Sunday, April 19, 2009

Biotechnology in Agriculture and Pharmaceuticals

Biotechnology in Agriculture and Pharmaceuticals

An innate sense of survival combined with curiosity and superior intellect gives humans a unique ability among biological beings to exterminate their natural predators. Science, technology and creativity have allowed humans to alter the natural biological processes to the infinitesimal proportions of the gene, where the creation of life-forms began.

These auspicious powers, usually thought of as only possible through the omnipotence of a Spiritual Being, are now in the human knowledge base. It is no surprise that such powerful abilities in the hands of any being would create fear and controversy. As a global community, we must weigh the possible consequences of our ability or lack of ability to control such power, against the biotechnological promises of a world without limits, a world able to ignore the barriers of physical law. The prevention and treatment of both genetic and predatory diseases, reduced economic inequality, hunger and disease may offer alternative mathematical models of global carrying capacity and life expectancy.

This paper is a discussion of the support of biotechnology and biogenetics in agriculture and pharmaceuticals, a review of supportive discourses and the importance of international cooperation and regime theory. In discussing the sympathetic viewpoint of biotechnology, many aspects of the opposing arguments are revealed.

Critics of biotechnology point to the price that must be paid for these scientific marvels. According to Vandana Shiva, an active opponent of biotechnology, those who can least afford it must pay that price. She supports this claim with stories such as ecosystem destruction, the usurpation of indigenous knowledge and an andropogenic colonization of women, children, the weak and the under-privileged in a concept she calls Biopiracy (Shiva, 1997).
Bio-piracy as described by Vandana Shiva is a practice employed by multinational corporations where they “discover” a cultural knowledge and practice in food production or medical use. By altering the plant to make it a “novel” discovery, patents protect it, and the host culture is denied profit or acknowledgement (Shiva, 1989).
The term biopiracy is loaded with negative connotations, as Shiva meant it to be. Pirates, as witnessed by a currently running television commercial from the cheese industry, are still depicted as the barbaric, uncivilized dregs of society, interested in procuring their fortunes at any cost of life or limb, whether it be theirs or others. This "greed at any cost" mentality is depicted in the cheese commercial by a stereotypical pirate, a patch over one eye, a wooden leg and a silver hook for a hand (or in this case, a cheese-slicer). Pirates' named legacy comes from their activities of piracy, or thievery.

Biomimicry is an example of a cooperative effort among environmental discourse debates. In Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature (1997), author Janine Benyus' describes this multidisciplinary science as a plausible compromise between radical intervention and complete laissez-faire of indigenous areas and traditional knowledge.
The roots of the term biomimicry come from Greek origin: "Bios", meaning life and "mimesis", meaning imitation. Biomimicry is the imitation of life, not the creation of life, as is the concern of many opponents of biotechnology, who claim that life cannot be created (Shiva, 1997). Biomimicry also denotes a more positive connection with and study of biological systems. With this comes a new human understanding of biological innovation, invention and imitation.
According to Benyus, biomimicry is based on a three-pronged approach (1997):
1) Nature as model: Biomimicry takes inspiration from biological designs and processes to solve human problems.
2) Nature as measure: Biomimicry uses a 3.8 billion year long ecological standard to judge the "rightness of innovation".
3) Nature as mentor: As a new way of viewing and valuing nature, biomimicry is based not on what we can extract from the world, but what we can learn from it.

Supportive Discourses

Several widely accepted environmental discourses have the ideological elements necessary to support the implementation of cooperative uses of bio-science and technology:
Green Romanticism is an environmental discourse that espouses the nurturing and development of different kinds of subjectivity or ways that individuals can experience the world. Biomimicry also draws its inspiration "outside of the box", by observing and mimicking the different natural processes, although many of the Green Romantic theories are either essentially too liberal (i.e. Deep Ecology) or too conservative (i.e. Eco-theology) to support the cooperative essence of biomimicry.
Lifestyle Greens, a balanced off-shoot of Green Romanticism, believe that the essence of being green is not adherence to any philosophical analysis or collective action; instead it is a matter of lifestyle. For example, in implementing invention by biomimicry, such as substituting fuel cells developed from the same theories that allow plants to create energy through sunlight, will require a lifestyle alternative to fossil fuels.
Economic Rationalism is a discourse that relies on its entity actors: homo-economicus, free markets, property rights, and government rule. Although many horror stories of self-interest, competition, and strict hierarchies, ER is defined by its commitment to the intelligent deployment of market mechanisms to achieve public ends. Too its credit, ER relies on fair and appropriate property rights, a critical issue in the biotechnology debate.
Ecological Modernization promotes the natural processes, seeing nature as its own waste treatment plan. This discourse supports a capitalist economy, states sovereignty, and recognizes natural systems. The premise of EM is that the capitalist political economy needs conscious re-figuring and far-sighted action, so that economic development and environmental protection can proceed hand in hand reinforcing one another. EM is associated with the "tidy household" and "connections to progress" as metaphors, and is supported by Al Gore, Jr., Albert Weale, and Urlich Beck.
Bioregionalism, a popular discourse among environmentalists is supportive of biomimicry in its belief in the practical application of theory. Like bioregionalism, biomimicry is the combination of theory and practical applications. Bioregionalists believe in place-based ecology that recognizes sacred places and alternative methods for defining current politico-geographic boundaries. Aspects of bioregionalism appear to contain many of the necessary ideals for the implementation of cooperative theories.

