Book explores the dark side of biotech

Corn is among the crops that can be genetically engineered to increase yields and resist weeds. (Photo by Troye Fox)

Biotechnology has held out the promise of a brave new world in agriculture – genetically engineered seeds that provide bountiful crops while keeping the weeds at bay.

That’s the vision government agencies and agriculture corporations are promoting, but using these seeds raises many ecological, ethical, political, economic and, potentially, human health issues that haven’t been openly and thoroughly discussed.

That’s the view of Wilhelm Peekhaus, assistant professor of information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His newly published book, “Resistance is Fertile: Canadian Struggles on the BioCommons,” explores agricultural biotechnology in Canada, and the opposition that is seeking to better control it.

Soybeans, corn and canola may seem a strange topic for a researcher in information studies, but the reality, he says, is that the political economy of genetically altered seeds and organisms encompasses a wide range of information and communication issues. And, increasingly, issues over the widespread use of biotechnology are being waged via the Internet and through social media.

While people have been manipulating food since they learned how to ferment yeast to make bread and beer, the ability to manipulate basic DNA has added new issues and complexities, says Peekhaus.

Canada has long been striving to become a leader in biotechnology, according to Peekhaus. More than 70 percent of the processed foods on the market in that country now include genetically engineered ingredients. While his book focuses on Canada because that’s where he started his research, many of the issues are equally relevant in the U.S., he says.

The book analyzes a number of issues:

  • How the widespread use of genetically engineered crops developed and is being promoted in Canada;
  • The intellectual property questions involved when a natural product like a seed is “redesigned” and patented;
  • The social issues involved in “fencing off” biological information and scientific knowledge rather than sharing it in what Peekhaus terms the “biocommons”; and
  • How opponents of biotechnology are using the Internet and social media to inform the public about issues.

One of the book’s main themes is how bioengineering has been promoted with little critical analysis of potential issues.

“The government has sanctioned the use of biotechnology with bioengineered [genetically engineered] crops,” Peekhaus says. “They are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into funded research.”

Opponents in Canada are questioning the widespread use of genetically modified crops.

At the same time, government studies and corporate reports paint a rosy picture of the future of farming with the new technologies. “Industry lobbyists and government are helping frame the discourse,” he says, and media are buying into biotechnology’s portrayal as embodying science and progress, as well as economic benefit.

However, some scientific studies are raising concerns about potential health and other issues. For example, new “super weeds” are now attacking glyphosate (Roundup)-resistant plants that were designed to allow farmers to kill weeds without killing crops.  “Nature is very adept at evolving and finding workarounds,” says Peekhaus.

Peekhaus is also concerned that gathering up too much genetic information and setting it aside as private property will erode the common sharing of knowledge – what he calls the “biocommons.” He compares that development to the enclosure of common lands – areas where all citizens had grazing rights – in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Landowners who closed off these common areas claimed the move was for the public good, says Peekhaus, just as patent owners now claim their proprietary genetically modified seeds will benefit all.

And, the re-use of the seeds, even by accident, has raised intellectual property issues. At the same time, farmers who are trying to raise organic crops are having a hard time as genetic drift drops genetically modified materials into their fields. “It’s almost impossible to find organic canola anymore in Canada,” says Peekhaus.

Peekhaus also looks at how opponents of unrestrained biotechnology, like the Canadian Biotech Information Network (CBAN), are using social media and the Internet in their “David vs. Goliath” battle to get out comprehensible information about complex scientific issues to lay people.

He hopes, he says, that his book, based on academic research but written in understandable terms, “will contribute to the discourse on the subject.”