From the Editor
KBBE Europe’s New Biotech Bubble Economy - An Extravagant Waste
of Dwindling Resources that Spells Catastrophe
Re-launching failed biotechnology
The European Parliament
Green Group invited me to Brussels to contribute to their debate
on biotechnology and bioethics, and that’s when I came across KBBE - Knowledge-Based
Bio-Economy - Europe’s answer to climate change and energy crisis.
KBBE was launched in an “event” organised by the European Commission’s Research
Directorate General, “in close collaboration with the UK Presidency of the EU2005.”
The conference was
held in Brussels in September 2005, and already, a glossy report has been
published entitled, New Perspectives on
the Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy, Conference Report, Transforming Life Sciences
Knowledge into New, Sustainable Eco-Efficient and Competitive Products.
KBBE is really a re-launch of biotechnology after decades of failures in both
the agricultural and biomedical sectors; and it is riding on the new ‘sustainability’
ticket. It begins, as usual, with how much KBBE is worth. Janez Potočnik,
EU Science and Research Commissioner, tell us it is “estimated to be worth more
than €1.5 trillion per year” and “the life sciences and biotechnology are significant
drivers of growth and competitiveness.” So huge amounts of public money yet
again will be poured into biotechnologies in EU’s next round of research funding,
Framework Programme 7.
No one knows where the figure
€1.5 trillion comes from. Similar wild estimates were invented to promote
biotechnology the first time round, and biotechnology has returned nothing
but losses ever since.
Accounting firm Ernst &
Young said in its annual report that biotech firms worldwide lost $4.39 billion
last year; compared with losses of $6.27 billion in 2004. However, the combined
net losses of publicly traded European biotech companies more than doubled
to $1.57 billion in 2005 from $680 million in 2004.
The European Commission
estimates a few pages later that R&D investment is responsible for up
to 50 percent of Europe’s economic growth; that cannot have
included the losses due to biotech.
Europe’s declared love affair
with the ‘knowledge economy’ goes back at least as far as March 2000, when
European leaders gathered in Lisbon, Portugal, and set the goal for Europe
to become “the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the
world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and
greater social cohesion, and respect for the environment by 2010.” The ‘Lisbon
agenda’ has dominated Europe’s R&D investment and policies ever since,
and all the more so now, the emphasis is on life sciences and biotechnology.
Biotechnology in Technicolor
There is a complete
spectrum of biotech possibilities, we are told: red, green, grey and white.
All colours of biotechnology will draw heavily on genetically modified organisms
and genome sequences (genomics). A “holistic approach” is advocated, which
means combining biotechnology with other disciplines, especially nanotechnology.
Red is for pharmaceuticals
and medical sector: “‘regenerative medicine’, ‘gene therapy’ ‘therapeutic
cloning’, and the more precise and targeted use of organic matter to build
better drugs” to treat and cure diseases such as Parkinson’s Alzheimer’s,
cancer. There has been little success in any area except when using the patient’s
own adult stem cells to mend damaged organs and tissues. But that does not
result in patentable and hence profitable cell lines, and so does not contribute to the “bio-economy”.
There is a tendency to hush up the successes of adult stem cells,
as well as the major failures of gene therapy, therapeutic cloning and genetic
engineered drugs (see “London drug trial catastrophe” and related
articles, this issue).
Green is for agri-food applications,
such as genetically modified (GM) crops and plants with “enhanced characteristics,
including drought resistance or salt tolerance”, also the application of life
science knowledge [genomics] to
improve plant-breeding techniques and to select wild plant for domestication.
Again, no success whatsoever in GM crops, with limited returns on marker-assisted
breeding. On the contrary, evidence has accumulated on health and environmental
hazards of GM crops, which is systematically suppressed and dismissed.
White is for industrial
biotech; processing and production of chemicals, materials and energy, including
biofuels from food crops such as oilseed rape, soya, maize and wheat. In the
biofuels series, you will read how getting biofuels out of energy crops not
only uses up land that’s needed for growing food, they also return less energy
than is required to produce them. In the case of GM crops, we are told we
need them to feed the world. In the case of biofuels, we are now told there
is plenty of “spare” or “waste” land, especially in Africa,
Asia and Latin America. That’s a lie. The latest satellite data show that
40 percent of the earth’s surface is in fact used up for agriculture already,
either for growing crops or for pasture. There really isn’t enough land to
grow energy crops for biofuels.
Grey is new, and is for
environmental applications, as for example, developing enzymes to help clean
up environmental disasters such as oil spills, and microbes to absorb and
filter waste in sewage water. We’ve heard that one before. But all the experience
has been that the natural bacteria on site can already do the job. The only
reason to genetically modify microbes and plants is to slap a patent on them
for the “bio-economy”.
KBBE based on the wrong science
It is quite clear
that the “knowledge-based bio-economy” cannot succeed, because it is based
on the wrong kind of knowledge, the science is wrong, and so are the technologies
that follow from the science. KBBE is a knowledge-bubble bio-economy. But
that appears to have escaped the notice of our political leaders and their
corporate masters, who believe that by manipulating knowledge, they can also
manipulate the market.
Several speakers at the
KBBE conference blame the controversy over GM food and feed for Europe’s
relative weakness in green biotechnology. This would be put right by redoubled
efforts to “inform” the public on the benefits of biotechnology. And indeed
the new campaign of misinformation, disinformation and suppression has begun.
The Royal Society suppresses
knowledge bad for the economy
The UK’s Royal Society has sold its soul to big
business since the 1990s. It lost public credibility when it set up a hasty
committee in 1998 to stage an inquisition and humiliation of senior scientist
Dr. Arpad Pusztai for adverse research findings on the safety of GM potatoes,
which could affect Monsanto’s profits; and has periodically repeated unsubstantiated
allegations against Pusztai and other honest scientists ever since.
It has just issued a press release calling for scientists “to consider
public interest when deciding whether to talk about their research results”.
Sir Patrick Bateson told the BBC that the Royal Society is concerned about
scientists “producing work which is damaging”, such as the MMR vaccine and
autism, GM potatoes and stunted rats, and the latest, a report in Nature suggesting that the Gulf Stream might
is indeed evidence that a small proportion of children do suffer adverse reactions
from the combined MMR vaccine (see SiS
13/14), just as there are good reasons to believe that as the ice melts the
Gulf Stream might weaken and even reverse its direction (see SiS 20). As to GM food being unsafe, read
the latest of a long string of evidence that has been systematically suppressed
and dismissed in this issue! I have asked several times to debate/discuss
the evidence with the Royal Society, with no success.
the Royal Society writes of the public interest it too often means only corporate
interest. It reacted quickly and fiercely against Pusztai but said nothing
at all about the Actonel scandal (this issue). If the outcome of that case
is more honesty in the assessment and publication of the results of drug trials,
the credit will go to one individual scientist and the media, not to the organisation
that claims to provide leadership for British science.
European Commission promoting biotechnology
Back at the Green Party debate in Brussels,
Prof. Yvon Englert, chief of Gynaecology and Obstetrics at Erasmus Hospital,
spoke in favour of EU funding for research on human embryonic stem cells.
If public support is not provided, he said, it will lead to just the kind
of abuse the MEPs feared as private companies got involved; the trafficking
of human eggs, and women victimised by organised crime networks that traffic
in people and organs.
There was indeed
a scandal last year involving a clinic in Romania procuring
mail order eggs for EU countries, especially the UK. The UK Human Fertilisation
and Embryology Authority (HFEA) investigated the concerns and claimed it was
“unable to find evidence that Romanian donors were being paid more than legitimate
expenses.” The Romanian government nevertheless closed down the clinic, while
the UK HFEA published a consultation paper in which a payment of £1 000 for
the donor is an option. If that is not a commercialisation of human eggs,
Englet failed to mention that adult stem cells already have a string of clinical
successes, or that there are insurmountable technical and safety issues in using
embryonic stem cells because the cells typically have genetic and epigenetic
defects, are genetically unstable, and tend to turn into teratomas when transplanted
into patients (see latest articles in SiS
25). Omitting crucial information is the subtlest kind of misinformation. It
is widely used by mainstream scientists to promote their particular research.
That is why ISIS has always maintained that ethics cannot be discussed
in isolation from science
Dr. Maurice Lex from European Commission’s Directorate General of Research
for Agriculture and Food, delivered a florid speech on KBBE; and although he
claimed he was “neither for nor against biotechnology”, a member of the audience
accused him of sounding more like a promoter for biotechnology, and challenged
him to give information on the €500 million he claimed had been spent on research
into the risks of GMOs. He said that the European Commission had consulted a
hundred scientists on the safety of GM food and feed, and not one of them indicated
there was a “red light”. He was in part responding to my talk, “Ecological challenges
to biotechnology from contemporary science” (bookstore link here).
We need to support appropriate biotechnologies underpinned by a new science
of the organism
I presented the latest evidence
on the hazards of GM food and feed; on why genetic modification is failing
on account of the fluid genome, and the urgent need to redirect substantial
funds away from GM crops, DNA biobanks and genomics towards research that
makes the EU and its member countries self-sufficient in food and energy in
order to save us from climate change and the energy crisis.
Instead of the failed
biotechnology promoted by KBBE, we need appropriate biotechnologies for capturing
energy from waste to reduce carbon emissions at source, such as anaerobic
digestion and carbon capture using prolific green algae that can generate
up to 15 000 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year instead of the 60 gallons
from a typical ‘bioenergy crop’. All the appropriate biotechnologies and more
can be combined in an integrated organic farm that minimises wastes and maximises
productivity and efficiency in both food and energy (“Dream farm II”,
KBBE is based on
a mechanistic science of life that glorifies competitiveness and rampant exploitation.
In contrast, our integrated food and energy farm is a concrete demonstration
of the organic, synergistic relationships that enable all life in the ecosystem
to prosper profusely and effortlessly.
KBBE risks being
another biotech bubble that we can ill afford. Time and energy resources are
both running out (see ISIS’ Energy Report, Which Energy? http://www.i-sis.org.uk/onlinestore/books.php#238),
and if we do not invest in truly sustainable, renewable technologies and infrastructures
now, the consequences would be catastrophic. You can only manipulate false
knowledge for so long; nature cannot be fooled by lies and disinformation,
and the current crisis may be her final warning to us.
On the other hand,
if we invest in the right kind of science and technologies, we shall find
ourselves in a greener, cleaner, healthier, wealthier, and happier life without
fossil fuels, if not by 2010, then certainly by 2050.
All SiS articles cited can be accessed on ISIS
members website: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/isisnews.php