Institute for Independent Impact Assessment of Biotechnology
Developomes of existing spements in genetic engineering and biotechnology have raised fundamental questions about our relationship with nature in all its aspects and diversity. We believe that naturally evolved gencies deserve protection in the interests of the common good. All existing species diversity has developed over billions of years in a process of permanent co-evolution. Large-scale release of genetically engineered organisms which have not adapted through evolutionary processes can, therefore, endanger ecosystems and accelerate the extinction of species.
Genetically engineered plants are grown on millions of hectares of land in countries such as the US, Argentina and Brazil. Several regions are already being affected by the uncontrolled spread of the genetically engineered plants into the environment, and questions are being raised over the risks to health and the environment. In several cases there is evidence to suggest that adverse impacts on the environment have so far been seriously underestimated. Once harvested these plants can be imported into the EU, where they can be used in animal feed or in food for human consumption.
Using genetic engineering to more intensively exploit animals for human food production is an idea that has gained much more traction in recent times. Genetically engineered sheep and pigs were first developed in 1985, although none of these applications saw an actual breakthrough. In the end, only supposedly fast growing genetically engineered fish were brought to market. At the same time, genetic engineering became a notable driver of increasing numbers of animal experiments. Apart from the above, genetically engineered mosquitoes have been released to diminish the size of natural populations. In future, so-called ‘gene drives’ may be used to genetically engineer or even eradicate whole natural populations of ‘undesirable’ rodents or insects.
Genetically engineered bacteria are now being used to produce enzymes and vitamins for the food industry. There have already been several reported cases of genetically engineered bacteria contaminating food production processes, and thus putting food safety at risk. Applications of genetically engineered (GE) micro-organisms are set to become more widely used in future: for example, it is assumed that GE soil bacteria could be used to increase harvests. There have even been suggestions that GE gut bacteria could enhance the resistance of honey bees to pesticides. Molecules produced by GE micro-organisms could be used to change the characteristics of plants and animals (paratransgenesis). GE viruses could be used to alter food plants directly in the fields. Such potential applications would pose huge risks for the environment.
Genetic engineering in the context of medical applications and pharmaceutical research is an extremely wide-ranging field. We can only work on specific cases. For example, we are trying to stop patents on the use of human embryos in the production of stem cells. According to European patent law, such patent claims violate ethical principles. We also follow the discussions on interventions in the human germline and the increasing number of experiments with genetically engineered animals.
New genetic engineering and genome editing can be used to radically change the biological characteristics of plants, animals and microorganisms, even without adding genes. The technical processes using tools such as the CRISPR/Cas ‘gene scissors’ are associated with specific risks. We focus on these problems in our ‘set limits to biotech!’ project.
Synthetic biology is based on the idea of constructing living organisms ‘from scratch’ to serve human needs and economic interests. So far, scientists have been unable to achieve these goals – except to a very small extent. However, a basic tool used in ‘SynBio’ – the synthesis of DNA and RNA – has become an important tool in many potential usages, including the production of vaccines, the synthesis of whole genomes from viruses, bacteria and yeast. CRISPR/Cas gene scissors are guided by synthetic RNA to the target site. In future, fields might even be sprayed with pesticides containing RNA. These new pesticides are associated with many different risks that are very difficult to assess.
Synthetic biology enables radical changes to the genome of all kinds of living organisms, some of its proponents even want to create artificial life.
The introduction of genetic engineering also saw patents being granted on living organisms deemed to be ‘technical inventions’. The first patent of this kind was granted in Europe in 1992 on a mammal, the so-called ‘oncomouse’. Other patents had previously been granted on plants and human genes. Patents covering the use of human embryos or interventions into the human germline create specific ethical problems. Patents on genetically engineered animals for use in pharmaceutical experiments must similarly be rejected, since they inherently give rise to incentives to perform experiments in the expectation of making profits. Extending the scope of patents to agriculture and breeding is also extremely concerning: such patents frequently not only claim the technical processes but also the biological resources needed by all breeders.
Companies developing risky products for marketing must be excluded from risk assessment. However, the necessary preconditions for independence are in many cases are not fulfilled. This problem is related to concerns about the data produced for the approval processes and to the many recently published reports on risks and potential benefits of genetically engineered organisms.