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Science and profit are the wrong mix

Disasters like the Mexican Gulf oil well leak shine a spotlight on capitalism’s everyday disregard for safety and its short-term approach to scientific data and knowledge.

For example, chemicals used to disperse oil pouring into the sea from the exploded Deepwater Horizon platform will do almost as much damage as the oil. Dispersal simply spreads the exposure of marine life to toxic chemicals over a greater period of time.

Riki Ott, a leading toxicologist who has written extensively about the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster in 1989, said in an interview: "This dispersed oil is extremely toxic to young life forms [which] are a lot more sensitive to toxic chemicals than adults. What we have in the open Gulf is a continuous exposure.”

The announcement this week of a new “life form” created in a laboratory at the J. Craig Venter Institute is another example. This self-reproducing organism made from “off-the-shelf” genes by a computer, has been labelled “extreme genetic engineering” by the ETC Group, which has been monitoring developments in synthetic biology for the past five years.

Dubbed Synthia, the organism was developed in a joint venture between geneticist Craig Venter and Synthetic Genomics Inc. This profit-driven initiative is targeted for use in agro-fuels, pollution clean-ups and industrial agriculture.

No surprise then to discover that one of Synthetic Genomics key investors is – BP. And the other? Exxon! And the third? The US government.

Jim Thomas of the environmental watchdog ETC Group calls synthetic biology a “high-risk profit-driven field” that threatens existing natural bio-diversity with no benefit to humanity as a whole.

But corporations and their client governments love bio and gene science because they smell profits. Supporters are right at the heart of governments. Steven Chu, Obama’s Energy Secretary, was formerly head of an institute which ran a synthetic genome project funded by – you’ve got it, BP.

There may be enthusiasm, and investment of taxpayers money, but there’s little regulation or oversight. Just as in the existing dirty old oil business, these new “clean” industries are left to chase the money, regardless of safety concerns.

In the UN year of bio-diversity, capitalism is engaged in an orgy of destruction, leading to extinctions on a scale greater than the era of the dinosaurs. And as a recent study in the UK found, the rate of emergence of new species is at a standstill.

But new species created recklessly in the laboratory, are being released into the eco-system with little concern for the impact on other species – including human beings.

In China, the introduction of GM cotton has led to an explosion in pests destroying fruit, vegetable and maize crops grown nearby. The GM cotton has its own insecticide built in, allowing unrelated pests to thrive – so nearby farmers are overwhelmed, and even by spraying can’t get the pests under control.

Such unintended consequences are characteristic of the application of science in the capitalist era. The corporation’s use of scientific knowledge has only one intended consequence – the expansion of profit. Leaving science in the dirty hands of the corporations is a recipe for disaster.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
27 May 2010

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