GM Free Cymru

Debating the Ethics of biotechnology: an interview with Philip Bereano

Source: Worldwatch Institute
Sep. 20, 2010

Philip Bereano, professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been an active and outspoken proponent of democratic social ethics in biotechnology. He is a participant in the United Nations' Codex Alimentariusprocesses and co-founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics.

Why does a technology like genetic engineering (GE) need an active and outspoken proponent of ethics like yourself?

I deal with social ethics: issues of equity, justice, fairness, and democracy. Frankly, GE fails when measured against most of these values. GE, like all high-techs, is inherently anti-democratic. Computers, for example, can be democratic in their usage because anybody can buy into it in a consumer society. But they're not democratic in terms of development, which is under the control of a very small number of people. Similarly, GE is under the control of small numbers of highly educated people and incredibly wealthy organizations.

While most people believe that GE is too complicated for them to understand, the ethical and social issues that come up in a democratic society have little to do with the technical stuff; the basis of these issues can be easily understood. However, the technological elite hasn't felt any obligation to present materials in a way that invites public participation, and regulatory agencies have often been opposed to transparency or are captives of the industries they are supposedly overseeing-this is certainly true of the FDA, USDA/APHIS, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, EPA.

What ethical issues are associated with GE in agriculture?

GE has been presented in a way that attempts to gain public acceptance for it, but none of the GE technologies have, in any sustained fashion, increased food production or decreased world hunger. However, they've certainly increased funding for the biotechnology scientists and the profits for the Monsantos of the world.

'Golden Rice'-with enhanced levels of vitamin A-while touted by GE proponents as an example of GE benefits, has not reduced blindness at all in the Third World and, in fact, is highly unlikely to do so because of the huge quantities of Golden Rice a kid would have to eat. And he or she still may not be getting a balanced diet with the other nutrients needed to make use of the vitamin A.

There's a major ethical issue in the very simplistic reductionist model this technology is based on. The central dogma of GE is this image of the genome as a Lego set, where you can take out the green one and put in a red one. In reality, however, the genome is highly fluid and the parts interact. The Lego model is quite wrong, yet it's used constantly in public discourse, regulatory submissions, and legislative testimony. Biologists know how the genome actually works, but advancement in the profession rules out of play such subjects of discourse because they would challenge the positions taken by industry funders. Scientists who wish to break that boundary, either by scientific experimentation or by public writings, have largely been isolated and marginalized by the wealthy and the powerful within the academic-industrial complex-for example the experiences of Dr. Arpad Pusztai, Dr. Ignacio Chapela, and Dr. Terje Traavik.* I think these examples indicate a profound set of ethical issues surrounding the professional functioning of geneticists and academic and industry biologists.

[*Editor's Note: These are leading international scientists who were criticized by biotechnology companies and other scientists for raising health and environmental concerns about genetically modified crops.]

You have argued that this technology poses risks to the world's smallholder farmers. Why?

It was quite unprecedented when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the patentability of microbial gene products. The Patent Office ran away with the decision and allowed the patentability of plants and mammals as well. The creation of intellectual property monopolies in agricultural germplasm by large transnational corporations certainly presents a set of ethical issues, and works to the disadvantage of smallholder farms and sustainable agriculture. 'Sustainability' doesn't just mean profitability forever. Sustainability has qualitative dimensions, like justice and distributional considerations- otherwise, a totalitarian society could be called sustainable! So we are having this tremendous transfer of knowledge, power, and control from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations

Back to the example of Golden Rice: Vandana Shiva found that in one village in India, there were 350 plants growing nearby that had been routinely eaten and that provided vitamin A or its precursors. Under industrial agricultural models, however, these were defined as 'weeds,' and farmers were encouraged to plow them under and plant cotton instead. Locals no longer have access to the foods that used to provide them with vitamin A, and blindness increased. Instead of understanding that agro-ecological approaches could minimize blindness by preserving access to indigenous diets, Golden Rice has been offered as a 'high-tech miracle' way to overcome this situation; the high-tech mindset tries to solve problems brought on largely by technologies through the application of more technologies of higher complexity.
Suddenly, we have a system of consolidation where one dominant multinational corporation, Monsanto, is seeking to obtain majority control of the world's agricultural plant germplasm, rather than sustaining the resilient, decentralized system for germplasm protection and utilization in rural and indigenous communities that has fed us well for millennia.

