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Exposing the use of GM crop technology for capitalist priorities of exploitation is a necessary task – but calls for the capitalist class to be "more inclusive" towards the world's agricultural workers will not bring change...

GM - science for development


As part of the annual Brighton festival this summer the local Institute for Development Studies (IDS), based at Sussex University, staged a lecture about the need to "democratise" genetic modification (GM) technologies, so as to ensure the differing needs of farmers in different regions of the world are given priority over the extraction of profit through capitalist ownership and control of the technology.

It's an important area for discussion, and one singularly neglected in Britain, where the weight of public discussion seems to be about how nobody at all wants GM crops. In fact, in developing countries scientists and farmers look to GM crops as holding enormous possibilities for feeding their people. Cuba, for example, is a pioneer in the genetic modification of tropical crops.

The lecturers from the Sussex institute included an African professor who criticised the control of technologies by corporations and the fact that farmers and academics from the African continent are rarely involved in running research projects to apply GM technologies in their region.

Slow progress
Indeed, in a series of briefing papers accompanying the lecture, the IDS points out that the current domination of capital in this crucial area of technology will lead to a situation where there is "...slow progress in those GM crops that enable poor countries to be self-sufficient in food; advances directed at crop quality management rather than drought tolerance or yield enhancement; emphasis on innovations that save labour costs, rather than those which create productive employment...". Areas of the world like the African continent often have completely different priorities and needs from technology than those existing in Britain and Europe, and are not served by these trends.

The briefings also point out that "...international regulatory regimes [i.e. IMF and World Bank and the legal system of intellectual property rights] frequently constrain countries fashioning their own responses suited to their own circumstances, needs and priorities"

Falling short
While all these points of criticism of the current political context of GM technologies are valid and welcome, the IDS analysis falls short in its proposals of how to address this crucial area of scientific progress. For example, during the lecture, and in the briefing series, there was much talk of ideas such as "fostering a genuinely inclusionary biotechnology policy and regulation..." through the use of methods like "citizens' juries" and the "effective enforcement of competition and anti-trust laws". But who has the power to impose such conditions on the big capitalist corporations?

Corporations are not all-powerful. In areas of medical research, scientists have successfully challenged the private control of genetic research, most famously through the Human Genome Project. The project, which spanned three continents, made the entire sequence of the human genome publicly accessible for free. Most recently, in a move which should accelerate medical progress, scientists in Europe and the US have won backing for the Knockout Mouse Project, in which mice can be designed to have "knocked out" (or deleted) one of the 2,000 genes they share with humans. Embryonic stem cells capable of giving rise to the mice will be made available free to researchers around the globe. Much of the work will be done at Britain's groundbreaking Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre, in Cambridge, where a third of the human genome was sequenced. Pictured: left, mouse with a gene for hair colour knocked out; right, normal mouse.
Capitalist hegemony
Such vague idealist strategies add up to an acceptance of capitalist control of the development of this area of technology and assume that "globalisation" is incontestable and impossible to challenge. Indeed, throughout the lecture all the lecturers used the term "globalisation" uncritically.

But the whole concept of globalisation is questionable and "politicised" in itself. As one commentator has pointed out there is, rather, a need to counter the "...defeatist acceptance of inexorable global capital hegemony"

In practice, the very existence of globalisation is also highly questionable. For instance, it is estimated that 85 per cent of industrial output is produced by domestic corporations in a single geographic location.

And governments do not have to accept the imposition of corporate priorities in this, and many other important areas, because of an increasing "powerlessness" in the face of global capital. As a commentator put it simply, "Money can flee to tax havens and to offshore banking centres only if countries allow it to do so." And there are other models for development.

The contradictory ideas of the IDS, and most importantly the workers within the institute, and their acceptance of its vague and ineffectual proposals, stand comparison with New Labour.

Constantly claiming that it can do nothing to protect workers in our manufacturing industries in the face of corporate moves to "outsource" to cheaper labour in other countries, they happily go on News at 10 to insist they will do "everything they can to maintain viable production in this country"

The alternative
There are different ways to approach scientific developments like GM technologies. Instead of studying the proposals from IDS, workers in this field could look to the practice of countries such as Venezuela and Cuba in resisting the imposition of "free trade" as the only method of developing technology and the industrial infrastructure this requires.

For instance, Cuba has developed what are widely recognised as the best health and education systems in the world, not through the imposition of the ideas of a dictatorial leader, but through the active engagement of workers and the whole population of the island in this development.

The Cubans have done this within a framework of socialism based on national independence and resistance to US-led efforts, like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the 40-year illegal blockade. And Cuba also has the best biotechnology in Latin America.

Why then could agricultural workers, academics and governments in so-called "third world" countries not do the same as well – that is, resist the imposition of free trade as a pre-requisite for the development of GM technology which meets their requirements? There is no need to fear the large corporations patent lawyers – Argentina has shown that defiance of international capitalism, by refusing to pay off a proportion of its IMF debt, has not led to death and destruction.

Indeed, it would be possible, as the Cubans and Venezuelans are doing in areas like health, education and oil production, to offer mutual support and technology transfer between countries in regions with similar agricultural needs, without the imposition of privatisation or free trade.

There is no track record of globalisation providing for the needs of workers across the world, but there is plenty more evidence that national sovereignty, working class control, mutual respect and economic support has benefited millions of workers across the world. Let us do our bit by working for independence and control here in Britain.