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Date: Tue, 22 Dec 1998 11:18:00 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: GENews - LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE - December 1998
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Posted by Genetic Resources Action International <email@example.com>
LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE - December 1998
CASHING IN ON LIFE
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are under fire. But the
multinational firms which make up the genetic-industrial complex - like
the military-industrial complex we used to talk about before - are hiding
behind all sorts of committees of ''experts'', most of which they have
infiltrated, in their effort to dodge questions from a worried public: is
it acceptable to play with living things, or even sterilise them, in
order to increase profits? Can the heads of public research
establishments, and the ministers they report to, continue - through
ignorance, thoughtlessness or self-interest - to back this complex so
little concerned with the common good? In December, the French Council of
State will rule on the authorisation by the agriculture ministry last
February for the marketing and cultivation of three varieties of
transgenic maize developed by Novartis. This follows suspension by
France's highest administrative court on 25 September of any
implementation of the ministerial decree on grounds of caution.
by JEAN-PIERRE BERLAN and RICHARD C. LEWONTIN *
Life has two fundamental and paradoxical properties (1): the ability to
reproduce and multiply (while preserving its characteristics) and the
ability to adapt, change and evolve. The first has given us farming, the
Geological time has seen an extraordinary genetic variability develop both
between and within species. In the course of their very short history, men
have domesticated plants and animals, selecting them and adapting them to
their needs by exploiting and expanding this natural variability. But
towards the middle of the 19th century, these two complementary properties
became incompatible. Selection was no longer a way of satisfying needs, but
of making money. Seed-producing "investors" realised that their work could
not become a source of gain if farmers sowed grain they had harvested
themselves. Nature became set against the "natural law" of profit; farming
and farmers against selection and breeders. As nature's unfortunate
property of reproducing itself and multiplying could not, at the time, be
legally taken away by political means, the only way of achieving the same
result was to use biological methods. Agricultural genetics was to devote
all its efforts to doing this.
In March 1998 genetics scored a new victory with the Terminator patent
granted to the United States Department of Agriculture and a private
company, Delta and Pine Land Co. The technique consists of introducing a
killer "transgene" that prevents the germ of the harvested grain from
developing. The plant grows normally and produces a normal harvest but the
grain is biologically sterile. In May 1998 the multinational Monsanto
bought Delta and Pine Land Co and the Terminator patent - by now
registered, or in the process, in 87 countries - and is currently
negotiating exclusive rights to it with the Department of Agriculture. Also
in May, Monsanto tried to woo French public opinion with an expensive
advertising campaign about the philanthropic wonders of genetically
modified organisms (GMO). Neither the scientists concerned nor the media
nor the French Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and
Technological Options went to much trouble to understand the issues at
stake, let alone explain them to the public.
Terminator is merely the outcome of a long process of seizing control over
living things (2) that began when biological heredity (3) started to become
a commodity. In 1907 Hugo de Vries, the most influential biologist of his
day who "rediscovered" Mendel's laws (4), was the only one to realise that
in an applied science like agricultural genetics, economics took precedence
over science: what is profitable affects, or even determines, what is
"scientifically true" (5).
He investigated replacing the technique of improving cereals by isolation,
which dated back to the early 19th century and was based on the fact that
the plants go on to breed true - and therefore bring no profits to the
investor - by the continuous selection method. According to this method,
justified by the best science of the time, Darwinism, varieties
"deteriorate" in the farmer's field. This method cannot improve the plants,
as was demonstrated empirically by Nilsson at the Svalöf Institute in
Sweden in 1892 and confirmed by the earliest work inspired by Mendel at the
beginning of this century. Thus, even then, a technique that was profitable
but incapable of bringing the slightest progress replaced one that was
useful to society but generated no profits.
