The DNA Bomb

Modified Crops are In the Crosshairs Now. You May Be Next.

Church, of the Lipper Center, worries that the domestic extremists willing to use genetically modified pathogens aren't limited to the anti-abortion camp. He fears that opponents of GM foods might fight fire with fire, unleashing a GM blight that wipes out or renders unmarketable only specific modified crops by homing in on a uniform tag that characterizes them.

One member of the Institute for Applied Autonomy, a group of dissident technologists, says anger over problems with genetically modified crops now comes mostly from the third world. There, farmers resent having to pay big corporations for patented seed, which must be purchased each year, when they once could use seed produced in a previous harvest; the resulting monocultures are also more prone to fail, he says. "Once the experience of the negative edge of this relationship includes those with access to the tools of retaliation—in this case, genetics facilities—then you've got the seeds of a revolution," the member says.

Fringe environmentalists are throwing off the gloves. "I believe all methods are now legitimate to curb destruction by greed," writes Heath Bunting of Irational.org, in an e-mail. He claims to have created a GM "SuperWeed" seed kit, available through the group's Web site, to attack genetically modified Roundup Ready crops, which are protected from powerful Roundup herbicides marketed by Monsanto. Irational.org justifies this gene-tinkering approach by arguing that "without a national ban on GM crops SuperWeeds will occur without your intervention anyway."

Instructions on Irational.org continue: "We suggest that you hold this kit until you receive clear signs that there will be a national ban on GM crops within the next few months, in which case destroy these seeds by burning. If you believe that there will be no GM crop ban you could choose to cultivate SuperWeed 1.0 and release it into the environment immediately. If there is no GM crop ban within the next few months, Natural Reality will not hesitate to escalate this conflict further by manufacturing and distributing SuperWeed Kit 2.0 containing many more offensive capabilities."

Monsanto's spokesman isn't impressed, dismissing the idea as "science fiction." He notes that farmers encounter such "superweeds" every year. If you farm Roundup Ready Soybeans one year and rotate to Roundup Ready Corn the next, some stray soybeans are apt to spring up with the new season as, essentially, superweeds, immune to the company's herbicide. The solution? Add another herbicide or use another company's GM seeds for your crop rotation.

Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble terms the Irational.org approach "biological civil disobedience." Such a new method of protest is "not well theorized or strategized," he writes. "Playing with reproductive systems, ecosystems, and germ lines is a pretty high gamble."

Kurtz says his group is open to this type of action, but is still assessing the impact and ethics. The members are now making a bacteria-release machine. "It has similar potential, but in the end, like the SuperWeed, it's more spectacle than substance," he says. "While there is a possibility of disaster, the probability is exceptionally low."

Modified crops may be the most likely target, but scientists say they aren't more vulnerable to attack, and could even be fortified to be more resistant than ordinary species. Dr. Church, however, warns of residual, unforeseen consequences in the environment. Unlike the linear, binary software programs to which genes are analogized, a messy mix of elements not fully understood determines organic growth.

Spokesmen for both Greenpeace and the Earth Liberation Front—the latter group made headlines recently for burning new homes in suburbia and torching a genetics lab at Michigan State—say genetically manipulating anything, especially for uncontrolled release, would go against their core beliefs. To prevent cross-pollination with native plants, both organizations have destroyed GM crops, but mainly by stomping them down.


Others argue the Earth's crisis is severe enough that they'll battle corporate America by any means necessary. "Ethics, schmethics," writes New York-based techno-artist and researcher Natalie Jeremijenko, who develops biotech hobbyist kits and supports Bunting's efforts with Irational.org. "There is not an 'ethics' that is separate from the motivation for doing something in the first place and the accountability or responsibility one feels for it.

"The question, then, is about what are the ethics of corporate profit," she adds, "a much more useful focus" than demonizing activists.

Even more powerful than corporations are governments. The British police are holding onto DNA samples from everyone they arrest, even individuals later found innocent, and all 50 American states take samples from some types of felons. A future totalitarian state might take samples at birth, knowing that it could remotely execute those tried in absentia, or, short of that, use painful diseases to compel fugitives to surrender at state-run hospitals. Something that could pass for more humane, but would be equally controlling, would be a genetic device that could change a person's pigmentation or render other visible signs that they're wanted by the law. They would be marked like those who tried to escape the dystopia in the film Logan's Run.

Mainstream scientists say the rapid pace of biotech advancement means ethics matter now more than ever. With the realized dream of reading the genome's secrets has come the responsibility of preventing their use for evil. Ethicists say those best equipped to make genetic weapons are bound by honor never to do so.

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