Genetic engineering of wild species? IUCN at a crossroads.

Should nature conservationists back genetic engineering of wild species in order to counter the impact of human activity?

On Friday, 10.09.2021, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, at its World Congress voted on a controversial motion questioning the use of genetic engineering in nature conservation. The IUCN members approved this landmark motion, which paves the way for a global dialogue on the future of new forms of this engineering, called synthetic biology, including gene drive organisms. Gene drives are a new form of genetic engineering, which is designed to exterminate or genetically modify entire wild species.

By passing important amendments to Resolution 075, international conservation representatives recognized that there exist major data and knowledge gaps as well as unsolved ethical, social, cultural and ecological issues around the technologies developed to genetically engineer wild species. Resolution 075 stipulates that these uncertainties necessitate the application of the precautionary principle and must be taken into consideration by any position the IUCN may decide to take on the topic. In this regard IUCN members also agreed to prioritize the perspectives, knowledge and rights of Indigenous people’s and local communities in their deliberations on these technologies during the coming 3 years.

Mareike Imken, co-ordinator of the European Stop Gene Drives campaign welcomes the IUCNs commitment to the precautionary principle and its intention to foster increased understanding and debate among its members around the use of genetic engineering technologies for nature conservation purposes.

A broad and inclusive IUCN discussion process will be crucial to raise awareness among IUCN members that the tampering with natural evolutionary rules in the application of gene drive technology will bring about a new dimension of intervening with – and irreversibly changing – the natural world that IUCN itself means to preserve.”

The contentious negotiations around this resolution were divide between civil society groups calling for the IUCN to not endorse environmental releases of synthetic biology applications, and pro-gene drive proponents who advocated for synthetic biology, including gene drives, to be accepted as a tool for nature conservation. One of the gene drive proponents, IUCN member Island Conservation, advocates to use gene drives to eradicate invasive mice on islands.

Press release here

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History of the motion process in the IUCN

With IUCN Resolution “WCC-2016-Res-086” adopted at its Members’ Assembly in Hawaii 2016, the IUCN was tasked to develop a policy on Synthetic Biology and Biodiversity Conservation for adoption by 2020. However, both IUCN members  and members of civil society organisations  criticised the way this plan was carried out. They pointed out that there currently is insufficient awareness among IUCN members about the fundamental questions that such an IUCN position would raise. In addition, the IUCN assessment report “Genetic Frontiers for Conservation” which was largely drafted by boosters of the technology was criticized to provide an insufficient basis for the vote on such a policy.

Delegates Briefing in English here

Delegates Briefing in French here

Delegates Briefing in Spanish here

Press release from 4.09.2021 in English here

Recommended reading:

ETC Group 2019: A review of the evidence for bias and conflict of interest in the IUCN report on synthetic biology and gene drive organisms.

Testbiotech 2019: Testbiotech comment on the IUCN report “Genetic frontiers for conservation, an assessment of synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation.

ENSSER 2021: A critique of the IUCN report ‘Genetic Frontiers for Conservation’. An assessment An assessment of synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation’ – with regards to its assessment of gene drives