Genetic extinction technology and digital DNA challenged at UN Convention
Civil society defends rights of indigenous peoples and small-scale farmers against big-pharma and biotech
CANCUN, MEXICO —This week, international conservation and environmental leaders will meet to call on governments to protect biodiversity, indigenous people and local communities’ rights from controversial new biotechnologies. Regulatory advocates will weigh in on the controversial uses of a genetic extinction technology called gene drives and the handling of digital gene sequences.
What: Thousands of government and civil society representatives convene for the 2016 UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) Conference of the Parties.
Where: Cancun, Mexico
When: December 5-17, 2016. Civil society groups will be hosting side events to caution for stronger regulations of synthetic biology starting December 5.
Quotes from regulatory advocates and stakeholders:
“At the top of the agenda for this year’s biodiversity convention is how to govern the outpouring of new biotechnologies in a way that protects nature and people’s livelihoods,” said Jim Thomas, program director at ETC Group. “A coalition of civil society groups is calling especially for a moratorium on the use of gene drives and for rules that protect against the digital theft of genetic resources from communities.”
“To alter wild populations or bring whole species to extinction has major ethical, social and environmental implications. Not only do we lack the knowledge and understanding to carry out such complex risk assessments, we don’t even know what questions to ask,” said Dr. Steinbrecher, biologist and molecular geneticist representing the Federation of German Scientists. “We need to pause and allow the scientific community, local communities and society at large to debate and reflect, rather than simply allowing technology to lead us down this path. In the meantime, a moratorium is essential.”
“Unprincipled distribution and unapproved use of digital DNA threatens 25 years of international work on access and benefit sharing rules,” said Ed Hammond, research associate, Third World Network. “The Cancun COP must step in and address the breach that is opening between digital and physical access to biodiversity.”
Dana Perls, senior campaigner, Friends of the Earth U.S. said: “Speculative companies are threatening biodiversity with dangerous technologies and stealing genetic resources that indigenous peoples and small-scale farmers have historically stewarded for the good of humankind. We must not let companies take over nature for the sake of profit and market control.”
New biotechnologies like CRISPR gene-editing and DNA synthesis propose to radically change nature as we know it by releasing powerful new genetically engineered organisms into the environment.
The term synthetic biology describes the new generation of genetic engineering and is one of the hot topics at the CBD. The CBD is the only international body discussing the need to regulate this rapidly growing field, which some project to be a $40 billion industry by 2020. Based on past negotiations, it is predictable that In the Cancun negotiations, several wealthy countries with investments in biotechnology will attempt to undo the progress made on developing precautionary regulations at the international level, while many of the countries with the most biodiverse ecosystems at stake will fight to protect their natural resources and peoples’ livelihoods.
The biotechnology industry, with the backing of countries such as Canada and Australia, may attempt to forestall the development of international governance over these powerful technologies. Developing countries, whose farmers may be displaced by synthetic biology technologies, have previously stated in past negotiations that unregulated distribution of genetic sequence data facilitates biopiracy, and that new threats to biodiversity from synthetic biology must be regulated. To date, there is no internationalgovernance and virtually no national regulations and safety or enviornmental risk assessments on these new technologies, a crucial step to understanding possible costs to people, communities and the environment.
One of the fiercest debates this year will be about gene drives, a risky new genetic extinction technology that could unleash living genetically engineered organisms into nature. This technology is very likely to lead to unpredictable, and potentially uncontrollable, consequences. These applications are designed to force a particular genetically engineered trait through an entire wild population – potentially changing entire species or even causing deliberate extinctions. Potential applications range from releasing gene drives into weed species to make them susceptible to pesticides to attempts to eradicate invasive species or disease vectors.
In light of the significant ecological and societal threats posed by genetically-engineered gene drives, civil society organizations are issuing a statement calling on governments at the convention to put in place a moratorium on any further technical development or experimental application of gene drives and environmental releases of this new technology.
There is already strong international support among independent experts for a moratorium on gene drives. In September 2016, scientists and environmental experts from around the globe sent an open letter to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) advocating for a halt to proposals for the use of gene drive technologies in conservation. The IUCN’s membership voted to adopt a de facto moratorium on supporting or endorsing research into gene drives for conservation.
A second controversial topic at the CBD will be the handling of digital gene sequences. Today, the genes of plants or microorganisms may be sequenced and stored as digital codes that are emailed around the planet, and they can be synthesized as a basis for altering living organisms. Corporations can use this technology to evade the provisions of the Biodiversity Convention and its Nagoya Protocol. Developing countries are seeking strong protections against such biopiracy. Many wealthier countries and their biotech industries are opposing such moves.
Expert contacts: Dana Perls (se habla espanol), +1 (925) 705-1074, [email protected]; Jim Thomas, (514) 516-5759, [email protected], Ed Hammond (se habla español), +1 (325) 347-2829, [email protected]; Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, +44 (776) 973-3594, [email protected]