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Online-Discussion: Gene Drives - Protecting People and Nature through Genetic Extermination?

 

Ricarda Steinbrecher, geneticist and board member of the European Network for Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), emphasized that it is difficult or even impossible to make reliable predictions about the effects of a future application of Gene Drives, especially at the current time. After all, organisms are released which then independently carry out the genetic modifications in each generation. "Mistakes can be made every time. Every time, something else can be added." To ensure the preservation of biodiversity, new technologies such as Gene Drives must be looked at very closely to ensure that they do not pose any risks to our ecosystems. This is why she strongly advocated the precautionary principle during the international negotiations on the regulation of gene drive technology at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. As a long-standing scientific advisor and participant in expert groups within the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, she reported that there is a strong influence of lobby groups on these expert bodies: For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the main financiers of the technology, had invested 1.6 million dollars in a PR agency to increase the acceptance of Gene Drives. She concluded: "The pressure to implement this technology is not commensurate with the risk."

Ali Tapsoba de Goamma, human rights and environmental activist from Burkina Faso and spokesperson for a civil society association of 40 organizations for agroecology and against Gene Drives (CCAE), reported that since 2012, the project Target Malaria has been preparing to decimate malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in Burkina Faso by means of Gene Drives. In 2019, the first field tests with genetically modified male mosquitoes that are not capable of reproducing took place, but not any Gene Drive Organisms have been released yet. Ali Tapsoba de Goamma criticized that Target Malaria had obtained the consent of the government and village leaders for these tests, but not the consent of the entire population of Burkina Faso. Rather, they had taken advantage of the fact that there are so many illiterate people in the local villages. The majority of the inhabitants of Burkina Faso are against these experiments. He raised the question: "Why not try this first in scientifically better equipped countries, but in Burkina Faso?" In his view, Burkina Faso was in a position to combat malaria itself. He said that this does not require gene drives, but a good health concept.

Dr. Andreas Wulf, doctor and consultant for global health at the medical emergency aid organization Medico International, emphasized that epidemics like malaria require long-term strategies. The idea of trying to solve such a disease with the one-time use of a technology without continued commitment is questionable, he said. One should not rely on such a "technological fix". Experience in combating other epidemics has shown that the success of the measures depends on good cooperation with the people on the ground and finding local solutions. He also criticized from a democratic point of view: "It is a problem that so much decision-making power is given to these private actors, the companies / foundations. A handful of people choose which area of research to invest in. In addition, the media coverage of research is also financially supported by these foundations". Dr. Andreas Wulf concluded that these private funds need to be embedded in the public health systems.

Mareike Imken, head of the Stop Gene Drive campaign of Save Our Seeds, explained that with the European campaign, which is supported by many organizations throughout Europe, she wanted to initiate a critical discussion in society and politics about "whether and if so, under what circumstances we want to use this technology and what restrictions it needs."
She went on to explain: "Gene Drives provides us as humanity with a tool to specifically eradicate or change wild species. In times of a species extinction that is existential for mankind, this must be considered and ethically discussed. This should not be decided lightly by those few people". She also points out that "the knowledge about Gene Drives is not yet sufficiently advanced".
In order to have time for this discussion, in-depth risk research including technology assessment and the development of internationally valid rules and decision-making mechanisms, a global moratorium on the release of gene drive organisms is needed. This moratorium must be adopted at the next Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15).

 


78 organizations call on the European Commission to enact a temporary ban on the novel Gene Drive technology

Gene Drive technology: Species extinction through genetic engineering?

In an open letter initiated by Greenpeace EU, Friends of the Earth Europe, IFOAM EU and the German initiative Save Our Seeds, 78 environmental, agricultural, animal welfare and development aid organizsations from all over Europe are calling on the EU Commission to outlaw the release of so-called Gene Drive Organisms in the EU and internationally. With this new application of genetic engineering, entire animal populations and species in nature could be reprogrammed or eradicated.

