I am a doctor of genetics, a Ph.D. in molecular biology. I am standing in a cable car descending Powell Street into Union Square on a quest to achieve total understanding of the issues raised by the appearance of BIO in San Francisco. I will disembark at the St. Francis Hotel and proceed on foot to witness, record and analyze both the BIO meeting and the reactions of an opposing force called Reclaim the Commons.
As a certified member of the techno-elite, I understand BIO. These, after all, are my people: the gene splicers, the sequencers, the oncologists, the toxicologists. But, of course, this is the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Which means that along with science comes the rest -- the MBA managers, the marketers, the V.C. guerrillas and the lawyers. These are not my people. But I assume they are fellow travelers, committed to the goal of science in service to humanity.
I am not here solely as a scientist, however. During the BIO meeting I intend to periodically exchange my pinstripes for blue jeans and consort with the environmental activists who are also in town. I know these people too. Unlike most biotechnologists, I came to molecular biology trained in classical plant breeding and agronomy, an unusual launching pad from which to land on Biotech Planet. Working with plants brings you into contact with a much greener crowd than, say, working with lab rats or hybridoma cell cultures.
In the 1970s, when I was in graduate school in Arizona, many of my peers were already deeply concerned with issues such as organic farming and the potential dangers of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops. One classmate, Gary Nabhan, would later win a MacArthur "genius" grant for his pioneering work to preserve the genetic diversity of Native American crops. Andrew Weil was across the street at the medical center extolling the healing power of plants.
During the BIO meeting in San Francisco, I will come to realize that looks are truly deceiving. The motley crew of protesters, chanting "biotech industry, go to hell" and waving signs that are equally eloquent, are, despite their low numbers and logistical confusion, engaging in a crucial ideological battle, a battle whose birth I witnessed right here in the Bay Area almost a quarter-century ago.
In America this battle appears hopelessly one-sided in favor of industry. The BIO forces are well armed and provisioned to excess, and they fly business class. Their propaganda offers up visions of a techno-green future for all but, in fact, their ascension could have devastating and irrevocable consequences for the ecology of our planet.
During the San Francisco BIO festival, the media will generally miss the real implications of this battle. In this case it is not the media's fault, since the battle is being waged with rhetoric that is virtually incoherent on one side and impossibly arrogant on the other. But to a farmer who grew up to become a cloner, it couldn't be more obvious. Left unchecked, agricultural biotechnology will lead us directly into an environmental catastrophe. And yet, those who have rallied to protest this march to disaster are themselves a toxic waste zone of incomprehensible and woefully misinformed ignorance.
My revelations are still a few hours away when I reach Union Square on a warm, bright Saturday morning. I feel excited to be on my way to the Moscone Convention Center to make sense of this mess. And I am just the man for the job. I have been in the biotechnology business since there was a biotechnology business to be in. As a result I have no illusions about the altruism quotient of scientists. We're just folks, people like everybody else. As I trundle across Market Street at Fourth, I look up Market past the Palace Hotel toward 555. When I joined Biotechnology Nation in 1980, 555 Market was still Chevron corporate headquarters and it was truly a weird scene inside the gold mine. It was almost 25 years ago today when, as a freshly minted Ph.D., I stepped into the eye of a hurricane.
I couldn't know it in 1980, but big oil and biotech had just decided to fake a shotgun wedding that would help kick industrial biology into high gear. This decision was fueled by a socioeconomic hat trick involving fossil fuels, new life forms and the free market pizzazz of a future pitchman for Viagra.
The first scoring maneuver evolved from the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Influential journals predicted that the United States was about to fall into a dangerous "energy gap." We would literally be out of gas by 2000. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, corporate fear escalated into naked terror, driving the price of oil to all-time highs. This inspired the federal government to impose a windfall profits tax on big oil in 1980, and the ensuing economic turmoil created an industry with enormous taxable profits desperate to diversify. Score goal No 1.
Goal No. 2 hit the net when the Supreme Court affirmed the right to patent genetically engineered microorganisms. The problems involved with the ownership of one life form by another remains at the center of our national bioethics debate and the stance against it is certainly the most scientifically coherent and politically astute mantra of the counter-BIO forces.