Sterilising the harvest
Ignorant of the history of their own discipline and of the work of de Vries
in particular (6), the 20th century's agricultural geneticists repeated the
same scenario. At the end of the 1930s they triumphed with "hybrid" maize,
which was extravagantly fêted (7). The technique of hybridisation, which
has become the model for agronomic research the world over, is now used in
around 20 food species and a dozen others are likely to follow. Poultry of
every kind and a large number of pigs are also "hybrids". On the strength
of a sham theoretical explanation of hybrid vigour,
heterosis-superdominance (8), geneticists have tried since the mid-1930s to
get the hybrid technique generally accepted following their success with
maize in the United States. "Hybrids increase yield", they say. This puts
the theory of heterosis in a nutshell: having different genes - "hybridity"
- is beneficial per se.
In reality, what distinguishes this varietal type from all the others is
the reduction in yield in the next generation - that is, in plain terms,
sterility. As a result, the farmer is obliged to buy his "seed" in every
year. But varietal progress can only come from improving populations by
selection, the very thing that this quest for hybrids prevents. Apparently
unaware of what they are doing, the agricultural geneticists have
dialectically overturned reality: they state they are using a biological
phenomenon, heterosis, to increase yield, while actually using inbreeding
to create sterility. But if they were politically successful in sterilising
maize, they had to focus attention on the illusion created by selection -
improvement - to mask their real objective. There is therefore no
difference between the late 19th century "deterioration" technique -
hybrids - and the Terminator technique. The only innovation is the
Until recently, the investors could not reveal their true design - the
sterilisation of living things - without making it unachievable. The
peasantry were a powerful social group. Life was sacred. But peasants are
disappearing: they have become farmers, eagerly awaiting the smallest sign
of "progress" capable of delaying their ultimate demise. And life has been
reduced to a source of profits in the banal form of strands of DNA.
Numbed by 20 years of neo-liberal propaganda, people have been conditioned
to look to science and technology for the answers to society's major
political problems, while politicians are content to "manage". Finally, the
small breeding firms have given way to a powerful genetic-industrial
complex with ramifications extending into the very heart of public research
(9). Terminator shows this complex now feels so powerful it no longer needs
to hide its quest for control over life itself.
For example, Monsanto, the firm that is most advanced in "life science"
applications, has no compunction about publishing threatening display
advertisements in American farming journals. Under a banner headline
pointing out the cost of planting pirated seed, it reminds farmers who
purchased Biotech seed - genetically modified and including a gene for
resistance to Roundup, its flagship herbicide - that they are not entitled
to keep any of the harvested grain for use as seed the following year. This
is "contractual sterility". But the farmer may have bought Roundup Ready
grain without signing a contract - from neighbours, for example. In that
case the company can prosecute him because the variety is patented. So now
we have "legal sterility".
Monsanto, which has just made 2,500 people redundant, is using the old
familiar response of hiring Pinkerton agency detectives (10) to track down
farmers who "pirate" its seed as well as using more conventional informers:
neighbours, crop-spraying companies and seed merchants. To avoid a
potentially ruinous lawsuit, more than 100 farmers have been obliged to
destroy their crops, pay compensation and allow Monsanto agents to inspect
their accounts and their farms for years to come. It is perfectly legal to
keep harvested grain to sow the following year: the farmer's only
obligation is not to sell that grain to his
neighbours. But according to Monsanto, that right does not apply to
genetically modified seed that is covered by a patent (11).
As for the risks of "biological pollution" and the consequences - quite
unknown - of genetically modified varieties for public health and the
environment, the genetic-industrial complex's philosophy was clearly summed
up by Monsanto's communications director Phil Angell when he said with
unusual frankness that his company had "no need to guarantee the safety of
genetically modified food products"; it was only interested in selling as
many as possible and safety was a matter for the Food and Drug
Administration (12). This from the people who paint the benefits of genetic
manipulation in such glowing colours (13).
Monsanto and its ally-competitors, Novartis, Rhône-Poulenc, Pioneer-DuPont
and many others, have specialised in the "life sciences". Strange life
sciences that conspire against the marvellous property of living things to
reproduce themselves and multiply in farmers' fields so that capital can
reproduce and multiply in investors' bank accounts. Will we soon be forced
to brick up doors and windows to protect candle makers from unfair
competition from the sun (14)? There is no shortage of arguments that the
sun should shine for everyone. Here are just four.
