Bio-economy or Bio-Industrialisation?
When discussing this new, vast and increasingly heavily capitalised scientific field of bio-economy other terms spring to mind like bio-mechanisation, bio tech and bio-industrialisation. The first term suggests mechanical parts though we do nowadays refer to bio engineering which no longer conjures up images of moving mechanical parts like in a child's meccano set from decades ago. Rather it indicates something that has been made or modified i.e. artificially put together or manufactured and could as well apply to a prosthetic as to genetically modified wheat (though the latter is not made, rather stuck together like a collage - a gene collage).
Bio-industrialisation I much prefer because it implies bio-production and therefore serial production of biological products. The entire concept, suitably modified, then can benefit from the kind of treatment one finds in Capital 1 by Marx, particularly the section Machinery and Modern Industry though today we would be dealing with computers, scanners, chemical tests and so on, whilst the question of the motive power (electricity) is scarce worth mentioning. (Actually it is but for different reasons) It would also be worthwhile to look at the chapters prior to the section on machinery and seek to understand their logical progression. The preceding chapter is entitled The Division of Labour and Manufacture and deals with the breaking down of the work process into its constituent parts and co-operation, which is the title of the prior chapter. This chapter is only 14 pages long and in a famous aside Marx says the reason why a dozen persons working together will, in their collective working day of 144 hours, produce more than 12 isolated men each working 12 hours, is because man is 'a social animal' and 'not as Aristotle contends, a political' one. But how to apply this obvious truth to the bio-industries is a question as thorny as a bramble bush. The spirit of cooperation is to be found in the critiques of the bio-industries; it has not as yet arisen organically from the bio-industry's work force. The transformation of bio-labour is not comparable to the transformation of handicraft into mechanized labour: we cannot compare the handicraft production of furniture with that found in a furniture factory to the present day mass production of synthesized organic compounds derived from plants and fungi whose existence may have first been detected by a medicine man and who may well have engaged others to collect the stuff from the wild, and who then helped prepare and extract the medicinal properties.
How relevant are other chapters in Capital 1 to the bio industry? Proceeding backwards from the chapter on Co-Operation we have 'The Concept of Relative Surplus value' (this can be applied without much difficulty) then the 'Rate and Mass of Surplus Value', 'The Working Day' (pressures to lengthen it will certainly apply), 'The Rate of Surplus Value', 'Constant and Variable Capital' (most certainly - e.g. increasingly sophisticated computerised aids like Craig Venter's use of computers to speed up the mapping of the human genome so he could then privately own the results) 'The Labour Process' (an unqualified yes: 'Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and nature'. Marx starts with primitive labour but not with that 'primitive instinctive form of labour that reminds us of the mere animal'. What distinguishes the labour of man from that of the spider and bee is imagination, the capacity to envisage the result.) All these chapters come under the general heading The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value. The 'Division of Labour and Manufacture comes under the general heading Production of Relative Surplus Value.
As we retrace our steps we come to Part 1 Commodities and Money and here we are on much firmer ground. No one, just no one, is going to doubt the importance of money to the bio-industries as the following notes on the Australian bio-industry demonstrates. But do parts one, two, three and four of Das Kapital necessarily follow each other as spring, summer, autumn and winter in all instances of capitalist production? And how do we even selectively apply them to the bio-economy?
Why is Australia to the forefront of the new bio-prospecting plus commercial ecology industries? The answer lies in its virgin rain forests and two firms in particular: Cerylid Biosciences in Melbourne and Ecobiotics in Queensland . Cerylid Biosciences claims to have the world's largest library of Australian biotic extracts taken from more than 60,000 samples collected from marine macro-organisms microbes and plants. It has partners overseas in Aventis (of GM food fame), Chiron in the US and Chugai in Japan - these three firms have been given access to the library in return for any later revenues and royalties. The CEO Jackie Fairley says about 85% of plants and drugs in Australia are found nowhere else. Some of these firms are colossal corporations. The Franco-German drug company Aventis not so long ago had bankers and lawyers working on hostile bids for a much larger rival, Sanofi, who pocketed a cool 150 million dollars. Yes, these are the sums bandied about now in bio-engineering.
Merely a few years ago, ecology was popularly conceived as a profession for the 'spiritually' dedicated bravely fighting for the planet's future against brutal odds. Nothing now could be farther from the truth as capitalism and ecology walk hand in hand. The CEOs' of Ecobiotics also turn their eco training to capital account. Instead of gathering as many examples as possible in the hope of finding some sort of useful bio activity, they use their background as rain forest ecologists to help them narrow down their research. Out of every 100 samples they collect, 85% have the bio-activity they were looking for. 'It's our understanding of the environment that has allowed us to be so successful' says co-founder Victoria Gordon. 'As far as bio-discovery goes, the best place to be is in highly biodiverse areas - and the most biodiverse region on earth is the tropical rainforest'. Location, Location Location - Ecobiotics is located close to the state's tropical rainforest!