The final goal was scored with the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed patenting of government-sponsored research in universities. Passed into law in 1980, Bayh-Dole immediately turned colleges into major players in the hi-tech intellectual property arena. Professors Stanley Cohn and Herb Boyer discovered the basic manipulations that allowed scientists to isolate and clone genes to create recombinant life forms. As of 1980, these life forms were legally patentable.
Driven by the forces of diversification and windfall profits, virtually every major oil company in the U.S. had a biotech group by the early '80s. But a business based on the creation of new life forms was controversial from the jump. Dissenting voices, serious and strident, raised vigorous objections to the existence of an industry that required the safe practice of a highly unnatural form of sex, one that violated 4 billion years of procreational tradition. A wild party was about to begin, so it was no surprise to find the San Francisco Bay Area at the forefront of consensual cloning.
I am abruptly hauled back from my dreams of test-tube sex to the press registration desk at Moscone West. The possibility of total understanding has just vanished. The short version is that I will not be allowed to register for press credentials. The deadline for Web-based registration passed two weeks ago and no college journals, freelancers or online publications will be credentialed onsite. I toss out a few pro forma objections. What's wrong with online journals? Freelancers embody the entrepreneurial spirit of BIO. I have my passport with me. I am a college professor, not a college student. I even point out that, in this other incarnation, I am a member of BIO.
But the post-9/11 environment combined with the presence of anti-BIO forces has apparently turned San Francisco into Switzerland. The rules are the rules, next person. Except that there is no next person. The central hall is empty of registrants at 11 a.m. on Saturday. But I do notice two security guards tacking toward me from opposite sides of the entrance. As becomes a doctor of genetics, I beat a dignified retreat to a nearby Starbucks and consider my options. For the sake of verisimilitude, I put in a call to BIO's president, Carl Feldbaum, at the organizaiton's headquarters in Washington but no one is answering the phone on a Saturday. Anyway, Carl is in San Francisco and something tells me that, even though I have met him on several occasions, he is not going to return my call. The obvious answer is to conduct a controlled experiment. I will determine if I have a similar problem registering with the opposition.
At 6:30 Saturday night, I end up at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Franklin Street. On the Web site calendar the event is called "Final Teach-In Planet Resistance & Alternatives." Like California itself, membership in Reclaim the Commons is apparently a state of mind, although a $5 contribution is appreciated and you can sign up to receive information by e-mail if you want to.
I pay my volitional registration fee, give one of my e-mail addresses, and pick up one copy of every brochure on the table. To the extent that the brochures discuss biotechnology, they focus almost entirely on the issue of genetically engineered foods. For the logical mind, this presents a bit of a quandary since the overwhelming number of companies at BIO are engaged in producing medicine and healthcare products. The Associated Press wire will notice this same disconnect on Monday. For those of us attempting a logical analysis, it is easy to use this missed communication as a reason to dismiss Reclaim the Commons and, after reading their literature, I am inclined to do this. But I will rethink my position shortly.
I nab an aisle seat in a front pew and open the first brochure entitled, "Keeping California Free of Genetically Engineered Food" by Californians For GE-Free Agriculture. My fellow Californians explain genetic engineering as, "a new process used by scientists to insert genes from various organisms (human, plant, animal, bacteria, or virus) into crop plants." So far so good. They go on to tell me that this technology, ".... differs fundamentally from traditional plant breeding in that it forces the exchange of genes across species barriers -- a process that does not occur in nature."
A process that does not occur in nature. This is the key although I don't immediately get it on Saturday night. I take a look around and think, yes this is God's wooden ship. God would build it this way. Oak floors, oak pews, sedately beautiful wood ceiling with crossed beams shaped like a ship's hull. Classic stained glass windows shining God's light on this classic activist crowd. White-haired 60's worriers. The lifetime committed. The pierced and the paisley. Young people with sensible Mohawks. Tonight they will come dressed for the new global church. No makeup, little jewelry except for humble stones from the Earth; turquoise, a small topaz, a bit of polished jade.
