World Wildlife Day

World Wildlife Day:

Dreams & nightmares of genetically engineering wildlife.

Why conservation organisations across the world need to speak up!

Most people in the EU – including civil society organisations – are opposed to genetically manipulating food crops but unaware that the scope of genetic engineering projects has shifted radically in the past decade. With the advent of CRISPR/Cas genetic engineering has been brought to a new level while the previously used ‘gene guns’ that enabled for example Monsantos pesticide resistant corn have become quite outdated. With CRISPR many more species – and not only domesticated ones – can be genetically modified in much more targeted and profound way.

Genetic engineering in conservation?

Impressed by these new possibilities molecular biologists and even some conservation organisations have started to dream of genetic engineering as the magic bullet for nature conservation. Invasive species in particular are subject to research projects which aim to develop so called gene drive organisms. Gene drives – a specific application of CRISPR/Cas-based genetic engineering – ensures that a genetically engineered trait will be inherited by 100% of all offspring of an organism. Gene drive organisms, once released into natural environments, are designed to mate with their wild relatives and make the genetic modification a prevalent trait in the wild population – across generations.

One of the main proponents for using gene drives for invasive species elimination is the conservation organisation called Island Conservation. They have a long record of removing non-native invasive predators – predominantly rodents that threaten birds – from tropical biodiverse islands such as Hawaii and Galapagos. To date, this has been done using conventional methods, but Island Conservation believes that other tools such as gene drives are required. For this reason, Island Conservation initiated the Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents (GBIRd) project, which is supported by seven universities and non-governmental organizations from the USA and Australia, to investigate the gene drive approach and associated questions.

Mice, squirrels, ferrets, wasps, fruit flies and toads are among the species on the wish to be removed from the ecosystems they invaded and harm. Gene drive developers want to simply add a gene drive to specific genes in the germ cells of these organisms that for example code for the sex of the offspring. This could have the effect that only male or female offspring would be born and the population of the locally undesired species would crash over the course of a few generations.

The first steps to develop a gene drive in mice was taken in 2019 at the University of California in San Diego, USA. This research showed, however, that CRISPR gene drives do not yet work well in mammals.

Have we learned any lessons? Does it make sense to fight invasive species with invasive GMO?

In Queensland, Australia, sugarcane farmers in the past had huge issues with beetles that would destroy their crops. In 1935 cane toads (originally from South America) were introduced to fight the beetles. The cane toads succeeded in suppressing the beetle population but turned into invasive species themselves. Now those toads are a plague and spread throughout Australia as they can poison their predators. Australia’s national scientific research agency (CSIRO) is leading research projects on the elimination of cane toads via gene drive. But who can be sure that with gene drive cane toads history is not going to repeat itself?

A similar approach is pursued by the Roslin Institute in the United Kingdom, where the invasive grey squirrel (imported from North America 150 years ago) has pushed back the native red squirrel and destroys trees and bird nests. The idea here is similar to the one in Australia: A gene drive could either render the offspring infertile or only offspring with one sex would be born.

As Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at Sussex University points out anecdotally:

We used to eat and persecute red squirrels as pests. We introduced grey squirrels because we thought they were cute. Then they spread and the reds started to decline, so we reversed our opinion, deciding that the reds were now cute and the greys should be killed.”

So would it be a good idea to eliminate the grey squirrel with a gene drive?  Here’s just one other idea: Researchers have found that reintroducing almost extinct native predators, such as the pine marten into the UK, would lead to a decline of the grey squirrel and a rise of the red squirrel.

Early warnings: gene drives not suitable for conservation purposes

When New Zealand initially considered to include gene drives as part of their Preditor Free Program to rid the island of invasive species, two gene drive developers in 2017 published an article warning against such a decision.

They warned, that once released, the gene drive organisms, for example mice, could remain on the island for several years. Seen that only a few of these gene drive mice would be needed to infect a whole population, their long existence on the island could enable them to “hitch a ride” to other places.

If we have learned anything from the spread of invasive species, it is that ecosystems are connected in myriad ways and that a handful of organisms introduced in 1 country may have ramifications well beyond its own borders.”

