Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Redesigning Life?

Redesigning Life?: The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering

Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 384
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Redesigning Life?
    Book Description:

    New discoveries in biotechnology are often touted as the answer to many contemporary problems. Genetic engineering, animal cloning, and reproductive technologies are promoted as the keys to a brighter future, while genetic engineers promise more productive agriculture, medical miracles, and solutions to environmental problems. But increasing numbers of farmers, scientists, and concerned citizens disagree. There is growing evidence that genetically engineered foods are hazardous to our health and to the environment. Farmers all over the world are encountering an increasingly monopolized seed and agrichemical industry. Animal cloning and human genetic engineering raise troubling ethical questions and genes from plants, animals, and humans have become objects to be bought, sold, and patented by private interests. Worldwide resistance to genetic engineering and other biotechnologies has brought these issues to the forefront of public controversy.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6893-8
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[viii])
  3. INTRODUCTION: Challenging Biotechnology
    (pp. 1-16)

    Perhaps once in a decade, a compelling new social or environmental concern will come to the forefront of public debate in the West, raising profound consequences for all life on earth, while thoroughly challenging our views of what kind of future is possible. The ensuing controversies provoke challenging questions about the very nature of our society and its institutions; they expose widespread myths and shatter foundational assumptions. In the 1950s, it was the problem of nuclear fallout and the looming threat of nuclear war. In the 1960s, citizens of the industrialized nations confronted their governments’ participation in a genocidal war...


    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 17-21)

      Few subjects generate as much public passion and outrage as threats to the safety of the food we eat. This is especially true in Europe, where people have weathered repeated food safety scandals, from “mad cows” in Britain, to dioxin-laden animal feed in Belgium, and persistent attempts by the United States to force countries to accept unwanted imports of hormone-treated beef. In the United States, people are more accustomed to the idea of food as an industrial product, often heavily laden with synthetic ingredients. But even Americans pay very close attention when a new revelation casts doubt on the safety...

    • 1 From Golden Rice to Terminator Technology: Agricultural Biotechnology Will Not Feed the World or Save the Environment
      (pp. 22-39)

      Imagine a university forum on the problems of biotechnology in agriculture. After an hour of carefully constructed arguments against further modernization of agriculture via biotechnology, and in favour of strengthening traditional ways of growing food, I wrap up my speech and wait for questions. A hand shoots up and the inevitable response is hurled towards the podium:

      You have not mentioned the population explosion. It might be nice to go back to the good old days before fertilizers, pesticides and high-yielding monocultures, but to do so would condemn millions of people to starvation. We have no choice but to forge...

    • 2 Genetically Engineered “Vitamin A Rice”: A Blind Approach to Blindness Prevention
      (pp. 40-43)

      Genetically engineered “vitamin A rice” has been proclaimed a miracle cure for blindness – “a breakthrough in efforts to improve the health of billions of poor people, most of them in Asia.” More than $100 million has been spent over ten years to produce a transgenic rice at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The Zurich research team headed by Ingo Potrykens and Xudong Ye introduced three genes taken from a daffodil and a bacterium into a rice strain to produce a yellow rice with high levels of beta-carotene, which is converted...

    • 3 Cloning Profits: The Revolution in Agricultural Biotechnology
      (pp. 44-50)

      Gold beads blast from the barrel of a gun at 1,000 m.p.h. Their target: soft plant tissue nestled in a sterile Petri dish. The golden bullets blast their way through thick cell walls, membranes and cytoplasm of the plant cells. Finally, they penetrate the nuclear membrane and deliver the information with which they have been coated; cloned genes that insert themselves randomly along the chromosomes. Only a fraction of the cells will survive the bombardment. Only one in a million will express the new genetic information correctly. That cell will be grown to maturity and eventually, after years of nurturing...

    • 4 Genetically Engineered Foods: A Minefield of Safety Hazards
      (pp. 51-66)

      Long before the first genetically engineered food product ever hit supermarket shelves, public relations officials of agribusiness corporations were out in force to sell the idea of food bioengineering to American citizens, farmers, food processors, media and lawmakers. The corporate sales pitch was simple: genetic engineering was the latest, and the most monumental, in a long and fruitful line of agricultural breeding innovations that began with Gregor Mendel and his peas. Now that scientists could directly alter the genetic make-up of life forms to change their functions and characteristics, anything was possible. Transgenic agricultural products would make the food supply...

