While the biotechnology industry continues to promise miracles– new ways to feed the
world, solutions to intractable medical problems, enhanced "freedom of choice"
in human reproduction, and more — activists worldwide have recently stepped up their
opposition. For those who look beyond the often extravagant claims of biotech proponents,
this technology represents a profound threat to human health, ecological integrity and the
future of agriculture as we know it. Widely advertised medical "miracles" are
opening the door to new kinds of genetic discrimination and, more ominously, the rise of a
new and extremely blatant scientific eugenics movement.
So far, most of the opposition has centered on biotechnology’s agenda for agriculture.
Monsanto and other companies say they want to get genetically engineered traits into
90-100 percent of commercial seeds in the next five years, at the expense of both
traditional and modern alternative methods. Recent revelations about suppressed data on
the damaging effects of genetically engineered foods on health have created a political
firestorm in Britain, and this is only the beginning.
Activists throughout Europe, south Asia and elsewhere have not only exposed the
profound underlying hazards of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies, but tapped
into a deeply ingrained skepticism toward views of people and the rest of nature as
objects to be manipulated and controlled. In Europe, the specter of Nazi eugenics hangs
over discussions of genetic engineering and cloning; in India, the seed is a powerful
cultural symbol and its manipulation and appropriation by capital is an abomination.
These concerns have bred powerful grassroots movements against genetic engineering and
other biotechnologies. European activists have pressured their governments to seek to
limit imports of engineered corn and soybeans from the U.S., and taken direct action
against test plots of genetically engineered crops. In Britain, Germany and Switzerland,
plants have been pulled out of the ground and delivered to officials for disposal as toxic
waste. Several British supermarket chains, food processors, and even fast food merchants,
have pledged to exclude genetically engineered products and ingredients. Greenpeace has
blockaded U.S. grain shipments in many northern European ports, protesting the shippers’
refusal to separate genetically engineered varieties from conventional ones. In India,
hundreds of thousands of farmers have demonstrated against corporate control of seeds, and
some have burned test plots of Monsanto’s pesticide-secreting cotton varieties,
proclaiming "Operation Cremation Monsanto." Canadian activists last year joined
with skeptical government scientists to successfully pressure their government to renew a
moratorium on the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered growth hormone (rBGH) for dairy
cows. Why don’t we have a movement like this in the United States?
While actions against genetic engineering have not received the kind of public
attention in the United States that has become commonplace elsewhere in the world,
biotechnology has indeed proved far more controversial here than one would surmise from
mainstream media accounts. In the 1970s, concerned scientists pressed for national
guidelines on gene splicing research, and a few supported community-based opposition to
the construction of special containment laboratories for these experiments. In the 1980s,
activists in California successfully delayed the first approved outdoor test of
genetically engineered organisms (in this case, a strain of bacteria that had been altered
to limit frost damage to plants) and, when the test was finally approved, pulled nearly
2000 strawberry plants out of the ground the night before they were to be sprayed with the
experimental bacteria. In the early 1990s, widespread public opposition first delayed FDA
approval of Monsanto’s rBGH by several years, then helped convince many processors,
particularly in the northern dairy states, to prohibit farmers from using it.
Today, genetic engineering in agriculture has reached far beyond the experimental
stage. Not only are tens of millions of acres of engineered crops being grown — with
virtually no monitoring of the consequences — but the U.S. government is aggressively
promoting these crops worldwide. Efforts to limit imports of engineered corn and soybeans
from the U.S. into Ireland and France were met with forceful counter-lobbying by top
officials of the Clinton administration, including National Security Advisor Sandy Berger,
and "environmental" Vice President Al Gore. Dan Glickman, U.S. Secretary of
Agriculture, has threatened a trade war if European countries restrict imports of biotech
crops. It is may be too late now for field actions, such as those in California in the
1980s and across Europe throughout the nineties, to have a significant impact on the
development of genetic engineering in the United States.
In New England, we are working on a somewhat different approach. Along with expanded
public education in the streets, town halls, and even the aisles of our local
supermarkets, we are investigating the sources of genetically engineered seeds. Farmers
are being sold on new "herbicide tolerant" and "pest resistant"
varieties of corn, potatoes, soybeans and other crops without being told that they are
genetically engineered. We are researching the companies responsible for these sales
efforts and plan to focus actions toward them, rather than the farmers. One company
well-renowned by organic farmers and gardeners in New England, Johnny’s Selected Seeds
([email protected]) has received many hundreds of letters objecting to a disclaimer in
their 1999 catalog saying that they may carry genetically engineered seeds in the future.
A possible boycott is in the offing. A new regional network, Northeast Resistance Against
Genetic Engineering (NERAGE) is investigating the growing ties between the region’s
leading state universities and the biotechnology industry, and planning a series of
teach-ins and demonstrations this spring to expose them.
Demonstrations in the streets and at supermarkets around the country are being staged
to highlight both the horror and the absurdity of genetically engineered food. Activists
with the Hexterminators collective in Berkeley, California have been hitting the streets
in costume, explaining the hazards of biotechnology to their neighbors, and a national
campaign focusing on the Monsanto corporation’s threat to life and health is also being
planned. An international conference of biotech opponents in St. Louis last summer
featured a colorful demonstration at Monsanto’s headquarters in suburban Creve Coeur,
hopefully the first of many.
There is lots of new energy in the movement against genetic engineering, but this is
just a beginning. Over 200,000 people wrote to the USDA last year to object to government
plans to allow genetically engineered foods to be labeled organic. But the urgency of
stopping commercial uses of genetic engineering reaches far beyond food issues.
Geneticists such as Princeton’s Lee Silver are seeking to popularize a new high-tech
eugenics, almost wholly justified by market imperatives and the desire of parents for
"freedom of choice." We need to learn from our sisters and brothers in Europe
and Asia, and develop a people’s movement against biotechnology that can meaningfully hold
back this industry’s mounting assaults on the integrity of life on earth.
"The Monsanto Files: Can we survive genetic engineering?", Special issue of
The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 1998
Proceedings of the First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering,
Synthesis/Regeneration Number 18, January 1999 (See Gateway Greens address below).
NERAGE, c/o Institute for Social Ecology, P.O. Box 89, Plainfield, VT 05667 Gateway
Green Alliance, P.O. Box 8094, St. Louis, MO 63156 Genetic Engineering Network listserv
(International news) [email protected] Bioengineering Action Network (activist listserv)
Brian Tokar is the author of Earth for
Sale (South End Press) and The Green Alternative (New Society Publishers). He teaches at
the Institute for Social Ecology and Goddard College in Vermont, and is a founding member
of Northeast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering.