Human Development Facts (6/00)

Over a century ago, the "last" Tasmanian aborigines – a sailor named William Lanny and a woman named Truganami – became objects of scientific curiosity as the only remaining representatives of their race. Upon his death, Lanny’s body was exhumed, dismembered, and mutilated by scientists from the prestigious Royal Society of Surgeons. They crept into the morgue and graveyard in the dead of night, stealing various parts until "there was nothing left but blood and fat upon the floor."

Truganami, who survived Lanny, spent the rest of her life in fear. Her last words were, "Don’t let them cut me up." They did so anyway.

Most of us would regard this story, which reads like the outline for a bad horror movie, with outrage and profound moral revulsion. Yet, today, many indigenous people respond to the curiosity of scientists about their genomes with equal horror. John Moore, the first individual to have his genes patented (without his knowledge or consent), has protested the theft and what he describes as a violation of his personhood. Perhaps his story doesn’t have the makings of a good horror film – no scientists sneaking into graveyards or hacking up bodies with axes – but an ethical comparison isn’t outrageous or far-fetched.

Future generations may look back at the Human Genome Diversity Project with the same moral revulsion that followed the Eugenics programs of the 1930s, or the barbaric and racist treatment of human beings as mere specimens in the case of William Lanny and Truganami. This time, the genes of indigenous peoples on the edge of extinction are being collected and catalogued as "Isolates of Historic Interest."

The burgeoning science of genetic engineering in the medical sphere raises many ethical concerns. Yet, the work proceeds rapidly, even though the technology of human cloning is the only area thus far that has prompted the admission that we’re simply not ready to comprehend the implications or assure its use in a responsible way. In the language of "Designer Baby" advocates, who herald a future in which genetic aristocracy leads the masses of genetically unimproved human beings, we hear echoes of a master race. But even the less visionary, more sober objective of curing disease through genetic engineering raises ethical dilemmas – from animal rights and social justice to biological risks we scarcely know how to think about.

However, a critical examination and debate of these issues is taking place. In March, a counter-conference, staged to coincide with a convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) held in Boston, became the largest gathering yet of genetic engineering opponents. Called Biodevastation 2000, it featured some of the bio-technology industry’s leading critics, including Vandana Shiva, Ralph Nader, and Barry Commoner, and culminated in a rally attended by about 4000 people. They marched with hundreds of larger than life puppets, shouted "Shame!" at the those inside the convention center’s sleek towers, and challenged the conferees to send out their most articulate representatives for a debate. That didn’t happen, of course. But industry defenders used the media to call the protesters "ignorant" about science and the message "muddled."

Nevertheless, as Ralph Nader put it, the message of critics is "slow down." Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are already in our fields, risking genetic pollution without adequate study of their potential ecological impacts. They’re also in food on supermarket shelves, without a rigorous review of their possible health implications. The issue isn’t merely the opening of a new frontier for scientific research, but a collusion between science and commerce, and the development of this new technology in the context of intense commercialization and competitive pressure. Critics aren’t challenging scientific values, but rather scientists who allow, in Nader’s words, "one value system -commercialism – to run roughshod over all other value systems."

While industry defenders attempt to disqualify non-scientists from discussing this new technology, they project an ideology and a vision of humanity’s future that isn’t universally shared. The critique of genetic engineering, presented during the three-day conference, is manifold and visionary, and involves an examination of the issues from the perspectives of health and safety, ecology, food security, social justice, and, most crucially, the politics of corporate globalization. Taken together, it provided a vibrant, thoughtful context within which biotech’s future must be debated.

What is it about the advent of this technology that has mobilized the public in a way that deforestation, global warming, and other equally menacing environmental dangers have not? One possibility is the relationship to the politics of globalization, which has given the anti-genetic engineering movement a momentum that we haven’t seen since the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s. The Boston gathering continued a wave of protests that began at the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting in Seattle last November, and continued in Washington, DC, when thousands gathered to "sink or shrink" the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Biotechnology, argued Northeast University’s Dan Faber, will be the key to the success of globalization, the linchpin that facilitates corporate colonization of the world. It is to globalized capitalism what the mechanical loom was to industrial capitalism, a mechanism by which capitalism can extend its domain into areas that have remained beyond its reach. In breaching the boundaries of the living cell, biotechnology has opened the ultimate frontier.

This new kind of capitalism threatens a further shrinkage of the commons. By patenting plant and seed varieties, or human genes, corporations dare to usurp what rightfully belongs to all of us. This raises a crucial question: Who has the right to bio-diversity? Using bizarre logic, international trade agreements have transformed the stuff of life – plants, seeds, genes – into intellectual property. We’ve already witnessed the commodification of nature, in ways that have degraded her and subjected animals to torture, mutilation, and extinction. Now, we’re witnessing the commodification of life itself – in short, of everything.

The defense against this usurpation of the commons has most vehemently emerged in response to genetically engineered seeds. If the seed traditionally has been a symbol of nature’s renewability and fertility, representing the strength and food security of farming communities, the genetically engineered terminator seed is a potent symbol of the neo-liberal agenda. If Monsanto succeeds in propagating the technology of sterile seeds, farmers will become totally dependent on corporations for the seeds and chemicals they require. To use the phrasing of one USDA representative, the terminator seed would allow a system of "self-policing" laws against seed saving and sharing among farmers, a common practice since the dawn of agriculture that has helped safeguard crop diversity.

As Shiva explains, "The seed is not merely the source of future plants and food, it is the storage place of culture and history. Seed is the first link in the food chain. Seed is the ultimate symbol of food security. … Instead of the culture of the seed’s reciprocity, mutuality, permanence, and exhaustless fertility, corporations are redefining the culture of the seed to be about piracy, predation, the termination of fertility, and the engineering of sterility."

Biotechnology’s hidden agenda, currently being smuggled in under cover of humanitarian imperatives in medicine and feeding the world’s hungry, amounts to nothing less than a complete transformation of law and society. By creating seed banks and fighting laws that would make seed saving a crime, farming communities are defending their freedom and rights at the most basic level. The campaign against genetic engineering is fast becoming a global movement against corporate control of the very basis of life. As Shiva puts it, food democracy may be the critical arena in the struggle for human rights. And the vision, if the debate over genetic engineering can be won, isn’t only a halt of the rush to commodify life, but also the struggle for a free, humane, and healthier world.

Alexis Lathem is a Vermont-based poet, freelance writer, and activist. For more information, contact Northeast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, (802) 454-9957.