REPORT/Peter Downs

Food Gene Fixers Split
Over Corporate Control

Special to The Progressive Populist

St. Louis, Mo.

Widening divisions among the proponents of genetic engineering were especially evident at a recent meeting of plant scientists.

Gene-splicers at the 16th International Botanical Congress predictably attacked "ultra-greens" such as Greenpeace for "hi-jacking" public debate on genetic engineering, but they also attacked Monsanto and other large corporations for arrogantly ignoring the public and blocking the progress of science.

Monsanto, Novartis and Dupont were among the sponsors of the congress, which was held in St. Louis in early August. The congress, which meets once every six years, was attended by an estimated 4,000 plant scientists from around the world. This was the first one in the United States since 1969.

Despite efforts by the organizers of the congress and the host, the Missouri Botanical Garden, to use the occasion to mount a spirited defense of genetic engineering, gene engineers appeared desperate to separate their work from the people who control it.

Like many of those present, John Bryant, from the University of Exeter in England, tried to distinguish between "the ethics and safety of the technology and the ethics and safety of those using it." He ridiculed concerns about the safety of genetically modified foods, but expressed sympathy for the perception that "the technology is in the wrong hands."

"I share the unease about the consequences of control of the technology by four-to-five big players," he announced in a session on the ethics of biotechnology.

Another Englishman, David Cove, from Leeds University, couldn't understand why corporations and the government "arrogantly ignored the public" and refused to label genetically modified foodstuffs. Cove, a true believer in the promise of genetic engineering, said the refusal to label foods is at the core of public distrust of genetic engineering. "Label it, and if it provides value to consumers, they will buy it," he said.

The claim that genetically modified foods couldn't be segregated made no sense and simply fanned fears that something was wrong with the technology, he added. The real problem, he claimed, is not the technology, but the political/economic system.

While ridiculing food safety advocates, Cove did admit they had one legitimate concern--antibiotic resistance. "But the latest techniques don't use antibiotic resistance," he said.

Swiss molecular biologist Ingo Potrykus said the public reaction against genetically engineered foods in Europe is understandable since the early products were plants with herbicide resistance, which benefits the corporations, but not the public. "Ninety-five percent of science, even in the public sector, is for private interests, not the public interest," he said. "Corporations are interested in the easiest things that will make them the money quickest."

Conference organizers featured Potrykus to the press as evidence that genetic engineering will end hunger. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, he developed a variety of rice enriched with iron and vitamin A. According to UNICEF, iron deficiency anemia is responsible for 20 percent of all maternal deaths in Africa and Asia, and vitamin A deficiency is responsible for one million childhood deaths a year, and is the leading cause of childhood blindness. Potrykus and the Rockefeller Foundation plan on making the rice available to poor farmers for free, and hope farmers will spread the useful traits by breeding vitamin-rich rice with their own strains and saving seed for future plantings.

When given the stage, however, Potrykus denounced patenting and corporate research. Companies such as Monsanto point to better nutrition as a promise of genetic engineering, Potrykus said patenting made his work illegal. "So many fields of research are blocked by corporate patents," he said. "I had to ignore them or I couldn't move at all."

A representative of the Rockefeller Foundation waded into the debate with calls for reforming the patent system, but many scientists joined Potrykus in calling for the outright abolition of the system. Scientists should start now by simply breaking the law, said Potrykus. "What company wants the negative publicity of putting me in jail for fighting poverty?" he asked.

Peter Downs is a writer based in St. Louis.

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