    • 5 Safety First
      (pp. 67-74)

      Was there ever a technology more exciting than genetic engineering? Fast, powerful, able to outpace evolution and leap species barriers, it seems to promise all we can possibly imagine. If we imbibe the hyperbole of its proponents, we can believe that genetic engineering will make deserts bloom, clean degraded soils and oceans, feed the world and end disease. It will make all our children tall and beautiful and, above all, above average. And if only we give the technology enough funding and trust, it can give us immortality in return.²

      Genetic engineering offers us the stuff of dreams. And to...

    • 6 Ecological Consequences of Genetic Engineering
      (pp. 75-102)

      We stand anew, like children in the Garden of Eden, on the threshold of creation. The secrets philosophers have been searching for over the centuries seem to have been revealed at last; we have found the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, the alchemical formula, the key to Pandora’s box. Yet, we have been here before. As Robert Oppenheimer stood dazzled in the blinding light of the first atomic explosion, he quoted an ancient Sanskrit text, saying “I am become Death, the Shatterer of worlds.” Now, standing in the dark shroud of a man-made womb,I am become Life, the...

    • 7 Biotechnology to the Rescue? Ten Reasons Why Biotechnology is Incompatible with Sustainable Agriculture
      (pp. 103-110)

      Proponents of biotechnology like to portray genetic engineering as both “natural” and inevitable. By doing so, these industrial conquistadors effectively plant biotechnology’s flag on the future, claiming it as their own and denying the space for other visions to be articulated. Yet there is nothing inevitable about biotechnology, and to see it as such is to succumb to a determinism that is disempowering to many who might otherwise oppose the transformations that capital is so busy engineering. Whether biotechnology is widely adopted or not will depend on choices made by people in all walks of life, not least the choice...

    • 8 From Native Forest to Frankenforest
      (pp. 111-126)

      While genetically engineered food crops have held centre stage in the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the genetic engineering of trees has mostly remained outside the global spotlight. But while little is being said publicly, much is being done, as the back door for this biotechnology is wide open. It is propped in place by the timber and chemical industries, with even the petroleum and auto industries taking part. In the near future there is cause to speculate that all industrial forestry plantations might include genetically engineered trees. Genetically altered trees, combined with economic incentives for plantation forestry –...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 127-132)

      Beyond today’s heated debates over genetically engineered food and the environment, the biotechnology industry’s boldest claim for the future is that it will thoroughly revolutionize medical care. Advocates of cloning, genetic screening, “gene therapy” and other new technologies promise cures for intractable genetic diseases, drugs precisely tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup, earlier detection of chronic health problems, and more. We read of drugs and other useful substances produced by genetically engineered sheep and goats in their milk, and of animal organs to be made suitable for human transplants. Parents are promised that doctors will soon be able to cure...

    • 9 The Case against Designer Babies: The Politics of Genetic Enhancement
      (pp. 133-149)

      The technology to produce human clones – genetic copies of existing people – is within reach of today’s researchers and fertility doctors. By the time you, or perhaps the children you know, decide to have babies, cloning may well be an option. Designer babies – children whose genes have been permanently altered to “enhance” them physically or behaviourally, and who will pass their modified genes on to their own children – represent a far more difficult technical manoeuvre. Some influential geneticists are convinced that designer-baby technology, too, will be available within the next few decades. Together with a small but...

    • 10 Cancer is (not) a Genetic Disease
      (pp. 150-157)

      People are dying of tuberculosis, of gunshots, in car crashes and the occasional plane crash, of infections they picked up in hospitals, of pneumonia, of diabetes, of heart disease, of strokes, of weird viruses, of AIDS of course, of cancer certainly. We are all born in so remarkably similar a condition, and then we die in so many different ways, of so many different things.

      Take heart disease: that kills a lot of people. Heart disease has a genetic component, undoubtedly, as probably everything does. There are forms of early-onset heart disease that run in families, which parallel the early-onset...

    • 11 If Cloning is the Answer, What was the Question? Genetics and the Politics of Human Health
      (pp. 158-170)

      Dolly the cloned sheep was an unexpected scientific triumph. In replicating an adult mammal for the first time in 1996, Dolly’s creators at the Roslin Institute in Scotland overturned long-established assumptions about cell biology and cell differentiation.¹ But Dolly was a public relations disaster too. The public worldwide was shocked. The idea of evil megalomaniacs creating row upon row of identical copies of themselves seemed no longer the stuff of futuristic fiction but an imminent possibility. The public demanded to be reassured that the Dolly techniques would never be applied to humans. Now many scientists and biotech companies became alarmed....

    • 12 Eugenic Tendencies in Modern Genetics
      (pp. 171-181)

      There is much confusion about eugenics in today’s discussions about the ethics of human genetic research. The association of the subject with full-scale genocide seems to produce an inability to think clearly on both sides of the debate. It is true that the word is sometimes used as a blunt instrument to silence those who argue for the benefits of current research. On the other hand, there is a converse tendency to avoid any discussion of the subject for fear that it will provoke “hysteria.”

      The dominant tendency is to view eugenics as a purely historical phenomenon, and to minimize...

    • 13 If Pigs Could Fly, They Would: The Problems with Xenotransplantation
      (pp. 182-194)

      According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a quasi-governmental organization that coordinates human organ and tissue donation in the US, some 4,000 Americans die each year waiting for transplantable organs.¹ Compared to the number that die from heart disease (726,974), cancer (539,577), pneumonia/influenza (86,449), AIDS (16,516), and by suicide (30,535),² this may not seem high. But with over 60,000 people on transplant waiting lists in the US, 180,000 worldwide,³ and a perceived chronic shortage of human organs and tissues, researchers, drug companies and health officials in the US and elsewhere are proposing a radical “solution”: using genetically altered animals,...

    • 14 Reproductive Technology: Welcome to the Brave New World
      (pp. 195-204)

      When Aldous Huxley’s novelBrave New Worldhit bookshops in 1932, the reading public was introduced to a future in which children were no longer the result of sexual intercourse. Through laboratory procedures, embryos were produced fromin vitrofertilization, grown in vats and finally “decanted.” Their creation and growth took place entirely outside women’s bodies and was controlled largely by men through science and technology. At each stage of the embryos’ development, various substances were added to the artificial wombs to help them grow; each “class” of embryos received substances designed to bring about the characteristics particular to their...

    • 15 Is Violence in Your Genes? The Violence Initiative Project: Coming Soon to an Inner City Near You
      (pp. 205-216)

      In the 1980s, a small but influential group of prize-winning scientists were trying to prove that black children were, on average, less intelligent than white children. Intelligence, they said, ran in the genes of racial groups. Their evidence? They reviewed a series of infamous studies of twins who had been separated at birth and raised far from each other, studies designed to prove that behaviour is genetically determined. They also compiled results from IQ tests across the country and subjected them to statistical analysis, which, they claimed, showed a differential between racial groups. This alleged differential, they went on, was...


    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 217-221)

      Now that we have addressed many of the specific problems with genetic engineering and other biotechnologies, both in agriculture and in medicine, our discussion has come full circle. The last several chapters have set the stage for where we are heading, by showing how the new genetic technologies heighten existing social inequities and injustices. Now we can begin to reach for the underlying roots of the problem and examine the ways in which biotechnology is itself an expression of fundamental inequities in society.

      Technologies do not develop in a social vacuum. They are neither independent historical forces, nor mere value-free...

    • 16 Gene Giants: Understanding the “Life Industry”
      (pp. 222-237)

      It is impossible to understand biotechnology without examining the power and global reach of the giant, transnational enterprises that are in the business of engineering, controlling, patenting and profiting from life. All parts of life – its products and processes, even its formulae – are being privatized. Market dominance combined with monopoly patents has given a steadily shrinking number of corporate titans unprecedented control over commercial food, farming and health.

      In the mid-1990s, the US government estimated that transnational enterprises control one-quarter of global economic activity and that, in countries such as the United States, 40 per cent or more...

    • 17 Patents, Ethics and Spin
      (pp. 238-251)

      Theft on the grand scale has always depended on the encouragement of law and public relations (“spin”) to flourish. Consider the case of patents.

      When Columbus stumbled upon a land new to him, he was carrying “letters patent” from the king and queen of Spain. Those documents made the discovery and the exploitation of a whole “New World” possible, legal and rewarding. The letters were issued for the benefit of Spain by authorities whose right to issue such patents – according to the spin-meisters of another day – came directly from God.

      Why bother to create such letters patent? Because...

    • 18 Biotechnology and Indigenous Peoples
      (pp. 252-270)

      In 1993, during the first meeting of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, a group of indigenous representatives met with Rafe Pomerance, former US president of Friends of the Earth and the head of the US government delegation. He patiently answered our questions about biosafety, and his country’s refusal to sign on to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). But I got worried when he said, “everything within the Convention is negotiable except for one issue, which is intellectual property rights.”

