Chapela - New Chapter in Biotech History not Written in English (27/1/2005)

EXCERPTS: For English-speakers, the history of the transgenic transformation of the Biosphere is "going underground", and the battles of resistance are slipping out of record in a multitude of tongues, just as the transgenic infiltration of the environment moves from the familiar maize, soybean, canola and cotton and into the innumerable species of real-existing biology: fish. insects, microbes, trees.

...Mexico conjoins a series of characteristics which make it more than a mere test-case; this country has become a major gateway for the transgenization of the developing world. Since the discovery of widespread contamination of corn with transgenic DNA in this, the very cradle of maize, a source of diversity for the world's second most important crop, the struggle over the Mexican beach-head has represented the "worst-case scenario" for the uncontrolled release of transgenics into the environment. **This is why this battle has been fought so ardently not only by campesinos and indigenous people who see their very existence under deadly threat, but also by the biotech industry activists, who see in this struggle a prize too important to lose.

A New Chapter in Biotech History is not Written in English
The Laws of Nature
Counterpunch, January 27, 2005

The document below is based on a public letter written in Spanish (by Ignacio Chapela, translated by John Garcia) as a response to a flash-track vote on a law presented by the Senate majority to the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress of the United States of Mexico. The legislation in question is entitled the "Law on the Biosecurity of Genetically Modified Organisms" (Ley de Bioseguridad de Organismos Genéticamente Modificados).

For presentation, the law was packaged with heavy legalistic padding, which resulted in a larger document through which Congress would establish its intent with regards to GMOs and lay down the framework through which transgenic organisms can be legally released into the environment of the Mexican sovereign State.

It might not be self-evident why such minutiae of local politics in a country well within the "developing world" would deserve an English translation, let alone the attention of the English-speaking world. But the ways of a globalized ecology, rigged as it is upon a patchwork of political boundaries, works often delusively, rarely inscribing itself in a single language.

We believe that the complex piece of legislative performance playing out on the Mexican stage yields up many clues to what the future of GMOs holds in store for the world. After the resounding failure of the Biotech industry to launch the world-wide release of transgenic organisms "English-only", such a future is now often to be read more commonly in other languages: Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, Swahili, pidgin English, pidgin French.

For English-speakers, the history of the transgenic transformation of the Biosphere is "going underground", and the battles of resistance are slipping out of record in a multitude of tongues, just as the transgenic infiltration of the environment moves from the familiar maize, soybean, canola and cotton and into the innumerable species of real-existing biology: fish. insects, microbes, trees.

In the usual spirit of a New Year, we feel that it is timely and relevant to provide a sample from this History: a look into one development that is likely to resonate around the world albeit in this silent-because-not-in-the-dominant-language kind of way.

This law lives up to its name as a piece of legislation which secures the existence and further development of transgenic organisms in Mexico, and by extension much of the developing world. In a year 2001 personal communication to one of us (ICh), the then-Executive Director for Mexico's "Biosecurity Commission" (CIBIOGEM), Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, made it clear what he believed "biosecurity" ("bioseguridad") meant to officialdom in that country: referring to Mr Alfonso Romo - one of Mexico's billionares with deep investment in the global biotechnology industry - by his nickname, Mr Ortiz suggested that in Mexico "la bioseguridad significa asegurar las inversiones de Poncho Romo" ("biosecurity means securing Mr Romo's investments").

To this lofty end, the specific piece of legislation discussed here was quickly voted on and approved within the last session of the Mexican legislature for the year, on December 14, the day before the beginning of the traditional Christmas Processions, the fortnight-long Posadas, and the longer Winter break of the Legislature.

It is not surprising that the law should have passed easily, considering the importance of the AgBiotech industry for key players in the ruling PAN party; the years-long maneuvering by the industry, the US State Department, and the PAN leadership to secure favorable legislation; and the eventual cave-in of the Mexican Academy of Sciences. The outcome of the last-minute vote can be explained as a simple consequence of partisan votes and a few horse-trading deals on an issue that, for many representatives in the Chamber, still sounds esoteric and remote although vaguely fraught with undefinable political danger.

