1. Fewer signs of support for genetically altered crops
2. Biotech flexes its muscles: Companies make their presences felt in Washington
3. BIO COMES TO TOWN - BIO(DEVASTATION)2001
1. Fewer signs of support for genetically altered crops Efforts to bring such foods to the market appear to wane a bit, a national consumer group says.
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
JUNE 15, 2001
After years of dramatic growth, field tests of genetically modified crops have hit a plateau - and may even be declining. Meanwhile, companies and research organizations are increasingly shielding those tests from public view. These findings - in a new report from the US Public Interest Research Group - suggest that biotechnology companies are slowing their efforts to commercialize the controversial technology. The national coalition of state public-advocacy groups, based in Washington, along with many other consumer and environmental groups, is calling for a stop to field tests and commercialization of bioengineered crops until they can be thoroughly and independently tested for their impact on human health and the environment.
"It is clear that USDA [the US Department of Agriculture] has generally served as a rubber stamp for applications to conduct field tests," concludes the report released yesterday. The department has rejected only 4 percent of all applications.
For the first time since field testing started in the 1980s, the number of such tests has declined for two years in a row. After peaking at 1,086 in 1998, the number of approved permits and notifications for field tests fell slightly to 931 last year, according to the report. The top states where testing has occurred are Hawaii, Illinois, and Iowa.
Any slowdown in commercialization has not had much effect on public research, biotech critics and supporters agree. For example, Bob Zeigler, director of the plant biotechnology center at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., has seen no slowdown at his institution. It takes years of research before a crop gets to the field-test stage, he points out. So while commercialization may have reached a plateau, the pipeline is full of new engineered crops that will be ready to hit the fields in the next few years.
The controversy boils down to this question: How menacing do foods become when a couple of their genes - in a long string of genetic code - are altered? Until now, the federal government has generally sided with industry, which has argued the techniques should come under the same scrutiny as traditional plant breeding, which also alters the genetic makeup of plants. But critics contend that the technology's ability to introduce exotic genes into plants - which traditional breeding could never do - requires a much higher level of testing.
"We see this system of oversight at this point as fundamentally flawed," says Richard Caplan, author of the report.
Increasingly, biotech companies are keeping details of their tests under wraps. As late as 1989, all genes involved in field tests were publicly disclosed, the report found. By last year, two-thirds of the field-tested crops contained genes labeled "confidential business information." So regulators, but not the public, knew which genes were being used in the environment.
The practice extends beyond corporations anxious to protect trade secrets. Universities are also putting field tests under wraps, according to the report, though many biotech researchers oppose such secrecy. "Most of the scientific community would always prefer maximum disclosure and openness," says Dr. Zeigler at Kansas State University. "Free exchange and access to information is critical to progress."
2. Biotech flexes its muscles
Companies start to make their presences felt in Washington
By Anthony Shadid, Boston Globe Staff, 6/15/2001
The bio technology industry, long overshadowed on Capitol Hill by its richer and more influential cousins in the pharmaceutical sector, is beginning to flex its financial muscles. Over the past few years, biotech companies and trade groups have doubled and even tripled their spending on campaign contributions and lobbying for a legislative agenda that is increasingly their own.
Amgen, the largest US biotech company, has earned a spot as one of the top 10 drug companies in spending on lobbying. And its contributions to candidates and political parties more than doubled from 1996 to 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks campaign finance.
Lobbying and campaign contributions by Massachusetts companies like Biogen Inc. and Genzyme Corp. are similarly on the rise. And in January, Millennium Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge was the latest biotech company to open a Washington office. There are now dozens of lobbyists dedicated solely to biotech issues, compared to just one for the entire industry 15 years ago.
''The biotech industry has an increasing number of concerns on Capitol Hill,'' said Bill Shingleton, lobbyist researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics. ''And as those concerns grow, its lobbying is going to grow.''
The concerns and the growth have been significant. Biotechnology's agenda is similar in many ways to that of traditional pharmaceutical companies. Both have lobbied, for instance, against proposals for prescription drug benefits in Medicare, fearful that a benefit would give the government authority to regulate drug prices.
But notable is the divergence of the agendas, in both priorities and issues. The biotechnology industry worries more about bioethics debates: the pending decision on federal funding for stem cell research and congressional legislation to ban human cloning, both of which it supports. It also puts a greater emphasis on tax issues that affect smaller start-up companies that, despite the industry's maturity, still hold the sector's promise for future growth.
''Our bottom line is the effect any legislation will have on our small emerging companies' ability to raise money. That's a somewhat different standard than the large pharmaceutical companies use in judging new legislative and regulatory proposals,'' said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Feldbaum's organization represents 950 biotech companies, academic institutions and research centers. It now employs a lobbying staff of 14 people, up from just two in 1993.