      I explained that our views diverge from his, from that of transnational corporations, and from Western thinking in general....

    • 19 Shams, Shamans and the Commercialization of Biodiversity
      (pp. 271-282)

      Bioprospecting – the attempt to identify and eventually commercialize potentially valuable genetic and biochemical resources – is not a new activity; transnational, commercial flows of medicinal plants date back to the sixteenth century.³ The nineteenth century saw a boom in bioprospecting endeavours, which arguably did not end until the post-World War II period. What is new about the present transnational resurgence in bioprospecting is that it is driven primarily by four interlocking factors: global, market-based economic rationales; rapid and broad technological changes, particularly in biotechnology; a growing interest by pharmaceutical actors to identify their bioprospecting profits with environmental conservation efforts;⁴...

    • 20 Biopiracy: The Theft of Knowledge and Resources
      (pp. 283-289)

      The poorest two-thirds of humanity live in what can be appropriately called the biodiversity-based economy. As farmers, they select and save their own seeds. As healers, they protect and use medicinal plants. Both the knowledge and the resource are part of an intellectual and biological commons to which the entire community has free access, and there is a long-surviving tradition of free give-and-take.

      Biopiracy, and patents based on it, are equivalent to enclosing the biological and intellectual commons, while dispossessing the original innovators and users. What was available to them freely and what they have contributed to is converted into...

    • 21 Exclusive Rights, Enclosure and the Patenting of Life
      (pp. 290-296)

      Once upon a time, no one had the right to exclude others from using natural resources. No one could claim to have a patent, or exclusive rights for a plant, animal species, or human gene. Today, Americans encounter patented objects, the registered trademark of a brand name, and copyrighted material on a daily basis. Whether on a billboard, the pages of a book, our clothes, or a disposable cup lid, patents and trademarks pervade US culture. Our contact with patented objects becomes even more intimate as the food we eat, the plants we grow, the livestock we raise, and the...

    • 22 Paving the Way for Biotechnology: Federal Regulations and Industry PR
      (pp. 297-305)

      The evolution of genetic engineering from a laboratory science to a means for creating commercial products happened very fast – within a single decade. The US government saw the commercialization of biotechnology coming and deliberately chose a path that has amounted to non-regulation. Genetic engineering breaks through natural barriers of reproduction and alters the processes of plant and animal breeding, but agribusiness corporations were wary that burdensome regulations would hinder new discoveries and therefore the technology’s commercial development. The federal government took up industry’s cause: instead of establishing strict, precautionary regulations that gave priority to public and environmental health, agencies...

    • 23 Biotechnology and the New World Order
      (pp. 306-314)

      The globalization of capitalism has a new weapon, about which people around the world know very little – the colonization of our genes. Genetic engineering is the ideal technology for corporatizing whole new areas of nature. Thus, it is an essential component of the new globalization of capital. It conquers those parts of life that have thus far stood outside of its domain: the inner workings of the living cell.

      Some see this as “science,” which we are taught (incorrectly) is inherently good and “free from politics.” In actuality, there is no such thing as a “neutral” science. Science and...


    • [PART IV Introduction]
      (pp. 315-319)

      In recent years the worldwide resistance to genetic engineering has become one of the fastest-growing social movements in a generation. Along with its closely linked counterpart, the movement against corporate globalization, this resistance has inspired many thousands, perhaps millions, of people to question the technological choices being made in our name, and challenge the global institutions that seek to impose this dangerous and ethically troubling technology on people and the earth.

      Opposition to genetic engineering has taken on as many diverse forms as there are communities of people that have come to appreciate this technology’s potentially devastating impacts on their...

    • 24 Resisting the Engineering of Life
      (pp. 320-336)

      For more than a quarter of a century – since the first successful attempts at splicing and recombining DNA in the laboratory – people knowledgeable about genetics, ecology, agricultural science and numerous related subjects have voiced concerns about the social and environmental consequences of genetic engineering. But for much of the American public – and people around the world – biotechnology seemed to be just another new idea, only recently emerged from the annals of science fiction. Compared to such pressing environmental concerns as the disappearance of living species and habitat, the destruction of forests and rivers, and the chemical...

