domingo, julio 16, 2006

OnEarth praises biopirate Venter


Re: Craig Venter interview in Summer '06 issue

I normally enjoy reading OnEarth's articles but was dismayed and disappointed by the Craig Venter interview in your Summer '06 issue. Only at the very end of the interview does the reporter ask him about the international controversy stirred by his marine microbe-hunting expeditions.

Here is the excerpt:

Q: People have already charged you with everything from eugenics to biopiracy.

A: The biopiracy one is my favorite. We're sailing across the open ocean in international waters and there's this current moving across the Pacific at 1 knot. So there are microbes in that current that move from open ocean into the 200-mile limit of French Polynesia, and suddenly the French call that French genetic heritage. Right? And they want to own it and capitalize on it. It takes months of paperwork to take 200 liters of seawater now from the open ocean. Before we published our paper nobody cared, because nobody assumed anything was there. So I think it's quite comical that we're called pirates for describing the data and making it available for the world.

Venter's response is a rather arrogant and casual dismissal of the legitimate concerns of people all over Latin America that have denounced his activities as biopiracy. Either he deliberately misrepresents the views of his critics or honestly does not understand the ethical and political implications of his work.

Venter's argumentation is identical to the European colonizers' rationales for seizing the lands and resources of the native peoples of the American hemisphere. The colonizer argued that the natives were not exploiting and "gainfully" using their lands and resources, so they were going to waste- hence the term "waste land". In the colonizer's mind, any resource that he does not own or exploit is "going to waste".

For more information on the substance of this debate, I recommend you read these two documents by the ETC Group:

Rocking the Boat: J. Craig Venter's Microbial Collecting Expedition Under Fire in Latin America

Playing God in the Galapagos

Notice that this is not some white NGO from a rich Northern hemisphere country claiming to speak on behalf of the poor peoples of the global South, as defenders of biopiracy would have us believe. Environmental leaders from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Chile and other countries have repeatedly spoken up against Venter's expedition and the practice of biopiracy in general, but much of the American environmental movement is not listening. The views and concerns of Latin Americans deserve more respect and consideration on the part of American environmentalists and progressives.

I was also surprised and disappointed that the reporter did not press Venter about the possible hazards of synthetic life forms, which he proposes to make. On May 19 a coalition of thirty-five international organizations including scientists, environmentalists, trade unionists, biowarfare experts and social justice advocates called for inclusive public debate, regulation and oversight of the rapidly advancing field of synthetic biology. "We believe that this potentially powerful technology is being developed without proper societal debate concerning socio-economic, security, health, environmental and human rights implications", said their open letter. "The social, economic, ethical, environmental and human rights concerns that arise from the field of synthetic biology go far beyond deterring bioterrorists and 'evildoers.' Issues of ownership (including intellectual property), direction and control of the science, technology, processes and products must also be thoroughly considered." For the full text:

I hope that OnEarth can report on these issues of controversy in an even handed way in a future issue.

Director, Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety

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