Monday, December 26, 2005

Reclaiming commons - old and new

The law will jail the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leave the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose

I was lying in bed the other morning, listening to the radio news. On came the soothing and comforting voice of our Prime Minister, John Howard. In amongst his posturing about some issue or another, he said “Nothing is ever free – and nor should it be.” It rolled off his tongue like a truism. Sure - nothing is ever free – and nor should it be. Actually, lots of things used to be free – and some things still are. Others should be. They’re called commons.

One of the first and the best books that I’ve ever read about the global environmental and social crisis is a book called “Whose Common Future” by the publishers of The Ecologist. It is a scathing response to the Brundtland Report titled “Our Common Future” – which resulted from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (UNCED – United Nations Conference on Environment and Development).

There is a quote from the book that sticks in my mind as one of the best summaries of the essence of commons, and of the struggle to defend them:

The best that can be said for the Earth Summit is that it made visible the vested interests standing in the way of the moral economies which local people, who daily face the consequences of environmental degradation, are seeking to re-establish. The spectacle of the great and good at UNCED casting about for “solutions” that will keep their power and standards of living intact has confirmed the scepticism of those whose fate and livelihoods were being determined… For them, the question is not how their environment should be managed – they have the experience of the past as their guide – but who will manage it and in whose interest.

The key question remains – who makes the decisions and in whose interests – and for me, this speaks to the essence of what is important about commons.

A common is a resource (be it physical, spatial, conceptual) that is managed by the community, for the community. The contentious question then becomes ‘who is the community’. The answer invariably depends on the resource in question.

There is a widely held, and somewhat romantic myth that ‘commons’, by definition, have no boundaries, and are open to all. However, if we look at the most commonly celebrated example of commons, we see that this wasn’t generally the case. In the common lands of England, the common was managed by the community for the community. But the community didn’t extend to everyone in the world, or even to everyone in England. It was a common for a particular geographical community of people. The management of common was mediated by the social relationships between the people within the community. Everyone in that community benefited from the common, and they therefore had a stake in its management. But people were accountable for their use (or mis-use) of the common through the social relationships in the community in which they lived.

Commons are fundamentally about people being able to access resources and to make decisions about those resources to the extent that they are affected by those decisions. If you aren’t going to be impacted by a decision, then you have no right to participate. If you are impacted, then you do have a right. In this way, commons are a very real embodiment of direct, participatory democracy and of self-management.

The vexing problem that commons pose to capitalism is that commons are not owned by anyone. If something isn’t able to be owned, how can you put a value on it? If something doesn’t have a market value, how can you steal it? Or more to the point, why would you want to steal it if you can’t sell it to somebody else later at a higher price? If it can be said that capitalism has an essence, then the vast body of empirical evidence over the past century points to that essence being the appropriation of wealth from the many by the few. Of course, appropriation is just a polite word for theft. And the process of theft is necessarily preceded by a process of enclosure – of putting boundaries around, and values upon resources.

The enclosure of the commons in England has been widely documented. In order to undo the system of commons that supported so many rural communities in England, the aristocracy introduced a series of ‘enclosure bills’ that effectively put boundaries around – or enclosed – land in order that it could have a defined value and be redistributed as private property.

So if you’re interested in predicting where the next big transfer of wealth from public to private hands is going to happen, you need to look for processes of enclosure. In 17th and 18th century England it was the enclosure of common lands. Today, the enclosure of commons, and the defense of commons looks very different.

Many of the important struggles over commons today relate to cutting edge technologies in information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology. In times gone by, land was the primary basis of economic wealth. Hence the importance of controlling land. Today, the basis of wealth in our economy has shifted and continues to shift. We moved from the Agricultural revolution in the 18th century (accompanied by the enclosure of common lands) to the industrial revolution in the 19th century (accompanied by the development of a patent system for intellectual property), to the information revolution in the 20th century (with an expansion of the patent and intellectual property system) and now the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions – accompanied by patents on life and now patents on matter.

As the basis of economic wealth has become more mobile and more global, the struggle over the commons has also become more global. The global nature of information and trade, as well as the emergence of global environmental problems such as climate change and the hole in the ozone layer, create another layer of complexity and abstraction in terms of the management, enclosure or defense of commons.

When we think of defending the commons today, the first image that springs to mind is a historically rooted one – of the landless people of Brazil occupying private farms to reclaim them for food production. But a lot of the key contemporary struggles are far less romantic than this - and the politics less obvious.

The internet is a newly created common – the most celebrated part of which is the ‘open source software’ movement. This is a common that is under threat in a variety of ways that technological illiterates such as myself can only barely understand.

Broadband and radio frequencies? Who gets to define who has access to these common resources and at what price, and in whose interest? Large corporations didn’t get virtually exclusive access to the airwaves by osmosis. They did it by establishing rules, defining boundaries – by a process of enclosure that has resulted in exclusive access rights for the already powerful media conglomerates.

The biotechnology revolution has been hyped up to be the next industrial revolution – and it was preceded by the development of patents on life. Like other examples, the enclosure happened without much media fanfare, most people didn’t hear about it and many still don’t know about it now.

The idea of patents and of intellectual property has been around for a very long time. Galileo received a patent in 1594 for his horse-driven water pump. Cooks were granted one year monopolies over new recipes in the 7th century B.C. The right to a copyright or patent is the only right included in the body of the US constitution (the Bill of rights was adopted later as a separate document). What is new is the degree to which patents (monopolies) have been extended.

The boundaries were gradually pushed. In 1873, Loius Pasteur was awarded US patent No.141,072 for a strain of yeast – the first of several patents for life forms. However the patent was for the use of the organism within a process, not just the organism itself.

In 1972, a researcher with General Electric filed for a patent in the US on a genetically engineered soil micro-organism that was useful for cleaning oil spills. Finally, after various rejections and appeals by the parts of the US patent office, in 1980, the US Supreme court, in a 5:4 ruling (Diamond vs Chakrabarty), affirmed that a living, human-modified organism is patentable[1]. In 1988, the first patent was granted on a living animal – the Harvard Oncomouse[2].

The extension of patents to cover living organisms – and parts thereof – has laid the groundwork for the next big heist. The biodiversity that the capitalist industrialist system has spent the last 100 or so years trying frantically to destroy, is now regarded as the basis for the next industrial revolution and is rapidly increasing in value. The framework for enclosure is in place and our genetic heritage – the biological diversity that is and that sustains the richness of life on planet earth - is now up for grabs. Research teams of some of the world’s largest corporations are scouring the surface of the earth for potentially valuable genetic property and taking patents on anything from cell lines from indigenous people in Papua New Guinea, to seeds of staple food crops.

Food is an interesting example. Most people don’t really think of food as a common. To be truthful, most people in our culture don’t really think about where their food comes from at all. But most of the basic foods that we eat today have been developed over thousands of years by peasant farmers in different parts of the world. It’s true to say that food grows on trees, but most foods didn’t just develop by accident – they were actively bred. The genetic diversity of our foods is really a common. It has been managed through reciprocal relationships between farmers for millennia – growing, developing and sharing seeds.

The combination of plant breeder rights and patents on life has enabled food to be at least partially enclosed and privatized. The development of genetically engineered foods and in particular, ‘terminator technology’ (breeding sterile seeds) is the extreme example.

But the process of enclosure and commodification of food is also strongly supported, and in some ways even led by a process of enclosing our imagination – of shifting our desires and the way that we think about food.

Wholefoods are part of our common heritage – they are difficult to enclose (notwithstanding the aggressive attempts to do so) because they grow freely on trees and in the earth. However, if corporations can create a demand, indeed an addiction, for processed, synthesized foods that cannot be replicated easily by everyday people – they can be trademarked or have some other form of monopoly protection. So the process of enclosure of our food commons proceeds not only through the increasing monopoly control over seeds – but also through the social control of how we think about food and the kinds of food that we want to eat – by limiting our collective imagination.

For example, many people are no longer willing to eat fruit with blemishes, or vegetables with worms. Indeed fruit and vegetables themselves are off the menu for an increasing number of people whose sustenance derives almost exclusively from highly processed industrial foods. A similar shift is also evident in countries such as India where the majority of people currently exist outside of the formal food economy (ie they grow their own food, and trade within their community) but where corporate marketing is being used effectively to encourage people to abandon traditional food systems and adopt much more passive roles as consumers of industrial food.