Victoria is the Australian state most developed for bio-tech companies. It is home to 38% of the country's bio-tech companies including the largest CSL which makes blood products and vaccines and which also has manufacturing bases in Europe and the US. There are also medical device companies: Resmid was founded in 1989 to commercialise a facial mask created at university of Sydney for treating sleeping disorders and Sonic Health employs more than 10,000 people and a core business providing pathology and radiology testing to GP's.
All this has to be paid for and Bio-Tech Capital is an investment fund for bio-tech industry. These must have a retinue of brokers to invest with them and lack of local funds requires overseas partnerships or overseas investment. Drugs developed by bio-medical though aided by big chemical companies like Glaxo Smith Kline. Biota of Melbourne has developed flu drug Relenza though GSK has global sales and marketing rights.
There is also a Blair/Brownite state/private partnership amounting to £60 million: a consortium of universities and research institutes seeking to attract money from Big Pharma and federal government including a national stem cell centre in Melbourne and Neuro-sciences in Victoria. University labs are also leased to private companies. Ecobiotics outsources much of its researches using Queensland 's Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane to do anti-cancer testing and CSIRO Molecular Sciences in Melbourne for chemical analysis.
The potential of a block buster drug is what counts which instantly alters market valuations. The temptation is there for scientific entrepreneurs to big up their researches, in short to resort to share ramping, to bring in more cash some of which then goes directly in to their pockets and their word means more than any broker's.
Below Australia lays Antarctica and a similar gold mine or rather gold mines for other prospecting and not just bio-prospecting. Today, both the Arctic and Antarctica have increasingly become dangerous and highly contentious areas for potential, even immanent world conflict, because rival power blocks are beginning to claim huge chunks as their own. This predation smacks of the European inter-imperialist rivalries of the late 19th century and, like the late 19th century it's basically a battle over mineral resources in the ground especially oil, now that the dreaded moment of Peak Oil hovers on the horizon or indeed, maybe here seeing the world's oil companies statistics on what stocks they possess are so mind bogglingly opaque. It even smells like something of a re-run of the Englishman's Hobson's thesis on Liberal Imperialism which Lenin was to plagiarise. This time though rivalry meets end game because fossil fuels - that by now well known rape of the earth which we have lived with for the last 50 years or so - is reaching a frightening apogee which could well lead to renewed inter-imperialist conflict of far more appalling proportions than that which created the First World War, never mind the final ecological ruin and virtual extinction of life which would be part and partial of its holocaust.
If this is not frightening enough, Antarctica is prey to another gold rush akin to the patenting of Australia 's bio-diversity in its northern rain forests. Bio-prospecting has now become the big thing in the frozen wastes. The UN warns of danger of turning Antarctica's microscopic life forms into a billion dollar industry making everything from detergents to cancer treatments. It could mean a literal 21st century gold rush plundering in Antarctica for its extremophiles bacteria, fungi and algae. The UN found 62 patents in European patent Office that elide on Antarctic wildlife and 300 references and 92 applications referring to Antarctica in US patent and trademark office. There's a problem with IPR threatening to undermine international rules (who owns Antarctica ?) Also there are environmental problems of harvesting resources. Bio-prospecting is usually done by consortia composed of private and public bodies. This has made it difficult to draw a line between scientific research and commercial activities. Financial gain is a motive for much of the research. The UN estimates that the market for products derived from genetic resources in cosmetics and drug industry is worth up to $100 billion, 62% of cancer drugs approved by US Food and Drugs Administration are of natural origin or modelled on natural products. 'The greatest commercial impact so far has been made by enzymes from extremophiles. Due to the species robust nature the enzymes can be exposed to harsh conditions such as bleach chemicals and high temperature, and have been successfully used as protein degrading additives in detergents' according to the UN report. In glycoprotein commercial bio-prospectors have found an antifreeze in Antarctic cod. It is now being investigated as a way of improving freeze tolerance in commercial plants improving production of fish farming in cold climates extending shelf life of frozen foods and improving surgical techniques for transplanting of frozen organs and tissues.
In Britain more than a million genetically modified animals mainly mice were used in medical experiment since 2006 four times as many as in 1995 and such experiments are expected to increase rapidly in future years. World wide, dogs, cats, cattle, pigs, sheep goats, monkeys, quail, chicken fish and insects have all been genetically modified or cloned.
Genetic modification is a 30 year old technology. It involves inserting an extra gene or modifying the expression of an existing gene within the DNA of the animal. It is mainly about the production of agricultural or pharmaceutical products.
Oncomouse: Engineered to develop cancer it enabled researchers to use IRT as a model of the disease. It was involved in one of the earliest patent applications on an animal.
Spider silk goats: Spider silk protein gene is inserted into goats to extract the substance from their milk. The silk is stronger than steel so could be used in industry.
Humanised cattle: A range of experiments have tried to introduce important human genes into cattle so that pharmaceutical proteins can be extracted from their milk
Knock out mice: Mice have a gene modified or destroyed so that scientists can study the outcome. Evidently it has created a 'revolution' in the understanding of mammalian genes.
Consider below two bizarre experiments culled from the newspapers though separated by 50 years.
