Globalization, Bioethics and the Cultures of Developing Countries

- Soraj Hongladarom, Ph.D.
Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts,
Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok 10330, Thailand
Email: hsoraj@chula.ac.th
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 103-5.


Introduction

It is undeniable that globalization has pervaded almost all aspects of lives of people all over the world. Driven by advances in science and technology, most notably information and communication technologies, globalization is fast transforming the texture and fabric of the world to the extent never seen before in world history. Not only are merchandises imported and exported around the globe, but so are ideas as well as scientific techniques and expertise.

The recent advances in biotechnology are also a good case of the spread of goods and ideas. Biotechnological products are bought and sold throughout the world, and the technique underlying them are transforming the world, creating a whole new set of opportunities as well as challenges.

This paper is an attempt to delineate some of the impacts the globalization of biotechnology has on the world"s cultures, especially those of the developing countries. Taking the current controversy and debate on genetically modified food as an example, I will argue that the world"s cultures will be affected tremendously by these advances. However, the transformation is not a one way street. It is not the case that cultures will always be affected by the technology. There is a possibility that cultures themselves can transform the technology and adapt it to their own use. This adoption is seen as a way to counter the argument against the use of biotechnology that the technology will obliterate the differences among cultures.

Globalization of Cultures

It is well known that globalization will affect the politics and economies of nations. The talk of globalization taking down the boundaries between nations is given mostly in political and economic contexts. However, what is rather less known or discussed is that globalization affects cultures too. "Globalization of cultures" means that the differences among the cultures of the world will be less and less visible due to the effect of globalization. An obvious example is the spread of Western style clothing around the world. I may be presenting a talk in the Philippines, but the way I dress may be no different from the way a Filipino professor dresses. And since food is a part of culture, globalization means that people are consuming the same kind of food. The spread and popularity of the American fast-food chains is a very clear example of this.

However, the most serious aspect of globalization of cultures has to do with what is going on in the minds of the people around the world. It is feared that, if globalization is complete, then all the world"s people will think, believe and behave in the same way. This may be a paradise for marketers and advertisers, who dream of a world where their efforts will carry the same message and the same effects toward all corners of the globe. But some rightly fear that such a condition could spell doom for human creativity, since lack of diversity is a very likely cause of stagnation and even slight changes in the environment could mean disaster. In addition, globalization of cultures would imply that attachment to one"s historical tradition will become obsolete, with the result that people could become rootless, lacking the sense of purpose in life which only comes from attachment to one"s own community and tradition.

Genetically Modified Food and Globalization of Cultures

Perhaps a reason why genetically modified food has aroused so much controversy is that food is so close to humans" sense of identity. As Confucius said, "we are what we eat." So when food contains some substances whose genetic material has been directly and purposefully manipulated, there is a natural reaction against it. People tend to think that manipulation of genetic material would be tantamount to manipulation of nature, and hence food containing this kind of material would be unnatural. The upshot, it is believed, is that those who eat this type of food will become unnatural too. Since most human begins are deeply attached to nature, the reaction against genetically modified food is understandable.

There is another aspect to the problem. Since genetically modified food often comes with patented technologies belonging to large multinational corporations, the introduction of such food into the developing world has engendered another kind of reaction. The argument is that the introduction of the product will harm the farmers in the developing countries, because they cannot compete with the more efficient crop based on the technology. And when they try to plant those crop, they have to pay hefty fees to the companies that hold patent to the technology. Even though in some cases the corporation might release their products to public domain, the reaction still lingers as there is fear that in the future those corporations might introduce newer patented technology, which would make it necessary for the farmers to buy once they are already hooked into using genetically modified products.

These problems raise the concern over globalization of cultures. Once farmers see the potential of genetically modified crops, they will start planting them. Since these crops are developed by multinational corporations, what might happen is that farmers all over the world will plant the same kind of crops, using the same farming methods, with little difference regarding the locality. In short, they will start to think and behave the same way. What is new with the technology compared with what farmers have done for millennia is that their crops are not derived from nature alone, but are an outcome of industrial production. In this sense, agriculture and industry become one and the same. And since industry always aims at standardization and mass production, we can see the trend toward globalization of cultures in the work of the farmers too.

Culture, Perception and Genetically Modified Food

These concerns also raise a set of ethical problems. Chief among them is: What should we human beings do in the face of the changing circumstances in the fast changing world? One thing we clearly have to do is to find a way to feed the growing number of population, and this clearly necessitates the use of technology. However, the concerns alluded to above are real and need to be addressed adequately. Herein lies the main challenge facing human beings in the twenty-first century. The theme of the Manila conference, "Harnessing Science and Technology to Meet the Globalization Challenge," could not be more appropriate. Science and technology need to be harnessed to meet the challenge, but the challenge does not consist solely of technical problems. The challenge also consists of many problems which are not technical, but are intricately interwoven with cultures, beliefs, values, histories and traditions, not to mention economy and politics. This makes the challenge very difficult to meet, but at least some progress is made when these non-technical challenges are identified and concerted effort is made to find out how to begin to meet them.

