Dr. Vandana Shiva has, once again, supplied us with some of her politics
of science wisdom as applicable to he Third World. This is great
material for our classes and ammunition in our struggle against 21st
Century Imperialism. She welcomes comments and criticisms from us? S. E.
Bioethics: A Third World Issue
by Dr. Vandana Shiva
Dr. Vandana Shiva, well-known, much-honored physicist,
philosopher, ecofeminist director of the Research
Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology,
vice-president of the Third World Network, and author
of several celebrated works including _Staying Alive_,
_The Violence of the Green Revolution_, and
_Monocultures of the Mind_, has asked that this article
be put on the internet and circulated as widely as
possible. The Edmonds Institute is delighted to comply
with her request. Please post her article to whatever
persons or bulletin boards or listservers you think
In a recent article entitled, "The Bogus Debate on
Bioethics", Suman Sahai has stated that ethical
concerns are largely a luxury of developed countries
which the Third World cannot afford. She calls the
bioethics debate an essentially Western phenomenon.
I would like to differ with Suman Sahai on her
presumptions that bioethics is not Indian or Third
World in content or substance and that ethics is a
luxury for the Third World. In fact it is the
separation of ethics from technology that is a
peculiarly Western phenomenon, and by calling the
bioethics debate "bogus", Suman Sahai is speaking like
the transnational biotechnology industry which refers
to ethics as an "irrelevant concern". In fact Suman
Sahai was cheered loudest on the internet by Henry
Miller of Stanford University Hoover Institute, a
right-wing think tank, who has been acting as a major
spokesman of the U.S. biotech industry.
The argument that the Third World cannot afford
bioethics is systematically used by the biotech
industry which states that for the hungry, ethics and
safety is irrelevant. This was also the logic used by
Lawrence Summers when he recommended that polluting
industry should be shifted to the Third World. Removing
ethics from technological and economic decisions is a
western construct. THIS is the imported dichotomy. The
import of this dichotomy enables control and
The separation of science and technology from ethics is
based on the Cartesian divide between res extensa
(matter) and res cognitans (mind), with the objective
mind acquiring objective and neutral knowledge of
nature. It was also constructed by Hume when he said no
logical inference could be drawn from what "is" to what
"ought to be". "Hume's guillotine" was an effective
instrument for separating ethics from science (which in
the empiricist and positivist philosophy was supposed
to provide an objective view of what "is").
However, knowledge and knowing are not neutral -- they
are products of the values of the knower and the
culture of which the knower is a part. Ethics and
science are related because values are intrinsic to
science. Ethics and technology are related because
values shape technology, they shape technology choice,
and they determine who gains and who loses through
impacts of technology on society.
There are a number of reasons why bioethics is even
more important for the Third World than for the West.
Firstly, ethics and values are distinct elements of our
cultural identity and our pluralistic civilization.
The ancient Ishoupanishad has stated:
"The universe is the creation of the Supreme Power
meant for the benefit of all creation. Each individual
life form must, therefore, learn to enjoy its benefits
by farming a part of the system in close relation with
other species. Let not any one species encroach upon
On his 60th birthday His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote
a message to me after my speech on new technologies and
new property rights:
"All sentient beings, including the small insects,
cherish themselves. All have the right to overcome
suffering and achieve happiness. I therefore pray that
we show love and compassion to all."
Tagore in his famous essay Tapovan had stated:
"Contemporary western civilization is built of brick
and wood. It is rooted in the city. But Indian
civilization has been distinctive in locating its
source of regeneration, material and intellectual, in
the forest, not the city. India's best ideas have come
where man was in communion with trees and rivers and
lakes away from the crowds. The peace of the forest has
helped the intellectual evolution of man. The culture
of the forest has fueled the culture of Indian society.
The culture that has arisen from the forest has been
influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life
which are always at play in the forest, varying from
species to species, from season to season, in sight and
sound and smell. The unifying principle of life in
diversity, of democratic pluralism, thus became the
principle of Indian civilization."
