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Biosafety Science » Emerging Trends/Techniques

Title: Call for a Global Moratorium on Gene Drive Releases
Publication date: November 13, 2018
Posting date: November 13, 2018

 THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE


Dear Friends and Colleagues

Call for a Global Moratorium on Gene Drive Releases

Gene drives are a genetic engineering tool that aim to force artificial genetic changes through entire populations of animals, insects and plants. Starting on the 17th of November, Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity will meet to discuss measures to control this technology, including a possible moratorium on environmental releases. (Item 1)

More than 200 global food movement leaders and organizations representing hundreds of millions of farmers and food workers set out their clear opposition to gene drives. Their call for a stop to this technology (Item 2) accompanies a new report, Forcing the Farm (Item 3) that lifts the lid on how gene drives could entrench industrial agriculture and threaten food sovereignty.

The Forcing the Farm report details several ways in which gene drive technology is being readied for application in agriculture. For instance, gene drives are being engineered into flies, insects, worms and other pests to spread sterility as a biological alternative to pesticides. “Auto-extinction” gene drives are being engineered into rats and mice as well as beetles that affect storage of grains.

Gene drives threaten natural systems. If released experimentally into the environment they may spread engineered genes uncontrollably through wild and domesticated species. This could alter ecological systems and food webs, harm biodiversity and eradicate beneficial organisms such

as pollinators. Gene drives could disrupt lands, waters, food and fiber economies and harm indigenous and peasant agroecological practices and cultures.

While gene drive developers claim that there may be ways to effectively contain gene drive organisms in the future, these hypothetical claims and assumptions need to be rigorously examined and tested. In the meantime, the Precautionary Principle and justice requires a moratorium on any releases.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
10400 Penang
Malaysia
Email: twn@twnetwork.org
Websites: http://www.twn.my/and http://www.biosafety-info.net/
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Item 1

OVER 200 GLOBAL FOOD MOVEMENT LEADERS AND ORGANIZATIONS REJECT "GENE DRIVES"

New Report exposes how a controversial genetic forcing technology is targeting the farm
ETC Group

16 October 2018
http://www.etcgroup.org/content/over-200-global-food-movement-leaders-and-organizations-reject-gene-drives

Rome, 16 October 2018 (World Food Day) – Global food movement leaders and organizations representing hundreds of millions of farmers and food workers today set out their clear opposition to “gene drives” – a controversial new genetic forcing technology. Their call for a stop to this technology accompanies a new report, Forcing the Farm, that lifts the lid on how gene drives may harm food and farming systems. 

Gene drives are a genetic engineering tool that aim to force artificial genetic changes through entire populations of animals, insects and plants. Unlike previous genetically modified organisms (GMOs) these gene drive organisms (GDOs) are deliberately designed to spread genetic pollution as an agricultural strategy – for example, spreading ‘auto-extinction’ genes to wipe out agricultural pests. Agri-research bodies now developing these extinction-organisms include the California Cherry Board, the US Citrus Research Board and the private California company Agragene Inc. Next month, the United Nations Biodiversity Convention will meet to discuss measures to control this technology, including a possible moratorium.

“There is no place in a good food system for these deliberately spreading organisms,” says Mariann Bassey, chair of the African Food Sovereignty Alliance, whose 34 member organisations are among the 200+ groups and individuals who have signed the call against gene drives. "Gene drives may drive species to extinction and undermine sustainable and equitable food and agriculture,” Bassey continued.

Those launching the call for a moratorium on gene drives in food and agriculture include all past and present UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food; the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements; IUF (the International Union representing Food and Farmworkers); and La Via Campesina, the largest network of peasant movements representing 200 million peasants in 81 countries. Signatories also include well-known commentators on food matters including seed activist Vandana Shiva, World Food Prize winner Dr Hans Herren, International President of Friends of the Earth International Karin Nansen, Activist and Food entrepreneur Nell Newman, and environmentalist and geneticist David Suzuki.

“Applying gene drives to food systems threatens to harm farmers’ rights and the rights of peasants as enshrined in international treaties,” explains Dr Olivier De Schutter, who served as the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food from 2008-2014. “Gene drives would undermine the realization of human rights including the right to healthy, ecologically-produced and culturally appropriate food and nutrition.”