What is surprising under such conditions is the actual level of resistance and activism within the legislative Chambers and out in the streets and fields of Mexico and beyond. As politicians weighed their decision, campesinos, indigenous people, and urban citizens were doing what they could to express their disapproval to the release of transgenic living organisms into their environment, something that thousands of people in Mexico see clearly as wildly out of control. In Mexico, where people believe themselves to be physically and spiritually one with maize, campesino actions and street demonstrations on a scale seen elsewhere only in the peace rallies preceding the US invasion of Irak have steadily punctuated the development of this History.

Meanwhile, a full-blown CD was produced collecting the inspiration of twelve different traditional singers and regional bands, all decrying the release of transgenic maize into the Mexican landscape. An example from the domains of English: a landmark exhibition at the New York Guggenheim Museum on the Aztec Empire was visited by the soul of this dissent in the form of performance-protests by leading Mexican intellectuals.

As all this unfolds, other developing countries and their governments maintain a watchful eye on Mexico, because Mexico conjoins a series of characteristics which make it more than a mere test-case; this country has become a major gateway for the transgenization of the developing world. Since the discovery of widespread contamination of corn with transgenic DNA in this, the very cradle of maize, a source of diversity for the world's second most important crop, the struggle over the Mexican beach-head has represented the "worst-case scenario" for the uncontrolled release of transgenics into the environment. **This is why this battle has been fought so ardently not only by campesinos and indigenous people who see their very existence under deadly threat, but also by the biotech industry activists, who see in this struggle a prize too important to lose. If this, of all cases, could be navigated with winds favourable to the industrial activists, it stands to reason that no other country in the developing world could possibly muster the capacity to argue against the contamination of their landscape on purely rhetorical grounds. And since most of the developing world does not have the technical establishment to approach the problem with an independent praxis, little opposition could be expected from a practical, scientific approach. Furthermore, Mexico's highly qualified scientific and regulatory establishment is also one of the strictest to be found anywhere in the world; displaying such an establishment's acquiescence in the contamination of a highly valued and delicate environment would further solidify the claims to victory by industrial promoters. To raise the stakes even higher, the insertion of Mexico as a partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), together with the strenuous lobbying by a coalition of indigenous and campesino organizations, urban activists and the international GMO campaign of Greenpeace, placed Mexico and its travails over transgenic organisms as the premier case study of global aspects of transgenic release.

So it might come to pass that 2005 could see one of the most important turns in the 30-year-old history of the transgenization of the biosphere evolve under cover of legalistic language, in the darkness of the Winter still, within the labyrinths of the Mexican legislature, and in a tongue other than English. The market-makers, who need to see their transgenized organisms (and the profits and control they represent) take a hold over the land, have learned enough during this time to know that transparency, truth and knowledge are their enemies. It remains to be seen where those who would ally themselves to these very values will take their stand.

So far, to be sure, the traditional, English-speaking "popular movements" have not spoken with conviction or unanimity on the question of transgenics. Some intellectuals continue, at this late hour, to harbor fantastical and archaic illusions about the benefits to that coming age of economic and social justice of an exuberant industrial and technological development guided by the caprice of 21st-Century capital. But there are other wisdoms about technology; vast numbers of people live in their environment through a knowledge and technological prowess rooted not in profit but age-long survival. The stories of these technologies have been -and will continue to be- told in many tongues besides English.

The Law in question proposed by the Mexican Senate is now approved by the Chamber of Deputies, and will be back for a vote on the Senate floor early in February, after which it will be ready for signature by a President who has more than tangential interests in seeing the biotech industry grow in the country he now controls.

California, late January 2005.

To the citizens, Members of Congress of the Mexican Republic

To the citizens and colleagues of the Scientific Community

To the Mexican Population

The proposed Ley de Bioseguridad de Organismos Geneticamente Modificados (Law on the Biosecurity of Genetically Modified Organisms), which was flash-tracked and signed by the Mexican Chamber of Deputies on 14 December, could well be called the Law on Genetic Colonization for the 21st Century, or perhaps the Law for the Promotion and Gratification of the New Genetic Colonies. This law secures the interests of a narrow élite in Mexico, which in turn represents the interests of further economic and political powers, more foreign than domestic. The eventual signing of this law by the Senate and the President of Mexico would open a sad chapter in a history that appears to be leading Mexico, and the world, into a new Dark Age. The way out of this age can only be long and painful. Signing this law, I believe, is not a good idea, and it is not good public policy-making. Not for the country, not for the world.

