By Daniel Tarade
Another headline catches my eye. “Non-addictive CRISPR-edited tobacco could help eliminate smoking,” states the NewScientist. For a futurologist, the headline checks off a couple of boxes. Gene-editing, check. Mass health benefit, check. As a ‘science enthusiast’ growing up, these headlines always provided hope. Scientists, ever brave and brilliant, would continue to chip away at the problems plaguing humankind. That one day our society would transcend the biological agents that bring about misery. We would eradicate cancer, HIV/AIDS, and global warming. A graveyard filled with the dominos toppled by humanity’s best and brightest. However, a series of revelations has inverted my worldview. I now see that our choices, as scientists, in tackling the ails of the world have to do more with patent laws than genuine goodwill. Through our collision with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, scientists at non-profit institutes have been co-opted by the capitalist machine. Even if it means people suffer. The only way to untangle the scientific process from corporate interest is to deconstruct the myths of human achievement over the natural world. To reclaim science as a means of helping to alleviate suffering, we need to instead embrace a worldview where health is a universal right that is best met by socialist ideology.
Let’s start with a famous example. Norman Borlaug is credited with saving millions of lives by developing new strains of high-yield wheat. In doing so, Borlaug ushered in the ‘Green Revolution’ and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. As written in his Nobel Prize biography, Borlaug was a “practical humanitarian” that strived to leverage his agricultural creations to “feed the hungry people of the world.” A Scientific American article describes the heavy stakes under which Borlaug operated as he “helped stave off apocalyptic famine predictions.” Borlaug is painted as a hero, a scientific Mother Teresa. But is is possible that the legend of Borlaug, of man triumphing over nature, validates and perpetuates a system of exploitation?
The paradigm that Borlaug operated under was heterosis or hybrid vigour. When a hybrid of two true breeding plants is improved in some function (yield, drought-resistance, soil requirements, etc), that is heterosis. Hybrid crops arrived on the scene in the early 1900s. Rather than generating true breeds with favourable traits, agriculturalists began crossing true breeds to create hybrids. What was the logic behind this strategy? A plant equivalent of DRM. Richard C. Lewontin quotes George H. Shull and Edward M. East, developers of hybrid corn, in Ideology as Biology;
…[I]t is the first time in agricultural history that a seedsman is enabled to gain the full benefit from a desirable origination of his own or something that he has purchased…The man who originates a new plant which may be of incalculable benefit to the whole country gets nothing-not even fame-for his pains and the plant can be propagated by anyone…The utilization of the first generation hybrids enables the originator to keep the parental types and give out only the crossed seeds, which are less valuable for continued propagation.
This justification for hybrid crop programs is often not mentioned. It would tarnish the facade and raise questions about the intentions of global agricultural programs. Rather, the orthodoxy of hybrid crop superiority is touted; that only hybrid crops can achieve the yields necessary to feed a growing population. This is false. It’s that private enterprises would not profit from generating true breeds. In 1920, it was Henry A. Wallace who encouraged his father, the newly minted Secretary of Agriculture, to invest into hybrid breeding.[i] Within a few years, Wallace the younger began selling hybrid corn seed (generated from government-developmed true breeds) at an immense profit. He later founded Pioneer Hybrid International, one of the largest seed companies in the world. Public innovation. Private profit. Once the gears of capitalism start turning-and pain points identified-it is hard to stop. As it went, the science underlying the heterosis theory went unquestioned for many years. The original paradigm of heterosis hypothesized that hybrids are better because mixing-and-matching alleles results in improved physiology. This idea is bunk.[i] In fact, any early claim of hybrid vigour is dubious and actual benefits are hard to uncouple from other innovations in fertilizer, crop rotation, and mechanization. Or the fact that the hybrid breeding programs benefited from a massive influx of taxpayer dollars. Even when it had became clear that simple artificial selection could generate true breeds that are just as high-yield, government-funded programs remained focused on hybrids. A myth, once created, is hard to destroy.
Even though Norman Borlaug has ascended to legendary status, some still question the true impact of his research on wheat hybrids. People are in agreement that Borlaug helped to delay famine in parts of the world, but it seems the ‘solution’ also increased wealth inequality. From the beginning, when Borlaug began research on wheat in Mexico, he prioritized working with “large, well capitalized [farms] owned either Mexicans who fully identified with the European aspects of Mexican culture or by North Americans from the United States” as opposed to “smalls [farms] operated by impoverished peasants.”[ii] This was important because only the wealthy, corporate farms could afford to buy hybrid seed and agrochemicals every year. This might not jive with the popular conception of Borlaug today but plant breeding operated under the ideology of Population-national security theory; that ‘resource exhaustion’ around the world would lead to communist insurrection and a threat to American interests. Quoting John H. Perkins (Geopolitics and the green revolution: wheat, genes, and the cold war);
In [Population-national security theory], hunger was a symptom of overpopulation and resource exhaustion, and it in turn became a cause of further resource exhaustion and political instability. Plant breeding was seen as a remedy for hunger because the science could increase and stabilize yields.
