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Part II (Conclusion) of an Exclusive FTW Series

Unholy Grail: The Quest for
Genetic Weapons

·        Food Crops and Livestock Are An Easy First Target for Gene-Specific Weapons – Has It Already Happened?

·        A Realistic Look at Probabilities, Responsibilities and Ethical Questions Arising From Experience and the One Nation Arousing the Most Suspicion – The United States

by Kellia Ramares

[© Copyright 2003, From The Wilderness Publications, www.fromthewilderness.com. All rights reserved. THIS IS A SUBSCRIBER-ONLY STORY AND MAY NOT BE POSTED ON A WEB SITE WITHOUT EXPRESS WRITTEN PERMISSION. Contact media@copvcia.com. This story may be redistributed, circulated or copied for non-profit purposes only.]

(Special to From The Wilderness)

[In the conclusion of her two-part series on gene-specific bioweapons Kellia Ramares reveals an easily overlooked truth. The most likely and easiest targets of such weapons are food crops and livestock which would provide the attacking nation with a degree of deniability. Then, in her conclusion Ramares states two facts that are probably all too obvious. Of all the nations in the world the U.S. is the most likely to develop such weapons and history and that human nature teach us to expect them, and soon. – MCR]

Mar. 11, 2003, 00:30 PST (FTW)

Talking about Ethnic Weapons: Not in polite company

The web sites for Human Genome Project Information are maintained on the web site of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.52 Part of the web site is devoted to information on Ethical, Legal and Social Issues.53 That page stated that "The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have devoted 3% to 5% of their annual Human Genome Project (HGP) budgets toward studying the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) surrounding availability of genetic information. This represents the world's largest bioethics program, which has become a model for ELSI programs around the world."54

The issues raised on that page were: Fairness in the use of genetic information by insurers, employers, courts, schools, adoption agencies, and the military, among others; privacy and confidentiality of genetic information; psychological impact and stigmatization due to an individual's genetic differences; reproductive issues including adequate informed consent for complex and potentially controversial procedures, use of genetic information in reproductive decision making, and reproductive rights; clinical issues; uncertainties associated with gene tests for susceptibilities and complex conditions; conceptual and philosophical implications regarding human responsibility, free will vs. genetic determinism, and concepts of health and disease; health and environmental issues concerning genetically modified foods (GM) and microbes; and commercialization of products including property rights (patents, copyrights, and trade secrets) and accessibility of data and materials.55 This page contains no mention of military applications of genetics, or the possible development of ethnic weapons.

Likewise, the page that is devoted to Minorities, Race, and Genomics56 contained information about conferences for minority leaders to inform them about the benefits of genetic research, and to discuss ways of helping more minority group members to develop careers in genetics. Issues that would be of primary interest to minority group individuals, i.e. genetic testing, use of genetics in the courtroom, patenting and other business issues, and careers in genetics were the subjects of the conferences. But the issue of interest to the continued survival of minority groups, i.e. the development of gene-specific ethnic weapons, was not on the agenda.

Howard University, perhaps the most prestigious of the historically black colleges and universities in the United States, has a National Human Genome Center.57 The formation of the Center was announced on May 1, 2001. Its mission is "to explore the science of and teach the knowledge about DNA sequence variation and its interaction with the environment in the causality, prevention, and treatment of diseases common in African American and other African Diaspora populations."58 The program contains an ethics unit (GenEthics), which will be a source of bioethics information for the University and larger community as a whole. But again, military applications of genetics, and the implications of those applications for minorities is not mentioned among the many aspects of ethics with which the GenEthics unit will concern itself.

Of course, this is not to say that any attendees of the minority conferences or the participants in the Howard University National Human Genome Center or any other human genome research facility in the world never discuss or research the ethical implications of genetic weapons. But the lack of open acknowledgement of the topic is disturbing. It is also not surprising to Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project. He told FTW: "Genetically targeted weapons or ethnic weapons are a big No-No to talk about in the world of biological weapons control. You don’t do it because you get scoffed at the minute that you do it. I personally think that people are sticking their heads in the sand about it."

Agroterrorism: The Likely First Case Scenario

The first genetic weapons are likely to be aimed, not at humans, but at agriculture. This is because so much more is known about plant and animal genetics through years of work sequencing their genomes and because modern agriculture has developed genetically uniform crops, which could be more easily attacked than people. Agricultural genetic weapons could also have a similar effect on a people as a direct genetic weapon, by wiping out many of the food sources of a geographically concentrated ethnic group.

