12 November 2007

New word: "Biopiracy"

It's not often that something comes up to fascinate, appal, disgust and titillate me, but when it does I have a ball. But often, when it does, I can be left quite confused, and not knowing what to really think next.

Particularly when it tickles my skeptical bone.

Anti-globalisation was one of these things. It has been about 6 months since I read Paul Kingsnorth's book, One No, Many Yeses, and to be brutally honest, I'm still none the wiser about the whole thing. I will blog about this in the future, but I need to filter out the real juicy stuff from hysteria first.

So it was with some degree of trepidation that I followed the recommendation of regular reader Taj, who put an interesting comment in the other day on one of my infrequent posts about homeopathy:

Here is a revelant site that is enraging, entertaining and informative in equal parts:
The Captain Hook Awards

And, you know, here is where I really had my first exposure to the rather interesting concept of biopiracy.

The awards themselves are kinda like those websites that like to collect stuff to poke fun at - the Darwin Awards being the best example.

But after reading the Captain Hook Awards for 2006, I walked away with this hollow feeling like I'd been had.

There are several things that aren't quite right about this interest in biopiracy and I aim to find out about it. And, you know, I get the nagging feeling that the anti-biopiracy dudes and dudettes may in fact be just as confused as the anti-globalisation folks. In fact, for most of this post, I'll be comparing anti-biopirates to anti-globalisationists, because the two movements appear to be fairly similar.

In addition, these are only my first impressions. I really don't know much about this movement just yet.

1. Anti-biopirates may have bitten off more than what they can chew

It appears that under the broad term "biopiracy", there appears to be a lot of scope to investigate stuff. Too much, in fact. The overwhelming feeling I get is that they've over-extended themselves, and have bitten off quite a bit more than what they can chew on.

Get this, from the 2006 awards:

Worst Threat to Food Sovereignty:


For its Terminator-like patent designed to prevent potatoes from sprouting, despite the company’s pledge not to commercialize technologies involving sterile seed. US patent 6,700,039 describes a genetic modification method that prevents sprouting unless an external chemical inducer is applied.

And for Syngenta’s multi-genome patent applications on thousands of gene sequences vital for rice breeding and extending to dozens of other plant species.

or this:

Greediest Biopirate:

J Craig Venter

For undertaking, with flagrant disregard for national sovereignty over biodiversity, a US-funded global biopiracy expedition on his yacht, Sorcerer II, to collect and sequence microbial diversity from the world’s oceans and soils. The genetic material will play a role in his most ambitious project to date: building an entirely new artificial organism.

There appears to be a large crossover between the anti-biopiracy, anti-genome and anti-globalisation crowds and several others. The cynic in me would say that this was intentional - how better to astroturf an entire movement than to create an all-encompassing movement that embraces a wide variety of disparate ones?

And, in so doing, you create a wide variety of different fronts to fight on, hence the reason that I think that the anti-biopiracy bunch might have tried to take on too much too quickly. This approach works for anti-globalisationists, because they're a "destructive" movement, however it appears that anti-biopirates are a "constructive" movement.

By "destructive", I mean that the aim of anti-globalisationism appears to be to break down the current systems but there really appears to be no suggestion as to what might take it's place. A realist would note that the Marxist faction is met with denial from the other camps within anti-globalisationism, whereas socialists are met with complete antipathy.

The anti-biopiracy movement on the other hand, appears to offer some suggestions as to how things might be improved, and that's why I use the term "constructive".

2. Why the hysteria?

There appears to be an awful lot of hysteria around biopiracy. Or bioprospecting, if you like.

The term "biopiracy" for a start. It's designed to garner an emotive response.

Just take a look at the headlines of the bits at the top of the page that I've cut and pasted from the Captain Hook Awards website.

Hysteria is a wonderful tool for a movement that is building itself. Whip up some decent hysteria, and the crowds just love it. But it can blind people to reason.

Take anti-vaxxers for example. A more hysterical bunch of zealots you could ever hope to meet. Lets say that there's an SI unit for hysteria, which we'll name the "binladen".

Anti-vaxxers level of hysteria would be measured in megabinladens, whereas the level that anti-biopirates appear to be driving is probably only in the kilobinladens at the moment.

But it doesn't take much to drive the needle well into the red on this - the violence at the last few major conferences involving world governments and big business, such as Davos, would be measured in gigabinladens, and we've all seen the fallout from those.

Consequently, for those of us who are level-headed enough to only register in the millibinladen zone, it's very difficult to take this kind of hype seriously.

3. Allopathy, anyone?

When words are invented for purely pejorative categorisation, you just have to get suspicious.

