The term genetic engineering makes the headline invariably every other day in newspapers. With demand for surplus growth, every attempt is made to increase productions and control pest damage using artificial and secondary methods. In India, the government has given the clearance for the first time, the testing of genetically engineered crops. While the test may prove beneficial on several counts, scientific evidence shows that the risks involved are irreplaceable.
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The argument of whether genetically engineered seeds have monopolized the market in place of contemporary seeds has been going on for some time now. While many feel that genetically engineered produces have eased the burden for more, traditionalists believe that nothing compares to traditional and natural produces, as it’s safe and hygienic. Corporations have also made life for farmers miserable by introducing patent laws to dissuade them from reproducing seeds on their own.
The damage to living beings, man included could be so drastic that the minor benefits could be overlooked in the attempt to enhance production and consumption. By altering the ecological system, the self-organizational capacity of organisms becomes redundant and species find it hard to balance their self-healing capability; and this is precisely what happens in genetic engineering.
Finding methods to protect and develop indigenous seeds is the right way forward to protect the ecosystem and self. This is precisely what Navdanya, a network in India is trying to achieve. In the Rig Veda, much importance is given to flora and fauna, and plants are given the status of a motherly figure.
The earth, juxtaposed with women, was continuously being targeted by men, who used it for their creativity. Just as women were seen as tools in the reproduction or recreation, in the words of Johann Jacob Bachofen, ‘The triumph of paternity brings with it the liberation of the spirit from the manifestations of nature, a sublimation of human existence over the laws of material life. While triumphant paternity partakes heavenly light, child-bearing motherhood is bound up with the earth that bears all things.
It is men, who in the process of their creativity desecrate the earth and women alike, and this is what the author tries to elucidate. The land, the forests, the rivers, the oceans, and the atmosphere were colonized, eroded, and polluted, just like women were in the quest for man’s recreation.
Man, in his quest for excellence and pleasure has transcended boundaries to do the inevitable. Just like how built gunboats using technology to invade distant lands, he has targeted his focus on invading the lands that so well protected him from extinction. Introducing technology in the form of genetic engineering, he now plans to take over the life of organisms as new colonies of hybrid and artificial produces are attempted. Biotechnology makes it possible to colonize and control produces that till now were autonomous, free, and self-generative. Reductionism opens up avenues for the exploitation of this autonomous, free, and regenerative organism.
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The patriarchal construct of the passivity of the earth and the consequent creation of the colonial land as terra nullius served him with two distinct possibilities; deny the existence and rights of its original inhabitants, and two, negate the regenerative capacity and life processes on earth. John Pilger, considering in the context of what was observed in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, pointed out that men were equated as men of prey.
In Australia, men were more like animals of prey; ferocious and fearsome. In an Australian textbook, ‘Triumph in the Tropics,’ Australian Aborigines were juxtaposed with half-wild dogs. As animals, no human being, be it Australian, American Asian, or African, had the right to act or be human beings. Their lands could be usurped as terra nullius; empty, wasted, and barren. In the words of Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, nature was no longer a motherly figure, but a female body waiting to be conquered by an aggressive masculine mind.
Bacon had support from Carolyn Merchant, who said that the transformation of this living, nurturing mother to an inert, dead, and manipulative matter was eminently suited to the exploitation imperative of growing capitalism.
‘One does not readily slay a mother, dig her entrails, or mutilate her body,’ wrote Merchant. This sounds very appropriate when one considers the sinister significance one draws from the way technology helped man change the face of civilization to satisfy his palate.
But there is a strong resentment to the dominance of genetically engineered seeds and its patent laws introduced to favor corporations who produce these seeds. At the global level, one significant development that has made the issues of farmers’ rights visible is the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Commission of Plant Genetic Resources and the Keystone Dialogue. Communities in Third World countries, which have to take the burden imposed by the developed nations and their corporations, steps were being taken to save farmers through their initiative to regenerate their native seeds. In India for example, a network called Navdanya was set up to encourage usage and in native seed conservation.
Despite these initiatives, there have been widespread countermeasures introduced to displace local plant diversity and its substitution by patented varieties. International agencies under pressure from seed corporations also push for regimes of intellectual property rights that deny farmers their intellectual and their rights. The March 1991 revision of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants is one such initiative that works to protect patent laws and allows countries to remove the farmers’ right to save and replant seed at their discretion.
