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Global coalition calls for oversight of synthetic biology

Posted Mar. 13, 2012 / Posted by: Eric Hoffman

Friends of the Earth is thrilled to release the Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, the first global declaration from civil society to outline principles that must be adopted to protect public health and our environment from the risks posed by synthetic biology. The report also addresses the field’s numerous economic, social and ethical challenges. The writing of these principles was a collaborative effort and has been endorsed by 111 organizations from around the world. Download the report.

Synthetic biology is “extreme genetic engineering,” an emerging technology that is developing rapidly yet remains largely unregulated. With synthetic biology, instead of swapping existing genes from one species to another (as in “ traditional” genetic engineering), scientists can write entirely new genetic code on a computer, "print" it out and then insert it into living organisms —  or even try to create life from scratch.

Check out our fact sheet to learn more about the risks this emerging biotechnology poses to human health and our environment, and how it could deepen social and economic injustices around the world.

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. There have been calls for “self-regulation” by the industry and at the end of 2012 President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released a report saying that industry self-regulation would be sufficient and “gave the green light” to the synthetic biology community. Friends of the Earth, along with 56 organizations from around the world sent a public letter to the Presidential Commission which criticized its report for ignoring the precautionary principle, relying on so-called “self-governance” instead of true democratic governance of this technology, lacking adequate review of environmental risks and placing unwarranted faith in “suicide genes” and other technologies that provide no guarantee against the escape of synthetic organisms into the environment.

The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology is our response to such calls for self-governance or business-as-usual when it comes to regulation of biotechnology. The broad coalition calls for the following seven principles 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

A broad coalition of environmental, religious, consumer, scientific, worker safety and human rights groups has come together to call for the proper governance of synthetic biology. These recommendations are rooted in the precautionary principle and the belief that the health of people and our environment must take precedence over corporate profits. Until the proper regulations and safety mechanisms have been put in place, we believe there must be a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms. While synthetic biology may be a useful tool in helping to better understand biological systems, it carries too many risks and unanswered questions to be allowed outside the lab at this time.

Audio recording of the press conference.

French translation.

Spanish translation.

Portuguese translation.

The principles for the oversight of synthetic biology (Report)

This report is the first global declaration from civil society to outline principles that must be adopted to protect public health and our environment from the risks posed by synthetic biology.

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