Why do we need biotechnology?
Population Growth
Exponential population growth calls for safe, available and ecologically sound uses of science and technology in agriculture and pharmaceuticals. The lower mortality rates caused by elimination of natural predators through vaccines and pharmaceuticals combined with the mathematical concept of exponential growth and population limits creates a dangerous cycle:
· Larger and healthier populations
leads to
· the need of greater food availability, disease prevention and treatment
leads to
· lower mortality rates, again creating larger and healthier populations
leads to
· the need for more food supplies…and on and on.
The late Donella Meadows and other environmental survivalists would argue that such exponential growth would eventually lead to practical limits of capacity (1972). Yet other mathematical concepts, such as a logarithmic statistical model, would support an asymptotic curve in place of a parabolic model. In other words, populations would reach a certain level, or carrying capacity, and then discontinue to grow. This theory of limits to growth is regularly seen in nature's own models of undisturbed ecosystems. Though human populations may be greatly expanded in the future and possibly much greater than current estimations, biotechnology holds a promise that the populations will be fed and healthy.



Perhaps the most oft heard defense of biogenetics is the promise to end hunger. The opposing argument claims that food is not scarce, and we do indeed have the global food resources to feed the world; the problem is the economics of food--the ability to get the food to those who need it most. While that may be true, the problem of poverty still exists and adequate economic solutions have not appeared. While perhaps the amount of food may only increase at the same rate as the populations, biogenetically modified foods offer alternatives to some of the global food problems. Biotechnology holds a promise of better and cheaper food, as well as drought resistant crops. Golden rice, a genetically modified food, contains the vitamin beta-carotene, which is said to be able to prevent blindness in children with malnutrition.
In the United States, about 63 percent of soybean crops will be genetically modified to resist pests. Only 24 percent of corn crops will be genetically modified, a mild one percent drop from last year. Author Peter Brasher believes that this drop is partially due to the negative public relations when the presence of "Star-Link", a modified crop designed for live-stock was found in the human food supply (Brasher, 2001).
A consumer study performed by the Wirthlin Group Quorum Surveys found that 79 percent of Americans knew something about biotechnology, yet only 2 percent responded "very well informed" when asked to rate their level of knowledge. Only 43 percent of the May 2000 survey answered YES, they knew that there were food produced through biotechnology in the stores; even more surprising is that 23 percent answered NO, while 34 percent failed to reply. Even more encouraging to the biotechnology argument is that 59 percent of respondents felt that biotechnology products would provide benefits within the next five years, while only 25 percent disagreed with 16 percent refusing to respond.


Along the path of development, humankind has learned to eliminate its predatory enemies, often to the point of extinction: even our pre-historic ancestors over hunted particular mammals. Throughout history, some civilizations have practiced intentional extermination of plants and animals felt to be unnecessary to the natural process, and oft thought dangerous to the proliferation of humankind. In the 20th Century, technology brought us to a different level of the extermination of human predatory species invisible to the naked eye. Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine developed through biotechnological means in 1955 virtually exterminated this most feared virus. In 1955, the average estimated rate of polio contraction was 21,000 people annually; in 1995, there were only seven reported cases of polio. Dr. Salk continued researching genetic pharmaceuticals, especially related to multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS until his death in 1995 (Cassidy 2001). This biogenetic discovery had a profound impact on the world, and the future of health care and biotechnology in general. Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories recently developed a vaccine for the pneumoccocal bacterium, which became available to the public this year under the commercial name of Prevnar®. gPrevnar® targets seven strains of pneumoccocus, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the invasive disease in infants; it is manufactured by attaching the polysaccharides to a genetically modified nontoxic form of the diphtheria toxin protein. It is estimated that between 16,000 and 17,000 children are infected with some form of pneumococcus; 1,400 of those cases will progress to pneumococcal meningitis in children under five years old. Two year olds are at highest risk, with 1/2 of the cases erupting into meningitis, brain damage and hearing loss; death results in ten percent of these children. In trials, Prevnar® proved to be 100 percent effective in invasive pneumococcal disease, with a 90 percent efficacy rate in preventing all invasive pneumococcus.
Insulin is one of the first genetically modified organisms produced in the laboratory. Developed by inserting a specific human gene into the genetic code of a bacterium, insulin has saved millions of lives, allowing diabetics to live a full life. Technology similar to that used in insulin production led to the production of the cancer treatment. Biogenetic engineering is also responsible for digoxin, a drug used to treat heart disorders (Pollack 2001)

