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Colombia has become the second South American country — after Brazil — to introduce regulations permitting the application of genetic engineering techniques to animals.

The government has already been asked to grant permission under the new rules for experiments that could lead to the creation of the first genetically modified — or ‘transgenic’ — pigs in Latin America.

The new regulations cover both the animals themselves, and the products, such as vaccines, to which they may be exposed. They are intended to allow the country to benefit from recent advances in genetic engineering.

“We cannot ignore the potential advantages that biotechnology offers our country,” says Colombian agriculture minister, Rodrigo Villalba.

Regulations covering GM products came in force in 1998, focussing primarily on the production and marketing of seeds. Over the past three years, the Instituto Colombiano de Agricultura (ICA) has received almost twenty proposals for such experiments.

As a result, a number of research groups have obtained approval for developing genetically modified plants, such as rice, passion fruit, coffee, plantain, bananas and cotton. The only one that can be grown commercially, however, is a blue carnation that is being cultivated for export.

The new rules covering GM animals have been approved by the ICA, which deals with agriculture and livestock issues. They seek to protect both human and animal health, as well as the natural environment, and are also intended to make GM organisms easier and safer to handle.

The new regulations require anyone interested in developing GM products to obtain approval from the ICA. A biosafety committee with recognised scientific experts has already been set up to evaluate, and will make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

The institute will also be responsible for monitoring experiments using GM products. Follow-up studies will last up to three years.

It has already received one application to produce genetically modified mammals, a proposed project known as Noah’s Ark which will — if all goes according to plan — see the birth next year of transgenic pigs in Colombia, the first mammals produced in such a way in Latin America, according to the researchers.

Gynaecologist Elkin Lucena and veterinarian Jorge Piedrahita are leading the project at a farm outside Bogotá. Their goal is to produce human proteins in bovine milk, as well as to develop pigs whose hearts and other organs may be used in humans — the process known as xenotransplantation.

Lucena is well known as the physician who obtained the first tube baby in Latin America in 1985. Piedrahita has worked with transgenic pigs in the University of Texas.

Colombia has not seen public opposition to GM foods on the scale encountered in some other countries in Latin America. Studies carried out by university research groups, as well as both the private sector and non-governmental organisations, have not in general shown strong feelings either for or against such foods.

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