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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.

2.2. Genetic engineering and biotechnology in industry


Broadly defined, biotechnology refers to any technique which uses living organisms to make or modify a product. It includes the spectrum of new and old technologies, from the beer-brewing techniques developed by the Sumerians in the Middle East in 7000 BC to the high-tech gene transfer techniques that graft chicken genes into potatoes today. Traditional biotechnologies are used in the production of many common foodstuffs, such as cheese, salami, yoghurt, beer and bread. These all rely on the addition of genetic material in the form of living organisms (bacteria or yeasts) to milk or grains in order to transform them into new products.

Commercial biotechnology today comprises a range of different techniques including tissue culture, cell fusion, enzyme and fermentation technology, embryo transfer and, increasingly, genetic engineering. The techniques make it possible to modify more and more profoundly the process of life itself. The history of the new biotechnologies is a short one, born in university laboratories and public research institutions, and only transported to the corporate sector in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, industry's brief involvement has had a fundamental impact on the priorities and direction of agricultural and medical research around the world, and it is also set to change the nature of production systems for a vast number of essential products such as foods, chemicals and medicines.

Tubocurarine, an important muse/e relaxant drug used in open heart surgery, is derived from the curare vine from the South American rainforest. (WWF/Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Genetic diversity has always been a key raw material in agricultural and medical research. At least 7000 medical compounds in the Western pharmacopoeia are derived from plants, and plant-derived products account for a conservative estimate of $40-50000 million in pharmaceutical sales globally. Roughly one-half of the gains in US agricultural yields from 1930 to 1980 can be attributed to genetic diversity's contribution to crop breeding activities. But whereas previously only close relatives of crops could be used in breeding programmes, now the genes from the world's entire genetic pool can be used.

The pharmaceutical industry

Natural products are hack in fashion in the pharmaceutical industry. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, the development of more efficient screening techniques has increased 100-fold the speed with which chemicals can be tested. Although only about one in 10 000 chemicals yields a potentially valuable 'lead', these new techniques have made large natural product screening programmes affordable. Secondly, companies have realized that by tapping into the traditional medicinal knowledge of indigenous communities they can greatly increase the probability of finding a commercially valuable drug and thus dramatically reduce research costs. And thirdly, there is a growing demand in industrialized countries for 'natural' medicines.

Recent policy decisions made by the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) give an indication of the importance now attached to medicinal plants. In 1980, NCI suspended a 20-year programme of collecting medicinal plants. In 1986, it renewed and enlarged the programme when the opportunities presented by the new biotechnologies became apparent. Between then and the end of 1992 the NCI paid for the collection of 23 000 plant samples of 7000 species, almost all of which came from the South. Table 2.1 outlines some of the main actors and their current bioprospecting interests.

One of the fastest-growing applications of genetic engineering is gene therapy, which involves manipulating a person's genetic makeup for therapeutic purposes. Along with plants and animals, human genes are now an important resource for industry (see Chapter 5). Two-thirds of all biotechnology companies are focusing on the medical applications of biotechnology, and only one in 10 is applying biotechnology to food and agriculture. Nevertheless, the application of biotechnology to food and farming is likely to have a much more profound impact on people's livelihoods, lifestyles and the environment than other applications of biotechnology, at least in the medium term.

Table 2.1. Selected companies and their bioprospecting activities


What collecting?


Use of indigenous knowledge/people or territories

Additional information

American Cyanamid

Arid land plants for crop protection agents and pharm. R&D

Mexico, Chile, Argentina

Priority given to plants with rich ethnobotanical background

ICBG agreement with: Uni. of Arizona, Institute of Biol. Resources of Buenos Aires, National Univ. of Patagonia, Catholic Uni. Of Chile, National University of Mexico, Purdue Uni., Louisiana State University

AMEAD Corp. (American R&D Consortium)

Drug discovery from marine organisms


Collaborating with Australian Inst. of Marine Science

Pharmaceuticals (USA)

Drug development from plants

Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador

Uses indigenous knowledge, specific collecting areas unknown

Claims intention to name individual healers as co-inventors on patents and will look for ways to compensate indig. Communities through representative orgs. when knowledge collectively held

Boehringer Ingelheim

Plants, microbes

Agreements with Uni. of Illinois and NY Botanic Garden to obtain plants

Bristol Myers Squibb

Insects and related species

Costa Rica dry tropical forests

US govt.-supported ICBG agreement with InBio and Uni. of Costa Rica

Rainforest plants esp. Ancistorciadus (for anti-HIV activity) and anti - malarials

Cameroon (Korup) and Nigeria (Oban Hills)

Ethnobotanical info. from traditional medical practices will be used to prioritize plant collection

US govt.-supported ICBG agreements

Fungi, microbes, plants, marine organisms

Ranked 2nd largest Pharm. co. in the US.
Contracts with third parties to collect specimens, incl. Scripps Institute and Oncogen

Rainforest plants for drug devt; non- medicinal plants for sust. Harvest


Uses of plants by indig. people to be documented.
Specific terms of benefit-sharing agreement not made public. Cl will set up 'Shamans Apprentice' prog. & inc. people fund

US. govt-sponsored ICBG agreement with Virginia Polytechnic and State Uni. Of Blacksburg, Missouri Botanical Garden, National Herbarium of Surinam, Bedrijf Geneesmiddelen & Conservation International (Cl)

Glaxo Group (UK)

Plants, fungi, microbes, marine organisms

Asia, Latin America, poss. Elsewhere

Materials obtained from Kew Royal Botanic
Gdns, Biotics Ltd. Uni. of Illinois, National Cancer Institute, contracts with Carnivore Preservation Trust to collect plants in Laos

Johnson & Johnson (USA)

Novel chemical compounds

Funds chemical prospecting at Cornell Uni. and training of Southern scientists in prospecting

Magainain Pharmaceuticals (USA)

African reptiles, marine fish and organisms

Developing human drugs from African clawed frog and antibiotic steroid from dogfish shark

Marine Biotechnology Institute (Japan)

Marine organisms


Consortium of Japanese govt. and 21 Japanese Corporations

Maxus Ecuador, Inc. (subsid. Of Maxus Petroleum, USA)

1200 plant species gathered, 18 new to world

Ecuador- primary trop. Rainforest

Plant collection and inventory traverses Yasuni Natl. Park and Waorani ethnic reserve

Contracts w/ Missouri Botanic Garden for plant collection & inventory during construction of 120-km road in tropical moist forest continued over

Merck and Co.

Fungi, microbes, marine orgs., plants

Latin America

Indig. knowledge from Urueu-wau-wau of Brazil; holds patent on anticoagulant derived from their plant material

Major pharmaceutical corp. Contracts with NY Botanic Gardens, MYCOSearch; high- profile contract with InBio (Costa Rica)

Parcelsian Inc. & Pacific Liaisons (USA)

Plants, food


Focusing on traditional medicinal plants

Pacific Liaisons has provided ,1000 samples of bad. Chinese medicinal compounds to major US p'ceutical co. Will launch in-house screening

Pfizer, Inc. (USA)



Plant collection based partly on existing ethno-botanical leads

3-yr, $2 million research in collate. with NYBG

Pharmaco-genetics (USA)

Natural products for drug development

Latin America

Hopes to rely entirely on leads for indig. people. Interest in developing line of cosmetics based on indig. people's products

Founded 1993; partly owned by non-profit Pan American Development Foundation that works with rural and indigenous groups in Latin America. Will use these connections to organize plant collection and identification activities

PharmaMar (Spain)

Bioactive marine materials for AIDS and cancer


PharmaMar researchers travel aboard the ships of Pescanova, one of the largest fishing fleets in the world

Adapted from Pirating Indigeneous Plants, RAFI and Indigenous Peoples 'Biodiversity Nework, RAFI Occasional Paper Series Vol. 1, No. 4, November 1 994

Genetic engineering in agriculture

Genetic engineering speeds up dramatically the process of breeding for desirable traits in plants and animals - improvements that would take up to 20 years in conventional breeding can be achieved almost overnight. It also enables the creation of life-forms that would never come into existence in nature, as genes from completely different species can be exchanged and transplanted (see Table 2.2). In this way, genetic engineering provides us with the means not just to accelerate evolution, but to supersede it altogether.