They also warned that, even if these gene drive mice would not manage to leave the country by travelling along via tradeships or planes, experiences in the field of biocontrol seem to suggest that changes are high that they could be moved deliberately to countries where mice pose high damage to certain industries. For example, in the US alone the total cost of annual losses to rats amounts to US19 billion.

The two authors add, that as gene drive organisms are invasive by design, a handful of escaping rats from islands such as New Zealand to the main land would suffice to eliminate all rat populations, thereby severely damaging ecosystems and biodiversity worldwide. In addition, according to these authors, even developing gene drive organisms in labs within an area where the target species lives is dangerous, as any escape would be fatal.

The way forward: A bigger debate & a global moratorium is needed!  

In view of the possibility of using gene drives to remove introduced invasive species from sensitive ecosystems, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has also been discussing this technology since late 2015.

In its Members Assembly at its World Conservation Congress in Marseille in September 2021, the IUCN adopted Resolution 075 that mandates the IUCN to undertake an inclusive and participatory member-driven process to explore the role of genetic engineering and synthetic biology in relation to nature conservation. Based on this exploration, Resolution 075 asks the IUCN to develop a policy on this topic until its next World Congress in 2025.

This process will be an important opportunity for the global conservation scene to learn about these new developments. This process will hopefully provide a space to understand that there are many unanswered questions, knowledge gaps, risks and unassessed ecological aspects, conceptual and legal challenges as well as wider questions such as socio-economic, cultural, ethical and legal impacts associated with the genetic engineering of wildlife that need to be addressed before the IUCN can take a position. This position will send an important message to the ongoing regulatory discussions on the level of the UN CBD.

In the meantime the Stop Gene Drive Campaign is demanding national goverments across the world to impose a global moratorium on the environmental release of (including field trials with) gene drive organisms – as long as these open questions have not been answered and a global consensus on the use of this technology has not be reached.


Read here more about how gene drives work, their risks, about the IUCN discussions, the current state of gene drive regulation and our policy recommendations.

European Parliament: no promotion of genetic technologies in development policy!

On Oct. 6, 2021, the European Parliament, in its plenary session, called on the EU Commission and EU member states, through its report on "The role of development policy in combating biodiversity loss in developing countries in the context of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, "to actively protect the rights of future generations, not to promote genetic technologies with development aid funds and, in particular, not to allow the release of Gene Drive organisms.

Mareike Imken, coordinator of the European Stop Gene Drive campaign, welcomes this resolution:

"Here, for the third time in a row, the European Parliament reinforces its demand not to use Gene Drive technology for precautionary reasons. This demand is also important because the first field trials with the Gene Drive technology are to be implemented in the next few years in Burkina Faso by the Target Malaria project consortium." As noble as the goal thus pursued is to fight malaria - it is also important not to take lightly the unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences of cross-border, uncontrollable and irreversible genetic modification or eradication of mosquitoes. I urge the EU Commission and the EU Member States to implement the demands of the European Parliament nationally and internationally!" said Imken.

In paragraph 32, the European Parliament expands on its demand of June 8, 2021, from the EU Biodiversity Strategy and its resolution of January 16, 2020, on the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity:

"[The European Parliament] determines that gene drive technology, such as in genetically modified mosquitoes to control vector-borne diseases, constitutes serious and emerging threats to the environment and nature, including irreversible changes in food supply chains and ecosystems, and losses of biodiversity - a diversity on which the world's poorest depend for their livelihoods. Reiterates its concern about the new legal, environmental, biosafety, and governance challenges that could result from the release of organisms modified by Gene Drive into the environment, even if the release is for conservation purposes; Reaffirms that the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities must be obtained before introducing technologies that may affect their traditional knowledge, innovation, habits and livelihoods, as well as land use and resource and water consumption; insists that in doing so, all populations potentially affected must be involved in advance in a participatory manner; Considers that gene drive technologies raise concerns about the difficulties of predicting the behavior of affected organisms and that gene drive modified organisms could themselves become invasive species, and therefore, in accordance with the precautionary principle, the release of gene drive modified organisms should not be permitted, even for the purpose of conservation of nature."

From Mareike Imken's point of view, it would be an important further step, also in view of the bad experiences with patented genetically modified seeds in Africa and Latin America, to implement the demand in paragraph 28 of the European Parliament in national development aid programs. In paragraph 28, the European Parliament urges the Commission and Member States to "take into account the Union's obligations under international conventions and also to ensure that no genetic modification technologies are promoted in developing countries with development aid funds."

This resolution is a non-binding opinion of the European Parliament with recommendations to the EU Commission and EU Member States for their international cooperation and work in international conventions such as UN CBD, UNEP, FAO and trade agreements. To implement these recommendations, the EU Commission would have to take them up in its own legislative proposal, which would then have to be confirmed by the European Parliament and EU Member States. However, these recommendations could also find their way into less formally agreed negotiating positions of the EU in its international work.


On the resolution:




European Parliament calls for ban on gene drive technology

Report on the EU' Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: Precaution prevails

9.06.2021, Berlin -The European Parliament yesterday confirmed it‘s precautionary stance towards the use of a new genetic engineering technology called gene drive.[i] In it´s report on the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, adopted at the European Parliament’s plenary on 08.06.2021, Parliamentarians demand that no releases of genetically engineered gene drive organisms should be allowed, including for nature conservation purposes, in line with the precautionary principle.“

Mareike Imken, coordinator of the European Stop Gene Drive Campaign welcomes this decision and comments:With its position today, the European Parliament recognizes that this technology raises a series of scientific, regulatory, societal and ethical questions and concerns. As its use could severely harm biodiversity, the European Parliament calls to postpone any environmental releases until these questions have been addressed and settled. This is an important message that should feed into the ongoing discussions about global regulations at the next meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in September in Marseille and those of the Convention on Biological Diversity in October in Kunming, China.“

27civil society and science organizations from across the EU had sent a letter to Parliamentarians in support of the amendment ahead of the vote. It provides reasonable suggestions on how to implement the European Parliament’s previous position in its resolution on the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (2019/2824(RSP)“.

In that previous position, adopted in January 2020, the European Parliament had called on the Commission and the Member States to call for a global moratorium at the COP15 on releases of gene drive organisms into nature, including field trials, in order to prevent these new technologies from being released prematurely and to uphold the precautionary principle, which is enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union as well as the CBD.

Background information:

Text adopted in the report on the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: Bringing nature back into our lives (2020/2273(INI)):[ii]

The European Parliament,

148. “Is concerned about the new legal, environmental, biosafety and governance challenges that might arise from the release of genetically engineered gene drive organisms into the environment, including for nature conservation purposes; acknowledges the outcome of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group of the Convention on Biological Diversity on gene drives and living modified fish, which raises concerns about the difficulties of predicting their behavior, assessing their risks and controlling them after release; notes that gene drive organisms could become invasive species in themselves; considers that global and EU-level risk assessment guidance materials, tools and an environmental monitoring framework, as well as clear global governance and effective mechanisms for controlling and reversing the effects of gene drive organisms, should be fully developed, and that additional research is required on the health, environmental, ecological, ethical and other implications of gene drive organisms to better understand their potential impact; considers therefore that no releases of genetically engineered gene drive organisms should be allowed, including for nature conservation purposes, in line with the precautionary principle ; “.


Download the press release here.

Letter to MEPs by civil society organisations prior to the vote.

Report on the preceeding interactive online roundtable hosted by all rapporteurs to the European Parliament's own intiative report on the EU's Biodiversity Strategy, of 8th December 2020: Genetic engineering of wild species. Protection or destruction of nature?

[i] Voting results and margins for EU Biodiversity Strategy
[ii] Report on the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: Bringing nature back into our lives


World Malaria Day: Do we need gene drives to fight malaria?

Gene drive technology carries high risks. Yet it is being promoted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a solution to malaria. On the occasion of World Malaria Day, the Stop Gene Drives campaign is launching a project that presents different perspectives on the issue of malaria control and highlights alternative, possibly less risky approaches and innovations to combat malaria.

Infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and Lyme disease are transmitted to humans by so-called vectors, such as mosquitoes or ticks. In the case of malaria, the pathogen and thus the disease is spread exclusively by Anopheles mosquitoes. A global program of malaria control has so far helped to roll back the disease in many regions of the world. Already 38 countries have been certified malaria-free, but there remain 86 countries where malaria control has not been adequately implemented, resulting in several hundred thousand deaths.

This is where the discussion of Gene Drive technology comes into play. Mosquitoes are genetically modified in the laboratory using a process known as CRISPR/Cas so that they pass on a new trait to all their offspring, even if that trait causes the population or the entire species to become extinct. Gene drive mosquitoes produced in this way are expected to massively reduce the number of Anopheles mosquitoes in Africa and thus prevent the transmission of malaria. Gene drives are therefore being promoted as an effective technological solution to combat malaria.

Mareike Imken, coordinator of the Stop Gene Drive campaign, explains in a short interview what concerns there are about the use of gene drive technology and what the goal of the European Stop Gene Drive campaign is. (To the interview)

A leading role in the development of such gene drives is played by the international research consortium Target Malaria, which is largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In an interview with us, Dr. Andreas Wulf of Medico International explains their influence on global health policy and the selection of priorities and measures, including those to combat malaria, that are influenced by them. (To the interview)

Target Malaria's plans to use gene drives have already reached the stage where the first projects have been launched in Africa, including Burkina Faso. In July 2019, Target Malaria conducted its first field tests in Burkina Faso using genetically modified sterile mosquitoes that did not yet carry Gene Drive. These trials were considered a precursor to the release of Gene Drive mosquitoes in a later phase of the project. These and subsequent tests have met with resistance from parts of the population in Burkina Faso, as Ali Tapsoba, human rights activist, explains in his interview with us. (To the interview) He is the spokesperson for civil society resistance to the release of Gene Drives in Burkina Faso. Treatment and profilaxis with Artemisia teas grown in Africa are among the measures he would prefer over the use of Gene Drive technology. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns against this. Internationally renowned professor Pamela Weathers of Worcester Polytechnic Institute explains how effective and safe Artemisia tea infusions are for treating or preventing malaria in her interview with us. (To the interview)

Burkina Faso has, according to epidemiologist Dr. Sory, a strong strategy to combat malaria. A cocktail of different measures is needed to fight this disease and decrease other diseases at the same time. Better drainage systems, awareness raising and access to health care are just a few points raised in the interview. (To the interview)

Artemisinin is a component derived from the Artemisia plant and present in most anti-malarial drugs nowadays. Lucile Cornet-Vernet and Arnaud Nouvion from the Maison de l'Artemisia, talk about the potential to use the plant as tea as a preventive and curative method for malaria. Furthermore, they make clear that final clinical studies are needed to get the plant approved by the WHO. (To the interview with Lucile and Arnaud)


162 organizations call for global gene drive moratorium

A broad coalition of 162 organizations has sent an open letter to Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission. It demands that plants and animals modified using new genetic engineering methods continue to be strictly regulated in the future. Furthermore, the EU Commission should support a global moratorium on gene drive organisms.

The existing EU genetic engineering standards ensure the implementation of the precautionary principle and protect the environment and consumers, wrote the organizations from the fields of environmental and consumer protection, agriculture and the food industry. Farmers and consumers would be free to choose whether to eat or grow genetically modified crops. The current occasion for the open letter is a study on the current status and future regulation of genetically modified organisms in the European Union (EU).  The governments of the European member states had asked the EU Commission in November 2019 to prepare such a study. It should take into account various aspects, including scientific progress, the legal situation, as well as a publication of the "European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies." The European Commission has announced that they will publish the study at the end of April.

The authors of the letter to Timmermans and other members of the EU Commission also call on the Commission to ensure that the regulation of genetic engineering in the UK remains EU-compliant after Brexit. This is because the British government is currently planning to revise its genetic engineering legislation. As reported by Infodienst, it invited stakeholders to a consultation process at the beginning of the year, which ended in mid-March. The organizations are now calling on Timmermans to lobby the UK government to drop these plans. If genetically modified plants were to be less strictly regulated in the UK in the future, this would also affect the trade with the EU.

