Connecting with Stakeholders in a Highly-Contested Field
9th International Greening of
Sustainability at the Millennium: Globalisation, Competitiveness, and Public Trust
21 – 25 January 2000,
Chulalongkorn University u Bangkok, Thailand
Joyce Miller, Doctoral Candidate
Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC)
University of Lausanne
Avenue du Leman 45
Tel/Fax +41 (21) 728.5003
Connecting with Stakeholders
in a Highly-Contested Field
The past decades have witnessed growing public concern about the impact of industrial activities on human health and the environment. Consequent pressure on companies to improve their environmental performance was triggered by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and mounted in connection with ecological catastrophes, like Three Mile Island and the leak of poisonous fumes at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant. The inauguration of Earth Day on 20 April 1970 and its annual marking have focused world attention on biodiversity, deforestation, pollution, global warming, poverty, depletion of natural resources, and the need for a new era of environmentally-sound economic development to ensure that humanity “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987:43).
Throughout the 1990s, there has been a growing sensitivity to risk on the part of the public due to the experience of one ‘scare’ or ‘risk’ after another, like ‘mad cow’ disease in the UK, the outbreak of E-Coli food poisoning, and the dramatic rise of environmental-related illnesses, like childhood asthma, linked to the increase in car pollution (Barry, 1999:153). German scholar Ulrich Beck (1992) likens the current era to the advent of a ‘risk society’ wherein ecological and other risks outweigh the benefits of further economic growth associated with the industrial model. In the industrial model, society was organised around the production and distribution of wealth, income, and employment, and science and technology were seen as positive forces for social progress. In ‘risk society’, “this equation of scientific and technological advancement and social progress is broken. Risk society describes a modern sense of fear, distrust, and unease about scientific and technological developments...this distrust is not confined to science and technology, but can also be seen in the erosion of ‘trust’ in dominant social and political institutions, such as industry and government” (Barry, 1999:155).
The Corporate Response: Engaging Stakeholders
In response to public pressure for improved environmental and social performance and against the backdrop of a broadening vision of a company’s roles and responsibilities beyond the simple function of profit maximisation (Freeman, 1984), companies have made varying efforts to ‘green’ their enterprises, publicly report on their policies and achievements, and incorporate the environmental concerns of stakeholders (Hunt and Auster, 1990; Roome, 1992; Winsemius and Guntram, 1992; Elkington, 1994; Molenkamp, 1995).
Organisations have relationships with various constituencies: consumers, employees, suppliers, shareholders, regulators, competitors, neighbours, civil organisations, and so on. The idea that companies have stakeholders has now become commonplace, in both the academic literature and in business practice. For Freeman, stakeholders are “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the firm’s objectives” (1984:24). Theoretical and empirical studies suggest that stakeholders are essential for the performance of companies and that they influence organisational decision-making (Freeman, 1984; Donaldson and Preston, 1995; Mitroff 1983; Starik et al, 1996; Campbell 1997, Rowley 1997). Since Freeman’s seminal work in 1984, much academic effort has focused on defining who are stakeholders (Carroll, 1993; Clarkson, 1994, 1995; Donaldson and Preston, 1995; Phillips 1999) and determining their relevance for companies (Mitchell, Agle, and Wood, 1997; Harrison and Freeman, 1999; Agle, Mitchell, and Sonnenfeld, 1999). Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the ability and power of stakeholders “to influence opinion about the legitimacy of a business or activity, and that stakeholders’ attitudes and opinions would threaten their well-being, licence to operate and hence survival e.g., in terms of restrictions on sources of raw materials or methods of operations” (Grafé-Buckens and Hinton, 1998:125).
In an attempt to incorporate the concerns of stakeholders, there as been an institutionalisation of stakeholder management, reflected in the adoption by companies of environmental policies; CEO commitments/statements on sustainability; the implementation of management systems like ISO 14’000, BS 7750, SA 8000; the development of metrics and reporting; and the explicit engagement in stakeholder dialogue—with the consequent creation of structures, like stakeholder dialogue teams, and the endowment of specific responsibilities for dealing with stakeholders to particular posts and departments. Institutionalisation operates “to produce common understandings about what is appropriate, and fundamentally, meaningful behaviour” (Zucker, 1983:5). This rational approach has been aimed at obtaining the benefits of stakeholder interaction (Neal 1997; Svendsen, 1998; Harrison and Freeman, 1999; Heugens, Van den Bosch, and Riel, 1999).
Harrison and St. John (1996:48) maintain that organisations do not engage in the stakeholder approach to management simply because this is what other organisations are doing, but are motivated to do so because of instrumental and/or normative reasons (see Figure 1).
