White House Plan for New “Bioeconomy” — A Step in the Wrong Direction

Posted by Daniel Sharp May 2, 2012
Biopolitical Times

Last week, the Obama White House announced its commitment to fostering bioscience research and biotech innovation by unveiling its “National Bioeconomy Blueprint.” The Blueprint:

outlines steps that agencies will take to drive the bioeconomy—economic activity powered by research and innovation in the biosciences—and details ongoing efforts across the Federal government to realize this goal.

What’s particularly notable about the new document is its tone. Laden with hype, promises, and prophecy, the new Blueprint portrays the biotech industry as a magic-bullet solution to the economic crisis, global environmental woes, and human health problems. Conversely, the risks of these new biotechnologies, and of the corporate monopolization of their use and development, go virtually unmentioned.

Synthetic biology, a particularly dangerous form of genetic engineering, is given a prominent place in the administration’s vision of the future bioeconomy:

A primary focus of synthetic biologists is developing technologies that make the engineering of biology easier, faster, and more predictable. This ability to quickly engineer organisms in laboratories holds vast potential for the bio¬economy, as engineered organisms could dramatically transform modern practices in high-impact fields such as agriculture, manufacturing, energy generation, and medicine.

The risks, framed as “beyond the scope of this document,” are relegated to a footnote, which merely cites the President’s Council on Bioethics (whose report drew heavy criticism from 56 civil society organizations at the time of its release).
While the tone and content of the document are certainly unnerving, the practical consequences of the document might remain minimal. As Andrew Pollack of the New York Times reports,

Much of what is in the 43-page-report, which the administration released before its planned announcement on Thursday, is a list of government programs that are already under way. So it is not clear what concrete changes, if any, will result.

Rather than brandishing new policy, the Blueprint functions as an election year nod to the biotech industry. Still, industry officials have responded favorably, as Pollack describes:  

“We’ve been ringing the bell saying, ‘Don’t forget us,’ “James Greenwood, the president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, said in an interview. The blueprint is “a sign that the message has been received,” he said.

All and all, it seems that the administration’s promotion of a new bioeconomy is a step in the wrong direction, one which offers little promise of meaningful economic progress and presents grave dangers for human health and the environment. Over at Friends of the Earth, Eric Hoffman hit the head on the nail when he summed up the report as follows:

The Obama administration had a chance to take the driver’s seat and ensure that synthetic biology does not cause more harm than good. Instead, the White House is sitting in the passenger’s seat while the biotechnology industry speeds ahead without proper regulation, safety assessment, or oversight.

In the end the National Bioeconomy Blueprint feels more like an attempt for President Obama to claim he is creating jobs. What we really need is a serious discussion over how we should regulate new technologies and just what kind of future economy we want. If we are to have a truly sustainable economy moving forward, it cannot be based on risky, unregulated (and patented) technologies such as synthetic biology that pose serious harms to the environment and our health. The risks posed by synthetic biology and other biotechnologies must be studied before we rush forward with this new bioeconomy in which industry stands to make large profits while the risks are spread to the public.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: