"Regardless of how these controversies are settled or sputter along, biotech will remain controversial -- and rightly so. Biotechnology is about redesigning life, ostensibly to fashion better medicines, foods and materials. But we have many examples of how human designs can go awry. Remember the dangerous gas tank on the Pinto and the leaky O-ring on the space shuttle Challenger? Engineering goofs are hardly a thing of the past. American industry is currently having trouble outfitting SUVs with safe tires. And do you know anyone in their right mind who buys version one software? So humility seems the very least to demand when corporate science sets out to "improve" on 4 billion years of evolution. "
Note also the Grocer's promise! "Grabowski said foodmakers get millions of calls every month from consumers who register their concerns via the toll-free numbers found on food labels...." "If we found that consumers truly were upset about biotech, we would discontinue it."
Biotech firms are all too aware that the world is watching; Industry facing battles from San Diego to D.C.
The San Francisco Chronicle; JUNE 25, 2001
Chanting "Hey, hey,biotech, we don't want your eco-wreck," about 1,000 demonstrators marched here yesterday to protest the opening of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual conference, an event that has become the focal point for opposition to genetically engineered foods. Inside the San Diego Convention Center, industry supporters were calling the demonstration "BioFizzle" a play on the event's stated name, "BioDevastation," and said the low turnout proved that the protesters lacked public support. A massive police presence dogged the demonstrators, angering protesters who felt intimidated by the officers in riot gear and the helicopter patrols that kept the protest under surveillance.
"We have a right to speak -- this is way out of proportion," said Will Stockwin of the Community Alliance with Family Farms, based in Davis (Yolo County). Two people were arrested and charged with carrying concealed knives, according to reports, and by late afternoon most of the demonstrators were gone. But police said they wanted to be prepared for possible violence that has erupted at similar demonstrations in the past. About three dozen protesters, clad in black, did turn up at the rally, some wearing masks and carrying shields. But no serious confrontations occurred. The march ended in a driveway below the convention hall, where the demonstrators -- penned behind chain-link fences -- demanded the labeling of genetically-modified foods, better safety testing, an end to gene patents, and changes on other issues, from corporate power to international trade. "We've had the old left, we've had the new left, we are the next left," said Chaia Heller, a professor at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont. (For more about the reasons behind the protest, check out my June 18 column on www.sfgate.com.)
CLONING UNDER FIRE: While the protesters in San Diego came at the industry from an anti-corporate, anti-global perspective, back in Washington, D.C., the industry was feeling the heat from political and religious conservatives over the related issues of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Last week the Bush administration said it would oppose all aspects of human cloning. BIO supports a ban on cloning aimed at producing babies. But the industry has sought to protect experiments that involve cloning human cells in ways that could produce replacement nerve tissues, muscle cells and other therapies. This latter practice, called therapeutic cloning, is the center of the controversy surrounding research involving stem cells extracted from human embryos. The Bush administration seems intent on heeding the reservations of religious, anti-abortion and some ethics groups that want to stop or slow experiments on human embryos. Biotech and academic scientists, as well as many patient rights groups, have tried to advance embryo research and the allied practice of therapeutic cloning -- which could be needed to make replacement tissue compatible with a patient's immune system. "I can tell you we've been spending a lot of time with religious leaders lately," said Carl Feldbaum, president of BIO, the 950-member trade association hosting the San Diego conference. Feldbaum reflected on the various controversies that seem to surround biotech, most noticeably this week the street protests over bioengineered foods outside the convention.
"For better or worse our own success is partly to blame," Feldbaum said. "People talk about a 'biotech revolution' and call this the 'biotech century,' and as a consequence you're going to get people who consider themselves counter- revolutionaries."
In his view, several trends are converging to put biotech on the hot seat. "There is a newly activist cadre of young Americans who are highly suspicious of globalization," Feldbaum said. "There is also a considerable disdain for theU.S. as the lone superpower . . . (and) a very strong surge of anti-capitalist sentiment."
