When politicians respond to popular distrust of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), they sometimes fail to grasp how intricately molecular technologies infiltrate different areas of science. A case in point is now playing out in Turkey, where an attempt to regulate GMOs in agriculture has morphed into a draft law that could wipe out the country's biomedical research.
Most of Turkey's scientists learnt about the situation only a few weeks ago. Some responded immediately, organizing meetings and petitions, and lobbying parliamentarians to try to stage a last-minute reprieve. But as Nature goes to press, it seems likely that the law will be voted in by parliament this week without change. Ironically, it will go through at a time when many universities in Turkey are expanding their activities in biomedical research.
How did Turkey get into this mess?
The law was first drafted after Turkey signed up to the United Nations Environmental Programme's International Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2000. This requires signatories to create legislation to regulate the international trade, handling and use of any GMO that might have adverse effects on biodiversity or human health.
Turkey was at the same time trying to align much of its legislation with that of the European Union, which it aspires to join. The first draft was prepared with input from Turkey's research council, TÜBİTAK, and followed European regulations that separate deliberate release of GMOs into the environment — cultivation of GM crops, for example — and the contained use of GMOs for research.
Before this draft could be made law, the government changed and the mildly Islamic AK Party took office in 2002. Responsibility for the law transferred from the environment ministry to the agriculture ministry, which did not consult with molecular biologists. Over the years, the draft law's form changed. At the same time, popular opposition to genetic engineering in general, and GM food in particular, increased.
Okay this looks like the usual governmental screw-up. However, as a Nature editorial, they should have avoided the term "mildly Islamic" before the name of the party - as that is irrelevant for the news item at hand (at least from what is written here). I know this is a touchy issue in Turkey - but unless, the new regulations have roots in religion, lets not unnecessarily muddy up the water. It seems that the new regulations are more the result of incompetence and the state taking advantage of a politically popular sentiment. Unfortunately, bioscience will suffer as a result. Here is the problem with the new law:
The version now being voted on fails to distinguish between deliberate release and contained use. It includes an outright ban on the cultivation of all GM crops, even those whose safety has been assessed and approved by expert bodies. It also bans the generation of genetically manipulated animals and microorganisms.
The law does not forbid research using GMOs or products derived from genetic engineering, but it makes such research impracticable. Every individual procedure would have to be approved by an inter-ministerial committee headed by the agriculture ministry, which is allowed 90 days to consider each application with the help of experts.
The committee would be responsible for approving applications to import tonnes of GM soya beans for food — but also for every experiment involving even the use of a standard plasmid to transfer genes into cells. Work with universally used model organisms, from mice and zebrafish to fruitflies and bacteria, would be rendered impossible. Even if scientists could afford to wait three months for approval of the simplest experiment, the committee would be overwhelmed by the number of applications. One Turkish scientist who has examined the law estimates that his lab alone would need to submit 50 or so separate applications in a year.
Oh - so many creative ways to screw up research. Read the full editorial here (you may need subscription to access the article). Does anyone know the current status of the bill?