In your opinion, what sorts of agricultural innovations should major donors be funding to eradicate hunger and improve food security in both developing and developed countries?

Donors should be funding agro-ecological approaches. The Gates Foundation's grants are usually quite large: over $100,000. This is too much for small village cooperatives in Africa that could utilize $5,000 really well. I know people who teach at agricultural schools in Tanzania or work with agricultural cooperatives in Kenya, and they can't get adequate funding. Big donors are undermining huge numbers of local initiatives to increase food security and protect biodiversity when they exclude small-scale projects in favor of industrial ones that actually have consequences counter to such goals.

How does the promotion of GMO crops affect global food security and public health in developing countries?

The World Bank and UN agencies did a major study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The report concluded that high- tech approaches aren't likely to answer the food needs of the future. Other, lower-cost, approaches-in particular what's becoming known as 'agro-ecological' approaches-are far more promising. The reason is simple: Third World farmers can't afford an industrial-ag approach to farming. Family farms in the U.S. often can't! This is why the first Green Revolution didn't reduce world hunger. There is more than enough food being produced in the world today to adequately feed every man, woman, and child and have leftovers. People go hungry because they can't afford food, not because we can't produce enough. And this will be true for decades in the future.

The Community Alliance for Global Justice put out a press release recently criticizing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its investments in Monsanto. The high-tech approach is not the right way to move toward food security and sustainability, but it is the approach the Gates Foundation is favoring. The foundation has indicated that it thinks there are too many small farmers in Africa, and knows that its policies will lead to many farmers having to leave their land-euphemistically referred to as 'land mobility.'

But people have been leaving the land in Africa and around the world for a long time. What's different today?

Well, this is what happened during the first Green Revolution. The larger farmers can afford the mechanization, and the smaller ones get wiped out. Cities are growing exponentially in developing countries and becoming ungovernable hotbeds of unemployment and crime. Nairobi doesn't need more people coming in from the countryside looking for jobs. This poses a threat to public health, while the monoculture of the farms is a threat to food security.

You are closely involved with the international negotiations to govern genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Can you tell us the current status of those talks?

We have the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, now with 160 member countries-which doesn't include the U.S., Canada, or Australia, the major producers of GMOs, because they don't like the fact that we were able to get language about international regulation of this technology into the Protocol. Member countries are having their fifth Meeting of the Parties (MOP5) in Nagoya, Japan, in October. Biosafety legislation has been passed in various countries, which is helping developing countries build capacity to deal with the oversight and regulation of this technology. But, if it is weak, it may be providing an entrance for GE crops.

As one example, I've been working over the past six years as an NGO delegate to Protocol meetings, trying to craft an international regime of legal liability for damages caused by GMOs. Hundreds of incidents of damage have already occurred and been documented. There should be a finished liability regime presented for consideration at the Protocol meeting this fall.

I've also been involved in a UN Agency called the Codex Alimentarius, a collaboration of the UN's World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, which deals with international food laws and regulations. There's been a 15-year struggle to get international guidelines for GE food labeling, which has been rigorously opposed by the U.S. and some of its allies. I'll be in attendance at a working group meeting in Brussels in November that will try to resolve some of the issues in the current document, and there will be an annual meeting of the Codex Labeling Committee in May in Quebec City. There's a decent chance that the negotiations will be resolved by the meeting in May, and some final international guidelines on labeling GE foods will be able to be adopted.

Since the U.S. is the largest producer of GMOs, do you think these decisions will affect domestic trends?

I don't know how long the U.S. can stay isolated from these world trends. It's encouraging that in two or three legal cases recently, U.S. courts have required the government and the industry to do actual environmental impact assessments of GE crops, and other court decisions have imposed monetary damages for GE contamination of fields of conventional crops. But there's no independent regulatory oversight in the U.S. whatsoever; the agencies merely accept the industry's conclusions that there are no problems with the GE crop variety.

The Codex Alimentarius-including the U.S. and Canada delegations- unanimously adopted a set of principles for doing risk assessments for GE foods. The problem is that they're just guidelines. No country has to adopt them, so we don't know whether they are having an impact. Codex no longer asks governments to inform it of adoptions, since countries never did so when the organization had such a rule. Certainly the U.S. has not adopted assessment procedures such as those urged by the Codex.

How does the UN's Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety address the potential risks associated with GMOs?

This treaty provides for countries to impose a requirement of 'advanced informed agreement (AIA)' before receiving imports of GMOs, and it outlines general principles and methodology for doing a risk assessment on them for the country to decide whether or not to agree. Every sovereign country has the right to control what crosses its borders. But we need the Protocol because countries that have joined the World Trade Organization have given up the right to control imports in certain circumstances. The Protocol says, despite that, it's okay for governments to have some regulation without it being deemed a 'barrier to trade.'

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is not an organ of the UN. How WTO rules and regulations, the UN's Codex, and the Cartagena Protocol mesh with each other is not clear. The only linkage between them is that in 1995, the WTO decided that the rules of a few specifically named international agencies would be reference points for trade disputes, and one of them was the Codex. So in theory, the Codex guidelines on risk assessments for GE foods or on their labeling would protect countries against being 'sued' in the dispute mechanisms of the WTO. The problem is that the Codex only covers foods, and a lot of GMOs are not foods, like cotton. So that's why we need the Cartagena Protocol, legally speaking. Also, weaker countries need something that they can refer to when they're under pressure from Monsanto, U.S. trade representatives, U.S. ambassadors, and others to accept GMOs. Wealthy developed countries such as Switzerland and Norway have these rules in place, and perhaps don't really need the Protocol as much. But most countries in the world are not as powerful, and they do need the strength of numbers provided by the Protocol.

How effective has the Protocol been?

The Cartagena Protocol is an unprecedented treaty on a new technology. It's one of the first international environmental treaties and is an outcome of the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. What you have is a treaty that falls within the environmental ministry in most countries. The problem is that sometimes the other ministries in a government don't see eye-to-eye-the trade ministry might be pushing to adopt GMOs, or the agricultural minister might have learned all about GE while studying at a land grant university in the U.S. and has accepted what she or he was told there, that GE is a great idea. So it's very hard to predict what's going to come out. It's dependent on a lot of political factors that may have nothing to do with the substance of the matter. Civil society around the world is mobilizing around these issues-the only way toward a democratic and equitable future.

What does the ethical use of GMOs in agriculture look like?

No one knows. The closest thing to any real evaluation of GMOs versus alternatives was the IAASTD. This was a multi-year study funded by the World Bank and a number of UN agencies that concluded that there's no obvious or particular advantage to GM foods. But I would contend that GE is inherently unethical because it is not a democratic technology- its development, ownership, and decision-making apparatus are all concentrated in the hands of a tiny techno-corporate elite.

Do you think there is a legitimate role for GMOs in providing food security and developing agricultural policy?

I'm skeptical because GMOs haven't been developed to provide food security. Roundup Ready GE, for example, was developed to extend Monsanto's monopoly over Roundup weed killer because the patent was expiring. It turned out to be a great money maker for them. Second, food security has to do with the control the consumers, as well as the farmers and producers, have over the production of food. But GMOs remove that control. Food security is not just a quantitative concept. Many of the industry's proponents use the term food security as if producing more is all that matters.
GMOs don't produce more-in the long run, anyway. Weeds and insects develop resistance, as Darwinian evolution teaches. Although the first Green Revolution did produce more food, it did not reduce hunger. Hunger is a function of poverty, not a function of the amount of food that's around. The only way to reduce hunger is to improve the income of the world's poorest people and return control of food production to local communities and farmers. This is 'food sovereignty.' The UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter recently presented a report to the UN General Assembly highlighting all of this.

The question of whether GE has a legitimate role to play in food security is stimulated by the hype that the industry has been putting out for a decade and a half. But, in fact, most of the unbiased analyses have come to the conclusion that there's not much of a role for GMOs at all, and their effect on real food security is quite negative. Because there are no adequate risk assessments going on, we have no idea what the long-term consequences of the growing and consuming of these foods are to the environment or human health. Those should be giant question marks, and you can't be secure in the face of giant question marks.

That is why both the Protocol and the Codex have embodied the 'Precautionary Principle'-which used to be so common in U.S. regulatory rules until the rise of conservative power 30 years ago under Reagan-to 'look before you leap' or, in other words, when confronted by great uncertainties, do research and evaluation before deciding whether to adopt a new technology. In recent years, the U.S. has experienced huge increases in all sorts of health problems that appear to be linked to food intake-for example, diabetes, obesity, food poisoning, maybe even autism. No one can say whether or not GMOs are responsible, because no assessments have been done with any scientific rigor.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute. Visit Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet blog to learn more about the role of genetically modified organisms in achieving food security.