can we make our Gene Technology Act 'ethical'?


So far the pharmaceutical corporations and others behind the genetic engineering industry have had their way in Australia. The Gene Technology Regulator has approved the following (GM) crops which are now in cultivation across the country: canola, Indian mustard, grapes (Vic), clover (ACT), cotton, Indian mustard (NSW), cotton, sugarcane, pineapple, papaya (QLD), cotton (NT), peas, canola, Indian mustard (SA) cotton (WA), canola, clover, Indian mustard, poppy (TAS). But the biggest commercial GM release so far is the big water user, Roundup Ready cotton.

A GM ‘drought resistant’ wheat and Herpes vaccination for cattle are currently being scrutinised by Canberra for environmental release. There are hundreds of approved ‘low risk’ bio-medical research projects going on. And the Regulator has certified several thousands of private and public facilities to develop novel organisms. (link here )

Thanks to Hive

Thanks to Hive

The Gene Technology Act 2000 is up for review in late June; a chance for Australians to set the government on a more precautionary path. The object of the Act is to protect the health and safety of people and the environment, by identifying risks posed by genetically engineered organisms, then managing these by regulation. But scientific uncertainties in genetics, and difficulties in carrying out risk assessment, raise tough problems for people looking at how the Act can be applied in an ‘ethical’ way. GM science is risky for many reasons. But most fundamentally because it uses highly mobile, promiscuous viruses or E. coli bacteria as carriers of DNA from one cell or one species into another. And the DNA in such engineered organisms is highly unstable and thus unpredictable.

Environmental release of a novel organism may break long evolved food chains in nature, and lead to species loss. Koala habitat will be in question if GM eucalypts come on line. In the human diet, GM foods derived from plants engineered to be herbicide tolerant will carry excessive chemical residues. And GM corn filler in processed foods may set off allergies, gut problems, or inheritable genetic complications unforeseen by science.

North American firms have now recruited the common Banana for Rabies antibody production; but is this ‘pharming’ safe from open markets? At least a proposal to breed pig hearts for medical transplants is off the list, now that it’s understood how Porcine virus can infect a recipient and even neighbours, with outcomes that are potentially epidemic in scale. New research with Smallpox also rings alarm bells, and points to the overlap of GM and biological weapons research and development. Even so, the US Army Soldier Command is already spinning spider silk five times as strong as steel, using the secretions of GM hamster kidneys and cow mammary cells.

The Gene Technology Act requires the Regulator to be satisfied that risks to the public from GM experimentation can be managed before a licence is issued. But in the case of GM crop development, the CSIRO has found 150 areas of scientific uncertainty – about half of these not routinely assessed by the Regulator. In one case, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) discovered commercial Bt cotton, injected with the Bacillus thuringiensis, exudes the Bt toxin not only through leaves, killing off insects as planned, but exudes via roots as well – so knocking out the bacteria colonies that keep soils viable.

But as a decision-making tool, ‘risk assessment’ itself is inherently problematic. As the 1998 UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution put it: ‘No satisfactory way has been devised of measuring risk to the natural environment, even in principle, let alone defining what scale of risk should be regarded as tolerable.’ And risk assessment of GM products is not made any easier by the fact that scientists disagree about how controllable DNA is. How so?

The Gene Technology Act takes genetic determinism as given. This theory, known in the trade as the ‘central dogma’, builds on the 1953 Watson and Crick idea of a master gene unchanging over time; determining one function; and not affected by its surroundings. In the alternative scientific model known as ‘complexity genomics’, the gene is characterised by moving chromatin coils, interactions between redundant or poorly understood junk DNA, unpredictable jumping elements or transposons, and newly discovered kinds of RNA. Even members of the Human Genome Research establishment now concede that many factors in cell biochemistry must direct DNA, since there are not enough genes in the genome to account for all the proteins made in cell reproduction.

These revolutionary developments in the science of genetics cast a shadow on much industrial biotechnology research resting on the central dogma. (link here ) With regard to the Gene Technology Act set up to protect Australian people by identifying and managing risks, we have two simple but very serious questions to answer: Can all risks be identified, if questions of fundamental science remain undecided? And can risks be managed, if they cannot always be identified?

Social impacts aside, a genetically engineered future has the potential to bring evolutionary changes, species loss, sterile soils, unwanted residues in food, allergies, involuntary vaccination, and even viral epidemics. So in the face of informed doubt, how can policy makers best make ‘ethical’ decisions on behalf of the public? Most scientists and ethicists agree that where scientific uncertainty exists, the Precautionary Principle is the stance for science, government, and citizens to take. But the Biosafety Protocol, which carries this approach internationally, remains unsigned by Australia and the US, just as the Kyoto Treaty does. (link here) And though there is a version of the Precautionary Principle in the Gene Technology Act, its role in the regulatory process is not precisely spelled out.

Precaution is the attitude of care taken by mothers towards small children or farmers towards their field stock. By contrast, the Australian method of risk assessment by trial release into the environment is like firing at your child to see if the gun is loaded.

Terms of reference for the Review of the Gene Technology Act can be found here and public submissions are due by 15 July 2005.

Office of the Gene Technology Regulator

Richard Strohman 1994 Is our Knowledge Sufficient for Safe Use of Biotechnology?

Third World Network 2005 Biosafety Information Service

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.