300,000 EU citizens call on German environmental minister Steffi Lemke: Stop Gene Drives!

Berlin, 31 May 2022 – More than 300,000 citizens of the European Union are calling for a global moratorium on the first field release of genetically modified gene drive organisms. The associations Save Our Seeds, the Aurelia Foundation and the Munich Environmental Institute, which are part of the European Stop Gene Drive campaign, handed over a petition to this effect to the German environmental minister Steffi Lemke in Berlin on 31st of May 2022. Enabled by the novel genetic engineering method called gene drive, wild species could be manipulated or even completely eradicated in the future – with unforeseeable consequences for ecosystems.

Gene drives are produced with the help of the new genetic engineering techique CRISPR-Cas. Gene drives can genetically modify or even eradicate entire populations of animals and plants in nature. The so-called gene drive overrides basic principles of evolution and forces the inheritance of a genetic trait to all offspring. This triggers a genetic chain reaction that only stops when all individuals of the affected animal or plant species carry this genetic modification – or have been exterminated. This is intended, for example, to combat disease-carrying insects, invasive species or so-called crop pests in industrial agriculture.

So far, gene drives have only been tested in the laboratory. Now, the research consortium ‚Target Malaria‘ in the West African country of Burkina Faso wants to release gene drives into nature for the first time. The goal is to eradicate a mosquitoe species that transmits malaria. But what sounds promising carries enormous risks: once released into the wild, gene drives can neither be retrieved nor can their further development and spread be controlled. If gene drive organisms spread, they could further accelerate the already rapid extinction of species.

At the handover event with German environmental minister Lemke on Leipziger Platz in Berlin, an installation of giant toppling dominoes vividly depicted the risks posed by the gene drive process.

„A genetic chain reaction triggered by Gene Drive organisms could destabilize entire ecosystems and, in extreme cases, cause them to collapse. Every gene drive release – even if it is „only“ for experimental purposes – can have unforeseeable and irreversible consequences for pollinator and food webs, already weakened by climate change and high death rate of insects. We urgently need a global gene drive moratorium!“

warns Bernd Rodekohr, manager of the project „Protect the bee from genetic engineering“ at the Aurelia Foundation.

„Gene drive organisms do not respect borders and can spread globally,“ says the coordinator of the Stop Gene Drive campaign, Mareike Imken. „So far, the global community has neither sufficient knowledge nor binding international agreements under which such a fundamental, irreversible intervention in nature could be regulated.“

The possible use of gene drives is on the agenda of the 15th United Nations Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD), scheduled for autumn in China. EU environment ministers will adopt their common position on the issue in June.

Sophia Guttenberger of the Munich Environmental Institute demands: „Instead of playing Russian roulette with evolution by genetically modifying wild species, we must finally stop the already rapid extinction of species by strengthening the resilience of our ecosystems and stop destroying them everywhere on earth.“

The German envionmental minister Steffi Lemke said at the petition handover:

„I believe that humanity and also science would overestimate themselves with Gene Drives. That’s why I will of course try to reach a position at the Environmental Council of Ministers in June that is based on the European precautionary principle.“

Background:

Gene drive technology uses genetic engineering methods such as the ‚gene scissors‘ CRISPR/Cas to introduce certain traits into wild animal and plant populations. For example, if genes that influence fertility or sex are manipulated, entire populations can be wiped out. However, gene drives could also make so-called agricultural pests susceptible to chemical or biological substances or change other characteristics. To do this, both the new trait and the genetic engineering mechanism (CRISPR/Cas) are passed on. In this way, the genetic manipulation continues independently in nature. This „genetic chain reaction“ causes all offspring to inherit the desired trait until the entire population or species is genetically modified or eradicated.

Since 2018, the regulation of gene drives has been the subject of controversial debate under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD). At the last Conference of the Parties in Sharm el Sheik, some initial precautionary conditions for release were recommended. But many questions remain unanswered – including, above all, how and by whom the decision on a release of gene drive organisms would have to be taken in view of transboundary spread and unforeseeable ecological, health, economic and social consequences. The existing procedures under the internationally binding Cartagena Protocol of the CBD on Biosafety so far only regulate the intended transfer of genetically modified organisms (e.g. seeds) as products across individual borders. Gene drive organisms, on the other hand, are not products and spread independently in all regions where the target organism is currently present or will be present in the future. In this respect, all potentially affected countries would have to give their consent to a release in advance. Currently, however, only international guidelines for the risk assessment of gene drive organisms and a general process for the technology assessment of new biotechnological processes are on the agenda of the negotiations within the framework of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Goal 17 of the planned Global Framework for Biodiversity deals with the prevention of biodiversity damage due to the use of biotechnologies.

Further links:

– For the Stop Gene Drive Campaign’s recommendations on the design of a global gene drive moratorium: https://www.stop-genedrives.eu/en/policy-recommendations/

– To the brochure „Gene Drives. The new dimension of genetic engineering. Applications, risks and regulation.“ https://www.stop-genedrives.eu/en/own-publications/

– 15-minute short documentary on the risks and challenges posed by gene drive technology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLt6ILhQZ7E&t=4s&ab_channel=SaveourSeeds

– All important information about the Stop Gene Drive campaigns on this website and on Twitter.

Press contact:

Mareike Imken
Coordinator of the Stop Gene Drive Campaign
Save our Seeds / Berlin Office of the Future Foundation for Agriculture in the GLS Trust
E-mail: imken[at]saveourseeds.org
Mobile: 0151-53112969
Web: www.stop-genedrives.eu