Anti-GM views growing in US
By SIMON COLLINS in San Francisco
Biotechnology companies are getting worried that what they call "the
European disease" of opposition to genetically modified food is spreading to
the United States.
Activists opposing genetic modification and a variety of other causes staged
protests in San Francisco yesterday as 18,000 delegates gathered for the
world's biggest biotech conference, Bio 2004.
The activist groups, under the umbrella name "Reclaim the Commons", hope to
emulate the success of protesters at the World Trade Organisation talks in
Seattle in 1999 and shut down the Bio meeting tomorrow.
Inside San Francisco's plush Marriott Hotel, where the first pre-conference
sessions began yesterday, delegates devoted two-and-a-half hours to an
anguished debate about why they were failing to win public support.
The director of a life science and society initiative at Washington's
Georgetown University, former US Ambassador to the Netherlands Cynthia
Schneider, told the meeting that even Americans who had accepted genetically
modified (GM) crops were drawing the line at manipulating dairy cows and
"Is the US catching the European disease?" she asked.
"Acceptance of agricultural biotechnology is declining in the US. This
reflects particularly the attitudes to animal biotechnology and animal
"There is also concern about biopharming - the use of food to develop drugs.
We don't have the right regulatory system to ensure that these drugs are
She quoted an international survey by the Washington-based Pew Centre which
found that 51 per cent of Americans felt that genetically altering fruit and
vegetables was bad, against only 37 per cent who said it was good. Americans
were still far more pro-GM than the French, who voted by 89 to 10 per cent
that GM was bad, or the Japanese, where the split was 76 to 20 per cent.
But Schneider said the US refusal to label GM food was "under siege".
"There is a real demand in the US for more information and transparency,"
she said. "It's something we need to think about."
The Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO) organised a line-up of
passionate speakers to lead the debate. All tried to inspire industry
delegates to go out and sell the virtues of GM.
Canadian Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace who broke with the
organisation a decade ago, said the environmental movement had been hijacked
by extremists who were anti-capitalism, anti-trade and "anti-human".
"Humans are depicted as a cancer on the face of the Earth," he said.
He said it was a misuse of the "precautionary principle" to oppose GM foods
such as "golden rice", in which a gene from daffodils had been inserted to
increase the level of vitamin A to cure malnutrition and blindness. "What is
the risk of planting golden rice today?" he asked.
"Maybe vitamin A might spread into other plants. I can't see that that would
"On the other hand, what is the risk of waiting five years to plant golden
rice, which is [inventor] Ingo Potrykus's best estimate of the time it will
take to get through all the regulatory controls?
"It's 2.5 million more blind children and five more years of suffering by
hundreds of millions."
Irish biologist David McConnell, a founder of the pro-GM lobby group
European Action on Global Life Sciences (Eagles), called for a huge increase
in public spending on research into vaccines and medicines for the diseases
of developing countries, which would not be profitable otherwise for private
biotech companies. "We need to embrace biotechnology in the context of the
developing world," he said.
In the exhibition area, the San Francisco-based Institute for OneWorld
Health said it was trialling a drug for a spleen disease in India and
planned to develop more drugs, using funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation and other charities.
The 25-person institute's senior programme officer, Dr Arthur Strosberg,
said he chucked in his job with a commercial pharmaceutical company to help
set up OneWorld to make medicines "at a cost the population can afford".
"We wanted to do something about the inequity between the developed and the
developing world," he said. "This is a unique organisation. I wish there
were more of us."
* Simon Collins' travel to San Francisco was funded by NZ Trade & Enterprise
through the Qantas Media Awards.
* The world's largest biotechnology conference.
* Taking place San Francisco, June 6-9.
* Countries represented: 60.
* Number of conference speakers: 902.
* Number of presenting companies: 276, including AgriGenesis Biosciences and
Pacific Edge Biotechnology of New Zealand.