Civil Liberties

A Low-Level Form of Civil War


Biotech was on the agenda Thursday at the World Forum. "We're embarking on a 100-year war about this issue," declared former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler during a session titled "Advances in Biotechnology for the Human Genome and the Human Being: Technology, the Market and Responsible Citizenry." Walter Link of the Link Foundation described the current battle over crop biotechnology as "a low-level form civil war." And the battle lines were clearly drawn at the World Forum. Eco-feminist and anti-biotech activist Vandana Shiva (who increasingly, in my mind, is coming to embody the destroyer aspect of her namesake, the Hindu god Shiva) gave one of her trademark rants at the morning session.

Shiva attacked "golden rice," a grain genetically modified to be rich in Vitamin A, that could help prevent blindness in 2 million poor people in the developing world. "Rice was never supposed to have Vitamin A in it. Vitamin A is supposed to be in Vitamin A plants." she explained. "It's like saying the problem with women is that they are not men and the problem with men is that they are not women, so let's reengineer both." Shiva's "solution" to the Vitamin A deficiency that afflicts hundreds of millions of poor people in developing countries is that they should eat 200 varieties of green plants which "are traditionally grown by women." Just how desperately poor women living in the heart of Bombay, Manila, or Jakarta are going to grow or even afford to buy those greens was not explained. Besides, nutritionists at UNESCO argue that the Vitamin A in such greens is not sufficiently available anyway.

Shiva particularly objected to herbicide-resistant crops, like Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans and corn complaining that Roundup "kills everything green that it comes in contact with it." In fact, it is only guilty of killing weeds that choke farmers' crops. Shiva spuriously claims that 50 percent of Indian women make their livings by collecting greens and fodder from the fields, and that "spraying Roundup is a theft of their livelihoods." Shiva applied her insights to fisheries management as well. "I realized very, very rapidly that traditional fishermen were not inefficient," she said, "it was just that the big trawlers were stealing their fish." Leave aside the question of whether catching more fish is more efficient. "Stealing" applies only if the traditional fishermen own the fish. Which they probably should in my opinion–or at least have secure, tradeable rights to fishing grounds, just as farmers have over pastures. But Shiva would undoubtedly oppose such property rights as both overly exclusive and "masculine."

Shiva also apparently objects to modern medicine. "India today can heal its people because 70 percent of the people have access to indigenous medical systems," she said. Of course, when those same indigenous medical systems were the only medical systems, infant mortality was hundreds per thousands of live births and people could expect to live only into their 40s. Even today, infant mortality India is 65 per 1,000 live births and life expectancy is 62 years. By contrast, the U.S.'s "indigenous medical system" has gotten infant mortality down to 7 per 1000 and life expectancy is 74 years.

Sadly, her phony but spirited presentation garnered the usual hoots of approval and a standing ovation from Forum goers.

In the afternoon another battle in the biotech civil war occurred during the session "Advances in Biotechnology." There were two concurrent skirmishes, one over Green Biotech (crop biotechnology) and another over Red Biotech (medical biotechnology).

"I have seen the past and it works" declared Rocky Mountain Institute founder and self-described "recovering physicist" Amory Lovins. "Injecting alien species into ecosystems leads to trouble, and I suspect that the same thing is true of injecting alien genes into genomes." He is strongly against using biotech to change the results of "3.8 billion years of evolution." Lovins argued that biotech had not boosted crop productivity as promised. Lovins, trotting out the most tired of leftoid cliches, balefully declared that biotech is "changing the objective from what is biologically fit to what is economically profitable." Profit, you say? Well, we'll have none of that!

Martha Herbert, vice-chair of the Council for Responsible Genetics, wants "a complete moratorium of genetically modified food." She favors organic and agro-ecological approaches to raising crops which she claims can produce more food with fewer inputs. It never ceases to amaze me that this claim can be made with a straight face: If such approaches really worked, why did crop productivity only go up in this century when scientific methods were applied to agriculture? Not so long ago, when all agriculture was organic, famines based on actual lack of crops were a regular occurrence. Now, food shortages are only caused by political forces, not agricultural ones.

Lovins cavalierly suggested that instead of developing biotech golden rice that we "re-encourage traditional balanced diets to overcome Vitamin A deficiency" among poor people in developing countries. "Balanced diets" for people so poor that they barely can find enough to eat in just raw calories?