Finally, the 162 organizations call for the EU Commission to support a worldwide moratorium on the use of so-called gene drive organisms. Gene drive organisms result from a special application of new genetic engineering. This poses the risk that entire species of organisms could be severely decimated or wiped out. The European Parliament had already spoken out in favor of a global moratorium in January 2020 in the form of a petition. Especially in times of "ecological crisis, when a million species are threatened," experiments with a technology that is also referred to as "extinction on demand" cannot be carried out, according to the justification.


Survey: EU citizens reject genetic engineering of wild species with Gene Drives

Should humanity release genetically engineered gene drive organisms into nature? The response of a majority of citizens in eight European countries is: “No, the risks are too high”. This first opinion poll on the subject shows high levels of rejection (46% - 70%) and very low levels of support (7% - 16%) for the use of Gene Drive technology in the environment. The survey amongst nearly 9.000 people is representative of 280 million EU citizens. It was commissioned by nine NGOs demanding an informed and inclusive public debate and a global moratorium on the environmental release of this new type of genetically modified organisms. The survey also reveals that a large proportion of respondents is still undecided (14% - 27%) or did not know how to answer (1% - 24%).

"Such a powerful technology with potentially irreversible consequences for wild species and all their ecosystems must be controlled by strict international rules and procedures of decision making. We do not believe that the release of gene drive organisms from the lab into the environment should happen at all. At least, it would require strict international standards of risk and technology assessment and a prior inclusive, democratic decision making based on precaution and the prior informed consent of all peoples and states potentially affected" states Mareike Imken from Save Our Seeds, Germany, who coordinates the European Stop Gene Drive campaign."

A large majority of respondents (65%-82%) agree that environmental releases of gene drive organisms should be postponed until there is scientific proof that their release would not harm biodiversity, human health, agriculture or peace. A similar majority (61% - 85%) agrees that the authorisation of environmental releases of gene drive organisms that could spread globally should require a global consensus.

This representative survey was conducted by the international market research institute YouGov and polled 8.826 citizens, from 8 EU countries, including Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Bulgaria in December 2020. It was commissioned by WeMove Europe, Save Our Seeds (Germany), Skiftet (Sweden), France Nature Environnement (FNE) (France), POLLINIS (France), OGM Dangers (France), Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz (BUND) (Germany), Deutscher Naturschutzring (DNR) (Germany), Umweltinstitut München (Germany), Za Zemiata (Bulgaria).


Download Press Release | PDF

Download YouGov Results Gene-Drive Opinion Poll | PDF

Download Gene Drive Acceptance Survey - A graphic overview of the results | PDF

Further information

EU-wide petition for global gene drive moratorium

Open letter by 78 european organizations to the EU Commission calling for a global gene drive moratorium

Open letter by over 200 organizations worldwide calling for global gene drive moratorium

Resolution of the European Parliament for a global gene drive moratorium

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:

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.

Recommendation: Risk assessment of genetically modified organisms

Risk assessment of genetically modified organisms

Recommendation: Strengthen the precautionary principle in the risk assessment of genetically modified organisms in the EU through exclusion criteria.

A contribution by Dr. Christoph Then

The precautionary principle, as enshrined in EU Directive 2001/18, can only work if effective measures can actually be taken to protect the environment and human health in cases where this appears necessary. Retrievability (i.e. controllability in time and space) is a crucial prerequisite for this.

“Member states shall ensure, in accordance with the precautionary principle, that all appropriate measures are taken to avoid adverse effects on human health and the environment which might arise from the deliberate release or placing on the market of GMO” (EU Directive 2001/18, Article 1). As soon as evidence emerges for an actual risk to humans and the environment, emergency measures must be taken: “Member states shall ensure that emergency measures, such as suspension or termination of the placing on the market, are taken in the event of a serious risk […]” (EU Directive 2001/18, Article 23). In addition, there is the provision from Article 13 of the directive that marketing authorization may only be granted for ten years. Thereafter, the approval must be reviewed again on the basis of monitoring. If the genetically modified organism loses its approval, it must be removed from the environment again.

The release or placing on the market of genetically modified organisms whose spread cannot be controlled is fundamentally in conflict with these provisions. If a GMO can no longer be retrieved from the environment, the enacting of the precautionary principle becomes impossible.

