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
EU Governments have formally adopted a new "opt out" law which allows some countries to implement national bans on growing GM crops whilst others press ahead.
Scotland and Wales will opt out of growing GM crops, as will most European countries such as France and Germany. However, the UK Government wants to allow GM crops to be grown commercially in England.
Syngenta's GA21 maize (which is tolerant to the weedkiller glyphosate, brandname RoundUp) is the only remaining GM crop in the commercial pipeline that would be suitable for growing in England. RoundUp Ready crops are controversial for several reasons, including harm to wildlife habitats from blanket spraying with weedkiller. Read about the harm caused to the Monarch butterfly population in the USA.
- GM insects
Read the debate on GM mosquitoes on the New York Times website. In the USA, Food and Water Watch has called on the FDA to stop planned experimental releases of Oxitec's GM mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and Friends of the Earth has launched an online action.
The Brazilian Association of Public Health (ABRASCO) has objected to proposed commercial releases of GM mosquitoes in Brazil (which await approval from the health authority ANVISA).
Researchers in Panama have warned that releasing Oxitec's GM mosquitoes risks increasing numbers of another mosquito species which transmits dengue and chikungunya fevers. Read the paper and article in Time.
The first vaccine against dengue is expected to be available in mid-2015.
- Genes and Marketing
The Daily Mail reports that gene test company 23andMe is encouraging parents to test their children's genes, against ethical advice.
- The UK Police National DNA Database
The effectiveness of the National DNA Database has improved following the removal of more than a million innocent people's records, according to data in the new Annual Report. Read the blog on Gizmonaut.
The Biometrics Commissioner has also published his first report.
- International DNA databases
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 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 new journal paper The GM Contamination Register: a review of recorded contamination incidents associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), 1997-2013 and the Greenpeace blog.
- Genes and Health
Listen to GeneWatch's Director on Family Caregivers Unite!.
A major new study shows that chance plays a significant role in who gets cancer.>
As more evidence accumulates, more scientists are questioning claims that genes play a central role in health and behaviour. Read the blog by Arto Annila and Keith Baverstock and visit the BioscienceResource Project.
For a discussion of policy issues around plans to sequence the genomes of whole populations, read the reports of the EU project PACITA on public health genomics here.
- GM fish
GM salmon company AquaBounty has been fined for breaches of environmental regulations in Panama. Read the GeneWatch UK press release.
- A DNA database in the NHS?
Read GeneWatch UK's report on the plan to build a DNA database in the NHS by stealth and share whole DNA sequences (genomes) with companies like Google.
As a first step in the plan, NHS England plans to share people's medical records with private companies without people's knowledge or consent. A new phase in the controversial "care.data" plan has been announced, with GPs in four areas now piloting the scheme.
A new data protection law supported by the European Parliament would prevent heath data being shared for "research" (including commercial data-mining) without people's consent. But it has yet to gain the support of the Council, which includes the UK Government and is opposed by many internet companies who are lobbying against it. Read GeneWatch UK's response to the Ministry of Justice's consultation on EU powers in this area.
Until the legal situation is resolved, Medconfidential has published information about how to opt out, from sharing your medical records using a letter you can send to your GP.
- GM and Cloned Mammals
Synthetic biologist Craig Venter has claimed he will produce lungs in pigs for transplantation into humans. This is an old idea, previously tried with GM pig hearts and known as "xenotransplantation". There were difficulties with rejection of the organs and a major risk of transferring pig viruses to humans, as well as concerns about animal suffering. Read more here.
The UK Government has announced a review of the increasing use of GM animals in research.
- Patents on seeds
To oppose patents being granted in Europe on plants such as tomatoes, broccoli and melons, sign the Avaaz petition.
- New Plant Breeding Techniques
Companies are lobbying for new developments in genetic engineering to fall outside Europe's regulations on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). If they get their way, this could mean that environmental risk assessments are not conducted before releasing these GMOs into the environment and new types of genetically modified foods are not labelled for consumers. Read the open letter from civil society organisations calling for proper regulation.