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Self-Regulation of 'Extreme Genetic Engineering' Poses Unforeseeable Risks

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Friends of the Earth

On March 13 a broad coalition of 111 organizations from around the world released The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, the first global civil society declaration to outline principles that must be adopted to protect public health and the environment from the risks posed by synthetic biology, and to address the field’s economic, social and ethical challenges. Until these governance principles are in place, the coalition calls for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms and products.

The synthetic biology industry is expanding rapidly, with a market value in 2011 of over $1.6 billion that is expected to reach $10.8 billion by 2016. However, there has been little to no governance of the industry or assessment of the novel risks posed by synthetic organisms. Synthetic biology is “extreme genetic engineering”—not just reading and rearranging genetic code, but writing it to create new genes, genetic traits and possibly entire life forms from scratch.

The global coalition calls for the following seven principles to be established to safeguard public health and the environment from the novel risks of synthetic biology and to ensure open, meaningful and full public participation in decisions regarding its uses:

  1. Employ the Precautionary Principle
  2. Require mandatory synthetic biology-specific regulations
  3. Protect public health and worker safety
  4. Protect the environment
  5. Guarantee the right-to-know and democratic participation
  6. Require corporate accountability and manufacturer liability
  7. Protect economic and environmental justice

The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology marks an important milestone in the debate around synthetic biology, as it is the first document from a global coalition of civil society organizations that outlines how synthetic biology should be regulated,” said Eric Hoffman, food and technology policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S. “This diverse coalition of 111 groups from around the world, including environmental, religious, consumer, scientific, worker safety and human rights groups, has come together to call for the proper governance of synthetic biology. Our recommendations are rooted in the guiding principle of placing the health of people and the environment above corporate profits.”

“Self-regulation of the synthetic biology industry simply won’t work. Current laws and regulations around biotechnology are outdated and inadequate to deal with the novel risks posed by synthetic biology technologies and their products,” said Andy Kimbrell, executive director of the International Center for Technology Assessment. “These principles outline the positive role local and national governments, as well as international laws, can play in protecting communities from the novel risks posed by synthetic biology.”

“In addition to the risks synthetic biology poses to human health and the environment, this technology may also deepen global social and economic injustices,” explained Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American director of ETC Group. “Novel organisms tailored to break down biomass will enable a new bio-economy in which land, water and fertilizers used to produce food for communities in the global South will be diverted for producing biomass feed for synthetic organisms in order to produce fuels, chemicals and other high-end products for wealthy nations.”

“We are calling for a global moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms until we have established a public interest research agenda, examined alternatives, developed the proper regulations and put into place rigorous biosafety measures,” said Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. “It is our obligation to safeguard the future, to be wise in our development and use of technologies which could threaten humans and the Earth.”

The full report is available online by clicking here.

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