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Extracts from an Amnesty International lecture.

George Monbiot

The scope of scientific inquiry in general and genetic engineering in particular, must take account of ethics, environment and social justice.

FOLLOWING THE developments in ''the new biology'' and, in particular, genetic research -- it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this work could exert as profound an effect on human society as the splitting of the atom. In trying to shield ourselves from the ill-effects of this new science, while enjoying the benefits, it would be a serious mistake to wait for the possible new biotechnologies to become either feasible or available before considering the ethical questions they raise. By then, I fear, technology will have taken the ethical decisions for us. New technologies emerge because, their developers hope, people will find them useful. If they are useful, there will be demand for them; if there is demand, society's ethics will change to accommodate them.

It is not just the technological applications of the new biology that we should be looking at. We must also consider the ethics of the science itself. Some people, notably Professor Lewis Wolpert, who is chair of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, have argued that science is ''value-free''. It carries no ethical or moral implications. It is simply a search for information, and merely an appeasement of scientific curiosity. It acquires ethical content only when the information it provides is applied.

I find it hard to see how that analysis applies to the new developments in biology.

In research institutes all over the country, potential commercial applications are held in view right at the inception of research programmes. In some cases, the same people pursue a line of enquiry all the way from hypothesis to market-place. There is a simple reason for this. Many scientists are forced to rely on commercial funding. The people who provide that funding have a somewhat less than dispassionate interest in the results of the research. Commercial funding and the forces which give rise to it are, of course, saturated with ethical implications. This is why I believe that an attempt to divide research into pure science, which is value-free, and applied science, which is value-laden, is artificial.

So there is a case for considering the ethical implications of the life sciences as a whole, rather than simply their possible applications. The first obvious question is: how have these sciences been changing over the last few years? The answer, to my ears, booms back loud and clear: that there has been a narrowing of scientific horizons. We are faced with some of the most profound questions that humanity has ever confronted: vast environmental change, burgeoning global poverty, dislocation and dispossession affecting billions of people. But many scientists are turning away from these urgent issues and re-focussing on the sub-microscopic. We are seeing in universities a movement away from some of the really critical areas -- like primary health care, resource use, ecology and conservation -- and towards molecular biology and genetics.

 

TAKE FORESTRY, for example. The great questions are ''Why are the forests disappearing?'' and ''What are the consequences of that disappearance?''. These are issues which involve hundreds of millions of people, affected by dispossession, by soil erosion, hydrological change, local and regional climate change. We go to the forest scientists and ask them why. Why is this happening and what do we need to do to stop it? In reply, they give us gene sequences. We have seen molecular taxonomy taking over and pushing ecology out of some of the most prestigious forestry departments, just as we need sound ecological research more than ever before. It seems to me to be perverse.

But it's not hard to see why it's happening.

For a start, molecular biology and genetics are very appealing. You can't help feeling that you are standing on the edge of the known world and peering into the abyss of human ignorance. They are also, of course, easy to publish. Molecular biology presents a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. The results are clear and decisive. A peer reviewer, who decides which papers are suitable for publication in academic journals, has no trouble concluding that the science is sound and the results are fit for dissemination.

I would suggest that Sir Robert May's announcement recently that Britain is now the second highest producer of scientific papers in the world might not be a great cause for celebration; what it might be reflecting is not the breadth of our science, but the narrowness of it.

Now a science department's publication record is an important determinant of whether or not it is likely to get government funding. Eligibility is measured by the number of papers published. The nature of funding itself is, of course, changing. In many branches of science, commercial funding is taking over from government funding. Even the allocation of government money is guided by the possibility of commercial applications.

This introduces one simple problem: he who pays the piper calls the tune. The impoverished of the world are the least likely to be able to pay, so they are the least likely to have their interests represented by the commercial funding of science. This means that they are unlikely to be served by that science. It will pay less attention to their needs than to those, for example, of the big timber companies, which may be diametrically opposed to the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. The genetic engineering of crop plants provides a clear example of some of the resultant dangers.