Our current industrial food system represents an unprecedented human experiment, whereby virtually an entire generation will grow up with only a cursory understanding of where their food comes from, and will be largely unable to produce their own food. As time progresses, the limiting of our imagination will be reinforced by the limiting of our lived experience and our skills, ensuring the effective privatization of food – through either legalized monopolies or through, as Vandana Shiva would say, ‘monocultures of the mind’.

The latest frontier is the patenting of matter – of the building blocks of our universe – in order to pave the way for investment in the nanotechnology revolution. There are already existing patents on elements (Americium and Curium – granted to Glenn Seaborg) and it is commonly agreed that you can secure patents even on an existing element.

Scientists are manipulating matter at the nano scale (one billionth of a metre) and finding that common materials assume radically different properties. Much as with genetic engineering, they argue that nano materials are new and different in order to secure patents, but then argue that the materials are in fact the same everyday stuff we’ve been using for millennia in order to avoid regulation and safety testing. So far this strategy seems to be working.

The launching pad of the global nanotechnology industry is being built with around 3,000 new nanopatents a year – around 90% of which are applied for in the USA. If previous technological revolutions are anything to go by, the nanotechnology revolution will once again result in the wholesale transferal of wealth from the many to the few – as further commons are enclosed and appropriated.

The struggle of commons against enclosure is an ongoing, historical struggle. The terrain is shifting…from land, to ideas, food, water…to the very building blocks of life and matter. Amongst the new enclosures, however, there is a resurgence in the creation of new commons – of creative commons – and networks of resistance. The open source software movement has defied critics and emerged as a potent economic and political counter to Microsoft and other monopoly patents. And like the fence jumpers and squatters of the physical world, the cyber world has given expression to thousands of creative ways of undermining intellectual property.

Our challenge is to resist the enclosure of our imagination….to imagine new ways of reclaiming and creating commons. For the commons are not static. There is no fixed quantity of common. They are created and renewed endlessly by people in communities the world over. Woven like an endless, shifting tapestry. We need to be bold enough to remember our common heritage. We need to look for emerging enclosures and name them for what they are – theft. And we need to imagine not only our common futures, but also our future commons.

As a celebration of the resistance that is already happening, I’d like to share a poem that captures the spirit of the creative commons – an open source poem…

This poem is copyleft,
you are free to distribute it, and diffuse it
dismantle it, and abuse it
reproduce it, and improve it
and use it
for your own ends
and with your own ending

This is an open source poem
Entering the public domain
Here's the source code,
the rest remains
for you to shape, stretch and bend
add some salt and pepper if you want
share it out amongst your friends

Because I didn't write this poem, I molded it.
picked up the lines out of a skip and refolded it
as I was walking on over here,
rescued leftover ideas,
on their way to landfill,
found screwed up fragments
and found them a use.

Because, think about it
I can't tell you anything truly new.
There can only be few more new ideas to be thought through.
So should we treat them as rare commodities, high value oddities?
Probe the arctic reserves and other sensitive ecologies
for new ideas buried deep beneath the permafrost?
hunt them out of the cultures till the cultures are lost?
then suffocate them with patent protection?
No! we should re use and recycle them
Pile our public spaces high with ideas beyond anyone's imagining..

So I steal a riff here and a rhyme there,
a verse here and a line there
pass them on around the circle,
roll the words, add a joke
here go on.. have a toke,
does it get you high?

This poem is indebted to Abbie Hoffman, Gil Scott Heron, Jim Thomas and Sarah Jones,
This poem is indebted to all the words I've read and the voices I've known
This poem is a composite of intellect, yours and mine.
This poem is RIPPED OFF! every single time

Because intellectual property is theft
and piracy our only defence left against the thought police.
when no thought is new
its just rewired, refined, remastered and reproduced
The revolution will be plagiarised
The revolution will not happen if our ideas are corporatised.
Take it and use it
for your own ends
and with your own ending

This poem is copyleft,
All rights are reversed

(stolen from Claire Fauset)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Biotech battle looms in Asia

Far Eastern Economic Review - July 2005

For over four millennia, alchemists have sought to transform ordinary metals into gold. Today, it seems that a new alchemy has finally arrived to make our wildest dreams come true—genetic engineering is set to solve the problems of our age, with a long line of promises that range from the utopian to the truly bizarre.

Drought tolerant, pest resistant, crops that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, will help the rich lose weight and help the poor overcome malnutrition. Researchers in Japan are reportedly developing a soy bean that includes an antihair loss gene. Apparently, the addition of human genes to rice makes it resistant to 13 different varieties of herbicide. Miracle solutions abound. But how real are the promises and what are the risks? And how are the benefits and risks of this technology shared by the wider community?

With entrenched positions on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, centre stage of the genetically engineered (ge) food debate is shifting to Asia, where most countries are developing ge varieties of crops ranging from rice to papaya, corn and potato. Among the myriad of research trials, the proposed introduction of ge rice in China is the key threshold issue. Rice is the world’s most important staple food crop and forms the basis of the diet in many countries. Up until now, no country has ever allowed their major staple food crop to be genetically engineered on a wide scale.

Corn, soy beans, canola and cotton make up the bulk of ge crops and are used mostly in animal feed. A smaller proportion goes into highly processed foods. Even the U.S.—where the growing of ge foods is widespread—has so far stopped short of introducing ge rice, even though regulatory approvals have been granted.

Proponents of ge crops are hoping that China will soon adopt ge rice, giving a green light to other Asian countries, and providing the silver bullet that overcomes global opposition to ge foods. However, to date Chinese officials have been circumspect about the applications while they consider the health and environmental risks, as well as market implications. The Chinese government is well aware that should it approve ge rice, it will be entering unknown territory in terms of exposing its population to the risks inherent in ge technology.

So why all the fuss? There are fundamental objections to the release of ge organisms into the environment and food chain, based on environmental and health risks. Many consumers simply don’t like the idea of scientists and chemical companies mucking around with their food, others have ethical or religious objections. Farmers are concerned about patent issues and the increasing corporate control over seeds and farming. And a large number of food companies have decided that the risk of consumer rejection of their products outweighs any potential benefits of ge foods and have joined the anti-ge camp.

There are many interesting and important developments in molecular biology that may help to improve the way we understand and interact with our environment—including many applications of agricultural biotechnology that hold real promise. However ge is only one specific application that results from this wider field of scientific inquiry. It is a crude technology, based on outdated science and carries with it environmental and health risks that are inherent in the ge process. As Barry Commoner, senior scientist at City University of New York said in his essay “Unraveling the dna Myth”:

The [genetic engineering] industry is based on science that is 40 years old and conveniently devoid of more recent results, which show that there are strong reasons to fear the potential consequences of transferring a dna gene between species. What the public fears is not the experimental science but the fundamentally irrational decision to let it out of the laboratory into the real world before we truly understand it.

Claims are regularly made about the safety of ge foods but these are more often made by plant breeders than by public health experts. The notion that “people have been eating ge foods for years and nobody has got sick” is utter nonsense as anyone who knows the first thing about public health will know. There is no monitoring system in place to identify any negative health impacts of ge foods anywhere in the world, and any unexpected effects are likely to be subtle and long term. Put simply, if you don’t look for problems you will be unlikely to find them. The British Medical Association recently observed that “the few robust studies that have looked for health effects have been short term and specific. There is a lack of evidence-based research with regard to medium- and long-term effects on health.”

If recent understandings of biological complexity and genetics were applied, ge crops would be discarded to the dustbin of history. The problem is that there has been such a large financial, intellectual and emotional investment in ge that the normal scientific process has been suspended and many institutions have locked themselves in to pushing this outdated technology at the expense of investing in other less risky, and perhaps more promising areas of research.

Part of the mythology of ge crops is that they are needed to feed a growing population and solve problems of malnutrition. This no doubt provides a strong motivation for well meaning scientists, but in the realpolitik of the global biotechnology industry, this is little more than a cynical public-relations ploy.

The experience with the world’s most widely grown ge crop, showed that despite claims of increased yield, roundup ready soy yields around 5% less than conventional soy. This data is rarely publicized and claims of increased yield continue despite evidence to the contrary.

The assumption that ge crops will feed the world is even more ill founded. People don’t starve because there isn’t enough food, but because they are poor and are denied access to food. In 2001, the Indian government was sued after allowing grain to rot in government granaries while innumerable starvation deaths were reported throughout the country. Many countries in Europe pay their farmers not to grow food. While in other countries, produce is routinely destroyed due to market failures.

But rather than addressing the causes of malnutrition and hunger, scientists are inventing more far-fetched, high-tech solutions to reinforce and extend a food system that is fundamentally designed to make profits for agribusiness rather than to feed people.

The other tangible argument in favor of ge crops is the notion that they will reduce pesticide use. However there are other, less risky ways to achieve this result. Farmer education and integrated pest management are obvious starting points.

The push to introduce ge rice in China and Asia seems to be driven more by the needs of the industry than by any real analysis of the problems. For example, the variety of ge rice that is first in line for approval is bacterial blight (bb) resistant rice, yet in China, bb affects only 1% to 2% of the total rice crop and the Ministry of Agriculture has not conducted any national bb infection forecast in the past two years since the disease is no longer considered to be a serious problem. In any case, there are several other promising solutions to bb available, including the use of other non-breeding methods such as crop rotation and increasing crop biodiversity.

While the regulators evaluate the risks of ge rice, Chinese scientists appear to have been taking the issue into their own hands. A number of research trials have been taking place over recent years and new evidence suggests that some of these trials may have spread out of control.

Greenpeace found ge rice available for sale in the markets in the Chinese province of Hubei. The rice was labeled as “pest resistant” rice and testing by international laboratory Genescan confirmed that the rice was in fact ge rice. Based on interviews with farmers and around 20 positive tests from numerous sources, Greenpeace estimates that between 950 and 1,200 tons of ge rice entered the food chain or rice market after last year’s harvest. This year, it is estimated that up to 13,500 tons may enter the market unless urgent action is taken.

While the Chinese government is conducting investigations into the problem, a number of other countries have begun probes to ensure that imports of Chinese rice have not been inadvertently contaminated. Japan has a zero tolerance for unauthorized ge organisms and according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s website, Japanese authorities will begin testing Chinese rice imports. South Korea is also looking into the possible contamination of rice imports.

The push to introduce ge crops in Asia is likely to increase in the future—and the pressure on governments to protect farmers and consumers and their national biosafety will also mount. In many ways, Asia is becoming the meat in the biotech sandwich, with a small number of transnational agrichemical companies aggressively pushing their products in order to break the trans-Atlantic political nexus.

Many industry proponents seem to hold the arrogant and patronizing view that Europeans are the only people who are concerned about the negative impacts of ge crops, and that this is due to some sort of inexplicable, cultural perversion. There seems to be a view that Asian consumers will somehow placidly accept whatever is given to them by the West. The reality is far different as recent consumer polls in Asia testify. A consumer survey in March of this year showed that awareness and concern about ge among Chinese consumers is steadily increasing. According to the survey, which was conducted by Ipsos, an international market research company at the request of Greenpeace, 73% of respondents said they would choose non-ge rice over ge rice.

Testing of products on Chinese supermarket shelves earlier this year found that several international brands that have GE -free policies in Europe, are using unlabelled ge ingredients in China—a clear case of double standards. This revelation led to a consumer outcry and resulted in several supermarket chains removing the ge products from shelves.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the biotech industry is not going to be able to use Asia as a dumping ground. Consumer and farmer rejection of ge crops is on the increase, and an increasing number of countries are implementing ge labeling laws that will give the public a right to know and a right to choose what they are eating. The introduction of such laws have been opposed tooth and nail by the U.S. government, and by the industry players who have engaged in an aggressive strategy of market bullying and an almost conscious strategy of contamination. Their intentions are expressed most eloquently by Dale Adolphe, ex-president of the Canola Council of Canada and a vociferous advocate of ge crops: “The total acreage devoted to genetically modified crops around the world is expanding. That may be what eventually brings the debate to an end. It’s a hell of a thing to say that the way we win is don’t give the consumer a choice, but that might be it.”

John Hepburn
Greenpeace International

Questioning Nanotechnology?

It turns out that size really does matter. Or, to be more precise, it’s the size of matter that matters. Scientists are manipulating matter at the nano scale (one billionth of a metre) and finding that common materials assume radically different properties compared to their larger scale counterparts. The new nanotechnology is being heralded as the next industrial revolution that will redefine life as we know it. But who asked for their life to be redefined? I certainly didn’t. Did you?

If you haven’t been asked for your views on nanotechnology yet, you’re in the same position as 99.99% of the rest of the population. And it’s not as though the industry is waiting for any kind of nod of public approval. The launching pad of the global nanotechnology industry is being built with around 3,000 new nanopatents a year. In the US, nanotechnology projects have attracted more than $800 Million in public funds (mostly for military applications), making it largest research project since the Apollo moon shot. Globally, nanotech is estimated to grow to be a US$1 trillion industry by 2011 and Australia is running to catch up - with nanotech strategies and development agencies in most States.

The big deal with nanotechnology is the new properties that emerge when materials are manipulated at the nanoscale. The nano-scale material may be more reactive, have different optical, magnetic and electric properties, and be much stronger or more toxic. The list of research projects and possibilities is seemingly endless. In one of the first high profile examples of nanotechnology, IBM spelled out their corporate logo using xenon atoms to make letters that were 5 nanometres high. To put this in context, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide and a red blood cell roughly 7,000 nanometres wide. So when we’re talking nano, we’re talking very very small.

It seems that the exact definition of nanotechnology shifts depending on who you are speaking to – or more importantly – what questions you are asking. If you’re an investor looking for opportunities, or a researcher looking for corporate backing, then nanotechnology is the most exciting area of cutting edge science that is going to be the basis of the next industrial revolution and will redefine both life and non-life as we know it. If on the otherhand, you happen to be asking about whether or not there needs to be some regulation of the health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, then you’re likely to be told that nanotechnology doesn’t actually exist. After all, it’s really just the same old physics and chemistry that we’ve been doing for decades that has been ‘rebranded’ to help boost science funding.

Surely the nanotechnology industry can’t have it both ways. Or can they? As with the case of genetically engineered organisms, the industry and scientists have managed to successfully argue that nano materials are new and different in order to secure monopoly patents. And then they have then turned around and argued that the materials are in fact the same everyday stuff we’ve been using for decades so they don’t need regulation or safety testing. To date, no regulation has been required despite considerable evidence that manufactured nanoparticles can be hazardous and warrant extreme caution.

There are a wide range of concerns backed by a slowly increasing body of scientific evidence. The fact that nanoscaled substances have much higher and less predictable reactivities, increases their chances of becoming environmental toxins by enabling them bind to molecules and accumulate in organisms at high rates. Nanoparticles are also starting to raise alarm bells in terms of health impacts. Substances under 70 nm are not recognizable to our bodies’ first line of defense, white blood cells, and therefore pass readily into the bloodstream and consequently to all other parts of the body when inhaled. Researchers working in Oxford and Montreal found that titanium dioxide (currently used in sunscreens) nanoparticles catalyze the formation of free radicals in skin cells, which in turn cause damage to DNA, ultimately becoming carcinogenic. In this case it is possible that in our attempt to prevent skin cancer from excessive sun exposure that cancer will develop instead from the substance used as sunscreen.

In response to these and other concerns, The Royal Society in the UK released a report in 2004 recommending that: until more is known about environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes, their release into the environment should be avoided as far as possible; and that ingredients in the form of nanoparticles undergo a full safety assessment before they are permitted for use in products.

The problem is that nobody is listening. Products containing nanoparticles are already on the shelves, including sunscreens, cosmetics, car parts and silicon chips, and in the not so distant future we can expect them to also be used in food and pharmaceutical products. There is an urgent and growing regulatory gap where product development is being fast-tracked at the expense of ensuring community health and safety. But it is unclear what it’s going to take to trigger a regulatory response. Recommendations from one of the world’s most conservative and well-respected scientific bodies hasn’t seemed to have had much impact. Perhaps the nanotechnology industry is just waiting for the same kind of public backlash that triggered the regulation and wholesale rejection of genetically engineered foods?

Beyond the immediate health and environmental risks, the more complex and far reaching implications of nanotechnology relate to other issues and products that are a little further up the development pipeline – such as molecular manufacturing techniques for putting together products atom-by-atom, the merging of non-living nano-materials and living organisms, and even self-replicating nano-robots.

