GENEWATCH
 
EDGING TOWARDS BIOUTOPIA: HUMAN FOLLY OR PARADISE?
By Richard Hindmarsh
 

Richard Hindmarsh outlines the challenge presented by proponents of a vision in which biotechnology will someday place life fully under human control - a concept which Hindmarsh refers to as "BioUtopia."  Focusing on the rDNA regulatory scheme in Australia, Hindmarsh finds that "a central mission in laying out the foundations of BioUtopia has been the consistent marginalization of the enduring questioning of bioutopian inclinations, visions and narratives by dissenting publics, scientists and bureaucrats."  In Edging Towards BioUtopia, Hindmarsh weaves such a narrative of dissent, challenging bioutopian schemes and bolstering the call for further democratic control of life-altering technologies.

Here Hindmarsh expands on some of the central themes of Edging Towards BioUtopia, published by University of Western Australia Press.


Biotechnology visionaries, developers, public relations operators, and even some everyday bench scientists often narrate bioutopian visions as an accessible reality.   These images permeate the bioscientific community and are relayed by the media, government reports, biobusiness websites, and a host of other information conduits.   The bioutopian visions depict a benevolent or pastoral future of technoscience-derived cornucopian abundance, but make little reference to the future political or social organization of bioproduction - despite the evident role of mega-transnational capital, pursuing a globalizing neo-liberal agenda, in driving rDNA technology.

Edging Towards BioUtopia offers the first in-depth social history of green biotechnology development and regulation in Australia, confronted by the rise of an enduring democratic challenge to agendas dominated by biopolitical interests, especially with regard to genetic engineering and the environmental release of genetically modified organisms.

I follow the concept of utopia as a specific historical situation that adheres to Megan Stern's view: "The utopian visions produced within a society are necessarily informed by and respond to the power structures that define that society."1 The context of my history is that of a political bioscientific utopia-a "BioUtopia".  Cast as a convergence of political, scientific and technological utopias, in the context of redesigning life,2 the notion of BioUtopia embraces a golden age narrative conditioned by scientism, politics, and especially the engineering ideal of biology. BioUtopia follows in the wake of other science and technology utopias; for example, post-World War II, robots were portrayed as our saviors: benign, subservient machines that would help create (a labor-free) utopia.

Edging Towards BioUtopia also questions the accessibility of BioUtopia, as it is perhaps too optimistic or unrealistic and impossible to realize - reflecting the meaning of "utopia" as an imaginary ideal.  Instead, I embrace the view that the complexity of nature3 is just too difficult to understand for grand visions of choreographing nature through genetic engineering to succeed in practice.4

Reflecting the Janus face of utopia, concerns about future large-scale release of a broad range of GMOs also contribute to notions of environmental biodystopia. Mae-Wan Ho, director of the UK Institute of Science in Society, and colleague geneticist Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario believe that genetic engineering could contribute to a worst-case scenario of genetic determinism that "offers a simplistic, reductionist description which is a travesty of the interdependence and complexity of organic reality" - with the potential to destroy all life on earth.5

In weighing the evidence on potential consequences of environmental release of biotechnology, which is far from conclusive, and in reflecting on the headlong, chaotic and commercially-driven race to find BioUtopia, Edging Towards BioUtopia is written with a conviction that we need not (or must not) move so blindly into the age of synthetic biology as we have done with prior chemical and nuclear mega-technologies. The consequences of those technologies being used inappropriately, where consideration of their risks lagged far behind their development,6 represent a prime reason for adopting a significantly more questioning and precautionary approach towards mega-technologies that aspire to change the very substance and scope of life.

The disparate views about environmental release are vividly present at Australia's "bioutopian frontier," where a tense contest is occurring between competing interests struggling to either plant GM food crops or keep them out of the ground. The fight is highlighted by intense tussles over whether to preserve or remove moratoria on the commercial release of GM food crops in Australia's five canola producing states: Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.

While New South Wales and Victoria retracted their moratoria in February and March 2008 - largely due to concerted pressure by state biointerests, the GM industry and the federal government - other states maintain opposition.  At the forefront in opposition is Western Australia (WA), which has passed legislation to protect non-GM crops from contamination in the pursuit of lucrative European and Japanese commodity markets paying high premiums for non-GM products. More recently, WA has called for a halt on nationally regulated GM food approvals, which depend on company-provided data, until more is known about the safety of ingesting those foods.7

Such divisiveness at the edge of the promised BioUtopia presents us with a new politics of reordering life. In one corner is the "bioelite": powerful bioscientists and multinational life sciences industrialists, aided and abetted by "biocrats" - bureaucrats supportive of biotechnology who, evidence suggests, network cohesively. In the other corner are those critical of GM crops: a wide-ranging informal coalition of concerned scientists, farmers, environmentalists, consumer groups, and interests from all walks of life.

