Agricultural biotechnology has been hung out to dry in the U.K. in the past couple of weeks, as none of those who should be defending the technology have worked up the courage to poke their heads up out of the sand. The silence bodes ill for any part of the biotech sector that expects to be governed by scientific principles rather than ignorance and fear-mongering.

With scant defense, crop biotechnology got a good kicking in a one-sided debate in Parliament, which was seized upon by the press to depict biotech foods as a danger to the public. While MPs, environmental activists and the British newspapers attacked the technology and repeated calls for a complete moratorium on commercial planting of modified crops, Prime Minister Tony Blair stood alone in his willingness to bat for biotech. The U.K. BioIndustry Association and multinationals Monsanto and Zeneca were conspicuous by their absence.

"The BIA position is that as it represents small-to-medium sized enterprises in the biotech sector and less than 2 percent of our members are actually involved in the area of GMO foods, we do not feel we are in the best position to be able to comment on something that others, such as Zeneca, Monsanto, or the big food groups, are in a better position to comment on," BIA public affairs director Aisling Burnand told BioCentury.

Thus, the opposition enjoyed a clear field for its offensive. Opening a debate in the U.K. House of Commons, Labourite Joan Walley called for an immediate ban on commercial uses of GMO foods. She told fellow MPs that "despite reassurances that the products are rigorously tested and safe, unexpected incidents have, apparently, been caused by such products. In the worst case, I understand that a United States epidemic of eosinophilia myalgia syndrome - EMS - affected about 5,000 people. An estimated 37 died and 1,500 were left permanently disabled with sickness."

Walley was referring to an incident in 1989 involving the contamination of so-called natural sleeping pills containing tryptophan derived from a genetically modified bacterium. The fact that genetic engineering has never been linked to the incident was perhaps conveniently omitted from last week's debate (see A4).