Environmental Biodiversity Efforts with Gene Drives
The bi-annual meeting of the parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is being held from November 17-29 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. With an estimated 8,000 attendees, governments from around the world are gathered to debate and discuss policies that are intended to improve the world around us. While the deliberations are the mandate of official government delegates, numerous other environmental non-government organizations (eNGOs), business and industry organization and indigenous groups are also present to communicate with the official government delegates.
Topics such as climate change, marine conditions and synthetic biology are being discussed, but the most contentious topic of them all is of gene drives. Leading up to this CBD meeting eNGOs have been intensely lobbying governments to ban gene drives. These efforts have been driven by two eNGOs in particular, Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group.
What is a gene drive?
Gene drives help ensure the inheritance of a particular gene from one generation to the next, often through genetic engineering. The amazing thing about this is that gene drives can naturally occur in plants. Gene drive systems were observed in nature itself, where sexually reproducing organisms preferentially passed on specific genes to the next generation. This specific gene over time becomes the dominant one in a population. Knowing this, there are reasons why scientists and policy makers are supporting gene drive research. Gene drives offer tremendous opportunities to improve sustainability, reduce invasive species and to combat infectious diseases. That’s why at the CBD conference, one of the organizations leading the call for informed, rational discussion is the Gene Drive Network.
One application of gene drive technology that offers tremendous potential is as a tool in the fight against malaria. By modifying a segment of the mosquito’s gene sequence, they would be unable to transfer malaria when they bite an individual, greatly diminishing human malaria occurrence. Currently, more than 400,000 people die from malaria annually, many of whom are children. The use of gene drives to reduce the transmission of malaria from mosquitoes to humans could annually offer thousands of these children a chance at life without the sufferings of malaria.
Why aren’t we using gene drives already?
The obvious question is: why would anyone be opposed to technology such as this? Not ones to be constrained to facts, eNGOs claim gene drives will have devastating effects on “health, land, biodiversity, rights, and food supply”. By making baseless accusations that gene drives could ‘spread’ throughout the environment, eNGOs are advocating for a ban on the use of gene drives. One other thing that eNGOs have ignored is that there are rigorous risk assessments in place to ensure that where gene drive technology may be commercialized, safety issues have been reviewed to ensure they are safe for humans and the environment.
The good news from this CBD meeting is that many African nations have joined together and are pushing back against the eNGO message of misinformation and fear in the discussions and deliberations. These African delegates have indicated that they have the right to decide what technologies are best suited for them and not international eNGOs located in industrial countries. Those leading the charge against gene drive are not operated out of the regions malaria impacts the most. Instead, they have headquarters in Amsterdam – Friends of the Earth, and Montreal – ETC Group. Citizens in neither Amsterdam nor Montreal are worried about contracting malaria, it doesn’t affect their lives or the lives of their children. Yet these eNGOs believe they have the right to dictate environmental and health policy from their distant headquarters thousands of miles away to developing African nations. It has been very powerful to observe these African nations stand up to these wealthy industrial eNGO intimidation tactics and passionately reject the eNGO propaganda. By taking charge of agendas such as future health innovations, African nations may be able to develop technologies that allow them to live healthier lives.
Stuart is attending the CBD meetings as a representative of the Centre for Science and Innovation Policy (CSIP) of the U of S. The funding for this trip comes from Stuart’s funding through the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) Plant Phenotyping and Imaging
Research Centre (P2IRC) Project.