Long ago, homeopaths invented the word "allopathic" to describe methods used by conventional medicine. Allopathy is a word that means nothing to anyone else outside homeopathy, and is designed to denigrate.

More recently, the term "neoliberal" was invented by anti-globalisationists to describe anyone with conventional views on economics. Again, the term neoliberal has no meaning outside of the anti-globalisation movement and is used by those within it as a fast and brutal putdown.

The irony about the word neoliberal not having any meaning in the real world is quite hilarious when you consider that anti-globalisationism's view of economics (with the exception of being broadly in favour of trade protectionism) is almost entirely devoid of substance. But I digress.

Anti-biopirates come readily armed with their own word: Biopiracy. However, because the alternate word, "bioprospecting" hasn't appeared to gain any traction, it appears that "biopiracy" is going to become currency.

This gives anti-biopirates the upper hand in the PR war, and certainly gives this word a better footing than either of "allopathy" or "neoliberalism".

4. A distinct whiff of anti-science

I've long complained that anti-globalisationists are extremely anti-economics in their approach. Prominent anti-globalisationists love to criticise even fundamental economic concepts like supply and demand, even though these are well documented phenomena.

Well, move over, because the anti-biopiracy front appears to have science itself firmly in its sights.

Take the case of the rosy periwinkle. This is a flower that grows in Madagascar. The locals had long held certain beliefs about the healing powers of this flower, and in the 1950's, work was commenced by Eli Lilly to see exactly what could be found out about this plant.

The hard yards were put in. Work was done. Some properties traditionally attributed to the plant were validated, but others weren't. Critically, while the plant was being investigated for treating diabetes, it was found to have applications in treating cancer patients.

Criticisms of this whole process from anti-biopirates varies...

  • Locals/indigenes don't get any financial benefit
  • The plant itself appears to get patented (see also neem)
  • Existing scientific work (if any) is poached by big pharma scientists
  • No respect is paid to indigenous considerations (e.g. plant is sacred)
  • Etc

...but I get the distinct impression somehow through the whole process that anti-biopirates appear to prefer that shamen and traditional healers dispense snake oil as a cure without any studies being done, compared to actually doing the studies.

In fact, it almost looks as though attempts are afoot within the anti-biopiracy camp to legitimise non-scientific means of gathering knowledge. I'm sorry, I said "knowledge". I should have used the word "lore" instead.

Don't get me wrong. Where the only work done by the scientists registering the patent appears to only be dotting ayes and crossing tees from work previously done by local scientists, like what happened in India with neem is a disgrace.

But let's put this into perspective, and not get carried away. More than anything else, this exposes flaws in the whole patenting process where results are rewarded and not the actual work carried out. The sooner that the movement realises that this is a whole other fight, the better.

I'll leave my views on intellectual property for another day. Likewise the US Patent Office.

5. And after all the criticism, some praise

Look, I think that some of the work being done against biopiracy is certainly worth it. For example, the bit above that relates to Syngenta's work with Terminator seeds is disgraceful in the extreme. There simply is no good reason for this kind of technology. There are a couple of weak ones, and spin doctors who beat these up are a DISGRACE!!!

Monsanto's development of herbicide/pesticide resistant canola is only for one good reason, and that is so Monsanto can sell more Roundup. How good would it be for Monsanto, if farmers could just drench their canola, soybeans or whatever in Roundup without the plants dying? How good would this be for the environment?

And, while getting the full story on this appears to be like drawing blood from a stone, the enola bean debacle in the US and Mexico is a textbook case of opportunism and why the patenting process needs a thorough overhauling.

But I worry that on the whole, the wrong agendas will end up taking over. Like anti-globalisation, there are a lot of legitimate grievances. The only problem is that, just like anti-globalisation, the agendas at work are just too diverse and there is the risk, the real risk that the agendas which win the day will be the bad ones.


taj said...

It's a very thorough analysis, but you are missing the root issue, that of IP.

All of these issues boil down to use and abuse of IP laws, in an area of IP that is still unclear (can you really own a naturally occurring organism? A newly-created one? A derived one?) and the voices that get the ear of lawmakers are those with the money*. All these folks can really do is point out examples where, in their opinion, IP has been misused. As you have correctly noted, the examples are all over the map.

* - Not that I am in blanket opposition to IP in this area, far from it. There is a lot of excellent work that is being done that would not get done if there was not a way to productize the results. But as you said, there are a lot of IP laws that need to be re-examined.

(oh, and did I really write "revelant"? shame on me...)

Plonka said...

