Science & Technology

The world gets a note of caution on gene drives introduction

The Convention on Biological Diversity meeting wants countries to seek “free, prior and informed consent” before introducing new biotechnology

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 29 November 2018
Representational photo. Credit: Getty Images

As the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting comes to an end in Egypt’s resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 29, there is some unexpected news that has brought cheer to conservationists and anti-genetic engineering groups: the United Nations has put the brakes on gene drives.

The convention called upon governments to conduct strict risk assessments and seek the consent of indigenous and local peoples ahead of the potential release of any "exterminator" technology.

According to those taking part in the negotiations, this is in order to put a moratorium on the introduction of organisms containing engineered genes, or gene drives.

"This UN decision puts the power back in the hands of local communities, in particular Indigenous peoples, to step on the brakes on this exterminator technology," says Jim Thomas, co-executive director of biodiversity monitoring group ETC.

Among the text the CBD finalised was the following clause:

"Calls upon Parties and other Governments, taking into account the current uncertainties regarding engineered gene drives, to apply a precautionary approach,[vii] in accordance with the objectives of the Convention, and also calls upon Parties and other Governments to only consider introducing organisms containing engineered gene drives into the environment, including for experimental releases and research and development purposes, when:

  1. Scientifically sound case-by-case risk assessments have been carried out;
  2. Risk management measures are in place to avoid or minimize potential adverse effects, as appropriate;
  3. Where appropriate, the 'prior and informed consent', the 'free, prior and informed consent' or 'approval and involvement' of potentially affected indigenous peoples and local communities is sought or obtained, where applicable in accordance with national circumstances and legislation;

The outcome is extraordinary as a complete moratorium was anyway not expected. But by putting conditions even before the introduction of such technologies—including for experimental purposes—the concerns over new biotechnology have received recognition.

The debated text also contains the following observations that take into note, potential threats: "Recognizes that, as there could be potential adverse effects arising from organisms containing engineered gene drives, before these organisms are considered for release into the environment, research and analysis are needed, and specific guidance may be useful, to support case-by-case risk assessment."

"Such guidance will now be developed through a ‘Risk Assessment Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group’ also established under another decision and it would be irresponsible for states to jump the gun before that properly developed guidance is in place.  Since the development of that formal guidance is likely to take some years and responsible states will of course wait on that guidance to be developed, this may, also in practical terms, act as a further brake on the approved release of gene drive organisms," says a member of a non-profit closely following the negotiations.

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