GeneWatch UK is a not-for-profit policy research and public interest group. We investigate how genetic science and technologies will impact on our food, health, agriculture, environment and society. These aims and principles explain why GeneWatch exists and what we are trying to achieve.
Genetic science and technologies are being promoted as the solution to problems as diverse as hunger, crime, climate change and cancer. GeneWatch UK believes that:
- An over-emphasis on genetic explanations and solutions to these problems can mean that underlying social, economic and environmental issues are ignored;
- Commitments to particular assumptions about science, technology, nature and society are often made behind closed doors, with insufficient public scrutiny;
- Consideration of the impacts of genetic technologies on the environment, health, animal welfare and human rights should be at the heart of decision-making.
GeneWatch UK's aims are to:
- ensure that genetic technologies are developed and used in the public interest and in a way which protects human health and the environment and respects human rights and the interests of animals;
- promote public involvement in the decisions that are made about science and about whether or how genetic technologies are used;
- increase public understanding of genetic science and technologies;
- carry out or support research about their impacts.
GeneWatch UK is working to increase public understanding of genetic technologies and to secure public, academic, media, investor, regulatory, parliamentary, local, national and international governments' support for a comprehensive programme to ensure genetic technologies are developed and used in an ethical and safe manner. This includes:
Improving public understanding, accountability and participation in decision making
- A balanced independent and open scientific research agenda.
- Effective public involvement in the decisions about whether and when genetic technologies should be applied.
- Systems to ensure people can exercise choice about whether to eat GM foods.
Protecting people, the environment and animals
- Protection of plants and animals from contamination by GMOs.
- The biotechnology industry to be held liable for environmental or economic damage caused through the use of GMOs.
- A ban on the patenting of genes, plants and animals to prevent their monopolisation compromising human rights and food security.
- Equity for people in developing countries in access to the benefits of genetic technologies and protection from genetic exploitation.
- A presumption against the genetic modification and cloning of all animals, both of which can lead to considerable animal suffering, and which should only be allowed if it will contribute significantly to the relief of serious human suffering and there is an absence of more acceptable alternatives.
- Effective national and international laws preventing biological weapons development because genetic engineering is seen as a way of improving the potential for their use and increasing the threat of their development.
- Protecting human rights and dignity
- Laws to prevent the misuse of genetic information including a ban on the use of genetic test data by insurers and employers.
- A guarantee of genetic privacy and the right of people to refuse to undergo genetic testing.
- Independent regulation of genetic testing and genetic databases.
- A ban on human reproductive cloning and human genetic modification.
- Promoting positive, safer alternatives
- Recognition that tackling lifestyle, social, economic and environmental health factors are often more important than genetics in preventing disease.
- Recognition that providing a healthy diet and establishing food security requires social, economic and political solutions and will not be achieved through technological interventions alone.
GeneWatch UK works by:
- Researching and analysing new developments in genetics and how they will affect people, the environment and animals.
- Clarifying and making accessible to the public, the emerging science of genetics and its implications.
- Communicating the issues to decision makers, the public, media and other organisations affected by genetics, such as farmers, doctors and businesses.
- Advocating and justifying practical measures to protect against adverse impacts of genetic technologies on people, the environment and animals.
- Intervening where most effective to see that adequate safeguards are introduced.
- Networking and alliance-building with a wide variety of organisations and individuals interested in human, environmental and animal health and welfare.
- Challenging the biotechnology industry and others if they produce misleading information.
Most of GeneWatch's funds for research and education projects come from charitable trusts. We have also received some research funding from the European Commission. A smaller amount comes from undertaking commissioned work usually, but not exclusively, for other groups in the voluntary sector who need our specialist knowledge. The remainder of GeneWatch's income comes from donations.
Dr Helen Wallace - Executive Director
Helen joined GeneWatch as Deputy Director in 2001, specialising in the ethics, risks and social implications of human genetics. She became Director in 2007. Helen has worked as an environmental scientist in academia and industry and as Senior Scientist at Greenpeace UK, where she was responsible for science and policy work on a range of issues. She has a degree in physics from Bristol University and a PhD in applied mathematics from Exeter University.