Nice one Dikkii.

I was living in Lakes Entrance when McCain's wanted all their farmers to use sterile seeds or they wouldn't process their crops. Thankfully, the ploy didn't work. But that bit about the terminator seeds was quite disturbing. I can see why something's needed to keep the big, unethical boys at bay but you're right, it does seem a little "not quite right".

But this one bears keeping an eye on, living in a market garden heartland as I do.

Dikkii said...

Taj, you're quite right about the IP side of things. I did write this as "first impressions", and perhaps I will get stuck into that at a later date.

And I did allude to the problems with IP throughout, but as I mentioned, flaws with the IP process is an incredibly nasty area that I'd like to look at in a little more depth, first.

IP is certainly the biggest part of it, but I don't think all these issues boil down to just use and abuse of IP laws. For example, putting aside IP laws just for a moment, do we really need terminator seeds? Is it absolutely necessary to base a campaign on hysteria?

I suppose what really grabbed me is the potential for riding in a Trojan horse full of woo merchants who would like any excuse to de-legitimise the scientific method.

I'll probably end up doing a part 2 where I discuss why the rosy periwinkle story is NOT like the neem story, and how IP laws impacted each of these.

(oh, and did I really write "revelant"? shame on me...)

Hey, I very nearly drew attention to it by writing [sic] after it. But I restrained myself admirably.

Cat's out of the bag, now...

Dikkii said...

Plonka, this most certainly requires some attention coupled with some vigilance.

I can't believe that McCain's was attempting to impose terminator technology. I thought that GM plants were still illegal in the state of Victoria.

What I'm concerned about is some of the agendas at play here. Call me suspicious, but I used anti-globalisationism as a camparison point here for a reason.

Plonka said...

I thought that GM plants were still illegal in the state of Victoria.

There was that and the fact that most of the vegie farms down there are diverse, not relying on an individual crop. The bean shortage that year did cause a few to be laid off at the frozen veg plant, which was unfortunate, but they all had their jobs back almost as soon as McCain's realised the error of their ways.

Call me suspicious, but I used anti-globalisationism as a camparison point here for a reason.

I can see what you mean. There's such a wide range of issues sometimes it's hard to know exactly what the point it.

miller said...

I like to think of pejorative categorisation as labeling your strawmen to make them easier to tell apart.

I think that "neoliberalism" is in fact in non-pejorative use. When I took an intro class to International Relations, we contrasted three dominating views: Realism, Neoliberalism, and Constructionism. I have trouble believing that the textbook was at all biased in Realism's favor. The Wikipedia article doesn't give any hints in that direction either. Perhaps "neoliberal" only started out as a pejorative.

Dikkii said...

Hi Miller,

Your comment is interesting. I'd very much like to know when and where you did this class, because it's been a long time since "constructionism" was a dominant school of thought anywhere. I assume that you mean "constructivism"? ;-)

For the record, I actually wasn't aware that neoliberalism had an accepted use in a political science context. Amazing, and I suspect that is why there there is a disconnect - just like the science world, economics and finance have long objected to idiots from humanities spheres imposing their terminology on them.

And, as it happens, this is relevant. "Neoliberal" is used by anti-globalisationists in one context alone - economics.

Don't get me started on the irrelevant and silly categorisation used within the postmodernist schools. I could be here all day.

miller said...

Yeah, it was probably constructivism.

This was a lower-div intro college course taken this year. Our textbook was International Relations

Dikkii said...

I'll have to check that out.

International Relations. Possibly the only real-world application for Political Science...

Huinca said...

Good one, maybe a little bit too long.

The term 'biopiracy' was actually coined at the Convention of Biological Diversity in December 1993, which was ratified by I don't know how may countries.

And no matter how you want to call it, it's a very real issue. As an example:


Huinca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dikkii said...

Hi Huinca, and thanks for dropping by. You wrote:

Good one, maybe a little bit too long.

I do go on and on. But I do appreciate your kind words.

The term 'biopiracy' was actually coined at the Convention of Biological Diversity in December 1993, which was ratified by I don't know how may countries.

And no matter how you want to call it, it's a very real issue.

Oh I concede that point entirely. Take the issues caused by the commercialisation of neem for instance.

However, as I alluded to in the post, and in some of the comments, what concerns me about this word is the skill in how people with vested interests, such as herbalists, can take this word and apply it indiscriminately. Particularly where it has the potential to affect their livelihoods.

It's really something akin to having your cake, eating it, and then getting upset when you find out that it was made by someone else.

By the way, your link was still too long to come out, so I've put it in here.