The primary “American interest’ threatened by communist revolutions is corporate. It follows that these corporations would exert political and financial muscle to prevent communism. In choosing a method of plant breeding, corporate influence resulted in profitable actions being chosen. Rather than empower the poor farmer, American corporations tightened control of food production abroad and generated obscene profits. All while lounging under the guise of humanitarianism.
In reality, western intervention did the bare minimum to prevent upheaval. As Borlaug himself admitted, poverty is still rampant in Asia, despite what he saw as an improvement in crop yields.[iii] Researchers have since challenged even the idea of sustained improvements in crop yield. In Pakistan, increases in fertilizer usage and uptake of new ‘high-yield’ wheat strains matched predictions but the yield of these modern varieties has not increased.[iv] The introduced wheat cultivars have replaced native crops, like legumes, and require more water and synthetic fertilizer. The fertilizers are patented and have allowed American companies to generate incredible profit off of the local farmer. Who cares if the Pakistani farmer doesn’t reap increased yields, as long as they buy our fertilizer and sow our seed. Rather than re-assessing the feasibility of science-ing our way past the poverty and famine brought about by capitalism, Borlaug doubled-down on GMOs in his later life. He even framed his position on GMOs as “standing up to the antiscience crowd.”[v] I do not ascribe to the criticisms made about GMOs on the basis of dietary health, but the social and economic ramifications are clear. GMOs represent a more refined hybrid crop model where the seeds themselves are patented and packaged with proprietary pesticides. Continued consolidation of the seed industry has resulted in an oligopoly that has a stranglehold on global food production. Profits are staggering for the corporation while suicide among small Indian farmers has become an epidemic. The real kicker? In the serene of an oligopoly, with ridiculous profit-margins, private investment in agricultural research has declined. They hardly have to pretend anymore. Bayer and company are not in the business of feeding people. They are in the business of exploitation. Through and through, Borlaug was a capitalist who could not separate humanitarianism and scientific research from ideals of market share and intellectual property. For fuck’s sake, he said the following on the 30th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize;
Clearly, we need to rethink our attitudes about water, and move away from thinking of it as nearly a free good, and a God-given right.[iii]
Is this the same person that Nature recently editorialized as being guided by “[the] principle…that food is the moral right of all who are born into this world?” The fundamental idea that we need to work on sustainable agriculture is not wrong. And Borlaug did recognize that hunger is bad. So that’s something. I am also not arguing that Borlaug was disingenuous or insincere in his convictions that hybrid crops and GMOs are the only way to feed all people on the planet. My argument is that only someone like Borlaug would ever be championed by business, government, and scientists as a hero. Those who instead advocate for economic reform, profit sharing, labour rights, and cooperative movements as an answer to famine and poverty are never to be canonized by the establishment.
Now back to tobacco. Smoking cigarettes is indeed a major health determinant. One-third of all adult cancers (in the US) are related to smoking. Not just lung cancer either; liver and colorectal cancer are also causally connected with consumption of tobacco products. The insanity? Big tobacco, ever profit-loving, stills sells 300 billion cigarettes a year in America. A product that tobacco companies knew caused cancer but, to protect profits, instead launched a disinformation campaign. So what actually causes lung cancer? The cigarettes or the evil hucksters. Yet, the future of public health intervention in this arena is gene-edited tobacco? The lead scientists report no financial conflicts of interest. I believe them. As scientists, we have to chase grants, and CRISPR-based gene editing is super hot. Their choice to pursue gene editing was probably less influenced by what will be most most beneficial to society and more to do with what will be funded. But one reason that gene editing has exploded as a field is that people stand to make a lot of money. You can patent a genetically modified organism. Universities, run like a corporation, are always looking to expand their IP portfolio in hopes of strengthening connections with industry. Ultimately, the development of a GMO crop will not proceed under a socialized model, despite public funding having initiated the project. The University will develop the crop with industry and the non-addictive, but still toxic cigarettes, will be sold by Philip Morris. Maybe they will lobby to advertise these new “reduced risk” cigarettes to kids? Who knows?
