claire pentecost on Mon, 11 Jun 2001 17:49:19 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] <nettime> Planet destroyed; film at 11

I'm really surprised to read nettimers debating this issue with so much
heat and venom but with so little apparent research on the "science"
involved or analysis of the _context_, which is where all science accrues
its meaning.

I missed the original nettime posting and ensuing thread but am compelled
to pick up at this intersection of McPhee and Mandl, and interject a few

Are the creation and implementation of what are now called GMOs essentially
the same as the practices of cross breeding developed by humans for
thousands of years?  

Ultimately, the question a red herring. 

Even the industry plays it both ways, calling it "substantially equivalent"
(regulatory jargon) to traditional breeding in order to have it deemed
"generally recognized as safe" (or GRAS - more reg jargon) back in 1994
when the FDA gave the go-ahead to corporations marketing GMOs with no
regulations, no testing for long-term environmental or health effects (the
most substantive health experiments were for 90 days with rats) no
labeling, no separation from nonGMO harvests, and no plan for liability in
case of unforeseen consequences.  On the other hand, the industry has
asserted the inherent novelty of GMOs at the patent office in order to gain
unprecedented patent protections on seeds.

I've spent most of my adult life studying the shifting boundary humans draw
between what is defined as the natural and the artificial.  It's always
tendentious.  People use these terms to defend what they want and need to
defend.  Radiation is natural, an old line from the nuclear industry's
promotional rhetoric.  And that is true. Radiation occurs at varying
intensities regardless of human activity. But does that make rampant
radiation sickness among Bikini Islanders in the wake of atomic bomb tests
something we find acceptable?
Chemicals are natural; all of life is made of chemicals. "DDT is good for
me," so went the advertisement when the product first appeared (fact).

Humans have been able to get some organisms to cross-pollinate and others
not. Generally this is acknowledged as the species barrier. But in animals
even within species the mechanics of mating can be tricky.  This is a
well-known problem in zoos, making artificial insemination the norm. 
Animal behaviorists have also observed different groups of the same species
in the wild who simply will not mate even though they can.  Some species
are more amenable to breeding manipulation than others and, along with
economic viability, this is pretty much the basis for which animals have
been widely domesticated and which have not. Sheep, pigs, cows, horses,
chickens, dogs.

Plants have been very precisely manipulated, but of course, within limits
imposed by "nature".  Perhaps one of the clearest things you can say about
the difference between the old methods and the new is that the old methods
were practiced for centuries and the limitations fairly well understood.
And for most of that time the genetic material was understood in the
context of given ecosystems. Still, regrettable moves were made, often in
the form of the introduction of an exotic species which caused havoc in the
ecosystem and caused or threatened the extinction of diverse and sometimes
desirable (to humans) existing species. 

Probably the most high-tech form of genetic manipulation prior to what are
now called GMOs was the subjection of plant gene plasm to high doses of
radiation to induce rapid mutations in the hopes of creating something new
and usable.

As currently defined, GMOs are organisms created by jumping the
traditionally understood species barrier. How are they engineered?  Two
major methods.  One is to link the gene coding for the desired
characteristic to a virus that has been gutted of deleterious genetic
material. Viruses are amazing in that they can insert themselves into the
host's DNA. This is one thing that makes the HIV virus so formidable. So
they send in the genes, riding on viruses. Other elements are also spliced
in for complicated technical reasons: "promoter" genes that turn the gene
on, "markers" to track the gene, which are usually bits of
antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Some scientists find this troubling in
terms of further promoting antibiotic resistance.
The other method is to coat an infinitesimal particle of gold (or a similar
material) with the trait gene and literally blast it with a sort of gun
into a sample of germ plasm of the target organism.  This is very imprecise
and they are not sure just where on the host DNA they will get it to take,
but done enough times it does work and the effectively spliced organism is
cloned to multiply it.