These transformative technologies raise serious social, ethical and political questions. In addition to economic upheavals, nano-surveillance and military concerns, new developments and the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence are bringing into question the fundamental relationships that define our society. By blurring the boundary between human and machine they question the very essence of what it is to be a human being.

The transformative power of the new nano and biotechnologies has reached a point where surely it must time for us to take the democratisation of science seriously. Over the past two hundred years, scientists have altered our world in ways that elected officials could only dream of doing. Yet they are accountable to nobody. We need a new way of thinking about science and technology that allows those who are affected by the technology to have a say in it’s development, and that allows the development of technology to be shaped by the needs and aspirations of our community – not the other way around.

This is not a trivial problem by any means. Just as scientists are exploring unchartered territory through the emerging bio and nano technologies, so must we also explore unchartered territory in terms of how these technologies are managed – and crucially, in whose interests.

World Food Day

World Food Day is a time of year to reflect on where our food comes from, on the abundance of food for some, and the lack of access for so many others. It is a time to reflect on the history of food, and the future of food.

The importance of food for our survival, and it’s central role in our economy mean that it is a highly politicised issue. Throughout history, civilisations have risen and fallen on their ability to feed their populations. Today, it is estimated that 840 million people are severely undernourished, while in other countries obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. With world population continuing to grow, the politics of food are set to heat up considerably over the coming decades.

The world’s most important food crop is rice. It forms the staple diet of over 3 billion people around the world, and for many cultures: Rice is Life. Not only does rice play a central role in culture, but culture plays a central role in rice production. Over thousands of years, subsistence farmers have developed tens of thousands of different varieties of rice, painstakingly adapting them according to local environmental and cultural conditions. And it is this diversity that forms the basis of our food security.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) World Food Day this year reflects this intersection of cultural and agricultural diversity through it’s theme: Agriculture and intercultural dialogue - celebrating the contribution of different cultures to world agriculture.

However, many of the thousands of rice varieties that existed even 50 years ago have disappeared, replaced by the monoculture farming practices of the green revolution. And the sustainability and diversity of rice farming is now facing a new threat in the form of genetic engineering (GE).

The two varieties of GE rice that are proposed for commercial release are Bt rice and BB rice. Bt rice is genetically engineered to express a pesticide known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), while BB rice is resistant to Bacterial Blight. Both carry the environmental risks inherent in GE technology, while significant health concerns have been raised over Bt rice in particular.

China has been widely touted to be the first cab off the rank to give GE rice the green light, however, a recent shift in the State Agricultural Genetically Modified Crop Biosafety Committee indicates that China is taking a more cautious approach to approving GE crop commercialization. The structure of the new committee reduces the influence of GE crop researchers and makes it more likely that decisions about commercializing GE crops will be based on ecological and food safety. The Chinese government is well aware that should it approve GE rice, it will be entering unknown territory and would be the first country to allow genetic engineering of it’s staple food crop.

GE rice is being promoted on the basis of something that bears little or no relation to the actual characteristics of the GE varieties that are being so aggressively pushed for commercial release. The need to solve world hunger and overcome starvation is used as a crude form of moral blackmail to encourage acceptance of products that are largely un-needed and unwanted.

Overcoming hunger and feeding people is very obviously a function of both producing food, and then distributing it to the people in need so that they have access to the food. In the real world, people don’t starve because there isn’t enough food produced, but because they are poor and are denied access to it. As a striking example, in 2001, the Indian government was sued after allowing grain to rot in government granaries while innumerable starvation deaths were reported throughout the country. Many countries in Europe pay their farmers not to grow food. While in other countries, produce is routinely destroyed due to market failures. Meanwhile, millions starve.

On the production side, there is scant evidence to support the claim that GE crops will increase production in anycase. The opposite is probably closer to the truth. The experience of the world’s most widely grown GE crop, shows that despite claims of increased yield, roundup ready soy yields around 5% less than conventional soy. The varieties of GE rice that are being developed are not supported by credible claims of increased yield either.

Rather than addressing the actual causes of malnutrition and hunger, too much of our research funding is being spent inventing more far-fetched, high-tech solutions to reinforce and extend a food system that is fundamentally designed to make profits for agribusiness rather than to feed people.

On World Food Day 2005, the absurd myth that genetically engineered rice has got anything at all to do with feeding the world should be buried at last in the dustbin of history.