“La Via Campesina is firmly positioned against the gene drive technology. It is a threat to peasant economies, to people, countries and even the world’s food sovereignty – a technique which threatens life, biodiversity and social systems, ” said Genevieve LaLumiere, a Canadian young farmer of La Via Campesina. “This uncontrolled technology is dangerous and can contaminate our seeds, our animals and our soil; destabilize our ecosystems; and destroy our fundamental resources." Marciano Da Silva from Brasil Peasant Organisation (also of La Via Campesina) continued, “gene drive technology is, fundamentally, a tool for patentability of native traits of our peasant seeds.”

The Forcing the Farm report, researched and produced by ETC Group and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, details several ways in which gene drive technology is being readied for application in agriculture (see box). The report exposes how gene drive developers are deliberately keeping from view agricultural applications while trying to focus public interest on high profile health and conservation projects. Reports from closed meetings with a US defence committee show that agribusiness firms such as Monsanto-Bayer and Cibus Bioscience appear to be engaging with gene drive development. 

“Applying gene drives to food and agriculture turns biotech industry strategies on their head,” explains Jim Thomas, Co-Executive Director of ETC Group. “Previously GMO companies engineered the food crops. Now that consumers won’t buy GMO food, companies are coming to engineer the rest of the agricultural system instead – the weeds, the pests and the pollinators.”

“If spreading gene drives were to be released, they could pose an existential threat to organic, non-GMO and agroecological agriculture,” explains Peggy Miars, International Chair of IFOAM – Organics International, the umbrella organization for organic agriculture worldwide with close to 800 affiliates in 117 countries. “Any government who cares about protecting organic agriculture and the organic food market should move quickly to contain this threat.”

Gene Drives and Agriculture: Six examples drawn from Forcing the Farm

  • Gene drives are being engineered into flies, insects, worms and other pests to spread sterility as a biological alternative to pesticides.
  • Researchers are proposing using gene drives as a breeding tool to increase meat production in livestock.
  • “Auto-extinction” gene drives are being engineered into rats and mice as well as beetles that affect storage of grains.
  • Patents have been sought to engineer gene drives into honey bees to control pollination patterns using light beams.
  • Research is ongoing to engineer gene drives into common weed species to make them more susceptible to herbicides such as Roundup.
  • Analysis of two key patents on gene drives show that they each reference around 500-600 agricultural uses including brand names of 186 herbicides, 46 pesticides, 310 agricultural pest insects, nematodes, mites, moths and others 

Item 2

A CALL TO PROTECT FOOD SYSTEMS FROM GENETIC EXTINCTION TECHNOLOGY: THE GLOBAL FOOD AND AGRICULTURE MOVEMENT SAYS NO TO RELEASE OF GENE DRIVES

http://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/files/call_to_protect_food_systems_oct_17th.pdf

Gene drives are new tools that force genetically engineered traits through entire populations of insects, plants, animals and other organisms. This invasive technology represents a deliberate attempt to create a new form of genetic pollution. Gene Drives may drive species to extinction and undermine sustainable and equitable food and agriculture.

Gene drives threaten natural systems. If released experimentally into the environment they may spread engineered genes uncontrollably through wild and domesticated species. This could alter ecological systems and food webs, harm biodiversity and eradicate beneficial organisms such

as pollinators. Gene drives could disrupt lands, waters, food and fiber economies and harm Indigenous and peasant agroecological practices and cultures.

Gene drives are being developed for use in agriculture. If applied, they may make farms even more genetically uniform and foreclose farmers’ rights, as enshrined, among others, in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas. Use of gene

drives may further entrench a system of genetically-engineered industrial agriculture, extend agro-toxin use and concentrate corporate control over global food systems, undermining the food sovereignty of farmers, food workers and consumers. Gene drives hinder the realization of human rights including rights to healthy, ecologically-produced and culturally appropriate food and nutrition.

We, the undersigned, call for a global moratorium on any release of engineered gene drives. This moratorium is necessary to affirm the precautionary principle, which is enshrined in international law, and to protect life on Earth as well as our food supply.

We urge governments to establish participatory technology assessment processes and to respect and fulfill the full free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples and other affected populations for all emerging biotechnologies, including gene drives - as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international agreements. This is to protect our rights to preserve biodiversity and traditional knowledge.

We oppose current experiments to ‘test’ risky transgenic organisms as a step towards future release of gene drive organisms.

We commit ourselves to the protection of food systems, cultures, ecosystems and the rights, livelihoods and food sovereignty of those who work in and depend on agriculture and food production.

