Designing the Perfect Consumer

by Michele Gale-Sinex

This column is adapted from an e-mail message the author posted on SANET-mg, a sustainable agriculture discussion list on the Internet. It was a contribution to a discussion on biotechnology and its implications, and is printed with the author's permission.

I write in response to a SANET-mg reader who states that he "do(es) not consider the products of genetic engineering to be fundamentally different from triticale or donkeys or any of a number of transpecific hybrids which have been produced by more conventional techniques."

Where sexual reproduction is the method, nature does genetic engineering experiments on a whole-genome basis, as is the case with these examples. That seems pretty different to me than snipping out a sequence and jamming it into another kind of DNA.

Whether the "products" of genetic engineering are inherently different from those of sexual or other kinds of reproduction isn't what concerns me; my concern is what stream of potential ripple-effects a particular type of genetic engineering can have in the longer run.

I'm thinking, for example, about "non-human intervention" recombinant evolutionary experiments, like gene sequence exchange in nature. I'm thinking of Barbara McClintock's discovery of transposons in maize, Joshua Lederberg's discovery that bacteria can move DNA sequences to engineer antibiotic resistance for themselves, and the complex activities of retroviruses.

Put these events into a global epidemiological context, and...well...perhaps the sustainable agriculture community needs to be more familiar with the writings and investigations of Laurie Garrett. She's the Pulitzer-winning journalist who wrote The Coming Plague in 1994. She recounts how it has been repeatedly demonstrated scientifically that microbes are masters of genetic recombination, using gene-swapping to create ever more resistant and virulent forms of themselves...that are increasingly challenging the infrastructures of human science and medicine.

It seems to me that the genetic engineering folks have been successful in getting people to think in a reductionist manner about their gene gunnery...without taking into account that experiments in agriculture are experiments in evolution. Are there any gene jockeys thinking about global epidemiology, for example? About the larger context(s) of their activities?

So what does sustainable agriculture have to contribute to this discussion? An integrative world view.

What if the essential human problems need to be rethought...like reducing both chemical inputs and demand for foodstuffs in accord with the land's carrying capacity? What if there's a new set of evaluations - like how well nourished the existing population is - and efforts to keep that in line with what land can provide, without pfutzing with genes, in order to support a growing human population.

What about looking for the simplest solutions? What about addressing the conditions that make the problems rather than coming up with technical "fixes?"

Spending a lot of money on technical fixes and the research that supports them is one approach. Another is to do the basic field science that is being short changed for the more glitzy approaches.

The corporations which produce genetically-altered products need to make a profit. As soon as you have a profit motive, you have a marketplace where producers of goods or services are trying to influence and restrict consumer choice.

I'd suggest that corporations less want consumer choice than they want consumers to buy their products. If corporations wanted consumer choice, they'd be setting up more and more competing products with truly different qualities, and measuring their success in terms of something other than the bottom line and stockholder profits.

One example is the rBST issue. Swiss Valley Farms, an Iowa dairy cooperative, got nailed hard by Monsanto for simply trying to disseminate information about their alternative product/market: rBST-free dairy foods. McDonald's has spent an incredible amount of money trying to silence a couple of raggedy activists in England who have had the temerity to suggest that they don't do good nutrition.

The increasing power of intellectual property law and lawyers...the commodification of information systems...the privatization of Extension...all of these trends appear to me to point in the same direction: constructing a consumer class whose only creative function is to consume, in mass numbers.

I think it's fine to keep an open mind about genetic engineering...so long as the mind is kept WIDE open...and to the possibility that the quick fix to the immediate problem might bring about more problems.

Michele Gale-Sinex is the communications manager at the Center for Integrated Ag Systems, University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Ag and Life Sciences.

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