Enabled by the genetic engineering method CRISPR/CAS9, mosquitoes, mice, fruit flies and other organisms can be manipulated in the laboratory to pass on a certain trait and the mechanism for genetic manipulation to all offspring and across generations. In this way, Gene Drive Organisms can replace their relatives in nature. The Gene Drive trait also asserts itself when it is deadly to the survival of the species – thereby ovveriding the normal rules of evolutionary selection.

The signatory organisations are calling on the EU to advocate a global moratorium on the release of Gene Drive Organisms at the next Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The European Parliament had already called for such a moratoirum in a resolution from January this year, responding to a call from over 200 signatories from Europe and worldwide.

"The loss of biodiversity is one of the greatest challenges of our time. While the risks of Gene Drive technology have not yet been scientifically assessed, it could have a massive impact on already damaged ecosystems. It is irresponsible to expose species and ecosystems to further risks“ explains the initiator of the European "Stop Gene Drives" campaign, Mareike Imken from the German initiative Save Our Seeds.

She adds: „The EU Commission recently presented its biodiversity strategy, with which it wants to make the EU a global pioneer for the protection of biodiversity and put an end to the ongoing mass extinction of species. The Gene Drive technology however is designed to drive wild populations and species into self destruction. The use of such a technology contradicts the aim of biodiversity conservation and the precautionary principle, which is the basis for international and EU nature conservation law. A global moratorium would give us the time to assess environmental and health risks, publicly evaluate and discuss this technology and to establish missing regulations and global decision-making mechanisms. In the meanwhile, noone in the world should use this technology."

The open letter signed by 78 organizations can be found here.

Download press release | PDF

Further reading:

Policy briefing: „Why a global moratorium on the release of Gene Drive Organisms is necessary“ by Save Our Seeds

Executive Summary of „Gene Drives: A report on the science, applications, social aspects, ethics and regulations.“ By the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsability (ENSSER), Critical Scientist Switzerland and the Federation of German Scientists (VDW), published in 2019.

Short documentary on the science, applications, ecological and social ramifications and necessary regulation of Gene Drive technology with statements from international experts, based on the findings of the report (above).

Further information on gene drives:
www.stop-genedrives.eu/en


Parties in favor of a gene drive moratorium

In the forefront of the European elections, the SPD, Die LINKE and Die Grünen are calling for a gene drive moratorium. The CDU wants to examine the necessity of a moratorium.
In a poll of the top candidates for the European elections on their attitudes towards new genetic engineering and gene drives, the majority of the major German parties are concerned about the risks that could result from the release of gene drive organisms into nature.

The SPD considers a release of gene drive organisms to be "not compatible with the principles and objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity".
The CDU/CSU points to "considerable risks" posed by transgenic gene drive organisms, particularly with regard to the potential to spread.
In its response, the Left Party emphasised the difficulty of risk assessment and the lack of retrieval options.
Bündnis90/Die Grünen write that it is "not responsible to release genetically modified populations with such a depth of intervention into the environment". The consequences cannot be estimated and a sensible fight against diseases must not change entire ecosystems. A release would be "uncontrollable and irreversible".

Regarding the requested gene drive moratorium the parties write:
CDU/CSU: "In the EU, there are no applications for field trials with organisms that have been modified using gene drives. There are also no known plans in this direction. Nevertheless, the CDU and CSU are in favor of additional regulations or even the necessity of a moratorium being examined".

SPD: "We advocate an international moratorium on gene drives because of the lack of knowledge, data and understanding with regard to their potential impact on biodiversity".

Bündnis90/Die Grünen: "We advocate a worldwide moratorium on the use of gene drives. This is necessary to comply with the precautionary principle and protect ecosystems."

DIE LINKE: "DIE LINKE therefore advocates an immediate moratorium against the release of GMOs in general and GMOs with gene drives in particular".
Unfortunately, the FDP did not answer our question.