Isi Siddiqui, special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, led the defense of Green Biotech. He pointed out that the first biotech crops, pest-protected and herbicide resistant varieties of corn, cotton, and soybeans, were chiefly developed to help farmers cut costs, e.g., cut inputs, not boost outputs. New varieties will soon increase outputs as well. Siddiqui noted that if the biotech crops didn't work then farmers wouldn't adopt them. But in fact most farmers are very happy with the new crops. "Although Brazil has outlawed biotech crops, farmers in Brazil want them so badly that they are smuggling biotech seeds in from Argentina," he noted. He also noted that China and India are rapidly adopting these technologies. A recent joint report from seven national scientific academies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, found that biotech crops on the market now are as safe if not safer than conventional crops. Sean Lance, CEO of the medical biotech company Chiron, made the sensible point that humans have been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years. Today's big ears of corn were derived from selectively breeding the scrawny teosinte plant from Mexico. And tomatoes, also from Mexico, "were decorative flowers in Spain for a century" before they were bred to become the edible fruits that we consume in mass quantities today.

Lovins' specious concern that profitability is superseding biological fitness is the sheerest nonsense. All domesticated plants and livestock are biologically "unfit." That is, they cannot reproduce very successfully in the wild and therefore must be pampered by human beings. If they could compete, we wouldn't have to grow them in protected fields and pastures.

The fight over Red Biotech was surprisingly fierce. Martha Herbert is worried that genetic screening technologies will soon allow people to indulge their cultural biases by selecting embryos with traits that they prefer. She is adamantly opposed to "germline" engineering, that is, changing genes in embryos so that their descendants will also inherit the changes. Herbert argued that there might be "untold consequences" because researchers don't know enough about the side effects that changing or adding genes might have. Herbert also opined that, in the past, new medical technologies were tried out on the poor first, but with gene therapies we might see the advent of "yuppie eugenics" and that the poor who can't have access to these technologies "may get a lucky break this time." But at the same time, she is afraid they might work and thus opposes attempts to genetically enhance people because that would be unfair.

A member of the audience asked about whether biotech might make physical immortality possible. Wellness guru Deepak Chopra responded that if we did have physical immortality we would be doomed to eternal senility. Cameroonian William Tiga Tita, CEO of the Global Management System, disliked drug company profits. The drug companies that developed AIDS therapies "took care of investors and their paychecks, but forgot the 99 percent of people who couldn't afford their HIV drugs," he complained. His solution: "If we find out that a drug is good for people, the government should make the companies make it available to everyone." Stanford University bioethicist, William Hurlbut noted, "We have strong desires in our hearts that in the past were naturally constrained" because we didn't know how things worked. Now that our knowledge will allow us to satisfy those desires, he worries that "we're inviting an addictive response to high technology."

Robert Lanza, vice-president of Advanced Cell Technology, is clearly a biotech booster. His company's research has shown that cloned cow cells live twice as long as normal cells, which means that the lifespans of human cells might be lengthened as well. He told the audience that they will likely live to see replacement tissues and organs which will "certainly boost longevity above 100 and maybe even to the mid-100s." Furthermore, senility may not be a worry since recent research indicates that transplanted neural stem cells could keep brains healthy.

With regard to therapeutic cloning to produce human embryonic stem cells as sources for transplant tissues, Lanza said we are going to have to decide "whether a completely undifferentiated ball of cells deserves the same rights as an adult or child who is going to die of a disease." The prospect of "yuppie eugenics" does not frighten Lanza. "Who would not want to give their child 20 or 30 extra IQ points if they could do so safely?" he asks.

Sean Lance, CEO of Chiron, predicted, "We are going to win over HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis because of biotech." Lance also dismissed the notion that researchers have to know all of the consequences of their therapies before they can act. "In the 1950s and 60s, doctors performed millions of tonsillectomies and put grommets in the ears of children to prevent earaches. Now we know that they don't work," he said. His point is that no amount of foresight can avoid all risks; we learn by doing and we learn from our mistakes. Lance also rejected the "glib comments" and "cheap remarks" that denigrated profits. "[My] company exists because of the integrity of our science," he argued, noting that without profits there would no investment and thus no new therapies or drugs. "If the National Institutes of Health are so damned good, why didn't they produce the medicines of the past 50 years?" he asked. Lance predicts, "In 10 years' time, we're going to look back and laugh at what we're thinking are complicated issues and technologies today."