June 8, 2000
Brisbane had a "precious asset" in its biotechnology resources that must be both protected and nurtured, Brisbane Institute Executive Director Professor Peter Botsman told the biotechnology media briefing forum held today (Thursday, June 8).
Professor Botsman made the comment after giving an overview of the Institute's "Biobusiness" report on the "strengths and challenges" of biotechnology in Queensland which will be released at its second biofutures conference on June 28.
Professor Botsman said he believed Brisbane was "at a turning point in its history", and the approach it adopted to biotechnology had the potential to shape the city's future.
In that context, he urged those involved in biotechnology to adopt a "conservative" approach to ethical and consumer issues to safeguard the reputation and standing of biotechnology in this city and this state.
Ethicists and consumer interests needed to become a part of the development and debate surrounding biotechnology, needed to be "as clued into biotechnology as the scientists are" to ensure world's best practice, Professor Botsman said.
Judging by comments made during an audience participation segment of the forum by Dr Peter Isaacs from the Queensland University of Technology's Centre for the Study of Ethics, the most pressing issue confronting ethicists is money.
Dr Isaacs said it was critical to bring "some balance to the financing of ethics" in comparison with the enormous sums of money being poured into research and development for biotechnology.
Panellist Dr Dick Copeman from the Consumer Food Network said consumers' interests wanted a five year long moratorium on applying biotechnology to food production until a number of concerns were addressed and appropriate regulatory arrangements were in place.
Dr Copeman said gene technology was "unnatural, unpredictable, untested, unsafe and often unnecessary" and that consumers were "unconvinced that it will bring us any benefits".
He said it carried with it direct and indirect health effects, including toxins, allergies, antibiotic resistance, herbicide residues, altered nutrient content, chronic disease and food insecurity.
In terms of the environment he said it raised the threats of loss of biodiversity, genetic pollution and pest resistance.
Dr Copeman said while public support for the medical applications of biotechnology was currently high, these were also in danger.
He said he personally feared that it would be used to address the concerns of affluent Western "baby boomers" to the detriment of people in developing countries and marginalised groups across the planet.
He said despite all the breakthroughs in western medicine in the last generation, the health divide between the haves and the have nots, both in the west and globally, had widened in that time.
Dr Copeman said this underlined the fact that the basis for good health was clean water, sanitation, good housing and healthy, unprocessed food, not more technology.
Some of the problems biotechnology now claimed to be able to fix were those created by the last wave of technology and would not address these fundamental concerns, he said.
He said a fundamental concern with biotechnology was simply that it was impossible to guide the insertion of a gene into the exact spot in the DNA sequence of the host cell.
"If a piece of foreign DNA is put into the wrong place, it can cause the production of totally unpredictable proteins", Dr Copeman said.
Anne Ferguson who represented environment group Friends of the Earth at the seminar said she found it useful, although she had left disappointed.
Ms Ferguson said environmental questions were barely represented at all in the forum and she felt as though ethical and consumer viewpoints were an "add on" and sometimes poorly represented.
"The assumption seemed to be simply that this is happening and we all should go along with it and therefore some of the basic, fundamental questions are not asked and certainly not debated in detail.
"Sometimes I agree with the notion that this is going to happen, so how can we best make sure that it happens in the most appropriate way, but that ignores the fact that this debate is different.
"What we are talking about here is playing around with and exploiting the building blocks of life, of all life, human, plant and animal.
"The consequences are potentially enormous. There simply is no margin for error. Now we already know that we can do this, but we are not asking the most important question - should we be doing this, and if so, how and when," Ms Ferguson said.
She said she also would like to see some of the presumptions used by the biotechnology industry as "spin" to push their agenda subjected to closer scrutiny, such as "the line that it can feed the world".
Dr Ken Reed, former Director of the Queensland Agricultural Biotechnology Centre remarked that many of the concerns expressed by pro GM and anti GM spokespeople were actually similar and that the great bulk of disagreement came over how to respond to those concerns.
Professor Jim Dale, Director of Research at the QUT's Science Department reflected on his experiences in attempting to commercialise local biotechnology innovations in Australia.
He said it had been impossible to go ahead with the sale of the First Nucleotide Change technology in Australia which has since been sold to US multinational Affymetrix.
The forum was co-hosted by the federal government initiative Biotechnology Australia and The Brisbane Institute. Full transcripts of the session will be available on the Brisbane Institute website next week.
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Last Updated on 6/27/2000
By Dan Ellis