IUCN debates the role of genetic engineering in nature conservation

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 adopted a resolution (Res. 075) at its General Assembly in Marseille, initiating a three-year position-finding process on the role of synthetic biology in relation to nature conservation. A draft resolution is to be developed and put to a vote by the next World Conservation Congress in 2024.

Applications to be discussed in this process include both the synthetic production of nature-identical products in the laboratory as well as proposals to control pests using genetic engineering in agriculture, or the genetic manipulation of insects for the purpose of disease control in open environmental systems. Most controversially, proponents and developers of genetic engineering processes even propose gene drivesas a means for nature conservation, e.g. for eradicating invasive species.

Provisions of IUCN Resolution 075 

Resolution 075, entitled „Development of an IUCN position on synthetic biology in relation to conservation“ establishes an inclusive and participatory process within IUCN, with the aim of developing an IUCN position on the implications of the use of synthetic biology in conservation.  The resolution states that until this IUCN position is formally adopted, IUCN must remain neutral (e.g. in international fora such as the CBD) on all aspects of synthetic biology, even if new evidence emerges during the process.

By passing important amendments to Resolution 075, international conservation representatives in Marseille 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. For this reason, particular attention in the IUCN’s effort of collaborative knowledge building will be paid to identifying knowledge gaps, data deficiencies and scientific uncertainties that make it impossible to assess the impacts of existing and potential future applications of synthetic biology (including gene drives) in the context of nature conservation. In particular, open questions and challenges in ecological, conceptual, legal, socio-economic, cultural and ethical terms will be formulated and compiled. 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 at IUCN World Congress in Marseille were divided 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.

Civil Society press release here

To the adopted IUCN Resolution 075 here


On synthetic biology

The umbrella term synthetic biology is used to describe genetic engineering techniques that rebuild, resynthesize, or alter biological components or natural processes in ways that do not occur naturally. Applications of synthetic biology can either be used exclusively in closed systems/laboratories, or also aim to use them in open natural systems, using genetic engineering to alter wild species and ecosystems – for example, via the controversial process of gene drives.

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.

Civil Society Briefing for IUCN Delegates for IUCN World Congress in English here

Civil Society Briefing for IUCN Delegates for IUCN World Congress in French here

Civil Society Briefing for IUCN Delegates for IUCN World Congress in Spanish here

Civil Society press release on the Start of the IUCN World Congress 2021 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