We are told, and many people believe, that the genetic engineering of farmed plants is going to feed the world -- indeed, without genetic engineering we have no prospect of feeding the world. There is no question that genetically engineered crops will, in many cases, produce higher yields than those which haven't been genetically engineered. And there is also no question that, if it is not happening yet, we will soon get to the point at which, in absolute terms, we do not have enough food to feed the people of the world. A straightforward inference is evolved: we need more food, genetic engineering can provide more food, so genetic engineering will save the world from starvation.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. Food crises all over the world, from the Irish potato famine to the disaster sweeping across northern Kenya today, result less from an absolute shortage of food than from the failure of food to find its way to the mouths of those who need it most. A major component of every famine has been the withdrawal of food from the needy, and its accumulation by the sated -- as it disappears abroad or is used for feeding intensively-reared farm animals, or as essential staple crops are replaced by luxury foods or cash crops. There are good reasons to suppose that the genetic engineering of plants is likely to contribute to this inequality, and hence to famine.

 

FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS at the beginning of the 1990s, I worked in Brazil. One of the issues I looked into was the connection between land ownership and food production. Some striking figures came to light. At the time, 1% of the landowners in Brazil owned 49% of the land, while the poorest 56% of landowners, the peasant farmers, owned between them just 3% of the land. And yet these people, farming just 3% of the land, produced nearly all the country's staple crops: the majority of the manioc, maize and beans that Brazil consumed, and 40% of the rice. They were, in other words, feeding much of Brazil. The big landowners, by contrast, with plenty of capital and good international contacts, were using their estates to produce cash crops for export.

A pattern began to emerge: those who had the money and the international contacts used these advantages to make much bigger profits than they would earn by growing rice or beans for local people. They might be growing pineapples or tea or flowers for sale abroad, or cereals on a vast scale to sell to Europe for pig feed. It became clear to me that anything which helps small farmers encourages food security; whereas anything which tramples on small farmers reduces food security.

Now the genetic engineering of crop plants relies on what could be described as one-sided intellectual property rights. To ensure that they reap the benefits of their investments, the corporations are obtaining patents on genetically engineered crop plants. Many of the plants which the big pharmaceutical companies use as their raw material have been developed over hundreds or even thousands of years by peasant cultivators. The corporations take them to their laboratories, play around with them for eighteen months, stick in a flounder gene here and a llama gene there, and produce a lucrative new product. It might have a longer growing season, or resistance to pests, or a better response to fertilizer.

Now those crops are expensive. Many of them are made more expensive still because they have been engineered to respond to chemicals which the same companies just happen to produce. But what makes them particularly inaccessible to the small farmers is that they can't do what they used to do, which is to buy seed just once, thereafter growing and saving seed of their own. Having patented these new germ lines, the big companies are insisting that every time a farmer grows seed for the following year, the corporation should receive a royalty. Small farmers, many of whom work outside the cash economy, simply cannot compete on these terms. As big producers gain access to technologies beyond the reach of the poor, they will secure an even more powerful grip on land tenure and production; we will see an exacerbation of the inequalities inherent in Green Revolution. It is my contention that this will result in a reduction of food security worldwide.

 

THIS IS NOT THE ONLY problem raised by the genetic engineering of crop plants. When they first began to look like a major future component of agricultural production, five or six years ago, we were promised two things. The first was that they would enable us to reduce our dependence on pesticides. We would no longer have to inflict these toxins on the environment because plants would be equipped to cope with their pests by themselves: new genetic material would make them unpalatable or even poisonous to their predators. They would also be able to out-compete the weeds which might grow alongside them in the field. We were promised that the new crops would extend consumer choice: we would always be able to choose whether or not we wished to consume genetically engineered products. But no sooner did the first major shipment of genetically engineered crop plants arrive, than both of these promises were thrown straight out of the window.

Last year the United States started attempting to export large quantities of genetically engineered, ''Roundup Ready'' soybeans produced by the pharmaceutical company Monsanto. Now Roundup is a herbicide also produced by Monsanto, which, as its name suggests, was developed to kill any plant, of any species, it comes into contact with. The ''Roundup Ready'' soybean is the one thing which isn't destroyed by Roundup herbicide. It means that soya farmers are released from the complicated business of applying selective herbicides: you can destroy everything in the field that's not a soya plant, with one deadly weapon. The result, of course, is fields with even less biodiversity than survives at the moment.

