UN Convention on Biodiversity governments hit the brakes on gene drives

In October, we joined global food movement leaders and organizations representing hundreds of millions of farmers and food workers to set out clear opposition to “gene drives” – a controversial new genetic forcing technology. The call for a stop to this technology accompanied a new report, Forcing the Farm, that lifts the lid on how gene drives may harm food and farming systems.

Gene drives are a genetic engineering tool that aim to force artificial genetic changes through entire populations of animals, insects and plants. Unlike previous genetically modified organisms (GMOs) these gene drive organisms (GDOs) are deliberately designed to spread genetic pollution as an agricultural strategy – for example, spreading ‘auto-extinction’ genes to wipe out agricultural pests. Agri-research bodies now developing these extinction-organisms include the California Cherry Board, the US Citrus Research Board and the private California company Agragene Inc.

Decision at UN Convention on Biodiversity's COP 14 in Egypt

Last week, at the UN Convention on Biodiversity's COP 14 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, 196 governments passed a global decision about gene drives. The decision urges precaution and reinforces as a priority the need to seek free, prior and informed consent or approval from all potentially impacted communities and Indigenous Peoples before even considering environmental release of gene drive organisms.

Specifically, the text places three preconditions before "considering release of gene drives": Governments would need to do thorough risk assessment, ensure risk management measures are in place to "prevent or minimize adverse effects" and ensure to seek consent of "potentially affected Indigenous People's and Local Communities." Since gene drives by design may spread far beyond a release site, the term "potentially affected" should be considered to cover quite a wide area. The decision specifically notes that a release of gene drives may impact the "traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water” of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. So, crucially, this is a decision that gives the power back to communities to decide whether their lands and territories should be experimented on.

While this is not the formal legal moratorium we had hoped for, this decision is pretty strong and significant and sets high barriers to the release of gene drives. Most importantly, however, it sets the trajectory of global gene drive governance upon the clear, simple and important principle of consent. 

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