The Unedited
Free space for free expression in English & Italian
(Un)Edited by Carlo Pelanda
Managed by F.Brunelli e L.Borgiani

THE NEED FOR AN INTERNATIONAL REGULATING COMMITTEE ON BIOTECHNOLOGY

By Stephanie Thornton
  

Biotechnology is not a new phenomenon among human beings. For over 10,000 years mankind has manipulated plants and animals through various breeding and agricultural techniques in order to make them more productive and fruitful. However, the last half-century, and particularly the last decade, has seen tremendous steps in our abilities to manipulate our environment. No longer are we limited to using breeding techniques for genetic alteration that only allow for gene transfer within a species. Instead, today we can theoretically transfer any gene from one species to another. The possibilities of this new technology are limitless. Through this we are able to create new forms of life and new medical therapies that could save millions of lives. Yet these new technologies have raised many ethical questions about man's place in nature and how far man should go in changing nature. There are also fears of what dangers this new technology may bring. Our ability to cure disease can just as easily be manipulated to create massively destructive biological weapons. These concerns have caused many governments and private institutions to place limits on what man is allowed to do with this new technology.

There are two main areas of biotechnology that currently receive the most debate. The first is in the research involving human embryos, including the fields of pluripotent stem cell research and cloning in genetic therapy. Much of the debate over this research lies in its use of viable, living human embryos in its studies because the extraction of stem cells from a living embryo destroys the embryo. During the first two weeks of development an embryo is made up almost entirely of pluripotent stem cells. These cells can multiply indefinitely to become any cell in the human body. Their potential for saving or dramatically improving human lives is unlimited. They could be used to grow new organs for transplant, to repair a damaged brain or spinal cord, or to create new skin for burn victims (Jones). Most of these embryos come from excess embryos made during invitro fertilization for sterile couples that would likely be thrown away otherwise. However, the intended fate of the embryo does not change the fact that it is still a human being according to anti-abortion advocates. Many equate this with the philosophy of the Nazis during WWII who experimented on those in the concentration camps because they were going to be killed anyway (?9 European Nations?). The other source for obtaining embryos from which to extract stem cells is through cloning. This may be necessary when there is not a close enough genetic match for a patient from IVF embryos and an embryo must be made in order to extract stem cells that the patient's body would not reject. However, many have denounced the cloning process alone as being immoral and the embryo used in the treatment is still a living human embryo that is destroyed in the extraction of the stem cells.

These current ethical debates have led to speculation as to what this technology could be used for in the future. There are fears of what may happen if technology is carried too far. The ability to change genetics can be used to prevent hereditary diseases and birth defects but it could also be used to determine the sex of the baby, hair and eye color, intelligence, or athletic ability. The cost of these genetic alterations would likely be very expensive and therefore only feasible for the wealthy. These "designer children?could then be the beginning of a biological separation of the wealthy and poor classes with the wealthy becoming more intelligent, more athletic, and able to live longer. What, then, is being done in order to soothe public fears of this new technology and to prevent the technology from being abused?

Governments and some private institutions have placed limits on how this technology may be used in research. In the United States, the National Institute of Health has created a set of guidelines on the use of federal funds in embryonic research. Federal funds may not be used for any research that destroys or injures a viable human embryo. This would include the extraction of stem cells. Stem cells thus must be extracted in a private lab and purchased by a government funded lab. The stem cells must be derived from embryos created for IVF that "were in excess of clinical need?("NIH fact sheet?. This means it is illegal to use federal funds to create an embryo in the lab for research purposes or to use pluripotent cells from such an embryo. Federal funds also may not be used to clone an embryo for the extraction of stem cells or to create an embryo for the purpose of cloning a human. While these guidelines prevent federal funds from being used in the creation or destruction of an embryo, they do nothing to prevent these in the private sector. Some private firms have their own regulations on embryonic research but they are not universal.