In this context, the GeneTip project, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), was the first research project in Germany to address the prospective technology assessment of gene drive organisms. [1]  One result of the project is the recommendation to introduce a new central mechanism for the risk assessment of GMO: the designation and definition of so-called reasons for concern (in simple terms, factually justified risks). Such reasons for concern are often identifiable at an early stage of research and development and could lead to the characterization of a GMO as “of particular concern”. To this end, the authors propose, among others, the following criteria for the identification of reasons for concern:

  • Impossibility of making reliable forecasts
  • Interventions in systems that are particularly critical for human health
  • Interference with ecological systems that are pre-stressed or have tipping points
  • Lack of technical maturity and reliability
  • Particularly wide reach, to the point of global and irreversible spread of GMO
  • The ability to spread in natural populations

According to the report of the GeneTip project, a characterization as a ‘GMO or construct of very high concern’ could lead to the same consequences as stipulated for substances regulated under  the EU chemicals legislation REACH and the EU pesticides legislation, respectively. Here, the estimation of the spatial-temporal complexity or controllability plays an important role.

The REACH regulation states that “experience at international level shows that substances with persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic properties or with very persistent and very bioaccumulative properties are of particular concern.”[2] Therefore, REACH established appropriate criteria to define persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances, as well as substances that are particularly bioaccumulative and persistent.

The EU regulation on the authorization of pesticides integrates these criteria for POP (persistent organic pollutant), PBT (persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic) and vPvB (very persistent, very bioaccumulative) into the decision-making process as exclusion criteria, which mean that authorization can generally be refused and the authorization process is not continued.[3] The decisive factor is not only the toxicity of a substance, but also its behavior and fate in the environment. If a substance is classified as vPvB, it cannot be approved under this EU regulation, even if long-term damage has not been proven.

According to the final report of GeneTip, such cut-off criteria could also be helpful in the approval of GMO and gene drive organisms. If genetically modified organisms escape spatiotemporal controllability because they can replicate in natural populations without effective control of their persistence and spread, a sufficiently reliable risk assessment would not be possible. The approval process cannot continue and a release of the GMO cannot be authorized.

The results of GeneTip were taken into account by the expert group (AHTEG) advising the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Among other things, unforeseen effects that occur only after several generations are named as a specific challenge for risk assessment.[4] In contrast, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) largely ignores these challenges in its report submitted in November 2020.

Dr. Christoph Then

Dr. Christoph Then is head of the Institute for Independent Impact Assessment in Biotechnology (TestBiotech) and co-author of the GeneTip project. Testbiotech is concerned with impact assessment in the field of biotechnology, calls for and promotes independent research, examines ethical as well as economic consequences, and tests risks to humans and the environment. Testbiotech provides industry-independent expertise and thus aims to strengthen the decision-making competence of society.



[1] 121 Gene Tip website (without year). Testbiotech e.V. Institute for Independent Impact Assessment of Biotechnology. BioTip pilot study: Gene Drives at Tipping Points – Precautionary Technology Assessment and Governance of New Approaches to Genetically Modified Animal and Plant Populations. Online: https://www.genetip.de/en/biotip-pilot-study/ [last accessed Dec. 07, 2020].

[2] EUR-Lex Website (2006). Publications Office of the European Union. Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), establishing a European Chemicals Agency, amending Directive 1999/45/EC and repealing Council Regulation (EEC) No 793/93 and Commission Regulation (EC) No 1488/94 as well as Council Directive 76/769/EEC and Commission Directives 91/155/EEC, 93/67/EEC, 93/105/EC and 2000/21/EC. Online: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32006R1907&from=EN [last accessed: 07.12.2020]

[3]     EUR-Lex website (2009). Publications Office of the European Union. Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market and repealing Council Directives 79/117/EEC and 91/414/EEC. Online: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:32009R1107 [last accessed Dec. 07, 2020].

[4] Convention on Biological Diversity. Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Risk Assessment (2020). Report of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Risk Assessment. CBD/CP/RA/AHTEG/2020/1/5. 15. April 2020, Montreal, Canada. Online: https://www.cbd.int/doc/c/a763/e248/4fa326e03e3c126b9615e95d/cp-ra-ahteg-2020-01-05-en.pdf