ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
Date:  6 December 2000


Here’s a cracking editorial from the latest edition of SPLICE, magazine of the Genetics Forum and a great read!
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The phrase ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’ comes to mind. Why are the giant pharmaceutical corporations, at one time so keen to get their hands on the intellectual property of the gene manipulators, jettisoning their acquisitions with such unseemly haste?

It was only last year that the concept of a ‘Life Science’ company was all-powerful; merging pharmaceutical, food and biotech interests into great giants that would bestride the world.
Most recently it was Aventis announcing that it would divest itself of its agricultural interests by the end of next year.

Aventis has been badly hit by the scandal surrounding the GM-contaminated maize that has entered the US market (see Peter Rosset’s excellent article on page 4 of this issue).  But the principle reasons are that while the corporation’s pharmaceutical wing was making a healthy profit, the biotech interests were contracting. And this has not been helped by general over-production on many commodity markets.  And the icing on the cake has been the reaction to GM foods in Europe, suggesting that there will be no easy market to be found there.

Before Aventis’ announcement there came the news that AstraZeneca and Novartis were ‘spinning off’ their biotech interests into a new company called Syngenta (more details on page 8). This came with plenty of enthusiastic hype, but the reality is that while they were creating the world’s largest biotech company, both AstraZeneca and Novartis wanted to be rid of the burden and potential liability that accompanies GM food.

Syngenta’s prospectus suggested a market valuation of $10 billion. However, by the close of play on the company’s November 13th debut the real figure to be little over $5 billion reflecting widespread selling by fund managers.

The progress of Syngenta is being monitored very carefully as it will be pivotal for the whole sector. It will determine what Aventis does with its biotech interests and could see the entire biotech seed market enter a period of uncertainty.

The other giant to fall has been the old favourite Monsanto. After the unwelcome exposure received at the hands of protesters, $8.6 billion was wiped off its market value, forcing it into a ‘shotgun marriage’ with Pharmacia. Pharmacia are expected to sell the whole agribusiness within two years.

But what does this mean for the spread of GM food?  Could this be seen in anyway as a victory for the campaigners?  Or is it just a temporary blip?

“The agricultural biotech industry went from smugness for its scientific accomplishments to a rout in the field of public opinion”, is how Forbes magazine sees it, and that the recent chaos has “set back crop biotechnology a decade.”

In reality, all the giant corporations are doing is protecting their financial interests. They are well aware of the frailty of GM foods as a commodity, and they are building in protection for themselves. But as Adrian Bebb from Friends of the Earth said, “The companies may be able to get rid of GM food, but we, the consumers are still stuck with it.”

We are left as components of an experiment, monitoring the economic viability of GM foods. If GM foods can so effectively undermine the health of some of the world’s largest corporations, what are they going to do for us, the consumer?

Hugh Warwick
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