The Myths of Agricultural Biotechnology: some
Department of Environmental Science, Policy
University of California, Berkeley
academicians have assumed that agriculture
poses no special problem for environmental
ethics, despite the fact that human life and
human civilization depend on the intentional
artificialization of nature to carry out
agricultural production. Even critics of the
environmental impacts of pesticides and of
the social implications of agricultural
technology have failed to conceptualize a
coherent environmental ethics applicable to
agricultural problems (Thompson 1995). In
general, most Proponents of sustainable
agriculture, driven by a technological
determinism lack on understanding of the
structural roots of the environmental
degradation linked to capitalist agriculture.
Therefore, by accepting the present
socioeconomic and political structure of
agriculture as a given, they became
constrained from implementing an alternative
agriculture that challenges such structure
(Levins and Lewontin 1985). This is
worrisome, especially today, as profit
motivations rather than environmental
concerns, shape the type of research and
modes of agricultural production prevalent
throughout the world (Busch et al. 1990).
contend that the key problem facing
agroecologists, is that modern industrial
agriculture, today epitomized by
biotechnology, is founded on philosophical
premises that are fundamentally flawed, and
that precisely those premises are the ones
that need to be exposed and criticized in
order to advance towards a truly sustainable
particularly relevant in the case of
biotechnology, where the alliance of
reductionist science and a multinational
monopolistic industry which jointly perceive
agricultural problems as genetic deficiencies
of organisms and treat nature as a commodity,
will take agriculture further down a
misguided route (Levidow and Carr 1997).
of this paper is to challenge the false
promises made by the genetic engineering
industry that it will move agriculture away
from a dependence on chemical inputs, that
will increase productivity, as well as
decrease input costs and help reduce
environmental problems (OTA 1992). By
challenging the myths of biotechnology, we
expose genetic engineering for what it really
is; another "technological fix" or
"magic bullet" aimed at
circumventing the environmental problems of
agriculture (which themselves are the outcome
of and earlier round of technological fix),
without questioning the flawed assumptions
that gave rise to the problems in the first
place (Hindmarsh 1991). Biotechnology
develops single-gene solutions for problems
that derive from ecologically unstable
monoculture systems, designed on industrial
models of efficiency. Such unilateral
approach was already proven ecologically
unfit in the case of pesticides (Pimentel et
Questions About Biotechnology
critical of biotechnology, question the
assumptions that biotechnological science is
value free, and that it cannot be wrong or
misused and call for an ethical evaluation of
genetic engineering research and its products
(Krimsky and Wrubel 1996). Proponents of
biotechnology are perceived as having a
utilitarian view of nature and as favoring
the free trading of economic gains for
ecological damage with indifference to the
human consequences (James 1997). At the very
heart of the critique are biotechnology's
effects on social and economic conditions and
religious and moral values giving rise to
questions such as:
alter the genetic structure of the entire
living kingdom in the name of utility and
something sacred about life, or should life
forms, including humans, be viewed simply as
commodities in the new biotechnological
Is the genetic
makeup of all living things, the common
heritage of all, or it can be appropriated by
corporations and thus become private property
of a few?
individual companies the right to the
monopoly over entire groups of organisms?
biotechnologists feel as masters of nature?
Is this an illusion constructed on scientific
arrogance and conventional economics, blind
to the complexity of ecological processes?
It is possible
to minimize ethical concerns and reduce
environmental risks while keeping the
There are also
questions that arise specifically from the
nature of the technology, while others such
as the domination of agricultural research
agendas by commercial interests, the uneven
distribution of benefits, the possible
environmental risks and the exploitation of
the poor nations' genetic resources by rich
ones demand a deeper inquiry:
benefits from the technology? Who
- What are
the environmental and health
- What have
been the alternatives forgone?
- To whose
needs does biotechnology respond?
- How does
the technology affect what is being
produced, how it is being produced
and for what and for whom?
- What are
the social goals and ethical criteria
that guides research problem choices?
for achieving what social and
agrochemical corporations which control the
direction and goals of agricultural
innovation through biotechnology claim that
genetic engineering will enhance the
sustainability of agriculture by solving the
very problems affecting conventional farming
and will spare Third World farmers from low
productivity, poverty and hunger (Molnar and
Kinnucan 1989, Gresshoft 1996). By matching
myth with reality the following section
describes how and why current developments in
agricultural biotechnology do not measure up
to such promises and expectations.
1: Biotechnology will benefit farmers in the
US and in the developed world.
innovations in agricultural biotechnology are
profit driven rather than need driven,
therefore the thrust of the genetic
engineering industry is not to solve
agricultural problems as much as it is to
create profitability. Moreover, biotechnology
seeks to industrialize agriculture even
further and to intensify farmers' dependence
upon industrial inputs aided by a ruthless
system of intellectual property rights which
legally inhibits the right of farmers to
reproduce, share and store seeds (Busch et
al. 1990). By controlling the germplasm from
seed to sale and by forcing farmers to pay
inflated prices for seed-chemical packages,
companies are determined to extract the most
profit from their investment.
biotechnologies are capital intensive they
will continue to deepen the pattern of change
in US agriculture, increasing concentration
of agricultural production in the hands of
large-corporate farms. As with other labor
saving technology, by increasing productivity
biotechnology tends to reduce commodity
prices and set in motion a technology
treadmill that forces out of business a
significant number of farmers, especially
small scale. The example of bovine growth
hormone confirms the hypothesis that
biotechnology will accelerate the foreclosure
of small dairy farms (Krimsky and Wrubel
2: Biotechnology will benefit small farmers
and will favor the hungry and poor of the
Revolution technology bypassed small and
resource-poor farmers, biotechnology will
exacerbate marginalization even more as such
technologies are under corporate control and
protected by patents, are expensive and
inappropriate to the needs and circumstances
of indigenous people (Lipton 1989). As
biotechnology is primarily a commercial
activity, this reality determines priorities
of what is investigated, how it is applied
and who is to benefit. While the world may
lack food and suffer from pesticide
pollution, the focus of multinational
corporations is profit, not philanthropy.
This is why biotechnologists design
transgenic crops for new marketable quality
or for import substitution, rather than for
greater food production (Mander and Goldsmith
1996). In general, biotechnology companies
are emphasizing a limited range of crops for
which there are large and secured markets,
targeted at relatively capital-intensive
production systems. As transgenic crops are
patented plants, this means that indigenous
farmers can lose rights to their own regional
germplasm and not be allowed under GATT to
reproduce, share or store the seeds of their
harvest (Crucible Group 1994). It is
difficult to conceive how such technology
will be introduced in Third World countries
to favor the masses of poor farmers. If
biotechnologists were really committed to
feeding the world, why isn't the scientific
genius of biotechnology turned to develop
varieties of crops more tolerant to weeds
rather than to herbicides? Or why aren't more
promising products of biotechnology, such as
N fixing and drought tolerant plants being
products will undermine exports from the
Third World countries especially from
small-scale producers. The development of a
thaumatin product via biotechnology is just
the beginning of a transition to alternative
sweeteners which will replace Third World
sugar markets in the future (Mander and
Goldsmith 1996). It is estimated that nearly
10 million sugar farmers in the Third World
may face a loss of livelihood as
laboratory-processed sweeteners begin
invading world markets. Fructose produced by
biotechnology already captured over 10% of
the world market and caused sugar prices to
fall, throwing tens of thousands of workers
out of work. But such foreclosures of rural
opportunities are not limited to sweeteners.
Approximately 70,000 vanilla farmers in
Madagascar were ruined when a Texas firm
produced vanilla in biotech labs (Busch et
al. 1990). The expansion on Unilever cloned
oil palms will substantially increase
palm-oil production with dramatic
consequences for farmers producing other
vegetable oils (groundnut in Senegal and
coconut in Philippines).
3: Biotechnology will not attempt against the
ecological sovereignty of the Third World.
Ever since the
North became aware of the ecological services
performed by biodiversity of which the South
is the major repository, the Third World has
witnessed a "gene rush" as
multinational corporations aggressively scour
forests, crop fields and coasts in search of
the South's genetic gold (Kloppenburg 1988).
Protected by GATT, MNCs freely practice
"biopiracy" which the Rural
Advancement Foundation (RAFI) estimates it
costing developing countries US $ 5.4 billion
a year through lost royalties from food and
drug companies which use indigenous farmers'
germplasm and medicinal plants (Levidow and
indigenous people and their biodiversity are
viewed as raw materials for the MNCs which
have made billions of dollars on seeds
developed in US labs from germplasm that
farmers in the Third World had carefully bred
over generations (Fowler and Mooney 1990).
Meanwhile, peasant farmers go unrewarded for
their millenary farming knowledge, while MNCs
stand to harvest royalties from Third World
countries estimated at billions of dollars.
So far biotechnology companies offer no
provisions to pay Third World farmers for the
seeds they take and use (Kloppenburg 1988).
4: Biotechnology will lead to biodiversity
biotechnology has the capacity to create a
greater variety of commercial plants and thus
contribute to biodiversity, this is unlikely
to happen. The strategy of MNCs is to create
broad international seed markets for a single
product. The tendency is towards uniform
international seed markets (MacDonald 1991).
Moreover, the MNC-dictated provisions of the
patent system prohibiting farmers to reuse
the seed yielded by their harvests, will
affect the possibilities of in-situ
conservation and on-farm improvements of
agricultural systems developed with
transgenic crops will favor monocultures
characterized by dangerously high levels of
genetic homogeneity leading to higher
vulnerability of agricultural systems to
biotic and abiotic stresses (Robinson 1996).
