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From Draft NOtices, August-September-October 2001

Biowarfare: The Darkest Side
of Genetic Engineering

— Molly Morgan

Destroyer Graphic

In June, San Diego was host to BIO2001, an annual conference for the biotechnology industry. As a result it also became the host for Beyond Biodevastation, the fifth grassroots gathering to celebrate biodiversity and question genetic engineering. Events included a two-day teach-in featuring world-class speakers from nearly every continent; a colorful, spirited march of about 800 people protesting various aspects of genetically modified organisms; and a variety of creative direct actions designed to educate the public and challenge conventional thinking about genetic engineering.

"Biowarfare" was the title of a presentation at the teach-in by Edward Hammond and Susana Pimiento from the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit organization that works to stop the development and use of biological weapons. Hammond, a U.S. policy researcher, Pimiento, a Colombian lawyer working in the U.S., and Jan van Aken, a German biologist, formed the organization last year upon discovering their mutual concern about biological weapons and their intense commitment to avert the dangers of new weapons stemming from advances in biotechnology. The name of the Sunshine Project refers to the fact that many biological weapons are quickly broken down and rendered harmless by exposure to bright sunlight.

The Project conducts research, does international advocacy and alliance-building work, and provides education via publications, press releases and seminars. It is seeking a global ban on the use of biological agents in forced crop eradication, is working to reinforce international consensus against biological weapons, is raising questions about certain uses of genetic engineering in defensive biological weapons research, and is sparking much-needed public debate on the limits of military use of biotechnology and dangers of some types of defensive research conducted in western countries.

Hammond began the presentation at Beyond Biodevastation by briefly reviewing how biological weapons are as old as warfare: in ancient times, Neanderthals poisoned arrows with animal feces; during the Roman Empire, enemies’ wells were poisoned with animal carcasses; during the Middle Ages, plague corpses were thrown inside walled cities; in the 18th century, British soldiers gave smallpox-infested blankets to Native Americans; during WWI and II, both German and Allied forces developed and used anthrax weapons for use against animals and humans.

As Hammond explained, the recent biotechnology revolution has increased the threat of biowarfare. Genetically engineered bioweapons in the form of lethal microbes that have no cure, are invisible to detection systems, and are able to overcome vaccines have been reported in scientific publications. Biotechnology allows researchers to build completely new types of biological weapons. Through genetic engineering, bacteria can not only be made resistant to antibiotics or vaccines, they can also be made even more toxic, harder to detect or more stable in the environment.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972 banned the development and production of biological agents for non-peaceful purposes. Recently, U.S. military officials have called for a renegotiation of the BTWC to enable the development of gas-guzzling bacteria to curtail an enemy’s mobility, and other material-degrading microorganisms are already under development. One of the most advanced threats to the global consensus against biological weapons is the attempt to deploy biological agents in forced drug eradication. Fungi that attack drug-producing plants have been developed for use against coca, cannabis and the opium poppy. These agents are lowering the political threshold for use of biological weapons and are likely to have tremendous environmental and health impacts. Pursuit of crop-killing fungi or material-degrading microbes as weapons could easily lead to the use of other plant pathogens, animal pathogens or even non-lethal biological weapons against humans.

In the same way, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in consumer products will help to increase public acceptance for application of biotechnology to war. The unknown consequences of unleashing GMOs into the environment is of enormous concern to thousands of activists around the world. Genetically engineered food crops have been burned and uprooted in India, Europe and South America, and resistance to GMOs is finally beginning in the U.S. as people become educated about the possible risks. Just as the pollen from corn genetically modified to include a pesticide can kill monarch butterflies, fungi for drug eradication are likely to attack wild relatives of the drug producing plants in their natural ecosystems. Once this genetic material is introduced into the environment, there is no way to know what mutations may occur and no way to control it. Contrary to the reassurances of the biotech industry, this is not a predictable technology.

While the BTWC is very broad and unambiguous in its prohibition of all biological weapons, it lacks any provisions to verify that countries are in compliance. Early in the 1990s, it became apparent that the former Soviet Union, Iraq and the former apartheid regime in South Africa engaged in offensive warfare programs. These revelations were instrumental in triggering negotiations for a legally binding protocol to strengthen the Convention. The protocol would provide for verification measures such as laboratory inspections and export notifications. The goal was to complete the negotiations before the 5th Review Conference of the BTWC convenes in Geneva in November 2001, but because the new U.S. administration does not support the protocol, its future is in doubt.

Two razor-thin distinctions complicate these efforts. Nearly all the knowledge, techniques and equipment necessary for an offensive biological warfare program is dual-use technology because it is also applicable to civilian medical or biological research. Furthermore, as with all military development, a very thin line separates offense and defense bioweapons research. Much greater public awareness about these alarming developments is needed.

Hammond concluded his presentation by describing some of the genetic engineering that is regularly used to produce lethal bacteria, including bacteria causing unusual symptoms (thereby obscuring diagnosis and delaying therapy), transferring a lethal factor into harmless human gut bacteria, antibiotic-resistant anthrax and tularemia, and "invisible" anthrax (altering immunogenicity to not only overcome vaccinations but also detection systems). He also briefly discussed crowd-control chemical technologies such as malodorants and calmatives and mentioned the theory among some activists that the virulent anti-Western sentiment currently expressed by the Taliban may be the result of a mind-altering chemical weapon deployed in Afghanistan during its occupation by the USSR.

More information about the types of biological weapons that are being developed is available at the Web site,, where you can also learn about ways to support this work and participate in it.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (

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