The podium remains empty, so I surmise that it will be a while before the Teach-In begins. I embark on further acts of coverage. I already have a general concept that Unitarians are into hip social action; harboring refugees from Central America or holding funeral services for counterculture heroes like Allen Ginsburg; very cool people. I begin to circulate. The vibe has a distinct flavor of mandated serenity. I approach a well-dressed woman with a haircut that obviously involved a professional. She appears to be about my age and is, in fact, a fifty-something doctor's wife who tells me that mechanized farming is evil and that all the best land has historically been inhabited by people who live in villages and use slash-and- burn agriculture. I move off thinking she needs to try her luck in the slash-and-burn section the Berkeley Bowl Market on her weekly visit. My next target is a young professional activist who tells me that that genetically engineered rice has ruined Thailand's water, no details available. Everyone I meet has stories of spectacular damage from genetically engineered crops but, like paranormal phenomena, no one ever seems to be in the right place with a real measuring device. The focus is on failures without a coherent alternative definition of success. The universal message from my pre-seminar survey is; we take it on faith that it's all a big lie. And so it goes until the Teach-In finally begins.
Looking over my notes, I see that services were convened by Luke Anderson, who looked like a rock star/surf dude and spoke with an impeccable English accent. This was in interesting juxtaposition to the panel, which seemed to contain no other Caucasians. Which was in even more interesting juxtaposition to the audience, which seemed to contain virtually no non-Caucasions. The other panelists mainly wore native dress of one sort or another; sashes, capes, and the implication of ritual ornaments. No one except Luke looked to have missed a meal, natural or genetically modified, in recent memory. Luke told us that we had an amazing night ahead. He was right but not, I suspect, in the way he intended.
The native garb of the panel turned out to be subliminal preparation for the true horror of the 21st century Ghost Dance that was about to unfold. The original Ghost Dance was an attempt by some North American Indian tribes to save themselves from the white man. The despair and nostalgia of the Ghost Dance invoked magical thinking to the maximum in a desperate last spasm by an indigenous population about to lose their entire way of life. It was an attempt to resurrect a continent full of dead people along with their entire ecosystem; including hundreds of millions of buffalo. They were, in fact, engaged in a supernatural reclamation of their commons.
But whatever the Indians did on the Great Plains, tonight's Ghost Dance was listless and anemic. From the beginning there was a sense in the audience of the dutiful obeisance that presides over a normal Sunday sermon, when you don't expect the minister to actually transform your life in a real way. But these people did sit awfully well. I consider that, for professional activists, the ability to sit often takes the measure of ones commitment. Pews, bus-benches, crowded old Volvos. These people know sitting in their souls, but I do not. I emerge from the First Unitarian Universalist Church with serious sciatic neuropathy knowing only that the people I have met are profoundly in favor of all that is natural, and deeply opposed to any pollution of their vital bodily fluids by artificial technology.
And yet I can't shake that spooky feeling that I have been clubbed with a hard and dangerous reality deceptively wrapped inside a gigantic wad of fuzzy thinking. I have attempted to decipher a congregation who despises globalization but believes in the global village. I have heard about the evils of NAFTA and the people's intrinsic right to food sovereignty. I interviewed a biofeminist who knows in her heart that vitamins are an insidious plot by the new military-industrial complex. As I walk down Franklin towards the ocean, a concept is focusing through the lens of memory. And I think, none of this garble, even the most fractured of these fairy tales can erase the reality that the green revolution was a complete hoax and that forcing genetically engineered food down the throats of unsuspecting hungry people is evil.
Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it too; perhaps they are even inspired. I am beginning to remember and to synthesize. Reclaim the Commons is not in San Francisco to stop the members of BIO from finding a cure for cancer. They have made the tactical error of setting themselves up against all of BIO when, in fact, they are here because a few companies are pushing relentlessly to release the fruits of genetic engineering into the environment. This is the reality that has pushed the collective primal scream buttons of the environmentalists. They fervently believe that this technology is dangerous; and they may be right. But what is absolutely crucial to realize is that Reclaim the Commons does not have to be right in order for Monsanto to be wrong.
Although they can't articulate it, Reclaim the Commons has instinctively recognized the truth. Agricultural biotechnology is different. For most of the biotechnology industry, genetic engineering is just a means to an end. An advanced processing technology conducted under highly controlled laboratory conditions. Only agricultural biotechnology requires the immediate, wholesale, release of recombinant organisms on a global scale in order to create a profitable product. Therefore, only the agricultural biotechnology companies are in a hurry to flood the world with these new life forms. The horror stories retold by Reclaim the Commons may be true, false, or some shade of grey... but no farmer anywhere is waking up today thinking, "boy if only I had genetically engineered BT corn, my problems would be over." There are simply too many alternative and equally efficient crop production technologies available. Monsanto, the first and largest industrial player in ag biotech, is still the poster child for the utopian joys that will ensue from the release of recombinant organisms into the environment. They are in a hurry when the truth is... there is no reason to hurry.
