Aliens in the voters list

A green signal by the Swiss to carry on research in genetic engineering is making environmental organisations see red

Published: Friday 31 July 1998

on june 7, 1998, Swiss citizens voted in favour of research in genetic engineering. The biotechnology industry has not stopped smirking since. To the environment organisations, at the end of two years of campaigning against genetic engineering, this has come as a rude shock.

The Swiss vote is relevant in more ways than one. It was a first -- the first time that any country had a referendum on one of the most controversial scientific issues. What went on in Switzerland was being closely monitored by neighbouring countries. Though ngo s are licking their wounds and still wondering how an informed public gave the red signal to a ban on genetic engineering research, the fact that the Swiss have voted in favour of genetic research does not imply that there are no risks to the environment -- or to humans for that matter.

The biotechnology industry is never short of ideas or funds when it comes to public relations. Millions are spent. Researchers literally take to the streets trying to brainwash people. The fact that many companies have employed public relations organisations who have refurbished the public image of companies responsible for major disasters like the Bhopal gas tragedy and the Exxon oil spill speaks volumes.

Their strategy was brilliant. The proverb 'health is wealth' takes on new connotations. Health is important, and so is the money that it makes. Talk about the cures that can emerge from biotech research... cures for the big c (cancer), Alzeimers, aids , to name a few. And people are convinced for life. This, coupled with the fact that researchers trotted out sob stories of 42,000 scientists having to leave the country because of closures of their labs, did the trick

Applications of genetic engineering technology are many. The main areas of concern are agriculture and health. A few years back the bogey of biotechnology research, raised by opponents, could perhaps be dismissed as figments of imagination. Not any more. Environment impact is now being reported. Claims are proving tall. While Monsanto's Round up Ready cotton was a flop in Mississippi, elsewhere genes escaped 'by mistake' into commercially released rape seed and had to be recalled. Genes incorporated for resistance to herbicides have been transmitted to weeds, making them herbicide-resistant. This has serious environment repercussions. It could end up being another round of looking for more potent pesticides.

Leading biotechnology companies have been careless. In the uk, the Advisory Committee on releases to the environment, which advises the British government on the safety of releasing genetically engineered organisms, published in April a list of companies that breached the terms of consent to carry out field experiments. These included Monsanto, AgrEvo and Plant Genetic Systems, among others. This has been possible because of strong campaigning against genetic engineering and the concern expressed by royalty -- Prince Charles himself. One cannot help but shudder while thinking of countries like India, technologically-poor with low awareness levels even amongst scientists, let alone the lay person.

Another development taking place insiduously behind the scenes is mergers. Global conglomerates are buying out small biotech companies, seed companies, agribusiness and agrochemical concerns, pharmaceutical and animal health concerns in addition to food and beverage companies. Environment analysts call this 'gaining control of the life industry'. The concentration of power is impressive. The top 10 agrochemical companies now control 81 per cent of the us $ 29 billion global market. The world's 10 major pharmaceutical companies control 47 per cent of the us $197 billion pharmaceutical market. The control over life can be best illustrated by the formation of Novartis, the result of a marriage between Sandoz and Ciba Geigy. Novartis is now the world's largest agrochemical company, the second largest seed company, the second largest pharmaceutical company and the fourth largest veterinary medicine company.

Biotechnology companies are getting impatient to reap benefits and are getting careless in the process. Safety and ethical concerns have taken a back seat. No one is willing to wait and test if the genetically modified product is indeed harmless. And if the product were to prove damaging to the environment, it is going to be near impossible to call them back-virtually there is no looking back.

While promising cures for all ills via biotechnology, the flip side is that health could be compromised. Allergies to bacillus thuringeinsis proteins have been reported. Ethical issues are being swept under the carpet. Would a person whose DNA test indicates a susceptibility for developing cancer stand an equal chance of geting a job? What about insurance? Would the premiums be higher? What about personal life? Would a man spend the rest of his time in marital bliss knowing that any day now, his wife, a mother of two would be developing breast cancer?

The line between foetal treatment of genetic disorders and eugenics to develop superior beings is thin. When is a genetic alteration really necessary or only cosmetic? Would we not all want our progeny to be a perfect 10 in both physique and intelectual capabilities? To what levels would we go?

The Swiss have just opened the Pandora's box.

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