Gene Drives Divide Negotiators at UN Biodiversity talks

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Photo by IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon

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In what has been a relatively calm opening to the UN Biodiversity talks, discussions on safeguards against experimental releases of “gene drives” have divided countries, with African negotiators breaking ranks with civil society “for the first time”.
For those not commonly following the Biodiversity negotiations, it might seem strange to hear that something called “Gene drives” would be discussed at all. However, ever since its founding in 1993, the Biodiversity talks have always sought to consider both the present and future threats and opportunities for Nature.
Over the last few years, the ability for scientists to manipulate the genetic make-up of plants and animals has become a key battle-ground between classic enemies on either side of the environmental divide: precautionary campaigners and “innovative” agri-business.
Both sides claim to represent the ‘most vulnerable’.
As Barbara Ntambirweki puts it, “Civil Society is pushing for an agreement that is protective, stringent and will enable us to hold Multinational Companies to account”.
Ms. Ntambirweki speaks with the reflective pause of a scientist, but without any signs of more commonly felt clouds of doubt.  As a Research Fellow with Advocates Coalition for Development and the Environment (ACODE) in Uganda, she is split this week.
Her passion has brought her here in Sharm el-sheikh, but a parliamentary review of a Biosafety Law in Uganda is playing on her mind, as she believes it could play “a determining factor in the future of Agriculture in our country.”
“The initial bill had so many loopholes. There was no provision on contamination of non-GMO crops. It did not have any provisions on benefits sharing or strict liability, which means that anyone who brings GMOs into the country should be held strictly liable. Without these kind of provisions, Uganda becomes a dumping ground for GMOs”.
In her eyes this debate mirrors many environmental challenges, struck between a systematic challenge and a technological solution, often pushed by those set to profit from it.
“There was a lot of conflict of interest. The people promoting GMOs are the same people who are going to regulate it. We needed a law that is not just an administrative register of GMO’s, but a law that protects our people.”
This she says is similar across the African continent, where corporate capture plays a key influence in agricultural legislation.
“I am really worried about the experience of Tanzania. It had a really good law on biotechnology, with provisions on strict liability. But after pressure from GMO Companies, the liability was relaxed such that it doesn’t apply to researchers.”
While the debate in Uganda is about more well-known GMO-crops, her key concern with all elements of Synthetic Biodiversity lies in what Helena Paul from EcoNexus describes as the “Precautionary principle”.
“The precautionary principle is enshrined in EU legislation, it means that if you have any suspicion that a technology is going to malfunction, then you can call for it to be held back, and examinations can be done regarding its feasibility. ”
As Theresa May’s Brexit deal hits the headlines this week, Helena Paul’s attention is similarly divided. On first appearance, Helena is what I imagine Janis Joplin would look like now, had she still been alive today. And while I haven’t heard if Ms. Paul can match Joplin’s characteristic scream, she spoke to me about the potential implications of Brexit with a similar sense of power and vulnerability.
“The UK wants to get rid of all of that because it says it delays everything, it wants to instead replace it with an Innovation Principle that prioritises all kinds of innovation and allows them to go ahead with it regardless. My worry is that after Brexit, the UK is going to take a very strong line going for GMOs, saying that if we don’t go for Genome editing, Gene drives and all the rest of it, we’re going to be left behind in world science.”
Prior to the UN talks this week, more than 100 scientists from the Gene Drive Network signed an open letter saying just that. Among them, Austin Burt, a researcher at Imperial College London, who told the Guardian that the current debate in the UN Biodiversity talks could “stifle research”.
The Royal Society has similarly come out in favour of unrestricted research opportunities for Gene Drive technologies.  In a blog post titled “move over, moratoria”, Emma Woods highlights what she feels are “circular” arguments holding back valuable research. As Head of Policy, Wellbeing, she delivers a clear definition of Synthetic gene drives, as well as the key dividing line in the negotiations.
“Gene drives are systems that increase the likelihood of inheriting a particular DNA sequence, allowing that sequence to spread or “drive” more rapidly through a population. They occur naturally but scientists are now exploring the potential for developing synthetic gene drives.”
In other words, think GMOs but in a much more deliberate, species-wide alteration. An alteration that almost guarantees it will be passed down through generations, and no-longer needs to fear the 50/50 chances of evolution. This is exactly why Barbara Ntambirweki from Uganda is so concerned.
“We have Gene drive mosquitos already being developed in Uganda, and we don’t know the effects of this new technology”.
Ever since Gene drive experiments began being conducted on Malarial mosquito populations in West Africa, African civil society groups like ACODE, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty and Friends of the Earth Africa have been sceptical.
This week, they called on a moratorium on releasing these mosquitos and other Gene drives into the wild, with the fear that this $54 million experiment could be yet another chapter in a history of ecological colonisation, albeit seeking to ‘Save Africa’.
However when it comes to Gene drives, National negotiators seem at odds with civil society advocates. While traditionally African negotiators have aligned closely to civil society members in the Biodiversity talks, it seems that “for the first time” they have broken that like-minded relationship on Gene drives.
“It’s heartbreaking to see what the African negotiators are doing this week…it makes me ashamed” reflected Mariann Bassey, as she handed out copies of a letter signed by 100 African civil society groups seeking to shame negotiators into “listening to the people”.
Photo by IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon
As of this afternoon, only Bolivia has maintained a strong line in support for a full moratorium, where countries would have to “refrain from” releasing Gene drives into the wild. In contrast, Brazil, Canada and most African countries seem to support a flexible set of restrictions that would allow research bodies to self-regulate how they release genetically edited populations.
Emma Woods of the Royal Society feels that regardless of the end use of Gene drives, any limitation on research would be antithetical. The idea of limiting research due to fears of the results “starts to feel rather circular.” And it’s hard to imagine that the results of research into Malarial mosquitos could be worse than the estimated one million deaths per year, most kids under 5. 
However, pollination biology researcher Simangele Msweli believes that many negotiators may not yet be able to balance the costs and benefits for what they’re negotiating.
“Its a very complicated topic, and I don’t mind either argument, but I want to hear them substantiate why. When we ask why one country feels a certain way, many negotiators aren’t able to really expand on it.”
However, for many hoping for Bolivia’s moratorium, or who see the EU’s regulatory framework as an acceptable compromise, you can’t simply see this as a case of curing malaria.
As Simangele Msweil highlights, “the applications of gene drives apply in agriculture, in the military and in health. The CBD decision is going to impact all of these potential fields. Once you look at it holistically, you start realising all the different ways it could go wrong. And that is why for me, the most important part…is that we must keep updated with what different labs are doing when it comes to gene drives.”
Simangele Msweli facilitating a group of young African leaders yesterday

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