While the controversy in the United States surrounding the new technology focuses on its use of human embryos, in Europe the debate is focused more on the morality of the technology itself rather than the use of embryos. Restrictions are also more universal in European nations than in the United States. There is not the distinction of government and private sector research but rather a nationwide ban on the use of technologies such as cloning. In January of 1998, nineteen European nations signed an agreement to ban cloning in their countries, including France, Italy, Spain, and Greece (?9 European Nations...?. Great Britain and Germany did not sign this agreement, however, both nation's have had a ban on embryo cloning since 1990, with Germany's law banning any research involving a human embryo. Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 allows for experimentation on embryos, including pluripotent stem cell extraction but not cloning, up to day fourteen in its development but does say that around day fourteen there is a fundamental change in the embryo in which it becomes a human being (Jones). A government panel's August report in Britain, however, recently suggested to Parliament to relax the nation's ban on cloning to allow for the cloning of embryos for the purpose of stem cell extraction. While the suggestion will not be voted on in Parliament until later on this year, the idea is influencing thought on the ideas of embryonic research both here in the United States and in Europe. Germany has started discussing the possibilities of revising its own ban on embryo experimentation, though German officials have stated that they must proceed slowly and cautiously in allowing some of these new technologies. The United States is discussing the removal of the law prohibiting federal funds from being used in many kinds of embryonic research ("British government action?). There are still fierce arguments coming from pro-life groups concerning embryonic research, a group which is working to prohibit this type of research in all sectors here in the US, both governmental and private. Other nations, such as Italy, also fall into the vehemently anti-cloning group. This dissension among nations will only lead to more problems as nations prohibiting such research push the development of this research into less controlled countries.

The second highly controversial area of biotechnology is in the genetic modification of agricultural products. For thousands of years man has bred crops to be bigger, heartier, and more productive. Now, we are able directly alter a plant's genetic code without all of the steps involved in breeding. Gene transferring has allowed scientists to take genes from plants resistant to certain pests and insert them in other common crops to make them naturally pest resistant without the use of pesticides. They also can modify genes to make the plant more fruitful and nutritious with a better taste and longer shelf life. Scientists can even modify plants to make them more adaptable to harsh climates like the desert. These genetic modifications have allowed greater crop yields in a more environmentally friendly manner. These genetically modified (gm) crops have not been shown to be harmful either to its consumers or to the environment. (The case of the monarch butterfly larvae has not been successfully proven to have been caused solely by gm crops.) It is possible to grow greater quantities of food now in areas that were previously unable to realistically support agriculture. These crops are also more resistant to dramatic natural changes in their environment, such as drought and temperature changes.

Thus, on the surface these crops seem to be a miraculous solution to world hunger and malnutrition. However, there are still concerns about the impact these new foods may have on both the environment and those who consume them. One of the major concerns lies in the genetic modification of plants to be more pest resistant by producing their own toxins. There is a fear that as pests are exposed to these altered plants that they may develop a natural immunity to its toxins and become much more difficult to kill. These new breeds of "superpests?would be resistant to much of what we know on how to combat them and could jeopardize entire harvests of crops. These pest and herbicide resistant plants could also cross pollinate with other wild plants in the area, creating "superweeds?that would be resistant to herbicides and could become difficult to control and keep out of crops.

Another fear that many have of these genetic modifications is that they may cause new allergies to develop among humans or that they may further aggravate already existing allergies. Humans with certain food allergies may no longer know what foods are safe for them and what are not because a gene from the food they are allergic to may be spliced into an entirely new food without the consumer having any way of knowing that this has occurred. For example, a gene from a peanut may be spliced into corn or other agricultural product and then sold with no labels telling the consumer that the product contains peanut genes. A consumer with an allergy to peanuts could buy this new product and have a reaction to it without knowing why. This could be a potentially deadly danger for many thousands with severe food allergies. Finally, there is simply the fear of the unknown consequences of introducing these new organisms into the natural environment and what the environmental impact they may have.

In the United States, a company must submit approval for any new genetically modified plants to the Food and Drug Administration for testing before it can be marketed to the public. However, there are no regulations about labeling food as genetically modified and so consumers are often largely unaware of whether they are buying altered food (www.newscientist.com/gm). Genetically modified foods have been generally largely accepted in the United States as being beneficial for the environment and for consumer's health. Many consumers like that these plants require fewer pesticides and herbicides because they result in cleaner food for the buyer. However, recently there has been greater pressure from environmentalist and consumer advocate groups to demand labeling of food products that are genetically modified and to phase out using genetically modified plants altogether.

