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The Infamous (Bio) Bank Robbery
[Analysis] Biopiracy and genetic serfdom
Layne Hartsell (prose)     Print Article 
Published 2008-09-12 10:32 (KST)   
A bank robbery is in process. It is a heist, never known in the history of humankind of a most precious and rich bank. It is not located in Manhattan or Tokyo or Hong Kong, but has branches all around the world. This great reservoir of wealth is the DNA Bank found in seeds and cells. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a large molecule, called a macromolecule, made up of four kinds of bases. It is the arrangement of these bases which creates the blueprint for life. This code is the information by which certain proteins will be made and used to make cellular structures, biochemicals and other more interesting external attributes like eye and hair color.

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Recent developments in scientific knowledge and technological applications make it possible to manipulate or alter the genetic code to induce plants to produce herbicide resistant characteristics, chemicals, medicines and even industrial polymers like plastics. The massive gene rush for the control over the genetic code is increasing rapidly as corporations vie for control over the market. The genetic code has become a commodity.

Genes are the new coveted prizes of commercialism. I would assert both the seriousness and absurdity of such an endeavor. Indeed, it is the robbery of the DNA bank, a "Fist in the Eye of God." There are dollar signs on everything biological, "For Sale." Corporations believe that without control, or patents, they cannot help society. The focus of the outcome of patenting is profits, astronomical profits, as we can ascertain from the power of the technology itself.

The logic of the corporate ideology is that life must be owned, making genetic alteration or modification an issue of immense social concern. Scientists and farmers are alarmed about the potential loss of land races and genetic diversity; in addition, over the past couple of decades, they have repeatedly warned of the very real dangers from mistakes and/or misuse of the technology which would create serious consequences for the economy, human and animal health, the environment and society.

Native peoples have cultivated the plants growing in their lands for centuries or millennia. This knowledge has been passed down to each generation for the benefit of their progeny for medicines, food and other goods developed from plants. Overall, native peoples have not recognized individual ownership over the commonwealth, especially plants. The American Indians did not have a word for land (earth) ownership, however they did have a commonwealth of sharing.

The knowledge of native peoples is of a different sort, adapted to use under the conditions in which they lived their lives seeking harmony with nature. Though not written down, native knowledge is their own. Edible plants and medicinals have been developed carefully, and over long stretches of time, into what we know today. Indigenous knowledge is literally on our plates. An ear of corn, which we enjoy in taste, texture and aesthetic, comes from the various native species of Mexico developed by indigenous people there. The potatoes which nourish our bodies come from native species in the Andean Region of South America. This original genetic diversity is called a land race. Land races are the great storehouse of genetic information -- the DNA Bank.

Indigenous peoples have cultivated the land races, or the original plants, to increase production and size, to in-crease certain flavors, to be drought resistant and to bring out other favorable characteristics. They conducted their science under natural conditions, in a natural way. In modern science, we have developed an entire field of study dedicated to this kind of plant modification which is called hybridization.

However, since the 1980s, scientists have been able to move DNA across natural boundaries, from one species to the next, creating the possibility for a vast, seemingly infinite number of combinations. This new field is called genetic "engineering." A unique example is the insertion of genes from a fish into a strawberry which was done in the 1990s.

While the hybridization of plants was certainly a theft of indigenous knowledge, the robbery of the DNA Bank, which we see today, is of another category not possible a short time ago. Through advances in molecular biology, corporations have been engaged in a massive seed grab, in order to literally own seeds through the genetic information in the germ of the seed. Corporations have sorted and catalogued a tremendous number of seeds and are busily staking their claims on the genetic information which they manipulate from each seed.

For example, the Monsanto Corporation has changed the DNA of a soybean plant so that the plant is herbicide resistant. This product is called "Round-up Ready Soybeans." The Round-up Ready soybean plant can be sprayed with the Round-up brand herbicide and it will not die, while the weeds around it are eliminated. The seeds and the herbicide are produced by the same company, so the corporation profits two times.

Being mostly poor, indigenous people and their communities do not have the financial and knowledge resources with which to articulate their needs and meet the global issues that affect their lives. And, since nearly all people are vulnerable to material gain, the poor whom are especially vulnerable because of severe lack, can be divided and then conquered.

The more powerful party who wants access to resources finds it a better business deal to pay off a few corrupt leaders rather than to share the wealth with the entire community. Once the corrupt leaders are "on board" the powerful group uses the leaders as a wedge to split the community and create discord. If the poor rise-up, they are summarily crushed as has been shown consistently in Latin America. In the midst of community discord, the exploitation of the resources occurs. In the case of the alteration of the DNA in seeds, once the patents have been had, and the seed DNA is altered, the seeds have been reintroduced back into the indigenous communities at a bargain; even for free.

The people become dependent on the company for seeds and the company secures its control over the seeds and the people, their land and their knowledge. A simple increase in price, or the threat of a price increase, secures corporate control. A genetic serfdom is created. In other cases, people are forced off of their land, "legally." All the while, the computer screens tick numbers away "peacefully" in the world's financial centers as the extraction of biological wealth and the immiseration of indigenous people continues. This process is called biopiracy. There is one overarching purpose, which is to dominate and control the market by controlling essential human needs. Highly placed individuals at the corporations are saying clearly what their interests are, "selling as much of the product as possible."

The plunder of the DNA Bank allows for control not possible up until the last 15 years. Such control guarantees profit since patent laws have made it illegal for farmers to save their seed or to exchange seeds with other farmers. The only way to obtain seed [food] is through the corporation and a massive system of agribusiness which can be a highly lethal structure to the world's poor, as we can see with the current food crisis in the news, and in the utter desolation of the poor in both food and healthcare insecurity which is mostly out of the news.

In such a complex economic climate and because of the difficulties of understanding science, the details may escape the general public. However, I believe that most everyone can understand a robbery when they see it. People can see clearly that culture has been removed from agriculture and replaced with business. The lack of mass response from the societies of formal democracies is instructive as they have stood by and watched, even cheered triumphantly, at the destruction of farms, families and lives due to globalization; globalization that is traceable back to the firms of the "democratic" countries.

The comforts and indulgences of the cities, of the middle and upper classes, have made people comfortable with the rural sacrifice; justified, because whether grotesque or sterilized, the sacrifice is believed, albeit conveniently, to be inevitable. The reality is that the rural sacrifice is "inevitable" to "feed" the ever growing desires of those who are comfortable.

What happened in the US under the "Get big or get out!" policies of the US Secretary of Agriculture, has now become a globalized message, well understood by the poor. The message is to leave their homes and land, and go to the cities without making a sound... or else. The shove in the back is made all the more powerful under the influence of the control and domination of DNA in seeds.

Layne Hartsell works in community service and lives with his wife, Patcharin, in South Korea.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Layne Hartsell

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