The indigestible "Dictamen a la Minuta Proyecto del Decreto" (sic) by which this law was brought before the Deputies of the Republic could have been taken from the pages of the egregious documents of the Inquisition: it is a consummate excercise in bureaucratic, pseudo-scientific intricacy and obfuscation, whose only purpose was to justify the execution of a dictatorial scheme that stifles even the faintest opposition to a powerful new takings of communal and public resources, an appropriation of agrarian and indigenous rights, and a seizure of the freedom and sovereignty of the country.

The science behind the so-called "Debate": What we know.

If we know anything about the new transgenic organisms (popularly known as Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs), it is that they represent an intervention in living nature without precedent in the history of the planet, much less of humanity. We know that this intervention is profound and has consequences not limited to the time and place in which they are produced, but which can, on the contrary, spread via the reproductive properties of the oraganisms that suffer them.

We know too that we don't know enough to predict even the faintest consequence/outcome of the transgenic intervention. The intellectual authors of the proposed Law are quite right when they say that there is no evidence of damage caused by the release of transgenic organisms into the environment. This is precisely why the Mexican public should be alarmed, not satisfied, with such declarations.

There is no adequate evidence of the consequences of the transgenic intervention for the simple reason that not enough attention has been paid to the obvious and expected problems of the genetic manipulation of living nature. Even in the most enlightened and affluent societies and institutions, such as mine at the most prestigious university in California - the sixth-largest economy on the Planet- we see a troubling dearth of information or capacity to deal with transgenics in a wise manner. Nowhere can we find the physical capability, the intellectual interest or the political will that would be needed to determine the very real potential risks of transgenics or the measures necessary to confront the realization of these risks. I am not alone in saying this: other individuals and groups agree, not least the National Academy of Sciences of the US.

We also know that our academic institutions have been transformed from within, from the core of their most intimate workings. In the area of transgenics, what passes for "science" in our institutions (as also in the proposed Law) is no more than a technical manipulation based on a mixture of now-antiquated principles and the abuse of natural reproductive properties of living beings. Nevertheless, this technical practice, which is now more politics than science, is defended and protected in the same manner as other dogmatic practices have historically been protected when insecure of their legitimacy within society: any source of opposition to the dogma is swiftly and brutally silenced with the strongest of punishments which our distinguished academic institutions arrogate to themselves.

We know that, along with our inability to even see -much less predict- the consequences of the transgenic manipulation, we also have an inability to control it. We cannot control it within the organism who carries it, nor within the environment where that organism lives. In spite of all the efforts to suppress information about this reality, the lack of control over transgenics is of such a magnitude and nature as to continue being detected by more and more members of the scientific community, as well as by other citizens. Just as it cannot be declared away by presidential decree, this problem can also not be resolved by its conspicuous deletion out of the documents that the Congress of the Mexican Union has received. As an example: despite the crisis of rampant transgenic contamination in the Mexican environment, the word "contamination" is used in the Congressional document only in those passages which narrate the plan through which transgenic microbes should be released in the immediate vicinity of endangered plants or animals, such as those in the National Parks and United Nations-sanctioned Biosphere Reserves, under the excuse of "bioremediating" possible chemical contamination.

We also know that the few -and persecuted- independent efforts to even glimpse the existence of problems with transgenics continue to build an alarming record which confirms that there are indeed potentially very serious problems associated with these organisms. In contrast to the 70,170 articles I find this morning in a simple search of the scientific literature under the term "transgenic," only one has been published with primary data on the contamination of maize in Mexico; only ten concern human health problems. Of the latter, a detailed study in Norway has shown that all five of those that purport to show the "absence of proof of damage" were funded by the biotechnology industry. Three of the remaining were written in Scotland by Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who was relieved of his position of 30 years as a direct consequence of his audacity in presenting the simple results of his studies on the damaging effects of transgenics on the health of laboratory animals.

We know that the only way to obtain scientific information on the effects of transgenic organisms on the health of individuals, the population and the environment is to perform epidemiological studies, which in turn would require, at the very least, a labelling that would allow us to contrast transgenic organisms with their non-manipulated counterparts. The proposed Law knows this too, and takes care to protect the interests of obfuscation by not mandating this necessity, while a lax labelling policy is proposed, which, far from permitting greater public knowledge about products derived from transgenics, would veil the matter even more, placing it in the hands of "the experts." It is clear to me that the alleged end of public good in a measure such as this does not justify the means: suppressing the flow of information to the public or excluding the public and its representatives from the formulation of policy.

This Law simply promotes the interests of those who want to release transgenics into the environment, without serious consideration of what it would take to determine if transgenic releases would be desirable or not. Nowhere in this Law is there the possibility for the people, through its representation in Congress, to say a simple "No" to such releases, and instead all that is envisaged is a promotion of transgenic releases into the environment through the promotion of more research, more funding to the very academics who wrote the Law, and more subsidies to members of a scientific and governmental community that has stopped asking whether there might be relevant public problems that they could address with publically acceptable solutions. The unaccountable support for this Law by the National Academy of Sciences of Mexico, as well as by a limited but influential group of technologists signals a time when the Scientific Community has perverted its true mission of addressing social problems in measure with social needs, and instead expects the transformation of society ­and now, through transgenesis, of nature itself- to its malformed designs.

The Origins and Consequences of the "debate" and its supposed resolution in this Law.

It would be a historical error for the Mexican Union to approve this law, which represents an attempt to close a discussion in which the people want to engage, but which has been roundly and systematically denied them. Those deputies responsible for its passage have erred in not having considered fundamental issues of sovereignty and national identity, but also in not having taken into account the origins of this Law and its ramification beyond the national context.

GMOs, transgenic organisms, are not a novelty, as there have been attempts to release them into the environment for over twenty years. This fact is not well known, mostly because the management of transgenics has always been left to the "experts" -those with a financial stake in seeing their organisms prevail in the public environment. Opposition to the release of transgenics has nevertheless been continuous and growing ever since their inception. In many countries, this opposition has developed into officially declared bans, which invariably enjoy the support of the general public. In the US, where the great majority of GMOs ^and the corporations that want to reap a profit from them- originate, opposition is robust and has reached more than ten state legislatures. In California, too, there is a growing movement at the local level to prevent the release of transgenics into the public envioronment. Why, then, the urgency to pass a law promoting transgenesis in Mexico without adequate consultation, ^ and this just before the year-end recess?

The only reason I can find is the financial stake of those who have invested $220 billion and almost a quarter of a century in a scheme that has borne virtually no economic benefit. It is clear to me that, faced with the refusal of more developed countries (which in general are better informed on this matter) to pay the accumulated debts of the biotechnology industry, corporations and the US Department of State as their representative are attempting to force an opening for their transgenic products in less-industrialized countries who would be forced to pay this debt at their expense. This should be obvious to anyone free of a conflict of interest who has participated in multilateral meetings on this subject in the last five years.

GMOs have not been developed to address any problem relevant to Mexico, nor do they hold out a justifiable hope of meeting its needs. More than anything else, they serve as a kind of "molecular branding iron," by which it is possible to identify living beings as the "private property" of one or another commercial interest. For example, Monsanto has littered Chiapas with announcements of its intention to claim, either directly or through the Mexican government, "intellectual property rights" over any transgenic maize plants that can be found there, whether campesinos intended or not to receive or use the genes from Monsanto's claimed property. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada found in favor of such private claims to property rights over living plants, setting a legal precedent to the realization of these genetic takings around the world, takings that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Needless to say, such rights are intended to supersede the rights of farmers to control their destiny through the control of their seeds, and to defuse the opposition from those who would want to defend their fields from transgenic contamination.

These are some of the weighty reasons that explain the strong opposition that has arisen against transgenics, opposition that the Mexican Law does not seem to have registered in any significant way. Indeed, opposition to the release of trangenic organisms into the environment has been actively suppressed in the academic environment for years, and the passage of this Law will further expand the reach of this suppression.

A law that takes account only of the position of those who are desirous for the release of transgenics on any terms will only exacerbate an already costly and unnecessary confrontation. This Law will not help ease the suppression of those who seek truth in this area and instead will plunge us deeper into a path driven by dogmas and fear. The citizenry has a legitimate concern about the transgenic intervention into nature and this justified concern cannot be outlawed by decree, ruled inexistent by legislation, or argued away by the corruption of our academic institutions, merely to provide cover for dictatorial practices in our public biology. As the diversity of non-human species accelerates into this milennium, there is an equally steep loss in the diversity and sheer capacity

With the advent of transgenic manipulations, Mexico finds itself playing a the role of a genetic turntable. On one hand, Mexico is the source of genetic resources for several plants and animals of economic importance, but most especially for maize, the world,s second biggest staple. On the other hand, flowing in the opposite direction, Mexico is perhaps the largest international portal for the introduction of trangenics into the less-industrialized world. There is a veritable flood of introductions of transgenics via Mexico into the "developing" world that takes place through pseudo-Mexican institutions like CIMMYT [note for English readers], through other publicly-funded "research" institutions, through well-known transnational actors like Monsanto, Syngenta (Novartis), and Dupont, but also, importantly, through less well-known but equally powerful corporations like the Mexican Seminis/Savia. [Note to the English reader],. Mexico, a land with a complex and fragile landscapeand biology, then, plays at once the role as the world's depository of genetic riches and as the international test-site and dumpster for the products of transgenesis. In a very real manner, we are witnessing the biological equivalent of what would apply in financing if we decided to place the gambling table in the same hands and location as the bank vaults. The Law presented to the Mexican Congress will do no more than place Mexico's seal of legitimation on this perverse and damaging situation.

Mexico is also perhaps the most respected source of opinion on these topics in the less industrialized world, thanks to its excellent and highly developed talents in science, policy, and analysis. It is not coincidental that 6 pages of the preamble to the Law are dedicated to display 15 points where. The message that Mexico sends with the passage of this Law is likely to influence greatly the introduction of transgenics in many other countries that lack the scientific or political wherewithal to enter the discussion with sufficient critical capacity. Once the Law becomes approved, the apologists for transgenesis will take it upon themselves to disseminate, apply, and, where necessary, "correct" and expand that message.

For these reasons:

I call upon the citizen members of the Congress of the Mexican Union to reject the draft Law before you. I believe this would be the most rational decision if one weighs the benefits (always hypothetical and exaggerated) against the risks (clear, though only precariously established) presented by the release of transgenics into the public environment. I believe it would be the politically appropriate decision, given the bluntly negative implications that these advances have for national sovereignty, the survival of the country ,s small farming and idigenous populations, and for Mexico's leading role among the countries of the world.

I call upon the members of the academic and scientific communities to reject the efforts (well-paid, ill-intentioned) to undermine the foundations of our community in the diversity of intellectual approaches to problems, academic freedom, freedom of speech, social engagement, and idependence from influences alien to sound reason. It is is time to call publicly for a clear and decisive halt to the hijacking of our institutions by illegitimate agents of foreign commercial and political interests. Our community is the last public refuge of reason, and it is now under attack the world round. We have no choice but to defend and cultivate it as a public common, neither private nor privitizable.

From lands that were once also that country, I call upon the citizenry of Mexico to maintain and sharpen their vigilance over their genetic resources, which are now in the same danger as their land, their identity, their way of life, and their folkways have been for so many centuries. Mindful that the culture which maintains the values of biological resources is still alive in Mexico, I am hopeful the citizenry will find it within itself to reclaim once again what it knows as its own and to demand public accountability of those who steward its patrimony.

One of the many indigenous communities that has honored us with its correspondence writes: "The maize has helped us overcome many hardships through the generations. Now the maize is in danger. The time has come for us to help the maize."

To the cry for land and liberty that was given us by those who could perceive things of transcendent importance, I wish to add one more for genetic independence:

"Land, Liberty, and Genetic Independence!"


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