Terminator technology-genetic horror

Xavier Dequaire xavierd at online.no
Wed Jun 17 15:44:34 EDT 1998

from the british daily:

Genetic tampering with food is more likely to be a boon than a disaster.
But we can't be sure, writes Andrew Marr

Sunday June 14, 1998
It is a truly strange, rich confrontation, one of the most interesting
political arguments around. In the green corner stands Prince Charles,
grumbling about God's rights and fiddling with his cufflinks. In the
gold corner is Monsanto, the almost miraculously successful US food
company, waving its cornucopia wildly at the gaping world.
But it looks like an ill-matched contest. In late middle-age Charles
increasingly resembles a Hanoverian forebear-with-a-sore-head - as
choleric, gloomy and pessimistic as any King George, stomping round the
piggery, consumed with anxiety and self-awareness. Why, we may ask,
should anyone take lectures in food from this man, whose Duchy of
Cornwall produces a kind of ruined oatcake and messed-about-with loaf,
notable only for being grossly overpriced? He wouldn't serve genetically
modified tomatoes to his family. I wouldn't serve "Duchy Originals" to
Our King-to-be's Daily Telegraph article, which began last week's row,
mingles the spiritual and the mundane. At first inspection, it reads as
if he'd taken a briefing paper from the Soil Association and simply
splashed a bit of the Book of Common Prayer through it. Genetically
modified plant breeding, he argues, creates all sorts of possible
environmental dangers and "takes mankind into realms that belong to God,
and God alone" - though this act of blasphemous trespass does not
seemingly apply to the use of genetics in medicine, where his audience
might be rather less sympathetic.
The Prince says that "we live in an age of rights - it seems to me that
it is time our Creator had some rights too". There is an unmistakably
plaintive note - one disregarded authority figure expressing solidarity
with another. Charles speaks for tradition and conservatism.
In the gold corner, gleaming with dosh and self-righteousness and
speaking for science and the future, is Monsanto of St Louis, whose
advertising campaign provoked Charles's protest. Monsanto has around
21,900 employees and a total market capitalisation of £21.5 billion. It
has grown at a staggering pace on the back of the promise of a
genetically engineered future. As recently as 1994 it was worth only
£5.5bn and its return to shareholders from the life sciences has risen
by more than 350 per cent in the past six years.
These are the kind of numbers that drive investors into frenzies of
bubble speculation and sober market players to drool with greed.
Monsanto encourages that.
Growth in biological knowledge, the company says, "is transforming
agriculture, nutrition and health care" just as the digital revolution
transformed communication. Monsanto promises with as much hubristic
self-assurance as any political party to create a better world "Food.
Health. Hope." is its corporate slogan.
But food, health and hope are only the start. Monsanto's most urgent
message is for investors, not consumers, still less the undernourished.
The growth in computing created "aggregate global value in the trillions
of dollars". But "at Monsanto, we believe that a similar non-linear
trend in biotechnology capabilities is creating comparable growth
potential in the life sciences". In other words, we're going to be
rich... rich! (reedy voice cracks) RICH! Think, my friends, of Croesus.
Go one better: think of Bill Gates.
It isn't simply that Charles and his kind disagree with Monsanto. They
are speaking a different language. Charles is spiritual, diffuse,
diffident; Monsanto is commercial, focused and exultant. But what most
divides them is their notion of time. Charles, as a traditionalist and
organic farmer, thinks in seasons and cycles. The single phenomenon
which most worries Charles is the very thing that most excites Monsanto.
It is acceleration, the speeding-up of change, those lines on graphs
that suddenly wobble from horizontal to nearly vertical, reaching for
the sky.
What for him is the ultimate threat, tampering with Nature, is for
Monsanto the great liberation. The scientists paint Charles as an
ignorant reactionary, surrounded by warty mystics in corduroy, preaching
scare stories. They hit back with history and science. Mankind has been
breeding and therefore interfering, with plants for thousands of years,
they point out: "We have been changing the genetic structure through
cross-breeding, chemicals, hybridisation. All that's different is that
we now understand the genetics far more than we did and we can use a
slightly wider range of choice of material."
He's broadly right, even though that "slightly" encompasses fish genes
in vegetables. Our human history is, first and foremost, the history of
mucking about with the genetic makeup of other living organisms. As
Jared Diamond has shown in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, the
development of crops explains a lot about why and where human
civilisation happened in the first place. For instance, farming
societies occurred first in the "Fertile Crescent" stretching from the
Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf partly because of the huge variety of
edible grasses that could be tamed and grown.
In the New World, by contrast, they had corn, not wheat or barley, as
their leading cereal. Its wild ancestor, teosinte, produced very little
nutrition and was enclosed in a rock-like covering. No food surpluses
there. As Diamond writes: "Archaeologists are still vigorously debating
how many centuries or millennia of crop development in the Americas were
required for ancient corn cobs to progress from tiny size to the size of
a human thumb, but it seems clear that several thousand more years were
required for them to reach modern sizes."
That meant that New World societies developed far slower than
better-nourished and more populous European ones - hence Columbus,
Pizarro, the wiping out of Incas and Native Indians, and all that's
happened in America since. Hence, for that matter, Monsanto, which now