First, the wealth of variety was created by peasants all over the world,
the third world in particular. It is a point always being raised by
non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations like the United
Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The domestication and
selection/adaptation work done by peasants over thousands of years has
built up a biological heritage from which the industrialised nations have
greatly benefited - and which they have plundered and already partly
destroyed. American agriculture was built from these genetic resources
freely imported from all over the world, the only important species native
to North America being the sunflower. If justice still means anything, the
US - where there is much opposition to allowing a few companies to
expropriate the universal biological heritage - should repay their "genetic
debt" to the world.
Second, we owe the unprecedented increase in yields in the industrial
countries, as well as the third world, to the free movement of knowledge
and genetic resources and to public research. (Yields have increased four
or five fold in two generations, after taking 12 to 15 generations to
double and being no doubt much unchanged for thousands of years before
that.) The contribution of private research has been marginal, including in
the US with its hybrid maize.
For example, in the course of the 1970s nearly all the hybrids in the US
Corn Belt were the result of crossing two public lines - from the
universities of Iowa and Missouri. It is public research and public
research alone that does all the basic work on improving the populations of
plants on which everything depends. An expert from the National Agronomic
Research Institute (INRA) recalled that at the start of his career packets
of seed often came free with scientific publications. Thirty years later,
he suspects some of these journals of deliberately misleading the reader -
and the competition. Research work is being hampered by the privatisation
of knowledge, genetic resources and the techniques for their use. Tired of
paying royalties on genetic resources that were snatched from them in the
first place, many countries in the Southern hemisphere are now trying to
stop their circulation.
Third, experience shows that the price of privatised "genetic progress" is
and will be exorbitant. For example, in 1986 an INRA researcher estimated
the additional cost of hybrid wheat seed - that is, the cost of bricking up
doors and windows plus the cost of hybrid candles - at between 6 and 8
quintals per hectare (15). Another researcher, in charge of the INRA hybrid
wheat programme - which is continuing despite this incredibly high estimate
- recently came up with an even higher figure of 8 to 10 quintals per
hectare sown (16). This means, at the very least, $500 million a year, or
the entire INRA budget, for a net gain of scarcely a few quintals - a gain
that can be more easily and quickly obtained using lines or varieties
reproduced by the farmer. But those lines were of no interest to INRA's
Fourth, giving up our rights in living things means giving the
genetic-industrial complex a free hand to guide technical progress into the
paths that will bring it the most profits rather than those that will be
most useful to society. Rambling on about progress in general while
ignoring how things are done in practice smacks of deception. As does
invoking some alleged "social demand" in justification of the scientific
choices made by the authorities. Public opinion is massively against GMO.
So there is no "social demand" for GMO; the term is simply being used as a
smokescreen for the demands of the genetic-industrial complex. And yet, in
France, ministers have just opened a genetic research centre in Evry.
Easy prey for investors
The myth of hybrids is easily exposed. On the one hand, farmers want better
quality varieties that are more productive per unit cost. But they are
unable to specify in what form. Unfortunately, they can't rely on
scientists to tell them that there are a number of routes to improvement
and that the choice between a free variety and a hybrid is a political, not
a scientific one. Scientists are not political animals, as we know.
On the other hand, investors, looking to maximise the return on their
investment, choose the most profitable varietal type: they take the hybrid
route of sterile varieties. Whether spontaneously or working to order,
researchers set to work, devoting their efforts exclusively to the success
of these hybrids. And, sooner or later, the technique is made to work,
proving the initial choice was correct. A technical choice is like a
self-fulfilling prophecy - the farmer's demand for better varieties is
transformed into a demand for hybrids.
