Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are science educators, all over TV and the internet. Nye is an aeronautical engineer, a one-time member of the team that delivered the Boeing 747. Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of NYC’s Hayden Planetarium. Over the years both have had lots of mostly sensible things to say about the disastrous prospects of human caused climate change.
But Tyson and Nye now assure us all that GMO technologies in the hands of the same corporate profiteers and rent extractors who are melting the North Pole, Greenland and a good deal of Antarctica to get the last few trillion in fossil fuel profits – are nothing to worry about, are perfectly OK and no cause for concern.
To their credit, Tyson and Nye don’t themselves say “Trust your corporate overlords, Bill Gates and Monsanto just want to feed the world...” But they do come pretty close. Bill Nye’s Netflix show included a Monsanto exec to say exactly those words and Tyson appeared opposite a scientist and organic farmer who declared that not one person has ever been poisoned, maimed or killed by a genetically modified product. Ever since then that’s been their position.
They’re talking like lawyers, not like scientists. Nye and Tyson fail to take into account the the waves of tens of thousands of excess suicides among hopelessly indebted poor farmers in India the last 15 years, farmers whose debt load had been greatly increased dependence on costly commercial seed and pesticide.
They lost their land, their hope and their lives. Even if Monsanto didn’t poison them, the seed and pesticide and biotech entrepreneurs were part of the machine that killed them.
Farmers had been planting seed, feeding people, saving exchanging and planting more seed ten or twenty thousand years without having to pay Monsanto and its allies. But the investors at Monsanto had a vision. They called it “value capture” in global agriculture, the establishment of new private property rights which would enable them to extract revenue, to collect rent on the ordinary operation of seeds and natural processes. Investors in the new “life science industries” tirelessly lobbied judges and government officials to establish “intellectual property” rights over seeds and genetic material, including those found in plants, animals and humans. Once they got this written into case law and treaties, as I wrote back in 2005
“American corporations beginning in the 1990s were able file a blizzard of patents claiming varieties of rice and wheat grown for centuries in India, beans cultivated before Columbus in Mexico, a staggering array of medicinal plants known and used by local inhabitants of Africa, of South and Southeast Asia, of Amazonia and elsewhere, along with the foods and medicines derived from them, and their methods of preparation as the private “intellectual property” of those corporations.”
That was plan A for the new genetic engineering entrepreneurs, and it’s the clearest possible indication that in their hands this is a purely parasitic operation, a jacked up raiding party.
Their Plan B was even worse. It was development of something called the terminator seed. Terminator seed technology amounts to the ability to guarantee a seed of some vital crop only lasts a single generation so that your farmers, your victims are forced to pay the owner whose “intellectual property” they had been carelessly saving, eating, exchanging and cultivating for thousands of years until now. The genetic engineering entrepreneurs wanted to use their new property rights to turn seed germination off until you, or third world farmers, paid them.
This was too naked a play. There was immense pushback all over the world against the development of terminator seed technology, so much so that the industry wishes we’d forget the term and now calls it something else. Eventually the Department of Agriculture was forced to make investors whole by buying up some of the relevant patents and other rights.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s argument that everything we eat is genetically modified already so never mind doesn’t cut it either. The slow process of genetic modification via old fashioned selective breeding is what got us milk cows and goats and rice, domestic animals and food crops. The pace and scope of changes possible with our current and future ability to directly swap genetic material make it something qualitatively different, unless again you’re speaking less like a science educator and more like somebody else’s lawyer. The research priorities during the millennia our ancestors took to develop coffee, and sheep and rice and watermelon were also not directed by the same greedy capitalist corporations which tried to give us the terminator seed and has given us cancer alleys in Texas and Louisiana and a toxic dead spot in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey.
Science educators Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye can talk for hours about genetic engineering without once mentioning corporations. When they talk about genetic engineering and never about the commons or whether corporations should be extracting rent from nature and global agriculture, they abandon the curiosity of educators and scientists and become PR hacks for powerful corporate parasites whose purpose is to extract rent from the operation of seeds and natural processes. When it comes to genetic engineering the educational conversation is not about the shiny tools. It has to be about who rules.
For Black Agenda Report I’m Bruce Dixon. Visit us at blackagendareport.com, the only African American owned and oriented site targeted by the Washington Post as being under the alleged influence of the Russians.