You might be wondering why tobacco companies would develop low-nicotine cigarettes. That would surely hurt their bottom line, right? Well, tobacco in the western world faces an uphill battle to maintain demand. Fewer people are smoking due to health concerns, but what if you could make a cigarette that is not as bad? Or, more beneficial, a product that is not perceived as bad. Cigarette companies have been selling “reduced risk” products for decades. In reality, these products have less nicotine but are just as harmful. Philip Morris and company know this. Since the 1980s, in fact, internal memos reveal that tobacco companies were aware that the pubic was confused about the relative harm of reduced nicotine products.[vi] At no point were tobacco companies going to set the record straight. Instead, scientists at Philip Morris advocated to increase tar content to compensate for a lack of nicotine or to instead reduce nicotine a token amount, strictly for marketing purposes, while retaining addictiveness. Since, publicly-funded research has since shown the same phenomena; the consumer believes nicotine-reduced products are healthier.[vii] Now, it is the case the nicotine-replacement therapy (nicotine gum, patches, and inhalers) and nicotine-reduced cigarettes can help people quit smoking.[viii, ix] For these reasons, the WHO[x] and the FDA have included reduced nicotine cigarettes in their plans for combatting smoking. In 2017, the FDA has announced their intention to lower nicotine levels in cigarettes. The language used by these regulatory bodies is one of science. They aim to identify science-based interventions that can improve public health. As a result, there is not intention of cutting private corporations out of the equation. Rather, mandates will be given for profit-driven tobacco companies to reduce nicotine levels. The focus on private corporations developing and profiting off of treatments for the problem they created is nauseating. It is no wonder that Philip Morris came out in support of FDA-regulation of tobacco (before 2009, tobacco was not under the control of the FDA). The cigarette companies know that, in order to continue making profit, they need to repair their image. By working closely with regulators, they can lobby for minimal changes in cigarette content while benefitting from the appearance of transparency and reduced risk. As noted in a meta analysis on the effect of nicotine-replacement therapy, the clinical trials that showed improved rates in quitting tobacco also featured behavioural support and monitoring.[viii] These public health strategies do not get as much attention and are obviously not supported by tobacco companies. So why do government proposals not include funding for behavioural support? For mental health support? In a truly socialist and person-first model of public health intervention, nicotine reduced cigarettes would be produced by the government and provided free of charge to the smoking public along with the support of a councillor. Something akin to safe injection sites. In such settings, people can be educated about the risks and benefits of reduced nicotine cigarettes as a tool. The ultimately focus would be to reduce the smoking populace, unlike the obvious intentions of Philip Morris and co.
The mythos of science obscures any practical intervention. The heroes of science set their sights on the natural world, where tobacco resides, not the human world, where tobacco purveyors rule. We legislate and genetically attack tobacco as if it is a sentient being hellbent on causing cancer. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, big tobacco is invited to our strategy meetings, where they generously offer to lead the charge against cigarettes. For a small fee of course. By developing nicotine free transgenic tobacco crops, scientists can lead a “tobacco revolution.” A mythos will be created that focuses on individual scientists and the millions of lives they saved by helping people quick smoking, rather than corporate and political interests. That would be the analogy to the “green revolution” lead by Norman Borlaug. Hunger exists due to exploitation as does cigarette addiction. Yet, both have been naturalized and made the priority of scientists. The only solutions that survive are the profitable because scientists are kept at arms-length from the capital necessary to implement public health strategies. We are co-opted in the process of profit generation and, for our effort, made into heroes.
[i] Berlan, J. P., & Lewontin, R. C. (1986). The political economy of hybrid corn. Monthly Review, 38, 35-48.
[ii] Perkins, J. H. (1997). Geopolitics and the green revolution: wheat, genes, and the cold war. Oxford University Press on Demand.
[iii] Borlaug, N. E. (2002). The green revolution revisited and the road ahead. Stockholm, Sweden: Nobelprize. org.
[iv] Byerlee, D., & Siddiq, A. (1994). Has the green revolution been sustained? The quantitative impact of the seed-fertilizer revolution in Pakistan revisited. World Development, 22(9), 1345-1361.
[v] Borlaug, N. E. (2000). Ending world hunger. The promise of biotechnology and the threat of antiscience zealotry. Plant physiology, 124(2), 487-490.
[vi] Dunsby, J., & Bero, L. (2004). A nicotine delivery device without the nicotine? Tobacco industry development of low nicotine cigarettes. Tobacco control, 13(4), 362-369.
[vii] Denlinger-Apte, R. L., Joel, D. L., Strasser, A. A., & Donny, E. C. (2017). Low nicotine content descriptors reduce perceived health risks and positive cigarette ratings in participants using very low nicotine content cigarettes. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 19(10), 1149-1154.
[viii] Moore, D., Aveyard, P., Connock, M., Wang, D., Fry-Smith, A., & Barton, P. (2009). Effectiveness and safety of nicotine replacement therapy assisted reduction to stop smoking: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bmj, 338, b1024.
[ix] Benowitz, N. L., Hall, S. M., Stewart, S., Wilson, M., Dempsey, D., & Jacob, P. (2007). Nicotine and carcinogen exposure with smoking of progressively reduced nicotine content cigarette. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Biomarkers, 16(11), 2479-2485.
[x] World Health Organization. (2015). Global nicotine reduction strategy. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO.