Prior Societal Assessment of New GM Technologies



Dear Friends and Colleagues

Prior Societal Assessment of New GM Technologies

The first generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) emerged around 20 years ago. In the production of GMOs, there are many stages in the whole process where something unforeseen may occur. This potential harm led to two regulatory responses: (1) Process-Triggered Risk Assessment on a case-by-case basis; and (2) The Precautionary Principle which requires that a precautionary approach be taken in regulating GMOs, given the uncertainties and the potentially serious negative impacts. Both (1) and (2) are embedded in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

The world is now in the midst of powerful high-risk technological developments with potentially severe and irreversible health, environmental, and societal implications. New GM technologies include synthetic biology (or synbio) and the so-called new breeding techniques (NBTs). Common to both is the genome-editing tool CRISPR/Cas, which is basically a set of molecular gene scissors designed to cut DNA strands at chosen recognition sites for three different outcomes: gene disruption, gene correction or alteration, and gene addition. Synthetic biology frequently aims to remodel metabolic pathways, the specific chemical processes occurring within a cell. This can lead to very different or almost new organisms. The newest technical development is that of gene drives, a technology designed to eradicate whole populations or entire species, to alter and engineer ecosystems and spread altered genes and traits with unprecedented speed.

Major multinational companies, including Bayer, BASF, and Do signed a letter in October 2013 to the presidents of the three EU institutions proposing adoption of the ‘innovation principle’ over the precautionary principle. The former would result in increased freedom to release new and old products on the market as rapidly as possible.

A journal article entitled “New Genetic Engineering Techniques: Precaution, Risk, and the Need to Develop Prior Societal Technology Assessment” argues against this and states that precaution needs to precede and guide new GM technology development. It calls for a moratorium to give us the time to perform all the necessary tasks and debates and establish the necessary rules and procedures of international governance. The authors cite the recent finding that hundreds of unintended mutations may have resulted from using CRISPR/Cas experimentally in mice to underscore how important it is to not rush or be led by assumptions especially where safety is at stake, both for humans and for the environment.

The authors call to begin a “process of prior societal assessment of new technologies”. They recommend that all major new technologies receive continuous broad societal assessment as the norm. “A true precautionary technology assessment process requires concerted effort, courage, and restraint, including considering not using certain applications or strictly limiting their use.”

The authors conclude that if society is to carry out a meaningful assessment of the new genetic engineering techniques, we must decide what questions to ask, such as: What sort of technology is produced when you are respectful or mindful of nature? What are the consequences of seeing life as nothing more than parts to be assembled? Who gets to decide? The authors stress that all of society should be involved in making these crucial decisions. This must include voices from different cultures, Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and small scale farmers, women and men who interact with wild ecosystems, save seed, and grow food.

The full article can be accessed at:

With best wishes,

Third World Network
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