Proponents of genetically modified food keep saying that those opposing it do not pay attention to the real situation where there are more and more mouths to feed and only the technology can offer a solution. They add that the opponents of the technology are close to being "irrational" in their fear, which is not based on scientific findings. However, what the proponents tend to overlook is the very powerful role perception can play in a culture. Since genetically modified food is not consumed only by scientists and lab technicians, its introduction to the wider world naturally entails the problem of how to relate scientific knowledge and understanding to the public at large. Assuming that genetically modified food is adequately safe (something which to my knowledge is still being contested by a group of scientists themselves), one might expect that anybody should adopt the food with no qualms. But reality does not work that way. The problem with genetically modified food does not lie with the technology or the science behind it; it lies with the way people perceive it, which is tied up with people"s sense of identity, cultures, values and so on. To dismiss these belief and value systems as irrelevant to the solution would be to miss the point by a wide margin.

The Way to Go

Thus we are beset with a dilemma. On the one hand, we need the technology to work for all of us. On the other, the use of the technology often comes with hard-to-predict consequences stemming from beliefs and values. What we should do, I believe, is to find a way for the two to stay together amicably, and this is achieved through a compromise of the two sides. Let us recall that the problem stems from the perception that the technology is a tool of the multinational corporations in their quest for control of the world market. There may be some truth in this, or else the perception might not be as strong as it is.

Thus, one thing we should do is to loosen up the tie between the technology and the multinational corporations. This could be achieved through an independent development of the technology by the developing countries themselves (2). In fact this is imperative, considering that developing countries need to develop their science and technology capabilities anyway in order to meet other challenges of globalization. The technology itself should also be loosened from its tie with industrial production. What this means is that technology should be developed to solve problems at the local scale, or at least at a smaller scale than at the global scale that multinational corporations like to do. Technology should be brought down from being a partner of global industrial production, and become a partner of smaller scale, local solution to local problems. Once this is achieved to a certain extent, the negative perception against the technology should diminish because people would then see the benefits and potentials of the technology in solving problems that lie closer to their lives.

Another thing that should be done is that members of a culture should search for a way to reconcile their cultural traditions with the technology. Realizing that neither blindly following the technology nor turning one"s back completely against it will do, members of a culture should then consider where the balance lies. Here I can offer a solution proposed for my own country. In Thailand the dominant religion is Buddhism. It underlies the Thais" sense of identity and their value systems. Thus, Buddhism should be re-interpreted such that it becomes a partner in the effort to reconcile cultural traditions and technology. The Buddhist principle of The Middle Way, which teaches that the path to salvation lies in avoiding extremes, could then be interpreted so that the Thai culture avoids both the extremes of uncritical fear or acceptance of technology. What remains to be done is to find out where the optimal balance lies, and this surely requires constant effort.

The Thai Situation

Situation in Thailand regarding the globalization of cultures through the spread of genetically modified organisms is an interesting phenomenon. Some have seen in the Thai case a lesson that many other countries could learn from. This is so because Thailand lies at the middle of the spectrum from the most developed country to the least developed one. Thus the country presents a case in which the conflict between the globalizing and anti-globalizing forces play out against each other. At present, genetically modified plants are not allowed outside of scientific laboratories; the reason cited by the government is usually that it is not yet proven whether these plants will engender harm to the environment or not. In fact, Thailand is the first Asian country to ban the release of genetically modified crops into the environment. The Ministry of Agriculture is ordered "to halt all genetically engineered crop field trials" and to set up a panel of scientists, farmers, and consumers to draft a biosafety law (1). However, it is reported that a substantial portion of cotton growers in the country have resorted to the genetically modified strain of cotton which contains toxin from the Bacillus Thuringiensis bacterium in their fields because they effectively resist insects. But the effectiveness of the genetically modified cotton appears to be elusive, since there are many other pests against which the BT cotton proves to be no more capable of resisting than the traditional ones. Moreover, reports from growers have been such that the quality of cotton fiber from the genetically modified strain appears to be less desirable than that of the traditional one. Thus growers have to weigh the benefits and costs of growing GM cotton, and the latter is not a panacea to the dilemma facing cotton growers as it may have been advertised to be.

The Thai government is, nonetheless, promoting research and development of the GM technology in order to strengthen the competitiveness of the country. But the most prevalent discourse concerning GMOs in the country concerns trading of the product in the world market. Most people are concerned that Thai agricultural products may contain parts that are genetically modified and thus may be unacceptable to large markets such as those of the European Union and the Middle East. Domestically there have been many demonstrations against multinational companies that are accused of selling products tainted with GMOs to the Thai consumers. The most common charge is that these companies subscribe to a double standard, selling products to Thailand, which are not acceptable in their own home countries. It thus remains to be seen how the situation regarding GMOs and biotechnology in general will turn out in the country.

Conclusion

Harnessing science and technology to meet the challenges of globalization is not an easy task. Nonetheless it is necessary because countries risk losing out in the competitive global economy if they fail to do so. In the case of the genetically modified crops, developing countries should be able to possess the expertise needs to develop the knowledge base and the technology itself. This could be done through cooperation among countries, forming networks of scientists and scientific institutions. What is important is that science and technology form a lasting partnership with local people and culture. This will diminish the negative effects of cultural globalization while maintaining the need for science and technology.

References

1. Bagla, Pallava. 2001. GMOs Thai-ed Up. Science Now (04/11/2001): 3.

2. Hongladarom, Soraj. 2002. Science in Thai Culture and Society. Bangkok: Preecha-Praphai Science Foundation.


Go back to EJAIB 12 (3) May 2002
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet:
http://eubios.info/index.html