The discussion on gene drives in the World Conservation Union (IUCN)

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), also known as the World Conservation Union, has been discussing how to deal with this technology since late 2015.

At its General Assembly in Hawaii in September 2016, the IUCN adopted a resolution¹ that, among other things, mandated IUCN to prepare a scientific report on the implications of synthetic biology and gene drives for biodiversity conservation. Based on this scientific report, IUCN originally intended to take a position on the role of gene drive technology for nature conservation at its subsequent General Assembly in 2020.
In part through public protest and at the urgin of global conservation luminaries², among others, IUCN committed in its 2016 resolution to refrain from any support or endorsement of research, field trials or use of gene drive technology until the report would be available.

The report, entitled Genetic frontiers for conservation³, was published in May 2019 and met with harsh criticism from IUCN member organisations as well as conservation and development organisations from around the world.

An analysis⁴ conducted by the research and advocacy NGO ETC Group concluded that a majority of the report’s authors were known proponents of genetic engineering and should not have been engaged by IUCN, in part because of their economic self-interest in the development of the technologies studied. In a subsequent open letter signed by 231 civil society organisations and several scientists, the report was criticised as “regrettably one-sided”, “biased” and “inappropriate for the intended policy discussion”. This report is not in line with the precautionary considerations of the Hawaii resolution. The signing organisations therefore called on IUCN to commission another scientific report based on a precautionary analysis of the risks of the technology and to wait until such a counter-report is available before taking a decision on the issue.⁵

In a similar vein was the request of a letter from 23 IUCN members to the IUCN Council in October 2019. According to its signatories, more time is needed for a fundamental, comprehensive, balanced discussion based on the precautionary principle, with greater involvement of IUCN Members, before any IUCN decision is taken.⁶

Faced with this criticism, the IUCN Council withdrew its plan to adopt a position at its membership process originally planned for June 2020. Instead, principles⁷ for the discussion around the topic were defined in a consultation open to members. These are to be voted on at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2021 and will serve as the basis for disscussions until position will be voted on at the following Members’ Assembly.



[1] IUCN Library System Website (2016). IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature Resolution; c2020. WCC-2016-Res-086 – Development of IUCN policy on biodiversity conservation and synthetic biology. World Conservation Congress; 2016; Hawaii. Online:
[letzter Zugriff: 07.12.2020]
[2]  SynBioWatch Website (2016). A Call for Conservation with a Conscience. No Place for Gene Drives in Conservation. Online: [letzter Zugriff: 07.12.2020]
[3] Redford KH, Brooks TM, Macfarlane NBW, Adams JS (2019). Genetic frontiers for conservation: an assessment of synthetic
biology and biodiversity conservation: technical assessment. IUCN Publication. Online:
[letzter Zugriff: 07.12.2020]
[4] ETC Group Website (2019). ETC Group. Driving Under The Influence? A review of the evidence for bias and conflict of interest in the IUCN report on synthetic biology and gene drive organisms. Online: [letzter Zugriff: 07.12.2020]
[5] GeneWatch UK Website (2019). GeneWatch UK. Open letter to the IUCN regarding the report Genetic Frontiers for Conservation. Online:
[letzter Zugriff: 07.12.2020]
[6] Institute for Nature Conservation in Albania Website (2019). Instituti për Ruajtjen e Natyrës në Shqipëri. Open Letter by the undersigned IUCN Members to the IUCN Council. Online: [letzter Zugriff: 23.03.2021]
[7] IUCN Congress 2020 Website (2020). IUCN; c2020. 075 – IUCN Principles on Synthetic Biology and Biodiversity Conservation. Online: [letzter Zugriff: 07.12.2020]