UK: Animal rights and the scientists. (2 of 2)

UK: Animal rights and the scientists. (2 of 2) - Europe's leading biotechnology companies are making their feelings known through an intra-European lobbying organisation known as SAGB. The group, which includes giants such as Ferruzzi, Hoechst, ICI and U

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Europe's leading biotechnology companies are making their feelings known through an intra-European lobbying organisation known as SAGB. The group, which includes giants such as Ferruzzi, Hoechst, ICI and Unilever, claims in a policy document that Western European nations risk losing their lead in biotechnology and genetic technology to the United States.

SAGB is in favour of assessment and testing and is sympathetic to public concerns about the new technology but its concern is that natural caution might translate itself into regulatory regimes unwarranted by the available scientific evidence.

Industry may protest that genetic technology is being judged guilty until proven innocent, but there is a strong case for demanding a higher standard of proof of its safety than for other technological developments. Though fears of the technology are often dismissed as irrational, there is a scientific basis to the concern; not least because once introduced, new genetic material will be difficult, if not impossible, to remove.

The dangers of genetic technology are sometimes overstated: much of the work is little different to, and about as dangerous as, pulling wings off a daddy long legs - though critics would argue that the analogy extends to the degree of cruelty involved.

But some of the work, particularly with viruses and bacteria, carries a higher risk. It is possible that a hitherto harmful virus made harmless by genetic manipulation might revert to a dangerous form by mutating or through interaction with other genetic material. The resulting virus might be more virulent than its parent virus.

Apart from such alarmist scenarios there is concern that the introduction of organisms that have not evolved naturally might upset the ecosystem.

There are legitimate counter-arguments to these objections, not least those that point to the potential to develop crops able to thrive in famine-struck areas and new treatment for ailments. But the consequences of error are unthinkable. Those who wish to speed ahead before more is known are foolhardy or greedy. Regulation should urge caution and encourage research.

(Pallab Ghosh is a science and technology writer.)

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