Table 2.2. Sources of new genes in transgenic crops


Source of new genes

Purpose of engineering



Increased disease resistance

Giant silk moth

Increased disease resistance

Greater waxmoth

Reduced bruising damage


Increased disease resistance


Herbicide tolerance



Reduced insect damage


Introduction of marker genes


Herbicide tolerance



Reduced freezing damage


Increased disease resistance


Reduced insect damage


Chinese hamster

Increased sterol production


Bean, Pea

New storage proteins


Reduced insect damage

Melon, Cucumber, Squash


Increased disease resistance


Brazil nut

Introduction of new storage proteins



Production of oral vaccine against cholera



Increased disease resistance



Information compiled from applications to the US Department of Agriculture to field test engineered plants (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1993)

The first genetically engineered foods are just beginning to enter our lives. Scientists have succeeded in producing engineered versions of most of the world's major food and fibre crops - including rice, potato, soybean, corn and cotton - as well as numerous fruits, vegetables and trees. More than 60 plant species have been engineered in this way, most of which have moved from the laboratory to the field testing stage, and are now starting to reach the market place. In May 1994, the first of these, a genetically engineered rot-resistant tomato, was launched into US supermarkets. In spring 1994, the first commercial transgenic organism entered European markets: a herbicide-resistant tobacco plant.

It's not just crops and fruits that are the focus of new age biotechnology. Genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which increases milk production in cows, was approved in the US in 1993. While the milk produced has been judged safe for humans, the health impact on the cows can be significant (see Box 2.1).

These first product launches illustrate the priorities of research and development in biotechnology. These were: a delayed ripening tomato that benefits food processing and transportation firms rather than consumers; a growth hormone that has a serious deleterious effect on animal health; and a tobacco plant that encourages increased use of a weed killer known to be a health hazard to plants, animals and humans.

Research priorities in the agrochemical industry

Biotechnology is often touted as promising tremendous benefits in the form of healthier food and low-chemical agriculture, and even as the solution to the problem of world hunger. Through genetic engineering, plants can be made to fix nitrogen, thereby reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers, and to protect themselves against the pests that plague them, thereby removing the need for environmentally-damaging chemical pesticides. Food crops engineered to be more drought-resistant could improve food security in arid regions.

While some investment is going into these potentially useful fields, research priorities appear to be skewed away from the needs of the environment, farmers and consumers, and geared heavily towards corporate interests. So far, the lion's share of genetic engineering activity in crops is devoted to the production of crops tolerant to chemical weed killers, technically known as herbicides. Between 1986 and 1992, 57% of field trials of transgenic crops were for herbicide resistance. Such crops can withstand both high doses and new kinds of chemicals, which is likely to lead to increased rather than decreased herbicide use in agriculture.

Not surprisingly, chemical companies and their collaborators are the major sponsors of this work. For example, the US biotech company, Calgene, in collaboration with the multinational chemical company Rhone-Poulenc, is seeking US approval to market cotton genetically engineered to be resistant to Rhone-Poulenc's herbicide bromoxynil. Ordinary cotton is killed by the herbicide, which also causes birth defects in animals and has been classified as a developmental toxicant for humans. Widespread adoption of this new cotton could double or triple the current use of bromoxynil in US agriculture alone.

The agrochemical industry feels an urgent need to boost sales, which reached $25 200 million worldwide in 1992. In 1992 only Monsanto, Du Pont and American Cyanamid could boast an increase in sales over 1991.7 In 1993, only four of the top ten companies saw any sales growth (see Table 2.3). The slowing of sales growth has been attributed to recession, increased research costs due to increased environmental controls over product development, and farm policy reforms in the North. Consequently, companies are looking to the rest of the world, and Asia in particular, to boost their foundering profits.

Aside from herbicide-tolerance, other applications include reducing food-processing costs, improving the transportability and increasing the shelf life of foods, and improving pest resistance. Selecting for processing traits follows traditional plant breeding down the path that has brought us tough but tasteless tomatoes and apples that today dominate the grocery shelves. Even the more laudable pursuit of pest resistance, which offers potential benefits to both farmers and consumers, can create more problems than it solves, as illustrated by the case of Bt toxin (Box 2.2). The introduction of Bt toxin genes into plants took several years and cost between $1.5 and $3 millions. In early 1995 the US granted limited registration for genetically-engineered Bt corn, cotton and potatoes. Yet the future of Bt toxin is already being threatened by the very feature that makes it so effective.

Table 2.3. Global agrochemical sales and ranking of the top ten companies, 1993

1993 Ranking Company

1993 Sales

% Change

% Change


($ million)



1 (1) Ciba Geigy




2 (4) Du Pont




3 (2) Zeneca (ICI)


- 4.3


4 (6) Monsanto




5 15) Bayer


- 6.8


6 (3) Rhone-Poulenc




7 (7) DowElanco




8 (8) Hoechst




9 (9) BASF


- 3.0

- 14.7

10 (10) Am. Cyanamid




Sources: AGROW No 214, August 19, 1994; Seedling, December 1993

Pest resistance may be a useful application for genetic engineering, but there are often better ways of accomplishing the same goal: working with nature is often more effective than trying to stamp on it. This is the foundation on which agroecology is built. The agroecological approach addresses the health and dynamism of the whole farming ecosystem, rather than focusing on the output of a particular crop or attacking a single pest. Its strategy is defined by closely examining the relationships between the different elements, living and non-living, of the ecosystem and following a path that achieves the productive ends desired without compromising or unbalancing the ecosystem.

Agroecology encourages the use of techniques such as intercropping and integrated pest management, which do not aim to eradicate pests altogether, but to keep their populations low or to tempt them away to a more appealing food source. Crop rotations and intercropping may, for example, be more effective in controlling a range of pests by breaking the cycles through which they achieve destructive population levels. Rotations are effective against a wide range of pests, whereas chemical pesticides and genetic manipulations tend to be pest-specific, requiring a complex cocktail of elements to protect a plant fully. The agroecological and biotechnological approaches to agriculture are summarized in Table 2.4.

Table 2.4. Biodiversity as a productive force: two agendas



Agroecosystem design

Pests and diseases

Single-gene resistance; engineered bio pesticides

Genetic diversity; indigenous varieties; intercropping, insecticidal plants; crop rotation


Pesticide-tolerant genes

Early soil coverage; intercropping; cover crops; allelopathic crops

Plant nutrients

Engineered nitrogen-fixing crops and microbes

Soil conservation techniques; multiple cropping with legumes; integrated animal and crop agriculture (dung); composing; green manure


Yield increase for monocropping

Polycropping; one crop for multiple functions; use of associated crops and animals(weeds, fish, snails, etc.)

Feeding the world

Biotechnology is often presented as the answer to feeding the world's burgeoning population. But very little research and field testing is allocated to meeting this challenge. Given the expensive nature of the technology, this is not surprising. Biotechnology companies cannot develop products for people who cannot pay for them: most of the world's hungry are too poor to buy traditionally produced crops, let alone biotech's designer collection.

