The biotechnology industry is marching down the same road that brought the petrochemical industry into a costly confrontation with the rest of society over the numerous dangerous pollutants that it has injected into the environment.
The petrochemical industry got into trouble for three main reasons:1. Its synthetic products are sufficiently similar to natural organic (that is, carbon-containing) compounds produced by living things to readily invade the cell's biochemical processes. But because most synthetic organic compounds are crucially different from natural constituents, they disrupt the cell's normal chemical patterns, sometimes by design, but often unwittingly, frequently with damaging results.
2. Its products have often had unanticipated harmful effects on living things, because of an inadequate theoretical framework.
3. Its products were used to invade very large, existing markets not because of any urgent social need but guided by a narrow, private goal - profit maximization.
The biotechnology industry, young as it is, is already imprinted with the petrochemical industry's faults:
1. The industry's proponents often boast about the close resemblance between newly engineered organisms and natural ones.
2. As to the adequacy of biotechnology's theoretical framework, allow me to suggest that the industry's theoretical foundation - that nucleic acid is the sole source of genetic "information" and therefore, alone in its ability to govern inherited traits - is incomplete. It does not, for example, account for the now-established fact that the self-duplicating virus that causes the neurological disease scrapie (it occurs in sheep) consists solely of protein.
3. The pattern that governs the biotechnology industry's choice of products has already been firmly established. Priority has been given not to products that meet society's most urgent needs but to those that meet the company's most urgent need.
Here are a few examples:
- Clearly a genetically engineered anti-malaria vaccube is an urgent social need. But confronted with this need, one of the industry's leaders, Genentech, which according to its 1982 annual report believes that its "goal is to obtain the highest return on its substantial research investment," decided, as stated before a congressional hearing, that "the development of malaria vaccine would not be compatible with Genentech's business strategy."
- There is a large market for pig insulin in the United States, governed by a near-monopoly held by the Eli Lilly Co. The net result, at least in the United States, of the commercial development of genetically engineered human insulin - which apparently is no more effective than pig insulin - is that Lilly has broadened that monopoly to include both forms of insulin.
- The biotechnology industry's structure has already firmly established the following priorities:
- Pharmaceuticals over all other products.
- Diagnostic products over treatments.
- Animal pharmaceuticals over human ones.
- Perfumes and flavors over ethanol.
- Herbicide-resistant plants over disease-resistant plants.
The lesson, I believe, is clear. To protect the interests of society, what needs to be regulated is not only the safety of laboratory experiments and the environmental introduction of genetically engineered organisms - but also the decisions that determine what the biotechnology industry will produce.
I believe that society should determine what the biotechnology industry produces, and see to it, for example, that it manufactures vaccines rather than food additives.
Surely, that would only be just, for much of the industry's most important asset - knowledge - was bought and paid for, in the form of research grants, by the American people.
(Barry Commoner is director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, City University of New York.)