Finally we end up with the monster Craig Venter. Venter, the grotesque realisation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein nearly two hundred years later but a Frankenstein in infinitely commercial democratic form because it opens up onto a commercially democratic DIY vista one heralded by the evolution of Bill Gate's Microsoft, patenting and thieving geek experiment every which way repackaging them in a visually acceptable way, thus easy to handle and making Gate's the richest thief, er man in the world, until the arrival of Venter who has obviously modelled himself on the boss of Microsoft. DNA sampling or Synbio will most likely within the next 20 years be presented as a software programme allowing every home grown experimenter leeway to organically destroy the world by way of biological montage and a form of Picasso's synthetic cubism become horror story.
In episodes of high drama, Craig Venter was initially labelled a high school drop out and beach bum according to his book: My Life decoded: My genome - My Life When denied the funds to expand his ambitious DNA sequencing project within the government lab where he was working he formed an association with a venture capitalist to set up a non profit research institute, The Institute of Genome Research: an associated commercial company, Human Genome Sciences would patent all the TIGRs gene discoveries. He then fell out with his commercial backers. Venter then entered a new pact with the devil to set up the company Celera Genomics claiming he could set up sequencing the whole human genome in two years on his own. He set up Celera in direct competition with an international collaboration that he publicly ridiculed for being cumbersome slow and riven with internal politics. Venter reveals how frequently he was at odd with backers, but in the end he bowed to their demands for commercial secrecy. He became personally identified with the quest to own the genome, attracting even more opprobrium from those on the public side who eventually ensured that a human sequence as complete and accurate as possible was freely available in public databases. Venter never an opportunity to claim for himself the title of first or fastest---it is always my new method, my discovery and indeed my genome. Large egos are far from unusual in science but Venter's is an extreme case and his is a study in ambition. What we miss is any examination of the ethics of access to genomic information or any sense of wonder at the mysteries that the cracking of life code is beginning to reveal. The Double Helix by Watson launched the genre of confessional biography.
In the Guardian of October 22nd 2007, journo Madeleine Bunting came up with one of her less pulled punches articles involving Synbio and the final happening Graig Venter needs to make him the numero uno richest man in the world. Synbio is about using nature as a giant meccano set building entirely new organisms from bits of DNA called bio-bricks in what is known as the bottom up approach. In this Brave New World synthetic biologists will work like graphic designers building new organisms on their laptops and emailing them off to the gene foundry for construction. Already huge money is being ploughed in. Venter and his colleagues are plastering every step of their research with sweeping broad brush patent applications. It's a gold rush and by 2015 it is estimated that a fifth of the chemical industry (worth $1.8trillion dollars) could be dependent on Synbio. The public have to be kept on side and persuaded that the risks of Synbio are worth taking. What leading synthetic biologists don't want is a public backlash and heavy handed government interference. So beware of how we are being sold this scientific revolution with pledges to help Africa 's poor the poster child for Synbio is the production of a cheap anti-malarial drug, there is a shortage of artemisinin extracted from the wormwood tree. Most tantalising possibilities might offer help with climate change bacteria that could soak up carbon dioxide by creating vast slurry pits of bacteria. Freeman Dyson has suggested creating black leaved forests for a more efficient use of sunlight in an article on Synbio in the New York Review of Books. We could shortly be busy creating our own biodiversity to replace the one we have lost. In the minds of these apostles we might have a new improved nature. Whatever, the future is an industrialisation of nature.
How Synbio could go wrong keeps scientists awake at night. Drew Endy at MIT has said: 'I expect this technology will be misapplied'. And it would be irresponsible to have a conversation about the technology without acknowledging this fact. Synbio has the potential to be a highly accessible technology much like electronics is today. In a decade thousands of labs and science graduates are likely to be able to practise Synbio making the task of regulating its use extremely difficult. Creating fantastic bacteria in a lab is one thing what happens in the case of an escape and the bacteria crossed with its wild cousins? The whole point of this science is the development of large scale use outside the lab but what can we predict, what consequences could releasing these new organisms have? Moreover, we know less than 1% of existing bacteria and have very little understanding how they mutate. We need responsible scientists but that's long been the sickest of jokes; besides the promise of huge riches will keep driving development - Venter claims that if he pulls of this organism, it could be worth billions even trillions of dollars in licensing deals.
When here we have mentioned techniques of modern art in relation to these scientific experiments we're not too short of the mark especially techniques facilitating collage, montage and photo-montage extending to the typical surrealist found object estranged encounter redolent of Lautreamont's famous dictum: "As beautiful as the chance encounter of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissecting table" except the deployment of an adjective like 'beautiful' is meant to be ironic, displaced, suggestive of frissons far removed from traditional connotations of beauty. In these two texts; these two interconnected texts from Georges Bataille to Bio-industrialisation we can see the links between avant garde showpieces like Genesis P Orridge and Graig Venter in miming and maiming techniques which may be reaching their final realisation and the possible point of total destruction of all life on earth.
Stuart Wise : January 2008
For further recent commentary related to the above read the following in the "Wreckage & bric-a-brac" series: