Growing debate: Industry, opposition bringing their viewpoints to San Diego for Bio2001
By Thomas Kupper , UNION-TRIBUNE Staff Writer
June 20, 2001
As recently as three years ago, biotechnology conferences were quiet events. The talk was about initial public offerings and the latest breakthroughs in science, not about marches in the street.
What was there to protest? Much of the industry's work focused on developing drugs to save lives. Laboratory-manipulated food products -- corn and soybeans engineered to resist insects or chemicals -- had just entered the market and hadn't drawn much attention.
But things have changed quickly.
Opposition to biotech is on the march, propelled by growing public awareness, success in driving genetically altered crops out of Europe and increased visibility of activist movements. Genetically modified foods, which many Americans consume without question, have created a growing controversy, particularly in Europe. Beyond the food debate are ethical issues, such as the patenting of human genes, that have gained prominence as research progresses.
The anticipated protests around the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual conference would be the latest example of a biotech backlash. Beginning Sunday, the four-day Bio2001 event at the San Diego Convention Center is expected to draw 12,000 to 15,000 industry executives. Outside the center and in other parts of the city, police are preparing for 4,000 to 8,000 demonstrators. In recent months, opponents of genetically modified food have stepped up efforts to interfere with crop experiments. Last month, for example, a tree-research lab at the University of Washington was burned, apparently by activists.
Meanwhile, farmers in the United States are worried that resistance overseas could make it difficult to sell bioengineered crops, and bills to regulate the crops have been introduced in several state legislatures. "It's not going to be that long before we'll have the same movement around industrial agriculture and genetic engineering that we had around nuclear power," said Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, a Minnesota-based group that advocates organic farming.
Thus far, opposition to biotech does not appear to be spreading rapidly through the general population. Thomas J. Hoban, a professor at North Carolina State University who tracks public attitudes toward the industry, said studies show that a majority of the American public remains unconcerned about what activists call "Frankenfood." For instance, though the percentage of Americans who say they would buy biotech produce is falling, a survey last October found 67 percent acceptance. Still, even a slight dip in consumer support is enough to alarm leaders of the biotech industry, even as many of them dismiss much of the criticism as ill-informed. The industry responded last year with a public relations campaign based on the theme of "Biotechnology -- a big word that means hope." "Biotech is the perfect villain," said Jerry Caulder, the retired founder of several agricultural biotech ventures in San Diego. "When you have something that's difficult to understand from a scientific standpoint, it's no different from when people thought the sun revolved around the Earth."
Movement in Europe
Hostility toward biotech surfaced in the late 1990s in Europe. As American companies, most notably Monsanto, increased shipments of genetically engineered corn and soybeans across the Atlantic, opponents seized the issue. They didn't have much success at first. Public reaction was minimal -- even though soy is an ingredient in virtually all processed foods, from a can of soup to a pizza. Then, in August 1998, scientist Arpad Puztai went on British television and said he had evidence that biotech food stunted the growth of rats. Other scientists discredited the findings, but the anti-biotech frenzy was on. British activist groups with names like Genetix Snowball invaded farms to destroy biotech crops. They dropped tons of bioengineered crops outside the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing St. The campaign succeeded in getting biotech ingredients largely banished from the European diet, and observers said it was only a matter of time before the issue got more attention in the United States.
American farmers were quickly adopting the first biotech crops, herbicide-resistant soybeans and insect-resistant corn and cotton. By last year, half the U.S.-grown soybeans and more than a third of the corn were genetically modified. Few consumers seemed to notice, and activists didn't do much to try to get their attention. Then came the 1999 finding by Cornell University researchers that monarch butterfly caterpillars died in the laboratory after eating pollen from genetically modified corn. Many people have questioned the significance of that study, and the debate continues over whether there is any actual danger to monarchs, but it didn't stop the issue from gaining momentum.
Last year's much-publicized StarLink debacle, in which unapproved genetically engineered corn from a mill in Texas was discovered in taco shells, only added to the industry's problems. "It was bound to happen," said Charles Margulis, an anti-biotech activist with Greenpeace, the environmental group. "Americans were bound to get wise to this sooner or later and be outraged by it."
Cummins, from the Organic Consumers Organization, said the biotech protest movement gained momentum in 1998 when Greenpeace put new focus on the issue. Until then, it had been difficult to raise money or get attention. Around the same time, anti-globalization protesters ran wild in the streets of Seattle during a conference of the World Trade Organization. The destruction they wrought on the city's downtown drew worldwide media coverage and was a vivid demonstration of the potential for massive protests to attract attention to an issue.
Biotech's opponents thought the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO, would be a good place to showcase their own movement. Their first "Biodevastation" conference, held in the same city and at the same time as the BIO's 1999 meeting, drew several dozen activists to Seattle. They marched on the convention center, some dressed as mutant ears of corn or other genetically ravaged vegetables.
Gathering in Boston
Last year's Biodevastation event during the BIO's conference in Boston drew more than 1,500 people. Security precautions included police on rooftops and on horseback to prevent problems like the WTO riots in Seattle. Police have been getting ready for even bigger protests in San Diego.
Activists have attacked research facilities in the United States, including the University of Washington lab that was burned, and University of California labs in San Diego, Berkeley and Davis. Experimental crops at UCSD were trampled last August, leading the university to install ,000 worth of security equipment to protect the plants.
Opponents of biotech food cite many reasons for their concerns.
The most obvious is that biotech food might not be safe to eat. Though there's no proof of that -- Americans have consumed massive amounts of bioengineered corn and soybeans in recent years -- skeptics believe these crops carry long-term risks. Then there is concern about unpredictable impacts on the ecosystem. Some worry that non-biotech crops will become more susceptible to pests and eventually lose a Darwinian struggle to biotech crops, which are engineered to resist insects and chemicals. Or they worry that biotech crops could crossbreed in unforeseen and possibly undesirable ways. Finally, there are economic issues. Farmers worry about becoming dependent on chemicals that are designed to maintain the bioengineered crops. Consumers overseas worry about dependence on American companies for their food supply.
Many of the skeptics don't trust the U.S. government to protect consumers. "As more information becomes available about the subject, it continues to raise more concerns instead of quell them," said Richard Caplan, a food safety advocate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Industry leaders say that legitimate questions about environmental impacts have been thoroughly studied and continue to be reviewed.
Caulder, former chief executive of Mycogen, a San Diego biotech, said much of the commotion is driven by a small group of activists who don't represent public opinion but get attention anyway. "It's a problem for the world," he said. "It's a problem for us in that it's a distraction for us in producing the products."
Many of the activists won't be happy until the bioengineered food industry is shut down, at least temporarily. They say there should be a moratorium on growing the crops until they are tested further, an unlikely prospect given the large number of American fields already given over to biotech crops.
Cummins, from the Organic Consumers Association, says it was a mistake for biotech companies to start selling their products in the first place. "This is a very experimental technology that should have stayed in the biohazard lab for a long time, if not forever," he said.