A Misadventure in Biotechnology

After I finished secondary school, I enrolled in a biotechnology degree. At the time, it seemed a natural progression. I had always loved biology and when I discovered genetics, it blew my mind. It seemed to me to have the most incredible potential, that with time it would revolutionise medicine and food production, that it would uncover the very origins of life. In my youthful idealism, I thought it would save the world.

However, upon starting the course, I quickly became disillusioned. It seemed to me that there was too much focus on the question of what we could do and not enough on we should do. I can remember one of my lecturers telling me that I asked too many ethical questions. His (rather terse) response, along with the fact that the course did not have a subject on ethics augured badly in my mind: while the possibilities of biotech excited me, they also scared me. Manipulating DNA is like splitting the atom – it is unleashing a force of nature, something that could have unforeseen and dangerous consequences.

Unfortunately, it is not just at universities that biotechnology lacks ethical proclivity, but also in the industry more generally. This is not surprising: if we do not teach people ethics when they are studying it, then how can we expect them to think about it when they enter into employment?

Biotechnology is developing incredibly rapidly, and it could be that ethics simply cannot keep up with the pace. But this cannot entirely explain the problem. I think that we have also failed to ask some very fundamental questions. For example, should DNA be considered as intellectual property?

The inability or unwillingness of the industry to ask such ethical questions proved too much for me. I decided to switch to a Bachelor of Arts and ended up studying literature and philosophy instead. I did not, however, lose interest in genetics, and its ethical conundrums continue to fascinate me.

Cotton workers in Andhra Pradesh, India. Copyright Jankie 2011.
Cotton workers in Andhra Pradesh, India. Copyright Jankie 2011.

I recently watched a documentary about the garment industry called The True Cost that reminded me of the reasons why I chose not to study biotechnology. One of the things that stuck most in my mind was the plight of farmers growing cotton in India. Many of the farmers are now growing Monsanto’s BT Cotton, a genetically modified species that incorporates genes from a bacterium in order to produce chemical compounds that are toxic to pests.

On the basis of the belief that BT cotton would increase yields and decrease the need for pesticides, many farmers took out loans in order to buy the seeds, which are about twice as expensive as conventional ones. It did not, however, turn out to be as resistant as they believed (or were brought to believe by Monsanto) to Indian’s domestic cotton pests. In order to control them, farmers had to use Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide, which further increased the financial burden. This would not have been quite so bad if it were not for the fact that their yields began to decrease over time, perhaps as the result of the degradation of the soil by the pesticides.

Unable to pay back their increasing debts, many farmers ended up losing their land and subsequently taking their own lives. The documentary points out the rather chillingly poetic fact that many of them killed themselves by drinking pesticide. In the last decade, over two hundred and fifty thousand farmers have committed suicide. One every thirty minutes for ten years.

This can’t be blamed entirely on Monsanto, not so much because it is hard to ascertain whether or not they falsely advertised their products, but rather because we can never really know why a person ends their own life. At the same time, it seems impossible to me that the increased costs and diminishing returns did not weigh heavily upon many of their minds.

We should have thought a lot more about allowing private entities to claim DNA sequences as their own intellectual property. Sure, Monsanto may have had the idea of placing genes from a bacterium into a cotton plant, but they designed neither the one nor the other. DNA is the collective inheritance of all life – why should anyone be allowed to own a piece of it?

There is also the cost of patents. The protection of intellectual property is an expensive business. In order to register a patent in Australia, it costs around $8,000 and then (on average) a further $10,000 to register in each additional country. Litigating an infringement can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – apart from corporations, who else has that kind of money?

Armed with these patents, Monsanto has set about establishing total domination of world food production. This is not a conspiracy theory; it is a natural result of capitalism itself and the sheer potential of the technology to enable such dominance. Monsanto will not stop until they have every farmer in the world using their products at every stage of the process. It is aggressively litigious in its pursuit of this aim. Their own website states that they have filed 147 lawsuits against farmers since 1997, and won every single one of them.

A few years ago, I read Paolo Bacigalupi’s, The Windup Girl, a story set not so far in the future, when global warming has decimated the world and made food and energy scarce. A number of incredibly powerful ‘Agro-gen’ companies, so called ‘calorie men’, control world food production using genetic warfare in order to defeat each other and increase their market share.

The idea of genetic warfare might seem ridiculous, but in a way, it is already happening. There are, for example, the many cases in which organic farms have lost their certifications due to their fields becoming contaminated by GM seeds, such as Western Australian farmer Steve Marsh, who lost his organic certification for 70% of his land after his neighbour and childhood friend began growing GM canola in an adjacent field.

The potential for harm must of course be weighed against the benefits. I know that there are researchers out there doing amazing things. The problem is that I hear more about Monsanto than I do about them. I hear more about GM crops and ‘designer babies’ than I do about open-source genetics developing free unpatented drought resistant wheat.

Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn illustrates a very different form of genetic engineering. The story follows Lilith, a young woman who awakes on an alien spaceship to be informed that the world has been rendered uninhabitable by nuclear war. The human race is now being sustained aboard the ship until such a time that the earth is again fit for habitation. The spaceship is actually a living organism, created by the aliens through advanced forms of genetic manipulation. It nourishes all its residents (human and alien) and even tailors its ‘fruit’ for each of them, especially for those suffering from illness and disease.

Dawn is a masterpiece of the genre. The premise may sound far-fetched, but in Butler’s hands it is transformed into an incredibly compelling story, an immersive world of awe-inspiring possibilities.

What we make of genetic engineering is our choice. My fear is that as long as it remains dominated by its commercial applications, the technology it will be controlled by corporations. If we allow this to continue unfettered, genetic engineering will never be more than about making money and will remain a shadow of what it could be in the hands of a more enlightened species.

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