FOOD LABELING CONTROVERSY: Feldbaum said biotech has become a particular target of this movement because food is an issue that appeals to public emotion. But biotech supporters say it's the industry and not the protesters who reflect the wishes of the American public. "The one thing the food industry knows is marketing and where consumers are, and they are not telling us biotech is a huge issue," said Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the trade group whose members -- ranging from Kellogg's to Nabisco -- stock the nation's supermarket shelves. Grabowski said foodmakers get millions of calls every month from consumers who register their concerns via the toll-free numbers found on food labels. The top issues: fat content, salt content, demands for more nutritional information and larger print. "We're not even seeing as much as half of 1 percent of the calls that come in . . . mention any concern on biotech," Grabowski said.
I asked for the data. Grabowski declined, saying it was proprietary. But he said: "If we found that consumers truly were upset about biotech, we would discontinue it. That hasn't happened."
Of course, people currently have no way of knowing whether the foods they eat have been genetically modified, and opinion polls show strong support for labeling of bioengineered foods -- a step federal regulators and industry officials have opposed. Grabowski refused to concede on labeling. "It depends on how you ask the question," he said. "When you ask whether biotech foods should be labeled, 65 percent of the people say yes. People say yes to everything. They want everything on the label. Let's err on the side of caution."
But when grocers ask the open-ended question -- What isn't on a food label that should be there? -- fewer than 2 percent of respondents mention genetic engineering. Once again, the top concerns were fat, salt and sugar content.
GLOBAL DEBATE: Another skirmish in the foods debate is whether biotech is helping or hurting farmers, especially in developing nations. Biotech supporters say genetically modified foods can help farmers in those countries feed their people. Biotech critics say the world grows food aplenty but distributes it poorly, feeding corn to cattle, for instance, so Americans can eat steak. "These are partly disingenuous arguments on both sides," said C.S. Prakash, a crop scientist at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Biotech crops won't feed a world in which malnutrition is often a consequence of war or civil strife. Likewise, it's unrealistic to imagine Americans will give up beef, en masse, for the good of the planet. "Biotech will be just one part of a whole range of reforms," Prakash said. But he said he thinks bioengineering is vital to improving crops grown in developing nations, such as the sweet potato, cassava or plantain that reproduce vegetatively, like tulip bulbs, rather than by producing seeds. He said the absence of seeds makes it difficult to use traditional, cross-pollination techniques to breed pest resistance or drought tolerance into the root crops that are diet staples in Africa and Southern Asia. Biotech supporters cite the work of Kenyan scientist Florence Wambugu as proof that genetic engineering has clear applications for developing countries. Wambugu is part of a Kenyan scientific team that has worked with Monsanto to bioengineer pest resistance into the sweet potato. In a forthcoming book titled "Modifying Africa," Wambugu argues biotech is the best way to improve crop yields in nations like hers where the population is growing faster than food output and the only way to increase production is to encroach on forests or grasslands. "The possible harm biotechnology might do to the natural resource base has received far more publicity than its real benefits," she wrote. Wambugu's advocacy is proof, at the very least, that the biotech industry has gotten smart at fighting the foods debate. The separate controversy over embryo research will challenge the industry on very different moral, religious and political fronts.
HOTBED OF ISSUES: Regardless of how these controversies are settled or sputter along, biotech will remain controversial -- and rightly so. Biotechnology is about redesigning life, ostensibly to fashion better medicines, foods and materials. But we have many examples of how human designs can go awry. Remember the dangerous gas tank on the Pinto and the leaky O-ring on the space shuttle Challenger? Engineering goofs are hardly a thing of the past. American industry is currently having trouble outfitting SUVs with safe tires. And do you know anyone in their right mind who buys version one software? So humility seems the very least to demand when corporate science sets out to "improve" on 4 billion years of evolution.
"It's not like there are no issues with biotech," Feldbaum conceded.
"This technology does create issues." Feldbaum said he worries about genetic privacy and genetic discrimination. He knows that access to expensive medicines will come up again when Congress and the Bush administration take up the issue of drug benefits for seniors sometime this year. These are the concerns of someone who says his industry is pretty much on a course that needs only minor corrections. If the protesters came to San Diego expecting a complete about-face, they'll go home disappointed. But they should draw satisfaction from knowing that biotech executives will leave San Diego more aware than ever that the world is watching what they do with varying degrees of hope and apprehension.
Look for BioScope every Monday in the Business section. Send your bio- feedback to Tom Abate by e-mail, tabate@sfchron icle.com; fax, (415) 543-2482; or phone, (415) 777-6213