Bay Area Biotech Labs May Bring Unforeseen Risks, Says Civil Society Coalition

Community Groups Raise Concerns Over Untold Story of ‘Green’ Development

March 28, 2012 — Synbiowatch, a newly formed coalition of labor, environmental, and bioscience watchdog groups, has come together to host a public forum on March 29 called Unmasking the Bay Area Bio Lab and Synthetic Biology: Health, Justice, and Communities at Risk, at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. The event, a first of its kind, will address community concerns about the rapid growth of private biotech labs in the San Francisco Bay Area, and specifically the planned expansion of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) to the industrial city of Richmond.

The recent announcement that LBNL’s second campus will be built at the Richmond Field Station, a University of California-owned property with a long history of toxic dumping, is raising concerns about unforeseen risks posed to worker safety, public health, social justice, and the environment. Many of these risks, the coalition says, are inherent to the field of synthetic biology.

“Synthetic biology, which will be a key focus of the new lab, is by no means a ‘green technology,’” said Jim Thomas of the tech-watchdog ETC Group, “It’s highly experimental, poorly regulated and brimming with new risks – both local and global. This is why so many groups are now calling for a moratorium on synthetic biology commercialization and release.”

“Globally, the Bay Area is ground zero for this new and controversial industry,” said Thomas. “There are around twenty synthetic biology labs in the area, mostly commercial companies backed by the world’s largest chemical, energy and agribusiness players.”

Synthetic biology, the latest frontier of biotechnology, is an emergent science that seeks to implant artificial genetic material into cells in order to produce fuels, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and other industrial products. Proponents make claims that the new science could design what it took nature millennia to create, citing examples as far-ranging as new crop species, synthetic livestock, vaccines, and made-to-order pets. Critics call the field as “extreme genetic engineering” and “bad science”.

“For too long, government has poured funding into these new technologies without giving any real funds for the assessment of the risks,” said Jaydee Hansen of the Washington D.C.-based International Center for Technology Assessment. “Innovation without sound assessment leads to well-funded hype, not good science.”

Within medical science, the human applications of synthetic biology generate contentious ethical debate. Marcy Darnovsky of the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society says, “Noted synthetic biologists are on record proposing that their new techniques be used to turn our children into ‘designer babies.’ This perverse vision is an affront to human rights.”

But concerns raised by Synbiowatch go beyond the ethical or political. Becky McClain, a molecular biologist, after becoming severely ill with a genetically-engineered virus, won a civil lawsuit against Pfizer for what she calls the company’s “willful and wanton disregard for free speech” and other civil rights. “Industry trade secrets superseded my rights as a worker,” said McClain, who will tell her story at the “Unmasking” forum. “This sets a horrible precedent not only for workers, but for communities living along the fence-lines of these labs.”

Nnimmo Bassey of Nigeria, Chair of Friends of the Earth International and a winner of the esteemed Right Livelihood Award, will be a keynote speaker at the “Unmasking” forum. “Synthetic biology is right up there with other dangerous technologies like nanotechnology and geoengineering, that are being foisted on the countries of the South in a criminal attempt to exploit the climate crisis for corporate gain,” Bassey said.

Gopal Dayaneni of the East Bay-based Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, said, “We might want to think public investment in an ailing community is simply a good thing – but the ties that bind Lawrence Berkeley Lab to BP and Chevron and other extreme energy titans erodes any faith we might have in the word ‘public.’ This new lab is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Unmasking the Bay Area Bio-Lab and Synthetic Biology: Health, Justice and Communities at Risk, the first forum on these high-stakes issues to be brought together by civil society, rather than by the industry itself, will be held on March 29, 7-9:30 PM, at the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley, California 94704.