BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - New controls are needed before genetically modified animals arrive on UK farms or are released into the environment, the government's biotechnology advisers said last week.

Genetically modified and cloned animals in conventional agriculture might be some way off, but there is an urgent need to prepare the groundwork for their arrival, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) concluded in a report, "Animals and Biotechnology."

"The government must use this period to avoid the problems we had when the public suddenly became aware of the issues around GM crops and GM food on the shelves of supermarkets," said Malcolm Grant, the commission's chairman.

The commission recommended an outright ban on the commercialization of GM fish while uncertainty about their environmental impact remains; said there should be a new body to advise on the development of GM farm animals, and recommended that animal welfare legislation passed in 1911 be updated to ensure animals are protected from "fundamentally objectionable changes to their natures."

The report echoed concerns raised by the U.S. National Academies' National Research Council in a study on animal biotechnology, published last month (see BioWorld Today, Aug. 26, 2002). That report, which was requested by the FDA to assess upcoming animal biotechnology regulatory decisions, concluded that the greatest concern is the possibility of genetically modified animals escaping and cross-breeding with wild populations.

The UK report concurred with this, particularly in the case of fish and insects, and concluded, "While there is significant uncertainty about the environmental consequences of the escape of GM fish into the wild and about the containment of fish, we believe that GM fish should not be raised in offshore aquatic pens."

The GM fish closest to commercialization is the AquaAdvantage salmon, engineered to produce extra growth hormone, which grows at up to five times faster than its wild cousins. Its developer, Aqua Bounty Farms Inc., of Waltham, Mass., has filed for FDA approval.

The AEBC also called for an international system for tracing the import and export of GM animals and of GM eggs, semen, embryos and cloned reproductive material. "A sophisticated system is needed because a GM animal often looks no different from a conventional animal," Grant said.

Such a system would underpin the monitoring of cloned and GM farm animals to check for unanticipated health or welfare problems in adult animals.

Drawing on the UK's experience with GM foodstuffs, where public unease led to their withdrawal from the supermarket shelves, the AEBC said consumer attitudes to purchasing and consuming products from GM animals must be assessed in advance. In any case, consumers must have a choice, with labeling and segregation in production.

The AEBC was set up in July 2000 to provide the government with independent advice on developments in biotechnology and their implications for agriculture and the environment.