Worldwatch interviews Bereano
by Matt Styslinger
Philip Bereano is Professor Emeritus in the field of Technology and Public Policy at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has been an active and outspoken proponent of democratic social ethics in technology for decades. He is on the roster of experts for the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, a participant in the UN’s Codex Alimentarius processes, and co-founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics, the Washington Biotechnology Action Council, and the 49th Parallel Biotechnology Consortium.EXCERPT:
What ethical issues are associated with GE in agriculture?
GE has been presented in a way that attempts to gain public acceptance for it, but none of the GE technologies have, in any sustained fashion, increased food production or decreased world hunger. However, they’ve certainly increased funding for the biotechnology scientists and the profits for the Monsantos of the world.
“Golden Rice”—with enhanced levels of vitamin A—while touted by GE proponents as an example of GE benefits, has not reduced blindness at all in the Third World and, in fact, is highly unlikely to do so because of the huge quantities of Golden Rice a kid would have to eat. And he or she still may not be getting a balanced diet with the other nutrients needed to make use of the vitamin A.
There’s a major ethical issue in the very simplistic reductionist model this technology is based on. The central dogma of GE is this image of the genome as a Lego set, where you can take out the green one and put in a red one. In reality, however, the genome is highly fluid and the parts interact. The Lego model is quite wrong, yet it’s used constantly in public discourse, regulatory submissions, and legislative testimony. Biologists know how the genome actually works, but advancement in the profession rules out of play such subjects of discourse because they would challenge the positions taken by industry funders. Scientists who wish to break that boundary, either by scientific experimentation or by public writings, have largely been isolated and marginalized by the wealthy and the powerful within the academic-industrial complex—for example the experiences of Dr. Arpad Pusztai, Dr. Ignacio Chapela, and Dr. Terje Traavik [Editor’s Note: These are leading international scientists who were criticized by biotechnology companies and other scientists for raising health and environmental concerns about genetically modified crops.] I think these examples indicate a profound set of ethical issues surrounding the professional functioning of geneticists and academic and industry biologists.
You have argued that this technology poses risks to the world’s smallholder farmers. Why?
It was quite unprecedented when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the patentability of microbial gene products. The Patent Office ran away with the decision and allowed the patentability of plants and mammals as well. The creation of intellectual property monopolies in agricultural germplasm by large transnational corporations certainly presents a set of ethical issues, and works to the disadvantage of smallholder farms and sustainable agriculture. “Sustainability” doesn’t just mean profitability forever. Sustainability has qualitative dimensions, like justice and distributional considerations—otherwise, a totalitarian society could be called sustainable! So we are having this tremendous transfer of knowledge, power, and control from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations.
Back to the example of Golden Rice. Vandana Shiva found that in one village in India, there were 350 plants growing nearby that had been routinely eaten and that provided vitamin A or its precursors. Under industrial agricultural models, however, these were defined as “weeds,” and farmers were encouraged to plow them under and plant cotton instead. Locals no longer have access to the foods that used to provide them with vitamin A, and blindness increased. Instead of understanding that agro-ecological approaches could minimize blindness by preserving access to indigenous diets, Golden Rice has been offered as a “high-tech miracle” way to overcome this situation; the high-tech mindset tries to solve problems brought on largely by technologies through the application of more technologies of higher complexity.
Suddenly, we have a system of consolidation where one dominant multinational corporation, Monsanto, is seeking to obtain majority control of the world’s agricultural plant germplasm, rather than sustaining the resilient, decentralized system for germplasm protection and utilization in rural and indigenous communities that has fed us well for millennia.