Biopiracy, Monoculture and Biodiversity

"In the era of genetic engineering and patents, life itself is being colonized. Ecological action in the biotechnology era involves keeping the self organization of living systems free- free of technological manipulations that destroy the self healing and self organizational capacity of organisms, and free of legal manipulations that destroy the capacities of communities to search for their own solutions to human problems from the richness of the biodiversity that we have been endowed with."~Biotech activist and Indian physicist Vandana Shiva

If you open up nearly any regional cook book, you will find not only wonderful recipes, but a wealth of local cultural stories, divulging the history of that region's way of cooking. Spices, herbs, plants, and techniques are part of that particular regions micro climate and beauty cultivated through generations of careful breeding. Regional cookbooks allow us a glimpse into the intimate evolution between food and culture involving years of tradition and heritage. Biopiracy threatens this precious heritage.

What is Biopiracy?

In order to find new raw materials for plant production, botanists and agronomists travel around the world on plant expeditions. Most of their destinations are non industrialized lands where the food plants were originally grown. Cuttings and samples are brought back to the labs and these collections become the basis for their new plant varieties.  On the surface this does not seem to pose a problem unless you're looking at this practice from a community heritage point of view.

In an instant, the collective efforts and community heritage of indigenous people, can become the exclusive intellectual property of those who took it. Suddenly, that which belonged to no one or everyone, is under the rule of the patent system that establishes intellectual property rights. "Through intellectual property rights, an attempt is made to take away what belongs to nature, to farmers, and to women, and to term this invasion improvement and progress."

Biopiracy: The Legal Perspective By Michael A. Gollin, J.D.
Council for Health and Development
Indigenous People and Biopiracy
Indigenous Peoples council on Biocolonialism
Intellectual Property Rights and Biodiversity,  Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Third World Network

Monoculture and Biodiversity

As the world gets smaller with the reach of multinational corporations and the industrialization of third world countries, a phenomenon called monoculture is taking place. Local cultures, and generations of tradition are slowly being eroded away and are replaced with a homogenized environment. In other words a monoculture.  Producing everything the same way and in great quantities is far more efficient, and cost saving in terms of dollars and cents, but we lose something else in the transition. Diversity.

We've experienced this very same thing here in the United States. Growing up in Southern California, I loved that each beach town along the coast had its own flavor and style. Mom and pop shops were the norm. It was quaint, unique and fun to explore different areas.

Then things started to change around the mid-1980's. Developers started buying up the main drags, bulldozing the eclectic storefronts and putting up generic strip-mall type edifices. Big name retailers replaced the local merchants, to the point of extinction. So now you can drive from town to town and everything looks the same.

The same with homes. While there were some sections of the town that I grew up in that were considered "track" homes, the majority  were modest custom built homes, where no two houses on a block looked alike. The diversity of architectural style was and is celebrated. Now, custom built home means you get to pick the color of your tile, floor covering and/or interior paint from a pre-approved selection from the builder. One could get lost on their own street because every house is identical. And again, drive from city to city and you see the exact same thing over and over and over.  This is great for the companies who sell these products, but not for us who enjoy diversity.

Now apply this streamlined approach to plant production and you get something that is potentially very dangerous.  If millions of acres of genetically identical plants are planted, we set ourselves up for disaster. It is the built-in defense system in nature to have a broad and diverse genetic base. Biodiversity includes all living organisms ( plants, animals, and genes) and the environments that sustain them. It is a rich biodiversity that allows all creatures and the Earth to survive and adapt to changing conditions. However, if the gene base in a species is identical, then that species is vulnerable to disease and blight. This is exactly the reason for the Irish potato famine in Ireland in 1845. The widespread growing of a genetically similar potato was susceptible to a potato blight.  The same is true for the Cheetah; they are so in-bred that they are vulnerable to diseases that  could wipe out huge populations in one fell swoop. The demise of our plant biodiversity is another tragic side effect of biotech agriculture.

Friends of the Earth on Biodiversity
Union of Concerned Scientists

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