June 21, 2000
In May 1999, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie went to Seattle to one of the world's biggest meetings of the biotech industry to announce his intentions to build Queensland into "Australia's smart state". Identifying with the "movers and shakers in biotechnology" he stated: "Like you, 1 am obsessed with the immense potential biotechnology has to improve our quality of life and to create a future for our children".
In selling Queensland as a future biotechnology hub in the Asia-Pacific region, Beattie announced that his government would spend $77.5 million over the next 10 years to establish it. This was expanded to $270 million a few months later.
However, public support and markets for genetically modified foods have crumbled in Europe in recent times. To protect its investment and allay public concerns, the Queensland Government is developing a Draft Code of Ethical Practice to govern biotechnology R&D, especially biomedical research. In doing so, Queensland is attempting to become the world's first government to introduce a biotechnology ethics code.
In March the Draft Code was bravely unleashed at Boston's Bio2000 conference. With only limited time for public consultation, the Code is expected to be finalised in July, which Beattie has designated "Biotechnology Month". The final form is not to be set in stone but will remain as an "evolving" document to reflect ongoing developments in biotechnology regulation and ethical practice.
The final Code will also not be enforceable but instead is cast as "educative". Even so, the 26-point Code will tie research to national guidelines for practice and ethics, some of which will become legislation. Other principles refer to responsibly and openly accounting for environmental and human risk and safety, animal welfare, consumer choice and rights, appropriate control of intellectual property, sustainable agriculture and industry, preservation of biodiversity, agricultural productivity, food safety and nutrition, medical safety, human safety, integrity and rights, privacy and consent, and cloning considerations.
While these principles are commendable, two critiques have already been published (Turnbull, 2000; Gesche, 2000). Noting that the impetus for the Code came some time after the Premier's announcement of the bioindustry initiative, bioethicist David Turnbull of Queensland Advocacy Inc. has argued that politics and industry are driving the process. Indeed, the drafting of the Code was restricted to supporters of biotechnology while critics were excluded.
According to Turnbull, science and biobusiness have redrawn the ethics map by creating a "need" for someone to investigate our "genetic risks". Thus, in the future, people may accept that need and buy the products of gene therapy to meet it. In other words, this is an example of science redefining human concerns and biobusiness then stepping in to capitalise upon them.
However, Turnbull claims that this creates a bias towards the interests of the healthy majority. He says that the needs, rights and lives of the most vulnerable - such as those with disabilities - have not been adequately addressed by the Draft Code.
With this is mind he asks whether, even if bioindustry complied with the Code in its present form, "Would bioindustry seriously consider weighing the indignity of people with diagnosed genetic conditions when such people come to realise that they … are the people society does not want?"
Such important questions have often been raised in the ethical debate over genetic techniques involving humans. A more general futuristic image has been raised by the science fiction movie GATTACA. In this technonoir future, society is composed of "valids" who can afford genetic "enhancement" and "invalids" who are unable to afford enhancement and become marginalised.
Related to this is the ethical problem of potential private ownership of human DNA, which may allow those holding patents on human genes to decide who is eligible to receive genetic enhancement or gene therapies, and what price has to paid to procure them. In the Draft Code this point appears to be supported where General Principle 9 states: "We will endeavour to ensure that new discoveries by Queensland researchers are discovered in ways that provide appropriate returns to the State and retain appropriate control of the intellectual property within Queensland".
However, this ignores the giant foreign agribusiness, pharmaceutical, veterinary medical and seed conglomerates that are also keenly in the hunt for biotech patents. While invited to subscribe to the Draft Code, players that choose to flaunt the Code can survive without the public embarrassment and implied threat of loss of funding under the Code.
Bioethicist Dr Astrid Gesche (2000) from Queensland University of Technology also identified this area as another weakness of what she referred to as the "largely aspirational nature" of the Draft Code, and questioned the wisdom of not making the Code enforceable, especially with regard to the private players. The recent discovery of a genetically engineered canola crop discarded by the roadside in South Australia highlights this point.
The Draft Code's designers might say such matters are addressed by tying the Code, through General Principle 5, to the existing standards of the federal government's Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC) and the Australia New Zealand Food Authority. However, these bodies have lost the confidence of the public as they are widely considered to be biased towards the values and ethics of the scientific and industrial interests driving genetic engineering.
Another flaw with GMAC is that its panel of predominantly pro-biotechnology scientists discounts potential risks on the basis of their qualitative likelihood (e.g. "highly unlikely") rather than determining the conditions under which undesirable events will occur and then identifying the steps that need to be taken to ensure that those conditions do not occur. To make matters worse, GMAC has no environmental ethical principles in place to guide its decisions. Apparently, the designers of the new national legislation now being proposed in Canberra are instead looking to Queensland's Code of Ethics for guidance.
Although General Principle 2 of Queensland's Draft Code states that it will "assist the environment, promote sustainable agriculture and industry and preserve biodiversity", there is remarkably no citation of Australia's Ecological Sustainable Development framework. This is a most unfortunate oversight and to address the above weaknesses the final Code would need also to tie itself to the framework's tenets, of which the Precautionary Principle is one.
The Precautionary Principle was central to negotiations at the recent international Biosafety Protocol, where broad multilateral agreement was reached for countries to be able to regulate the importation of genetically engineered foods. There is also growing recognition of the use of the Precautionary Principle in Europe, one of our major trading partners.
It would thus seem entirely reasonable, indeed sensible, to suggest an emphasis on the Precautionary Principle in Queensland's Code, both for the importation of genetically modified foods and for the local growing of genetically engineered crops. This stewardship ethic should extend to local communities so that they can formally question, if desired, any proposals for field releases of genetically engineered crops in their local Shire jurisdictions.
Yet, who will conduct the risk assessments of biotechnology applications for adverse impacts on human safety and/or the environment? General Principle 3 of the Draft Code states: "Risk assessments will be conducted in accordance with accepted scientific principles". But who will decide what the scientific principles are to be? Which models of science are to be used? Who will collect and interpret the data and according to what methodologies? If an ethical approach that accounts for relational ecological systems is the aim, would it not be wise to involve all associated sciences equitably rather than focusing largely upon the current laboratory approach?
Scientists of all ilks often miss variables that local and indigenous communities possess better knowledge of. Thus the Code should invite high community participation in the decision-making process of biotechnology.
In turn, General Principle 4 is also rather vague. It states: "We will not proceed with product development where assessed risks outweigh benefits." Who is to decide this? What models are to be used for assessment and how are the data to be interpreted? Overall the Draft Code is full of such ambiguities and vagueness of definition.
In summary, the Draft Code sets the scene for genetic experimentation, some of which may not be in the public interest. In the ethical interests of the whole community, the Queensland Government should adopt a much more balanced approach than the Draft Code suggests. Such a "revolutionary" tool as genetic engineering demands an equitable community partnership approach rather than industry compliance. The community needs to be empowered in the decision-making process and in the formulation of legislation, codes of conduct and, in general, technological development in a sustainable context: the emergent moral landscape of the present and future.
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Last Updated on 6/28/2000
By Dan Ellis