Instrumental Perspective (“We should do it because it will pay off in the end”)
Higher percentage of successful new product/service introductions
Higher levels of operating efficiency
Fewer accidents of damaging moves by stakeholders (i.e. boycotts, strikes, bad press)
Less conflict with stakeholders resulting in fewer legal suits
More favorable legislation/regulation
More reasonable contracts
Higher entry barriers leading to more favorable competitive environment
Higher levels of trusts
Higher levels of profitability? 
Greater organisational flexibility
Normative Perspective (“We should do it because it is the right thing to do”)
Moral and philosophical basis for recognition of stakeholder interests
Statutes that allow board of director consideration of a broader group of stakeholders
Source: Harrison and St. John, 1996
Life Sciences companies were among the early pioneers in institutionalising stakeholder management. In 1991, Monsanto became the first Fortune 500 company to publish a fully-fledged annual corporate environmental report (CER). In 1995, the company formed seven sustainability teams of external advisors to guide its efforts, and in 1996 convened a roundtable discussion among leading environmental thinkers on sustainable business opportunities. A first-mover in embracing the life sciences banner, Monsanto’s strengthening of businesses in this sector has been emulated by other chemical powerhouses, including Bayer, DuPont, Hoechst, Novartis, and Rhône Poulenc, to name but a few. According to EuropaBio, total life science sales for all companies using biotech techniques to develop products and services in agriculture, healthcare, and food processing reached 2.7 billion ecus in Europe in 1997, compared to nearly 16 billion ecus in the US.
In addition to the possibility for bringing increased economic growth, industry points to the potential of biotechnology for enhancing agricultural productivity, thereby contributing “to meeting future world food demand while preserving biodiversity, the sustainability of the world’s land and water resources, and improving standards of living” (Bamelis, 1999:53). Seeds endowed with genes from bacteria and other organisms can be resistant to insects and chemical weed killers, reducing the need for insecticides, herbicides, and erosion-promoting tilling. Friends of the Earth, one of many environmental groups opposed to genetically-modified crops (GM crops), says that their fears are related to “cross-fertilisation with wild relatives, increased use of broad-spectrum total herbicides, toxicity of insect-resistant GM crops to beneficial insects, loss of biodiversity, [and] health risks of antibiotic-resistant marker genes” (Lacroix, 1999:52).
The Life Sciences sector is currently facing an enormous challenge in Europe to gain acceptance of biotechnology and particularly the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Articles in the popular press typically draw attention to the darker side of genetic manipulation, with headlines like: ‘All This Biotechnology is Scary’ (New York Times, 20 November 1998), ‘The Frankenstein Food Scare that Killed U.K. Biotech’ (National Post, 7 May 1999), ‘Genetically-Modified Food: Alarmingly Out of Control’ (International Herald Tribune, 5 August 1999), ‘How Safe is Genetically-Modified Food?’ (Business & Technology, 26 July 1999), and ‘Now It’s the Franken-Fish’ (Daily Mail, 29 July 1999).
Golüke (2000) sums up the fears in the minds of many citizens, saying that ‘Terminator technology’ and ‘Frankenfoods’ assertions worry some consumers, while science fiction images of vast acres of embryos, hanging in artificial wombs like ripe tomatoes, waiting to be harvested for spare parts, arouse intense ethical disgust. Even some supporters of biotechnology point out that a number of people fear this new technology more than any other, with the possible exception of nuclear technology. For Golüke, this fear, like the resistance that has traditionally met the introduction of all new technology, is rooted in the basic human fear of the unknown. But for some people, he asserts, biotechnology elicits four specific fears that go beyond the predictable human reaction to the new (2000:7):
· The unintended consequences are potentially disastrous, not just for one person, but for all humans, as well as for other species—and these consequences are irreversible.
· We can’t make an individual decision about the use of biotechnology—someone, somewhere else is making it for us, taking the future of our health and maybe even our very survival, out of our hands.
· Biotechnology is technically complicated, and most of us don’t understand these complications. We have a deep suspicion of a technical elite making important decisions for us because we suspect that while they are very smart, they may not have much heart or they may not share our values. They may be motivated more by scientific curiosity than by the common good. And if these technicians are located in companies, maybe they are motivated by something even worse—greed.
· Biotechnology alters the building blocks of life itself. Are we smart enough to play God? Is there any evidence in recent history that we are ready for this responsibility? Are we moving too fast, without seriously considering the consequences?”
