UN accused of industry bias on biotech

A group of scientists and environmentalists has accused the UN of being biased against ecology and health by 'uncritically promoting biotechnology with highly exaggerated and misleading claims'.

A COALITION of scientists and environment activists has accused the United Nations and its specialised agency, the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), of bias and uncritical advocacy of the economic interests of the biotechnology industry over the public health and safety concerns.

A statement in mid-April 1995 to the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), the UN's overall monitoring body in this entire area of environment and sustainable development, on behalf of five scientists and some 15 NGO groups, charged that the UN and UNIDO in documents to the CSD were 'uncritically promoting biotechnology with highly exaggerated and misleading claims, while trivializing the real and serious ecological, safety and socio-economic problems posed by genetic engineering'.

'This approach,' the statement said, 'is akin to a public relations exercise for the industry and is obviously seriously biased against ecological and health considerations... (it) is most strange and worthy of strong reproach especially when the CSD is the prime international organ for promoting environmental safety. The documents threaten the credibility of the CSD as an impartial and objective promoter of sustainable development.'

George Tzotos of UNIDO conceded that in preparing the report, 'people might have been carried away that the promise (of biotech) is higher than the risk'. But he refuted the allegation that the report blindly promoted the biotechnology industry. 'Technology should not be scapegoated for its poor application' by industry and governments, he said, arguing that it is 'human intervention that is responsible for degradation of the environment rather than technology itself'.

Those endorsing the NGO statement to the CSD include the Asia-Pacific Peoples' Environment Network, the German Gene-ethical Network, Indian ecologist and researcher Dr Vandana Shiva and the Third World Network.

The statement noted that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and environmentalists were already very concerned about the contents of Chapter 16 of Agenda 21 for its 'unbalanced treatment of biotechnology'. Contrary to the title of the chapter, it had little to do with 'environmentally sound management' of biotechnology, and had failed to adequately deal with protecting the public and environment from the potential hazards of genetic engineering.

The Secretary General's report to the CSD had 'dismally failed' to compensate for this lopsidedness, by providing new information on biosafety arising from the increasing scientific literature of the past few years on the impact of genetic engineering on the environment, the statement complained.

The CSD paper should have made a distinction between conventional biotechnologies on one hand, and genetic engineering on the other hand.

Whilst many types of conventional biotechnologies have been usefully practised by generations of farmers around the world without ecological harm, genetic engineering has the potential to cause adverse environmental and health effects and the CSD paper should have focused on safety issues relating to genetic engineering.

Devastating effects

The NGOs recalled a recent detailed statement by 25 prominent scientists pointing to 'some serious scientific flaws' underlying genetic engineering, and giving a strong warning that its application could have serious and potentially devastating effects. Such effects could include the threat of transgenic crops to other plants, to soil and the larger environment, including serious erosion of biodiversity; health risks posed by viruses and transposon vectors (used in genetic engineering) that could mutate and induce cancer; foods could also become metabolically dangerous or toxic.

The dangers, the statement by the scientists said, were accentuated because the genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) could mutate, migrate and multiply in large numbers, with unpredictable consequences, and could not be recalled (unlike toxic pesticides, chemicals and other toxic substances). The scientists called for great caution in the handling and use of GMOs, much more research on the effects of GMOs before allowing their manufacture and release, greater regulation of genetic engineering, establishment of an early warning system, and an internationally-binding biosafety protocol.

The NGO statement noted that at the Conference of Parties to the Biodiversity Convention, the G77 countries had unanimously called for a biosafety protocol, in view of the potential hazards of GMOs, and had been joined by a number of Northern governments. Several NGOs had also put forward a case for much stronger safety controls, reflecting increasing public concerns backed by substantiated scientific findings.

But these public and scientific concerns about biosafety 'have unfortunately not been reflected in the CSD documents and the UNIDO-coordinated paper does not offer any clear plan to deal with the risks of genetic engineering, and does not even indicate any awareness of what they are... This is a fatal flaw in a paper purportedly dealing with "environmentally sound management".'

In the description of developments since 1992, and in its action proposals, the UNIDO-coordinated paper is 'dominated by use and application of genetic engineering, and little except lip service is given to safety assessments,' the NGOs complained. The paper is peppered with numerous references to 'environmentally sound application' but does not even attempt to define what the term 'environmentally sound' means. The terms 'safely applying' and 'environmentally sound' are used merely as prefixes to industrial and commercial applications of genetic engineering, without specifying what the terms mean or how to go about assessing safety or environmental soundness.

The paper has many sections giving details of developments and claims of progress on genetic engineering, but does not describe recent scientific findings and discussions on environmental, safety and social assessments of genetic engineering and GMOs. 'This is a singular failure and is the clearest reflection of the pro-industrial and anti-ecology bias of the paper.'

Recent findings

The NGO statement cited a number of such recent findings:

* Impact on soil organisms and plant life: At the 1994 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, researchers from Oregon State University reported on a test to evaluate a genetically engineered bacterium designed to turn crop waste into ethanol. The new bacterium demonstrated ethanol-producing capabilities, but all the test plants also died. Unpredictably, the engineered bacterium had cut micorrhizal fungi in the soil by more than half, which prevented nutrient uptake and plant growth. The lead researcher (E Ingham) concluded there are serious effects resulting from adding a genetically engineered micro-organism to soil, and the ecological risk is clear. The test, using a new and comprehensive system, disproved earlier suggestions that no significant ecological effects were seen when geneticaly engineered organisms are added to test systems.