One of the suspect aspects of this technique is that - according to some -
it is based on an understanding of DNA that is rapidly being outmoded. This
understanding says: one gene corresponds to one protein which corresponds
to one isolatable, stable, neatly packaged, relocatable phenotypic quality.
Identify it, isolate it, move it around. But what we are learning is that
any given sequence of DNA can code for a number of things given different
conditions. Genes turn on and off. They interact with other genes, with the
cellular environment (which also responds to the external environment), and
they change through time.  The limited understanding of these dynamics was
belied when the scientific community was so shocked to learn that humans
have "only" 30,000 genes. How can such a complex organism have such brief
instructions?  what kind of understanding created the expectation that
complexity corresponds to gene quantity. Apparently, each gene plays many
parts. I'm sure our understanding will change again very soon.

The possible upshot though is that the insertion of a DNA sequence into a
new genetic environment is loaded with unpredictable consequences.  When
that combination is released from the controlled environment of the lab
into the multi-tiered, infinitely dynamic setting of a natural ecosystem,
multiply that factor of unpredictability by any number you want.  Well into
the industrial revolution, toxic chemical pollution was not even a concept.
Now it's treated as inevitable and its consequences are suppressed or
trivialized (or a treated as a hoax, as the Bushes have tried to treat
global warming). We are now witnessing a new (debatably? you decide) kind
of pollution - biopollution, the flooding of the environment with new
organisms that can hardly be tracked, much less contained or controlled.
What's different about these organisms?  We don't yet know!  Only those
with a profit at stake feel confident that we understand these GM organisms
and their future in ecosystems which themselves are POORLY UNDERSTOOD.*  

So of course, we come to profit. Unfortunately most people accorded
authority on the subject have something to gain by the widespread
acceptance of GMOs. People in our culture are finally starting to realize
that science is never value-free.  But still the assumption persists that
scientific training and specialization gives people the ability to make
good decisions about how technology is used - even if scientists did get to
decide that.  And if there is any doubt about the partisanship of science,
the fact that it is now so heavily subsidized by commercial industry should
lay any notion of objectivity to rest. All land grant universities, where
critical agricultural research takes place, survive and prosper by virtue
of partnerships with corporations.  If you are a scientist and you want
funding to do exciting ground-breaking work, the opportunities mostly
beckon in a direction narrowed by considerations of profitability.  Our
regulatory agencies are run by people who come from the industry and will
go back to the industry after they serve public terms.  Just as the Bush
administration is clearly a version of the petroleum industry, the FDA,
USDA and EPA are quite securely part of the extended family of big pharma
and agrochemical companies.

I don't think debates about how natural all this is really get us anywhere.
Although I must say that I do respect the position of people who view
certain aspects of nature as sacred and certain relations with nature a
matter of moral implications. This is in the realm of freedom of religion.
I think people should be able to get food that does not offend their moral
orientation.  But let's just say that every one agrees GMO agriculture is
"natural enough".  What is wrong with it?

Who has it helped so far? Just what are the novel attributes of the GMOs
promoted to the market in the last 7 years?  Herbicide tolerance (ht). But
only tolerance to the herbicide sold by the same company that makes this
seed. This means that you can spray tons of RoundUp glyphosate herbicide
onto Roundup Ready canola and destroy weeds without destroying your crop.
Spray more liberally than ever. Supposedly this was going to be
environmentally friendly and reduce the amount of herbicides, but so far
farmers report using more not less. And already they are finding
unprecedented herbicide tolerance in weeds, either by cross pollination
with the GMO or by "natural" mutation in weeds to survive the onslaught. So
other herbicides need to be used in combination. Farmers find that when
they want to rotate the field and plant something different the next year
they have a hard time getting rid of the ht canola with any kind of
herbicide, including the very lethal D, 4-T.

Farmers who buy this seed from Monsanto must pay a technology fee on top of
the seed price and sign a contract saying they will not save seed to
replant for next year, will not trade, sell or give away seeds, will buy
the corresponding inputs from the company, will allow inspectors to police
their fields for years to come and will give the company access to all
their books.  Monsanto offers incentives to farmers to turn in their
neighbors for breach of contract. Monsanto also inspects fields of farmers
who have never bought the seed.  They sue such farmers if any of their
patented crop is found growing on their land, regardless of how it got
there.  Seeds and pollen have evolved to travel. Monsanto is suing over 400
farmers in the U.S. and Canada. Usually first they send a threatening
letter demanding a settlement of a large fee, $28,000 for example, and
requiring the farmer to agree never to disclose the terms of the settlement
to anyone.

