Ecological and Ethical Implications of Using CRISPR‐based Gene Drive to Control Crop Pests



Dear Friends and Colleagues

Ecological and Ethical Implications of Using CRISPRbased Gene Drive to Control Crop Pests

CRISPR‐based gene drive, an emerging powerful technology, allows the rapid spread of a DNA cassette into a target species. In theory, the release of just a few individuals within a population could lead to complete invasion of the gene drive cassette within 15–20 generations.

A recently published journal paper discusses the potential application of CRISPR‐based gene drive to control pests in agriculture. Agronomic science has been modifying crops to increase productivity or resistance to pests or pathogens. Gene drive now allows the manipulation of pests. If a gene drive abolishes a female‐specific or male‐specific gene essential for reproduction, it can theoretically lead to the extinction of a species.

A major concern is to determine which species is a pest for which. The paper points out that gene drive can easily be used to serve the economic interests of particular groups with little concern for the common good. The risks associated with gene drive in general are: (1) accidental escape into the environment; (2) unwanted traits may “ride along” on the spreading drive; and (3) ecological side effects.

One of the main concerns is its potential long‐term effects. The designated effects on the targeted populations will be fast—within a few years—while long‐term effects on ecosystems may take decades to appear and are extremely unpredictable. The spontaneous match between extractivist agriculture and gene drive could lead to multiple and uncoordinated releases of gene drives into the wild, which is likely to cause unpredictable ecological disturbances with far‐reaching consequences. Gene drive is thus also an issue of environmental justice.

The US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently approved research on gene drive and called for carefully controlled field trials. Bayer, Dupont, and Monsanto recently signed license agreements with biotech companies to use the CRISPR/Cas‐9 technology. It may be only a few years until the first actors propose to release gene drive organisms into nature.

Given the potential impact of this technology on society, the authors call for a wide, public, ethical debate. Essentially, lawmakers, stakeholders, and civil society should collectively develop a dynamic governance of gene drive technology and its potential applications, especially for agricultural pest control.

The paper, ‘Agricultural pest control with CRISPR-based gene drive: time for public debate’ is available online at

With best wishes,

Third World Network
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