Biotech calls out for integrity, transparency

By on May 1, 2001

Eric Beresford

RECENT developments in the biological sciences, including genomics, the science of gene mapping and manipulation, have the potential to change human life in ways that make the industrial revolution look like a Sunday school picnic. They offer enormous opportunities for benefit, yet they also bring considerable risk of harm.

The question that must be asked is what sort of social vision is driving these developments and being reinforced by them?

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The biblical Jubilee directly addresses questions of social vision, and offers the promise of freedom from bondage, including the bondage of debt. In a context of social realities that are exclusive, it calls for inclusion, and promises a Sabbath rest not only for the people of God, but also for the land. In Leviticus 25, it becomes clear that without a rest for the land, without the seven cycles of fallow land, there can be no Sabbath for the people of the land.

We can examine how the promises offered in the new biotechnologies stand up to such a vision. Bioprospecting is a practice common among the major biotech companies. It identifies the genetic resources of developing nations and indigenous societies, and then files applications for patents on those resources based on the so-called “discovery” of natural products that have been in use for centuries.

Of course, biotech companies need some means of protecting their investment in research and development, but Jubilee provisions set some limits to that: Limits that begin with the assumption that the natural world is available to all, and belongs to none.

Society needs to be specific when it talks about riches and benefits from biotechnology. When companies promise that biotechnology offers food for a hungry world, this is a good thing.

Is it possible that ownership of the genetic resources of the world, concentrated in the hands of a few biotech companies, will improve food distribution?

The present challenge is not food production, but rather food distribution. The green revolution of the seventies and eighties vastly increased the capacity of India to produce food and turned that nation into a net exporter of grain. Yet it has not solved the chronic hunger and malnutrition in that country.

Jubilee is also about sight for the blind – it has something to say about the truth of our vision of the world around us, about integrity, and transparency. How can we speak of giving sight to the blind when we cannot even see what we are eating because of the resistance to proper labelling?

Jubilee invites us to choose a very particular point of view: one that acknowledges our place in a creation, which is interdependent, an expression of the divine love, and in which each part has a place. Jubilee invites us to a perspective that attends to the hopes and fears of the most vulnerable, the hungry and the landless, the marginalized and excluded.

It asks us to become sensitive to those who are further excluded because of changes to the structure of agriculture associated with biotechnological change.

The Jubilee invites us neither to be dazzled by our own technological virtuosity, nor to demonize what is new and different, but to see it from within the context of the new society that God is at work creating amongst us. We should confront the challenges of biotechnology not with some studied neutrality, or detached objectivity – the so called view from nowhere – but with a passionate commitment to see and participate in the redemptive purposes of God in creation.

This column was adapted from the text of a sermon given in January, 2001 by Canon Eric Beresford, Consultant for Ethics, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City.

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