About biotechnology: lecture notes (last update c 2005)

biotech lecture

© amory starr 2005

three kinds of biotechnology

  • biotech crops
  • biotech pharmaceuticals
  • bio-prospecting/biopiracy/biopatenting

four kinds of biotech crops

  • increased nutrition/shelf life/freeze tolerant/consistent size/ease of processing (some benefit to consumer)
  • chemical tolerant or chemical-producing varieties
  • traitor/terminator
  • crops designed as a production system for pharmaceuticals or other non-food products

the first clue that something is wrong is self-contradiction in the biotech industry

  • industry claims they have created something so “new” that it deserves a patent and they can go to farmers’ fields to check if it’s there and will sue if it’s found and royalties have not been paid but when consumers want it labeled they say “you can’t tell the difference; it’s impossible to sort it out”
  • they claim that buffer zones are enough to control drift contamination, which worries organic farmers, environmentalists, etc. but they are suing outside their buffer zones. and they’re going to places like russia with their test plots presumably because there are no laws and regulations and oversight about drift. drift may be intentional, so that there won’t be any possibility of rejecting the technology. australian farmers, having won the european market which demands non-gmo are now losing their genetic purity because of drift.
  • “saving the third world” through nutritional improvements as a way to legitimize the whole technology, when those nutritional improvements don’t even work. golden rice is a fiasco. must have fat in the diet to absorb that kind of vitamin a, and requires eating something like 8kg per day to get it.
  • companies claim there is no negative impact on nutrition or environment but they put in their contracts that the company is not responsible for any ill effects. they are claiming to be totally “safe” and yet they have become uninsurable, because the insurance companies believe it to be such a massive risk that they won’t provide coverage any more.

“it’s unnatural”. please never use this argument. even philosophers can’t sort out what is actually nature. if you’re wearing eyeglasses, you’re not natural. born by c-section? you are unnatural! so this isn’t a good argument. don’t use it. there are lots of better arguments.

“biotech is just like traditional hybridization” no it’s not, there are many differences.

hybridization is a broad term. includes old traditions like grafting and cross pollination and new techniques like biotech.

  • hybridization as agronomy is a decentralized process, practiced on small scale by independent farmers everywhere. if something didn’t work, it had very limited effects. biotech is just a handful of corps, highly centralized process being distributed across the planet with unknown effects.
  • in traditional hybridization, decisions were driven by use-value. in biotech decisions are driven by profitability/patenting
  • traditional hybridization results in an increase of biodiversity. biotech results in a decrease of biodiversity
  • in traditional hybridization god/nature/gaia (whoever you think makes these decisions) can reject the union. in biotech, scientists are able to force matings. this is why some people call it rape of the plants. tomato/flounder never going to mate unless assisted rape.
  • in traditional hybridization, whole chunks of dna move in blocks into the new plant. scientists do not understand that chunking. in biotech only one gene is randomly inserted. biotech scientists are not able to replicate the way that nature manages combinations.
  • in traditional hybridization, the resulting crop has natural variation. this is important for long-terms survival. in biotech the plants are clones, identical, vulnerable.