Dr. Mark Wheelis, a microbial biochemist and geneticist at the University of California Davis, focuses his research on the history of biological warfare, and on biological weapons control. He sees anti-agricultural bioweapons as being within the reach, not only of states, but also of agricultural corporations, organized crime, terrorist groups and individuals.59 

According to Wheelis, reasons to attack agriculture would include: attacking the food supply of an enemy belligerent; destabilizing a government by initiating food shortages or unemployment; altering supply and demand patterns for a commodity, or commodity futures, and for other manipulations and disruptions of trade and financial markets.60

An agricultural bioattack would be easier to carry out than one directly against humans because there are many plant and animal diseases that humans could disperse without harming themselves by handling the bioagents. Fields have little or no security. If the goal is an economic one, such as to disrupt trade, the creation of only a few cases may be necessary to require the quarantine or destruction of a region’s crops or animals.61 One example of the havoc an agricultural disease can wreak on farm economies occurred in England in 2001, when over the course of 9 months, 5.7 million animals were slaughtered at a cost of 2.7 billion pounds after an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.62

Terminator Technology: a gateway to genetic attacks on agriculture?

Terminator Technology, developed by St. Louis-based Monsanto Corporation, is the rubric for any of several patented processes of genetic engineering for the "control of plant gene expression," that result in second generation seeds "committing suicide" by self poisoning when an outside stimulus, most often the anti-biotic tetracycline, is applied to the crop.63

The goal of Terminator is to destroy the millennia old practice of seed-saving, thus forcing farmers to buy new seed in the market each year. Not surprisingly, Monsanto has been busy buying up seed companies. As of 1998, Monsanto owned Holdens Foundation Seeds, supplier for 25-30% of US maize acreage, Asgrow Agronmics, the leading soybean distributor in the US, De Kalb Genetics, the second largest seed company in the US and the ninth largest in the world, and Delta and Pine Land Company.64 This latter acquisition has given Monsanto control of 85% of the U.S. cotton seed market.65

Though technically not a genetic weapon as we have defined such in this article, Terminator technology and corporate monopolies on seed development and distribution can make the world more vulnerable to gene-specific attacks on crops by proliferating genetically identical plants.

In an interview with FTW in January 2003, Dr. Wheelis said:

Since plant varieties are particularly highly inbred, and many domestic animals are very highly inbred, although not to the extent that many plants are, this does mean that, unlike humans, where there is a tremendous heterogeneity in any population, there’s a very high degree of genetic homogeneity. So you can travel for a hundred miles in [the] Midwest and see thousands of square miles planted with exactly the same variety of maize. And that means, using what one knows of the maize genome, and of this particular variety of maize, it might be possible to develop a chemical agent that will affect one variety of maize, but not another. Or a particular virus might be able to be engineered so it is able to infect on particular strain of maize or rice or whatever, but not others. And so this does raise at least the theoretical possibility, that one could tailor chemical or biological weapons to attack varieties of domestic crops or animals that were used in certain parts of the world and yet these chemicals or infectious agents would be harmless or much less harmful to other varieties. 

FTW: Then...the mere fact that there are companies out there looking to spread a particular strain or species of maize, rice, whatever, and really the doing in of indigenous or farmer-developed crop could actually make it easier for genomic weapons?

Wheelis: Yes, for sure. One of the most robust defenses against genotype specific weapons is a considerable amount of genetic heterogeneity. And in many parts of the developing world there are many different varieties of crops, often grown very close to each other. So you can find different land races of maize, for instance, in Mexico, grown only a few kilometers apart. Yet they’re remarkably different strains of maize. And so that kind of genetic heterogeneity in which over a large geographic area there are many different varieties of the same crop, sometimes several varieties cultivated together on the same plot of land, makes those crops quite resistant to any kind of genetic specificity of a weapon.

In contrast, in the developed world, we commonly plant very large acreages, at very high densities, of identical, not just similar, but identical genotypes of whatever crop we’re talking about. And so that makes this high density, low genetic diversity monoculture quite vulnerable to this kind of attack, whereas the lower density, intercropped, genetically variable agriculture of much of the developing world is not so susceptible to this.

Thus, ironically, it is the United States, a major agricultural producer, and the world’s biotech leader and superpower that could be devastated by a genetically specific agricultural bioattack.