* Transfer of transgenes to natural relatives: In 1994, research scientists in Denmark showed strong evidence that a rapeseed plant (canola) genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant transmitted its transgene to weedy natural relatives. Within the first season, a substantial part of the weed offspring had taken up the gene for herbicide resistance. This provided evidence that genetically engineered plants will be able to integrate very quickly (and pass on their genes) to nearby plant communities. In the case of canola, the results were especially worrisome since canola is insect-pollinated. With bees known to fly miles to find their favourite plants (and thus spread pollen and, in this case, new genes over a very wide range), there was enormous potential for the spread of the herbicide-resistant genes and for the spread of antibiotic-resistant genes engineers use to confirm the success of genetic modifications. These findings could make obsolete the concept of herbicide-resistant crops. Commercial-scale planting of genetically engineered crops has been based on the assumption that cross-hybridisation (passing on genetic traits to weedy natural relatives) would rarely if ever occur, and this assumption is at the heart of deregulation in the US and the EU. The assumption has been disproved by the recent Danish research findings. In response to these findings, the governments of Denmark and Norway have acted against planting of genetically engineered herbicide-resistant canola on a commercial scale. Both countries expressed concern that their ecosystems and farmlands could be severely disturbed and contaminated if the engineered crop were allowed.

* Survival and spread of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) from containment: The environment is assumed to be protected from the spread of genetically engineered organisms used in contained conditions (laboratories). Numerous publications have recently demonstrated the viability of engineered organisms supposedly unable to survive outside the laboratory conditions. GEOs supposedly designed for contained use have been found in waste water, in soils and on clothes. Fragments of their DNA were even found in gastro-intestinal tracts and in bloodstreams after ingestion of food. Ostensibly 'crippled' micro-organisms have evidently managed to survive and compete with indigenous micro-organisms. The long-term ecosystem effects of these surprise survivals are unknown.

The NGOs said these were only a few of the significant recent findings showing the more serious problems associated with genetic engineering than earlier anticipated or projected. These findings could help the CSD 'to reconceptualise biosafety and risk assessment, and to give concrete meaning to "environmentally sound management" of genetic engineering.' The findings, the NGOs said, also throw into question the viability and wisdom of proceeding with many of the proposals on investment in genetic engineering projects and capacity building, until adequate risk assessment is conducted and relevant policy conclusions are made.

'The current approach taken in the official CSD papers is clearly inadequate: that genetic engineering projects should proceed at full speed to enhance agriculture and health care, with the proviso that they are "successful and environmentally safe applications", but without specifying that adequate tests to determine success and safety be conducted prior to application, and without defining adequate criteria for such tests and for success or safety.'

Public relations smokescreen

The NGOs also charged that the UN documents had given a lopsided treatment of the financial requirements by their 'uncritical reassertion of the financing needs for biotechnology as reproduced from Chapter 16 of Agenda 21'.

Those estimates had put the financial costs to promote biotechnology as US$20 billion a year, of which $197 million a year was required from the international community.

'Of the total $20 billion required, a mere $2 million is allocated for biosafety and only $5 million for endogenous capacity building (to promote biotechnology development, develop strategies and establish risk assessment mechanisms). The bulk of total cost as well as for international aid is for genetic engineering production projects in health and agriculture. These figures are uncritically reaffirmed, without any reassessment, by the UNIDO-coordinated CSD papers.'

'It is clear from these financial figures that biosafety considerations do not figure at all in the overall programme and approach towards biotechnology being proposed for the CSD, and that the term "environmentally sound management of biotechnology" appears to be merely a public relations smokescreen to falsely assure the public that safety is being taken care of.'

'The $2 million allocated for biosafety is a minuscule 0.01% of the total $20 billion costs assigned for biotechnology as a whole. Even assuming that to this figure should be added another $2 million for the budget item "capacity in risk assessment" the percentage rises to 0.02%. Thus the ratio between production and safety is overwhelmingly in favour of production, to say the least.

'There is almost absolutely no commitment to safety and ecological considerations in the financial plan, which more than anything else reflects that the terms "environmentally sound management" and "safe application" have been used misleadingly.'

It is 'gross underestimation' of the real financial requirements for adequate biosafety measures and risk assessment research. A preliminary independent estimate, the NGOs said, puts the costs for risk assessment worldwide to be at least $775 million as an absolute minimum, and several billions of dollars if it were to be responsibly done. In addition, the annual cost of administering and operating biosafety regulations would be at least $75 million.

The NGO statement contrasted the enthusiasm for the biotech industry in the paper with the actual beating that the biotech industry is taking on the world markets. It cited recent reports in the US Business Week magazine about biotech stocks plunging from their peaks of 1992, as a result of investors not seeing any of the bio-engineered miracles promised by industry. 'The products are not working,' said Martin Khor of the Third World Network. 'This means that the claims of the biotech industry are exaggerated.'

The NGOs said that the recent findings on ecological hazards of genetically engineered crops and the recent failure of many engineered drug products show that the heavy financial investments in genetic engineering were risky, and many biotechnology firms were in economic difficulties.

'It is obviously prudent to await more findings before further financial commitments are made, especially in and for developing countries. There is a danger that the $197 million a year being requested as international aid for biotechnology may be used as a huge subsidy for production and research projects of the ailing biotechnology industry, with the likelihood that such funds would be wasted, or worse, that some of it would finance projects that eventually have negative environmental and safety consequences.' - TWN