I cross Van Ness to Polk Street to treat my sciatica with a dose of Thai curry. Over the steaming bowl, I consider the irony and turn of fate that has brought us full circle to the place where the first brutal de-greening of ag biotech took place. It was right here in the Bay Area 17 years ago. Some of us witnessed that particular end of innocence. It came with "The Great Ice-Nucleating Bacteria Strawberry-Spray Circus."
A young Berkeley plant pathologist claimed to have discovered a bacterium that behaved like Ice-9 in Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Cat's Cradle." This bacterium, or more precisely, a protein on its surface, catalyzed the formation of ice crystals at air temperatures above freezing! The natural protein was called Ice+. Folks at a humbly named biotech start-up called Advanced Genetic Sciences (AGS) got a cool idea. They would take the gene for Ice+ out of its natural host, mutate it into Ice-, and put it back. This kind of genetically modified organism could be made in many ways but, as a biotech company, they would make theirs via cloning.
AGS claimed that by spraying the surface of strawberry leaves with genetically engineered Ice- bacteria, the plant could be protected from frost damage. Notice the concept of spraying, as in the release of large quantities of recombinant organisms directly into the environment. Artificial colonization of the leaf surface with friendly bacteria is called bio-control. In 1980 bio-control usually qualified as an eco-friendly green technology, a good guy. But when done by cloned GMO, bio-control was not considered green by the bona fide greens. AGS persisted, arguing that the world would ultimately catch up to its vision. Like Monsanto today, AGS fought repeated legal challenges and intense local opposition to gain approval to release its Ice- bacteria. The first Frankenbugs hit the fan on the morning of April 24, 1987, in the East Bay town of Brentwood when AGS officially inaugurated the Age of Agricultural Biotechnology.
As scientific experiments go, this was an amazing show. I attended as a sort of poll watcher and roadie, accompanying a friend who worked at AGS. An international cadre of reporters and TV cameras witnessed a kaleidoscope of tie-died eco-warriors demonstrating across chain-link fencing, barbed wire and hired guards. These folks chanted loud and long to banish the towers of petri plates and miles of sensors attached to biotechies in full-body hazmat space suits (mandated by the FDA). But the opposition did more than chant. In a preemptive strike, over 80 percent of the plants had been pulled out of the ground during the night. AGS restored what it could and began to spray. At the end of the day recombinant genetically engineered organisms had been intentionally introduced into the environment.
But to what end? Why did AGS fight so hard? The answer remains equivocal, but by applying for and ultimately receiving permission to spray, the company was signaling that it was close to the Holy Grail of every start-up: a product almost ready for the marketplace. In the end AGS was allowed to spray, no environmental disaster ensued, and 17 years later strawberries are still freezing all over the world.
AGS is gone now and, as of 2001, only the fully natural Ice+ bacteria have achieved product status for the relatively low-tech application of entertaining rather than feeding the world. Ice+ bacteria are an active ingredient in Snomax, which is used to make snow on the ski slope just down the road from my home university. To quote the Web site: "Snomax Snow Inducer is an ice-nucleating protein derived from the naturally occurring bacterium ... found readily in nature, from grass to trees to vegetable crops, and even in the air we breathe."
And that, as they say, was the end of innocence. As I approach Moscone West in the year 2004, it strikes me as profoundly ironic that so many years later, the anti-biotechnology forces appear once again to be rallying against the push by a company to release genetically engineered organisms directly into the environment, and into our digestive systems. Has either side learned anything in the meantime?
Sunday morning I check for messages from Carl Feldbaum. My voice-mail box is empty but I no longer care. I have come to realize that BIO has nothing to do with the social phenomenon happening on the streets of San Francisco. The worlds of BIO and Reclaim the Commons have no possibility of intersecting. BIO knows it is bigger and better than ever and that all the myths perpetrated about agricultural biotechnology by misguided environmental activists are false. Just read their Web site. The FDA has already determined that biotech foods and crops are safe. Biotech animals eat, drink and behave just like "conventional" animals. And, most importantly, biotech does not harm monarch butterflies.
