Terminate or be Terminated
The debate over transgenic technology in food and farming has been remarkably unproductive, due largely to the constant battle over how to describe these techniques. Are they radical and dangerous new innovations, capable of shattering the stability of societies and ecosystems, or merely incremental steps within a long tradition?
We should not be surprised at either the location or the virulence of the battle. In the post-deconstruction world, neither religion nor science, faith nor reason can provide solid foundation for a defense of ones ideas, and language – its vocabulary – becomes a hypothesis offered for the description of the world that we hope others will accept. This can be messy, asserts Richard Rorty in his 1989 book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:
Europe did not decide [emphasis in the original] to accept the idiom of Romantic poetry, or of Socialist politics, or of Galilean mechanics. That sort of shift was no more an act of will than it was a result of argument. Rather, Europe gradually lost the habit of using certain words and gradually acquired the habit of using others. […] after a hundred years of inconclusive muddle, the Europeans found themselves speaking in a way which took these interlocked theses for granted. Cultural change of this magnitude does not result from applying criteria….(Pg 6)
Though Rorty cautions against trying to apply external criteria to the task of vocabulary analysis, I will nonetheless attempt an examination of both the internal tensions and effectiveness of certain terms, and an appraisal of their relationship to competing terms. I will, however, attempt to avoid appeals to normative arguments.
Words are not always chosen well, and yet they may stick, like the layout of the typewriter keyboard, which was purposely designed to slow down a typist so the mechanism driving the letter hammers wouldn’t jam, and which is now the largest impediment to quick, error free typing.
Consider the term “organic,” used to describe farmers who eschew the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (as well as hew to a range of other practices). Scientifically trained critics have complained that the word organic actually means “containing carbon” and is therefore useless. But that is within their vocabulary.
Within the vocabulary of organic farmers it means “primarily concerned with the health of the soil ecosystem, the organic matter, including the living organisms in it, whose life processes support and drive the macro and micro nutrient cycles of the earth.” Perhaps it would have been better to use the term “eco-farmer” or “bio-farmer”, but that is not the way it happened.
From this perspective, the term agricultural biotechnology itself would seem poorly chosen by its practitioners. After all, any use of biology or biological organisms to assist our lives is would seem to be reasonably called biotechnology: ancient hunter-gatherers who started to protect or propagate plants; the use of wood fires; the Amish man plowing his field with a horse; using yeast to brew beer or an animal’s milk to feed a baby; all these would fit the term.
If what we are trying to do is determine the wisdom of the technique of inserting genes from diverse organisms into a single organism irrespective of their ability to breed in nature, then the term is essentially useless…it is so broad and inclusive that it doesn’t allow us to make that kind of distinction.
The term genetic modification is little better. It is a bit more specific in that it implies that we are consciously applying our knowledge and skills to modifying the genetics of some organism to make it more useful to us, in the way that a farmer selects the best corn from a field and replants it, or chooses to breed the cow that gives the most milk. Indeed, there is no question that the domestication of animals and plants has modified them from their original, wild form. But again, we have to ask if this term gives us the precision we need to understand the processes under discussion well enough; does it describe this process and no other, or does it hide rather than expose meaning?
Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, identified four uses for speech:
to organize our thoughts or perceptions;
to convey these thoughts or perceptions to others;
to convey our wants and needs to others;
and simply, to please or delight ourselves or others.
He also identifies a characteristic abuse of each: to confuse, by inconsistency; to mislead; to lie or commit fraud; and to cause pain. (Pages 21-22)
Now there are people, some well meaning, some purely after profits, who apparently find the equivocality of the term genetic modification to be useful because it inserts itself into the long tradition of domestication and modification of nature by humankind; yet to me there is clearly a difference between a farmer mating two cows (even by the relatively intrusive method of artificial insemination) and a lab technician inserting the genes of a flounder into the nuclei of a group of tomato cells suspended in a petri dish.
And just as the tools we use to build the physical infrastructure of a culture constrain the forms it can take, grammar and syntax constrain our ability to see the world in new ways. We have a subject-object language and a particulate, causal cosmology.
