A LETTER TO ONEARTH MAGAZINE
Re: Craig Venter interview in Summer '06 issue
I normally enjoy reading OnEarth's articles but was
dismayed and disappointed by the Craig Venter
interview in your Summer '06 issue
Only at the very end of the interview does the
reporter ask him about the international controversy
stirred by his marine microbe-hunting expeditions.
Here is the excerpt:
Q: People have already charged you with everything
from eugenics to biopiracy.
A: The biopiracy one is my favorite. We're sailing
across the open ocean in international waters and
there's this current moving across the Pacific at 1
knot. So there are microbes in that current that move
from open ocean into the 200-mile limit of French
Polynesia, and suddenly the French call that French
genetic heritage. Right? And they want to own it and
capitalize on it. It takes months of paperwork to take
200 liters of seawater now from the open ocean. Before
we published our paper nobody cared, because nobody
assumed anything was there. So I think it's quite
comical that we're called pirates for describing the
data and making it available for the world.
Venter's response is a rather arrogant and casual
dismissal of the legitimate concerns of people all
over Latin America that have denounced his activities
as biopiracy. Either he deliberately misrepresents the
views of his critics or honestly does not understand
the ethical and political implications of his work.
Venter's argumentation is identical to the European
colonizers' rationales for seizing the lands and
resources of the native peoples of the American
hemisphere. The colonizer argued that the natives were
not exploiting and "gainfully" using their lands and
resources, so they were going to waste- hence the term
"waste land". In the colonizer's mind, any resource
that he does not own or exploit is "going to waste".
For more information on the substance of this debate,
I recommend you read these two documents by the ETC
Rocking the Boat: J. Craig Venter's Microbial
Collecting Expedition Under Fire in Latin America:
Playing God in the Galapagos:
Notice that this is not some white NGO from a rich
Northern hemisphere country claiming to speak on
behalf of the poor peoples of the global South, as
defenders of biopiracy would have us believe.
Environmental leaders from Costa Rica, Ecuador,
Mexico, Chile and other countries have repeatedly
spoken up against Venter's expedition and the practice
of biopiracy in general, but much of the American
environmental movement is not listening. The views and
concerns of Latin Americans deserve more respect and
consideration on the part of American
environmentalists and progressives.
I was also surprised and disappointed that the
reporter did not press Venter about the possible
hazards of synthetic life forms, which he proposes to
make. On May 19 a coalition of thirty-five
international organizations including scientists,
environmentalists, trade unionists, biowarfare experts
and social justice advocates called for inclusive
public debate, regulation and oversight of the rapidly
advancing field of synthetic biology. "We believe that
this potentially powerful technology is being
developed without proper societal debate concerning
socio-economic, security, health, environmental and
human rights implications", said their open letter.
"The social, economic, ethical, environmental and
human rights concerns that arise from the field of
synthetic biology go far beyond deterring
bioterrorists and 'evildoers.' Issues of ownership
(including intellectual property), direction and
control of the science, technology, processes and
products must also be thoroughly considered." For the
I hope that OnEarth can report on these issues of
controversy in an even handed way in a future issue.
Director, Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety
Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
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