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 insects
US public interest groups have filed a formal pre-litigation notice with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that they intend to sue the agency for its approval to release millions of genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes into the environment.
Key Haven residents have voted against an experimental release of Oxitec's GM mosquitoes in Florida. The company will now seek another site in Florida and is expected to make a new application to the FDA.
Court documents from the Cayman Islands reveal Oxitec is aware that its GM mosquito releases could lead to an increase in another disease-carrying mosquito species. Read the joint press release.
- Commercial interests
As the major GM companies begin a period of consolidation, concerns have been raised about even greater monopoly control over seeds. See GeneWatch UK's Open Letter to the EU's Competition Commissioner. See also the petition against the merger between Syngenta and the Chinese Government-owned ChemChina.
- Patents on seeds
In a long awaited explanatory statement, the EU Commission has said that plants and animals that are obtained by means of "essentially biological" breeding are non-patentable. Read the press release from No Patents on Seeds.
In contrast, the European Patent Office has previously backed patents on conventional plants, in landmark cases on broccoli and tomatoes.
- New Genetic Engineering Techniques
The US National Academies of Sciences has released a report on gene drives - a new method of genetically engineering whole ecosystems. The report acknowledges some major risks but fails to discuss the commercial interests which are pushing for use of this technology. Read the article in Science.
New developments in genetic engineering raise questions about which crops, trees and animals will be treated as genetically modified (GM) for the purposes of regulation. Sign the "No new GMOs through the back door" petition here.
- GM Crops and Food
Waitrose has moved to source non-GM feed for pork, leading other supermarkets. Large quantities of GM RoundUp Ready soya, which is blanket sprayed with the weedkiller RoundUp, are being imported to Britain for use in animal feed. You can let the supermarkets know what you think using the GM Freeze website.
In the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of the weedkiller dicamba on a new generation of dicamba-tolerant GM crops.
Yoghurt company Danone is also going GM Free.
Read the New York Times article on how Europe has benefited by choosing not to grow GM crops.
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. This crop is awaiting approval by the EU.
- International DNA databases
Kuwait's Emir has called for revision of Kuwait's controversial DNA law, to respect the constitution and protect privacy. Last year, Kuwait became the only country in the world to pass a law to put its whole population and all visitors on a DNA database. However, the law has been widely criticised and has not been implemented. Read the press coverage here.
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.
- A DNA database in the NHS?
Google subsidiary DeepMind has been given access to NHS patient data from millions of Londoners, without patients' knowledge or consent. Read the 2013 GeneWatch UK report about how the Government plans to share NHS medical records and genetic information from every patient with companies like Google.
The new EU Data Protection Regulation has now been 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, if the UK continues to implement these rules following its exit from the EU.
The Government's controversial NHS database called "care.data" was scrapped in July 2016: however, alternative proposals will now be developed. 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 "trilogue" negotiations with the European Commission and Parliament about new regulations for medical tests, including genetic tests. The regulation is expected to be finalised in 2016.
Read about concerns about the tests in the Times (subscription required).
- 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.
- The UK Police National DNA Database
The Biometrics Commissioner has issued his annual report on the retention of DNA profiles on the National DNA Database and follow-up report about police failures to delete and retain the right information.
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.
- 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 and Cloned Mammals
The Guardian reports that a UK couple have cloned their dead dog.