X-Sender: spherica@pop3.demon.co.uk Date: Mon, 06 Mar 2000 21:54:35 +0000 To: hughharris@gn.apc.org (Hugh Harris) From: Matt Moose Subject: FWD: SpectreMail#3. Any use? X-UIDL: 36a6453a6a5e287a8bd846a486799d3a >Return-Path: >Date: Wed, 5 Jan 2000 10:15:05 +0100 (CET)

>From: SpectreMail >Subject: SpectreMail#3

OUT NEXT MONTH, Spectre Number 9 will carry a number of articles on the subject of genetic engineering and biotechnology. By way of introducing the subject, we begin this SpectreMail with a discussion of the issues involved.

>In addition, we take a brief look at an Irish initiative for peace, at why anti-sweat shop activists are targeting this years European Football Championships, at a new statistical report on poverty and its alleviation in the EU, and an updated tool for combating racism amongst young people.

>But first, back to biotech. In this first SpectreMail of the new century, we want to contribute some preliminary ideas to what we believe should be a subject of major concern to socialists. We would welcome responses to this, and will be happy to publish them in a future SpectreMail or post them on our website.

>On the one hand, no technology is safe when controlled by rapaciously profit-seeking multinationals; on the other, socialists have always looked to science and technology as potential tools of liberation.

Nothing happens because of the existence of a particular technology. To believe that technologies cause things is just another, albeit updated, superstition, comparable to a belief in evil spirits. Almost everything that happens is the result of decisions taken by human beings.

The problem now, therefore, is the fact that most people have no means at their disposal for taking part in what is clearly one of the most crucial decisions ever faced by humanity.

We need democratic structures enabling us to control research and development in all areas and the information and education necessary to be able to discharge the responsibilities this would bring. We are a very long way from having either.

There are many dangers facing humanity and our home as we enter the third millennium of the Christian calendar, and those resulting from the availability of bio-technologies are amongst the greatest. These dangers are varied, but spring in almost every case from a phenomenon Marx and others noticed long ago: that capitalism is much better at developing productive resources than it is at applying them for the general good.

This system is not only increasingly out of control lacking both democratic institutions which can control it and, to a growing extent, any form of self-restraint it is also more than ever before possessed of what are potentially dangerous technologies.

A fundamental flaw in the capitalist system is demonstrated by the debate on agricultural applications of biotech. It is clear to anyone who has studied the subject, and who has no vested interest, that genetically manipulated (GM) crops and the genetic manipulation of plants intended to be used for food and other agricultural products should be subject to an immediate and absolute ban, or, where this is technically unfeasible, a phasing out.

The premise upon which the development of this aspect of biotechnology is ostensibly based is false, simply because there is no real shortage of food in the world. On the contrary, there is plenty of food to go round and the fact that people often go hungry and sometimes starve is the result not of underproduction but of unequal distribution, a lack of political will to tackle the problem, and wasteful practices in the richer countries. GM, in this sense, is a solution to a problem that does not exist. In reality, its only beneficiaries would be the major food corporations which have developed and are backing the technology.

Furthermore, even if increases in levels of food production could nevertheless be useful in contributing to improved supply in certain areas at certain times, there is no convincing evidence that GM is capable of contributing to any sustainable raising of yields. >GM is leading to the spread of ecologically and socially undesirable monoculture-based systems of production. Although there may be exceptions, monoculture is in general by definition bad, for reasons that are well-known: it leads to vulnerability to attack by pests and diseases; to destruction of biodiversity; to destruction of the countryside as a natural and recreational resource; to destruction of the varied livelihoods and social relations resulting from a greater variety of agricultural and non-agricultural rural practices.

Moreover, GM crops cannot be developed without release of transgenic novel species into the environment, which the precautionary principle should forbid.

Finally, the development of patented GM seed varieties can lead, under present conditions, only to a reinforcement of corporate power and a widening of inequalities of power and wealth.

In sum, GM technology in the agricultural sector is at best a waste of valuable scientific resources, personnel and funding, and at worst a threat to human and animal health, the environment in general and the economic wellbeing of small farmers and poorer countries. The risks are literally unpredictable, and only extreme and urgent necessity can ever justify taking unspecifiable risks. No such necessity exists.

The question of the acceptability of genetic modification of microscopic life forms, including bacteria and moulds, cannot, however, be so readily dismissed. It can be distinguished from GM in relation to macroscopic plants by a number of features: firstly, many applications are already in use, and have been shown not to carry the inherent danger of GM crops, in that they do not work through release into the general environment and can be developed and employed in controlled situations.

To demand the abolition of established techniques which present no apparent dangers particular to their nature as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) would seem unreasonable.

