Issue 226: December 2004


 Upstream Ethics


We have written quite a bit in The Ram's Horn on the subject of biotechnology over the past few years. However, the experience of ‘debating' the subject with Monsanto's Canadian director of research at the National Food Security Assembly in Winnipeg prompted us to print the following summary of our approach. – Eds

This season, with its celebrations of life and light, reinforces a fundamental attitude of hope. Without being naive about the presence of evil powers and their destructive purposes, one can feel profound gratitude for the beauty, wonder, abundance and goodness of Creation – in contrast to the view that Nature is wild and deficient, in need of domination, control and exploitation. This pessimistic view sees the world as a place of darkness, despair and insecurity, a place filled with alien powers that must be vanquished.

It is this view which underlies the whole project of biotechnology/genetic engineering.

Assuming an attitude of gratitude, however, requires that we start a consideration of biotechnology, not with the downstream questions of human and environmental safety , or even with a litany of the promises of biotech, but with the upstream, or prior, ethical questions.

In the interest of brevity, I will not begin with the way upstream question, “What is the problem for which biotech is supposed to be the solution” (other than corporate patents and profits), but rather with a number of ethical issues raised by the process of genetic engineering – while recognizing that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency argues that it is only the product that matters, not the process by which it is achieved.

Ethical problem – not ‘dilemma'! – #1: Genetic engineering is an extreme expression of a reductionist culture that regards nature as alien, hostile, and in need of domination and control for purposes of exploitation and “improvement.” It is a utilitarian culture that speaks of ‘natural resources,' ‘human resources,' and ‘genetic resources' – and ‘value-added.' In other words, it recognizes no inherent value (or gift) in Creation and its creatures – including human.

Ethical problem #2: Biotechnology/genetic engineering is without respect for the integrity of the organism, for boundaries, whether at the cellular level or at the level of plant or animal – or at the level of ecology.

We can view genetic engineering as yet another expression of colonialism, from the colonization of the plant/planet with foreign troops and settlers to the colonization and deliberate contamination of the globe with transgenic organisms (GMOs) and plants. The most blatant geo-political examples currently are GMO food aid to Africa and the systematic contamination of every potential soybean growing area in South America .

Ethical problem #3: Genetic engineering is essentially violent, as is all colonialism; it is the deliberate violation of the integrity of the organism (or the state), carried out by deception or brute force, or both, to force the organism (or the state) to become or do something it would never do on its own.You will have no problem providing examples.

Traditional plant and animal breeding has always worked within the limits of what whole organisms were willing to do, with respect for boundaries.


Ethical problem #4: Biotechnology is an expression of a culture and economy that regards financial gain and competiveness as supreme values. There is, therefore, no reason to expect biotechnology to address issues of justice and equity, or social problems such as hunger.

Monsanto and Syngenta, like Cargill, my favourite (model) corporation, are not charitable organizations. Their job, their legal (fiduciary) responsibility, is to make money for their shareholders. It is not to feed the hungry. This being the case, it is reasonable to look carefully at their much vaunted “science.”

The ‘science' of biotechnology so far has been based on the simplistic and decidedly unscientific ‘Central Dogma' laid down (‘revealed' might be more accurate) fifty years ago: One Gene (creates) One Protein.

I remember being told and reading, countless times over the past two decades, that genetic engineering is precise and fast. Fast it may be, but since when is this a good thing except for those in pursuit of profit? And precise? It is not, never has been, and is anything but.

Which leads to my second problem with the science. To my mind, science, with a small ‘s', is about knowledge – not just information: it is disinterested enquiry into the nature of things. Biotech, on the other hand, is all about producing new products for the market – even if the market has to be created through massive advertising – not about respecting and understanding. (Whose idea was rBGH? Did the dairy farmers ask for it? Did the cows? Did the milk drinkers?)

Efficacy – does it work – has been the issue for crops and drugs, and not wanting to know has been a disturbing characteristic of corporations and regulators alike. It is not good science, not even “sound science,” to conduct research trials without controls, without noting (and publishing) what does not work, and what went wrong. (Or without labelling, in the case of GE foods.)

Science, with a capital ‘S', is about silencing the critics and the public, as Bruno Latour points out:

“This Science, capital S, is not a description of what scientists do... It is an ideology that never had any other use ... than to offer a substitute for public discussion... It has always been a political weapon to do away with the strenuous constraints of politics... Because it was intended as a weapon, this conception of Science ... has only one use: as the command, “Keep your mouth shut!” 
– Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope, Harvard, 1999, 258

Ethical problem #5: The hubris of genetic engineering and the question of what we can know.

At this point it is necessary to compare the biotech industry to the drug industry. Consider the tragic story of Vioxx (see next page) as an illustration of what many of us see having its analogues in the transgenic crops and the processes and procedures of the biotech industry, from the lab to the regulators to the hapless victims.

“Had the company not valued sales over safety, a suitable trial [of Vioxx] could have been initiated rapidly at a a fraction of the cost of Merck's direct-to-consumer advertising campaign. ” – Topol, NEJM, 21/10/04

It is in this light that we should see the human and environmental concerns about the ‘safety' of biotech. (Who predicted that RR bentgrass pollen would travel 13 miles!)

So now we may consider the “way upstream” question: what is the problem for which biotech is supposed to be the solution? Biotech offers the productionist ‘promise' of more food because it wants to retain control. But in a world with enough food, increasing food production and corporate control is definitely not the solution. The problem of hunger is ethical and social. It is not technological but political. It is about learning to share, not to own, the abundance of Creation. A good place to start at Christmastime and the celebration of Gift: of life, of health, of good food.

#226: December 2004 TOC
Upstream Ethics: Brewster outlines our basic position on biotechnology
"No Right for Contamination" - a Finnish-led campaign against GM trees
With or Without Vioxx, Drug Ads Proliferate
Stop, Thief! - how can we allow patents on seeds -- or music -- or poetry -- which derives from common knowledge?
Note from a Saskatchewan farmer-subscriber
Direct Action, India Style - Indian farmers take a Monsanto manager hostage
Wasted Food - 40% - 50% of all food ready for harvest in the USA never gets eaten
Eating Technology:
                 (1) Florida biotech company proposes GM mouthwash
                 (2) US researchers try GM to halt mould on strawberries
                 (3) PEI salmon genetic engineers think it's just like tinkering with your car
Grocery Giant has Giant Profit: Wal-Mart sales on its second quarter were $69.7 billion
The Hokkaido Story Continues: Japanese authorities and farmers wrestle with GE crops
German GM Rules: new and prohibitively strict rules now govern GM in Germany