Interview with Phil Bereano: Part I

by Matt Styslinger

Philip Bereano is Professor Emeritus in the field of Technology and Public Policy at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has been an active and outspoken proponent of democratic social ethics in technology for decades. He is on the roster of experts for the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, a participant in the UN’s Codex Alimentarius processes, and co-founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics, the Washington Biotechnology Action Council, and the 49th Parallel Biotechnology Consortium.

Why does a technology like genetic engineering (GE) need an active and outspoken proponent of ethics like yourself?

Philip Bereano is Professor Emeritus in the field of Technology and Public Policy at the University of Washington in Seattle. (Photo credit: Phil Bereano)

I deal with social ethics: issues of equity, justice, fairness, and democracy. Frankly, GE fails when measured against most of these values. GE, like all high-techs, is inherently anti-democratic. Computers, for example, can be democratic in their usage because anybody can buy into it in a consumer society. But they’re not democratic in terms of development, which is under the control of a very small number of people. Similarly, GE is under the control of small numbers of highly educated people and incredibly wealthy organizations.

While most people believe that GE is too complicated for them to understand, the ethical and social issues that come up in a democratic society have little to do with the technical stuff; the basis of these issues can be easily understood. However, the technological elite hasn’t felt any obligation to present materials in a way that invites public participation, and regulatory agencies have often been opposed to transparency or are captives of the industries they are supposedly overseeing—this is certainly true of the FDA, USDA/APHIS, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, EPA.

What ethical issues are associated with GE in agriculture?

GE has been presented in a way that attempts to gain public acceptance for it, but none of the GE technologies have, in any sustained fashion, increased food production or decreased world hunger. However, they’ve certainly increased funding for the biotechnology scientists and the profits for the Monsantos of the world.

“Golden Rice”—with enhanced levels of vitamin A—while touted by GE proponents as an example of GE benefits, has not reduced blindness at all in the Third World and, in fact, is highly unlikely to do so because of the huge quantities of Golden Rice a kid would have to eat. And he or she still may not be getting a balanced diet with the other nutrients needed to make use of the vitamin A.

There’s a major ethical issue in the very simplistic reductionist model this technology is based on. The central dogma of GE is this image of the genome as a Lego set, where you can take out the green one and put in a red one. In reality, however, the genome is highly fluid and the parts interact. The Lego model is quite wrong, yet it’s used constantly in public discourse, regulatory submissions, and legislative testimony. Biologists know how the genome actually works, but advancement in the profession rules out of play such subjects of discourse because they would challenge the positions taken by industry funders. Scientists who wish to break that boundary, either by scientific experimentation or by public writings, have largely been isolated and marginalized by the wealthy and the powerful within the academic-industrial complex—for example the experiences of Dr. Arpad PusztaiDr. Ignacio Chapela, and Dr. Terje Traavik [Editor’s Note: These are leading international scientists who were criticized by biotechnology companies and other scientists for raising health and environmental concerns about genetically modified crops.] I think these examples indicate a profound set of ethical issues surrounding the professional functioning of geneticists and academic and industry biologists.

You have argued that this technology poses risks to the world’s smallholder farmers. Why?

It was quite unprecedented when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the patentability of microbial gene products. The Patent Office ran away with the decision and allowed the patentability of plants and mammals as well. The creation of intellectual property monopolies in agricultural germplasm by large transnational corporations certainly presents a set of ethical issues, and works to the disadvantage of smallholder farms and sustainable agriculture. “Sustainability” doesn’t just mean profitability forever. Sustainability has qualitative dimensions, like justice and distributional considerations—otherwise, a totalitarian society could be called sustainable! So we are having this tremendous transfer of knowledge, power, and control from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations.

Back to the example of Golden Rice. Vandana Shiva found that in one village in India, there were 350 plants growing nearby that had been routinely eaten and that provided vitamin A or its precursors. Under industrial agricultural models, however, these were defined as “weeds,” and farmers were encouraged to plow them under and plant cotton instead. Locals no longer have access to the foods that used to provide them with vitamin A, and blindness increased. Instead of understanding that agro-ecological approaches could minimize blindness by preserving access to indigenous diets, Golden Rice has been offered as a “high-tech miracle” way to overcome this situation; the high-tech mindset tries to solve problems brought on largely by technologies through the application of more technologies of higher complexity.

Suddenly, we have a system of consolidation where one dominant multinational corporation, Monsanto, is seeking to obtain majority control of the world’s agricultural plant germplasm, rather than sustaining the resilient, decentralized system for germplasm protection and utilization in rural and indigenous communities that has fed us well for millennia.

In your opinion, what sorts of agricultural innovations should major donors be funding to eradicate hunger and improve food security in both developing and developed countries?

Donors should be funding agro-ecological approaches. The Gates Foundation’s grants are usually quite large: over $100,000 [Grand Challenges in Global Health Program award size]. This is too much for small village cooperatives in Africa that could utilize $5,000 really well. I know people who teach at agricultural schools in Tanzania or work with ag cooperatives in Kenya, and they can’t get adequate funding. Big donors are undermining huge numbers of local initiatives to increase food security and protect biodiversity when they exclude small-scale projects in favor of industrial ones that actually have consequences counter to such goals.

How does the promotion of GMO crops affect global food security and public health in developing countries?

The World Bank and UN agencies did a major study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The report concluded that high-tech approaches aren’t likely to answer the food needs of the future. Other, lower-cost, approaches—in particular what’s becoming known as “agro-ecological” approaches—are far more promising. The reason is simple: Third World farmers can’t afford an industrial-ag approach to farming—family farms in the U.S. often can’t! This is why the first Green Revolution didn’t reduce world hunger. There is more than enough food being produced in the world today to adequately feed every man, woman, and child and have leftovers. People go hungry because they can’t afford food, not because we can’t produce enough. And this will be true for decades in the future.

Our AGRA Watch group put out a press release recently criticizing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its investments in Monsanto. The high-tech approach is not the right way to move toward food security and sustainability, but it is the approach the Gates Foundation is favoring. The Foundation has indicated that it thinks there are too many small farmers in Africa, and knows that its policies will lead to many farmers having to leave their land—euphemistically referred to as “land mobility.”

But people have been leaving the land in Africa and around the world for a long time. What’s different today?

Well, this is what happened during the first Green Revolution. The larger farmers can afford the mechanization, and the smaller ones get wiped out. Cities are growing exponentially in developing countries, and becoming ungovernable hotbeds of unemployment and crime. Nairobi doesn’t need more people coming in from the countryside looking for jobs. This poses a threat to public health, while the monoculture of the farms is a threat to food security.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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