To date, public acceptance of GMOs tends to be restricted to healthcare (Milmo, 1999) and to the application of biotechnology to develop enzymes for a new generation of cleaning products "because the contribution of these new products to reduce the usage of chemicals, energy, and water is evident" (Verrips, 1999). Acceptance of genetically-modified agricultural products, on the other hand, remains extremely low in Europe, on the heels of the BSE controversy and growing public concerns about the safety of the food supply. Responding to citizen concerns about safety, risk, and liability, in 1997, Austria and Luxembourg banned the import and cultivation of Novartis’ genetically-modified maize, sparking fear throughout the industry of further offensives to curb the introduction of biotechnology, which would lay waste to mammoth corporate investments in R&D, product development, and marketing. In mid-1998, the French government announced a 2-year moratorium in advance of the revision of EU Directive 90/220, which concerns the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. Other European Union member states have similarly justified putting on the brakes on the basis of the ‘precautionary principle’, calling for further research into the potential effects of biotechnology and risks to human health and the environment. In March 1999, two dozen influential consumer organisations in Britain called for a 5-year moratorium on commercial plantings of gene-altered crops, and top chefs called for segregation and labelling so that they could keep engineered ingredients out of their gourmet dishes. Following the lead of Sainsbury, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, major fast-food outlets McDonalds and Burger King promised the British public in April 1999 that they would eliminate genetically-modified foods and ingredients from their product lines.
These moves sounded alarm throughout the Life Sciences industry and its value chain. Dwarfing all previous efforts, in April 2000, seven major players banded together to bankroll a US$50 million advertising campaign to promote genetically-modified crops. The campaign involved television spots, a new web site, a call centre to take public inquiries, and the enlistment of several personalities to “advocate their cause and argue their case in every available forum”. As a Monsanto spokesman put it, “The more people are exposed to information from a variety of sources, the more likely they are to embrace the technology…Our goal is to try to link people to information and data that’s based on sound science”.
Companies dealing with biotechnology applications targeted to the food chain, in particular, have become the focus of a great deal of public concern around a raft of environmental, ethical, and social issues—key among them, the use and deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. A sampling of companies in this field yields commitments at the highest corporate levels to enter into dialogue with stakeholders in an effort to address public concerns:
Stakeholder pressure on industry to disclose information about the risks associated with the use of biotechnology, and GMOs especially, are on the rise. The consequent development and use of discursive strategies by companies grounded in the authority of science and linked to sustainable development and feeding the world’s hungry are increasingly evident.
Hajer defines such discourses as “a specific ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorisations that are produced, reproduced, and transformed in a particular set of practices and through which meaning is given to physical and social realities” (1995:44). In this process, the actors become entangled in webs of meaning. As Davies and Harré explain, “Once having taken up a particular position as one’s own, a person inevitably sees the world from the vantage point of that position and in terms of the particular images, metaphors, story lines and concepts” (1990:46).
Discourses are not necessarily coherent nor comprehensive. As Hajer explains, “Story-lines play a key role in the positioning of subjects and structures. Political change may well take place through the emergence of new story-lines that re-order understandings. Finding the appropriate story-line becomes an important form of agency” (1997:56). Story-lines therefore function to create and maintain discursive order and to unify the bewildering variety of separate discursive components. Hajer also notes that it is interesting to observe “how seemingly technical positions conceal normative commitments, yet more interesting still is to find out which categories exactly fulfilled this role, and which institutional arrangements allowed them to fulfil that role” (1997:55).
For Bailey and Yearly, discourses function to “exclude other ways of considering the issue, promote the authority of some people as experts, and reduce the legitimacy of contributions from others” (2000:2). Furthermore, these “frames in turn are intellectually constraining in that they delimit the universe of scientific inquiry, political discourse, and possible policy options” (Jasanoff, 1999:140). For Mumby and Clair (1977), discourses are aimed at producing and sustaining meaning, which are connected to wider relations of power. They assert that “power is generally exercised not coercively, but subtly and routinely. The most effective use of power occurs when those with power are able to get those who have less power to interpret the world from the former’s point of view” (1997:44). For Hajer, who also draws upon the thinking of philosopher-historian Michel Foucault, “Discourses imply prohibitions since they make it impossible to raise certain questions or argue certain cases; they imply exclusionary systems because they only authorize certain people to participate in a discourse; they come with discursive forms of internal discipline through which a discursive order is maintained; and finally there are also certain rules regarding the conditions under which a discourse can be drawn upon” (1997:49).
Discourse analysis, then, can be used to investigate how a “particular framing of the discussion makes certain elements appear as fixed or appropriate while other elements appear problematic. One can endeavour to show whether definitions ‘homogenize a problem, that is to say make the problem understandable within a reified perception of the wider problem field, or whether definitions suggest a ‘heterogenization’ that requires an opening up of established discursive categories.” (Hajer, 1997:54).