Philosophers like David Abram (and many others) find this especially true of Judeo-Christian culture which traces much of its cultural heritage back to the Greeks.
In every other respect these two traditions [the Hebraic and Hellenistic], each one originating out of its own specific antecedents, and in its own terrain and time, were vastly different. In every other respect, that is, but one: they were both, from the start, profoundly informed by writing. Indeed, the both made use of the strange and potent technology which we have come to call “the alphabet.”(Pg 95)
Language is a technology like any other. After all, the Greek roots “techne” and “logos” mean “art” and “word” respectively, and it is the core technology with which all others have been built. Without language, the early, herbal knowledge of the hunter-gatherer societies could not have been passed on any more than that of the pre-Platonic Greeks. And the ability, the skill, the technology of writing and reading that language – literacy – which came next is the core technology which made all our other technologies, up to and including current agricultural technologies, possible.
But we are so immersed in language, and have been for thousands of years, we breathe it so deeply, and from such an early age, that we scarcely notice its effect unless we train our attention on it. We go from the expressiveness of infant utterance to fully encultured members of some specific society, retracing in our linguistic development the rise of modern culture the way that, in the womb, our fetal selves replay the stages of biological evolution.
The isolation of abstract meaning from the original expressiveness of language, asserts Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous, along with the development of pictographic and then alphabetic writing systems, mirrors the increasing alienation of humanity from nature, and is a key element in human self-justification of our manipulation of the world in which we live.
Only by isolating this secondary layer of conventional meanings from the felt significance carried by the tone, rhythm, and resonance of spoken expressions can we conceive of language as a code – as a determinate and mappable structure composed of arbitrary signs linked by purely formal rules. (Page 79)
Even if language were no more than an abstract code, an amoral, value neutral technology, ideal for expression of a purely materialist description of nature, whether in mechanistic or cybernetic terms, still the term “genetic engineering” would be only a further, and to my mind insufficient, step toward precision. One has to suspect it is simply an euphemism, like “sanitary engineer”, chosen to ennoble a trade that was seen to have an image problem.
I should note that along with these terms for the technology itself, there are terms introduced for the plants and animals so created: “genetically modified organism” (GMO), “genetically engineered organism” (GEO), “genetically improved organism” (GIO) and “living modified organism” (LMO), to choose just a few.
And the pseudo precision of the vocabulary is reflected in the techniques themselves. As Dr. Michael Hansen, a Research Associate at the Consumer Policy Institute of the Consumer’s Union notes:
GE can control relatively precisely the trait that is being inserted into a host plant genome. However, it cannot yet control the location where the trait is inserted into the genome with any precision, nor guarantee stable expression of the transgene. […] The genetic insertion happens in unpredictable places which can lead to unpredictable effects. Thus, in this key regard, genetic engineering is more random than conventional breeding. (Web pages 4-5)
In fact, hundreds, or even thousands of insertions have to be carried out for each one that is successful. And the degree of success is not only haphazard, but unpredictable because of the uncertainty in how the genetic bundle will interact with the neighboring DNA of which it has become a sudden part. “Because the effect of a gene on the whole organism is significantly governed by its location, the lack of control over location is a significant cause of unexpected effects,” says Hansen. (Web, page 5)
When you insert a segment of DNA into a cell by means of a virus, or by bombarding the cell with projectiles, this is quite different from the sexual recombination that is predominant in nature. Viral transmission occurs regularly in nature (and this is, in fact, one of the fears of the technology’s opponents), but the second is clearly a violation of the cell – in fact, critics like Vandana Shiva would refer to it as rape of the cell. The point is that the term genetic engineering still does not express what it truly different about this technology from earlier agricultural technologies.
