SOC: AgBio industry may have tied their own hangman's noose
Thu, 7 Oct 1999 20:54:28 EDT

If there was ever an irony in using state power to try to control competition, we may be seeing it now in the failed strategy described in this piece I dug up from last December:

Biotech Scare Is Industry's Fault
By Henry I. Miller
Copyright 1998 Wall Street Journal
December 16, 1998


Environmental Jeremiahs have long predicted that the biotechnology industry would create something it couldn't control. Now it seems they were right. Was it the tomato that trampled Topeka? No, something worse: negative public opinion.

In the early 1980s, a few major agrochemical-biotechnology companies, led by Monsanto, approached senior policy makers in the Reagan administration and requested more-restrictive regulation, primarily from the Environmental Protection Agency. They argued that there is something fundamentally different and worrisome about genetically engineered crops, and disputed the consensus among the international scientific community that the new biotechnology is no more than an extension of earlier techniques, posing little risk and much promise.

That consensus is simple common sense. After all, dozens of new plant varieties modified with less precise, traditional genetic-engineering methods such as hybridization safely enter the marketplace every year without government involvement. Indeed, genetically altered varieties of wheat, corn, rice, oats and other common crops have been an integral part of Western diets for decades.

Monsanto and its allies had an important motive for this counterintuitive strategy. Their aim was to use regulation as a market-entry barrier to competitors--in particular, seed companies and biotech startups--that were less able to bear the high costs of unnecessary regulation.

They achieved their goal. The Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and especially the EPA introduced policies that discriminated against crop and garden plants and micro-organisms crafted with gene-splicing techniques. These regulatory policies have put federal bureaucrats in the middle of virtually all field trials of gene-spliced plants, spelling disaster for both small businesses and academic institutions, whose scientists lack the resources to comply with the burdensome regulations. Added production costs were a particular disadvantage to products in this competitive, low-profit-margin market.

Few of the agbiotech companies launched in the 1980s exist today, many of them having been bought out at a fraction of their true value by Monsanto, Novartis, Dupont and other giants. But these companies are now paying the price for their success: Overregulation has fed antibiotechnology myths, playing into activists' scare scenarios and frightening consumers, particularly in Japan and Europe. Already, Britain has announced a moratorium on commercial field introductions of gene-spliced plants, and the European Union and Japan have likewise promulgated regressive policies.

Strangely, however, the industry, led by its lobbying arm, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, continues to advocate strict regulation without scientific foundation. Most recently, it has lobbied for United Nations-based biosafety regulations under the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, which are expected to be finalized early next year. Under this Draconian regime, no biologist, plant breeder or farmer will be allowed to grow and test a gene-spliced crop or garden plant--no matter how small the test plot--without prior, case-by-case approval from the U.N. Paperwork, red tape and corruption will dog the process from beginning to end, from the first seed to store shelves around the world.

Closer to home, BIO has lent its support to an EPA policy to begin regulating garden and crop plants as pesticides. Under this policy, case-by-case regulatory review will be required for even small-scale field trials of familiar, innocuous, commercially important gene-spliced plants genetically improved to enhance their resistance to pests or diseases. Imagine the shelf appeal to consumers of a box of strawberries or can of fruit cocktail bearing the label PESTICIDE.

The scientific community has repeatedly excoriated this policy. In 1996, 11 major scientific societies, representing more than 80,000 biologists and food professionals, published a report warning that if the EPA policy were implemented, it would discourage the development of new pest-resistant crops (thereby prolonging and increasing the use of synthetic chemical pesticides), expand federal and state bureaucracies, limit the use of biotechnology to those few larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs, and handicap the U.S. in competition for international markets.

Agricultural biotechnology holds tremendous potential benefits for the world's consumers and farmers. Under current circumstances, however, products will enter the marketplace at a disturbingly low rate because of gratuitous regulatory barriers. Research and development will focus primarily on commodity crops grown at huge scale, at the expense of important small-acreage crops. Innovation will seldom target improvement of the genetics of environmentally threatened but low-value species such as trees, or of subsistence crops such as millet, cassava and yams.

The market for agbiotech products is being undermined and distorted by overregulation and the public misapprehensions that it engenders. Ironically, both are the industry's own Frankensteinian creation.

By Henry I. Miller, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of "Policy Controversy in Biotechnology: An Insider's View" (R.G. Landes, 1997).