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26 January 2002

Biotechnology Weapons Worse Than Nukes - Critics
by Ranjit Devraj, Inter-Press Service, India
Friday, January 25

NEW DELHI, Jan 25 (IPS) - Governments concerned about nuclear proliferation should be more worried by the greater potential for mischief that biotechnology holds in military and criminal minds, say members of an international panel of scientists involved in shaping the Biosafety Protocol.

In India for a strategy session ahead of the Second World Social Forum <> in Porte Alegre, Brazil next week, which will discuss alternatives to globalization, the experts said biotechnology weapon programs now being developed secretly by several governments are insidious.

They are more difficult to detect than programs for developing nuclear weapons, they added.

"Biotechnology weapons come out of test tubes rather than the large conspicuous facilities that are needed for developing and delivering nuclear weapons," Christine von Wiezsacker, vice president of Ecoropa, the Green Movement of Europe told IPS.

And in the same way that nuclear technology was promoted as having the potential to solve supposed shortages of energy resources, biotechnology is now being touted by its proponents as the answer to mythical food shortages, added Sue Edwards, biology professor at the Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

Wiezsacker said there were too many ''gray areas'' in biotechnology that are being  exploited in the name of food security but are actually detrimental to it.

A classic example is ''terminator'' technology, which renders seeds infertile in subsequent generations so that farmers are forced to return to the transnational firms to buy seeds rather than use what they have stored, as in traditional farming.

"Terminator technology delivered from the outside could make entire countries dependent on TNCs for their seed requirements," Wieszacker said.

"This is in fact a war on entire species at the cost of monocultures which are vulnerable to ecological breakdown and are unsustainable," Edwards said.

Worst of all is the refusal of governments that are backed by the same TNCs to accept the international regulation of little-understood areas of biotechnology, notably genetic engineering, despite its potential for mass destruction, intended or otherwise, said Prof. Jean Grossholtz, feminist and global campaigner for cultural and biological diversity.

Grossholtz, who teaches at the Holyoke College in Massachusetts in the United States, said the U.S. government was taking advantage of the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and the anthrax scare, to restrict the right of citizens to information about its biological defense program.

She said the US government is clearly more interested in defending the interests of TNCs than in protecting citizens from biological warfare, and is now also moving away from commitments under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) not to develop or stockpile biological weapons.

In fact, the United States has been accused of sabotaging the fifth convention of the BTWC at Geneva in December, where negotiations were held on for mandatory verification mechanisms for the international inspection of suspected biological weapons research and production facilities.

Wiezsacker, Edwards and Grossholtz are part of Diverse Women for Diversity, a movement begun with the avowed aim of creating diverse solutions to economic globalization at the local level and building a coalition of women for a common defense against the process at a global

They are being hosted in India by Vandana Shiva, a founder of the movement and director of the New Delhi-based, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, which works on protecting sustainable, organic farming.

A self-declared nuclear-weapons state, India has been vigorously pursuing genetic engineering as a means to food security. This is in spite of a massive 50-million ton grain surplus amidst widespread reports of starvation deaths and chronic malnutrition among more than half of its billion plus population.

But thanks to a powerful political and bureaucratic elite that dictates policy in India, the country has a chain of state-run laboratories and facilities that have acknowledged capabilities in frontline areas like space, nuclear and missile technology as well as biotechnology.

In the midst of the global anthrax scare last year, the Indian government's biotechnology laboratories showed off their prowess by announcing the development of a superior recombinant vaccine against the farmyard germ that has earned notoriety as a biological warfare agent.

The experts said that India -- which is now firmly committed to globalization after renouncing half-a-century of independent development -- presented the classic example of how food shortages were caused by poor distribution mechanisms and government policies rather than low agricultural output.

This month, India officially permitted the sale of genetically engineered cotton seeds [??], although Shiva and other activists have campaigned against it for years. They have a petition pending in the Supreme Court seeking to restrain the government from letting in the technology without public debate.

But genetically engineered cotton has been freely available in the Indian seed market for at least three years now.

Shiva and other activists believe that this is the result of clandestine testing carried out by the translation firm that developed the seed by splicing it with toxic genes from bacteria for pest resistance.

Shiva said no attempt was ever made to hold the US-based Monsanto Corporation, which owns the patent for genetically engineered cotton, accountable at any time for tests that became controversial after volunteers took to physically uprooting the cotton plants in southern Karnataka state.

"It is the responsibility of the government to hold those who own the patents on and distribute genetically modified crops liable for any ecological, social and economic consequences," Shiva said.

Another member of the movement, Ursula Oswald Spring, a former minister for environment from Mexico, noted that no attention was being paid to the  fact that cotton seed was fed to cattle in India and that the toxic genes  could easily spread through cross-pollination because most of  India's farmers are small-holders.

Spring, who now teaches at the National University of Mexico, said she saw many similarities between the situation in her country and that in India especially in terms of the heated debates over the subject.

"Mexico does not allow the planting of genetically engineered  crops, but is forced to import them thanks to trade agreements. This  poses the hazard of contamination across species,"  she said adding that India now faces similar  dangers.

Wiezsacker said that whatever the argument in favor of genetic engineering, the fact remains that insurance countries have refused to insure against mishaps arising from the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment simply because of insufficient  science.

''Right now, even the question of who would be liable in the  event of a catastrophe remains to be answered,'' she pointed out.

Copyright 2002 Inter-Press Service

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