The simple fact is that nothing about the substitution of the word engineering or engineered, for the word modification or modified, really has anything to do with the process itself. The transfer of genetic material directly from one cell to another outside the normal, conjugative process is the defining characteristic of this technology, and while it may fall within the definition of the terms previously discussed, to use them as the sole referential term is misleading. To quote Hobbes again:
Of names, some are proper, and singular to one only thing; as Peter, John, this man, this tree: and some are common to many things; as man, horse, tree; every of which, though but one name, is nevertheless the name of diverse particular things; in respect of all which together, it is called a universal, there being nothing in the world universal but names; for the things named are every one of them individual and singular. (Page 22)
The term “transgenic technology” does seem to capture what is singular here: that genetic material from outside the normal range which sexual recombination allows is being mixed, willy-nilly, between bacteria and plants, between animals and plants. Viral transmission aside, the exchange of genetic material is normally restricted to fairly closely related organisms, and this fact is one of the major things that defines a species, the basic unit of taxonomy. All previous human modifications of other organisms have proceeded by sexual means (with the exception of intentional mutations triggered by exposure to chemicals or radiation.) Cloning – which is very common in horticulture – is not, itself, modification, but rather just reproduction of existing organisms or their parts (which is not say that the procedure isn’t used to reproduce transgenic organisms).
In an age where the marriage of science and economics has been consummated by the birth of global industrial corporations, Monsanto’s cunningly named Posilac (Nutrilac in Canada) diary cow stimulant, which reportedly raises milk production by 15-20%, is an ideal product as long as we don’t ask why we need it in a flooded dairy market and what effect its introduction will have on the livelihood of dairy farmers themselves. This transgenic drug is no longer referred to by company PR men as recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), but rather recombinant bovine somata-tropin (rBST), one assumes because the term growth hormone was deemed anxiety producing, while the term somata-tropin was nicely obscure, and more scientific sounding.
On March 3, 1998, Delta & Pine Land company (DPL, the largest cotton seed company in the USA) received a joint patent along with the USDA for what it called TPS, or a “technology protection system.” This is a group of three genes which, in combination, cause crops containing them to produce sterile seed unless treated with a proprietary spray at the proper stage of development. In the press release announcing the patent the company stated that the aim of the system was to
…control unauthorized planting of seed of proprietary varieties (sometimes called ‘brown bagging’) by making such practice uneconomic since unauthorized saved seed will not germinate, and would be useless for planting. (D&PL press release 3/3/98)
but what to DPL was theft, was to the grass roots agricultural activists at Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) a “twelve thousand year old practice of farm families saving their best seed from one year’s harvest for planting the next season.”
In a March 13th press release, RAFI’s Research Director dubbed D&PL’s pride the “Terminator Technology”, and the ball started rolling in a war of words that continues to this day. The image of Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his bulging chest and bristling armament, strutting across a destroyed landscape, was powerful, and the media responded.
A new term was then created: “Genetic use Restriction Technology”, or GURT, of which the “Terminator” was only one type. The opposition responded with the moniker “suicide seeds”, and “traitor technology." But perhaps the most startling image was that applied to the foods made from transgenic crops (and current estimates are that up to 65% of the processed foods in American supermarkets contain transgenic materials) is “Frankenfoods”.
What is striking about these two Rortian vocabularies is that the promoters of transgenic technology use abstract jargon based terms and acronyms to name their creations, while critics favor imagistic, culturally powerful symbolic names. Promoters take what would be widely considered a “left brain”, didactic approach, hoping to wrap themselves in an appearance of reason and expertise, while critics prefer a direct appeal to common images accessible to all, with an emotional immediacy more characteristic of “right brain” psychology. Not surprisingly, an audience of scientifically educated listeners is likely to be more attracted to the former, while those whose training is in the humanities are often seduced by the second.
The battle over agricultural biotechnology is being waged in the arena of language as much as that of science. Language is the reality of human life, and if the motive of communication is corrupt, as Hobbes understood, then the language itself may become corrupt. If those of us who care for, and are the stewards of, the language, allow this corruption to persist, then we will have abdicated our responsibility as guardians of one of humanity’s key technologies, and left its future in the hands of the equivocators.
Note to readers: this paper was originally prepared for a regional meeting of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment entitled “Food and Farming in American Life and Letters” held in Unity, Maine during June 2000. The length was strictly limited, and the audience consisted of “eco-critics”. Thus the subject matter and approach were focused on their likely interests and knowledge base. Thank you.