This echoes the sentiments of much of Europe, which has not been nearly as accepting of genetically modified food as the United States. Both France and England have moratoriums on growing any type of genetically altered crops in their countries. England is currently in the process of evaluating genetically modified in a series of farmscale experiments that will look at the impact of the crops on the surrounding environment. If these experiments show that there seems to be no greater harm to the environment from gm plants than from non-gm plants, then the UK may give the go ahead to begin planting genetically modified crops on a small scale. The French are also greatly anticipating the outcomes of the trials to determine the place of genetically modified foods in their country. There is a mandate already in Europe for genetically modified corn and soy products to be labeled, and many nations, such as Great Britain and Australia, require companies to label other foods as well. Great Britain also instituted a policy in March of 1999 that goes one step beyond labeling gm foods in grocery stores and shops by requiring restaurants to tell consumers if their foods contain any gm products. This has led to many companies voluntarily refusing to use or sell genetically modified products. This is one of the fundamental differences between the United States and Europe in this dispute. In the United States, opposition to genetically modified foods comes from a small minority of consumers, but in Europe there is a much larger consumer demand for labeling and for abstaining from using gm foods in products. Thus in Europe one sees the market responding to the issue even more so than the government. Many companies recognize the consumer market's distaste for so called "Frankenfood?and choose not to use gm food sources in their products. Several large food companies in Europe have already began phasing out their use of gm crops in their foods, a move which may likely influence other food manufacturers to follow suit. However, companies that manufacture genetically modified seed, such as Monsanto, still have other markets hungry for this new technology. Emerging nations such as China have embraced genetically modified foods and found themselves better able to feed their populations.

Herein lies the root of the problems with disputes over the ethics and legalities of biotechnology. What one country may ban, another may embrace, which simply causes those working on the developing technology to move to less controlled nations. French President Jacques Chirac said at an international European conference that "Nothing will be resolved by banning certain practices in one country if scientists and doctors can simply work on them elsewhere?(?9 European Nations?). Many emerging nations have no current regulations or prohibitions on embryonic research or the use of genetically modified seeds. This creates an arena for rogue technology developed with no controlling authority or safety regulations. It also creates the possibility of these nations limiting access to this technology to only the super-wealthy by charging exorbitant amounts for their products or therapies. This could lead to the frightening scenario discussed above in which a genetic separation of the classes could occur if the wealthy have access to genetic therapies to which the lower classes do not. There is thus a critical need for an international regulating authority in the area of biotechnology. Such an authority could help to bypass many of the moral dilemmas found in embryonic research by encouraging alternative technologies, for example, the use of pluripotent stem cells that can be found in adults. Such an institution could create global standards for food production and safety and help distribute agricultural technology to lesser-developed nations. The United Nations would be the optimal choice in creating an international committee for such standards, however, if several leading nations agreed to join together they may encourage other nations to do the same. It will be up to wealthier nations to lead the way in this field by setting an example and helping to educate emerging countries on the potential dangers of uncontrolled technology and the benefits of directed technological development. Only in a united effort can we help to ensure that this technology is used to its fullest beneficial potential while limiting its potential dangers to mankind.

Works Cited

"British government action on cloning stirs international debate.17 August 2000. http://www.cnn.com/2000/HEALTH/08/17/embryo.reax/index.html

05 October 2000 "NIH Fact Sheet on Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Research Guidelines.

23 August 2000. http://www.nih.gov/news/stemcell/stemfactsheet.htm

04 October 2000 Jones, Phillip B.C. "Funding of human stem cell research by the United States.

Biotechnology of Human Disorders. Vol. 3 No. 1 April 15, 2000. 04 October 2000 European nations sign ban on human cloning.?

06 October 2000 "EU-US Summit Guide, Queluz, Portugal: Chemicals and genetically modified organisms: Facts and Trends.

31 May 2000. http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/chemgen/facts_en.htm

02 October 2000 "Italy, Vatican slams human cloning.?"

18 August 2000. http://news.24.com/News24/Technology/Science_Nature/0,1113,2-13-46_899319,00.html

06 October 2000 "New Scientist: In a Genetically Modified World.?" www.newscientist.com/gm

 

 


Archive
By UGA students