While the environmental activists pass the hat to collect money to copy their manifestos, biotechies will run networking excursions from their booths in Moscone Center's exhibition hall, take in colorful animated PowerPoint presentations, and have a little fun on the corporate expense account. Prominent members will also attend a gala dinner featuring gourmet GMO foods prepared by a chef with a Ph.D. in biochemistry flown in from Austin, Texas, or someplace equally groovy. Gavin Newsom, the newly elected mayor of San Francisco, is viciously schmoozing the biotech elite, offering them everything from free utilities to their own cable car branch in return for locating in the new China Basin research park. Newsom, a 37-year-old political prodigy, is perhaps the first truly millennial mayor. With a progressive sensibility, from fashion to gay marriage to biotechnology, Gavin sees the future and is committed to bringing the fun back to San Francisco. Fun and profit. To ensure the profit he has placed hundreds of police around Moscone Center and it is clear that Reclaim the Commons has about as much chance of disrupting this meeting as the ghost dancers had of bringing back the buffalo.
The story here is clearly not about whether Reclaim the Commons can disrupt the BIO meeting. These folks will not even stop BIO members from getting their next latte. The real story is how these people found their way here at all, and what, if anything, they really think they can accomplish. They know something is happening. While they truly don't know what it is, that doesn't mean their intuition is wrong. We may, in fact, be sharing our last human breath together. We may, in reality, be losing our identities as free individuals. It may, in truth, be the end of the world as we know it. If all this does come to pass, we won't be able to blame Reclaim the Commons. They, at least, have attempted to name of the root cause of all this evil. For them, its name is technology.
Technology as the root of all evil. I will hear this mantra endlessly at the Really Really Free Market held Sunday afternoon on Union Square. The Really Really Free Market is described as "a real gift economy." From the Saturday night teach-in, I have surmised that, in the global village (as opposed to the globalized free market), one starts off giving away the things one produces. The next step is hierarchical bartering; first within the local community, followed by regional trade. Profit per se is never a factor. Everyone works for cost and the sense of spiritual well-being that comes from being close to nature. This concept sounds especially ludicrous during my walk up Powell Street through the highly organized, relentlessly profit-driven chaos of San Francisco's Chinatown, a place where the idea of giving away anything that could be sold was probably discarded before it ever reached the communal lower id.
In terms of consumer goods, the Really Really Free Market didn't measure up to a decent Berkeley garage sale, and it made the average flea market in rural West Virginia look like Macy's. A generous estimate would be two cardboard boxes full of threadbare clothing, small anemic plants wilting in the sun, and perhaps a half dozen other booths and service providers. In fairness, there were plenty of free bakery products, but no more than one would find at a regular AA meeting.
As a contribution to the Really Really Free I put up a sign reading, "Genetic Engineer: Free Inside Information About Biotechnology." For the first half-hour folks give me a wide berth. Then a person gathering signatures on a petition about stem cells stops to talk. He has no idea what a stem cell is. Another, violently against cloning, doesn't know what a gene is. I pick up a third marketeer, who knows that the FBI is compiling a list of farmers who save their own seed. None of these people is over 30, and none has any pressing questions about the nuts and bolts of genetic engineering or biotechnology. But after years of teaching introduction to cell biology I have strategies to draw them out.
I start with the stem cell dude. Using a modified psychiatrist's approach, I ask him how he feels about stem cells. He responds that he doesn't really understand what they are but he has heard that they have something to do with human cloning. This is all the daylight I need. I tell him that the issue is really about tissue engineering, and that biotechnology will soon be able to grow humans, or any part of them, in a laboratory. I ask if he understands what this means. He says no.
I have three people in class now so the time has come to make my move. Keep in mind, I say, that your entire body grew inside your mother from a single cell. Obviously, that single cell had the ability to make every part of the human body since, in fact, that is how you got here. Cells like that are called embryonic stem cells. I go on to explain that, in the near future, biotechnology will learn how to take normal cells, say skin cells, and turn them into stem cells. I finish with a flourish. In a tone meant to transmit enthusiasm mixed with menace, I inform them that we will soon be able to grow body parts and even whole bodies. Obviously, I conclude, this technology has the potential to create serious ethical dilemmas for society. The stem cell dude looks at me and says, "Like what?"
