Genetic modification: Recognizing the ambiguity

Opinion & Editorial – The Jakarta Post, 13 May 2002

One of the issues to be raised at the WSSD (World Summit on Sustainable Development) in Johannesburg in September 2002 is the controversy over the so-termed “genetically modified” (GM) or “transgenic” organisms that have started to worry people in many parts of the world.

The case of transgenic corn plants in Brazil, which wiped out more than 13,000 honey bee peasants, or the dispute aroused over transgenic cotton plants in Sulawesi, Indonesia, some time ago, are obvious examples. Yet, still, it seems to be not easy to address the problem properly, as there have been so many interests involved. It is profit-oriented business, spliced with the advancement of technology, that has played an important role in intervening in the creation of living beings. Of course, legitimacy from a public agency is needed to bring the “creatures” to the market, in the name of human prosperity. When and how did this problem begin?

It was on May 19, 1994 that newspaper headlines all over the United States reported that the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration (USFDA) had given its final approval to Calgene, Inc. to put its genetically engineered tomato, the Flavr Savr, on the market. What differentiates Flavr Savr from other tomatoes? It did not decay as fast as its natural counterparts since it had one gene reversed — the gene meant to make the tomato ripen and so rot, as normal. When the gene was reversed, the tomato stayed fresh for longer.

And the news did not stop there. Later on, Associated Press (AP), Nov. 2, 1994 announced, “seven more genetically engineered foods are safe. The USFDA has completed the inspections of seven other genetically altered plants, i.e. three more tomatoes, a squash genetically altered to naturally resist two deadly viruses and a potato that naturally resists the Colorado potato beetle.” The keyword in this announcement is “naturally”. In what sense do these beings “naturally” exist at all, let alone possess the powers advertised?

These things are neither natural nor unnatural: They are beyond natural and unnatural. What we have here is no longer the mass manufacture of objects that belong to us and not to nature. Instead, it is the beginning of a new organic regime, blessed with unimaginable fertility, giving birth to infinite possibilities, all of them in their own “natural” way. Instead of manufacturing objects it is recreating the process of birth. This is the new nature, rather than nonnature or antinature, where these possibilities reach well beyond potato blight, squash rot and tomato decay: We are looking out towards the horizon. These new “creatures” are entities in whose presence the entire world is altered. How can this — the new nature — come into existence?

A transgenic organism is understood to be one that has its gene(s) “transplanted” across biological boundaries between species or even biological kingdoms, such as plant and animal. As the Flavr Savr — and other new creatures — had a gene added from a foreign source, a bacterium (or other), which was used to keep track of the changes, it was transgenic. Here, precisely, lies the ambiguity: Is the new genetic object going to be a fatal invasion or a benign enrichment? Is it created for bad, or for good?

If we look carefully at these objects, we might lose all our certainties and find ourselves facing a horizon of questions. These new things are an incarnation of the next “world-shaping” science, whose story is all about the breakdown of categories. Its upsurge into the world announces the bending of all the “old” concepts, including the very time and space in which we all dwell.

This might be an inseparable phenomenon of development nowadays. Time speeds up in some places under this new regime: things grow faster, messages move more quickly. But time has also been slowing down: Tomatoes decay more patiently, just as the time needed for the new potatoes in fighting beetles. Time is simply not what it was — time is changing. The old earth is passing away and a new earth is being born. Our familiar time bends and quakes in the presence of such objects like Flavr Savr and its transgenic successors, which possess the weird property of rerouting time and space. Just take the new “seed” like the well-known Monsanto GM Round-Up Ready Soya Beans as an example. It grows very well according to many new laws: More quickly, more enduringly, with more yields, in new places.

GM products have redefined for us the meaning of the future and therefore the present in its turn. The future is coming closer as its presence is ready-to-hand for us. Going further, the ecosystem is now a being that has arisen as we have become conscious of destroying it: It is the presence of a threatened future.

To this point, have we ever addressed this question seriously: To whose benefit do these changes accrue?

This genetic engineering is inseparable from global economic systems, with its global reach and ambition. This is the arena where knowledge, business power and state legitimacy come together. Universities try to produce knowledge, much of it in the form of texts, but also some in the form the new living knowledge. A year before Flavr Savr, again AP reported that mutant mice bred by Harvard University turned into a test bed in 1993 for curing cancer. This practice was legal as the university had already been granted the U.S. patent in 1988, the first ever for an artificially engineered natural life form. The creature seems to be alarming because it breaks all the boundaries: artificial and natural, engineered and living. But the news also emphasized that its ownership was equally hybrid: DuPont de Nemours and Bio, Inc. of Washington, Delaware owned the commercial rights.

It is clear that the mouse — as well as other GM organisms — is an academic product and a commercial commodity. It is a research tool and a room in a sales catalog; it is the hope of cure and the glitter of profit. Inserting a bacterium gene into a tomato is one small change in vegetable marketing, but it is also one large change in the international economy, which signifies the trademark of the symbiosis between industry and academia. But, be careful: Trademarks belong to the economic world; symbiosis is part of nature. Again, the categories curve into each other.

Here nothing stays distinct and separate. To exist is to have the potential for becoming connected to other entities, for being absorbed, overlapped or redefined. The university does not differ from the GM tomato in this respect: It has no clear boundaries, but exists in relation with other entities: Industry and government. We can no longer say where the academic centers stop and the commercial organizations start. The university used to be a system of well-patrolled borders — between disciplines, and between the academy and various outside worlds.

True, there were many secret crossings; but now there is a new age and the border controls have been desperately removed — instead of being adjusted. Can we see that these overlaps and mergers could look like another breed of corruption? Are we not losing our institutes of “pure” learning? Shall we denounce “nostalgia” for “pure research” on several grounds?

This problem, to be addressed in the next World Summit at Johannesburg — and will also have been started at Bali at PrepComIV and IPF (the Indonesian People’s Forum) meetings — is not as simple as rejecting or accepting the new biotechnoscience embedded in the transgenic organisms. But rather, how the process of applying such technologies is to the benefit of our shared life nowadays, when the term “customer” has depersonified the poor and “market” hidden the investor’s interests. Isn’t it true that the idea of democracy is the control of power — including spliced technology and business — toward public accountability?

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