As the new bioengineered seeds replace the
old traditional varieties and their wild
relatives, genetic erosion will accelerate in
the Third World (Fowler and Mooney 1990).
Thus the push for uniformity will not only
destroy the diversity of genetic resources,
but will also disrupt the biological
complexity that underlines the sustainability
of traditional farming systems (Altieri
5: Biotechnology is ecologically safe and
will launch a period of a chemical-free
is being pursued to patch-up the problems
that have been caused by previous
agrochemical technologies (pesticide
resistance, pollution, soil degradation,
etc.) which were promoted by the same
companies now leading the bio-revolution.
Transgenic crops developed for pest control
follow closely the pesticide paradigm of
using a single control mechanism which has
proven to fail over and over again with
insects, pathogens and weeds (NRC 1996).
Transgenic crops are likely to increase the
use of pesticides and to accelerate the
evolution of "super weeds" and
resistant insect pests strains (Rissler and
Mellon 1996). The "one gene - one
pest" resistant approach has proven to
be easily overcome by pests which are
continuously adapting to new situations and
evolving detoxification mechanisms (Robinson
There are many
unanswered ecological questions regarding the
impact of the release of transgenic plants
and micro-organisms into the environment.
major environmental risks associated with
genetically engineered plants are the
unintended transfer to plant relatives of the
"transgenes" and the unpredictable
ecological effects (Rissler and Mellon 1996).
above considerations, agroecological theory
predicts that biotechnology will exacerbate
the problems of conventional agriculture and
by promoting monocultures will also undermine
ecological methods of farming such as
rotation and polycultures (Hindmarsh 1991).
As presently conceived, biotechnology does
not fit into the broad ideals of a
sustainable agriculture (Kloppenburg and
6: Biotechnology will enhance the use of
molecular biology for the benefit of all
sectors of society.
The demand for
the new biotechnology did not emerge as a
result of social demands but it emerged out
of changes in patent laws and the profit
interests of chemical companies of linking
seeds and pesticides. The supply emerged out
of breakthroughs in molecular biology and the
availability of venture capital as a result
of favorable tax laws (Webber 1990). The
danger is that the private sector is
influencing the direction of public sector
research in ways unprecedented in the past
(Kleinman and Kloppenburg 1988).
universities enter into partnerships with
corporations, serious ethical questions
emerge about who owns the results of research
and which research gets done. The trend
toward secrecy by university scientists
involved in such partnerships raises
questions about personal ethics and conflicts
of interest. In many universities a
professor's ability to attract private
investment is often more important than
academic qualifications, taking away the
incentives for scientists to be socially
responsible. Fields such as biological
control and agroecology which do not attract
corporate sponsorship are being phased out
and this not in the public interest (Kleinman
and Koppenburg 1988).
In the late
1980's, a statement issued by Monsanto
indicated that biotechnology would
revolutionize agriculture in the future with
products based on nature's own methods,
making farming more environmentally friendly
and more profitable for the farmer (OTA
1992). Moreover, plants would be provided
with built-in defenses against insects and
pathogens. Since then many others have
promised several more valuable rewards that
biotechnology can bring through crop
improvement. The ethical dilemma is that many
of these promises are unfounded and many of
the advantages or benefits of biotechnology
have not or may not be realized. Although
clearly biotechnology holds promise for an
improved agriculture, given its present
orientation it mostly holds promise for
environmental harm, for the further
industrialization of agriculture and for the
intrusion of private interests too far into
public interest sector research. Until now,
the economic and political domination of the
agricultural development agenda by MNCs has
thriven at the expense of the interests of
consumers, farm workers, small family farms,
wildlife and the environment.
It is urgent
for civil society to have earlier entry
points and broader participation in
technological decisions so that the
domination of scientific research by
corporate interests is dealt with more
stringent public control. National and
international public organizations such as
FAO, CGIAR, etc., will have to carefully
monitor and control the provision of applied
non proprietary knowledge to the private
sector so as to protect that such knowledge
will continue in the public domain for the
benefit of rural societies. Publicly
controlled regulatory regimes must be
developed and employed for assessing and
monitoring the environmental and social risks
of biotechnological products (Webber 1990).
trends towards a reductionist view of nature
and agriculture set in motion by contemporary
biotechnology must be reversed by a more
holistic approach to agriculture, so as to
ensure that agroecological alternatives are
not foregone and that only ecologically-sound
aspects of biotechnology are researched and
developed. The time has come to counter
effectively the challenge, and the reality,
of genetic engineering. As it has been with
pesticides, biotechnology companies must feel
the impact of environmental, farm labor,
animal rights and consumers lobbies, so that
they start re-orienting their work for the
overall benefit of society and nature. The
future of biotechnology based research will
be determined by power relations, and there
is no reason why farmers and the public in
general, if sufficiently empowered, could not
influence the direction of biotechnology
along sustainability goals.
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