EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
A challenge to the biotech corporations?
, February 26, 2005
Over the past 15 years, biotechnology has emerged as the most important fields of scientific research. It is costly and high risk, but also earns high profits.
Perhaps the most contentious part of this industry has been genetically-modified (GM) seeds, some of which have been produced with resistance to insect pests, and others to the synthetic herbicide Roundup, produced by one of the largest of the biotech companies, Monsanto.
GM corn, cotton and soy beans now dominate production in the world's largest agricultural producer, the United States, but health fears have slowed its adoption in Western Europe, Australia and other countries.
Widespread testing, in Australia and overseas, has shown that foods produced using the new technology is safe for human consumption, although there are concerns about GM cross-pollination with other commercial crops and native plants.
There are undoubtedly some uses of biotechnology which offer substantial health benefits to mankind, for example, a genetically-engineered rice variety (Golden Rice) that incorporates vitamin A.
Vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness and skin diseases, and affects an estimated 750 million people, most of whom live in developing countries Because rice does not carry Vitamin A, poor people whose principal source of carbohydrate is rice are particularly susceptible.
Not surprisingly, extremist organisations such as Greenpeace have been in the forefront of opposition to the development of Golden Rice.Corporate monopolies
Apart from the issue of human safety, there is widespread concern that a handful of biotech companies have monopolised the technology, protecting it through patents, so as to make huge profits.
Public concerns are compounded when biotech companies force farmers to promise in writing not to save and replant GM seed, or seek to use the controversial "terminator gene" technology, whereby seeds are genetically engineered to become sterile after one growing season. Farmers can also have higher input costs with GM crops, needing to use GM crop-specific sprays and fertilisers.
Professor Ingo Potrytis, one of those who developed Golden Rice, described the problem in these terms:
"I believe that scientists, as a privileged group of citizens, have more than an academic responsibility to advance science: They must also accept a higher social responsibility and, wherever possible, use science to help solve the important problems not of industry, but of humanity. In this respect, our scientific community is not in balance, and the public senses this intuitively.
"This, in turn, has made it easy for the GMO opposition to wage a war of propaganda against our work with arguments to the effect that we are only pretending to work for mankind, or are only satisfying our own egos, or are working merely for the profits of industry."
He added, "The public's scepticism is heightened by the fact that many scientists do have funds from industry and, therefore, have their sensibilities attuned to solutions of problems of interest to industry."
Recently, an Australian company, Cambia, has released information about two new discoveries which could "herald a revolution in biology", as one commentator put it.
Cambia plans to make its technology freely available, by offering alternatives to Agrobacterium, the key enabling technology in plant biotechnology, which is subject to numerous patents.
The new technology-sharing initiative includes three species of naturally-occurring bacteria that have been shown to be capable of transferring genes to plants, and a new way of visualising where these genes are and how they function.
Richard Jefferson, founder and CEO of Cambia, and adjunct professor at Charles Sturt University, said, "These new tools are provided under a new licensing paradigm that ensures that they are improved, shared and retained as a public resource."
The new development, if permitted to reach its potential, offers an alternative to the profit-driven technological innovation of the large biotech corporations, whose actions have been the subject of widespread and justifiable criticism.
It has already received extensive coverage in the scientific literature, including Nature
magazine, and journals of record, such as the New York Times
In the field of biotechnology, it is roughly the equivalent of open-source computer software, which is providing a real alternative to some popular commercial software.
However, this work is still in its infancy. If it is to achieve its potential, it will require the vigorous support of government agencies, such as state and federal departments of agriculture, the CSIRO, and universities which - at least theoretically - are not-for-profit institutions.
- Peter Westmore is president of the National Civic Council