This paper argues that the corporate discourse that frames biotechnology may well be at odds with the purported interest to engage in dialogue with stakeholders and to address public concerns.
In the Life Sciences sector, enormous resources are being committed to preserve relations with stakeholders who are wary about biotechnology and perceived risks in relation to the food supply. Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro’s address on 27 October 1998 to the State of the World Forum in San Francisco (see Annex) is an artifact that can be seem to encapsulate the main elements of this corporation’s discourse around biotechnology. Its performative aim seems to be to “exclude other ways of considering the issue” and “delimit the universe of scientific inquiry, political discourse, and possible policy options” (Jasanoff) in the face of intense and growing public resistance.
Having launched an ill-advised US$1.6 million communications campaign in 1998 to alter the perceptions of a European public grossly opposed to GMOs in foodstuffs, Monsanto continues to be mired in controversy. Numerous environmental pressure groups, like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Corporate Europe Observatory, to name only a few, have launched vigorous campaigns to block the company’s marketing of genetically-modified products in Europe. In the US, Monsanto’s strategies and activities in this area have been less scrutinised.
My purpose in subjecting Shapiro’s remarks to discourse analysis is to examine how certain arguments, themes, and subjects are hinged together, and how contradictions and alternative positions are neutralised, thereby helping to uncover the overall construction of meaning and the political effects of that construction. At the outset of his speech, Shapiro associates biotechnology with information technology (which once met with fear “like the introduction of all new technology”, Golüke). This discursive strategy aims to suggest that biotechnology should be embraced as a similarly inevitable and pervasive force in modern society:
…biotechnology is a subset of information technology. It does not deal with information that’s encoded electronically in silicon. It deals with information that’s encoded chemically in living cells…It’s information that tells cells what proteins to make, when to make them, and how to make them. And, therefore, it’s information that defines what living organisms do and what they are.
The association with information technology is reinforced at several subsequent points:
…The trick is going to be to multiply value to people to enable them to lead better lives, without multiplying stuff…three families of technology hold the promise of being able to do that. One is information technology. The substitution of information for stuff is one potentially winning strategy for creating more value, while at the same time not putting impermissible burdens on underlying natural systems. The second is biotechnology, for the same reason, and the third is nanotechnology, the emerging science of radical miniaturization.
Echoing the dominant discourse of the sector, Shapiro positions biotechnology as an opportunity to feed the world’s hungry and burgeoning population:
..the application of that understanding creates wholly new, wholly unprecedented hope for addressing some of the most difficult and intractable problems that have confronted humanity over the generations and that remain part of the human condition. Issues like how to feed people without damaging and, indeed, destroying land and forests and water.
Omitted from this equation is the fact that hunger has long been understood as much more of a problem of distribution and political inequalities than failings in agricultural productivity. Moreover, Shapiro contends that biotechnology can provide functional nutritional benefits; for instance, warding off blindness:
…we’re working on a project in which you put in a gene that creates pro-vitamin A, beta-carotene in, for example, oil seed crops like Canola. The oil gets used for cooking, and vitamin A is part of that process. It’s simply a more efficient and, I would submit a more natural delivery system. It certainly is more effective and lower cost for everyone involved.
By asserting that genetic manipulation, which alters the building blocks of life itself is an efficient “natural” system to deliver nutrition, this discourse intends to dispel notions of biotechnology as ‘alien’, ‘unnatural’, and ‘dangerous’. The ‘science fiction images’ in the popular imagination of biotechnology and genetic cloning that arouse intense ethical disgust are not addressed. Indeed, the whole problem of biotechnology and very real public fears about the unintended (and potentially irreversible) consequences for humans and other species are swept aside. Rather, biotechnology is framed as a solution, providing a vital life force—a natural resource to be exploited for the betterment of the human condition.
Shapiro further supports his categorisation of biotechnology as “natural” by likening this to other human interventions in animal husbandry, agriculture, and medicine, which are widely seen to have laid the foundation for the evolution of modern society:
…like information technology, it [biotechnology] is new and it is potentially very large in its impacts. Second, it is seen as unnatural. How, almost all agriculture and almost all medicine, as it exists in the world today, would be hard to justify as natural. Almost everything we grow, everything we eat is the root result of human intervention, human breeding and so on. But this is unnatural in a different sort of way from the kinds of breeding programs that have characterized humanity for ten thousand years.
