History of FOE Lawsuit on DNA

by Lorna Salzman

In 1976 I was working as regional representative of Friends of the Earth Inc., out of the NYC office. One of the FOE volunteers was a woman named Francine Simring. She and I were extremely concerned about the imminent spread of recombinant DNA research. Over the next year or two, thanks to the Asilomar conference in California arranged by molecular biologists to figure out ways of containing potential public concern about such research (which was not commercialized at that point), and the intervention of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which was considering recombinant DNA research guidelines, Francine as well as myself and FOE president Dave Brower felt it was urgent for FOE to take on this issue. We were the only national environmental organization to do so.

It is important to understand that at that time the only concern was for potential biohazards in laboratory research, primarily at universities. Despite the clear mandate from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that required a risk assessment or environmental impact statement prior to conducting such research, the NIH decided to promulgate research guidelines without any assessment or EIS. FOE's lawyer Rick Hartzman dived into the issue in preparation for a major lawsuit, and concluded that the NIH was in clear violation of NEPA and an assortment of other Federal statutes such as the Administrative Procedures Act, etc. My recollection was that were at least six statutes being ignored or violated by NIH in its promulgation of guidelines. In addition, NIH later amended (weakened) the guidelines at least twice, again without benefit of any risk assessment or EIS. The suit was filed in Federal court, if I remember correctly.

Among those most vocal against any kind of slowdown or assessment were Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen. Cohen was a friend of biologist Paul Ehrlich at Stanford. Ehrlich's wife Anne was on the Board of Directors of FOE. Apparently they were extremely upset by the FOE lawsuit, so much so that they arranged a meeting (I think it was at Ehrlich's home) to which they invited Dave Brower. Their intent was clear: to persuade Brower to have FOE drop the lawsuit. But they obviously didnt know Dave that well; he refused to drop the lawsuit.

A FOE donor concerned about the DNA issue gave FOE a grant which enabled them to hire a lobbyist in their Washington DC office to work on the issue. At the same time Francine Simring in our NYC office established the Coalition for Responsible Genetics, which initially contained a core of scientists up at Harvard and MIT, including Jonathan King as well as other leadingscientists, including at least one Nobel Prize winner. This organization eventually became what is now called the Council for Responsible Genetics, sponsor of the GMO events in Seattle and of a petition campaign for a GMO ban.

The lawsuit, unfortunately, did not go anywhere. FOE lacked money for expert witnesses and its efforts to get support of any kind from the other environmental organizations such as Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council failed. My opinion of this failure was that there were conflicts of interest on the boards of these groups. Joshua Lederberg, for one, was on the NRDC board, and clearly if Cohen and Boyer were any indication, there wasnt much enthusiasm in the biology community for anything that would slow up DNA research or threaten their laboratory grants, or those of their peers. Much unpleasantness took place in the background, and Marc Lappe himself knows about this, because at one point Francine learned that someone had pushed him against a wall after a public hearing in California where he expressed his concerns over the potential hazards of such research. At one point the mayor of Boston held public hearings regarding proposed legislation to ban the research in Cambridge but this never passed.

The point is that the green light was given to recombinant DNA research; the only topic that was ever discussed was possible hazards from escaping recombinant organisms and the effect on the local community. The fact that the technique would be disseminated quickly all over the world without any risk assessment seemed to be of little concern to the scientific community, with the exception of a few like Lappe and the CRG people. Had FOE been able to pursue the lawsuit and force NIH to do a risk assessment prior to issuing research guidelines, things might be very different today.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.