You Can Forget RCGA's 'Biobelt' Idea

By Downs, Peter | St. Louis Journalism Review, February 2001 | Go to article overview

You Can Forget RCGA's 'Biobelt' Idea


Downs, Peter, St. Louis Journalism Review


It used to be that conservatives opposed any kind of government subsidy to industry under the mantra that government should not try to pick winners and losers in business. How times change. The Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA), which counts several Republicans among its ranks, wants taxpayers to subsidize the biotechnology companies, in effect, backing the RCGA's bet it will make St. Louis the heart of the "bio-belt," which is to be the biological sciences' answer to Silicon Valley. Before legislators bow to that wish, however, they should at least realize how risky the bet is. That is information they won't get from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Admittedly, nearly everybody seems to agree that biotech is "the next big thing." For most people, however, that means medical biotech, and in that category, St. Louis already is an also ran. Analysts such as Hugh Kelly, chief economist with Landauer Associates, Inc., meaning no slight to Washington University and St. Louis University, have already picked the part of the east coast stretching from Boston south to Washington, D.C. as the heart of the biobelt.

Why? Because the resources concentrated there involve much more than two universities. That area has a few reasonably well-regarded schools of its own, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Columbia and Johns Hopkins; the pharmaceutical industry is concentrated in New Jersey, and the National Institutes of Health and government funding are in Washington, D.C.

So, the quest for St. Louis is the same one that cost Monsanto its independence, to be the center of agricultural biotechnology. Some might say that agricultural biotech is setting the world on fire, but it is not exactly the kind of fire Monsanto and the RCGA hanker for, because it is the biotech products that are burning. Much of the world has become closed to agricultural biotech, thanks to Monsanto, which, as The New York Times put it in a Jan. 25 feature, managed to take food "from the laboratory to a debacle."

Here are a few of the setbacks to strike the industry last year, most of them reported in the industry journal New Scientist:

In January 2000. U.S. and Venezuelan researchers confirmed that the Bt toxin in genetically engineered corn isn't fixed in the corn after all, but, contrary to industry claims, it can escape into the soil and kill bug larvae for up to 25 days.

In February, Canadian scientists acknowledged herbicide resistance had passed from genetically engineered seeds to weeds on Alberta farms in three years or less, rendering Monsanto's Roundup, Cyanamid's Pursuit, and Aventis's Liberty herbicides useless there, That news called into question whether those companies can ever recoup the billions of dollars they spent developing herbicide-resistant seeds. …

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