A key area of the democratic challenge concerns the bioelite's shaping of the regulation of the environmental release of GMOs. Their program offers a conduit to reordering life in addition to the licence to pursue such a future ultimately granted by governments to bioscience and big business. Instead of regulation being dominated by interests explicitly involved in developing the technology, the democratic challenge pushes for pluralistic, inclusive and open regulatory structures, underpinned by the notion that the public has an inherent right to question the creation and use of novel organisms because of the potential adverse social and environmental consequences that threaten to affect everyone's lives in one way or another, as well as the evolution of life itself.

The Australian rDNA regulatory controversy provides an instructive and revealing investigation of biotechnocratic regulation and its implications. The fact that regulation has remained largely in the hands of the bioscientific club despite enduring and growing contestation demonstrates why it is important for society to gain a good understanding of the rDNA regulatory agenda and the motives and practices of those who deign to reorder life.

Turning to analysis, it is clear that in following the Asilomar legacy to protect the genetic engineering endeavor,8 Australia represents a prime example of the technocratic or "enclosed" expert top-down regulatory policy style that especially developed from the mid-1970s.9 Here, decision-making relies heavily on the findings of technical experts who embrace a technoscientific worldview; a policy style that Frank Fischer contends withers democratic government.10 Yet the Australian biotechnocracy now holds out, seemingly desperately, against increasing local resistance to GM food crops and the emergent participatory governance style especially evident in the European Union11 and in neighboring New Zealand.12

Situated within the contours of environment and sustainability, technoscience, and democratic politics, my inquiry is thus informed by considering how the social agenda behind the development and regulation of genetic engineering has been shaped to exclude public knowledge, debate and participation. It is clear that science and technology do not develop in a political and economic vacuum as a value-free, objective undertaking,13 as scientists tend to portray it. My investigation finds that Australian biotechnology proponents, in an almost business-as-usual approach, actively "organize off" the agenda any consideration of scientific, ethical and ecological issues which question environmental release, as well as social issues like the consequences of the technology's application on the everyday living and working conditions of people such as farmers and consumers.

Overall, the construction of such maneuvers, which is ongoing, amounts to a "campaign of legitimacy", directed through social, institutional and political avenues aimed at the entire social body through the three interactive media of biodevelopment, regulation and information. For instance, tactics based on the distribution of information include the dissemination of a range of bioutopian images and text constructed to project sanitized and favorable aspects of biodevelopment, along with responsible and trustworthy regulation, and to downplay, ignore or trivialize negative aspects of genetic engineering, even to the extent of counteracting the writings of key critics, who, at one time, came under surveillance of Australia's regulatory public liaison sub-committee.

My investigation brings to light four main phases of green biotechnology development's efforts to maintain bioelite dominance of regulation, demarcated by four periods of regulation clearly signified by four key discursive regulatory moments or events in the ensuing biopolitical struggle over the genetic engineering endeavor.14 These "events" were constructed both to enroll publics and to discipline dissenting publics, particularly at crisis points when dissent had grown to sizable pressure points, deemed too disruptive and potentially threatening to the bioelite. In short, they demonstrate an evolution of regulatory reactions that reflect a "containment of crisis" top-down management style to protect genetic engineering regulation from external oversight or excessive legislation, where their choice and construction was dictated by the powers that existed at any one time.

The first major event was the creation of an in-house, self-regulatory committee housed in the Australian Academy of Science.  The committee was composed of a senior cadre of bioscientists (which incidentally also acted to close any dissent within the bioscientific community by tying research funding to regulation).  When this was no longer politically feasible, a seminal legitimizing and strategic text (the Australian Academy of Science 1980 report Recombinant DNA: An Australian Perspective) was constructed, helping to deflect the powerful early criticism of the regulatory regime. The self-regulatory committee was subsequently inserted and crystallized into the supportive federal department of science.  There, it was given political legitimacy to virtually manage its own affairs and to have continuity of membership, which to this day reflects largely its own choice.

