Today's event has been billed as a "celebration." But while biotechnology has indeed contributed to human understanding and welfare, it's far too soon to celebrate. Biotechnology involves the manipulation and transformation of life at its most fundamental levels. If used improperly, its consequences could be devastating.

Many of today's speakers are biotechnology pioneers who have made distinguished contributions in their fields. As a group they wield enormous influence over genetic science and technology, the biotech industry, and public perceptions of biotechnology.

We welcome their presence at today's public program. But though the public has been invited, the public interest has been excluded. None of today's speakers represents public-interest organizations working to question the current biotechnology agenda.

We urgently need a wide-ranging debate that recognizes the dangers as well as the benefits of the new biotechnologies--a society-wide debate, not one limited to experts; a debate conducted with caution, maturity and respect, not brashness, boosterism and hubris.

Today's session, if it is to be more than a public relations exercise for the biotechnology establishment, must address at least some of these unresolved ethical, political, and environmental issues:
Many public universities, including UC Berkeley, are forming industry alliances that compromise their scientific independence and their traditional mandate to serve the public interest. The recent agreement between the College of Natural Resources and the agricultural biotech giant Novartis illustrates the close ties being forged between corporate biotechnology and universities across the country. Individual biologists now routinely acquire financial stakes in biotech companies; conflict of interest has become the rule rather than the exception.
Just last month, corporate interests led the United States to undermine the international Biosafety Protocol--which would have allowed countries to regulate genetically modified foods-against the wishes of 130 countries. The United States, said the Zimbabwean delegate to the talks, "is holding the world at ransom." (New York Times, February 24, 1999)
In the United States, manufacturers are quietly introducing genetically engineered ingredients into foods ranging from McDonald's french fries to Nestle's (R) chocolate to Isomil (R) and ProSobee (R) infant formulas, and have opposed efforts to require labeling of these products (Against the Grain, page 92). A Time magazine poll found that 81% of Americans favor the labeling of genetically modified food (January 11, 1999).
Members of the European Parliament recently voted for compulsory labeling of genetically modified food, and insisted that such foods be free of antibiotic-resistant genes and traces of toxic substances. This decision is in accord with stiffer European policies and wary public attitudes about genetic engineering. In the U.S., in contrast, over 50% of next year's soy crop will be Monsanto's genetically modified Roundup Ready (TM) soy. To inoculate Americans against what the New York Times calls the "open revolt" in Europe against genetic engineering, Monsanto has launched a multimillion dollar public relations campaign touting its commitment to "sustainable development." (Kirkpatrick Sale, The Nation, March 8, 1999)
The biotechnology industry promises to feed a hungry world. But experts say that world hunger is caused by problems in the distribution of food, not by scarcity of supply. Many of the biotech industry's methods are not only unnecessary, but also dangerous. Roundup, for example, is poisonous to all herbaceous plants. Using it to control weeds is like killing everybody in New York in order to manage crime in the city.
Genetic engineering is being developed by powerful and increasingly integrated "life science companies" that are subject to little oversight and few regulations. These corporations are obtaining hundreds of patents on living organisms-from seeds to microbes to human cell lines--giving them control over the genetic material that has until now been considered the common heritage of humanity.
The new biotechnologies will alter the genetic makeup of the plant and microbial world on which we depend for survival. This vast experiment may trigger increased pest and antibiotic resistances, the transfer of pathogenic genes among species, the creation of new viruses, and the introduction of undetectable allergens into the food supply. Unforeseen effects are also likely, especially in light of the haste with which genetically modified organisms are being released into the environment.
Human cloning--the asexual creation of a child from a cell taken from someone else's body--is opposed by fully 93% of Americans (1997 Time/CNN poll) and by nearly every major religious denomination. It is illegal in the great majority of industrial democracies, and the Group of Seven and the UN have called for a global ban. Yet some scientists intend to create human clones, regardless of public opinion. Others say they oppose creating full-born human clones, but favor creation of cloned human embryos for "spare parts." The biotech industry has lobbied actively to allow cloning of human embryos, but this would make the creation of full-born cloned humans almost inevitable. Meanwhile new "stem cell" research holds the promise of providing replacement organs in an ethically acceptable manner. Human cloning, of adults or embryos, should be banned. The jokes that so often accompany discussions of human cloning bespeak deep uneasiness about it--and a tendency to avoid its grave implications.
Prestigious scientists such as James Watson and Daniel Koshland are actively promoting the most aggressive form of human genetic manipulation--"germline" modification, which changes the genes passed on to our children and permanently alters the human genome. Germline engineering is the final step towards a new "techno-eugenics" that will allow affluent parents to obtain genetically enhanced "designer babies." It is widely opposed, and has been banned in most of Europe. In the words of the Council for Responsible Genetics, "the cultural impact of treating humans as biologically perfectible artifacts would be entirely negative. People who fall short of some technically achievable ideal would increasingly be seen as `damaged goods.'"
Germline engineering is advertised as a cure for genetic diseases. But genetic diseases can--and should--be treated through the many other forms of ethically acceptable genetic technologies, which do not involve the profound ethical, moral, and social risks of germline manipulation.

