14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
A week in the world
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The aliens have landedBy Peter Snowdon
On Monday, Robert Shapiro, chairman of Monsanto, the second-largest seed company in the world, wrote to Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and born-again anti-biotechnology campaigner, pledging not to commercialise one of the most controversial technological innovations of the twentieth century -- the so-called Terminator technology.
Developed by the US Department of Agriculture in collaboration with Delta Pine and Land, a company which Monsanto has been seeking to acquire for over a year, the technology is a piece of genetic "software" which, when triggered, instructs a seed to sterilise any further seeds that may be born from the plant into which it grows. By soaking seed equipped with such "gene protection systems" in antibiotics before planting, a process is set in motion which prevents farmers from saving the next generation of seed for planting.
For Monsanto, US patent number 5,723,765 represented a key weapon in its intellectual property armoury. The company has long defended its intention to deploy the technology on the grounds that it needs to be able to recoup its investment in other, highly expensive genetic-modification (GM) techniques. If farmers are able to save seeds from one season to another, then, the company argues, it will be impossible for it to reclaim the "royalties" on its inventions, and so fund future research.
Farmers, however, especially in the Third World, see things differently. Half the world's population still depend directly on the land for their food and livelihoods, among them many smallholders and landless peasants who rely on saving seed from one year to the next, because they cannot afford to buy it afresh each time. For them, the Terminator technology represents a direct threat to an already precarious way of life, and a brutal assault on the traditional systems of agriculture which have sustained their communities for many centuries.
As a result, the last year has seen many violent protests around the world against Monsanto, as the perceived agent by whom the secular bond between farmer and land was to be torn asunder. Movements have sprung up across Asia, Latin America and much of Africa to demand that the Terminator technology be dropped. India, as ever, has been a key focus for popular resistance, and the last 12 months there have witnessed Operation Cremate Monsanto, in which hundreds of acres of GM cotton in Andhra Pradesh were set alight, as well as a Quit India campaign directed against the corporation. In May, the Indian government finally gave in to popular feeling and implemented a ban against the import of any Terminator-equipped seed.
The decision to shelve the Terminator technology comes in the wake of a terrible year for Monsanto, in which it has found itself targeted by environmental and social activists around the world, often to the exclusion of all other companies working in the genetic engineering field. Barely six months ago, it was widely predicted that the grassroots movement against GM food in Europe could lead to another trade war with the US. However, the broad rejection of biotech, founded in this case mainly on urban consumers' fears of the damage it might cause to the environment and their health, has since spread to North America, where many farmers who were lured into planting the first crops of the new plants are now facing bankruptcy as farm gate prices plummet and a growing number of agri-food businesses refuse to buy in GM ingredients.
By early summer, US corn exports to Europe had dropped 96 per cent year on year, and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman was reported to have told the evangelical Shapiro to keep quiet about the joys of biotechnology, "because every time he opens his mouth, [we] lose millions more bushels." In August, Glickman threatened to investigate improper ties between the Agriculture Department and industry. Deutsche Bank told the pension funds to sell Monsanto, and by September the stock had lost 35 per cent of its value since January, compared to a rise in the Dow Jones index of 30 per cent.
Shapiro, for now, is playing the role of penitent. However, while last week's climb-down represents a significant victory for campaigners around the world, this is just one battle. The biotech giants may yet win the war. Shapiro's exact words to Conway were that Monsanto "did not intend to commercialise sterile-seed technologies until a full airing of the issue is complete." Greenpeace, the international environmental NGO, offered to buy the Terminator patent from them for £1, so that they could demonstrate their commitment, but so far the company has not responded to the offer.
The problem now is not simply that Monsanto may return to the technology at a more politically-favourable moment, but also that the Terminator itself is just the tip of a gigantic, and deadly, iceberg. Monsanto has made clear that they intend to continue R&D on other types of genetic "switching" technologies, which allow particular developmental traits to be turned on or off at will. Such trait-specific sterility is a key part of most agribusiness corporations' research agenda. Thus Monsanto already has a patent on a technology which prevents a seed from germinating unless a certain patent chemical is applied. Zeneca, the British seed giant, can produce seeds which will remain stunted unless sprayed with chemicals also patented and sold by the company. And Swiss-based Novartis has patented techniques which can control the developmental process of a plant from germination right through flowering to fruit and ripening.
The danger inherent in these technologies is two-fold. On the one hand, they threaten to further leverage the already enormous power of the major bio-pharmaceutical companies over the food system, allowing them to drain off increasingly large profits for themselves, while making farmers, both big and small, ever more dependent on their products. Large farmers may complain, but they do not mind too much, as the higher the cost of essential inputs, the less able small farmers are to compete with them, and the more likely that their land will thus be available for sale at attractive prices. I guess that's what you'd call "consolidation".
But there is also another, far more insidious, and potentially catastrophic danger here. No one knows for sure that sterile-seed technologies cannot escape from one variety through cross-pollination and infect other, wild strains of related plants. The potential for such "genetic pollution" is properly incalculable. And while scientists may differ as to the probabilities, the only way we will know for certain, is when it is too late to do anything about it.
The technology is thus now available, not only to make individual farmers entirely dependent upon the feudal designs of multinational agribusiness, but to undermine the biological basis of life itself, through the proliferation of self-sterilising, self-mutilating behavioural patterns throughout the ecosystem. Not just commercialisation, but even field tests of such crops, therefore amount to playing Russian roulette with the entire food chain, at the top of which sits that wonder, man.
It's a very brave new world indeed. Enjoy it while it lasts.
(There was some other news this week, but I've forgotten what it was).