However, in the government halls of power, the committee became targeted by intense pressure, both inside and outside government, to relocate to a less supportive agency on conflict of interest grounds, along with dubious developments about the use of recombinant-DNA technique. A federal government inquiry held in 1990 resulted in a biobusiness wish list, strongly suggesting that the inquiry was organized in such a way so as to maximize gains for the biocommunity while appeasing the discontent of public interest groups.  That, in turn, led to the fourth key regulatory event: creation of the Gene Technology Act 2000 and a facilitative gene technology regulator, who approved large-scale commercial release of GM canola in 2003, despite vigorous opposition from a wide range of stakeholders. Things got worse later, as the findings of value-based risk assessments were used rather than sound science assessment, as claimed.15

I argue that such maneuverings, along with the highly questionable outcomes of regulation, underscore the need for a new regulatory approach: one based on active public trust that robustly involves the civic sphere and the democratization and broadening of expertise away from its developers.  A new approach also must consider the social and economic impacts of biotechnological change, coupled with an underpinning and broader ecological understanding of the environmental impacts.

My investigation ends in asking: "how much time and scope is left to play around with GM commercialization experiments developed and regulated by the same interwoven network of biointerests.  Where might Edging Towards BioUtopia be leading to in the end? Just where is the bioutopian "there": is it "nowhere" as the term "utopia" is defined, or actually "somewhere"? What exactly are the genetic engineers pointing to? Must society follow them, perhaps reluctantly or too passively, down the steep and slippery slope or instead, should we control them better in their endeavor to biotechnologically reconstruct nature? After all, we are all in this together.  Is our natural world to be the ultimate in human folly or paradise? Perhaps, it is already the latter, and we just cannot see it.  Perhaps, it is time to say something more clearly, or more pointedly, about this move to the proposed BioUtopia, as well as the very poor state of GM regulation."

 

Richard Hindmarsh is senior lecturer in environmental politics and policy in the Griffith School of Environment, and a member of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia.  Previous books include Altered Genes and Recoding Nature. Email: r.hindmarsh@griffith.edu.au

 

References

1. Stern M. Dystopian anxieties versus utopian ideals: medicine from Frankenstein to the visible human project and body worlds, Science as Culture 15(1): 61-84, p. 63, 2006.

2. Tokar B. (ed.) Redesigning Life: The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering. Zed: NY, 2001.

3. Kauffman S. The Origins of Order: Self-organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford University Press: New York, 1993.

4. Kaku M. Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1998.

5. Ho, M-W, Cummins J. Xenotransplantation-how bad science and big business put the world at risk from viral pandemics, ISIS Sustainable Science Report #2, Third World Resurgence 127/128: 46-55, 2000.

6. Hynes H. Biotechnology in agriculture: an analysis of selected technologies and policy in the United States, Reproductive and Genetic Engineering 2(1): 39-49, 1989; Beck U. Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society.  Humanities Press, NJ., 1995.

7. Western Australian Government. WA Government calls for a halt to GM food approvals, media release, 2 June 2008, available at: http://www.mediastatements.wa.gov.au, accessed June 2008.

8. Krimsky, S.  Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982; Wright S. Molecular biology or molecular politics? The production of scientific consensus on the hazards of recombinant DNA technology, Social Studies of Science 16: 593-620, 1986.

9. Fischer F. Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise. Sage: London, 1990.

10. Ibid., p. 16.

11. Abels G. The long and winding road from Asilomar to Brussels: science, politics and the public in biotechnology regulation. In: Hindmarsh R, Gottweis H (eds) Recombinant Regulation: The Asilomar Legacy 30 Years On, special issue: Science as Culture 14(4): 339-54, 2005.

12. Hindmarsh R, Du Plessis R. The new civic geography of life sciences governance: perspectives from Australia and New Zealand. In: Hindmarsh R, Du Plessis R. (eds) Special Issue: Life Sciences Governance: Civic Transitions and Trajectories, New Genetics and Society, September 2008, in press.

13. Lewontin R, Rose S, Kamin L. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature. Pantheon Books: New York, 1984.

14. See also: Andrée P. The biopolitics of genetically modified organisms in Canada, Journal of Canadian Studies 37(3): 162-91, 2002.

15. Lawson C, Hindmarsh R. Releasing GM canola into the environment-deconstructing a decision of the Gene Technology Regulator under the Gene Technology Act 2000 (Cth), Environmental and Planning Law Journal 23(1): 22-59, 2006.

 
 
Search: GeneWatch
 
 
 
The purpose of the Genetic Bill of Rights is to introduce a global dialogue on the fundamental values that have been put at risk by new applications of genetics.
 
View Project
 
 
Genetic Determinism
 
View Project
 
 
Tools
PAGE TOOLS
 
 
 
 
ON THE WEB