Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Now that genetically modified food is beginning to appear on supermarket shelves John Parrington asks whether socialists should welcome such advances and looks at who controls the biotechnology industry.
Can we trust the biotechnology industry? That is a question many people are asking as Monsanto, the world's biggest producer of genetically modified crops, launches a million pound advertising campaign to convince us that its food products are 'as safe and nutritious as the standard alternatives'. Yet the campaign only serves to highlight the growing unease with which many people view the industry.
Important questions have been raised. Biotechnology is often presented as a force which has the power to transform both agriculture and medicine, eradicating hunger and sickness. Does this fit the reality of the way it is being developed? And is it right to tamper with natural processes in the first place, or do we risk the danger of unleashing environmental catastrophe through our ignorance? We can only answer these questions if we go to the heart of the problem--who controls biotechnology, and for whose benefit?
There is no doubt that biotechnology represents an enormous advance in our ability to manipulate the world around us. It is based on the revolution that has taken place in biology over the last 25 years. The three main techniques utilised by biotechnology are tissue culturing, cloning and genetic manipulation. Being able to grow and maintain living cells outside the body of an animal or plant was itself a major scientific breakthrough. But the real power of biotechnology lies in the ability to alter the genetic information of such cells and then, through cloning, to use them to produce identical, genetically modified organisms.
Cloning has been possible in plants for some years. Until the arrival of Dolly the sheep, it was thought that it would be impossible to clone animals. The announcement this summer from a group in Hawaii that dozens of cloned mice have been produced, some of them clones of clones, has confirmed the power of the technique. Biotechnology promises to telescope years of laborious plant or animal breeding into a few days of genetic manipulation. But perhaps its most significant aspect is that it is now possible to transfer genes between species, and even from animals to plants. That might sound perverse, but it would potentially allow the creation of plants that would be able to survive in the vast number of marginal environments presently unsuitable for agriculture. For instance, scientists have transferred an 'anti-freeze' gene, found in certain types of fish, into soya plants in an attempt to make them more tolerant of cold weather.
Transgenic animals have relevance for both agriculture and medicine. One of the primary aims of the team which cloned Dolly is to create animals engineered to produce human proteins such as the ones lacking in people with cystic fibrosis or with haemophilia.
The potential of biotechnology remains immense. So why has it become an object for such distrust? The reason is that multinational corporations like Monsanto, Dupont, Ciba-Geigy and Bayer who are developing biotechnology are not guided by any desire to use science and technology to eradicate sickness and hunger but rather by the capitalist priorities of maximising profit and their share of the market.
These are the issues behind Monsanto's latest advertising campaign. There is big money at stake behind its attempts to gain access for its crops in Europe. The world market for genetically modified crops is expected to be worth nearly £1.8 billion by the millennium and to rise rapidly to nearly £4 billion by 2005. But while Monsanto has planted more than 50 million acres of genetically modified soya, maize and cotton in the US, only a few thousand acres of test crops in Europe have been planted because of opposition to the new crops.
Monsanto would like to portray all its opponents as enemies of science and technological progress. It has been helped in this by the absurd comments of Prince Charles. He recently claimed that genetic modification of plants and animals goes against nature, and that such intervention was an attack on God's rights! In fact there is no fundamental ethical difference between changing the genetic makeup of an organism by blotechnology or by conventional breeding methods, something human beings have been doing for thousands of years.
Opposition to Monsanto has not been helped by misinformation and media sensationalism. A recent television documentary claimed that genetically modified potatoes had been shown to cause stunted growth in rats. The scientist at the prestigious Rowett Institute in Aberdeen who communicated the story was subsequently sacked. In fact the report turned out to be false. The potatoes were not genetically modified at all but had been laced with a substance already known to be poisonous.
Yet something did emerge from the report which was passed over by much of the media that was perhaps of greater significance. It turned out that the Rowett Institute was receiving a substantial amount of its funding from Monsanto itself in fact such financial ties are becoming increasingly common among research institutes starved of state funding and raises serious doubts about their independance from the food corporations whose products they are supposed to be objectively and critically investigating.
The real case against Monsanto is based on far more substantial evidence. One of Monsanto's primary research efforts is making crops resistant to the pesticides which it also produces. A worrying recent finding is a piece of research from the United States which has shown that genetically modified crops are far more promiscuous than normal plants at passing on their genes to other plants. The study, reported in the science journal Nature, found that genes conferring resistance to a herbicide were 20 times more likely to be spread from transgenic plants than from naturally occurring mutants with the same resistance. The fear is that such resistance might spread to nearby weeds, which are often related to the crops that they border. Ecologists fear the creation of 'superweeds' which could spread throughout the countryside, uncheckable by normal methods.
