The Biotech Thieves

Revolutionary Worker #1111, July 22, 2001, posted at

On June 24-25, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) opened the doors of its annual convention in San Diego to thousands of corporate scientists, executives and lawyers, government officials, and other representatives of capitalism who want to profit off an even more patented and commodified society, where science and human knowledge is sold to the highest bidder.

For five days surrounding the BIO convention, hundreds of people participated in Biojustice/Beyond Biodevastation 2001, to protest the greedy and anti-human practices of the biotech industry. Protesters came from all over the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and from as far away as India, Brazil, England, Germany, South Africa, Colombia and the Philippines. Most were youth, some in their early teens. But many were older, including folks well into their 60s and 70s. There were farmers and doctors, students and professors, geneticists and anarchists, revolutionary communists and botanists, chemists and Chicano activists, ecologists, biologists and feminists.

With passion, sincerity and a vigorous intellectual curiosity, people gathered to confront and shed light on the threats to people's health, the environment, and society posed by genetic engineering. With teach-ins, demonstrations, and direct actions, people exposed and opposed the destruction of food systems, the theft of genetic information, the development and deployment of weapons of biowarfare, and the commodification of life by some of the biggest ravagers of the planet.

Human beings have always experimented with and found ways to change and "engineer" nature in order to produce food, medicine and other useful things. But today, biotechnology in the context of capitalism has opened up whole new frontiers of exploitation and the rule of profit over people.

Chaia Heller, professor of Ecological Philosophy at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, points out, "The same capitalist system that is producing biotechnology is creating the kind of trade wars and the kind of economic structures that are keeping people impoverished all over the world. It's the same system."

Poison and Profits

Since 1987, corporate gene giants have been contaminating the world's food supply with dangerous and largely untested products of genetic engineering. Where testing has occurred, the results have been disturbing. In 1998, Arpad Pusztai, a researcher at Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, performed the first non-industry-sponsored study analyzing genetically engineered food and its effects on mammals. The study had been undertaken to determine whether or not the spliced genes of genetically engineered (GE) food could be damaging to mammals ingesting them. In fact, the preliminary data suggested something far more startling: that the actual process of genetic alteration itself may cause damage to the mammalian digestive and immune systems. When Pusztai began to make the findings of his study public, Monsanto, a leading U.S. biotech firm, gave the Rowett Institute a $224,000 grant. Pusztai was fired, and the Institute's director denied that the research even existed.

Why would the biotech industry want to hide such important scientific findings? The story of capitalist biotech engineering of corn sheds some light on this question. Mexico is the birthplace of corn. For thousands of years, the indigenous people of Oaxaca and Chiapas have been cultivating it. Until now, domestically produced corn was a staple of most Mexicans' diet and a major source of livelihood for many peasants throughout the country. Then, biotech giant Aventis developed StarLink--corn that's been genetically engineered to be resistant to insects. However, StarLink was barred from human use in the U.S. by regulators because of concerns that it might trigger severe allergic reactions such as rashes, diarrhea, and respiratory problems.

This concern, however, did not extend to Mexicans. And under NAFTA--which has made it even easier for U.S. corporations to operate in Mexico--Aventis and other U.S. chemical companies like DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland have been able to dump thousands of tons of StarLink corn onto the Mexican market. These companies set the price of their seed so low that Mexican peasants with their native-grown seed have not been able to compete. Entire populations have been forced off the land their people have cultivated for centuries, into the vast shantytowns of Mexico City or onto the dangerous journey north, across the border.

Take another example: canola. Monsanto, a biotech firm that controls 85% of all genetically engineered germplasm, claims that genetic engineering will reduce pesticide use. But Monsanto is actually engineering crops to tolerate more herbicides. And they are using their ownership of many of the world's most important commercial seed companies to saturate the commercial seed supply with genetically engineered varieties--basically forcing all farmers to buy Monsanto seed.

Some small family farmers, who own their own land and develop their own seed, came to participate in the Biojustice protests. Many of these kinds of farmers are resisting agribusiness and the corporate control of food production. Some of them talked about how they see themselves as caretakers of the land and are dedicated to producing food that will enhance people's lives. Many small farmers don't want to use GE (genetically engineered) seed to grow their crops. But Monsanto is trying to ensure that farmers don't have a chance to make that choice.

Through a procedure patented in 1998 and dubbed Terminator Technology, Monsanto has been able to engineer genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that kill their own seeds in the second generation. If Monsanto is able to fully use this Termination Technology, farmers will not be able to save and replant their crops' seeds from year to year--a common farming practice that saves money and improves crop quality. And every year, a farmer would have to buy all his seed from Monsanto--at higher-than-market prices.