Another trait is pest resistance, by the genetic splicing of a "natural"
pesticide, the bt bacteria, into a crop like corn. Bt degrades fast and is
benign enough for use in organic methods. But organic farmers use it as a
last resort and sparingly, because they don't want the pests to become
resistant to it. The widespread use of bt in industrial farming of
monocrops ensures a short life for its efficacy. All pests develop
resistance in time when the environment is flooded with a pesticide.

Who is helped by these innovations? They have nothing to do with health,
nutrition, conservation, or even flavor.  Farmers are promised higher
yields.  But farmers are caught in an economic cycle in which higher yields
only depress prices requiring ever higher yields in order to break even. 
Why have farmers been so quick to buy in?  Conventional farmers are already
deeply dependent on systems maintained by chemical inputs and monocropping.
Except for the mega-farm owners, most of them live at a pretty desperate
edge of the economy. They are generally isolated and deluged by corporate
promotional material. Farmer-directed media is controlled by agribusiness.
No one else has an incentive to be there - farmers are hardly a robust
consumer demographic.  They are a ghettoized, resource-poor subculture, and
like all such subcultures they are easily exploited.

The rhetoric asserts that GMO agriculture is the only way to feed the
world.  We could feed the world now if we wanted to. It has nothing to do
with quantity and everything to do with the politics of distribution.  The
only way to confront the future of energy consumption is to drill drill
drill and burn burn burn. Etc.

Now the questions around GMO agriculture are confused with the potential
health benefits of genetic engineering. If you don't support GMO soy you
must want to stop advances in medicine - wait until you get diabetes or
your child presents a rare genetic disease, then you'll change your tune -
so the retort goes. Various applications of technology must be treated as
various, equally subject to assiduous analysis, but on the instant merits.
However you feel about genetic engineering, it is not a useful _tactic_ to
lump all applications together and either reject it all or swallow it
whole.  In particular, detractors who conflate all potential uses into a
monolithic evil, are easy targets in what public discourse does exist.  I
know we could argue about tactics all day, but rarely has our culture
rejected a technological innovation because it was simply understood as
inherently heinous.  It is by looking at the technology within the systems
of profit and control that meaningful shifts can take place. Who stands to
gain from a technology? Who looses? Who gets to decide how to use it, how
to develop it?  What information is available, how is the discourse shaped,
what questions are asked, what alternatives suppressed?

Anyway, we seem to have arrived again at the place that so inflamed Scott
McPhee and David Mandl.  McPhee's tirade is just one case demonstrating how
quickly blanket anti-GMO positions are likely to be attacked, and also what
a fetid and contentious cul-de-sac awaits the debaters of what is
"natural." His claim that identifying the current genetic manipulations as
no different from centuries-old methods should not identify him with
corporate interests is naive.  The fact is that it is the same line
proffered by corporate ag. and when we affirm those lines in unstudied ways
we become complicit. 

Apropos the NYTimes article Sunday--
I've been hearing from both farmers and policy wonks for months that
contamination of the food system with GMOs is widespread and probably
irreversible.  The industry hopes this is their ticket to passive
acceptance.  Whatever the reports, there is still so much that is unknown,
that any number of outcomes are still possible. This kind of report should
make people revolt openly. Vociferous and thoughtful protests still have an
effect on what happens next.

Claire Pentecost

*If you follow developments in the life sciences you must know how
frequently our ignorance is revealed by some new discovery. E.g., plants
thrive on carbon dioxide, right? So forests must be "carbon sinks" and can
alleviate excess CO2 in the atmosphere. But it was just discovered how
little co2 trees can absorb at a time. When co2 levels are up they take
more in but release a large portion of it through the ground. Reversals of
assumptions occur daily.

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