In agriculture, the cycle of soil preservation and fertility is based on the inviolable law of return that recognizes the earth as the source of fertility. However, with the advent of genetic engineering, the soil was abused and diseases and micronutrient deficiencies surfaced, making it all the more difficult for the soil to support the demands of the new breed of crop-producing techniques. The Green Revolution was known for its positive instigation of agricultural produce, but with the introduction of genetic engineering, things began to happen. The soil began to lose its fertility and substitutes like chemical fertilizers were considered viable substitutes to organic manure.
Seeds and the soil have a special relationship and this cannot be substituted to produce any worthwhile effect. Seeds and the soil create conditions that support each other’s regeneration and renewal. Genetic engineering does away with this arrangement causing an imbalance in the ecosystem. Global warming is an example of the influence of genetic engineering in unbalancing the ecosystem. With the introduction of chemical fertilizers, there has been a steady erosion of natural resources resulting in pollution of land, water, and the atmosphere. Similarly, by hybridization, seeds are robbed of their self-regenerative and fertility properties.
As the seed and chemical companies merge, the dependence of external inputs in the ecological cycle of the reproduction of seed occurs. It must be noted that it is this shift from an ecological process of production through regeneration to that of a technological process of non-regenerative production that underlies the dispossession of farmers and reduce the biological diversity in agriculture.
The shift from being able to reproduce their seeds to buying patented properties from corporations makes farmers become bonded in a way. When technological means fail to prevent farmers from reproducing their seed, legal regulations in the forms of intellectual property rights and patents are brought in. In the words of the Vice President of Genentech:
“When you have a chance to write a clean slate, you can make some very basic claims, because the standard you are compared to is the state of the prior art, and in biotechnology there just is not much. Ownership and property claims are made on living resources, but prior custody and use of those resources by farmers is not the measure against which the patent is set. Rather, it is the intervention of technology that determines the claim to their exclusive use. The possession of this technology, then, becomes the reason for ownership by corporations, and for the simultaneous dispossession and disenfranchisement of farmers.”
The change to genetically produced seeds is robbing farmers of their right to produce their seeds, which though conventional are eco-friendly and hygienic. With the advent of terra nullius, farmers find their seeds lose their value and life. Indigenous produces, called landraces, used widely in third world countries, are known as primitive cultivars, while those produced in modern plants are termed advanced or elite.
Genetically engineered products are derived after long, laborious, expensive, and risk-related chaotic processes, which ultimately are targeted to bring money from the market. Landraces, developed by farmers are not genetically chaotic and are of improved and selected materials, embodied with hard work, inventiveness, and experience. The forcible entry of genetically engineered produces, monopolized by corporations, is a mark of rank social discrimination. This theory has come in for sharp reactions from two houses of thought, those in favor of it and those against. One such person is Pat Mooney.
Pat Mooney argues that the perception that intellectual property is recognized only when produced in laboratories by men in white coats is racist.
Jack Doyle thinks otherwise and says that through genetic engineering, patents are made, and these patents are less concerned about innovation than territorial; for they act as instruments of territorial takeover by claiming exclusive access to creativity and innovation, thereby monopolizing rights to ownerships. With the colonization of land, Third World agriculture faced serious consequences, as it could undermine the cultural and ethical fabric of agricultural-based societies.
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This will put pressure on Third World farmers from innovating and force them to buy patented products from the market at exorbitant rates. With patents, seeds that were distributed freely and treated as gifts would become patented.
Worse still is that once patented, Third World farmers would be forced into a three-level relationship with corporations; first of all, they are, and will remain, suppliers of germ plasma to these transnational corporations, secondly, they would become competitors in terms of innovation and rights to genetic resources, and finally, they will remain the consumers of the technological and industrial produces of these corporations. In other words, they (the farmers) become dependent on these corporations for their needs without being able to break free or innovate on their own.
Earlier there were the plant breeders’ rights (PBRs) which protected certain rights of the farmers’ produce, however, with the new utility patents; these are broad-based, allowing monopoly rights over individual genes and characteristics. Patents allow multiple claims that could cover an entire plant, unlike PBRs, and they also cover plant processes. Such patents can cause widespread pressure on Third World farmers who have no other option than to buy seeds produced by corporations engineered genetically, all through the year without reproducing them themselves.
The farmers thus become dependent on corporations for supplies of seeds for use in their farms. Should the Dunkel Draft of the GATT be implemented, farmers who use and replant seeds of a patented corporate, could violate the law and be legally binding. The intellectual property rights would be daylight robbery with farmers having no say in the matter.