    • 25 Princes, Aliens, Superheroes and Snowballs: The Playful World of the UK Genetic Resistance
      (pp. 337-350)

      Prince Charles has not been, so far as anyone suspects, at the vanguard of direct action against genetic engineering. However, when seven fields of genetically engineered rape were uprooted one cloudy June night in 1998 and some “Lincolnshire Loppers” felled GM wheat at the royal agricultural show, it was the Prince who began to receive media questions about whether he supported such “vandalism.” He had, only some days earlier, launched a swingeing attack on genetically altered crops himself – not in the contaminated fields of northern England but from the pages of theDaily Telegraph, Britain’s most conservative newspaper. Genetic...

    • 26 Seed Satyagraha: A Movement for Farmers’ Rights and Freedoms in a World of Intellectual Property Rights, Globalized Agriculture and Biotechnology
      (pp. 351-360)

      India has always been agricultural India – and an agricultural society can only survive if its farmers survive. As Gandhi said, “If India’s villages perish, India will perish.” The history of India’s independence has been intimately intertwined with the history of peasant struggles.

      Farmers’ organizations at the regional and national levels were formed in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a response to the costs generated for farmers by the Green Revolution. However, most farmers’ movements were confined to the industrial agricultural paradigm and focused on remunerative prices for agricultural products and subsidies for chemical inputs. This was necessary...

    • 27 Europe: Hostile Lands for GMOs Why do Europeans reject genetic engineering so much more fiercely than Americans? A European’s personal view
      (pp. 361-372)

      June 25, 1999 was a historic day in Europe. The environment ministers of the fifteen European Union (EU) member countries met in Luxembourg to discuss how best to address the opposition of European citizens to the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food and agriculture. When Europeans woke the next morning they found the outcome of the night-long debates of this “Environment Council” splashed over the front pages of almost every newspaper in Europe: “GMOs: Moratorium!”.

      Across the Atlantic, in the homeland of most of these apparently unwelcome GMOs, the declaration was noted, too: with alarm by the...

    • 28 No Patents on Life: The Incredible Ten-year Campaign against the European Patent Directive
      (pp. 373-384)

      Until 1980 it was generally assumed that living materials, whether plants, animals or microorganisms, were, by their very nature, not capable of being invented and therefore not patentable. Indeed, there exists a wholly separate body of intellectual property law to provide a different form of protection to plant breeders. However, in that year the US Supreme Court decided in theChakrabartycase that a genetically engineered oil-eating bacterium could be patented (see Chapter 23 in this volume). The biotechnology patent race was under way.

      Because the rules up to that point had been based on inanimate inventions, the language did...

    • 29 No to Bovine Growth Hormone: Ten Years of Resistance in Canada
      (pp. 385-396)

      In early 1994 recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) was poised to become the first genetically engineered agricultural product on the market in Canada. But by the end of the year grassroots opposition and a parliamentary inquiry forced a moratorium on the use or sale of the drug. Five years later, the Canadian regulatory authority, Health Canada, denied Monsanto’s application for approval of rBGH. Monsanto was surprised and shocked by the announcement that its product was refused.¹ The company immediately vowed to appeal the decision but so far as the National Farmers Union is concerned, “Monsanto may protest, but the facts...

    • 30 Cooperatives: A Source of Community Strength
      (pp. 397-404)

      In living systems, both large and small, the whole is generally acknowledged as greater than the sum of its parts. This truism is easily recognizable in ecosystems, where tiny microbes help feed the roots of giant trees, which then shade and support a varied community of plants and animals.

      Human existence mirrors nature’s cooperation. Our hearts pump blood, lungs expand and contract, and food is digested to provide nutrients for our cells to create the energy we need. These and other systems, functioning together, allow that special spark we call our human spirit to define our essence. Just as the...

    • 31 McDonald’s, MTV and Monsanto: Resisting Biotechnology in the Age of Informational Capital
      (pp. 405-419)

      A thing is a history of a thing, and more. Indeed, history is a tangled web with frayed edges, each woven into what came before. And so it is with biotechnology. To understand it, we must understand its history, the wider universe of people, places and things that brought it into being. Biotechnology is bigger than the instruments, organisms and scientists who move strands of DNA from one cell to another. It is a mode of production, a way of thinking about and producing nature and society that both constitutes and is constituted by society itself.

      The story of genetic...

  8. Resources for Information and Action
    (pp. 420-425)
  9. Contributors
    (pp. 426-428)
  10. Index
    (pp. 429-440)