Other priorities for the biotechnology lobby include:
Protecting intellectual property rights in the hotly contested arena of patenting genes and proteins, an area in which biotech companies see future profits.
Strengthening the orphan drug tax credit, which gives breaks to companies developing drugs targeting a population of fewer than 200,000 patients. Blocking knockoffs of brand-name biotech drugs. Currently, federal regulators have no procedure for approving generic versions of so-called biologics, such as vaccines, genetically engineered proteins, and other drugs made from living cells - the traditional preserve of the biotechnology industry.
That issue, which is likely to grow in importance, offers a window on biotech's new-found clout in Washington.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who helped author the landmark Hatch-Waxman Act that provides for generic versions of drugs, has expressed an interest in updating the law to cover biotech drugs as well as traditional drugs. But the biotech industry contends that generic versions of biologics would be less effective and more dangerous because of the complexity of their products.
''If there's any activity in the area, we'd work to oppose it,'' said Lisa Raines, senior vice president for government relations at Cambridge-based Genzyme Corp.
The Generic Pharmaceutical Association, with more than 140 members, has found itself facing the emerging biotech lobby over the issue. Its president, William Nixon, estimates it can spend just one-tenth of what the biotech industry can deploy.
''We don't have the resources,'' he said.
The biotech lobby increasingly does. Amgen, in particular, has proved a presence in Washington, with a staff of more than a dozen. From 1997 to 1999, its lobbying nearly tripled - from $1.24 million to $3.44 million - more than all but eight trade groups or traditional pharmaceutical companies.
The story is similar elsewhere. Genzyme, which opened its Washington office in 1993, spent nearly $25,000 on campaign contributions during the 1996 election. In 2000, that figure more than tripled to $88,800. Cambridge-based Biogen spent more than five times more in 2000 than it did in 1996.
The quality of lobbying has grown, too. In the past year, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which once seemed out of its league in some of the nation's most pressing health care and ethics debates, has brought in high-profile lobbyists from the law firm Hogan & Hartson and the Health Insurance Association of America as well as a former chief of staff for Senator Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and doctor.
''The representation of the industry has grown dramatically,'' said Raines of Genzyme, who in 1986 became the first biotech lobbyist for the Industrial Biotechnology Association, the predecessor of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. But, she cautioned, ''the industry is still fairly young.''
Its political influence may be rising at the right time.
Money has poured into biomedical research, led by the promised doubling of the budget for the National Institutes of Health, which sets the nation's medical research agenda. That has meant enthusiasm for companies exploiting that research, particularly in genomics, and the lobby has been a relentless supporter of generous NIH funding.
Lobbyists also predict that bioethics issues will gain greater attention in coming years, increasing the need for a voice to represent the industry. This summer, the Bush administration is expected to decide on the contentious issue of whether to make available federal funding for research into stem cells taken from human embryos. Democratic Senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, meanwhile, are trying to build momentum on legislation supported by the lobby that would prohibit employers and insurance companies from using genetic information to discriminate in hiring, promotions, or health care coverage.
''Congress is starting to get interested in issues that affect biotechnology,'' said Shingleton, the lobbyist researcher. ''At that point, they need to make sure they have a Washington presence and that the industry is heard.''
3. WHEN BIO COMES TO TOWN - BIO(DEVASTATION)2001
BIO? No! BIOJUSTICE!
** Call to Action! **
International Days of Action against the Biotechnology Industry
June 24-25th, 2001, EVERYWHERE
Join thousands of activists, farmers, scientists, and others from around the world in opposing the biotechnology industry!
On June 24th and 25th, 2001 the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) convention in San Diego, will open its doors to thousands of executives, lawyers, venture capitalists, and corporate scientists working to further their agenda of a patented and commodified future ...
"Both Aramian and Andrews tried to take the focus off the controversial use of genetic engineering to alter the food supply, and instead spin the conference as focused mainly on medical research and treatments for now-incurable diseases like cancer and AIDS.
"We have 110 biotech drugs and vaccines on the market that have helped over 250 million people. Our members have also produced plants that are more resistant to pests... A lot of people are alive today because of biotechnology and biomedical research.
"One of the focuses of the Health Fest is education," Andrews explained. "The San Diego community wanted to put together a public event on all the good things biotechnology has done. The Health Fest will give people an opportunity to talk to representatives of these companies firsthand and let them know about the drugs that are available and how they're saving people's lives. We will have some patients on hand talking about how biotech has helped their lives. It's going to be a community event, and it's going to be a great event.".