Despite the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Commission of Plant genetic Resources’ move to highlight the issue of farmers’ rights, and local communities all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America taking steps to save and regenerate their native seeds, there remains the threat to displace local plant diversity and its substitution by patented varieties. Also, international agencies under pressure from seed corporations are pushing for regimes of intellectual property rights that deny farmers their intellectual and their rights. Another development was the move to privatize genetic resources. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research made a policy statement on May 22, 1992, allowing for the privatization and patenting of genetic resources held in international gene banks.
Just as much as the role of man is debated in genetic engineering, his role in patents has been condemned in no uncertain terms. Similarly, his role as a creator has found strong dissent among many scholars and this is evident from his role in pregnancy and childbirth. Peter and Deane Wells in ‘The Reproductive Revolution,’ state that the production of sperm is worth a great deal more than the production of eggs by women.
In 1986, Mary Beth agreed to lend her uterus as a surrogate, but after experiencing what it meant to have a baby, she returned the money to keep the child. A New Jersey court ruled that a man’s contract with the woman concerning his sperm was sacred and that her pregnancy and childbirth were not. Commenting on this judgment, Phyllis Chesler in her book, ‘Sacred Bond,’ says that the judgment reflected as if these experts were 19th-century missionaries and Mary Beth, a stubborn native who refused to convert to civilization, and refused to let them plunder her natural resources without a fight.
Ownership is acquired through invasive and fragmenting technology and it is this link between fragmenting technology and control and ownership of resources and people (as in the case of Mary Beth) that forms the basis of patriarchal superiority over others. It is the same principle that is applied in the case of genetic engineering and mother earth. While genetic engineering robs the soil of essential resources and disturbs the ecosystem, patents are floated to protect the huge investment and profits it brings from innovation and research in genetic engineering. Biotechnology remains today’s dominant cultural instrument for carving out boundaries between nature and culture through intellectual property rights.
Thus, the labor of women and Third World farmers is considered non-labor and is merely a biological development, a natural resource; their products are akin to natural deposits. There are many mega projects built across the globe; the building of dams, highways, and aquaculture to name a few. All these projects are built over areas rich in biological diversity. The shrimp farming revolution has destroyed coastal and inland areas rich in agricultural diversity. All these and more are the handpicked work of corporations with money, for money. Little consideration is given to what could have been done to save precious natural resources.
It must be stated here that when events such as these happen, the ecosystem is affected and this leads to the erosion of biodiversity, leading to a chain of destruction. Species begin to perish which form a part of a chain, leading to the extinction of others in the chain. This event doesn’t just eliminate species from the face of this earth but also threatens the life-support systems and livelihood of millions of people in Third World countries as well.
Biodiversity is the prerogative of all people, and when this is denied to some by affluent people, the poor in Third World countries, who depend on biological resources for food and nutrition, health care, energy, housing, and so on, find life a struggle and perish. Plant-based healing systems have been in vogue for many centuries in the Third World, and by destroying their resources, patients have no source to augment their medicinal needs, except to go in for genetically engineered western medicines.
Ayurveda is a form of herbal treatment that is popular in many Third World countries. Folk traditions and specialized medical systems support each other unlike the western-style; pharmaceutical corporations dominated medical-industrial systems. Also, in non-western medical systems, indigenous medical practitioners do not exercise a commercial monopoly through their practice as in western-style medical practices. All these lead us to one thing; the damage to the ecosystem by the introduction of genetically engineered products will only impair and destroy man.
The author has brought to fore an issue that is affecting mankind and is not addressed or condemned strongly enough for us to understand the seriousness of its consequences. By removing what mother earth has given us so vital for our existence, some people in the quest for personal gain are plundering it and causing a severe ecological imbalance which is beginning to show its effects. By juxtaposing mother earth to a woman, the author has strongly shown what men in power will do to gain without consideration to others.
The role of corporations in destroying the natural resources provided by the earth through technological innovations should be condemned. The so-called genetically engineered seeds rob the soil of its nutrients, leaving it barren for further cultivation. Farmers, who depend on these nutrients for their crop production, find the pressure from the corporate hard to contain and fall prey to their patent policies and genetically produced seeds.
The author could have highlighted the battle by many westerners in curtailing the heinous crimes by their countrymen. Cutting of forests, production of weapons of mass destruction, wars across borders, and killing animals for gain are few areas that have also led to the damage of the ecosystem. The melting of ice and global warming is caused by the cutting and chopping of forests in the name of development. The example that plants and trees help in curing ailments shows how much destruction is causing for personal gain. Should the forests and soil be left untouched, this earth, to which we all owe our gratitude, will be heaven on earth.
Vandana Shiva, BIOPIRACY, The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, ISBN: 0-89608-555-4.