Biotechnology Industry Showcases Money, Political Clout

SAN FRANCISCO, California, June 9, 2004 (ENS) - The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) Tuesday announced the launch of BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), a new nonprofit organization that will enlist the biotechnology industry in the fight against neglected diseases. A $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation got the new nonprofit off to a lucrative start.

The announcement was made at the biotech industry's annual convention BIO 2004 at the Moscone Convention Center, with nearly 17,000 people from 59 countries in attendance.

"BVGH is unique among public-private partnerships because it is rooted in BIO and it speaks the language of industry," said Carl Feldbaum, who is stepping down as BIO's president and is a BVGH board member. "With access to BIO's full range of tools, resources and networks, BVGH can provide companies real strategies to develop products for these underserved markets."

BVGH will work with companies, donors and investors to bring new vaccines, therapies, diagnostics and delivery tools to market in developing nations.


President of BIO for the past nine years, Carl Feldbaum is retiring. (Photo courtesy BIO)
"The last time BIO came to San Francisco back in the spring of '95, we attracted about 2,700 individuals and generated a few local newspaper articles," Feldbaum told delegates in his last speech as president of the organization.

"Here we are just nine years later, with more than 16,000 in attendance, including hundreds of appointed and elected local officials, state and provincial officials, U.S. and international government officials, and more than 500 journalists."

Feldbaum told delegates that biotechnology now "touches life at every level."

He said, "We now sleep on cotton sheets, eat our meals and take our medicines largely created or improved through biotechnology."

But that is the problem, not the solution, in the view of some 500 people, who gathered early Tuesday morning at the Moscone Center to protest "biotechnology and the rise of unaccountable corporate power." They believe that genetic engineering is ruining the environment, and the food supply.

With plants, puppets, music, street theater, banners, and civil disobedience the demonstrators attempted to disrupt the convention and “shut down biotech lies.”

Thirty people were arrested for blockading the street outside the convention by locking themselves together around organic plants and symbols of an environmentally sustainable future.

Simultaneously, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors began consideration of a resolution commending the protest and drawing attention to the “potentially devastating repercussions of biotechnology on human health and the environment.”


Demonstrators against biotechnology locked themselves together in a circle around organic plants on Tuesday morning. (Photo by Jane Kesselman courtesy Indymedia)
“The biotech industry is promoting tobacco science in both agriculture and medicine,” said Brian Tokar a biophysicist based at the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vermont. “They’ve hijacked scientific research in service of their corporate agendas, dramatically increasing the cost of drug development and contaminating our food supply with untested, unsafe genetically engineered foods.”

Inside, retiring BIO president Feldbaum sees genetic engineering as beneficial. "We must continue to find new ways to make drug discoveries, new food and environmental benefits accessible to underserved, minority and poverty-stricken populations both here in the United States and abroad," he said.

Singing what he called the "old, lefty" song, "If I Had a Hammer," Feldbaum compared the biotechnology industry's clout to "a political hammer that we did not have when we began this BIO enterprise together over a decade ago."

"Your hammer is a formidable political instrument, but don't use it as a sledgehammer," he said. "Strike whenever the fundamental foundations of innovation are attacked - through erosion of intellectual property, by unreasonable regulatory barriers, or by government price setting."

States working to attract bioscience companies are learning that success means specializing in specific sub-sectors, according to a new study conducted by the Battelle Memorial Institute and the State Science and Technology Institute for BIO and released Monday at the conference.

The study is the most comprehensive analysis to date that quantifies the scope and impact of bioscience employment in all 50 states. It also examines programs in each state to promote the development of bioscience companies.

Researchers found that today 40 states specifically target the biosciences for development and all 50 states have economic development initiatives available to assist bioscience companies.


Delegates crowd the exhibit floor at the BIO 2004 convention. (Photo courtesy BIO)
States are specializing. North Dakota is focusing on bioprocessing in value-added agriculture, while Missouri is seeking to become a leading center in plant and animal health. States such as Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Utah are working in the area of medical devices.

Investments have grown, as much as $500 million in Florida, and experimental approaches, such as tax credits to encourage investment in private venture capital funds, have also increased, researchers found.

More than 885,000 people in the United States are employed in the biosciences. The largest segment of this group is working in the areas of medical devices and equipment, which accounts for 37 percent of bioscience employment.

In 2003, bioscience workers on average were paid at least $18,600 more than the overall national average private sector annual wage.

Recent initiatives include Connecticut’s creation of a $5 million BioSeed Fund, which invests up to $500,000 in early stage companies and Kentucky’s $5 million Natural Product Fund. North Carolina created a Life Sciences Industry Revenue Bonding Authority to finance biomanufacturing equipment and lab fit-outs.

But it is agricultural biotechnology that has raised the greatest criticism among conservationists, consumer groups and farmers.

In a statement aimed at the BIO conference, Food First and the Institute for Food and Development Policy pointed out that genetically modified crops and new biotechnologies have been developed "largely at public expense, but most are now controlled by private corporations."

"With over $40 billion in losses over the past 24 years in pharmaceutical and agricultural biotechnology, these industries are scrambling for profits, leaving little incentive to develop crops to help the poor," according to Food First.

But according to data released by BIO, commercialized biotech crops - cotton, soybean, corn and canola - grown across the country have created $20 billion worth of value at the farm level.

"Crop biotechnology has not fed anyone but the biotech industry itself," said Kathleen McAfee, executive director of Food First. "When commercial biotech crops were introduced in 1996, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Congress that biotech's boon would come from increased farm productivity and sales of farm products and inputs by U.S. agribusiness."

According to Food First's research, agricultural biotechnology has focused on large-scale commercial production. Much of the research has gone to engineering crops that can withstand herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup, an input that costs farmers money but does not increase crop yields.

"Giant biotech and agrochemical firms profited immensely from sales of brand name herbicides, the patented seeds that go with them, and licenses for their use," said McAfee.

"The only benefit is for the large-scale farmer who can use herbicides more freely on seeds engineered to survive spraying. But even this benefit is temporary. Weeds become resistant to Roundup, like any pesticide," she said. "Crop genetic engineering is just another arm of industrial agriculture, complete with environmental problems."


Grape genes for resistance to Pierce's disease are being developed. (Photo by Patrick Tregenza courtesy USDA)
But BIO says genetic engineering can help beleaguered farmers, especially in California. Currently, the state's crop is threatened by Pierce's disease, a bacteria that has caused an estimated $12 million in damage.

The disease that strangles grape vines has forced the removal of one-quarter of the vines in one region of Riverside County, and more than 1,000 acres of premium wine grapevines in the north coast region have been killed by the disease.

Biotech varieties with engineered resistance to Pierce's disease are currently in development, BIO said in a statement. "Deployment of these biotech protected vines could eliminate the use of 59 million pounds of insecticide per year at an annual cost savings of $105 million."

BIO represents more than 1,000 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations in all 50 U.S. states and 33 other nations. The four day BIO 2004 convention concludes today.