Not only does the Terminator kill its own seed, it also sterilizes other plant varieties that happen to be in its vicinity--and beyond. Because of naturally occurring seed and pollen drift, Terminator has been known to infect fields and farms many miles from where it was sown. So even those farmers who are resisting GE are finding their crops and their land violated. And because Terminator sterilizes the flora that surrounds it, it also effectively wipes out all the other life forms that rely on that flora as a food source and habitat.

It is becoming virtually impossible for farmers to obtain non-GE seed or to maintain non-GE crops. GMOs now enter into 70% of processed food products in the U.S. The proliferation of these pesticidal seeds and their "Frankenfood" offspring is the biogenetic equivalent of opening Pandora's box: no one knows what the long-term effects on human health and the environment will be.

Monsanto has actually sued farmers who refuse to buy their GE seed! Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer in his 70s who's been growing canola source plants for over 50 years, publicly refused to use Monsanto's GE seed because of the potential dangers it poses. He was sued by Monsanto in 1998 for patent infringement because Monsanto's genetically engineered plants contaminated his fields. A stray seed or bit of pollen from Monsanto's trademarked and patented Roundup Ready canola drifted onto Schmeiser's land and cross-pollinated with one of his plants. This past March, a Canadian federal judge ruled that the mere presence of a canola plant with Monsanto's gene on Schmeiser's farm was enough to prove patent infringement. Schmeiser was forced to give up all the profits from his 1998 canola crop and may be forced to pay Monsanto's court costs, too.

Schmeiser spoke at the Biojustice conference in San Diego. "Even though you have a patent on a life-giving form, that does not give you the right to destroy another person's property. I've told farmers they should never give up the right to save their seed, or they'll become serfs of the land." Schmeiser sees his case as one of basic human rights: "I think it's totally wrong for farmers to lose their rights to a multinational corporation. I have five children and 14 grandchildren, and do I want to leave them a legacy of a land filled with poison, or a land without poison?"

Public relations mouthpieces for capitalist biotechnocrats claim their genetically engineered food can solve the problem of world hunger by making land more productive, crops more resistant to infestations, and food more nutritious. But the motivation behind the whole biotech industry is NOT solving world hunger--but increasing profits and monopolizing the production and selling of food.

Look at the example of Golden Rice. In 1999, the Swiss and German biotech giant Syngenta announced the development of "Golden Rice," genetically engineered to produce extra beta-carotene, a substance that the human body can convert into Vitamin A. Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) afflicts millions of people in developing countries. 500,000 children go blind each year from VAD. Women with VAD are more likely to die during or after childbirth. It can weaken the immune system and is implicated in over one million deaths each year.

Golden Rice was marketed as a way to eliminate Vitamin A deficiency. But in fact, Golden Rice produces so little beta-carotene that a woman would need to eat 16 pounds of cooked rice every day to get sufficient Vitamin A; a child would need to eat 12 pounds. And even if Golden Rice had sufficient amounts of beta-carotene, it would be ineffective where people are suffering from malnutrition and starvation. In order to absorb beta-carotene, the human body requires adequate amounts of zinc, protein and fat, elements often lacking in the diets of poor people. But cultivation of GMOs like Golden Rice have replaced the diverse cropping systems that have been traditionally utilized by peasants in many Third World countries. These GE crops require irrigation, fertilizers and herbicides to deliver increased yields--and the herbicides required to grow Golden Rice kill off many of the green, leafy vegetables that have always been an important source of Vitamin A for people in these countries. The production of Golden Rice has also poisoned rice paddy waters, causing steep declines in fish and shrimp populations in areas such as Bangladesh where integrated rice-fish farming has been practiced for centuries.

Luke Anderson, anti-GE author and organizer from England, pointed out: "According to the United Nations, we're already producing enough food to feed one and a half times the world population with an adequate, nutritious diet. The fact that the U.S. government and the people of BIO 2001 are arguing that a genetically engineered future is the solution is just diverting attention from the real causes of hunger, the real causes of poverty, the real causes of ill health...."

There is more food available in the world now than ever before in history, and food production is growing faster than the human population. But today, close to a billion people in the world suffer from hunger, malnutrition and starvation because of the imperialist world system, which is based on exploitation and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few.


Another aspect of the biotech industry is the research and development of biowarfare.

The U.S. military and law enforcement are heavily involved in the research and development of biowarfare weapons. Psychopharmacological agents--things like BZ, an extremely powerful hallucinogen that alters brain chemistry and has long-term effects; military-grade Prozac; and HEDs, Human Enhancement Drugs designed to turn troops into "better soldiers"-- have already been used by the U.S. military in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan. On the domestic front, the U.S. Army has a contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to develop and test so-called "non-lethal" bioregulator and biotechnical crowd control weapons like microwaves, maloderants, and thought-control drugs.

