Bioethics -A Third World Issue

By Dr. Vandana Shiva

NEW DELHI, India, July 30, 1997 (ENS) - In a recent article entitled,

"The Bogus Debate on Bioethics," published in the journal Biotechnology

and Development Monitor, Suman Sahai has stated that ethical concerns

are largely a luxury of developed countries which the Third World cannot

afford. She calls the bioethics debate an essentially Western


I would like to differ with Suman Sahai on her presumptions that

bioethics is not Indian or Third World in content or substance, and that

ethics is a luxury for the Third World. In fact it is the separation of

ethics from technology that is a peculiarly Western phenomenon, and by

calling the bioethics debate "bogus," Suman Sahai is speaking like the

transnational biotechnology industry which refers to ethics as an

"irrelevant concern." In fact Suman Sahai was cheered loudest on the

internet by Henry Miller of Stanford University's Hoover Institute, a

right wing think tank, who has been acting as a major spokesman of the

U.S. biotech industry.

The argument that the Third World cannot afford bioethics is

systematically used by the biotech industry which states that for the

hungry, ethics and safety is irrelevant. This was also the logic used

by Lawrence Summers when he recommended that polluting industry should

be shifted to the Third World. Removing ethics from technological and

economic decisions is a western construct. THIS is the imported

dichotomy. The import of this dichotomy enables control and


The separation of science and technology from ethics is based on the

Cartesian divide between res extensa (matter) and res cognitans (mind),

with the objective mind acquiring objective and neutral knowledge of

nature. It was also constructed by Hume when he said no logical

inference could be drawn from what "is" to what "ought to be." "Hume's

guillotine" was an effective instrument for separating ethics from

science (which in the empiricist and positivist philosophy was supposed

to provide an objective view of what "is").

However, knowledge and knowing are not neutral - they are products of

the values of the knower and the culture of which the knower is a part.

Ethics and science are related because values are intrinsic to science.

Ethics and technology are related because values shape technology, they

shape technology choice, and they determine who gains and who loses

through impacts of technology on society.

There are a number of reasons why bioethics is even more important for

the Third World than for the West.

Firstly, ethics and values are distinct elements of our cultural

identity and our pluralistic civilization.

The ancient Ishoupanishad has stated, "The universe is the creation of

the Supreme Power meant for the benefit of all creation. Each individual

life form must, therefore, learn to enjoy its benefits by farming a part

of the system in close relation with other species. Let not any one

species encroach upon others rights."

On his 60th birthday His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote a message to me

after my speech on new technologies and new property rights, "All

sentient beings, including the small insects, cherish themselves. All

have the right to overcome suffering and achieve happiness. I therefore

pray that we show love and compassion to all."

Tagore in his famous essay Tapovan had stated, "Contemporary western

civilization is built of brick and wood. It is rooted in the city. But

Indian civilization has been distinctive in locating its source of

regeneration, material and intellectual, in the forest, not the city.

India's best ideas have come where man was in communion with trees and

rivers and lakes away from the crowds. The peace of the forest has

helped the intellectual evolution of man. The culture of the forest has

fueled the culture of Indian society. The culture that has arisen from

the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of

life which are always at play in the forest, varying from species to

species, from season to season, in sight and sound and smell. The

unifying principle of life in diversity, of democratic pluralism, thus

became the principle of Indian civilization."

Compassion and concern for other species is therefore very indigenous to

our pluralistic culture, and bioethics builds on this indigenous


Secondly, bioethics is particularly significant for us because it is the

Third World's biodiversity and human diversity that is being pirated by

Northern corporations. While the Northern corporations can afford to say

ethics is irrelevant to the appropriation of the South's biodiversity,

the indigenous people and Third World farmers whose blood samples and

seeds are taken freely and then patented and commercialized cannot

afford to put ethics and justice aside. It is in fact from Third World

communities that the bioethics imperative has first been raised on

these issues.

Thirdly, value dimensions determine the context of biotechnology

development because of safety issues. In fact, it is the Third World or

South which has introduced Article 19.3 and got a decision within the

Convention on Biological Diversity to develop a biosafety protocol. It

continues to be the Third World which is leading the debate on the

ethics of biosafety.

Bioethics and value decisions are necessary in the Third World because

biotechnology, like any technology, is not neutral in its impacts. It

carries disproportionate benefits for some people, and disproportionate

costs for others. To ask who gains and who loses, and what are the

benefits and what are the costs, is to ask ethical questions. It is the

Third World which has raised these issues in the Convention on

Biological Diversity. It is the powerful industrialized nations which

insist that bioethics is a luxury for the Third World.

Unfortunately, Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign has joined this Northern

chorus singing bioethics is a luxury for the Third World. In her paper

she assumes that what is good for transnational corporations (TNCs) is

good for people, that what is good for seed corporations is good for

farmers. She gives the 'Flavr Savr' tomato as an example of

biotechnology application that is promising to the Third World and

suggests that ethical and value decisions about the 'Flavr Savr' will

block benefits from coming to Indian farmers and consumers. The 'Flavr

Savr' is a bad example because it was a technology that served the

interests of the trade industry that made tomatoes for prolonged shelf


However, the needs of corporate interests do not reflect the needs of

people. The alternative to prolonged shelf life and long-distance trade

is not the reengineering of fruits and vegetables. The alternative is to

reduce "food miles."

Cuba, for example, has used the crisis of the U.S. trade embargo to

create thousands of urban organic gardens to meet the vegetable needs of

each city from within its municipal limits.

Long distance transport for basic food stuffs which could be grown

locally serves the interests of global agribusiness, not the small


Thus, while Pepsico paid only 0.75 rupees to Punjab farmers for growing

tomatoes, exporters like Pepsico receive 10 rupees as subsidies for

transport. Without these subsidies, non-local supply of food controlled

by TNCs and produced with capital intensive methods would not be able to

displace local food production produced sustainably with low external


Global traders controlling production and distribution worldwide need

square tomatoes and tomatoes that don't rot. Small farmers and

consumers looking for fresh produce do not.

People need locally produced food, consumed as close as possible to the

point of production.

In any case, the biotech miracles that are made to look inevitable don't

work reliably either. The 'Flavr Savr' tomato was a failure, and

Calgene, the company that launched it, had to be bailed out by

Monsanto. Exaggerating benefits and universalizing beneficiaries have

major ethical and economic implications. It is important to look at

the realistic achievements of biotechnology and make ethical decisions

on the basis of what biotechnology has to offer for whom, both in

terms of costs as well as in terms of benefits.

To declare ethics and values as irrelevant to the Third World in the

context of biotechnology is to invite intellectual colonization. At

worst, it is an invitation to disaster.


{Dr. Vandana Shiva, is a physicist, philosopher, and ecofeminist. She is

director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology

in New Delhi, and vice-president of the Third World Network. Dr. Shiva

is the author of books entitled Staying Alive, The Violence of the Green

Revolution, and Monocultures of the Mind. She can be reached by Email:}