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Biotech Push Pending

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The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) represents more than 1,000 biotech companies and organizations worldwide, and approximately 80 of these are from Canada. The next BIO 2002 International Biotechnology Convention and Exhibition is scheduled to take place in Toronto from June 9 to 12, 2002.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) represents more than 1,000 biotech companies and organizations worldwide, and approximately 80 of these are from Canada. The next BIO 2002 International Biotechnology Convention and Exhibition is scheduled to take place in Toronto from June 9 to 12, 2002.

Organizers have chosen to use the title "Life Advances" (La vie avance in French) as this year's theme. The ad promoting the Toronto convention claims that advances in 2001 were impressive. The year 2001 also brought "challenges" such as the threat of bioterrorism (which the industry helped to fight) and controversies over stem cell research. The ad also states that BIO's "communication efforts" contributed positively to public awareness and acceptance of biotechnology products.

Clearly, BIO is a powerful lobby group, organizing to advance biotechnology and its industrial vision of "life." It promotes the industry and is committed to its "three-pronged" mission: Advocate the industry's positions to elected officials and regulators; inform national and international media about the industry's progress, contributions to quality of life, goals and positions; provide business development services to member companies (bio.org).

BIO's efforts, and its location in Washington DC, have been instrumental, "helping to streamline" US biotechnology regulations and promote the industry to influential politicians. US regulations have provided a model for Canadian regulatory agencies dealing with biotechnology such as Agriculture Canada, Health Canada and, more recently, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The advocacy group has also been developing communication strategies in an effort to allay public fears about biotechnology; much of its efforts focus on media work.

BIO's reach is global. The organization is helping to spread a messianic vision of biotechnology that promises to sustain the global environment, feed the hungry and heal the sick.

There is something ominous about the theme chosen by organizers this year: "Life Advances." Sometimes the biotechnology industry is referred to as the "life industry." The marriage of life and industry, described by some as an "unholy alliance," makes imagining the future of biotechnology highly problematic. Defining life as just cellular, genetic and molecular processes (and ways of manipulating these as advances) limits our understanding of living organisms and alternative visions of health and the healing process.

Furthermore, does "life" need technology and human intervention in order to advance or can it manage on its own, as it has for millions of years through evolution? Would a more appropriate theme be "Biotechnology Advances" or "The Race for Profits Advances?"

How does cloning, for instance, advance "life?" Many would say it represents the death of sexual reproduction, hence the end of life. Besides, cloning does not generate "new" life; it merely replicates (and not all that accurately it seems) what already exists.

It is an evolutionary dead-end.

Engineering traits from one species into an unrelated species (transgenesis) does not represent "life advances." Splicing insect genes into plants or animals in order to manufacture products merely takes genetic material out of one context into a whole new context, with unforeseen long-term consequences.

It's too early to tell what the future holds. The science of assessing the risks of biotechnology still has to catch up to the technology. Public policies and government regulations are also behind the technology (no pun intended).

Our governments have been enthusiastic promoters of the biotechnology industry but have not been able to keep up with the complex issues generated by genetic technologies. Federal regulatory authorities are still developing policies in the areas of nutraceuticals, transgenic animals and human reproductive issues.

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