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International negotiations on Gene Drives resume in person

15.04.22, Berlin The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD) and its sub-protocols are the world’s most important forums for establishing internationally binding regulations for Gene Drive technology. For the first time since the beginning of the COVID pandemic – after more than two years of repeated postponements and online meetings – government officials, civil society, scientists and business lobbyists met in person to resume international negotiations in Geneva (Switzerland) between 14-29 March 2022.

During the two and a half conference weeks  three different committees discussed a broad range of issues that had previously only been discussed in several online meetings.

At the centre  of the Geneva meetings were negotiations of the so-called Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) to stop and reverse global biodiversity loss through a shared set of goals and measures by 2050. This agreement will be finalized and voted on at the 15th meeting of the Parties (COP 15) of the UN CBD now scheduled to be held in Kunming, China, in August 2022.

Global Biodiversity Framework, Target 17 – Preventing harm from biotechnologies

With regard to the regulation of biotechnologies such as Gene Drives, discussions around Target 17 were of particular relevance. This target is meant to strengthen measures to protect biodiversity from risks and negative impacts emerging from the use of biotechnologies. The Stop Gene Drive Campaign, as part of a group of like-minded civil society organizations named the CBD Alliance, called for a process to anticipate future technological developments, monitor emerging (bio-)technologies and enable the regulation of these biotechnologies to prevent any harmful impacts. The group also stressed the need to uphold the rights of potentially affected indigenous peoples and local communities – especially the right to say no to the use of biotechnologies that could negatively affect their lands, territories and waters. These rules should also stipulate how damage that nonetheless occurs should be compensated for.

While parties  such as Bolivia, Ethiopia and Mexico asked for these elements to be included in the text, other parties, most prominently  Brazil, tried to undermine the purpose of this target by including text on the potential benefits that biotechnologies could have for biodiversity. While the CBD Alliance called to monitor a broad range of technologies under this target – some parties wanted to narrow down the types of technologies to be covered by including very specific definitions. This is the report of co-leads of contact group 4 that reflects among other these diverse inputs to the discussion.

SBSTTA – Agenda items 4 and 5: Assessing Gene Drive technology

While discussions around the GBF were mostly held by a committee called the ‘Open Ended Working Group’ Geneva also hosted the meeting of an advisory body to the CBD called ‘Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical Technological Advice’ (SBSTTA) that discusses general and long-standing issues under the Convention on Biological Diversity and prepares texts to be adopted by the COP.  Some of them are of particular interest with regard to regulating Gene Drive technology:

  • Agenda item 4 deals with the topic of synthetic biology, which is an emerging field of biotechnology that seeks to redesign or create new living organisms not existing in nature.

The current state of negotiations on this agenda item are reflected in the draft recommendations on synthetic biology and are the results of online negotiations held in April and May 2021. Discussions focused on the establishment of a process under the CBD to anticipate (i.e. ‘horizon scan’), monitor and assess new technological developments in the field of synthetic biology (such as Gene Drives) and their potential impacts for the protection of biodiversity. The Stop Gene Drive Campaign welcomes the establishment of such a long-term process and encourages the formation of a multidisciplinary technical expert group (MTEG), including transdisciplinary experts that represent a broad range of knowledge systems, in order to assess the potential impacts of these technologies. The Stop Gene Drive Campaign stresses that the assessment process needs to take into account socio-economic, cultural, ethical and health questions. The Stop Gene Drive Campaign also demands to reaffirm the need for a highly precautionary approach regarding the release of Gene Drive organisms into nature and to establish further conditions to be met before any environmental release should even be considered. Due to time constraints this agenda item has not been discussed in Geneva but passed over for further discussion at COP.

  • Agenda item 5 deals with the risk assessment of genetically engineered  organisms (referred to as living modified organisms, (LMOs)). This particular field is subject to a legally binding sub-protocol of the Convention called the ‘Cartagena Protocol’ signed  by most but not all of the parties to the Convention.

The current state of negotiations in the draft recommendations on risk assessment is  the result of virtual online negotiations held in April and May 2021. Discussions focused on the question whether (additional) voluntary guidance materials on the environmental risk assessment of Gene Drive organisms should be drawn up. Contentious issues were the scope of these guidance materials and the composition of the drafting group. The Stop Gene Drive Campaign welcomes the establishment of such guidance materials. They  should address the specific risks of Gene Drive Organisms in general (as opposed to guidance covering only Gene Drive Mosquitoes). The recommendations should be drafted by a diverse and transdisciplinary group of experts, including civil society and indigenous peoples organizations and operationalize the precautionary principle. Due to time constraints this agenda item has not been discussed in Geneva but passed over for further discussion at COP.

  • Agenda Item 6 deals with the topic of invasive alien species, which are considered one of the three major reasons for biodiversity loss. In this context Gene Drives have been proposed by some as a technology to combat invasive alien species.

During discussions on this agenda item in  Geneva, Gene Drives have been included in the draft recommendations on invasive species which now demands that when considering Gene Drives to fight invasive species, the precautionary approach should be applied. Further discussions on this will be held at COP.

Next steps

The agenda in Geneva was very dense and parties did not manage to finalize their discussions on most of the texts for the GBF. Therefore the CBD Secretariat has announced to hold further meetings. The ‘Open Ended Working Group’ (OEWG) will therefore continue to discuss the targets (such as target 17) of the GBF from the 21st to the 26th of June in Nairobi, Kenya. Another meeting will be held in Bonn from 29 June to 1 July 2022 for the so called ‘Subsidiary Body on Implementation’ (SBI)  to discuss indicators to monitor if the new GBF targets are being properly implemented.

Progress in both meetings will be key so that the framework can be accepted by all parties at the COP to be held in Kunming around August and guarantee a robust agenda to halt and reverse biodiversity loss for the upcoming years.

Links and Resources

  • Draft recommendation on synthetic biology (CBD/SBSTTA/24/L.5)
  • Draft recommendation on risk assessment (CBD/SBSTTA/24/L.6)
  • Draft recommendation on invasive alien species (CBD/SBSTTA/24/L.8)
  • Co-leads’ proposals on target 17 of the global biodiversity framework: tools and solutions for implementation and mainstreaming, contact group 4; Non-paper of 23-03-2022; Report by the co-leads of contact group 4, including consolidated text on Target 17, reflecting discussions until 2.09.2021 (CBD/WG2020/3/CG/4/REPORT)