Plant and animal breeders have long mixed and matched genetic material to create species of fruit, vegetable, cattle, and so on through processes of cross-pollination and cross-fertilisation. As Claude Martin, Director General of the highly-respected environmental organisation World Wide Fund for Nature notes, “what is unique about today’s genetically-modified foods is that we can move across species barriers, so that in order to achieve the results we want we can take genes from, say, a fish, and place them in a tomato. That may sound far-fetched—but the gene that protects a flounder from extreme cold, for examples, has been introduced into the makeup of tomato plants so that they will continue to flourish in adverse weather. That may help ensure ready supplies of tomatoes. But the critical question is, what effect might the foreign gene have on the people who eat them? The same applies to genetically-modified crops such as soya, corn, rape, and potatoes”.
The performative effect of grounding biotechnology in nature -- portraying this technology and its effects as natural phenomena -- is aimed at both legitimising its use and silencing such dissenting voices.
Shapiro persuasively pleads the case for biotechnology in achieving the environmental Holy Grail of “sustainable agriculture”, seen to be especially critical for developing countries. Cobbling together the right story-line is a key source of agency for Monsanto and other players who have made mammoth investments to commercialise this technology and reap the profits:
…if the only model for development is the recapitulation of the industrial revolution, with all its horrific waste and pollution, there simply is no way that development can occur without doing permanent, irreversible damage to the systems on which life depend.
…[existing] technologies are simply not sustainable. They lead to destructive subsistence, destructive development, and destructive affluence. Today, there is no such thing as sustainable agriculture. There is no such thing as sustainable industry. There is no such thing today as sustainable development. And the reasons for that are that we do not have, today, the underlying technologies that could support those concepts.
…The notions of creating higher yields, drought resistance, ability to grow crops in saline and mineralized soils are going to be critically important in a world in which you are going to have to feed more people and you’re not going to be able to find more land to do it…biotechnology is scale neutral. It does not require you to have a large farm in order to justify the economics of it, the way, for example, tractors are not scale neutral. Tractors favor large farming. Seed, which is where biotechnology is delivered, is scale neutral. It works as well, and at the same cost, for small farmers as it does for large farmers.
Shapiro sets up a binary choice: a world without biotechnology (which would lead to a deterioration in development, affluence, and availability of food) or a world with biotechnology (which presumably solves those issues). According to this juxtaposition, those forces opposing biotechnology must be in favour of a second industrial revolution ‘with all its horrific waste and pollution’.
In this presentation of the technology, Shapiro fails to mention Monsanto’s effort to control the market for genetically-modified agriculture with policies that require farmers to ‘license’ its seeds instead of buying them outright, and the legal suits that have consequently been launched against farmers alleging seed piracy for saving seeds to plant for the next year’s harvest—a traditional method used by smallscale farmers in developing countries to sustain their livelihoods. Nor does he mention the negotiations at the time to acquire Delta and Pine Land, owner of the lucrative ‘Terminator’ technology, which makes crops sterile so that seeds can not be saved from year to year—a bonanza for seed dealers, a potential disaster for Third World farmers. Nor does he mention the strategic importance of biotechnology in extending sales of Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide Roundup. As Cadot (2000:2) explains, “Roundup was a broad-spectrum herbicide, which could be sprayed only before sowing (since it would otherwise kill the crop itself). Seeds modified to be resistant to Roundup could allow farmers to spray Roundup not only before sowing, but also after. Thus, a marketing strategy involving joint sales of Roundup-resistant seeds (so-called ‘Roundup-Ready’) priced at a relatively high level in order to recoup the investment in R&D, and Roundup itself priced relatively low so as to undercut the competition, could extend the useful life of the herbicide well beyond its patent’s expiration” (in the year 2000, when tough price competition was anticipated).
Shapiro concludes his remarks with a call for having faith in industry to act wisely, despite mankind’s mixed historical record in this regard:
Certainly, humanity’s record for using technology wisely, sensitive to its potential effects on society, on people, on environment is, at best, mixed and hardly encouraging. These are public questions. These are not questions that ought to be decided simply by the private sector. These are questions that people and their institutions have to debate, discuss, and strike an appropriate balance between hope and concern, between the promise of the technology and the risks associated with it. We have not yet identified, yet alone cloned, the gene for wisdom, and some scepticism about our ability to manage powerful new technologies is appropriate. It avoids the sin of hubris and helps us operate within our limitations as humans. But it is not beyond our best potentials to use these technologies wisely.
Shapiro portrays his company as being open to discussion and states that biotechnology is a public question over which society’s institutions need to “debate, discuss, and strike an appropriate balance”. Yet the company’s actions in nevertheless pushing biotechnology forward into the food chain begs the sincerity of his statements. No credence is given to the public’s deep suspicion of a “technical elite (who may not share our values) making important decisions for us” (Golüke) nor are assurances provided that corporate greed will not corrupt the wise development of biotechnology for socially-useful purposes. Afterall, there is much for companies to gain in commercialising such technologies and controlling the intellectual property related to biotechnology applications.
Taken as a microcosm for the corporate discourse around biotechnology, Shapiro’s remarks reflect the use of discursive strategies that have become an important mechanism to deal with potential threats, boycotts, and pressures from now highly-organised stakeholders who contend that biotechnology is ‘dangerous’, ‘out of control’, ‘immoral’, and ‘irresponsible’. Industry has responded to these claims with its own discourse, which says that biotechnology is ‘science’, it’s ‘safe’, ‘everything is under control’, ‘don’t worry’. Yet, in a world where science and technology are developing faster and faster, in a context where the population is becoming more reflexive, critical, and more informed—the respect for the authority of science is breaking down.
The competing claims surrounding biotechnology reflect a fierce struggle for meaning. Mumby and Clair assert that competing interests get resolved through the control of symbolic and discursive resources. They contend that “as with economic resources, symbolic resources are not distributed equally amongst the various competing organisational groups. Those organisational groups with more economic power are generally able to wield more power through various discursive and symbolic means. The ongoing control of economic resources may well depend on how well a particular interest group is able to shape social reality” (1997:182).
This reading of the corporate discourse raises an important question: is engagement and dialogue with stakeholders aimed at opening up more discursive space, or is this a process merely being used instrumentally to gain stakeholder acceptance of the corporate discourse around biotechnology?
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Annex – Address
of Robert Shapiro, Presented at State of the World Forum
Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco, California u 27 October 1998
Thank you. I am deeply grateful to be given the chance to take part this evening in this dialogue. I've been asked to speak on a controversial subject. It's a subject in which I am an active participant, not an objective scholar. And, obviously, the perspective I represent ought to be - and I'm sure will be - taken into account in considering my remarks. There are many people here and elsewhere who have deep and important concerns about the applications of biotechnology. Those are concerns that must be addressed. They must be addressed adequately and they must be addressed respectfully. And my hope this evening is to begin that process.
In a very important sense, biotechnology is sub-set of the information technology. It does not deal with information that's encoded electronically in silicon. It deals with information that's encoded chemically in living cells. It's information that is not used for purposes of e-mail or "Amazon.com" or spreadsheets. It's information that tells cells what proteins to make, when to make them, and how to make them. And, therefore, it's information that defines what living organisms do and what they are. For the first time, over the last three decades, we have begun to gain access to that information. We are beginning to understand how genes work, individually and together. The rate of increase in knowledge in this field is absolutely phenomenal. It puts Moore's Law to shame. We will map the entire human genome sometime early in the next decade and will understand the functionality of most of that genome within the first decade of the next century. And many other genomes of animals, plants, other species will also be mapped in roughly that time period.
Perhaps the most important - and to some degree the most troubling - aspect of this is we have not only developed this knowledge base - or are developing it - but we are also developing tools that enable us, not only to decode the information that's encoded in DNA, but also how to change it. This is something fundamentally new in the world, new in history. It is - if I may be so presumptuous - it is something like that moment in pre-history in which consciousness became aware of itself. It is the moment when life begins to understand what it is. If used well, I will suggest, the application of that understanding creates wholly new, wholly unprecedented hope for addressing some of the most difficult and intractable problems that have confronted humanity over the generations and that remain part of the human condition. Issues like how to feed people without damaging and, indeed, destroying land and forests and water. How to prevent human and animal disease, rather than intervene after it strikes. And how to offer to people around the world the prospect of healthy aging as a normal, expected part of life. The demographics provide the context for assessing the potentials of the technology and the issues that it will confront.
The demographics are well known. Five point eight billion people in the world today, about one and a half billion of them in abject poverty. About one person in seven, about eight hundred million people in the world, so malnourished that they cannot participate in work life or in family life, living on the edge of starvation. The rate of growth in population is, to some degree, still controversial, but all demographers, I think, would accept that somewhere within the next thirty to fifty years , we will have a world population of somewhere between eight and twelve billion people. There is no more land. The land has been used.
There are at least three distinct challenges that the demographics suggest - and undoubtedly many more, but let me highlight three of them.
First, most of the additional people who are going to be joining us on this planet over the next thirty or forty years will be born in the poorest places. They are not willingly going to forego food. They will do as people always have done, what they need to do in order to try to feed themselves and their children. They will slash and burn to grow crops. They will migrate. They will find themselves moving into cities that are increasingly violent and unlivable.
