The European Parliament Green Group invited me to Brussels to contribute to their debate on biotechnology and bioethics, and thats when I came across KBBE - Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy - Europes answer to climate change and energy crisis.
KBBE was launched in an event organised by the European Commissions 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 EUs 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 Europes economic growth; that cannot have included the losses due to biotech.
Europes 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 Europes R&D investment and policies ever since, and all the more so now, the emphasis is on life sciences and biotechnology.
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 Parkinsons Alzheimers, cancer. There has been little success in any area except when using the patients 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 thats 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. Thats a lie. The latest satellite data show that 40 percent of the earths surface is in fact used up for agriculture already, either for growing crops or for pasture. There really isnt 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. Weve 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.
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 Europes 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 UKs 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 Monsantos 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.
Professor 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 be weakening.
There 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.
When 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.
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, what is?
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 Commissions 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).
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, SiS 29).
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.
Article first published 17/02/16
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