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are being used by the U.S. military. Fusarium EN-4, a plant fungus, was developed about 50 years ago at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the center for the U.S. bio-war program. "Agent Green" is a biological weapon widely used in the so-called "War on Drugs" to kill illicit crops like coca, marijuana, and opium poppies. It is an extremely virulent herbicide that kills all species of coca being grown by farmers. Among its other known dangers: it kills other species, animal as well as plant. According to mycotoxicologist Jeremy Bigwood, the threat it presents cannot be fully defined because it mutates into another organism capable of attacking many other plants, and can stay in the ground for 40 years. It can mutate and lethally infect humans with immune deficiencies.

In Colombia, where the U.S. government is waging a war against the Colombian people under cover of the war on drugs, U.S. planes spray Agent Green over the Colombian rainforests, intentionally spray villages, contaminating water and food supplies, threatening the traditional medicinal and religious applications of coca and other plants by indigenous people in the Amazon. Eduardo Posada, president of the Colombian Center for International Physics, found that the mortality rate among hospital patients who were immune-deficient and infected by the fungus was 76%.

Genetic engineering also has the capability to create new diseases and new life forms that the world has not known before, and which hold devastating potential for a biosafety nightmare. For example, it's possible now through biotechnology to create a microorganism that will digest just about anything. Earlier this year the U.S. Navy got a patent on a microbe that degrades plastic. A number of others are in development. A GE microbe that digests asphalt or petroleum products, released into the environment, could become an uncontrollable disaster.

Another front of biowarfare seeks to combine GMOs with human gene engineering in the hope of producing "ethnic weapons." Through research into human gene sequences, the U.S. military would like to be able to target different sections of people with "ethnically sensitive" biological weapons. For example, large segments of Southeast Asian populations display a lactose intolerance due to the absence of the enzyme lactase in the digestive system. A biological weapon could conceivably take advantage of this genetic variance and incapacitate or kill an entire population.

"Intellectual Property Rights" and the Commodification of Nature

"Bio[technology] is stealing the knowledge around the use of medicines, plants and seeds we have been using for many years. Now corporations are coming into our communities to get the resources we have. The U.S. and other developed countries are raiding the Third World's storehouse of medicinal plants and the knowledge of how to use them. The idea is to turn these into commercial products, protect them through patents, then be able to charge us astronomical prices for treatments our people devel-oped collectively over thousands of years."

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, director of the
Indigenous People
's Center for Policy Research
and Education in the Philippines

The vast majority of the world's biological diversity originates in the tropics and sub-tropics. The genes from plants, animals, and microorganisms, found primarily in the southern hemisphere, provide much of the "strategic raw materials" for the development of new food, and pharmaceutical and industrial products. These genetic resources have been selected, nurtured and improved upon by farmers and indigenous peoples over thousands of years. And now, capitalist biotechnology companies are competing among each other to buy, own, patent, sell and profit from such natural resources.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement includes a thing called the "Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights" (TRIPS), that will allow multinational corporations to apply for patents on living creatures and life processes. And the U.S. patent office has thrown open its doors to the biotechnology industry, allowing entire species of plants, transgenic animals (animals bred using gene technology), and over 500,000 whole or partial genes to be patented. 74% of such patents are controlled by just six companies: Monsanto, Aventis, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, and Pulsar.

Basic biological resources are being privatized, accessible only to those who are able to pay royalties for access or research. Beyond environmental concerns, questions about new genetic technologies in agriculture and human research raise fundamental issues of power and control: who should be granted property rights over pieces of the natural world? Who should control common biological and genetic resources? At issue is the capitalist commodification of life itself.

A group of young women at the Biojustice demonstration exposed how the biotech industry is trying to patent human breast milk. One woman said, "Humans can only exist as part of a community, and that's not just the human community but an ecological biosphere community. For any one person to try to say they own something like [breast milk] and try to put a patent on it and a dollar value on it is pretty much to deny what makes us human. We are trained to believe in the individual 'I,' meaning myself, and 'If I have my food and my car and my house, then I don't have to worry about the people in Mexico because they're not me.' Other paradigms would define 'I' as 'my community,' and that community extended to the biotic community of the world. I'm concerned about the workers in Mexico because they are really not that separate from me. If they're being pushed off their land, if they're being commodified and having their knowledge stolen and patented by the corporations, well, that's mine too. I'm a part of that."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)