- GM Crops and Food
The European Parliament has objected to three new authorisations to import GM soybeans which are tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate (brandname RoundUp).
The European Commission has admitted that cumulative and synergistic effects of pesticide residues on herbicide-tolerant GM crops to be considered, but that it has no methodology to do so. Read the press release..
To find out about GM ingredients on UK supermarket shelves and in Domino's "thin and crispy" pizza bases, visit the GM Freeze website.
Syngenta's RoundUp Ready GA21 maize is the only remaining GM crop in the commercial pipeline for EU cultivation that would be suitable for growing in England or Flanders (Belgium): areas of northern European countries which grow maize and have not used the opt out.
- New Genetic Engineering Techniques
New developments in genetic engineering raise questions about which crops will be treated as genetically modified (GM) for the purposes of regulation.
Industry and investors are seeking to exempt all new techniques from regulation but civil society groups have concerns about this. Read the GeneWatch UK Open Letter.
- The UK Police National DNA Database
Read the GeneWatch UK briefing on the automated sharing of DNA profiles across the EU. The UK parliament has agreed to opt in to automated sharing but concerns about potential miscarriages of justice have not all been resolved.
- International DNA databases
Kuwait has become the only country in the world to pass a law to put its whole population on a DNA database. Read the press coverage here.
There has been widespread criticism of India's DNA Bill for lack of adequate safeguards to protect privacy and human rights and prevent miscarriages of justice. Read the background here. Critics are calling for greater scrutiny by Committee and significant amendments before the Bill is sent to parliament.
Read the article Forensic DNA databases: Ethical and legal standards: A global review.
GeneWatch UK, the Council for Responsible Genetics and Privacy International are working together on the Forensics Genetics Policy Initiative to develop international standards for DNA databases worldwide. Visit our website.
- GM fish
In the USA, the FDA has approved GM salmon for use as food: the first time a GM animal has been allowed into the food chain. The GM salmon eggs will be produced by the company AquaBounty in Canada, shopped to Panama for growing in an on-land facility, and then shipped as dead fish products to the US market, where they are not required to be labelled as GM. Environmentalists are concerned about the impacts on wild salmon if the GM fish escape, including if GM fish eggs are accidentally or deliberately diverted to fish farms elsewhere in the world. The Center for Food Safety has stated it will bring a legal case against the decision.
- GM insects
Read GeneWatch UK's briefing on proposed releases of GM diamondback moths in New York State. Read the joint press release from the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth US and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York about the proposed trials.
The Catalan Government has rejected a (second) application by Oxitec to release GM olive flies in Catalunya (Spain).
Panama has rejected Oxitec's GM mosquitoes, after conducting a preliminary trial. Malaysia and the Cayman Islands also stopped releases after preliminary trials. Trials continue in Brazil, however the Brazilian Health Authority ANVISA has not authorised commercial releases amid doubts about the efficacy and risks of the technology.
- A DNA database in the NHS?
The new EU Data Protection Regulation has completed trilogue negotations and will soon be adopted by the European Parliament. The new rules will influence the extent to which individuals will be asked for their consent before their genetic information is shared with commercial companies.
Medconfidential has published information about how to opt out from sharing your medical records using a letter you can send to your GP.
- Genes and Marketing
The EU council has begun "trialogue" negotiations with the European Commission and Parliament about new regulations for medical tests, including genetic tests.
Read about concerns about the tests in the Times (subscription required).
The Daily Mail reports that 23andMe is encouraging parents to test their children's genes, against ethical advice.
The FDA has allowed 23andMe to resume selling some health-related tests (carrier status for genetic disorders) in the USA but has not approved the controversial tests for supposed genetic predispositions to complex disorders. The FDA also warned three more companies against selling unregulated genetic tests.
- GM Contamination Register
An on-line database of incidents of GM contamination, illegal releases and adverse agricultural side-effects run by GeneWatch UK and Greenpeace. Read the journal paper.
- GM and Cloned Mammals
The Guardian reports that a UK couple have cloned their dead dog.