In the twin fields of applied biology, health and medicine, we are trying
to get rid of the great scourges of cancer, obesity, alcoholism, etc. But
we don't know how to reach this objective. The genetic-industrial complex,
for its part, is trying to make more and more money. Confusing the agent
with the cause, it drums into us that these social ills are genetic and
therefore individual, transforming every well individual into a potential
patient, expanding the market to the limit - as it previously did for seed
with hybrids and as it will with Terminator.
By definition, we are all carriers of genetic diseases. Since genes produce
proteins and proteins are involved in every function of life, to speak of a
"genetic" disease is a virtual tautology. But in a society where the social
and political causes of disease are absent, the genetic agent manifests
itself very rarely, if at all (17). The deception of individualising and
naturalising a social and political cause is the death knell of any system
of social security. In France we see this every day with the endless
debates about the chronic but oh-so-profitable social security deficit.
By cutting themselves off from society in the name of objectivity and
technology, biologists are falling victim to their own narrow concept of
causality and their "a-historicity" - easy prey for investors. But the way
for researchers to work for that better world that the vast majority want
is for them to open themselves up to the scrutiny of their fellow citizens.
That means scientific democracy.
The genetic-industrial complex is trying to transform political questions
into technical and scientific ones so that responsibility for them can be
shifted on to bodies it can control. Its experts, dressed in the candid
probity and the white coat of impartiality and objectivity, use the camera
to distract people's attention. Then they put on their three piece suits to
negotiate behind the scenes the patent they have just applied for, or sit
on the committees that will inform public opinion - quite objectively, it
goes without saying - and regulate their own activities. It is a serious
thing when democracy no longer has any independent experts and has to
depend on the courage and honesty of a few scientists and researchers, as
it must, for example, in the nuclear industry.
Such abuses are beginning to elicit a timid reaction. American biological
journals, for example, are asking their contributors to declare their
personal or family interests in biotechnology companies and their sources
of funding (18). This is the minimum level of transparency that should be
asked of anyone who takes the floor or sits on committees of supposedly
independent experts. We would then become aware of the genetic-industrial
complex's many and various ramifications.
In short, do we want to allow a few multinationals to take control of the
biological part of our humanity by granting them a right - legal,
biological or contractual - over life itself? Or do we want to preserve our
responsibility and our autonomy? Will farmers' organisations continue to
allow ruinous techniques to be imposed upon them or will they debate what
would be in the farmers' and the public's interest with renewed public
research and a network of breeder-agronomists? Finally, what are the
intentions of "public" agronomic research - which for decades has been
privatising the material of life economically, and now biologically?
There is another way. Turn our backs on the present European policy of
allowing life forms to be patented, which is nothing but a servile
imitation of what is happening in the US, and declare living things "the
common property of humanity". And reorganise genuinely public research
around this common property in order to block the already well-advanced
private hold that is seeking to eliminate any scientific alternative that
would make ecologically responsible and sustainable agriculture possible.
Guarantee the free movement of knowledge and genetic resources that have
made the extraordinary advances of the last 60 years possible. Restore
power over living things to the farmers, that is to each one of us. Replace
economic warfare and the plundering of genetic resources with international
cooperation and peace.
* Respectively Director of Research at the National Agronomic Research
Institute (INRA); and holder of the Alexander Agassiz chair in zoology and
professor of population genetics at Harvard University.
Translated by Malcolm Greenwood
(1) This article takes up the theme of a European workshop on the subject
"Should we create a right in living things?" held, because of opposition
from the board of the INRA, at the Montpellier Centre for Higher Agronomic
Studies on 26-27 September 1997.
(2) In his article "Playing God in the Garden", Michael Pollan writes that
with the rise of biotechnology, farming is entering the information age,
and Monsanto, more than any other firm, looks set to become its Microsoft,
providing the proprietary "operating systems", to use its own metaphor,
that will manage the new generation of plants. The New York Times Magazine,
28 October 1998.
(3) The biological concept of heredity appeared in the mid-19th century, at
the same time as the heredity of property. See the contribution by Jean
Gayon to the European workshop mentioned in note 1.
(4) The botanist Johann Rehof ("Gregori") Mendel was the founder of
genetics. He described the laws of hybridisation (or Mendel's laws) in a
seminal article published in 1886 but generally unknown until rediscovered
(5) Hugo De Vries, Plant-Breeding, The Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago,
(6) For the elimination of history from scientific projects, see Jean-Marc
Lévy-Leblond, La Pierre de touche. La science à l'Épreuve de ... la
société, Gallimard, coll. Folio, Paris 1996.
(7) From the start of the development of "hybrids" (1922) - when the
Department of Agriculture imposed the technique on reluctant breeders - to
their conquest of the Middle West in 1945-46, the maize yield increased 18%
while that of wheat increased 32%. But the small wheat breeders only serve
the general interest, while the "hybridisers" create a new source of profit
and therefore become scientific heros.
(8) See "The Genetics and Exploitation of Heterosis in Crops", Book of
Abstracts, International Symposium, Mexico City, CIMMYT, 1997. This
symposium, whose purpose was to popularise the "hybrid" technique the world
over and to extend it to new species, was sponsored by the cream the
genetic-industrial complex, including Monsanto, Novartis, Pioneer, DeKalb
and Asgrow, as well as by US Aid and the American Department of
Agriculture. China was also among the sponsors.
(9) In France, a former chairman and director of INRA boasted in 1986 of
being on the boards of Rhône-Poulenc, Entreprise minière et chimique, and
Société commerciale des potasses d'Alsace et de l'azote. The present
director of this public research institute was formerly (1989-94) on the
board of Rhône-Poulenc Agrochimie.
(10) The Pinkerton private detective agency traditionally supplied
employers with auxiliaries to break trade unions and whip up provocation.
(11) See Progressive Farmer, Birmingham, Alabama, 26 February 1998.
Monsanto has recently spelled out the penalties to be imposed on farmers
found to be "pirating" its varieties: they will have to pay a royalty and
allow their farms to be inspected for a period of five years. Two farmers
in Kentucky were obliged to pay it $25,000. In France, farmers belonging to
the Confédération paysanne are actively fighting against GMO. See the
Confederation's monthly, Campagnes solidaires (104, rue Robespierre, 93170
Bagnolet. Tel.: (+33) 143-62-82-82). See also the dossier on GMO published
in the October 1998 edition of the monthly Regards, Paris.
(12) Reported by Michael Pollan, "Playing God in the Garden", op. cit.
(13) See interview with Axel Kahn, "Les OGM permettront de nourrir la
planète en respectant l'environnement", Les Echos, 18 December 1997. Mr.
Kahn, a member of the National Consultative Committee on Ethics and
chairman of the Biomolecular Engineering Commission from 1988-1997, is
director of research unit 129 at the National Institute for Health and
Medical Research (INSERM) and assistant director of life sciences at
(14) See Jean-Pierre Berlan and Richard C. Lewontin, "Plant Breeders'
Rights and the Patenting of Life Forms", Nature, London, 322: 785-788, 28
(15) Michel Rousset, "Les blés hybrides sortent du laboratoire", La
Recherche, Paris, No. 173, January 1986.
(16) Gérard Doussinault, report to the scientific committee of the
Economics Department of the INRA, December 1996.
(17) See Richard C. Lewontin, The Doctrine of DNA. Biology as Ideology,
Penguin Books, London, 1993.
(18) In his article "Study discloses financial interests behind papers"
(Nature, vol. 385, 30 June 1997), Meredith Wadman shows that one third of
the main authors of articles published in 14 cellular and biomolecular
biology and medical journals had a direct financial interest in the work
they were reporting. The definition of "financial interest" is narrow,
however, since it does not include consultations, private shareholdings or
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1998 Le Monde diplomatique
Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign,
for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term
Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street
Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596
Our website, http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/geindex.html
contains more information on genetic engineering as well as
previous genetic engineering news items
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