But Monsanto is also targeting the developing world. Dr. Harry B. Collins, Vice President for Technology Transfer at Delta and Pine Land Co., now owned by Monsanto, said in 1998, "The centuries old practice of farmer-saved seed is really a gross disadvantage to Third World farmers who inadvertently become locked into obsolete varieties because of their taking the "easy road" and not planting newer, more productive varieties."66

Modern chemical dependent farming is anything but an "easy road" for farmers of the developing world. Dependence on chemical inputs has raised the cost of farming in the Global South with devastating consequences. Radiojournalist Sputnik Kilambi has covered the suicides of farmers in India:

Between 1997 and the end of 2000, in just the single district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, 1,826 people, mainly farmers, committed suicide. Most of the deaths were debt-related. Rising input costs, falling grain and oil seed prices, closures by banks, all policy-driven measures, crushed them. ... Small and marginal farmers of Anantapur have no other option. The region is a monocrop area and suffers from inadequate irrigation.... Ironically, says K. Gopal, it is the younger farmers, who in principle are open to modernization, that are most liable to commit suicide. "They’re very enterprising, risk-taking farmers. They’re willing to go in for modern agricultural practices, with a view to increase ease, to increase profitability. They go in for modern agricultural practices; they even go in for the use of insecticides, for the use of good quality seeds. What this shows is that modern farming does not have any validity for the small and marginal farmer kind of situation in which we are faced. The technology is not relevant; the profitability is not relevant; the liability is not valid."

For K. Gopal it is clear that the Andhra Pradesh government wants the farmers to get out of farming, to make way for the brave new world of corporate and industrialized farming. The Israelis have set up such a model in [an] area where the farmers grow exotic items like gerkins and baby corn for the urban middle and upper classes. The old relationship between farmer and land has been totally destroyed....67

Corporate farming is doomed to failure as the End of the Age of Oil makes the petrochemically-derived pesticides and fertilizers on which it is dependent uneconomical and, inevitably, unavailable. But if, in the meantime, indigenous farmers and farming practices, including seed saving and cultivating genetically diverse crops, are destroyed, we may not need to develop "ethno-bombs" to destroy the only race genome researchers say there is: the human race.

Conclusion: It's not the knowledge; it's what we do with it.

With genetic research having a potential for beneficial use, the question is not whether to conduct the research, but how and to what end. The "how" is extremely important to indigenous and other minority populations who have been exploited by white Western science for centuries. On February 19, 1995, representatives of 17 indigenous organizations meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, issued a "Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere Regarding the Human Genome Diversity Project."68 The document opposes the Human Genome Diversity Project, condemns the patenting of genetic materials and demands "an immediate moratorium on collections and/or patenting of genetic materials from indigenous persons and communities by any scientific project, health organization governments, Independent agencies, or individual researchers." 69 The document reaffirmed "that indigenous peoples have the fundamental rights to deny access to, refuse to participate in, or to allow removal or appropriation by external scientific projects of any genetic materials."70 Indigenous concerns are well founded, especially in light of the shameful history of white scientific practice that has indigenous people still struggling to reclaim sacred artifacts and the very bones of their ancestors from museum shelves.

But even this document, so strongly opposed to genetic research on indigenous people, sounds a contradictory note. "We demand that scientific endeavors and resources be prioritized to support and improve social, economic and environmental conditions of indigenous peoples in their environments, thereby improving health conditions and raising the overall quality of life." Among the Pima Indians of Arizona, for example, 50% of people between the ages of 30 and 64 have diabetes.71 What if genetic research could find the cause and even a treatment for the high incidence of diabetes among American Indians and Alaska Natives?

The question "To what end?" concerns us all.  What if Israel, which apparently is researching genetic difference between Jews and Arabs to develop an ethnic weapon, altered its foreign policy to embrace the genetic research that links the two peoples? 72

The U.S. Department of Energy is doing research within the Human Genome Project on chromosomes 5, 16 and 19. DOE says, "Particular genes of interest are those mediating individual susceptibilities to environmental toxins and ionizing radiation." 73

Is DOE looking to refine dosage levels for radiation treatments for cancer, or is it trying to figure out how many people will survive strikes with tactical nuclear weapons?

Even a cursory survey of the scientific literature in genetics indicates scientific interest in the genetic differences within and between peoples. In addition to possible medical applications of this research, there are other intriguing questions, about historical human migration patterns and the distribution and relationships of languages, for example, which should be of no military interest. But research that does turn up differences in the genetics of socially defined ethic groups is open to abuse, in all likelihood by governments, even if the scientists doing that research intended no such thing. The way to prevent such abuse is to strengthen the moral repugnance biological, chemical and genetic weapons and to create legal means to enforce the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Right now, the political and ethical dialogues are simply not keeping up with the pace of scientific advancements in genome research. Dr. Wheelis of U.C. Davis says:

[M]y sense is that the United States, some time ago, decided that chemical and biological weapons, and possibly even nuclear weapons were going to be proliferating worldwide. And that current arms control regimes had been unsuccessful in preventing that and that additional international negotiations didn’t look to hold out much hope for actually restraining weapons proliferation. Now I personally disagree with that. But I think that’s the position that many in the United States government have come to. They’ve concluded that there’s clear evidence of chemical and biological weapons proliferation in the world. That the biological weapons convention, the chemical weapons convention haven’t prevented that, that protocol for the biological weapons convention didn’t seem to have much promise to them as a tool to increase the safeguards against proliferation. And so I think the United States is in more of a responsive than a preventative mode. I think we basically decided prevention of proliferation has failed; it’s going to happen anyway; there’s not much we can do about it. And so we should go into a mode in which we respond."74

But the conventions have no teeth because the United States keeps resisting all efforts to give them any. Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg has written:

Since the BWC came into force in 1975, biotechnology has progressed rapidly, its military potential has not gone unnoticed, and suspicions have multiplied. Anxious to increase transparency and ensure compliance with the Convention, the state parties in 1986 adopted an annual information exchange as a Confidence Building Measure (CBM). The ineffectiveness of this 'politically-binding] measure led the parties in 1991 to initiate the process of developing a legally-binding Protocol to monitor compliance. Ten years later this process became stalemated over the implacable opposition of the Bush Administration to any legally-binding instrument.75

If the United States will not legally commit itself to compliance with the Convention, on what legal, moral, or rational basis can it go to war against Iraq or any other nation claiming that the other nation is creating chemical or biological weapons?

_______________________

Kellia Ramares earned a B.A.  in economics degree, with honors, from Fordham University in New York in 1977. She also earned a law degree from Indiana University-Bloomington in 1980. She has been a reporter for KPFA-FM in Berkeley, CA for nearly four years. There, her specialty is toxics reporting. Kellia is also an Associate Producer for WINGS - Women's International News Gathering Service, a Contributing Editor for OnlineJournal.com and a reporter for Free Speech Radio News, which is heard in over 50 stations throughout the United States. Kellia’s latest project is R.I.S.E. - Radio Internet Story Exchange, an Internet-based public affairs program. The R.I.S.E. website is http://www.rise4news.net.

ENDNOTES

52. (www.ornl.gov/hgmis).

53. (http://www.ornl.gov/hgmis/elsi/elsi.html).

54. (Ibid.)

55. (Ibid.)

56. (http://www.ornl.gov/hgmis/elsi/minorities.html)

57. (http://www.genomecenter.howard.edu/intro.htm)

58. (Ibid.)

59. (Wheelis, Dr. Mark, "Agricultural Biowarfare and Bioterrorism," Edmonds Institute Occasional Paper, 2000).

60. (Ibid.)

61. (Ibid.)

62. (Chrisafis, Angelique, "Devastation in the wake of foot and mouth: Farmers count epidemic's cost as last 'infected status' areas are downgraded." The Guardian, December 1, 2001)

63. (Steinbrecher, Ricarda A, and Mooney, Pat Roy, "Terminator Technology: The Threat to World Food Security," The Ecologist, Vol. 8 No. 5, September/October 1998, p. 277).

64. (Tokar, Brian. "Monsanto: A Checkered History," The Ecologist, Vol. 8 No. 5, September/October 1998, p. 259)

65. (Ibid.)

66. (Steinbrecher and Mooney, op.cit. p. 277)

67. (Kilambi, Sputnik, "Thousands of farmers commit suicide in India," Free Speech Radio News, December 27, 2001).

68. (http://www.indians.org/welker/genome.htm). 

69. (Ibid.)

70. (Ibid.)

71. ("Diabetes in American Indians and Alaska Natives Fact Sheet ," National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, NIH Publication No. 99-4551, April 1999.)

72. (Larkin, Marilynn. "Jewish-Arab affinities are gene-deep." Lancet. 355 (2000); Kraft, Dina. "Palestinians, Jews Linked in Gene Study."Chicago Sun Times. 10 May 2000, late sports final ed.: 39.; Hammer, M.F., et al. "Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish Populations Share a Common Pool of Y Chromosome Biallelic Haplotypes." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 97 (2000): 6769-74. These are among many articles, mostly scientific, on the subject of genetics and identity at http://www.bioethics.umn.edu/genetics_and_identity/biblio.html)

73. (U.S. Department of Energy, "Research Abstracts from the DOE Genome Contractor-Grantee Workshop IX " January 27-31, 2002 Oakland, CA. http://www.ornl.gov/hgmis/publicat/02santa/index.html)

74. (Phone interview, January 2003)

75. (Rosenberg, op.cit. p. 1).




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