In some cases, even if GM-developed bacteria cannot be said to carry no environmental risk whatsoever, the risks appear no greater than those presented by other established or even traditional technologies. Moreover, a number of examples can be found where the possibility of such risk can be weighed against the seriousness of the problem to which GM micro-organisms have been shown to offer a solution, such as pollution through oil spills or other forms of contamination.

Bacteria have been developed which can clean up oil-spills, to take one instance, and having done their work they die for want of further nutrients, minimising if not eliminating any risk. On the other hand, the contaminants upon which they feed, and thus convert into harmless substances, present a clear and present danger. In addition, GM micro-organisms can be used for the production of hormones and enzymes useful in health care. This is not carried out in the general environment but in the secure conditions of the laboratory.

In exceptional circumstances GM micro-organisms have the potential to allow serious environmental damage to be addressed. However, research into such applications should not be at the expense of development of other possible approaches. Approaches employing technologies which are more fully understood and which are therefore known to be safe should always, where available, be preferred.

The field of health care presents socialists with the biggest problems, in that here biotechnologies are clearly being directed towards real problems of sickness and disability. It is therefore unsurprising that a wider range of views is found on the left than is the case with the transparent moneymaking schemes of GM crops.

As a proposal for discussion, SpectreMail suggests that socialists should campaign around the following demands: for a ban on all research into GM applications which are not strictly related to medical or environmental research, for example the development of novel foods or materials; for a ban on any research or application involving the release, or carrying a significant risk of escape, of GMOs into the general environment or the food chain; for a moratorium on all germ-line therapy or research into such (i.e. therapies where genetic modifications can be carried from one generation to another); for a moratorium on all research and applications relating to xeno-transplantation; instead, attention should be given to other possible solutions to the problem of a shortage of organs suitable for transplanting, e.g. stem-cell research towards the possibility of growing organs from human cells, and the encouragement of organ donation on the basis of social solidarity; for a ban on ! all patents on living organisms; in addition, reestablishment of the until recently accepted principle that discoveries, as opposed to inventions, are not subject to patent.

The great exception that must be allowed, however, to any wide-reaching ban or moratorium relates to so-called somatic intervention to treat diseases caused by a single locus defect with 100% heritability. In such cases, scientists have identified, or are attempting to identify, a single defective gene which is wholly responsible for one of around 4,000 diseases known or believed to be caused by such a defect.

These include haemophilia, one of the five varieties of which has been claimed as the first success of this approach; Huntingdon's chorea; and, most common of all, cystic fibrosis, which affects around one in 2,500 live births.

In cases of single locus defect the cure, or potential cure, would involve the replacement of the identifiable defective gene with a copy of a "good" gene delivered into the body by a "vector", often a harmless virus of a type already present in large numbers in the body, or one of a variety of other viral and non-viral vehicles under development.

The implanted gene does not become heritable. If the patient later gives birth, or fathers a child, her or his replacement gene is not inherited and if the defective gene reappears it must be newly and independently treated.

This avoids one of the aspects of GM which most (and most justifiably) alarms people, i.e. the introduction into the gene pool of artificially mutated genes the consequences of which are unpredictable and which therefore carry potentially unlimited dangers. If the "new" gene dies with its owner, no such risk exists.

The acceptability of even the most closely defined form of GM should not, however, be asserted without conditions. It cannot be repeated too often that almost all of this technology and its development lies in the hands of multinational corporations, and that this is the major factor in determining the direction of the research.

Research tends in fact to concentrate on diseases, such as cardiovascular illnesses, which affect millions of people in wealthy countries and which, in most cases, could be more effectively (and certainly more cost-effectively) addressed by encouraging modification of behaviour rather than genes.

Much less interest is shown in diseases of poverty, or in those affecting very small numbers of people. This presents a clear argument for better effective regulation, for state public direction, and indeed for some form of social ownership, which socialists should regard as an opportunity to be seized.

There is no better place to begin the pro-public ownership backlash than with the pharmaceutical industry, the current organisation of which puts the development of technologies (bio- or otherwise) which are amongst humanitys greatest achievements, and which carry enormous potential benefits, into the hands of tiny, super-rich elites answerable to nobody but their shareholders.

Though GM research is not in every case unacceptable, it should be allowed only under certain stringent conditions: clearly a central goal of all medical research must be the uncovering, minimising and if possible the elimination of any risk, and the research itself must be shown to meet generally applicable safety standards.

Although implanted genes are themselves non-heritable, the research required to develop the technique will continue to demand transgenic experiments on animals. In such cases the usual conditions any decent person would place on experiments would clearly apply: there must be no animal experiments into anything but fatal, extremely painful or otherwise seriously debilitating disease; unnecessary suffering must be avoided and everything possible done to cause the animals in question as little discomfort as possible; and alternative techniques must wherever possible be preferred or developed.

Beyond this, however, because GM is involved, care must be taken that genetically manipulated animals not be released into the general environment where they would have the opportunity to introduce their mutated genes into their species' gene pool; decisions should be taken on a case-by-case basis by a publicly answerable body which should base its decisions on the precautionary principle and on the careful weighing of general social benefit to risk. This bodys responsibility should not end with the granting of permission, but must include supervision of research.

We must demand that the point of medical research should be to make sick people healthy or, better still, to keep healthy people healthy - and not to make rich people richer. We should demand that GM products and techniques developed in the framework of such research should not be commercially exploited. Furthermore, recognition that this technology carries exciting possibilities for the struggle against disease does not imply that it should necessarily be regarded as a priority.

Aside from the issues of safety and ethics raised by biotechnology, there are economic questions involved: low-technology public health measures such as the provision of fresh water to everyone in the world, information and publicity campaigns designed to get people to change their diet or behaviour, and above all a reduction in social inequality and the rate of poverty would all give greater returns on investment than are possible through GM.

This does not exclude GM research, but it does mean that we should insist always that all medical research be judged according to social criteria and that GM can be no exception to this.

Given the bias towards GM at governmental level, the enormous power and wealth of the pharmaceutical industry and the power this gives it to influence government and public opinion, we should be careful to qualify any support we give to GM, making it clear that we are opposed to any research which does not relate to life-saving medicine for which no alternatives exist or can realistically be developed.

This means arguing for the strongest possible controls, not only on the research but on application of its results, forbidding, for example, any non-medical applications and any which are clearly designed primarily to enhance the profits or private firms. We should look into the question of the effectiveness of existing controls, and to what extent the various authorities responsible at national or (especially within the EU) supernational level for these controls are effective, whether their work is distorted or undermined by the influence of representatives of the industry, the legitimacy or otherwise of the industry's lobbying techniques, and so on.

It is particularly difficult to prevent the interests of corporations from becoming dominant where highly specialised technical questions are at issue, but we must insist that if permission is requested for a particular line of research then it will only be granted if ordinary citizens, or their elected representatives, can have the methods and objectives of that research explained in a way which the lay person can understand.

Furthermore, if animals are to be used we must be satisfied that the research is absolutely necessary and cannot be carried out in any other way. In short, even if we are against an absolute ban or moratorium in this instance, we must avoid giving the impression that we think that the pharmaceutical industry is in any sense trustworthy.

An absolute ban is probably easier to police; wherever we adopt a more nuanced position, we must make it clear that our approval is accompanied by demands for the strongest feasible controls.

The question of what to do about the implications of predictive genetic medicine, i.e., the basing of predictions about a persons likely future health on knowledge of his or her genes, is perhaps the trickiest of all, not least because it is certainly impossible to stop this development, which carries great potential benefits but also huge risks. The positive side is that better predictions of a persons health could lead to earlier intervention and therefore reduced rates of death or suffering from certain illnesses for which a genetic element can be found.

The danger lies in the risk that information will be abused, and that genetic differences between individuals could become a new basis of discrimination and create or reinforce social inequalities.

In addition, socially damaging use could be made of prenatal genetic prognoses, by the abortion of foetuses on dubious grounds such as sex, a perceived link between genes and e.g. homosexuality, an inclination to criminality, etc, or the presence of imperfections or minor disabilities which are debilitating largely because of the same negative attitudes which might cause parents to want to abort.

Designer babies on the Brave New World model are some distance away in terms of existing technique, though not unfeasible; selection on grounds of prejudice or superstition is not. The misuse of information by insurance companies, employers or state authorities is a further serious and imminent risk.

Rather than attempting to ban research into the possibilities of such predictive medicine, however, an alternative approach would be to demand that discrimination on the grounds of genetic make-up be outlawed, just as other forms of discrimination are currently banned.

Please let us know what you think. Spectre believes that this is a question of overriding importance and that it is vital that as socialists we do not find ourselves caught between a corporate-financed propaganda machine that sees biotechnology as the answer to everything, and a form of opposition which is generally ill-informed, ineffective and motivated partly by superstition.

Biotech, moreover, raises the whole question of popular democratic control over science and technology, a difficult area but one which we must face, and urgently.

Everyones opinion is important. The author of the above editorial has done no biology since the age of 13, when he was made to cut up a frog and felt, perhaps wrongly, that there were better ways to spend ones Tuesday afternoons.

With a bit of effort, the basics of what is going on are understandable, though we'd love to have some specialists on board who can REALLY grasp this stuff...