Boston biotech meeting attracts supporters, protestors

Published June 1, 2000

Bio2000, a week-long conference for the international biotechnology industry, ended March 31 after setting attendance records for both conferees and protestors.

Nearly 8,000 industry representatives attended the Boston convention. Some 2,500 protestors held a four-hour rally in front of the convention center to protest the use of bio-engineered plants in food without what they claim is adequate labeling or testing.

The biotech industry generated $18.6 billion in revenues in 1999 according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which sponsored Bio2000. The industry’s growing importance in foreign countries was evident by the number of hospitality suites hosted by foreign countries eager to attract development by biotech companies.

Senator Ted Kennedy ( D-Massachusetts) addressed the conference, praising the industry for providing 25,000 jobs and bringing $1.2 billion in research funding to Massachusetts alone. “We want to work with you to make sure we are going to have decisions and judgments based on science,” Kennedy told attendees. “Too often when decisions are being made, they are based on philosophy or ideology.”

Christopher Reeves, paralyzed by a fall from a horse in 1995, also spoke at the convention. He called for more funding for stem-cell and genetic coding research that could lead to discoveries that might help him and others with spinal cord injuries walk again. He emphasized the importance of giving paralyzed people “hope . . . that nothing is impossible.”

While the promise of genetic engineering for future discoveries was touted, current concern over genetically modified foods did not disappear.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has introduced a bill in Congress that would require a “warning label” on biogenetic food. Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, told the conference that an estimated 70 percent of all processed foods on the grocery shelves today contain some genetically modified ingredients. Since most foods already contain genetically modified ingredients, some have argued that it would be more efficient simply to label non-biogenetic foods, just as “organic” foods are now labeled.

Biotech advocates realize they must win over U.S. consumers, who, unlike Europeans, have not yet expressed strong opposition to bio-engineered foods. Susan Harlander, vice president of biotechnology development and agriculture at Pillsbury Co., told attendees to use “your own, small sphere of influence” to teach others about the benefits of biotech. “Talk to your own child’s class . . . Talk to your mother. Only one side is out there now.”

Cal McCastain, a farmer and lawyer from Arkansas. added, “Going deep into a life form is no different than going deep into space or deep into the ocean.”

While protestors dumped gallons of genetically modified soybeans outside the convention center, industry spokesmen defended the technology. “Biotechnology products are the products that have been the most tested of any products introduced into the food supply” according to Roy Fuchs, director of regulatory science at Monsanto. “Safety is foremost.”

A coalition of seven leading biotech companies has recently been formed to educate consumers about the benefits of biotechnology. The Council for Biotechnology Information has begun a three-year public relations campaign of TV and print advertising and has established a Web site. The campaign will educate the public about the medical and environmental advantages that biotechnology can offer, as well as the safety of biotech products. (See story page 00)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology met in Boston in conjunction with the Bio2000 conference. “Agriculture biotechnology will have a tremendous impact not only on our food choices, but in the way we produce our food, on our natural resources, on trade policy, and on other disciplines like medicine,” said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. “I wanted a group of people who would look beyond the science and explore the effects of this new discipline wherever it might be felt.”

Among the issues the advisory committee will address is “the appropriate balance between supporting innovation and agricultural biotechnology and mitigating concerns related to the technology.” The group will also keep the public informed on biotechnology regulation.

There was also much discussion at the conference about the Human Genome Project, a federally funded effort to identify all 80,000 human genes and make them available for further study. The project is near completion. It is hoped that researchers will have a better understanding of the genetic basis of diseases–an understanding that could lead to longer lifespans and earlier screening and treatment of diseases based on individual genetic profiles.