Moreover, when the us was proposing to start exporting these genetically engineered soybeans to Britain, it argued that it would be very difficult to keep them apart from ordinary soybeans, and wanted to mix the whole lot in together. Now we hear that Monsanto has bought or holds a major stake in 78% of the seed suppliers in the us -- it will soon become hard not to buy Monsanto products. Soya derivatives are found in between 50% and 60% of all the processed foods consumed in the uk. The mixing of genetically engineered soybeans with ordinary ones means that consumers eating processed food will have no choice as to whether or not they eat the products of genetic engineering.

There is, however, one agricultural application of genetic engineering which does have the potential to reduce pesticide use, and that is the production of genetically modified organisms designed to attack crop pests. It sounds like a good idea -- viruses could, in theory, be specifically programmed to kill a single pest species, leaving the rest of the ecosystem intact.

In Oxford a couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to witness the first launch of genetically modified organisms into the British environment, courtesy of the Institute of Virology. The Institute proposed to release a genetically engineered virus, designed to attack a species of caterpillar which would be eating some experimental cabbages just outside Wytham Woods, three or four miles from Oxford. The Natural Environmental Research Council, which provides much of the Institute's money, insisted that it publicize the proposed trials and hold a public meeting, at which ordinary people could find out more about the project and raise any concerns they might have.

The Institute of Virology conformed to these instructions to the letter. In the Oxford Times there appeared in the classified section, between cordless doorbells and lampshades, a one-column-inch advertisement giving notice of the public meeting. Now it just happened, by pure good fortune, that a resident of Wytham village was looking for a cordless doorbell. He told his friends what he had found, who in turn got hold of some academics and environmentalists in Oxford, myself among them, hoping to find out more. No one knew anything, so we got in touch with the Institute and applied for tickets to the meeting.

We were told it was sold out. We found this a little odd, as the advert had only just been published, and it wasn't exactly eye-catching. So we asked a friend of ours in London, with good scientific credentials and who was known to the Institute, to apply. She was sent a ticket right away. We called the Institute and asked what was happening. Tickets, they told us, were to be handed out only to people selected by the director.

Now to my mind there was an evident public need to know what was going on, how the experiment was going to be run, and what, if any, dangers it posed to the ecosystem. We turned up at the meeting, but they wouldn't let us in. So we got into our sleeping-bags, put on red noses and antennae and, as giant human caterpillars, clambered over the roofs of the Institute.

It worked. We succeeded in luring out representatives of the Institute, to explain to us what was going on. There were, we came to see, several causes for continued alarm. The field trials, for example, had not been preceded by experiments in a ''biological greenhouse'', in which field conditions are simulated to see whether or not there was any danger of the virus escaping. The virus had not been genetically disabled. Nor was it as specific to the host caterpillar as the Institute had suggested. It turned out that forty-three butterfly and moth species were known to be susceptible to the virus, with the possibility that other organisms could also be affected. We discovered that the means of containing the virus and preventing it from leaving the cabbage patch consisted of a coarse plastic mesh. We discovered that the director of the Institute of Virology, who was overseeing this project, also sat on the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, which established the protocol governing the experiment.

There can scarcely be a clearer illustration of the need for transparency and accountability at all stages of research and development. When the public is kept in the dark, it is bad not only for democracy, but also, in the long run, for science, which loses credibility and public confidence.

Unfortunately, especially when their work is commercially funded, faculties seem, if anything, to be tightening their grip on information about what they're doing. One of the principal reasons is the patentability of both genetic material and the processes required to manipulate that material. If you are hoping to monopolize the fruits of your labours, the last thing you want to do is to disclose your evidence before you file your patent application. In other words, we, the public, are becoming less and less likely to hear about what science is doing, until that science is turned into technology and it's too late to ask the critical ethical questions.

 

PATENT LAW ALSO raises its own problems. In 1995 the European Commission, for the first time ever, had a draft directive rejected by the European Parliament. The directive was attempting to expand the range of biological ''inventions'' that could be patented. European parliamentarians, particularly the German MEPs, were concerned that it was so loosely drafted as more or less to confer patentability on life itself. In response, the European Commission has now produced a new draft directive. Far from solving the problem, it seems merely to have made the situation even more confused.