Since I teach undergraduates professionally, I am unfazed. I offer the example of growing him a headless body and keeping it on life support in case he needs a new liver or heart. I ask my impromptu seminar group if that would be OK. The general consensus is that it might be, but they would definitely have to think it over.
I decide to take my sign down and circulate around Union Square. It is a beautiful sunny day. There is a kind of reggae band playing and a couple of people are dancing, but what strikes me is the almost complete lack of energy. During the next hour I am unable to locate a single person who can speak coherently about science. Most of the people I talk to come from elsewhere, as in not from San Francisco. The stem cell dude was from Santa Cruz; another member of my seminar was from Spain but was now living in the Mission; the girl concerned about the FBI menacing farmers is from Portland. Many people I interviewed made outrageous claims without a clue as to where their information came from.
I was informed that, because foods are not labeled, we don't know if we are eating a tomato with fish genes or corn with human genes. And, since it's not labeled, we obviously can't know what effect eating all this weird stuff will have on our health. I heard that biotechnology is not how the people want their food or medicine grown. I heard from people who would try a biotechnology cure for cancer, but only if acupuncture failed. I heard that the ecological impact of biotechnology looks pretty grave. I heard that research into Viagra: The Next Generation was preventing the development of a cure for malaria. I learned that our government needs to put a lot more energy into providing healthy alternatives rather than giving corporate welfare to big biotech. I heard a lot about faith, a lot about belief, and a lot about magic. Someone offered to read my future with Tarot cards.
The Really Really Free Market took place on a classic summer day that is the stuff of California dreamin'. All that sun and all that sky cried out for a festival. Yet there was almost no sense that these people were willing or able to celebrate the real, real human spirit that had supposedly brought them together in Union Square. There was no flower power in that park on that Sunday. Whatever their dreams, these people seem to know in their hearts that the most they can hope for is more corporate responsibility, enforced by government regulations. Where is Abby Hoffman, or even Wavy Gravy when you need them? Rather than watching activists, the overwhelming sense was of watching canaries in a coal mine.
The cosmic irony is that these people have tapped directly into the most profound and basic social truth of modern life. But rather than being energized by this connection, the sheer voltage of reality has them paralyzed. What they know in their hearts is that they are witnessing the ascendancy of the corporate capitalist model for controlling human behavior and ultimately human consciousness. These people correctly recognize that they are the subject of the most massive and sophisticated behavior modification campaign in human history -- a campaign that appears to be going splendidly. They have correctly identified BIO as a manifestation of this campaign, but have incorrectly targeted it as a causal agent. Biotechnology is much too young an industry to have any real control. The folks at BIO are simply the newest merchants on a very old trade route. The route itself is the product of powerful trade winds that blow at the behest of far more ancient market forces, forces that control transportation, energy, weapons and the ultimate power that resides with those who take and hold entire regions of the planet itself.
Perhaps this explains the transcendent lethargy that consumed the event at Union Square. On some level, the denizens of the Really Really Free Market know that they cannot win a real battle, much less the war. As a result these people are confused, frustrated and angry. But ultimately they appear to be resigned to going out with a whimper. Just please don't force-feed them any more corn with rat genes.
As I retrace my cable car route back up Powell Street, I know that I will not continue my mission. This battle has been lost. In the sound-bite war for America's heartland, Reclaim the Commons made the gravest of all tactical errors. They got off message. Or, perhaps they never understood their true message. The green revolution, totally reliant on mechanized agriculture, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, was never a true green technology. Now the same players are going to feed us with the green biotechnology revolution even though there is no real evidence that hunger in today's world is the result of a shortage in food production technology.
Agricultural biotechnology is different from the rest of BIO. To succeed, it must literally flood the globe with recombinant genotypes. The people of Reclaim the Commons knew this instinctively, but failed to get their message across. The people in BIO also know this truth, but they believe in their technology. It is, in fact, way beyond the point of belief. If America cannot evolve a coherent environmental action movement Gaia, BIO and entropy will just have to work things out.