other critiques of biotech

  • lessons of the green revolution: standardization does not increase productivity. small/diversified farms managed for their peculiarities are most productive. it’s the wrong agronomic model because it is not based on ecosystem knowledge. it is based on abstract, standardized analysis.
  • centralization and standardization + the power to promote and seduce farmers into using it (free samples, easy credit) leads to dependency. particular concern with traitor technologies!
  • increased productivity does not even decrease poverty when corporations like cargill control the price of seed and other inputs.
  • food security depends on crop diversity. with less diversity of production, we are more vulnerable. we survive agronomic crises through biodiversity.
  • biotech puts the priority on a narrow set of variables tied to corporate productivity, processing, and marketing, endangering all sorts of other choices that can be made and that farmers used to have the authority to make. this is connected with the way that corporations present consumers with an illusion of choice.
  • farmers are losing control of production decisions. not allowed to save seed. their entrepreneurship is destroyed. their contracts specify which inputs they are allowed to use or even specify that they do not own their crops.
  • drift & transfer.
    • drift: pollen spreads very well. hundreds of miles. once tested in the field these techs cannot be controlled/contained.
    • vertical transfer: means contamination of traditional varieties of the same kind of plant
    • horizontal transfer: contamination of other plants (corn could contaminate yam)
  • health risks, alergens, toxicity. biotech potatoes which depress the immune system – effect similar to AIDS.
  • religious groups opposed to patenting life
  • violations of religious prohibitions on mixing certain foods and/or on eating certain things, which would then be present in foods they are unrelated to.
  • environmental risks to the ecosystem. pesticide-producing crops will kill beneficial insects and other non-predator insects.
  • biotech is claiming patents on a 30,000-40,000 year history of agronomy. whose is that? is it ownable? theft from cultures and from collective human inheritance.
  • farmers movements are strongly opposed to it.
  • a “failed technology” (it failed in the us, farmers don’t want to use it) now being forced on africa. countries that don’t want it forced to accept as condition for aids money)
  • this kind of technology claims there is no god, there is no ecosystem. we can control everything. sees nature as empty space that is available for conquest (like colonialism!)
  • also scientists are presenting themselves as saviors, very christian. again, a particular view of nature. the biotech firms want us to believe in whatever they say with religious faith. the riducule doubt and questions.
  • the main pr force of the agro-industrial and pharmaceutical industries. no matter how dangerous or destructive their acts, they can claim it is worth the price in order to “feed people”  or “save lives”. we need to stop being duped by these claims!


about regulation

  • the precautionary principle has been in national and international law the basis of all law governing marketing of products
    • precautionary principle says that something cannot be marketed unless the company can prove it’s safe.
    • it is being “eviscerated” which means that it is not being used as the basis of law.
    • without the precautionary principle, the government has to prove that it’s dangerous in order to ban it. this is called a “shift in the burden of proof”. (same is happening in civil rights law.)
    • absence of data = absence of harm = safe… ???
    • proving something is harmful requires proving causation which is difficult scientifically. this is hard for the govt to do promptly. better to keep the burden on the corp to prove something is safe, even though they can often be sloppy about that by having rather high levels of “acceptable risk”
    • and there’s an additional, new, legal concept, “timeliness”, which means that the government has limited time to prove that something is dangerous.
    • and the precautionary principle is totally subordinated to free trade.
  • protecting biodiversity is now seen as a barrier to free trade.
  • claim that consumers can choose. choice requires lots of research and work. huge burden on consumers. but who is responsible for notification and education?
  • if the corporations are doing things to intentionally contaminate the food supply and other crops then how can they be regulated? they can shrug and say “well we can’t control it”. it can’t be regulated, it must be prohibited.


responses from citizens & farmers

  • “midnight gardening” harvesting crops before they seed. activists are worried that regulation will be too late, and the crops cannot be allowed to spread. taking direct action.
  • massive education and protest campaigns all around the world
  • demand for labeling. (right now US is one of the only countries that does not have labeling law for biotech). 80% of us citizens want labeling.
  • protecting nations ability to refuse biotech.
  • a “biosafety protocol” was negotiated as part of the “convention on biodiversity”. very important international agreement that requires, among other things, precautionary principle, notification of transport of biotech, and right of nations to refuse biotech crops and biotech-containing foods. unfortunately the writers of the protocol lost the struggle on the most important point, which was subservience of the protocol to the WTO, which means that the most important parts of the protocol are unenforceable because the WTO treats those as illegal “barriers to trade”.
  • “no patents on life”. this demand organized by farmers and scientists, a lot of leadership from africa. if there couldn’t be patents there couldn’t be profits and that would stop a lot of the problems….
  • social movements…. The Sacramento Bee responded to our protests in 2003 with an impressively critical series.  when we went to sacramento we felt silly. we didn’t know if we were effective. then a year later this paper, in a corporate-university-dominated-town did this massive investigative report, sending reporters abroad, researching for 8+ months, and dared to write a report very critical of the University of California. so we don’t always know right away if we are effective…


Film: The Future of Food

Center for Food Safety

Non GMO Project