Multinational Monitor

JAN/FEB 2000
VOL 21 No.


Don’t Ask, Don’t Know: The Biotech Regulatory Vacuum
by Ben Lilliston

Down on the Farm: Farmers Get The Biotech Blues
by Michael Stumo

The View From Wall Street
by Charlie Cray

The International Food Fight: From Seattle to Montreal
by Kristin Dawkins

In The Pipeline: Genetically Modified Humans?
by Richard Hayes


Traitor and The New Life Science Industry
An Interview with Pat Mooney

Changing the Nature of Natures
An Interview with Martin Teitel


Behind the Lines

The Biotech Challenge

The Front
Monsanto Sued - Corporate Welfare Challenged

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News



The Biotech Challenge

Far behind the international curve, popular opposition to biotechnology is now beginning to coalesce in the United States.

India has seen mass demonstrations against genetically engineered food and organized campaigns to tear genetically engineered crops out of the ground. Europe maintains a de facto ban on the introduction of new biotech foods. Brazilian courts have blocked the planting of biotech crops.

Meanwhile, genetically engineered crops have quietly spread across U.S. farm country, garnering a staggering percentage of corn, soy and other key crop markets. Because of the pervasiveness of soy and corn in the food supply, most food sold in the United States now contains some genetically modified material.

That means the U.S. movement to control biotech is getting a late start not only in comparison to other countries, but in terms of protecting consumers and the environment.

But there is one major advantage in the late start: the nascent U.S. movement can ride the momentum of campaigns in other countries. The European refusal to accept genetically modified imports from the United States is forcing the grain companies to sort commodities as genetically modified or conventional -- something they said was logistically impossible a couple of years ago -- and is beginning to generate a price premium for non-genetically modified crops. And the vociferous opposition to biotech in Europe and elsewhere around the world has prepared biotech companies and their supporters in the United States to make concessions in anticipation of organized opposition that does not yet exist.

Significantly, it now appears likely that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- an ardent biotech defender -- will soon permit voluntary labeling of foods as genetic-engineering-free.

The industry's strategy is to stave off vocal opposition through these kinds of policy concessions, as well as a more accommodating approach to critics (including lots of meetings, fora and dialogues). If they can maintain a minimum of public support for biotech over the next few years, they hope, a new generation of genetically engineered products -- such as foods with genetically embedded vitamins -- will, when introduced, win greater public support.

The challenge for the emerging biotech movement is not to let the industry accommodationist strategy succeed. Achieving this goal will require far-sighted thinking, and the defense of principles that go beyond the issue of the day. Here are four principles that aim to curb the commercial impulses now driving biotechnology and biotech policy:

  • Respect the Precautionary Principle. There is too much risk of permanent, irreversible hazards from the introduction of genetically modified organisms into the environment or food supply to permit such actions absent a high degree of scientific assurance of safety. U.S. government regulators' determination that genetically engineered foods are substantially equivalent to conventional foods has enabled biotech companies to avoid even the standard showings of safety required of food additives. This is exactly backwards.

  • Transparency and Information Disclosure. As a common sense matter of public health protection and democratic governance, the biotech industries must be forced to reveal test data and to tell consumers what substances they are being exposed to. That means safety testing data, both for agricultural biotechnology and human genetic testing and applications, which is now concealed or only partially revealed, must be fully disclosed to the government and made public. This principle also demands, should biotech products be permitted on the market at all, that they be labeled so consumers can avoid them if they choose.

  • No Role for the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO is structurally biased to favor commercial considerations over public health, environmental and safety interests. Decisions about international rules for biotech regulation should take place in fora, such as the Biodiversity Convention, that do not suffer from this structural orientation.

  • No Life Patents. Patents on life forms should be banned, in U.S. and other nation's laws, and in international law. Life patents are ethically unacceptable, and are quickly moving in the deeply disturbing direction of increasing intellectual propertization of human genes and traits.

Life patents facilitate the evolution of genetic engineering technologies in dangerous directions. These are technologies which, if they have any social benefit, clearly pose enormous risks. Their evolution, if permitted at all, should be careful and socially managed. Privatization of the knowledge of the stuff of life, and the race to patent genes first, drives the technologies recklessly in the opposite direction.

Life patents are also at the core of biopiracy, the practice of corporate appropriation and patenting of the medicinal and agricultural knowledge of farming and indigenous communities in the Third World. Life patents threaten food security, especially in the Third World, and they impede medical and scientific research by denying researchers the right to use and sometimes study patented processes and genes.

The stakes are simply too high in the biotech arena to let commercial impulses guide policy. Unfortunately, powerful corporate interests are pushing that exact agenda.


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