Biotechnology: A Woman's Business

By Kneen, Cathleen | WE International, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Biotechnology: A Woman's Business

Kneen, Cathleen, WE International

Biotechnology: A Woman's Business

by Cathleen Kneen

Simply put, biotechnology encompasses all methods of changing the internal makeup, the genetic pattern, of an organism to make it behave in a way which it would not otherwise have done, thus creating a product which is deemed useful or commercially viable. Sometimes genetic manipulation is carried out with material from the organism itself, such as the "anti-sense" gene in the Calgeneis tomato which supposedly slows down the ripening process. Sometimes it is a question of transferring genetic material from one organism to another across species, including animals and humans.

When we think of biotechnology as a women's issue, what immediately comes to mind are the new reproductive technologies. There are a number of additional issues for women and for the human community which these technologies raise. Fundamental to all of them, however, is the issue of ownership and control.

This is not disinterested science. Commercial value is dictated, not only by the cost of research and development of these technologies, but also by the process itself. Once upon a time, every gardener and farmer would seek out the plants which exhibited characteristics she wanted: taste, time of ripening, size, productivity, whatever. She would carefully collect seeds of these plants and use them for her next crop, or trade them.

With the discovery of hybrids, we have plants which, when interbred, are capable of producing a seed that is more vigorous or productive than either of its parents, but which will not "breed true". This means that seed from the daughter plant will not reproduce the characteristics of it parents: the farmer has to purchase from the seed company annually. This process has been furthered with patenting, where the new seed is the property of the company and may not be reproduced without royalties paid to the patent holder. Clearly, the control is in the hands of the seed companies, and they are ensured that farmers are dependent on them.

Biotechnology is another step in this process of corporate dependency. The majority of biotechnology patents are in "crop protection": they enable the crop to resist, not just pests or disease, but the deleterious effects of particular herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. A good example is Monsantois "Roundup Ready" crops which can survive treatments with the company's own agrotoxin: major seed companies are owned by major chemical companies.

Saving seeds to locally sell a ready crop is not a simple circumvention of this system. To begin, corner stores and supermarkets alike are locked into supply agreements with the few major distributors remaining: California, Florida, or Mexican produce is stocked and selling in stores even at the height of more northern local growing seasons. Supply times, quantity, quality and price are set by distributors and chains. In order to ensure that one can produce within such parameters, producers find themselves using all the industrial inputs, from seeds to agrotoxins, which have been designed precisely to fulfill this scenario.

Though most of the world's farmers are women, they are generally involved in small-scale or subsistence production, with produce destinations being their families or immediate neighbourhoods. The dominant mode of agriculture is quite different; it is an industry operating on an upwardly linear model, producing commodities for a global market. This is the agriculture that shows on Gross Domestic Product statistics, and through which we characterize whole countries as producers of one or another commodity (as in the infamous banana republics of Central America).

Success for a farmer is defined in business terms of profit, rather than on human terms of community health and welfare. Among the outward marks of success are the large machines which characterize the male role in agriculture. The ideology surrounding this agriculture makes it very difficult to even think of alternatives to the definitions of progress embedded in its system.

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