Life™

Last week, a new billboard went up across the street from the Washington State Convention Center. On it, our good friends over at Immunex ask the rhetorical question, "Who drives our passion to discover new medicines?"

A commonsensible observer can easily supply the answer ("Profit-obsessed stockholders!"). But that's not who the ad is aimed at, so Immunex gives a different answer: a series of smiling Everyday Citizens, none presumably among the 43 million or so Americans now without health insurance. The ad targets attendees of this week's BIO '99, a national industry trade show for the rapidly emerging genetic engineering industries; 5,000 biotechies will tour the 500 exhibitors, attend workshops and hospitality suites, and schmooze. The ad, in its way, neatly encapsulates the alternate world inhabited by many of these folks: a world in which science makes everything better, in which drug, seed, agribusiness, chemical, and other concerned corporations are contributing to the greater welfare while they just happen to get in on the ground floor of something really big. A world in which marketing never meets social policy.

This world is being literally created all around us, and the interesting thing about BIO '99 as a trade show is that so much of it is devoted not to the usual selling of wares, but to envisioning the future, PR spin, and the sharing of a much older technology: how to deflect the concerns of a wary public. Despite almost complete cooperation and assurances of safety from US regulators, many folks, here and around the world, don't like the idea of science conducting massive experiments with our food supply. And where our food comes from is only one of a whole host of troubling ethical and scientific questions surrounding these industries. The stakes are enormous.

A brief survey of some of the issues involved suggests the extent to which genetic engineering has the potential to make fortunes and change the way everyone lives—changes, in fact, in the nature of life itself. When the computer-enhanced ability to manipulate DNA—changing and patenting plant and animal life forms—becomes another commodity for the capitalist mill, it raises the question of what can't be sold. Are we life forms all simply commodities? Drug companies are literally patenting human genes, and it seems a small leap to patenting human beings (or other animals) as compilations of genetic sequences. Third World activists, charging bio-piracy and high-tech colonialism, are outraged over the patenting and licensing by North American and European corporations of traditional indigenous drug and plant knowledge—selling it back to peoples who have in some cases used that knowledge for thousands of years. (The Immunex billboard certainly didn't list any Third World peasants as firing its passion.)

Similarly, Monsanto, with its ominous Terminator engineered seed strain, as well as other corporations with their engineered strains, seeks global control of access to seed stocks that farmers have traditionally passed down for generations. In the new regime, the seeds won't germinate from year to year, and will have to be repurchased—or relicensed—each growing season. Worrisome reports on pesticide-tolerant strains suggest that nature is mutating at least as fast as the product lines, leaving crops less resistant than ever to disease and pests. Genetic engineering also poses threats to biodiversity and tinkers with parts of the food chain and microscopic ecosystems we simply don't understand very well but may be changing irrevocably.

For some, the issue is one of food safety (human and otherwise) and labeling. In the US, there are no requirements that genetically engineered foods or ingredients be so labeled, and in some cases the government, at industry request, has actually banned companies from advertising genetics-free products. In medicine, ethical issues over who gets access to disease-resistant genes, or the ability to eliminate "bad" genes (who decides what's bad?), is no longer science fiction.

The logic of capitalism, as shown in full flower at Seattle's BIO '99, is to press forward full force with these new drug and food technologies. To be sure, the new technologies have many possible good impacts, but they also have any number of possible pitfalls.

Nobody is weighing the relative benefits in these terms—not corporations who want to cash in, not scientists dependent upon industry funding, not government regulators hobbled by political pressure and budget cutbacks. It is a particularly dangerous variation on a theme that has haunted us for much of this century: Just because we can do it, should we?

Such questions aren't being asked inside the convention center this week, at least not in the workshop sessions. They are being asked, insistently, outside the center, by several outposts of a surging international movement that is attempting to slow down the rush to rework and patent life. The Edmonds Institute, Washington Biotechnology Action Council, and a host of co-sponsors are throwing a two-day alternative "BioDevastation" conference at Plymouth Congregational Church. A new group, the Concerned Citizens Action Network, is sponsoring street protests and promises to continue working on food-labeling issues. And numerous groups preparing to protest or host alternatives to the World Trade Organization's meetings in Seattle this fall have taken note of the US insistence that deregulating biotech and establishing genetic property rights will be a major focus of the Seattle WTO round.

Such activism has made public opinion a major focus of gatherings like BIO '99. As such, expect lots of gee-whiz-isn't-this-stuff-cool TV news reports this week. But a revolution in how the world feeds, medicates, and patents itself isn't something that should be left to spin doctors—or stockholders. The interests of global corporations are, quite simply, not the same as the interests of those of us who eat or get sick. No matter how good-hearted its executives are, Immunex is not about to give its new medicines away for free, or even at cost. When considering developments like patenting DNA sequences and life forms, the consequences get even more ominous. These are questions whole societies need to answer—not just corporations. *

 
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