One partial solution is to provide developing countries with the genetic engineering tools they need to create their own transgenic crops. This approach is being considered by the parties to the Biodiversity Convention as a way of compensating the South for the contribution of its genetic heritage to the benefit of Northern countries, companies and consumers. Agreeing terms and conditions of such exchanges is a great challenge, however, and industry is likely to try to ensure that it retains a strong influence in the application of such technologies and to share the benefits that derive from them.

In 1992, Monsanto gave Mexican scientists virus-resistant genes from potatoes for introduction into local potato varieties. The agreement was made on the condition that the transgenic potatoes were only to be sold for consumption in Mexico, where potatoes are a small part of the diet. According to Monsanto, We are aiming to help the subsistence farmer to feed his family - they don't export potatoes, they eat them. We wanted to leave the door open for us to participate in the marketplace with Mexican farmers who are in it for profit.

Given the limited interest shown by companies and universities in crops that would help Southern communities, genetic engineering is likely to play a minor role, at best, in the coming crisis of food production. The resources available for research into crops like cassava and sorghum will continue to be small compared to those devoted to corn, cotton and soybeans. Many of the IARCs are struggling to decide how many of their resources should be devoted to genetic engineering techniques, given the high investments required which can often be made only at the expense of other areas of research. At IRRI, for instance, four new biotech laboratories are being set up to work specifically on rice. Bt toxin is a major focus of research, but some staff fear that the toxin may not ultimately be useful in farmers' fields because of the resistance problems described in Box 2.2 (p. 44). Critics argue that Bt research is being undertaken widely in the public and private research arenas, and that IRRI would be better advised to examine ecological approaches to rice-stem borer control, which are largely being ignored.

Even where research does yield new varieties of crops that show promise for Southern farmers, productivity is only one factor in the complicated equation of world hunger. Trade, agricultural subsidies and unsustainable agricultural practices are also important causes of hunger. Developing higher-yielding crops without addressing these other issues will ultimately have little impact.

According to the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, 'The notion that the products of genetic engineering can somehow single-handedly solve the problems of world hunger is a dangerous misconception. Genetic engineering may have a role to play in meeting the challenge of world hunger, but it will not serve as a technological 'fix' nor compensate for decades of environmental abuse and misguided agriculture.'

Another consequence of commercial biotechnology is the dissection of organisms into their genetic components and their removal from the natural world altogether. There is increasing interest in transferring the production of commodities from the fields, forests and plantations of the South to the laboratories of the North. This has two major ramifications. Firstly, it reduces the perceived value of the indigenous plant or crop, reducing the need for its conservation, which has broader implications for biodiversity as a whole. Secondly, it shuts down important export markets for Southern commodities, thus threatening the livelihoods of millions of plantation workers and farmers. Commercial production of the West African sweetener, thaumatin, is a good example of the impact such production switches can have, at least in the short term. Likewise, commercial production of vanilla may before long eliminate the need for both the vanilla orchid and the vanilla farmer. There is a wide variety of high-value plant-derived products that could be affected in this way. Calgene has engineered a variety of rape-seed (canola) which contains a high content of laurate, a fatty acid used in the manufacture of soaps and detergents. The traditional sources of laurate are palm kernel and coconut oils, which are an important export for Southeast Asian nations. Thus these countries may soon start to lose income they depend on. Farmers in the state of Georgia in the USA are already growing the first commercial transgenic rape-seed crop.

In some cases, however, given the ever-decreasing prices of (and diminishing returns from) the major commodities like sugar, cocoa and coffee, exclusion from the global market could be a blessing in disguise for Southern countries. This situation could provide an opportunity to redirect food production strategies towards meeting local needs, rather than overloading the North's dinner plate.

It is not just Southern farmers' livelihoods that are threatened by biotechnology. If industrial agriculture follows its current course, Northern farmers will also be threatened as food production shifts to laboratories. Huge industrial vats of bacterial soup producing sugars, oils and cellulose are already providing the raw materials for the synthetic food industry, while research focuses on new 'food alchemy', the packaging of industrial chemicals into mouth-watering delicacies, and exploring the 'gustatory perception of smell' or taste. Instead of global markets for maize, cocoa, coconut oil or soybeans, we will soon be dealing with market prices for starches, oils and proteins.

Environmental risks of transgenic crops

Genetically engineered crops are not necessarily inherently dangerous, but the introduction of new traits (such as resistance to cold, drought, etc.) through genetic engineering will necessarily result in unpredictable interactions with the environment into which the plant is introduced. Transgenic plants are likely to be less predictable than those produced by traditional breeding techniques, because the genes introduced are from a completely different species rather than from a related variety. New genes may not be subject to the same mutual constraints as those that have evolved as a group.

Another risk arises from the nature of the new trait introduced. Many transgenes control traits that are ecologically advantageous to plants. Resistance to cold, disease or herbicides enables plants to overcome obvious limits on population growth, which can affect the balance of the local ecosystem. In addition, transgenes producing toxins may affect a wider target audience than desired. For example, a genetically engineered plant virus containing a scorpion-derived toxin gene is being field tested in the UK. It is intended to kill the cabbage white butterfly larva, but its host range is known to be wide, and includes rare and protected moth and butterfly species.

New genes introduced into a plant are subject to the normal rules of genetic drift that occur in the process of natural selection and reproduction. And since the introduced traits tend to be determined by one or two genes (reflecting biotechnology's current limitations), they can readily be transmitted into wild populations. Thus, the new genes join the gene flows that occur throughout the whole ecosystem in which the plant lives.

Movement of these genes into wild relatives of crop plants with which the crop can cross-fertilize is almost bound to occur. Many of the genes introduced will come from animals and micro-organisms which would never have found their way into plants by natural processes. Currently the impact of this on ecosystems is extremely poorly appreciated or understood.

Health risks of genetic engineering

Some genetically engineered organisms are made with viral or transposon vectors that have been artificially modified to become less species-specific. Since viruses and transposons can cause or induce mutations, there is concern that enhanced vectors could be carcinogenic to humans, domestic animals and wild animals. There are also fears that once-familiar foods may become allergenic or metabolically destabilizing through genetic engineering. Allergenic effects could he carried by the transgene or be stimulated by imbalances in the chemistry of the host plant or organism. Strong evidence for a causal link has already been observed in the US and other countries related to an epidemic of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). By June 1992, 1512 cases and 38 deaths had been reported. This disease is caused by a hyper-sensitivity reaction of the immune system which appears to have been linked to ingestion of a batch of genetically engineered L-tryptophan, an amino acid found naturally in various foods.

Innocent until proven guilty

Assessing the risks of releasing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is extremely difficult since the flow of novel plant, animal and microbial genes into agricultural and wild ecosystems defies any natural processes. Following historical legal precedents, regulation favours placing the burden of proof on proving the harmful impact of GMOs rather than their benignity. Many NGOs argue that the burden of proof should be reversed for GMOs because the stakes are so high. Unlike faulty computers or washing machines, GMOs cannot be recalled if they go wrong. Past experiences with cases like DDT and thalidomide do not engender strong faith in leaving risk assessment in the hands of industry.

Moving towards a biosafety protocol

Since the mid-1980s, most industrialized countries have adopted regulations concerning the safe handling and use of genetically engineered organisms. Some, such as the US, simply adapted their regulatory framework by adjusting it to the special risks linked with the new genetic engineering techniques. Others, like the European Union and most of its member states, established new laws covering the contained use as well as the deliberate release of GMOs. In the South, however, biosafety regulation is virtually non-existent. As a consequence, an increasing number of companies from the US and Europe are choosing to conduct releases of GMOs in countries which have no regulations in place (see Table 2.5). For example, Calgene tested its 'Flavr Savr' tomato in Mexico and Chile, and insecticide-producing cotton plants in South Africa. Monsanto conducted field trials of its genetically engineered soybean in Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Argentina and Belize. As can be seen from Table 2.5, the products being tested do not deal with the pressing problems of agriculture in those countries.