Second, in developing countries where the key issue is how can one create development on some sort of sustainable basis, people are not going to forego the opportunity to lead a better life, regardless of its externalities, regardless of its impacts on the environment around them.
The question - and, incidentally, in the course of doing that, they begin to move up on what is generally called the protein ladder. That is to say, they change their diets in ways that call for even more land to be devoted to agriculture to support them because they're no longer living at the lowest end of the food chain, at grains. They are now living at the level of animal agriculture, which requires more grain and more land. If the only model for development in those developing countries - representing at this point, say, three billion people in the world - if the only model for development is the recapitulation of the industrial revolution, with all its horrific waste and pollution, there simply is no way that development can occur without doing permanent, irreversible damage to the systems on which life depends.
I want to point out that the industrial revolution, taking place as it has over the last two hundred or so years, has in many ways been a phenomenal success for about one billion of the planet's five point eight billion people, the people essentially of Europe, of North America, of Japan, a few other places. It operates on a basis of colossal wastefulness, moving around vast quantities of stuff in order to provide a decent life for those one billion people. To try to extend that same set of methods, that same set of technologies to three, four, five billion additional people is simply and arithmetically unsustainable and brings about ecological crisis within the next century.
The third demographic issue is in the richest countries of the world - who, by the way, are unlikely themselves to want to forego their so-called standard of living. They are democracies, by and large, and none has yet, as far as I am aware, willingly chosen a government whose fundamental basis is the diminution of the standard of living that those countries enjoy. The demographic issue for the richest countries is the issue of aging. And today, most of us age unhealthily. As you all know, almost all of the health care costs over a person's life is spent in the last months of that life. It is creating in those countries of the world - the richest countries, where people expect to be taken care of medically by their governments in their old age, to receive the medical care, the best medical care, that science can make available - it is creating, as I said, fiscal strains and economic strains, and indeed, potentially, intergenerational conflict around the question, "Who is going to pay for this?" Because, by definition, the older the consumers of medical services, the funding comes from the relatively young, who are working and paying taxes.
My principal point this evening is simply this. None of the issues that I have just quickly raced through can be addressed in the context of the existing technologies by which the world today earns its living. It is not only an issue of fairer distribution - and it certainly is that - it is more fundamentally that current technologies - whether they apply to agriculture, to industry, or to transportation, or to anything else humans do in order to sustain their standard of living - those technologies are simply not sustainable. They lead to destructive subsistence, destructive development, and destructive affluence. Today, there is no such thing as sustainable agriculture. There is no such thing today as sustainable industry. There is no such thing today as sustainable development. And the reasons for that are that we do not have, today, the underlying technologies that could support those concepts.
The issues of better social and economic systems, of fairer distribution, of better environmental regulation are, of course, not only relevant, but critical. But they are secondary to the need for new technologies in the sense that the provision of new technologies is the precondition for beginning to address those other issues.
The most essential task, I believe, that we as a species confront today is the requirement that we reinvent the technologies by which we feed, clothe, and house ourselves and generate such wealth as humanity enjoys. The fundamental problem is that the technologies we have today require us to use enormous quantities of stuff in order to create modest economic value. And there are thousands of examples of that in your daily life. The notion of automobiles, the notion of moving two tons of iron and steel around in order to move a person is inherently an unsustainable notion, and yet our economies are based on concepts like that.
The trick is going to be to multiply value to people to enable them to lead better lives, without multiplying stuff. And there are principally three technologies , three families of technology, that hold the promise of being able to do that. One is information technology. The substitution of information for stuff is one potentially winning strategy for creating more value, while at the same time not putting impermissible burdens on underlying natural systems. The second is biotechnology, for the same reason, and the third is nanotechnology, the emerging science of radical miniaturization. Example: if you compare sending an e-mail with sending a letter. A letter requires not only you to cut down trees, and type a physical object called a letter, which you then in some way transport to someone who drives a car, and puts it in a plane, and puts in a railroad car, and delivers the letter to its intended recipient. A lot of stuff has to happen in order for a letter to work. E-mail just moves electrons. Electrons are cheap, renewable, sustainable.
In biotechnology, products like cotton which appeared on the market the last couple years. Cotton, which repels insects, resists insects, has reduced pesticide usage in the cotton fields by about sixty or seventy percent in just a couple of years. It is the substitution of information encoded in a gene in a cotton plant for airplanes flying over cotton fields and spraying toxic chemicals on them. Biotechnology provides a basis, again in agriculture, for practices like conservation tillage. Conservation tillage is required because we lose about twenty-five billion tons of topsoil annually. If you go out to the Gulf of Mexico, you can see much of Iowa floating in the surf, in the waters there. In the Ceratos [spelled phonetically] region of Brazil, in order to produce one ton of soybeans, you lose five tons of topsoil each year. Topsoil is not being created at anything like the rate at which it is being destroyed. The notions of creating higher yields, drought resistance, ability to grow crops in saline and mineralized soils are going to be critically important in a world in which you are going to have to feed more people and you're not going to be able to find more land to do it. Or at least the only land that is findable today is land which is, for example, rain forest and other unused parts of the earth.
