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
GeneWatch UK and TestBiotech are calling for herbicide tolerant crops awaiting approval for use in food and feed in the EU not to be approved. These crops are blanket sprayed with weedkillers which leave residues on the crop and safety testing is inadequate. Read the article in the Ecologist, the press release, open letter and technical background.
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. RoundUp Ready crops are controversial for several reasons, including harm to wildlife habitats from blanket spraying with weedkiller and pesticide residues on food. Read about the problems in Chemical and Engineering News.
Finland, Sweden and Estonia have not used the EU opt out, but don't grow maize, so there is nothing in the pipeline suitable for growing there. Spain, Portugal, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia already grow small quantities of Monsanto's MON810 maize (a Bt crop, resistant to some pests) for use in animal feed. Most of the cultivated area is in Spain.
- 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 new 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A DNA database in the NHS?
The "Safe Harbor" agreement on transferring data to the United States has been ruled invalid by the European Court of Justice.
Loopholes in new data protection legislation proposed by the European Council would allow personal health data, including genomes, to be handed to private companies without an individual's consent and stored indefinitely. This conflicts with stronger data protection proposals from the European Parliament and a commitment from the Commission not to weaken safeguards. Read the GeneWatch UK briefing.
Read the Mail article on Government plans to share NHS medical records with Google: the newspaper already revealed how supposedly confidential medical records are being sold to cold callers.
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. The 100,000 Genomes Project is a pilot project for this plan.
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. This "care.data" plan was put on hold until after the election, but is set to restart at end June 2015.
Medconfidential has published information about how to opt out from sharing your medical records using a letter you can send to your GP.
- 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.
- The UK Police National DNA Database
The Home Office has published new guidance for people seeking the early deletion of DNA profiles, fingerprint records and Police National Computer records. An application form is included.
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.
- GM and Cloned Mammals
MEPs have voted for a comprehensive ban on cloned farm animals. Read the Compassion in World Farming press release.
- Patents on seeds
The European Patent Office has backed patents on conventional plants, in landmark cases on broccoli and tomatoes.
- 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.