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Bioethics: A Third World Issue
July 30, 1997

by Dr. Vandana Shiva
Research Institute for Science, Technology and Ecology
New Delhi, India

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.

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 colonization.

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 others rights.

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 municipal limits.

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


The Suman Sahai article to which Dr. Shiva refers was originally published in the journal Biotechnology and Development Monitor.

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