lunes, abril 17, 2006

An article by John Ikerd

Sustainability and Biotechnology

John Ikerd
University of Missouri

Sustaining People through Agriculture column, Small Farm Today
January/February, 2001 issue

In the Oct-Dec 1999 issue of Small Farm Today, Ron Macher made a compelling case against the sustainability of biotechnology. I agree with everything he wrote. However, advocates of biotechnology continue to label we skeptics as uniformed alarmists or as romantic idealists who long for a world long past. If we don’t embrace biotechnology, they reason, then we must have some irrational fear of the future. After all, the universities, the government, and the big corporations are all promoting biotechnology as a shining star in the crown for human ingenuity. What rights do we ordinary people have to oppose this new technology? What right do we have to question the wisdom of the intellectually, economically, and politically powerful?

First, we have every right to question the scientific community, because the science currently used in biotechnology is not appropriate for the study of living things. Biotechnology is based on a mechanistic worldview developed more than four hundred years ago. Most scientists today believe that the world and everything upon it operates a lot like a machine. They believe living things ultimately are nothing more than sophisticated machines with interchangeable and replaceable parts. Up to now, we simply have lacked the technical ability to build, redesign, repair, and replace living things. Biotechnology promises to give us that ability.

But, living things are not machines. Even the early scientists recognized that the mechanical model was not appropriate for living things – particularly not for thinking things. A fundamental difference is that living things are “self-making" - as they function, they continually change in response to their environment, renew their bodies as they grow, and eventually mature, reproduce, and die. Machines are built; they function, eventually wear out, and are discarded. Machines don’t remake themselves.

The difference between dealing with dead and living things is like the difference between kicking a football and kicking a dog. When you kick a football, you can calculate precisely what is going to happen -- if you are smart enough to take into account such things as foot speed, angle of impact, temperature, wind speed, etc. But when you kick a dog, you don’t know what’s going to happen. The dog may lie down and whimper, yelp and run, stand and growl, bite your foot, or wait until your back is turned and take a hunk out of your backside. Genetic engineering is a lot more like kicking a dog than kicking a football. Scientists just don’t know what’s going to happen.

Scientists agree that the _expression of a gene within a living organism depends upon its context - its relationship with other genes, which define the organism as a whole. Thus, when genetic engineers insert a new gene into a living organism, the context of every other gene in the organism has been changed. They may have a pretty good idea of how the new gene will express itself, but they have no way of knowing how the _expression of any other genes may be changed, particularly in some future generation of the organism.

Since the responses to this genetic tinkering are inherently uncertain, the risks associated with biotechnology cannot be estimated - regardless of claims to the contrary. In order to assess risk, one must at least have a reasonable estimate of the distribution of possible future outcomes or occurrences. In other words, we must have a reasonable estimate of the chances of something bad happening, regardless of whether the odds are one-in-two, one-in-a-hundred, or one-in-a-million. With biotechnology, we don’t have a clue. It might be relatively safe or it may be deadly. We just don’t know.

Under such conditions of uncertainty, we should practise the “precautionary principle". A new product should not be approved unless there is “strong evidence" that it is safe and promises important public benefits. In addition, the burden of evidence of safety and effectiveness should be the responsibility of the one seeking approval and not the responsibility of the public. The Europeans have applied this principle to Genetically Modified Organisms, and thus far, have rejected them. We apply the precautionary principle to medicine. We too should proceed with caution in all matters related to biotechnology.

Advocates say that genetic engineering is essentially the same as earlier work with genetic selection. Once again, they ignore the fact that they are working with living organisms. Transgenic organisms, such as strawberries with a fish gene inserted to improve frost resistance, could not possibly have occurred through natural reproduction. In nature, genetic material is not exchanged across boundaries that separate different species. Nature also places limits on the speed with which genetic change can take place within species. Genetic engineering ignores all such natural boundaries.

Nuclear engineering is the only previous venture in science that is even remotely similar in nature to genetic engineering. Nuclear energy is created by tinkering with the atom, a fundamental building block of matter. Genetic engineers are tinkering with genes, the fundamental building blocks of life. Humanity has been dealing with the unanticipated “fallout" of nuclear energy ever since the first atom bomb was exploded, and there is no end to the various nuclear crises in sight. A primary difference between nuclear fallout and genetic fallout is that living things reproduce and spread on their own. There is no way to put the genetic genie back in the bottle.

We also have a right to question the economics of biotechnology, because the same corporations that brought us agricultural pesticides are now bringing us biotechnology. These same corporations made billions of dollars selling farmers pesticides, and now they want to make billions of dollars selling farmers biotech replacements for those pesticides - many of which are no longer effective. These firms introduced commercial pesticides fifty years ago without knowing the risks, because they were dealing with complex living organisms and couldn’t possibly have known the risk. But at the time, no one could prove that they weren’t safe, so we allowed farmers to use them. Only decades later did we decide to ban whole classes of pesticides as threats to human health and the natural environment. The sad fact is that these corporations know far less about the consequences of biotechnology today than they knew about the threats of pesticides fifty years ago. They are interested in profits, not protection of the environment or feeding the world’s hungry people.

These corporations claim that biotechnology will be needed to feed the growing world population. However, they insist on patenting their genetic discoveries. The only reason for a patent is to grant an exclusive right to make a profit from a discovery. If we were really interested in feeding the world, biotechnology would be developed with public research dollars, and discoveries would be free for all to use without charge. The give-away patent for “golden rice" to fight malnutrition and promises to develop bio-vaccines to fight disease, are nothing more than public relations and marketing gimmicks. Any future public benefits of biotechnology will go to those who are able to pay the corporate price, and that will not include the poor and starving of the world. If we were really serious about feeding the hungry of the world, we could do it today. There is plenty of money and plenty of know how, but there is a serious lack of will to share either. Biotechnology won’t change the human heart, at least not for the better, and therefore, biotechnology won’t feed the poor.

We also have a right to question the politics of biotechnology. The agricultural establishment supports biotech because it has been sold as the future of farming. In one sense, the hype is true. Biotechnology will bring an end to farming as we know it. Biotechnology will result in the same type of corporate control of crops and livestock as we now see in the poultry industry. Eventually, farmers who do not have verifiable, approved genetics will find that they have no markets. In order to gain market access, they will have to produce approved varieties, which can be obtained only through contractual arrangements with the patent holders - the biotech corporations. Farmers will become contractors, at best, and in most cases will be corporate hired hands.

We also have a responsibility to question the politics of biotech because it is draining scarce public dollars away from use in meeting the real challenges of the future of agriculture. Ultimately, we must have a sustainable system of food production, or humanity simply will not survive. Thousands of farmers around the globe are working to build such a system, but they are forced to do it pretty much on their own. Successful examples of sustainable farmers around the globe serve as proof that we don’t need biotechnology to feed the world, we just need a lot more people who understand how to work with nature rather than against it. While our public universities and agencies are spending billions of tax payers’ dollars to subsidize giant multinational corporations, these innovative, creative farmers are working, with very little outside help, to create the real future of agriculture.

We have perhaps a fifty year window of opportunity to develop a system of food and fiber production that is economically viable, ecologically sound, and socially responsible. Biotechnology fails all three tests of sustainability. We have every right to question those who advocate biotechnology as the future of agriculture and of humanity.

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