 

Item 3

FORCING THE FARM
How Gene Drive Organisms Could Entrench
Industrial Agriculture and Threaten Food Sovereignty

ETC Group and Heinrich Boell Foundation
Oct 2018
http://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/files/etc_hbf_forcing_the_farm_web.pdf

In brief: Gene drives, food and agriculture

ISSUE

The first attempt to use genetic engineering technologies on the farm involved altering common crops to be resistant to pests or weed-killers. This genetically modified (GM) crop approach ran into problems when many consumers didn’t buy GM foods and farmers found the promised benefits only materialised, if at all, in the short-term. Now biotechnologists are contemplating a new strategy – to engineer newly developed invasive forms of genetic modifications to control insects, weeds and create new monopolies. Their plan is to use what has been dubbed a gene drive or ‘genetic forcer’ (see Box 1). Experiments with Gene Drive Organisms (GDOs) are aimed at designing creatures that automatically spread their engineered genes across whole habitats and ecosystems. They could, it is claimed, make some of our key agricultural pests extinct, reduce the need for pesticides and speed up plant breeding programmes. According to some of their proponents, gene drives could even be compatible with non-GMO and organic farming.

RISK

The potential for the creation of invasive GDOs capable of spreading engineered genes in the wild takes one of the worst scenarios envisaged for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and turns it into a deliberate industrial strategy. While first-generation GMOs mostly spread engineered genes by accident, GDOs will be designed to do their own engineering among wild populations out in the real world. Their spread to those populations would be deliberate. Scientists behind gene drives have only just begun to ask what would happen if the genes aren’t quite as well behaved as their Mendelian models intended. What if genes for female sterility, for instance, which have been shown to eliminate mosquito populations in the lab, transferred to species that pollinate our crops or are a food source for birds, reptiles, even humans? What if genes that were beneficial became disabled, or if genetic disruption increased the prevalence or altered patterns of diseases?

Once the gene drive genie has been let out of the bottle, no one has actually worked out how it might be put back in again.

The logic of using GDOs in agriculture relies on the continued deception that exceedingly complex problems in the food system can be resolved simply by new high-tech innovations.

ACTORS

Currently, publicly announced gene drive projects are funded with a quarter of a billion US dollars, led by the military research agency of the United States government (DARPA), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Tata Trusts and the Facebook-backed Open Philanthropy Project. Yet leading gene drive promoters acknowledge in private and in their patents that the commercial goal will be in agribusiness.

It is no surprise then that a low-profile network of agriculturally driven gene drive research is growing. The world’s first start-up company focused on agricultural gene drives, Agragene, is joined by a clutch of crop commodity groups such as the

California Cherry Board and the US Citrus Research Board, as well as livestock breeders, who see gene drives as an exciting magic bullet for their on-farm challenges. Meanwhile, major agribusinesses such as Monsanto-Bayer, Syngenta-ChemChina, DowDuPont (now Corteva Agriscience) and Cibus lurk in the shadows of gene drive policy discussions, advised by scientists and PR advisers to keep a low profile for now.

POLICIES

Gene drives are designed to be invasive: to persist and to spread. While gene drive developers claim that there may be ways to effectively contain gene drive organisms in the future, these hypothetical claims and assumptions need to be rigorously examined and tested. In the meantime, precaution and justice requires a moratorium on any releases.

Strict laboratory handling and containment rules for all gene drive research must be internationally agreed and put into practice before further research can proceed even in the lab. At present, it appears possible to develop new GDOs without them being subject to any specific biosafety regulations. In some jurisdictions, such as Brazil, it is not even clear whether they will be subject to the weak biosafety rules that controlled the development and use of GMOs. Technologies that originate in the laboratory, such as GMOs and now gene drives, ignore deep-seated injustices and power imbalances which require political answers and democratic scrutiny, rather than technical quick-fixes. At both national and international levels, questions of technology assessment and societal consent have yet to be formally addressed.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has moved the question of gene drive governance to the centre of its deliberations and the topic will dominate talks in Egypt in November 2018, where a moratorium will be on the table as well as calls for free prior and informed consent by affected peoples including farmers.

This report is being issued as an alert to governments, civil society organisations and grassroots movements. It points to how gene drives, while promoted as a tool for medicine and onservation, will find their real use in food and farming by agribusiness. It calls for a pause in applied research in gene drives and a halt on releases to the environment until a thorough and public process of dialogue has taken place and rules are established that ensure clear consent and defence of food sovereignty.


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