According to the draft directive, you can now file and receive a patent on genetic manipulations of plants and animals in general, but not on what it calls plant and animal ''varieties''. Confused? So was I, so I went to see one of Britain's top patent lawyers, a man called Kevin Mooney at Simmonds & Simmonds in the City. I showed him the directive and asked him what it meant. After reading it three times, he told me he hadn't the faintest idea. As far as he and I could work out, what it seemed to be saying is that you can apply for a patent for a genetic modification of all tomatoes, or even of all plants, but you can't apply for a patent on a genetic modification of a particular breed of tomato. It seems that American patent law has been interpreted in the same way. W. R. Grace, a big pharmaceutical company, has received a patent for all genetic modifications of all cotton.

The ethics of ownership are surely never more pressing than when applied to human genetic material. But here again, the European draft directive has fudged the issue. It says that you cannot apply for a patent on human genetic material inside the body, but you can get a patent on precisely the same chemicals extracted from the body and purified. This, of course, is no real barrier at all: the material only becomes commercially useful when it has been extracted and purified. The sloppy drafting of patent law is already beginning to precipitate some surreal and outrageous situations. I recently visited a very eminent geneticist at the company Smith Kline Beecham and, in passing, asked him if he had any patents of his own. He thought for a moment, then suddenly remembered. ''Ah yes,'' he said, ''I own the gene for human maleness.''

We are seeing a drastic realignment of property relations. Things which once belonged to the commonweal, or weren't even perceived as belonging to anything at all, are suddenly being claimed as private property. I find this deeply worrying, and nowhere more so than when mediated by something called the Human Genome Diversity Project.

The Human Genome Diversity Project is a multinational project whose purpose is to prospect for unusual and interesting genes around the world. Its proponents claim that they want to preserve the germ lines of indigenous people before they become extinct, so that their genes will continue to be useful for potential medical or commercial applications after they've gone.

As you might have guessed, there was not a great deal of consultation with indigenous people before this project began. Had there been, the researchers would have heard that indigenous people aren't very interested in having their genomes preserved after they've become extinct, but are far more interested in not becoming extinct in the first place. Human beings are not, they would have pointed out, crop varieties, to be stored and selected for other people's use. Neither should they be perceived as divisible sources of commodities. If indigenous people want any help from the outside world, they want help in creating the social and economic conditions which would give them a better chance of survival, not in deciding how to use their remains after they've gone.

But consultation is not one of this programme's notable features. Indeed, for all the protestations of its adherents, you can't help beginning to suspect that it might even be guided by motives less elevated than those they have claimed for it. Researchers funded by the Human Genome Diversity Project have been working amongst the Hagahai people of New Guinea. They came across a gene sequence which was of particular interest to them. It seems to confer resistance to a rare form of leukaemia. Their samples were handed over to the Institutes of Health in Washington, which applied for and received a patent on the leukaemia-resisting sequence. This institute in Washington, in other words, secured rights over part of the Hagahai people which could, in law, be used to fend off a Hagahai claim that that part in fact belongs to them. Without their consent, or even an effective attempt to inform them about what was going on, ownership of what could be described as the essence of those people had been transferred.

 

THE IMPLICATIONS OF the Human Genome Diversity Project are pretty mind-blowing and far-reaching. The Project is a multilateral programme. It is huge and well-funded and, its protagonists hope, it will produce a complete map of the human genome within the next five or ten years. Some of the potential applications are tremendously exciting.

For example, gene mapping could lead to much more precise medical diagnoses. It's possible that in a few years' time, genetic testing could become as routine as blood-testing is today. A doctor could take a genetic sample, send it to the lab and, a week or two later, see exactly which genetic deficiency you might be suffering from. A more precise diagnosis can, of course, lead to a more precise cure.

It sounds great, but some of the implications are alarming. The first is the possibility that other people get hold of information about our genetic make-up. It's a particularly pertinent worry in Britain, where we currently have no privacy rights. In the United States, where healthcare largely depends on health insurance, insurers are already practising what could only be described as genetic discrimination. Already there are numerous cases of companies writing people off as a bad bet because a relative of theirs has a genetic disease. This is done in the absence of firm genetic information. One can envisage a situation where, with much better access to information, and a much more empirical basis for deciding who should be regarded as ''genetically defective'', there is a wholesale withdrawal of insurance from big sections of the population. Insurance would cease to be risky for the insurers, and cease to be useful to those who might need it most.

The situation looks still worse when it comes to employment and education. Again this issue is, at the moment, most urgent in the United States. There have been several cases, documented by Professor Lisa Geller of Harvard Medical School, of employers sacking people on the grounds that they have a genetic predisposition to disease. Their companies don't want to spend money training people who are likely to drop dead at forty.

But gene mapping has a more controversial application than straightforward medical diagnosis. Already, unborn foetuses can be screened for certain genetic defects which will ensure, if they are born, that they suffer a brief and horrible life. Embryos carrying these mutations could be aborted.

The big question this raises, of course, is ''Where should the line be drawn?'' Should this screening be applied to the whole genome, and allowed to extend to conditions which aren't so immediately life-threatening? In this case, we're not talking about some hazy future, but about issues which already need urgently to be resolved.

When we're not certain about where the boundary ought to lie between acceptable and unacceptable genetic screening, we are in danger of stepping into some very dangerous territory indeed. If it's acceptable to screen out embryos whose conditions are likely to be immediately life-threatening, why is it not also acceptable to screen out embryos whose conditions might be life-threatening later on? And if that is acceptable, why is it not reasonable to screen out embryos whose conditions will make their lives uncomfortable? And if that is ok, why should we not screen out embryos which might be at a disadvantage by comparison with other people -- who might be short, ugly or unintelligent, for example? I find it hard to present a coherent argument for drawing the line in one place rather than another. It certainly presents the liberals among us with something of an ethical problem. We recoil from the idea of selecting one human being while rejecting others, especially on the grounds of, say, parental vanity or ambition. Yet we support a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy, even if it's for no better reason than that it would interfere with her career or a hitherto carefree life.

The issue becomes still more fraught with the possibility that germline gene therapy might one day become a viable means of changing the genetic characteristics of an embryo. Germline gene therapy -- attempting to clip bits of genetic material into or out of an embryonic genome -- is wisely not permitted in Britain, and neither is it feasible at the moment. But we would be wrong to suppose that, were it ever to become possible, it would necessarily be unpopular. Professor Theresa Marteau, a health psychologist at St. Thomas's and Guy's Hospitals in London, documented what might be the start of a rapid rise in public acceptability for this putative technology. She performed two surveys, one in 1993, one in 1994. In 1993, 4% of respondents said they would be in favour of gene therapy for their own embryos, to enhance their intelligence or appearance or to ensure that they did not turn out to be homosexuals. By 1994, the figure had risen to 11%.

We've already heard the outcry over the decision by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority not to allow Diane Blood to attempt to use the genetic material of her dead husband -- his sperm -- in order to conceive a child. When these technologies become available, when there are quick fixes for hitherto insoluble human problems and tragedies, people will demand that they be made available. Were germline gene therapy to become legal for life-saving purposes, it is possible to conceive of a similar public outcry in the future resulting from a decision to withhold it from people wishing to enhance the characteristics of their children. So, given that continuing to block the development of this technology might be unpopular, would it also be wrong? Some people have argued that there's really no difference between choosing your children's genes and choosing to have them educated privately. One of the reasons that I find the new genetics so terrifying is that I think they might be right.

Assuming -- as I think we can -- that the new technologies are likely to be available only to a small number of people, on the basis of their ability to pay, then, like public school, they will confer an advantage on some people at the expense of others, irrespective of merit. Just as the escape hatch of the public school enables the wealthiest and most influential people to ignore the under-funding of state education, future genetic screening or gene therapy could allow them to buy their way out of concern for the social and environmental factors which contribute to poor health. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine a future in which only the rich could -- through gene technology -- escape from the genetic effects of increasing exposure to such pollutants as pesticide residues and radioactive waste. The prospective gene technologies have the capacity to petrify, even more effectively than public school, society's heritable inequity.

