Op-ed for Philadelphia Inquirer (Published Friday, June 17, 2005)
by Brian Tokar, Institute for Social Ecology, Plainfield, Vermont
This week, some 15,000 biotechnology executives are gathering in Philadelphia for their annual convention, dubbed “BIO 2005.” BIO, more properly the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is the largest biotechnology lobbying organization in the world. Its leaders have spent millions of dollars trying to paint their conventioneers as an altruistic and scientifically-minded group, seeking cures to human disease and solutions to feed the world’s hungry. A look behind the scenes, however, tells a rather different story.
First, the BIO convention is not a scientific meeting. It is a lavishly expensive gathering of business executives, investors, lawyers and public relations officials. In past years, less than 10 percent of registrants have been scientists. The entrance fee for this year’s convention ranges from $1100 (for early registrants who are BIO members) to nearly $2000.
Second, the top sponsors of the BIO convention in Philadelphia have a rather poor record of addressing social ills. They include the pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and AstraZeneca and the brokerage firm Ernst & Young. For decades, drug companies have constituted the most profitable industry sector on Wall Street, bringing in mega-profits for their investors, while over 50 million Americans lack access to basic health care. They spend far less on research than they do promoting questionable, and sometimes harmful drugs like Vioxx, Celebrex and Viagra to a skeptical public. They have also lobbied aggressively to prevent Americans from buying their drugs more cheaply in Canada and elsewhere.
Other major sponsors include leading agricultural chemical companies, such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Bayer, who are responsible for the catastrophe of genetically engineered food crops being grown on over 150 million acres of land worldwide, two-thirds of which is in the United States. The vast majority of the world’s countries have rejected genetic engineering as a hazard to human health and the environment, and as an entirely false solution to world hunger. Contrary to BIO’s claims, engineered crops do not produce any more food than traditional varieties, and their use in the US has led to farmers using over 120 million pounds of additional chemical pesticides.
In the medical sector, tens of millions of dollars in recent years have been diverted toward biotechnology and genetics, and away from basic healthcare and research to address other underlying causes of disease. Research on environmental medicine, and efforts to address the ills of the poor and underinsured are languishing, while millions of dollars are spent chasing the exaggerated hope of a new genetically-based “designer” medicine.
Overall, biotechnology has vastly increased research and development costs in the pharmaceutical sector, while the pace of new drug development has been stagnant for two decades and steadily declining since 1996. The cost of pharmaceutical R&D has increased ten-fold (from $3 billion to $32 billion) over the past decade, while the number of “new molecular entities” approved by the FDA is at the lowest point in ten years. Ironically, only a tenth of “new” drug discoveries turn out to be more effective than existing compounds. Countless new “miracle drugs” are announced at industry meetings like this one, only to be found to be highly toxic to patients in clinical trials.
Biotech advocates also like to paint their industry as an economic powerhouse, one that will bring Philadelphians with a vital new engine of economic growth. In fact, the biotech industry has a rather poor record of job creation. For example the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council wrote a few years back: “it is unlikely that [biotechnology] will ever be a dominant contributor to the employment pool such as the computer industry has been over the past two decades.” More recently, a prominent chemical industry journal wrote that projections comparing the biotech industry to other high tech sectors are “absurdly optimistic.” In just three decades, biotechnology has already been through numerous boom-and-bust cycles. Biotech companies recruit internationally for highly specialized professional jobs, while local residents are hired to sweep floors, wash test tubes, and guard the gates.
Certainly, many of those attending the BIO convention entered the field with altruistic motives, and wish to help humanity. But their influence pales beneath that of the top executives, whose boardroom decisions are made solely in the interest of profit. Philadelphians would be wise to take the biotech industry’s claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Brian Tokar is the director of the Biotechnology Project at the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vermont, and is the editor of two published collections on the science and politics of genetic engineering, Redesigning Life? (2001) and Gene Traders (2004).