Compassion and concern for other species is therefore
very indigenous to our pluralistic culture, and
bioethics builds on this indigenous tradition.
Secondly, bioethics is particularly significant for us
because it is the Third World's biodiversity and human
diversity that is being pirated by Northern
corporations. While the Northern corporations can
afford to say ethics is irrelevant to the appropriation
of the South's biodiversity, the indigenous people and
Third World farmers whose blood samples and seeds are
taken freely and then patented and commercialized
cannot afford to put ethics and justice aside. It is in
fact from Third World communities that the bioethics
imperative has first been raised on these issues.
Thirdly, value dimensions determine the context of
biotechnology development because of safety issues. In
fact, it is the Third World or South which has
introduced Article 19.3 and got a decision within the
Convention on Biological Diversity to develop a
biosafety protocol. It continues to be the Third World
which is leading the debate on the ethics of biosafety.
Bioethics and value decisions are necessary in the
Third World because biotechnology, like any technology,
is not neutral in its impacts. It carries
disproportionate benefits for some people, and
disproportionate costs for others. To ask who gains and
who loses, and what are the benefits and what are the
costs, is to ask ethical questions. It is the Third
World which has raised these issues in the Convention
on Biological Diversity. It is the powerful
industrialized nations which insist that bioethics is a
luxury for the Third World.
Unfortunately, Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign has
joined this Northern chorus singing Bioethics is a
luxury for the Third World. In her paper she assumes
that what is good for transnational corporations (TNCs)
is good for people, that what is good for seed
corporations is good for farmers. She gives the 'Flavr
Savr' tomato as an example of biotechnology application
that is promising to the Third World and suggests that
ethical and value decisions about the 'Flavr Savr' will
block benefits from coming to Indian farmers and
consumers. The 'Flavr Savr' is a bad example because it
was a technology that served the interests of the trade
industry that made tomatoes for prolonged shelf life.
However, the needs of corporate interests do not
reflect the needs of people. The alternative to
prolonged shelf life and long-distance trade is not the
reengineering of fruits and vegetables. The alternative
is to reduce "food miles".
Cuba for example has used the crisis of the US trade
embargo to create thousands of urban organic gardens to
meet the vegetable needs of each city from within its
Long distance transport for basic food stuffs which
could be grown locally serves the interests of global
agribusiness, not the small farmer.
Thus, while Pepsico paid only Rs.0.75 to Punjab farmers
for growing tomatoes, exporters like Pepsico receive
Rs.10/- as subsidies for transport. Without these
subsidies, non-local supply of food controlled by TNCs
and produced with capital intensive methods would not
be able to displace local food production produced
sustainably with low external inputs.
Global traders controlling production and distribution
worldwide need square tomatoes and tomatoes that don't
rot. Small farmers and consumers looking for fresh
produce do not.
People need locally produced food, consumed as close as
possible to the point of production.
In any case, the biotech miracles that are made to look
inevitable don't work reliably either. The 'Flavr Savr'
tomato was a failure and Calgene, the company that
launched it, had to be bailed out by Monsanto.
Exaggerating benefits and universalizing beneficiaries
have major ethical and economic implications. It is
important to look at the realistic achievements of
biotechnology and make ethical decisions on
the basis of what biotechnology has to offer for whom,
both in terms of costs as well as in terms of benefits.
To declare ethics and values as irrelevant to the Third
World in the context of biotechnology is to invite
intellectual colonization. At worst, it is an
invitation to disaster.
Dr. Vandana Shiva can be reached via:
Research Institute for Science, Technology and Ecology
A-60 Hauz Khas
New Delhi 110 016 INDIA
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
The Suman Sahai article to which Dr. Shiva refers was
originally published in the journal "Biotechnology and
Pure Food Campaign, 860 Highway 61, Little Marais,
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