Table 2.5. Field with transgenic plants in Latin America (1980 92)





No. of trials




Asgrow (USA)



Virus resistance

Puerto Rico

Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance



Calgene (USA)



Long shelf life

Puerto Rico

Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance






Bt insect tolerance



Calgene (USA)



Herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance

Ciba-Geigy (CH)



Marker gene

Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance

Dominic. Rep.

Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance

Costa Rica

Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance


Calgene (USA)



Long shelf Iife





Calgene (USA)



Herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance

Puerto Rico

Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance



Calgene (USA)



Herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance

Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance

Ciba-Geigy (CH)



Marker gene


Sugar beet





Bt insect resistance and long shelf life





Virus resistance

Calgene (USA)



Long shelf life

Costa Rica

Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance



Herbicide tolerance



Herbicide tolerance

Puerto Rico

Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance


Monsanto (USA)



Herbicide tolerance



Herbicide tolerance



Herbicide tolerance


Univ of Venezuela/



Cold tolerance


Source: Seedling., Dec. 1994, after Jaffe (1993)

Only two developing countries, India and the Philippines, have any sort of biosafety system in place. Such a regulatory void can lead to biotechnological colonialism, whereby Southern lands are used to carry out field tests in conditions that would never be allowed in the North. Simply extending the regulations from the North to the South is not enough, because the impact of GMOs depends on the agroecological environment. Genetically engineered cold-tolerant potatoes may be approved in the US if it can he shown that there is no danger of gene flow to wild relatives. By contrast, the presence of many local varieties and sexually compatible wild potato relatives in Peru (a centre of diversity for potatoes) means that transgenes are more likely to move from the engineered crop to wild relatives.

The need for internationally harmonized safety regulations was recognized in the Biodiversity Convention. An expert panel appointed to address the issue recommended the adoption of a legally binding instrument. A few developed country representatives, led by the US, opposed the creation of any protocol, adopting the industry position that such action should be based on 'sound scientific evidence' rather than what they consider to be 'misrepresentations and distortions'. The vast majority of countries, however, strongly supported the development of a biosafety protocol.

At the second meeting of the Biodiversity Convention's Conference of the Parties, in late 1995, Northern delegations were pushing to limit the protocol to dealing with 'transboundary transfer of LMOs [living modified organisms],' while Southern delegations were in favour of a protocol on biosafety in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of LMOs. It was agreed that there would be a biosafety protocol and, although the precise terms of reference were still to be determined, it appeared that the North had won out. The conference called for a negotiation process to develop in the field of safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms, a protocol on biosafety, specifically focusing on transboundary movement of any LMO resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effect on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.


1. UNDP (1994): Conserving Indigenous Knowledge. New York.

2. Reid, W.V., Laird, S.A. et al. (1993). A New Lease on Life. In: Biodiversity Prospecting (Eds Reid, Laird et al.). World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.

3. Office of Technology Assessment (1987). Technologies to Maintain Biological Diversity. Washington, D.C. US Congress, US Government Printing Office.

4. McChesney, J. (1992). Biological Diversity, Chemical Diversity and the Search for New Pharmaceuticals. Paper presented at the Symposium on Tropical Forest Medical Resources and the Conservation of Biodiversity, Rainforest Alliance, New York, January 1992.

5. UNDP (1994). Conserving Indigenous Knowledge. New York.

6. Rissler, J. and Mellon, M. (1993) Perils Amidst the Promise- Ecological Risks of Transgenic Crops in a Global Market. Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, D.C.

7. From Chemistry and Industry, 15 November 1993. Quoted in Seedling, December 1993. GRAIN, Barcelona.

8. Anon. (1994). Ishihara Joins Japanese Leaders in 1993 Sales Ranking. AGROW, No. 214, 19 August.

9. Collinson, M.P. and Wright, K.L. (1991). Biotechnology and the International Agriculture Research Centers of the CGIAR. 21st Conference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists, Tokyo, August 1991. Quoted in: Reid, W.V., Laird, S.A. et al (1993). A New Lease on Life. In: Biodiversity Prospecting (Eds. Reid, Laird et al.). World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.

10. Schmidt, K. (1995). Whatever Happened to the Gene Revolution? New Scientist, January 1.

11. Personal communication from RenVellvf GRAIN.

12. Rissler, J. and Mellon, M. (1993) Perils Amidst the Promise- Ecological Risks of Transgenic Crops in a Global Market. Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, D.C.

13. Schmidt, K. (1995). Whatever Happened to the Gene Revolution? New Scientist, January 1.

14. Orr, D.W. (1992). Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. SUNY Press, New York.

15. Coghlan, A. (1994). Will the Scorpion Gene Run wild? New Scientist, June 25.

16. Egziabher, T.B.G., Goodwin, B. et al. (1994). The Need for Greater Regulation and Control of Genetic Engineering, A Statement by Scientists Concerned about Current Trends in the New Biotechnology. Third World Network, Penang.

17. Jaffe, W.R. (1993): 'Implementation of Biosafety Regulations: The Experience in Latin America', in African Regional Conference for International Co-operation on Safety in Biotechnology- Proceedings, pp 148-150.

18. GRAIN (1994). Threats from the test-tubes. Seedling, vol. 11, No. 4, December.

19. United Nations Environment Programme (1995). Convention on Biological Diversity/Conference of the Parties/2/ Committee of the Whole/L.22

2.3. Biodiversity newspeak


In his book 1984, written in 1948, George Orwell described plausible but most unpleasant social and political developments. Orwell's Utopian Society of 1984 demonstrates the interrelationship between the struggle for power and the control of language and historiography. Anyone who wants totalitarian control over people has to obtain a monopoly over defining and re-defining the meaning of words and over writing and rewriting history. In Orwell's Utopia the Ministry of Propaganda is called Ministry of Truth. Torturing by the secret police takes place in the Ministry of Love. The new controlled language is called Newspeak, which aims to abolish the old vernacular, called Oldspeak. Oldspeak is a term of abuse for the people's language, i.e. for the vernacular.

We are now more than ten years beyond 1984 and, fortunately, we do not have to live under totalitarian rule of the type Orwell described. We do, however, live in a time when the 'battle for the meaning of words' has become prevalent and decisive. Moreover, today's Ministries for Research and Technology demonstrate strong tendencies towards becoming Ministries for the Production of Public Acceptance of Certain Research Projects and Technologies? which by their very structure do not promote a technology policy worthy of a democratic society.

The coining of words is a key tool in political conflicts. This paper will examine how the new verbal Siamese twins of biodiversity' and 'biotechnology' are shaping research and technology policy in academia, politics and business.

Scientific discourse has changed markedly since the 1970s. The relative decrease in public funding for universities has resulted in a growing concentration on certain key topics of research, sometimes aptly termed 'precompetitive' research. Basic research, applied research and product development are converging in terms of time, personnel and structure. Thus, university research has acquired a close similarity to research in normal business, which is geared to economic competition. Unfortunately, this also means that universities arc being drained of their independent critical qualities.