The development of herbicide resistant plants also seems destined to increase the amount of weedkillers that are used in agriculture, despite the detrimental effect this will have, not just on the farm workers who have to handle them but on the environment as a whole.
Agriculture today, is dominated by a handful of firms. They control the land, the manufacturing of fertilisers and pesticides, the type of seeds grown, the animal breeds used, and the machinery involved in production. These 'agribusiness' corporations also determine the marketing and distribution of food.
The global domination of agriculture by the multinationals was given its greatest boost during the so called 'Green Revolution' of the 1960s. This saw the introduction in Third World countries of fertilisers, irrigation and new high-yield dwarf seed types that transformed food production. It meant that countries like India could for the first time feed themselves without food imports, and provided the basis for the majority of the population to have an adequate diet. The Green Revolution gave the lie to those who said that technological advances in food production could not keep up with population growth.
If the Green Revolution was so successful, why do millions live in constant hunger today? Why do thousands die each day from starvation or diseases that are made fatal by malnutrition? The reason is that the problem of world hunger was never one of simply too little food and thus could not be solved simply by producing more. The problem was and is one of maldistribution, and ultimately lack of power and opportunity among the poor of the world to participate in the process of food production. Because only the richest farmers could afford the new seeds and the fertilisers required to grow crops, the Green Revolution helped concentrate rural wealth and power in the hands of a few--exacerbating the very process that had helped create so much hunger in the first place, and the very problem so many had claimed the Green Revolution would solve.
The Green Revolution placed world agriculture even more firmly in the hands of the multinationals because the new seed varieties were dependent on fertilisers and pesticides that those same companies produced. The creation of plants that are resistant to one particular brand of herbicide is a continuation of that process.
It is not just herbicide resistant plants that are giving cause for concern. Other types of genetically modified plants are being produced, such as potatoes that are poisonous to the insects which feed on them. Crops such as melons are being engineered to be resistant to plant viruses. In principle, there is nothing wrong with the development of such plants. The problem is that in the rush to get their products on the market, companies are ignoring the wider, possibly irreversible effects on the environment that these might have. It is already becoming clear that insecticide producing plants are capable of killing a wide range of species and in the process threatening the ecological balance.
It is impossible to assess accurately the scale of the risk to the environment and our health and safety posed by the new wave of genetically modified crops. The only sensible course of action is to err on the side of caution. Even the normally conservative Royal Society is calling for a truly independent regulatory body to oversee plant biotechnology. At the moment the government's advisory committee is dominated by figures linked to the biotechnology industry. The Royal Society's suggestion is welcome but does not go far enough. We should be demanding a ban on genetically modified crops until further research which adequately assesses the risks has been carried out.
What is the chance of the government listening to these demands? Under the Tories we grew used to seeing our health and safety sacrificed on the altar of the free market. Unfortunately New Labour looks set to continue this trend. Amidst new fears that 'mad cow disease' may now have passed to sheep and become endemic, the government has rejected calls by leading scientists for sheep to be tested for BSE.
At the same time, New Labour is continuing with the Tories' business based approach to science in general. The new head of the British science funding council, John Taylor, is an industrialist, not an academic, as is the newly appointed science minister, Lord Sainsbury. Given the way science has been starved of funds over the last two decades, some scientists have welcomed the idea of greater links with industry. But are such links really a substitute for proper state funding? The recent scandal in the British biotechnology industry makes a mockery of claims that funding by big business offers a way forward for the long term development of science.
British Biotech was the country's flagship biotechnology company but became mired in controversy earlier this year after allegations of insider dealing and feeding false information to investors about the drugs it was developing. The company's share price has since dropped dramatically. Apologists say that such incidents are merely the growing pains of a maturing industry, but similar scandals continue to rock the older and more experienced, biotechnology industry in the United States.
The inherent problem facing biotechnology is that the pressures of the market encourage short term solutions while science requires long term planning and funding. Some of the greatest discoveries in science have not come about through narrowly focused profit motivated research but from the same basic research that is being cut in universities across the country.
The drive for profit both squanders the potential of science and at its worst leads to abuses which threaten our health and even the long term future of the planet. It is not surprising that many people often blame science as a whole for the mess which capitalism has created. Many scientists themselves are angry at the horrors being practised in the name of science but feel powerless to do anything about it.
The financial pressures on science can only increase as the world tips into recession. Biotechnology does offer humanity enormous possibilities for increasing the scope and potential of all our lives. First, however, it must be liberated from the fetters with which capitalism binds it.