promises to achieve similar biological changes within months that native
Americans spent several thousand years on. But one thing remains
constant: everywhere, successful genetic change in plants brings power
and wealth. So when the scientists protest that they are just doing more
quickly, nimbly and drastically what has been done throughout the
history of agriculture to feed growing human populations, they are
absolutely right. Agriculture is tampering. It measures its success by
the numbers of people it feeds.
That tampering has been inextricably linked with developed societies,
whether we're talking about the development of the strawberry in Roman
times or the use of chemicals in British agriculture, which dates back
to at least the 1750s, when one Francis Home was advocating spreading
potassium nitrate, Epsom salts and potassium sulphate on fields. How far
back do we go to "return to the old ways" or become fully organic? Do we
banish potatoes from Europe? Genetic manipulation interferes with
nature, but then so does spreading vitriolic tartar about the place and
grafting apple trees.
If in the future genetic engineers can produce plants which can be grown
in salt water or are insect-resistant, or can produce all the amino
acids humans require in maize without meat protein... doesn't this
simply extend human opportunity and happiness?
Prince Charles describes this as tampering with God's realm. It might
feel different in Somalia. There is no cut-off between "natural" and
"artificial": we are part of nature and have been radically altering it
throughout our history. So why don't we simply cheer Monsanto, eat up
our genetically modified soya and tell Charles to wander off and tell it
to a tulip? Because, I think, he has two big arguments to fire back.
These are not fundamentally arguments about science or history - on
balance, I'd back Monsanto on both - but about power and democracy.
The biological revolution, rather like the information technology
revolution or the arrival of the nuclear age, tugs opens the divide
between the scientific élite who understand, or think they understand,
the relevant technology, and the ignorant residue - the crowd of
unknowing. But it is more like the nuclear revolution than the
information one, because it affects all of us, whether we like it or
not. A shivering Victorian could choose not to board an early steam
train, and you can choose - just about - not to use Microsoft Word or
cable television. Yet the arrival of genetically modified food will
shortly be so widespread that we will all consume it.
No one knows to what extent the fears of organic farmers and
environmentalists about genetically modified plants and animals are
justified. Monsanto denies that the release of genetically transformed
organisms - living things, after all, not inert pollution - will
unbalance ecologies.
But Monsanto doesn't know. Nobody knows. The biotechnologists are less
technically ignorant, but not necessarily less wise, than their critics.
What we do know is that this technology has arrived remarkably quickly
and is being commercially exploited with all the cool reflection of a
gold rush. We know that scientists are fallible and as greedy as the
rest of us. And we know that the first uses of genetic manipulation will
be to produce greater food bulk and greater convenience for producers
and retailers.
So to shout "too fast" isn't necessarily a sign of Luddism. Conservatism
is also a useful human instinct. In a differently organised world, this
technology might have been observed over time in different ecologies,
rather than being rushed to market. It is the glare of commercial hype,
so intimately connected to very new technologies, that gives legitimate
cause for concern. We shouldn't blame Monsanto, however: asking a
corporation, in these circumstances, for caution and consumer warnings
is like asking a tiger to dine off houmus and rocket salad. But a
well-functioning modern society has countervailing forces.
It has consumer power. Greater social wealth means that instead of
buying more food bulk, we are buying better quality. That may mean
organic food, produced in ways that make the countryside look more
various and attractive; chickens grown on real corn; knobbly but
flavoursome vegetables, not smooth and bland ones. It might even mean,
eventually, the return of "in season" rather than chilled and freighted
diurnal uniformity. Many of us preferred the days when there was a month
of strawberries only and a time for apples.
But, before consumer power can be effective, consumers need information
- and that requires assertive political, democratic power. Even in 1998
in our heavily privatised world, we naturally look to politics as the
main countervailing force to commercial pushiness.
Maybe we look in vain. There are some controls but Monsanto is in the
superleague of companies that are wooed but never rebuked by small
nations. Even the European Union has been reluctant to look at the case
for labelling. So where, apart from organic lobbyists and the odd
dissident hack, are the voices of restraint coming from?
>From a man out of time. It is a strange day when a gloomy British prince
turns out to be the voice of the people, while Ministers and
corporations fall silent on something as sensitive and intimate as the
food we eat.
You don't need to share Charles's analysis to see the sense in his call
for a certain modest caution and proper information for consumers.
Probably - on balance - genetic manipulation is more likely to be a boon
than a catastrophe. But if we have learned anything from this century,
it is not to be rushed by experts, and to leave the exit doors open in
case of mistakes.
Charles is a backward-looking and mystical pessimist outside all
important loops; Monsanto is armed with enthusiasm, knowledge and
insider power. It is, by any conventional reckoning, infinitely more
useful to mankind than a deputy monarch with a world-famous wince. But
he has no axe to grind, no sudden fortune to make. Sometimes diffidence
and doubt are more precious than certainty.

Copyright Guardian Media Group plc 1998

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