Among the different forms of political negotiations over technological pathways, one has gained prevalence at the moment. This 'promotion of public acceptance' - sometimes also called acceptance PR' or 'acceptance production' is based on a purely strategic assessment and is meant to keep environmental stakeholders from instigating sanctions against government or industry policies. 'Acceptance promotion' optimizes justification without changing the reigning criteria and standards of decision-makers. It is a tool with which powerful decision-makers gain public acclaim (or at least resigned acceptance), and which guarantees the smooth running of their plans without calling into question their own criteria and decision-making priorities. This approach currently dominates over other, less cynical, forms of political negotiation, such as 'risk limitation' based on the precautionary principle, or 'global regionality for the environment'. The latter combines co-operation against ecologically destructive global structures with the promotion of differentiated and diverse solutions at local and regional levels.

The verbal symbiosis between 'biodiversity' and 'biotechnology' is in line with the dominant trends in science policy and technology policy. The common use of the prefix 'bio-' and the rhythmical parallels between the two words suggest a natural harmony and logical coherence between them. A verbal screen of confused notions is being put into place, however. It encourages the merging of basic and applied research, thus weakening the important critical function of scientific discourse. It encourages the concentration of funds and personnel into one branch of biology. It acts as a perfect tool in the creation of acceptance by suggesting that whoever is in favour of preserving wild species must also be in favour of biochemical companies and their investments in genetic engineering. This is a public relations ploy aimed at the large constituency of environmental activists and people who enjoy the beauty and diversity of creatures in the world.

'Biotechnology' is most often used as a synonym for 'genetic engineering', a term which incites public alarm. The term 'biotechnology' does not incite the same alarm. There is a price, however, since it obliterates the technological, social and economic differentiation between traditional crafts using plants, animals and micro-organisms on the one hand, and a new 'mega-technology' on the other. This mega-technology is promoted by a triple power alliance consisting of:

o the new scientific fraternity which uses the methodology of genetic engineering
o governments which heavily subsidize the quest for technological supremacy
o multinational chemical companies.

Philip Regal, Professor at the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, says that there are really four bio-technologies: Firstly, biotechnology is a material technology for chemically rearranging DNA; secondly, biotechnology is a policy of several industrialized and other countries; thirdly, biotechnology is an ideology - a vision of the future; fourthly, biotechnology is an area for economic and career investment.

In debates about genetic engineering its critics are often asked: 'Admittedly, you have rational arguments concerning single cases of deliberate releases, special production processes and certain questionable applications, but you must commit yourself and tell us clearly whether you basically believe in genetic engineering? Do you confess a fundamental faith in this technology? You must not evade this essential question!'

So this technology calls for a basic belief and the confession of a fundamental faith. If you replace 'genetic engineering' in these sentences with 'metallurgical processes' or 'laser technology', it becomes evident how new, shocking and inadmissible this call really is. Nobody ever asked us to believe in 'metallurgic processes' or to confess our faith in 'laser technology'. Technologies are means to ends. At best, suitable means to carefully chosen ends. It is particularly strange for beliefs and confessions to turn up in the context of science and technology. Willingness to look at phenomena critically is what marks the difference between Galileo and the Holy Inquisition. Why are we suddenly urged to believe fundamentally in a technology?

There are certain mega-technologies that do not allow the normal scientific procedure based on trial and error. Professor Wolf Hle, one of the fathers of the fast breeder reactor in Germany, gave an outspoken and clear analysis of this in the context of nuclear power. He classified nuclear power as a technological venture which enters into the domain of 'hypotheticality'. This means that this technology leaves the domain of classical experiments with their spatial and temporal containment. Hle calls it a technological adventure 'of the order of magnitude of the history of mankind'. Incidentally he unlike others who reacted to this insight professed faith in this adventure.

Hence the preoccupation with faith and belief. It could well be that modern biotechnology will also lead us into another adventure of the order of magnitude of the history of mankind. It certainly shows some elements of hypotheticality:

o Its scientific and technological impacts and hazards can spread themselves both spatially and temporally, potentially through the entire biosphere. Releases of genetically manipulated organisms are irreversible and cannot be recalled. Releases are not scientific experiments in the classical sense.

o The choice of scientific and technological pathways is not scientific. Increasingly, these choices take on the character of a bet on the future, of a self-fulfilling prophesy, of belief and make-believe.

o The impetus of research and development becomes directed towards so called 'key technologies' to the disadvantage of other technological options.

o Modern biotechnology is expensive, requiring and causing a concentration of investment and power. The very powerful constellation of biotechnological stakeholders in research, industry and governments does not only promote the engineering of genes but can forcefully push and engineer market successes of certain products. This poses problems in the patent debate, since patents can be defined as non-monetary state subsidies. It also poses problems in the debate on the general labelling of genetically engineered food, euphemistically called 'novel food'. Without labelling, forced consumption enters the 'market'. A third area of concern opens up if governments do not demand an adequate liability and insurance coverage for this risk-technology. Bets on the future of biotechnology seem like bets on horses at a racetrack where it is permitted to bribe the jockey, to dope the horse and to change the rules during the race.

If these observations are correct, the demand to confess one's technological faith becomes less of an absurdity. It becomes an icon of the technological realities of today.

Are these realities an advance or a setback? Are they desirable or not? Is there coercion towards technological fundamentalism? How does an 'experiment of the order of magnitude of the history of mankind' fit in with some of the cultural inventions that we are proud of? How does it fit with democracy, with the protection of minorities, with equality of opportunity and freedom of choice?

I do not see any international forum in which there are adequately comprehensive, sufficiently long-term and serious exchanges of views and negotiations on this technological mega-adventure involving the present generation of humanity, let alone future generations. I do, however, see many instances of experts condemning the public to mutism, confusion and resignation. This is part and parcel of devious pre-emptive acceptance promotion. Some international negotiations of the last few years have not met the standards of debate and democratic decision-making that are needed.

The Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, now WTO) agreed on a continuation and reinforcement of the world market with its unhindered global shipping of biological species. This in itself - as every ecologist can tell you - is hostile to diversity, be it biological or cultural. GATT and its Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) radically redefined the cultural, social and legal character of animals, plants and micro-organisms, and this happened without public discussion or democratic legitimation.

Similarly, the Earth Summit's action plan, Agenda 21, lends itself easily to being misread as a plan for the promotion of genetic engineering. The chapter on 'Sustainable Agriculture' is subtly misspelt by some as 'Sustaining Biotechnology in Agriculture'. The chapter on 'Science for Sustainable Development' often gets interpreted as a call for the promotion of biotechnology in the arena of different scientific approaches competing for appreciation and funds. Chapter 16 of Agenda 21 does not need an implicit redefinition. It has the title Environmentally sound management of biotechnology'. The introduction states that: 'Biotechnology, an emerging knowledge-intensive field, is a set of enabling techniques for bringing about specific manmade changes in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or genetic material, in plants, animals and microbial systems, leading to useful products and technologies.' So the chapter starts with the prophecy that this technology will prove 'environmentally sound' and 'enabling' and that its products will be useful'. The introduction goes on to name the aims of Agenda 21 in the field of biotechnology. Amongst these are: 'To engender public trust and confidence' and 'to promote the development of sustainable applications and to establish appropriate enabling mechanisms'. It is quite frightening how quickly we are approaching the ballyhoo of technology acceptance and how fast the words of the debate on environment and development get worn and torn in the public relations of genetic engineering. More money is spent on the technology promotion and the production of public acceptance than on technology impact assessment and biosafety research. In an EU research proposal on 'Bioscience and technology' 10-16% of the total sum of 552 million ECU are reserved for 'prenormative research, biodiversity and social acceptance'. Biosafety issues are neither mentioned nor funded in this paper published in 1994. A UNIDO report submitted in preparation for the Meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in January 1995 even suggests that funds from the international community within the framework of the Commission on Sustainable Development should be made available for biotechnology promotion. The overall financial resource requirements for subsidizing and promoting biotechnology in developing countries given in the report are as follows:

1. Facilities and training in modern biotechnology in the fields of agriculture, health and environment

20 billion US$

2. Biosafety

2 million US$

3. Endogenous biotechnology promotion

5 million US$

The report stresses that biotechnology promotion is an attractive way for industrialized countries to comply with the United Nations target of 0.7% of the Gross National Product (GNP) for official development assistance (ODA).