But there might also be more immediate effects. The moment at which something can be fixed is the moment at which it becomes widely perceived as broken: the possibility of eliminating purportedly gay foetuses will surely contribute to the public disparagement of homosexuality. It is also possible to picture a world in which those whose genomes have been selected or enhanced could feel themselves set apart from those who have not been manipulated. With some justification, the genetic elect could claim that they did not share a common humanity with the genetically unscreened, and the racism, sexism and classism we suffer from today would find a new, and potentially even more virulent, outlet.

What's good for the individual may be bad for society. As I see it, the dangers with which the possibility of germline gene therapy confronts us emerge not -- as some people have suggested -- from the threat of a coercive state seeking racial improvement, but from the less fashionable bogey of mass consumerism.

This brings us back to the central point: that technology governs ethics if ethics do not first govern technology. This, of course, is exactly what we have seen with the development of the motor car, another case in which what is good for the individual might not be good for society. Long ago, men with red flags had to walk in front of motor cars. In view of the horrendous toll of deaths and injuries inflicted by cars since the lifting of that prescription, it begins to look as if the man with the red flag was quite a sensible idea. Once the technology became more widely available and more powerful, however, and the man in front of the car began to look more absurd, the urge to go faster, to enjoy the convenience and excitement of speed, swiftly overrode concerns for other people's safety. The car, at first an idle luxury, became an irremovable feature of human society, which had to change its values enormously to accommodate it. If we don't want to be doomed to succumb to the same bizarre valuation in the future -- putting convenience ahead of human life -- then we must start introducing an ethical framework early enough to forestall the introduction of disastrous new technology. But how do we do it without also eliminating some of the great benefits the new biology can confer?

I would like to suggest that in some branches of this science the answer is quite easy to come by. There are some developments which, with a certain degree of confidence, we can say are simply wrong. The Human Genome Diversity Project, for example, is a diabolical scheme and should be stopped dead. Information about our genetic make-up should be governed by the strictest possible privacy legislation. Consumers should be able to choose whether or not they eat genetically engineered products. The intellectual property rights of small farmers should be upheld. Genetic material, which is, of course, by no stretch of the imagination a human ''invention'', should surely not be possible to patent.

 

THEREAFTER, HOWEVER, it all gets a lot more complicated. The lines we'll have to draw if we are, collectively, to defend the public interest may not be obvious ones. There are unlikely to be clear and ethically-consistent means of deciding where they lie. They will leave some people feeling aggrieved and resentful. This means we must be very careful to consult as widely as possible, rather than hand down judgements from on high, as has been perceived to be the case with certain ethical decisions about scientific developments in the past. This could only work if it were accompanied by a massive exercise in public information, showing people what is happening, not only what the promises of this new biology are, but also what the dangers are. We must balance some of the breathless reporting of ''miracle cures'' with words of warning about the possible adverse consequences. It is, I believe, a mistake to assume that people are not capable of understanding this new science and its consequences. If you treat people like intelligent, sentient beings, they will respond as such. If one million peasant farmers, most of them illiterate, can take to the streets of Bangalore in southern India in protest at the implications of trade-related intellectual property rights as negotiated in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, I don't see why people in Britain can't get involved in debates about biotechnology.

SO THERE'S A CLEAR role for both ethicists and law-makers in seeking to establish boundaries for the new biology; but what about the scientists themselves? It is surely time for them too to start exercising their ethical judgement. This must start from the position that science is not value-free. Researchers do not inhabit a planet of their own, but remain part of society, which exercises a powerful influence over which topics they investigate and where their investigations can lead them. As members of that society, and as the brains behind the research and its technological applications, scientists must accept that their work carries a burden of responsibility.

Sometimes this can mean being faced with some very hard choices indeed. You will not get big money to answer big questions. The big money is reserved for the small questions, while the big ones attract only tiny amounts of funding.

It's time that we started to concentrate on asking and trying to answer the big questions, however painful it might be. The world is best apprehended with the naked eye, not the gene sequencing machine.


Extracts from an Amnesty International lecture.

The full text will appear in their book to be published in 1998.

George Monbiot writes regularly in The Guardian and champions The Land Is Ours campaign.

 

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