Regimes, Patents and Indigenous Protected Areas

A premise that runs throughout most regime theories is that in exploiting our earth's ecosystems to dangerous levels, we are also destroying the traditional knowledge that has kept many of the worlds most biologically diverse areas sustainable. Destruction of traditional knowledge contributes to further degradation of the environment--and so the cycle repeats until it ends through apocrypha or salvation.
Gonzalo Oviedo (1999) expands the concept of Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and patents by claiming that indigenous people have been removed from their traditional position as stewards of knowledge. This has been accomplished, writes Oviedo, through licentious exploitation of indigenous resources, without consideration that the stewardship of such traditional knowledge is essential to the sustainability of the ecosystem. A relevant and responsive international regime policy was drafted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The draft is an effort to recognize and protect sacred lands and indigenous rights, and allow traditional people the right of self-development in their conventional land use and conservation patterns. In addition, the right to have input into land use management and active participation of protected land management is an important issue such a proposal would address (Oviedo and Brown, 1999).
It is easy to understand how traditional people around the world would be wary of national and international systems that have already stripped much of their land, denied them representation in declaring protected lands, and assumed management of those lands. Then, those governments and organizations suddenly promise under IPAs and similar plans to give back control of indigenous knowledge and protection of sacred areas. Such a need of respect for traditional peoples is a telling statement of how far conservationists and governments must go before mutually satisfying partnerships can be created. True respect can take generations to develop, and even then such relationships can remain tenuous.


Critics of introducing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to the global food supply argue that through Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), multinational corporations will be given the legal ability to monopolize food production on a global basis. TRIPS was created by GATT/WTO, and has been criticized for supporting multinational corporations; yet, the creation of TRIPS was to protect Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs). Part of the problem with the MNC slant on such regimes relates to the fact that currently only 10 multinational corporations control 32 percent of the global commercial seed market, seeds being the most debated controversy of biogenetics (Shiva 2000)
The patenting of life forms is the bio-colonization of nature argued against by Vandana Shiva (2000). Still others, such as Professor Paul Keim of the Northern Arizona University, disagree. Dr. Keim believes that patenting protects indigenous forms of biotechnology by releasing the processing information globally, protecting indigenous patent holders for twenty years, and releases corporate patent information in twenty years (Lecture, 2001). Patents are an essential ingredient to the production of new and inventive processes and the preservation of traditional knowledge. They are essential to replace those practices that are unacceptable to the sustainability of the earth, from energy production and fossil fuel extraction to protection of rubber-tapping processes of indigenous rainforest inhabitants.


Perhaps there is some important biological niche that disease causing bacteria hold, besides those that are responsible for decomposition properties. The first thing that comes to mind is human Population Control as a predatory species.
Critics argue that GMO’s are not being introduced into food production and medicine to help people, but to grow corporate power through profits and market share. The science of biotechnology is lacking in understanding all possible negative effects that GMO introduction into the environment may entail. While international environmental regimes provide incentives for the creation of new science and the protection of indigenous knowledge by recognizing and preserving it, these global commitments may not be enough.
Still, all parties agree that success for society is to be found by operating within nature’s processes, and the technology of nature has much to offer us in the form of Biomimicry. Therefore, the concept of Biomimicry should be further explored as a scientific, ecological, ethical and safe compromise to the Survivalist/Promethean debate. In addition, international regimes should provide incentives for the careful exploration of nature, while protecting the intellectual property right of indigenous knowledge. In this way, biotechnology and biogenetically engineered agriculture and pharmaceuticals address global agricultural and pharmaceutical issues while preserving the natural ecosystems.
The debate is wide regarding biotechnology issues, suggesting the need for common ground. The first debate to be settled, however, is the one that resides inside those of us who are aware of the dangers in biotechnology, yet also see the possibilities for good in the ability of man to manipulate his environment.


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