This UNIDO paper is a regrettable demonstration of a twisted funding approach. The North requests funds of approximately 20 billion US$ for the export of its technological priorities to the South at a time when stock-market analysts of Wall Street pointed to losses of biotechnology companies of about the same amount. ODA again might prove a cynical tool by which to screen to the public of the North and promote to the public of the South already falsified investment strategies. The low figures given for biosafety requirements suggest that once again risk-externalization and risk-dumping are part of the promotion game. Here again we are reminded of Orwell's warnings.

Yet this is not a necessary development. A surprising move in the opposite direction took place at the Third Meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development which met 11-28 April 1995, in New York. Chapter 16 was on the agenda of this meeting. It was one of the most controversial and hotly debated issues. The sensational outcome of the debate was the formation of a new pro-biosafety coalition between developing countries (G77 and China) and a group of OECD-countries which want to stop the rat-race for deregulation in the North (e.g. Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and some Eastern European Countries.) Strong support and written background materials were provided by NGOs and critical scientists, both from South and from North. The debate culminated in the decision not to follow the UNIDO suggestions and to issue a recommendation to the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity for a Biosafety Protocol.

Not only Agenda 21 but also the Convention on Biological Diversity which was signed at UNCED in Rio enforces the international success of the Siamese twins 'biodiversity and biotechnology'. If a difficult relationship wants to pose as an ideal partnership, it does not need realistic scientific research nor environmental impact assessment; it needs good public relations. 'Biodiversity and biotechnology' is such a difficult relationship. The fact that the Biodiversity Convention does not pertain to the irreplaceable and vitally important collections of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR), is significant. Until recently, these collections were considered under the premisses of the UN Conference of Stockholm which took place in 1972. Animal, plant and microbial species were then regarded as 'the natural heritage of humankind to be safeguarded freely accessible for the present and for future generations.' Only twenty years later the fight for exclusive access and private property is in full swing. And it becomes evident that the factual legal status of whatever was collected before the year 1993 is dismally unclear and vehemently contested.

In June 1994 the World Bank attempted a takeover bid for the CGIAR collections. This was turned down, but the concept of Global Commons has very real political weaknesses and will probably he threatened again. Commons can only be safeguarded within the rules of decency and the sanctions of their corresponding communities. The only globally functioning community, at the moment, is the world market, and its only rule of decency is the maximization of private profits. The global Commons are unlikely to thrive in this setting. Our form of economy has blatantly blundered in the task of using resources sustainably. Unfortunately, the technological fundamentalism of hypothetical technologies seems to go hand in hand with an economic fundamentalism that does not allow us to analyze and restructure our economies. This urgent task is left undone. Instead, an elaborate verbal haze is created. This haze is actively thickened with words taken from the environmentalists' vocabulary whose positive connotations are ridiculed, watered down or perverted. Again Orwell is brought to mind.

And again, this is not the only strand of activities and policies influencing reality. At the Second Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the South North biosafety coalition which had established itself forcefully in New York in April, won the day again. In Jakarta, on the 16th of November 1995, a mandate to negotiate a Biosafety Protocol was so decided. The draft protocol is to be prepared by an open-ended ad hoc working group in six sessions and is to be submitted in 1998. The precautionary approach, the legally binding character and the obligation for advance informed agreement have been firmly established. The first step will be the regulation of 'transboundary movement'. The scope and timing of the following steps is still contested. Additional hot spots of the debate in Jakarta were 'access to genetic resources' which includes the issue of the CGIAR collections and 'intellectual property rights'. It was decided to initiate studies having a closer look at some of the implications of the GATT/ TRIPS agreements for biodiversity, for local communities and for indigenous peoples.

A new and difficult round of intergovernmental negotiations on all these issues will take place at the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig, Germany, 17-23 June, 1996. Countries like the United States, Germany, United Kingdom and Japan, and new industrial NGOs like the 'Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO)' will have their opposing strategies ready in order to stop the 'New York-Jakarta Trend' of 1995. .

In the past, the following strategy proved to be very successful: Critics of genetic engineering are often themselves criticized as being hysterical, irrational and panic-driven. And here things really become difficult. Who decides what is rational? Modern science began with the rebellion of individual rationality and judgement against the reigning dogmatic definitions of 'reality' represented by the Holy Office. The former scientific rebels may - as many successful rebels do - copy the power mechanism of their former oppressors, and we may end in a sickening paradox. The promoters of genetic engineering may claim what one could almost call the 'inquisitorial privilege' of defining and administering the terms 'enlightened thinking, rationality and critical sovereignty'. Not only may they claim this privilege, but in fact they sometimes do.

Biodiversity has left the ecologists' Arcady and is revealing itself in political, technological and economic conflicts. In the turmoil of the political arena environmentalists face many new challenges. One important task will be to make sure that words rooted in civil opposition do not lose their 'Oldspeak' meaning. Another task is the search for suitable alliances. People engaged in nature conservation and species protection have so far not been strong enough. If they do not wish to be condemned to failure they must avoid being narrow-minded, orthodox or too fastidious in their search for allies. Careful evaluation is necessary, however. Genetic engineers are now offering to enter into alliances for the protection of biodiversity. What contributions can they make?

In this context the Merck-INBio deal has become a nearly paradigmatic example. The two American giants in biodiversity research and promotion, Edward O. Wilson and Thomas E. Lovelock see it as a happy and fair cooperation between biotechnology and biodiversity. But do funds to create an infrastructure for the extraction of a resource really contribute to the safeguarding of this resource? This was certainly not the case with other resources in the past.

The role of experts deserves a closer look. Edward O. Wilson sees the 'Louvre of biodiversity' burning. When I listen to long scientific controversies on whether there is a species extinction every fifteen minutes or every three minutes I can scarcely resist screaming. If not only the Louvre but also the Metropolitan Museum, the Hermitage and the Pinakothek are burning down simultaneously, this is certainly not the time to employ art experts to catalogue pictures; firemen are more important. And the search in all the museum for potential short circuits and compulsive arsonists is also more important. A perfect scientific musical accompaniment to the funeral procession of lost species is not enough. In the past unique, vital, complex, endemic and co-evolving diversity thrived without scientific help - and it should be able to do so again. It is not enough to hospitalize it in zoos and botanical gardens, inventory it in herbaria and between book covers, document it in films and deep-freeze it in gene banks in order to resurrect it as a genetically engineered patchwork. The term 'conservation of biodiversity' allows many interpretations. A critical look at biodiversity policies will uncover the arenas of political conflict behind the verbal haze.

To politicians, biodiversity is the title of a new political chapter. Its main theme is the drastic legal redefinition of living organisms as TRIPS and patentable 'inventions'. Public awareness of these trends takes a long time to grow. Linguistic astonishment might help: what is so intellectual about trade-related intellectual property rights? Is it an intellectual act to run a sequencing machine and to fill in the forms properly for patent applications, thus stopping living organisms from belonging to themselves and to the places and people where they have resided and have been used for centuries? We find another good reason for astonishment if we recapitulate the original function and purpose of patenting. Patents were meant as a protection for the financially and infrastructurally weak inventor, whose invention was thereby made accessible to the community while bringing just financial rewards to the inventor. Patents were devised as public tools against market concentration. But modern mega-technological progress takes place almost exclusively within the framework of institutions heavily funded by rich countries or by rich companies from the North. The function of the positive historical purpose of patents is being perverted into a legitimation of completely new structures. History is being rewritten in a such way that the protection of the weak is still being claimed, whilst the protection of the strong is what is actually taking place. Again, one thinks of Orwell.

