Saturday, February 07, 2009

Another reason to back off...

I have long been troubled by the aggressive public posture of biotech proponents.  To be sure, the scale-up response theory of public debate was popular in other PR campaigns as well.  But if it ever had a valid moment to be used, I think it's over.

Biotech will win over the public in several ways.
  1. The lack of bad news.  Its been nearly two decades since GM crops were introduced and there aren't any photos of cows staggering or mothers weeping at gravesides.  And it's not for lack of effort by opponents.
  2. Generational change.  Older, more conservative and scientifically disinterested folks are being replaced with cohorts more at ease with science barely 20 years old.  It's not revolutionary if it's always been around when you were.
  3. Wider benefits. The long slog to find high-impact uses for biotech in medicine is gathering payoff momentum.  Which is preamble to this story:
The US Food and Drug Administration yesterday approved GTC Biotherapeutics Inc.'s ATryn, an anticlotting drug made using genetically modified goats that live on a farm in Charlton. GTC engineered the herd to secrete a special therapeutic protein in their milk.
"It's really a milestone event," said Eric Overstrom, chairman of biology and biotechnology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who collaborated with GTC on some of its early research using goats. "This adds to the toolbox for the pharmaceutical industry."
Though ATryn is likely to have limited marketing potential because it would serve a relatively small pool of patients, the drug's approval could clear the way to produce many more drugs with genetically modified animals, an approach nicknamed "pharming."
European regulators approved the drug - and the novel production technique - in 2006.
In addition to goats, Overstrom said, drug companies could potentially use other animals, such as cows or rabbits, to produce drugs in their milk, blood, or even urine. Overstrom said animals could be particularly helpful in cultivating enzymes and other large molecules that are more difficult to produce using bacteria or individual cells. [More]

While this particular effort will not be a big money-maker, what it will do is start the process of making genetically engineered livestock more acceptable by the usual route - a slew of goat-milk jokes, serious 5-minute talking head debates on news shows; financial analysis of biotech firms in business media, etc.

Just like getting rich, maybe our scheduling for full biotech acceptance could stand some revision.  Instead of being driven by next quarter's earnings reports, we could accept a pace that allows the above factors to work and folks around us to embrace without loss of face or unease.

To push the social validation of biotech even suggests we don't believe our own claims and data. If our science is well done it will endure, and advance past false charges. In the meantime, we can save ourselves considerable conflict by simply moving ahead past the detractors to the future.

Remember, we're winning.

3 comments:

Wayne said...

A note from Australia.
We have state by state approvals to grow GM crops currently, canola and Cotton. Approval has been granted in 3 states but not in 3 others where farmers could grow GM canola and cotton.
The anti-gm groups are in full cry led by Greenpeace. A Greenpeace employee has fairly neutral press coverage for her comments "Louise Sales said it would be "completely acceptable" for protesters to trash crops and that such actions would be for the "wider good"."
Greenpeace has also been completely misrepresenting the science of gm food safety. This has resulted in large companies reinforcing the incorrect safety message with their promoting their gm free product range.
I have concerns about farmers staying quiet in these circumstances as they have resulted in judicial leniency to protesters damaging crops such has occurred in the UK and France, reluctance of politicians to make public statements in favour of the technology and a wide belief that science has established that gm crops are unsafe.
Wayne

John Phipps said...

Wayne:

I appreciate your concerns, and I am not advocating non-response. Dispassionate advocacy and refusal to engage in attack communications is closer to my choice.

For example, we do not elevate our cause or advance our arguments to denigrate opponents as wackos or ignoramuses.

We are seeing in the EU a steady trend toward acceptance as resistance on the farm level evaporates. I suspect the lack of a large medical biotech industry may hinder the advance in AU. As answers emerge for humans from this technology, GM crops seems far less threatening, IMHO.

Even politicians are beginning to notice the economic price farmers pay when this technology is limited.

But it is this particular moment in time, where economic fears have everyone carrying a slightly submerged anger that I feel warrants special consideration before choosing active confrontation. The blowback, even if proponents of GM are successful, could be disproportionate and longer-lasting than it would have been just a few years ago.

There is another key point. GM products priced too high - and which do not capture the cost of this externality - need to be reviewed for marketplace acceptance. I think this is one big factor for bst milk, for instance. Similarly, over-priced seed corn right now will have a hard sell, and foster reasons in farmer minds to be less than enthusiastic supporters.

Jim Martindale said...

John,
Your sign-off "Remember, we're winning" intrigues me esp. in light of your comments re: the future of adoption of G-M plant varities. Maybe you would go ahead and reveal whose side you are on that is winning?

I work closely with livestock producer communities and the grain producer sector in the mid-west. The necessity of mycotoxin binders & pro-biotics has moved from a low percentage achieving an economic response to a required supplementation for the vast majority of commercial dairies in about 15 years. This, from many nutritionist's testimonies.

The line-up for your neighborhood "butt-scoping" procedure has doubled in a year from '07 to '08. The Fort Wayne area hospital construction never stops either. When England experienced their first G-M tomato the food allergies reported doubled. That was the "end" of the tomato variety in England. What basis would we have here where this phenomenon is not reported to the CDC?

I look beyond these rather personal evidences to the increased use of chemical weed controls compared to the pre-Round-Up days and then the French study on the toxicity of the "adjuvants" used in Round-Up products and have to say, whoa!!

I have personally been rendered yellow dent corn free since 2007. I was reading Smith's first book when I first assaulted with the reaction. It rendered me "motionless" for five days. The repair job took over 30 days to repair the evidence. That was from an 8 oz. doseage. God have Mercy, I caught on after the second incident in 45 days. With good intentions I was dosed again in a Mexican Restaurant in Manteno. Bet you know where that is.

Almost a year ago I was "over it". About the time the news came out last week that 30% of a random selection of HFCS containing foods contained Mercury at toxic levels and it was traceable to the caustic soda used in processing the corn, well we have food safety problems alright but it's not a Jihadist that is my concern. The story ought to be all-over the place but I haven't seen it anywhere. I wonder why he is now living in Germany.

If you haven't read F. William Engdahl's book "Seeds of Destruction" you need to right away. It'll be much more difficult to keep the humorous demeanor. Reread Rev. 18. Make sure you read on page 201 in Engdahl when you think about the Revelation to John.
God Bless.
Jim