Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Trouble in Paradise

Speaking of pharmaceuticals, the biotech industry's interest in biopharming is understandable, and one can imagine that it might even have benefits. But as I argued elsewhere, the industry's interest in conducting tests outdoors is criminally irresponsible and stupid.

In Hawai'i, opponents have won a lawsuit against a biotech concern that wishes to engineer microalgae to produce experimental drugs. This wasn't a lawsuit to stop the project itself, mind you; it was a lawsuit requiring the researchers to comply with existing state laws.

Many in the Kona community expressed their concerns about the risks of contamination of the coastal environment around the project area, which is highly valued and regularly used by local residents, and the dangers of human exposure to the experimental substances. The citizen groups and others urged the Board to undertake HEPA review before approving the project, but the Board ignored their pleas, failing even to give the reason for its refusal.
Obviously, the public shouldn't have to force biotech firms to obey state law, particularly when those firms have generously been given access to public land. Beyond that, I think these researchers' inability or unwillingness to work within appropriate legal and ethical boundaries raises questions about their actual competence to conduct their experiments. Environmental review of the sort mandated here is essentially an application of the scientific method; if you can't adhere to a responsible methodology at the outset, why should you be trusted to adhere to it later?

An earlier article describes the stringent process of scientific review that led to initial approval for this project:
[The Hawai'i State Board of Agriculture] argued that Hawai'i is being overrun by invasive species anyway so an accidental release of GM algae would just be more of the same. They reasoned that everything humans do, "even getting on a plane," has risks, so we might as well take the risk of introducing GMOs into the environment. The Board limited its concerns about a possible release to what might happen if the algae comes into contact with human skin or is ingested. When company officials assured them that no one would die from such exposure, members were satisfied, and opted to ignore potential impacts to other life forms. Then, board member Susan Matsushima, President of Alluvion, Inc., reminded those in attendance that our parents used to tell us not to stand in front of the microwave as evidence, apparently, that the algae is safe. Matsushima even invoked as a GMO expert none other than Wanda Adams. Never mind that the World Health Organization, National Institute of Health and the UN Environmental Development Program have all raised concerns about GMOs — if the food editor of the Honolulu Advertiser is on board, so is the Hawai'i Board of Agriculture.
No doubt I'm biased, but taking the "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach to environmental contamination doesn't constitute due diligence, in my book. And one wonders what manner of "progress" you're likely to end up with when you start by throwing standards, commonsense precautions, and laws out the window.

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