It should be pointed out that biotechnology is scale neutral. It does not require you to have a large farm in order to justify the economics of it, the way, for example, tractors are not scale neutral. Tractors favor large farming. Seed, which is where biotechnology is delivered, is scale neutral. It works as well, and at the same cost, for small farmers as it does for large farmers.
There are a set of applications in biotechnology for nutrition that are just beginning to become apparent. One example: an issue in many parts of the world is vitamin A deficiencies. People try to get vitamin A in the form of supplements to remote rural populations and fail to do so. The consequence is a disease called night blindness, which often degenerates into literal total blindness. We're working on a project in which you put in a gene that creates pro-vitamin A, beta-carotene in, for example, oil seed crops like Canola. The oil gets used for cooking, and vitamin A is part of that process. It's simply a more efficient and, I would submit, a more natural delivery system. It certainly is more effective and lower cost for everyone involved.
So, what's the catch? Why is this as controversial as it is? I don't mean to speak for anyone else, but I will give you my impressions. The first catch is that, like information technology, it is new and it is potentially very large in its impacts. Second, it is seen as unnatural. Now, almost all agriculture and almost all medicine, as it exists in the world today, would be hard to justify as natural. Almost everything we grow, everything we eat is the root result of human intervention, human breeding and so on. But this is unnatural in a different sort of way from the kinds of breeding programs that have characterized humanity for ten thousand years.
Third, it is largely being developed by private firms for profit, which gives rise to suspicion as to the trustworthiness and motivations of those who are advancing this technology, companies like mine. So the question which people have, I believe, not only a right but a duty to ask, is how wisely will we use these unprecedented new powers? What are the risks associated with doing something this new and this profound at the very wellsprings of life? How are they going to be managed? How will we have credible oversight? How will we have credible and effective monitoring of the introduction of this technology?
Certainly, humanity's record for using technology wisely, sensitive to its potential effects on society, on people, on environment is, at best, mixed and hardly encouraging. These are public questions. These are not questions that ought to be decided simply by the private sector. These are questions that people and their institutions have to debate, discuss, and strike an appropriate balance between hope and concern, between the promise of the technology and the risks associated with it. We have not yet identified, yet alone cloned, the gene for wisdom, and some skepticism about our ability to manage powerful new technologies is appropriate. It avoids the sin of hubris and helps us operate within our limitations as humans. But it is not beyond our best potentials to use these technologies wisely. And I believe that the state of the world in the next century will be more hopeful for more people as a result of the wise application of biological knowledge. Thank you very much.
 Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a bizarre brain disease that began killing cattle in the UK in 1986, was subsequently linked to a human form of 'mad cow' disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The UK government’s inept handling of the episode led to a trade ban on British beef exports in 1998, punitive duties and retaliatory measures by major trading partners, and a severe loss of public confidence in the safety of the food supply in Europe.
 Empirical evidence has not yet been able to demonstrate a clear link between improved environmental and/or social performance and a company’s financial performance (Berman, Wicks, Kotha, Jones; 1999)
 The Life Sciences label refers to the convergence of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and biotechnology. Biotechnology can be described as “the application of scientific and engineering principles to processes involved in the manipulation of biological agents to provide goods and services” (Ravetz and Brown, 1989:79).
 Based in Brussels, the European Association for BioIndustries represents 45 multinational corporate members and 14 national associations (including some 600 small- and medium-sized enterprises) and is one of the industry’s most active lobbying bodies in Europe.
 ‘Biotech Companies Gear Up a $50 Million Ad Campaign’, International Herald Tribune, 5 April 2000
 A preliminary ruling in March 1999 by Britain’s official Advertising Standards Authority alleged that the Monsanto advertising campaign sought to deceive the public by expressing opinions as accepted fact and making scientific claims that were “wrong” and “misleading”.
 ‘Genetically-Modified Food: Alarmingly Out of Control’, International Herald Tribune, 5 August 1999
 ‘Greenwashed; Monsanto Pushes Roundup Ready Soybean Past Legal, Political Barriers Worldwide’, The Nation, 19 October 1998. Bowing to public pressure, in October 1999, the company agreed to abandon the commercialization of technologies that would render seeds sterile.