We hope there will be ample opportunity for discussion and debate of these and related topics today. We also ask UC Berkeley, in its role as a public university, to take the lead in organizing a symposium of similar scope and prestige--but one that includes those able to offer critical perspectives on the current directions in which biotechnology is being driven.

We invite anyone interested in finding out more about biotechnology in the public interest to get in touch with us by e-mail at We are scientists, students, activists, and concerned citizens who want to make sure that biotechnology serves rather than subverts the public good.

The current biotech agenda is not inevitable. We can make a difference.

-the Ad Hoc Bay Area Committee for Biotechnology in the Public Interest, March 13, 1999


Most human diseases, and complex traits in all organisms, depend on non-genetic processes. They are shaped by environmentally sensitive regulatory networks of molecular agents that obey dynamic rules. These "epigenetic" networks are generally unappreciated, and their rules are little understood by modern biotechnology. To prematurely initiate large-scale genetic engineering--whether of vast areas of cropland or of human beings--based on genetic knowledge but epigenetic ignorance is to practice incomplete science and to invite disasters of unknown proportion. -Richard C. Strohman, Emeritus Professor Department of Molecular and Cell Biology University of California at Berkeley
James Watson is reported as saying: "Scientists should proceed unhindered towards germline engineering." Either he has forgotten that the simpler and safer technique of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, already in clinical use, renders germline gene therapy for genetic diseases virtually pointless, or it is germline engineering for genetic enhancement towards which he wishes to proceed unhindered. If it is the latter, he should say so. How about it, Jim? -Anne McLaren, Wellcome/CRC institute, University of Cambridge UK (Letter-to-the-editor, Nature, 16 April 1998)
As technical advances make germline gene therapy an even more imminent possibility, one can ask...`Why has this debate not reached a broader audience?' And when will the debate spread beyond the offensive pronouncements of James Watson, who, when once asked if he feared that genetic engineering could be used for `positive eugenic' ends, replied, "It's not much fun being around dumb people." -Jonathan Ewbank, Centre d'Immunologie de Marseille-Luminy Marseille, France (Letter-to-the-editor, Nature, 16 April 1998)
Genetic engineering of the human germline represents a fundamental threat to the preservation of the human species as we know it, and should be opposed with the same courage and conviction as we now oppose the threat of nuclear extinction. -from the "Theological Letter Concerning the Moral Arguments," signed by 58 leaders of the major religious denominations in the United States, June 8, 1983, addressed to the U.S. Congress.
Deliberate manipulation of the human germline will constitute a watershed in history, perhaps even in evolution. It should not be crossed surreptitiously, or before a full debate has allowed the public to reach an informed understand of where scientists are leading. -New York Times, 22 July 1982. "Whether to Make Perfect Humans" (editorial)
Consumers do not want genetically modified food and it is proving impossible to persuade them that they do. The British electorate is notably resistant to the combination of wild-eyed techno-utopianism and stock market-fueled greed that, together with incessant lobbying by the genetic-industrial complex, has effectively stifled debate on genetic engineering in the United States. -The Guardian (UK), Tuesday March 2, 1999
The ultimate power to manipulate all biological processes--for that is where biotechnology heads--lies increasingly in private hands. Even as we pursue ever more exotic biological techniques, we lag ever further behind in putting existing medical technologies to proper use. The health benefits deriving from stem cell research are likely to be arcane and expensive, and nowhere near as consequential to world heath as, say, the application of existing cheap, low-tech treatments for malnutrition and infant diarrhea. -Richard Powers, New York Times, Nov. 19, 1998, Opinion Page

Books We Recommend

Brave New Worlds: Staying Human in the Genetic Future, Bryan Appleyard (New York: Viking, 1998)
Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare: The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Mae-Wan Ho (Bath, UK: Gateway Books, 1998)
Exploding the Gene Myth, Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997)
The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life, Andrew Kimbrell (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993)
Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food, Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1998)
Altered Genes: Reconstructing Nature: The Debate, Richard Hindmarsh, Geoffrey Lawrence, Janet Norton (eds.) (Allen & Unwin, 1998)
Access to the Genome: The Challenge to Equality, Maxwell Mehlman and Jeffrey Botkin (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1998)
The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, Jeremy Rifkin (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam, 1998)
The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops, Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996)
Genetic Maps and Human Imaginations: The Limits of Science in Understanding Who We Are, Barbara Katz Rothman (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998)
Owning the Future: Staking Claims on the Knowledge Frontier, Seth Shulman (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity, British Medical Association (London: BMJ Bookshop, 1999)

Web Sites We Recommend

Alliance for BioIntegrity
Campaign Against Human Genetic Engineering
Campaign for Food Safety
Center for Ethics and Toxics
Council for Responsible Genetics
Food First
Genetic Engineering and its Dangers
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Pesticide Action Network
Rural Advancement Fund International
Union of Concerned Scientists
Washington Biotechnology Action Council

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