Politicians inevitably focus on the promotion of their national economies. Will business adequately safeguard and promote biodiversity? Nature conservation is unlikely, in the long run, to win an uphill race against economic priorities. This was pointed out as early as 1932 by Nicolai Ivanovitch Vavilov, the famous Russian agronomist and geneticist:

the growing needs of civilized man and the development of industry make the introduction of new plants necessary. The vast resources of wild species, especially in the tropics, have been practically untouched by investigation.

Vavilov made a very realistic assessment in assuming that the central decisions were likely to be taken in the economic domain of the 'development of industry and the growing needs of civilized man'. Many conservationists share his assessment and, even though this is rarely their own intrinsic motivation, they point to the potential market value of biodiversity as 'immense biological capital'. They calculate the market value of birds and absorb nature into the economic calculus. This, however, has two sides to it. On the one hand, it may be the only way to get the attention of decision-makers who are aware only of monetary values. On the other hand, it completes the commercialization of our culture. Clearly economics has not yet proved itself a reliable guardian of long-term concerns which require unity of purpose between different countries and different generations.

Business and the economy certainly show an intrinsic interest in biodiversity, however. The tragedy of species loss, translated into economic terms, says: 'buy now and sell later'. Many years ago a private company, Campbell Soups, started to hoard tomato genes and is now in possession of a substantial fraction of the world's tomato biodiversity. The company followed a clear economic rationale which is probably an early precursor of things to come. The resource of biological diversity is getting scarcer every day. Why is that so? The demand for biodiversity is growing because diverse biological options become increasingly necessary as solutions to the man-made problems of climatic, agricultural, social and economic changes. Increase in scarcity and/or increase in demand: these are the normal economic preconditions for an increase in market value. The interest of the business world in biodiversity, therefore, does not mean that business has integrated environmental values and is applying the criteria of sustainability. It simply means that the exclusive ownership of this resource promises to be good business.

But what do you do if you are not primarily interested in making a profit from imminent species loss, but rather want to halt it? It becomes increasingly difficult to make clear choices while our palates are being confused by the associated 'ketchup' of acceptance promotion which adorns every technological dish. Plans to protect biodiversity must be based on the existing historical knowledge of the conditions under which the continuous co-evolution and conservation of species thrived.

How did and does biodiversity come into existence? It certainly did not need global management or biotechnology to do so. On the contrary, globality and narrow selective aims are probably threats to the unfolding and stabilization of diversity.

The origin of diversity is a central question of biology. Since Darwin's time the 'survival of the fittest' has been linked to the scientific and public perception of biological evolution. Few reflect on the causal links between the two. Darwin carefully chose the term 'survival of the fittest', not 'survival of the best'. Fitness can only be defined in the context of a certain environment and a certain situation. Natural evolution is a highly complex and dynamic game, in the course of which changing players enter into competitive and cooperative interactions with each other. Fitness, strictly speaking, can only be defined retrospectively: 'Fit were the ancestors of those who are still around.' Essential evolutionary insights hide behind the simple waiving of a definition of present fitness. Genetic engineering is always linked to a very narrow selection of genes: hence, the temptation to define present fitness gains a new technological pungency.

Some basic facts are easily forgotten. Selection alone does not create diversity and complexity. Obviously, every act of selection reduces diversity. Selection is only part of the whole evolutionary dynamic.

Diversity is regenerated after every selective step by mutations, i.e. aberrations and errors that occur in the gene replication process. The 'survival of errors' and their recombination in every generation is critical for the evolutionary process. In one environment, these genetic errors may make an organism less fit (i.e. less well adapted to the environment) than another. But if the environment changes, these 'mistakes' may actually offer a survival advantage, thus increasing fitness. The 'survival of errors' and their recombination in every generation makes it possible for several of these errors to combine into a specialized fitness in part of the old environment, or even a fitness allowing life in a new environment. The mutation rate of organisms seems to be matched to the long-term success of co-evolving systems. The greater the rate of change in the environment, the more important variation becomes. As Ronald Fisher, one of the founding fathers of the mathematical theory of biological populations, formulated in 1930: 'The increase in fitness at a given time is proportional to the variance of fitness at that time.' This means that to streamline evolution through the application of biotechnology is to hamper evolution. It also means that a galloping innovation rate combined with a perfectionist concept of monocultures is in principle unsustainable in evolutionary terms. And - in a sense - we all live under evolutionary terms.

The rise of 'fitness' from 'errors' is unpredictable and surprising. Who amongst us - if we had lived in the cretaceous period - would have bet on the evolutionary success of dwarfish dinosaurs with bones full of holes, fluffy scales and a strange tendency to flap their front extremities? More likely we would have bet on the success of ever-larger dinosaurs with thicker scales and more teeth. We would thus have dismissed the major evolutionary breakthrough of birds. If we plan to make future evolution dependent on our betting behaviour we need to know much more about evolution is considered by departments of molecular biology or by multinational companies.

Barriers and limits create the free spaces which are a necessary precondition for the creative unfolding of diversity. The role of geographical, biochemical and behavioural barriers in differentiation, complexity, and co-operation and in the buffering of destabilizing rates of change has been largely underestimated and neglected in the dominant scientific, political and economic debate. The present unprecedented rate of genetic erosion is probably largely due to the destruction of those barriers. 'Globally successful' products of genetic engineering will continue this trend. Unfortunately, the huge research and development costs of these products probably makes global successes economically necessary.

Genetic engineering overcomes the barriers between species. It should not be forgotten, however, that the active genetic separation of life-forms into species proved to be an overwhelming evolutionary success. Genetic engineering is proud of overcoming the species harrier: it is 'scrambling nature's algorithm'. Is there nobody who ponders the evolutionary meaning of species barriers before celebrating their abolition? One function of the barrier, at least, seems to be evident. The ability of higher organisms to control their very fit and evolutionarily versatile pathogens seems to depend on species barriers. Even before the advent of gene technology, pathogens which jump species harriers were an extremely unpleasant prospect. This prospect may grow to be even more unpleasant if pathogens are offered genetically engineered trans-specific evolutionary highways.

The success of co-evolving contextual living systems depends on their ability to he error-prone and error-resilient at the same time. This allows them to make a highly creative and co-operative use of errors. For this combination I use the term 'error-friendliness' or 'erro-philia.' In Darwinian fitness' we have the history of past survival. In 'error-friendliness' we have the orientation towards the future. Fitness and error-friendliness could be called the two complementary legs of evolution. Their successful cooperation allows evolution to continue. Error-friendliness needs high genetic variance, a rate of change that is constantly kept below the 'critical speed of innovation', and, last but not least, it needs a sufficient protection by barriers.

Let us sum up. Genetic engineering advertises its ability to increase the speed of innovation. It advertises its higher selective potential and precision. This focus makes easy access to 'clean', deep-frozen biological material highly desirable. The contextual regeneration of biodiversity in forest and field, on the other hand, is of no prime concern in the selective context. Banishment from ecosystems and being canned in deep-freezes as raw materials for biotechnology is the probable future for many species. Last, hut not least, biotechnology prides itself on the removal of species barriers. If we compare the self-portrait of genetic engineering with a suitable framework for the further evolution of biodiversity we have to face the fact that the very successes of modern biotechnology might prove to be its most dangerous feature.

