Film Review: Life running out of control

A Documentary by Bertram Verhaag and Gabriele Kröber
95 minutes, Denkmalfilm, Germany 2004.

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If somebody wanted to find an alternative title for this movie, something like "The hidden side of life sciences" might work. Bertram Verhaag and Gabriele Kröber's  documentary is one of those films that cater to the kind of special interest audience who have already settled their views on a bunch of "in-opposition-to" issues; who stay mostly to themselves and interact with their opponents publicly once a year in front of The World Bank; or who are busy lobbying for their causes. In the case of this film, however, the limited outreach to other audiences is especially pitiful. Indeed, the movie is provocative and - I am tempted to say, refreshingly - unbalanced in its views. Nevertheless, after the show you will feel much better about spending insane amounts of money on organic produce at your preferred health food store.


But there is something else about this documentary: It broadened my horizons in such a way that I can see the life science boom from yet another angle. Since I deal with life sciences in one way or another on a daily basis, the value of this movie, to me, was not necessarily its science-related content. But it left me with some questions to take back to my job in science and technology. Witnessing the current biotech boom, the recent massive interest in research, and the global competition in this scientific market, it seems that critical voices have become rare. "It's the solution to world hunger" is one of the popular justifications for genetically-engineered organisms while, among scientists, the argument of pure scientific progress trumps. Questioning science at its core - in terms of what is the goal and what are the means - often leaves an aftertaste of being non-progressive or, in times of the politicization of science, of being ideological.


One question that has stayed with me since I saw this movie is: "How is it possible for a scientist to do science and to simultaneously consider the ramifications of its  applications?" Where are the scientists doing basic research who, nevertheless, consider the possible consequences of their research? You don't know? Well, that's why we pay sociologists a fraction of a life scientist's salary to study what happens after implementation! "Life running out of control" shows you that it may already be too late. Between the pure and innocent basic research and the market entry of a genetically modified organism (GMO), another player enters the game: the biotechnology industry. Biotech companies, for the most part, exhibit a lack of interest in the greater public good. Like all market-driven organizations, they set their goals in terms of revenue and profit, while research is just a means to get them there. With the addition of this factor, basic genetic research and, to an even greater extent, applied research dramatically lose their innocence.


 The documentary "Life out of control" will give you a provocative look at this scenario and its consequences in different places around the globe; for instance, the Canadian organic farmer who desperately tries to protect his crop from windblown GM seeds from his neighbor's fields.


You will be introduced to "DeCode Genetics," a company founded by private investors to set up and evaluate a single large database comprising results of the blood tests for the DNA analysis of every Icelander, as well as the entire patient databank for the Icelandic public health system. The documentary tells you that the government of Iceland sold all the data to this company. Biotech industry has a specific interest in "unspoiled" genetic samples. Due to the geographic isolation of Iceland, the genetic material of Icelanders  has been relatively invariant over centuries. This is also true for some indigenous peoples in South America whose blood samples were taken without explanation and without consent. Later, it turned out, these samples led to some patents.


Verhaag's "Life running out of control" throws all of these examples at you not to condemn life sciences as such, but to convey that biotech companies don't have ethical rules established, that they exhibit a lack of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and don't understand what the "sustainability" approach could mean to their field - and that bioengineering is not just about science but about democracy.


 Andrew Kimbrell, an attorney in Washington, D.C., stresses this argument when he goes into the details of missing regulations and the legal challenges that GMOs pose for a democracy. Jim Kent, lead scientist of the "Human Genome Project" also calls for caution when working on applications before thoroughly understanding the phenomenology of the genome itself.


And then there is Vandana Shiva, one of the main protagonists in Bertram Verhaag's "Life running out of control." A physicist by training, she received the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1993 and is well-known around the world as a critical and outspoken voice against GMOs and World Trade Organization (WTO) practices. Pointing out that Monsanto, a U.S. biotech company, has modified their  seeds with genes taken from animals, she knows how to make her case in the widely vegetarian society of southern India. Vandana Shiva explains that India used to grow several hundred different varieties of rice and beans, many of which have disappeared due to the introduction of chemical farming in the 1960s. Another one of her main concerns is the fight against patents on life. She successfully helped revoke patents held by European and North American biotech companies on traditional Indian plants such as the neem tree, turmeric, and others. The viewer is also introduced to her organic farming project "Navdanya" in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, where Vandana Shiva keeps and guards a collection of traditional seeds for  organic farming. The Green Revolution tried to reduce India's several thousand rice varieties to only a single one, Shiva explains, and proudly displays some of the 265 different varieties which she safeguards in her endeavor to preserve biodiversity. The viewer may question whether it was really the fact that GM seeds were used that made farmers commit suicide. On the other hand, when biotech companies let their pro-GM message travel right to the heart, why shouldn't their opponents play a similar emotional game?


Terje Traavik, Director of the Institute of Gene Ecology in northern Norway, is another main character in "Life out of control," one of those scientists who likes to think twice, and who makes it his mission to constantly question what his profession is doing. In fact,  Traavik had a fundamental second thought when he turned from being a dedicated supporter of genetic engineering in the beginning into a conscious scientist mandating caution for real life experiences with GMOs. He's a scientist who appears more on the stages of the alternative community of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations (NPOs). It would be nice to hear more of these voices in the public debate, though. And that's why I want to proselytize all of you to go see Verhaag's "Life running out of control." And in case you are already one of those people working for the cause: Enjoy!

Additional Information:

Terje Traavic
Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology
TromsØ, Norway

Andrew Kimbrell
Attorney, Environmentalist
Washington DC, USA

Vandana Shiva
Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology
New Delhi , India

Interview with director Bertram Verhaag (in German)

Biotechnology: A False Path? Vandana Shiva - India's Ecological Conscience, By Luitgard Koch

Sustainable Development: Nature's Cornucopia. An Interview with Vandana Shiva.

Biotechnology: A Great Opportunity? A Strong Representative on
Capitol Hill. By Ferdinand Protzmann

Pressing Forward the Positive Applications of Biotechnology. An Interview with Carl B. Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)

Where to order the DVD

Claus Strigel, Bertram Verhaag
Schwindstr. 2, 80798 München
Tel : +49-89-526601
Fax : +49-89-5234742
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