The rules for a biotech revolution

June 19, 1998

Information technology and biotechnology are transforming the world around us. The information technology revolution has created new types of organisation, new patterns of work and new ways for people to interact. The biotechnology revolution is younger and less far advanced. The time taken for new drugs and therapies to be tested and the development cycle for living things mean that product innovation is slower than in information technology. But the results of our growing knowledge of genetics are likely to be as, or more, far-reaching.

The Swiss referendum on genetics research has shown that the public can be convinced of its potential benefits and that the hazards can be kept at an acceptable level. However, the prospect is of increasing resistance to the biotechnology revolution. So far, genetic engineering has seemed frightening but far away: now it is a reality in the food we eat or in treating our diseases.

Biotechnology is transforming commercial relationships already. Take the local seed suppliers, in many cases generations old, that have sold out in recent years to multinationals. Those who develop new seeds that will alter farming fundamentally are predictably eager to control distribution channels, too.

Firms that benefit from this innovation are likely to be well-established ones such as Monsanto or Zeneca, an ICI spin-off. In the United Kingdom especially there is a crisis of scientific and financial confidence in the small one-idea biotechnology firms that aim to follow the lucrative pattern of the start-ups familiar in information technology. The time and risk involved in developing products militate against anyone not supplied with large sums of patient capital.

So far, most hostility has been directed to apparent threats to the food we eat, already an issue because of E. coli and BSE. The advisory machinery set up to assess proposals for transgenic plants has failed to reassure the public. Even major retailers have been complaining that the food manufacturers have wished genetically altered foods on to them with little consultation. Shoppers are cautious about such innovation, a caution that is driving sales of "organic" food.

Firms such as Monsanto stress that higher yields, lower pesticide loads and other good things are likely to flow from the technology of plant genetics. They are slower to mention the increased control that seed and chemical suppliers will gain over food production, or the increased scope for profit in food that grows predictably and does not rot. But further problems could accompany the acceptance of biotechnology as a basis for food production. The effort needed to develop such crops will mean pressure for bigger expanses of fewer crops, risking monocultures that turn out to be vulnerable to pests and diseases.

Devising a regulatory system that does not kill research and allows the advantages of new technology to be used to the full while responding to these legitimate concerns issues is difficult. In particular the precautionary principle is hard to implement because of the way in which genes can shift between species with hard-to-predict results.

Problems multiply when animals are involved, let alone the human animal. Dolly's makers have received little public criticism, and it is possible that the objective of the Dolly research, pharmaceutical production in animals, could be implemented without too much controversy. Nor is there much objection to research that might eliminate genetic diseases. This (along with the jobs involved) was a key argument in the Swiss referendum campaign. But in general people are easily and understandably frightened of such developments and may become more so as the human genome project comes on stream, hugely increasing the possibilities for intervention.

The issue is not how to stop but how to regulate genetic technology. Plant, animal and human development are complex, but the genomes that underlie them are similar, and methods for altering them are likely to be increasingly standardised. Attempts to restrain the application of such technology will be tricky. Nuclear technology is complex, but every attempt to make a nuclear weapon, from the Manhattan Project to India and Pakistan, has worked at the first try. And the Aum cult in Japan showed that nerve gas and other complex chemicals usually produced by the government can be made by private enterprise. In the future, the temptation will be for political and commercial organisations to take shortcuts to power and money via genetic engineering - anything from threatened new diseases to attempts to clone humans. The latter, at least, will end in disappointment, but not until years after the money has changed hands.

The regulatory regime for genetic manipulation has to be severe - as it already is with bans on human germ line manipulation in many countries. It needs to be global in application and enforcement. In a world where countries such Russia have poor but gifted scientists, ruthless big-business criminals and overstretched law enforcement, this is serious challenge not for the scientists but for politicians.

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