The conflicts about basic biological assumptions on evolution are conflicts about the historiography of nature. Orwell pointed out that he who has the power to write and rewrite history has totalitarian control. A reduction of evolution theory down to the level of flat Social Darwinism legitimizes and supports a shift in the social and political structures towards those areas in our society which are selection-orientated, not diversity-orientated.

A closer look at the new verbal Siamese twins of 'biodiversity' and 'biotechnology' has shown that biotechnology may well be a fox in charge of the chicken coop of biodiversity. Foxes undoubtedly love chickens. Foxes have certain types of expert knowledge about chickens. Foxes genuinely believe in the importance of monitoring and accessing chicken coops. Foxes may even have clever policies for the promotion of their public acceptance. Still, one should think again: all this does not predestine foxes to be good guardians for chickens.


1. Vandana Shiva analysed this historical shift and coined this expression.

2. E.g., the Research Proposal to the Council of the European Union entitled Predictive Medicine: Analysis of the Human Genome, Document of the Council No. 7929/8x.

3. The Protestant Churches in Germany had established a Working Group on Genetic Engineering, whose report pays special attention to the analysis of the changes in the political and financial framework and in the organization of scientific structures. See: Kapitel II. 1: Vererungen in den Voraussetzungen und Rahmenbedingungen fur Forschung Technik und ihre ntliche Kontrolle. In Einverstnis mit der Schng. Ein Beitrag zur ethiscben Urteilsbildung im Thick auf die Gentechnik, Goh, 1991, S. 29-39.

4. Schneidewind, U. (1994) York Lunau: Von Akzeptanzsicherung efdungsbegrenzung zu 'Globalregionalitfur die Umwelt'. In: GAIA 3 No. 6, S. 311-314.

5. Eurich, C. (1995) Die Megamaschine. Darmstadt, Luchterhand, 1988. S 54 ff.

6. Philip J Regal: Critical issues in Biotechnology. In: Third World Resurgence No. 53/54, Penang.

7. Taken from a collection of notes that I made on numerous panels on biotechnology.

8. Hle, W. (1974) Hypotheticality and the New Challenges: the Pathfinder Role of Nuclear Energy. Minerva, Vol. Xll, p. 401.

9. Ibid.

10. Wills, P.R. (1994) The ecological hazards of transgenic varieties Scrambling Nature's Algorithm. Paper presented at the International Conference on Redefining the Life Sciences, Penang, Malaysia, 7-10 July. Forthcoming publication by Third World Network, Penang.

11. Burns, T.R. and Ueberhorst, R. (1988) Creative Democracy. Systematic Conflict Resolution and Policymaking in a World of High Science and Technology. New York, Greenwood Press.

12. Lesser, W.H. and Krattiger, A.F. (1994) Marketing 'Genetic Technologies' in South-North and South-South Exchanges: The Proposed Role of a Facilitating Mechanism. In: Widening, Perspectives on Biodiversity (Krattiger et al. eds) IUCN & International Academy of the Environment. Geneva, 1994. The authors (representatives of the Agency for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Projects) were the core team of a series of round tables in Latin America, in Asia and in Africa organized by the Stockholm Environment Insitute in collaboration with the International Academy of the Environment which took place in 1994.

13. Report on Chapter 16 of Agenda 21: E,'CN.17/1995/20.

14. Draft Proposal on a 'Special Programme for Biosciences and -technologies' submitted by the EU Commission to the President of the Council of the European Union on March 30, 1994. Document of the Council of the European Union No. 6277/94. Quoted on page 30 of Drucksache 431/94 of the Report of the German Government to the Bundesrat (Federal Council).

15. Report of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) prepared for the Discussion on Chapter 16 of Agenda 21: Malee Suwana-adth and Virginia W. Campbell (Technology Promotion Section, Technology Service, Investment and Technology Promotion Division): Financing Biotechnology for Sustainable Development. January 1995, pp. 1011.

16. E.g. Eghziabher, T. et al. (1995) The Need for Greater Regulation and Control of Genetic Engineering. A Statement of Scientists Concerned about Current Trends in the New Biotechnology. Penang, Malaysia: Third World Network, April.

17. von Weizser, C (1992) The Use and Abuse of Biodiversity. A Feature from NGONET in Rio (Environment and Development Information for Non-Governmental Organisations), Montevideo 11000, Uruguay: NGONET.

18. von Weizser, C. (1995) Gentechnik und Artenvielfalt. Eine schwierige Bezichung, die als ideale Partnerschaft gelten me. In: JWorters (ed.): Leben and Leben lessen. Biodiversit onomie, Natur und Kulturschutz im Widerstreit. focus: id 10. Giessen: pp. 53-68.

19. von Weizser, C. (1995) Biodiverse versus cognostic knowledge. In: Research for Development. Sarec 20 Years. Stockholm, pp. 91-103.

20. Daly, H.E. and Cobb, J.B. Jr (19X9) For the Common Good. Redirecting, Economy toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future, Boston, Beacon Press.

21. Document UNEP/CBD/COP/2/CW/L.22

22. Document UNEP/CBD/COP/2/CW/L.24

23. Document UNEP/CBI)/COP/2/CW/L.8/Rev.1

24. Document UNEP/CBD/COP/2/CW/L.25

25. See "Models of co-operation" of this book.

26. Wilson, E.O. (1992) The Diversity of Life. National Academy Press.

27. von Weizser, C. (1993) Competing Notions of Biodiversity. In: Wolfgang Sachs (ed.): Global Ecology. A New Arena of Political Conflict. London: ZED Books.

28. Quoted from: M.S. Swaminathan, 'Genetic Conservation: Microbes to Man' at the 100th Anniversary of Academician N.I. Vavilov, Moscow, Nov. 1987, p. 1.

29. The Global 2000 Report to the President - Entering the Twenty - first Century, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1980, p. 329.

30. Fisher, R. (1930) The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, Oxford, p. 35.

31. Gould, S.J. (1980) Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?' Paleobiology 6.

32. Biodiversity: There's a Reason for It. Short Report on the EcotronExperiments at the Imperial College, London, Centre for Population Biology, Project Leader: Shahid Naeem. In: Science, Vol. 262, 3 December 1993, p. 1511.

33. Wills, P.R. (1994) The ecological hazards of transgenic varieties Scrambling Nature's Algorithm. op. cit.

34. von Weizser, E. and von Weizser, C. (1987) How to Live with Errors? On the Evolutionary Power of Errors. In: World Futures. The Journal of General Evolution/Ervin Laszlo (ed.), Vol. 23/No. 3, pp. 225235. New York London Paris: Gordon and Breach.

35. von Weizser, C. (1990) Error-friendliness and the Evolutionary Impact of Deliberate Releases of GMOs. In: Vandana Shiva and Ingunn Moser (eds.): Biopolitics. A Feminist and Ecological Reader on Biotechnology. London, Zed Books, 1995, pp. 112-120. Reprint of article first publiched in: Leskien, Dan/Spangenberg, Joachim (eds.): European Workshop on Law and Genetic Engineering - Proceedings, S. 42-46. Bonn: BBU Verlag GmbH (Prinz-Albert-Str.43, 53 Bonn 1).

36. von Weizser, C. (1993) Einfsvortrag. In: Bericht der parlamentarischen Enqu-Kommission betreffend 'Technikfolgenabschung am Bespiel der Gentechnologie'- Gutachten und Stellungnahmen, Band 3, S.44, Wien: terreichischer Nationalrat.