The leading journal Science reports on a programme of bioprospecting that targets our own species: 'Geneticists want to collect DNA from such groups as the Arewete. Just 130 members of this tribe remain on the Xingu River in Brazil'. What kind of sensibility is it that would rather have the genes than the people themselves? The $70 million deal that Hoffman la Roche has just agreed with the Millennium company for work on the mapping of the human genome may give us a clue (see Chapter 5). Seeing our own species as a commodity, can we fail to see everything else in the same way? And if the commodity value is low, does that justify the disappearance of that bird, tribe or micro-organism?

Reversing the Imperialist impulse

There are alternatives. Our strategy must be one of reversals (see Chapter 6). The principal challenge before us is to reverse the imperialist impulse. We must start not from the need of the industrialized countries for more productive crop varieties, but from the needs of Southern farmers; not from the need of the industrialized world for drugs, hut from the need of indigenous people to survive.

Achieving such reversals will not be easy. For the 'New Conquistadors', the world is still their garden, and reversals of intellectual property rights are seen as piracy. Observe the vision of the future as portrayed in Monsanto's promotional materials: On a montage of mountains, fields and blue skies, a god-like face peers down through the clouds. Below, it reads 'A new environmental era where the aims of commerce and ecology are integral to a sustainable corporate future'. A recently published article by two Monsanto executives is titled Planetary Patriotism and embraces the notion that treating the environment gently while meeting a growing demand for food 'requires a sustainable agriculture.' But in 1992 Monsanto was the second biggest polluter in the United States. Are they planetary patriots or sophisticated scoundrels?

If you question their patriotism you'll see how fast the corporate fist comes out of the public relations glove. As described in Box 2.1 (page 38) Monsanto is marketing one of the first products of genetic engineering: bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, despite a frosty welcome from many farmers and consumers. A dairy in Iowa decided to label its milk rBGH-free and was immediately sued by Monsanto.

But there are other ways, other choices, other paths than the ones presented by corporations. Until we learn to cherish, preserve and respect each other, we will never learn to do the same for other species.


1. David Fairchild (1945), The World was my Garden: Travels of a plant explorer, New York, Scribners.

2. E.O. Wilson (1992), The Diversity of Life, Harvard Press, Cambridge, MA.