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
In Brazil, Globo reports that resistant GM maize is now growing in GM soybean fields, causing major problems for farmers.
Read the African Centre for Biosafety's report on how GM maize is being promoted in Africa, despite failing in South Africa, partly due to resistant pests.
Meat and dairy products fed on GM feed are not labelled in the UK, although large quantities of GM feed are imported. Most major supermarkets (except Waitrose) have backtracked on promises not to use imported RoundUp Ready GM soya in animal feed. Actions to write to supermarkets about their policies are on GM Freeze. You can also help GM Freeze spot GM products in the shops.
- GM insects
Oxitec's plan to release GM olive flies in Catalonia, Spain has been shelved following requests for further information from the regulators. Reported in Spanish in La Vanguardia. Read the GeneWatch press release. Oxitec has now stated it will re-apply in a few months' time when it has completed studies of the impacts of the GM flies on other species.
- Genes and Marketing
The BBC reports that Google-funded gene testing company 23andMe has ceased marketing its genetic tests.
Forbes reports that a class action lawsuit has been filed against 23andMe in the Southern District Court of California. The FDA has ordered 23andMe to stop selling online genetic tests in the USA until its claims have been verified.
- A DNA database in the NHS?
The EU-US "safe harbour" agreement, which would allow NHS data and genomes to be handed over to US companies such as Google-funded 23andMe, is being reviewed as a result of the NSA spying revelations. Google and other technology companies have called for governments to restrict security service's uses of data in the cloud, in an effort to restore trust in their plans to data-mine NHS medical records and genomic data. The Government's plan to create a DNA database of the whole population in the NHS by stealth, through public-private partnership with companies like Google, is described in GeneWatch UK's report.
Uploads of medical data to the new "care.data" database have been delayed until next spring. Medconfidential has published information about how to opt out, using a letter you can send to your GP. See also their FAQs.
- HSE Contained Use Regulations Revision
Industry has been lobbying to create a loophole to allow GM micro-organisms, synthetic biology products and GM fish and insects to be released into the environment on an industrial scale under the Contained Use regulations for GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). Read GeneWatch UK's response.
- Genes and Health
New clinical trial results show that genetic testing for drug response is of little use in deciding the dose of the blood thinning drug warfarin. Claims that these tests would benefit patients have been used to seek to justify plans to sequence everybody's genomes.
The Wall Street Journal has reported how screening for genetic disorders can cause problems, including anxiety and unnecessary treatment, for patients who have genetic mutations but no symptoms of disease.
- GM fish
Commercial production of AquaBounty's GM salmon eggs has been authorised in Canada. Read the Guardian article. The fish is awaiting approval for import to the US market from the FDA and approval for commercial grow-out of the eggs to adult fish in Panama.
AquaBounty's experimental production facility of genetically modified (GM) salmon in Panama is missing multiple legally required permits and inspections according to an administrative claim filed in Panama by the environmental group Centro de Incidencia Ambiental de Panama (CIAM). Read the press release.
- Patents on seeds
To oppose patents being granted in Europe on plants such as tomatoes, broccoli and melons, sign the Avaaz petition.
- GM animals
The Independent has reported concerns by the RSPCA about cloning horses.
Researchers are genetically modifying animals including farm animals, birds, fish and insects. Many of these animals will end up in the food chain unless consumers oppose this. See the action from Compassion in World Farming.
- The UK Police National DNA Database
The Protection of Freedoms Act entered into force on 31st October 2013. The National DNA Database Annual report for 2012/13 reports that over 1.7 million DNA profiles taken from innocent people and from children have been removed from the DNA database and 7,753,000 DNA samples have been destroyed.
A consultation has been issued on statutory powers for the Forensic Regulator: deadline 3rd January.
- International DNA databases
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. Read the article by Associated Press.
- 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.