Gates Foundation paying $1.6 million to influence UN Expert Process
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over 1,200 emails released under open records requests reveal that the U.S. military is now the top funder and influencer behind a controversial genetic extinction technology known as “gene drives” – pumping $100 million into the field. The trove of emails, obtained via open records requests, also shed light on a $1.6 million dollar UN gene drive advocacy operation paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Emerging Ag,” a private PR firm paid by the Gates Foundation, is working behind the scenes to stack key UN advisory processes with gene drive-friendly scientists, and has recruited ostensibly independent academics and public officials into a private collaboration to counteract proposed regulations and to resist calls by scientists and conservationists for an international moratorium. Some of those recruited entered into the UN discussions without divulging their conflicts of interest or the role that paid political consultants played in shaping their inputs.
The files, dubbed “The Gene Drive Files,” additionally cast a spotlight on the central role of the shadowy U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as the key funder now accelerating gene drive development. For example, DARPA is now revealed as the major financial backer of efforts to develop gene drive mammals (mice) that are led by a U.S. environmental NGO, although DARPA has no biodiversity conservation mission, raising questions about the defense agency’s intent. These revelations come on the heels of a public warning issued by a leading gene drive researcher Dr. Kevin Esvelt that current gene drives are too powerful to be used in conservation.
“Gene drives are a powerful and dangerous new technology and potential biological weapons that could have disastrous impacts on peace, food security and the environment, especially if misused,” said Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “The fact that gene drive development is now being primarily funded and structured by the U.S. military raises alarming questions about this entire field.”
“Gene drives could have profound global impacts, and these emails reveal a secretive attempt to game the system by gene drive proponents aiming to minimize essential regulations and oversight,” said Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth, U.S. “We need more transparency about who is influencing critical decisions about the future of global ecosystems, people’s livelihoods, or our food system.”
“In response to this news that the integrity of technical processes under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) may have been compromised, civil society groups will urgently raise the need for better disclosure of interests within a framework for addressing conflict of interest at the CBD,” said Lim Li Ching of Third World Network.
“Mosquitoes containing gene drives are being proposed for malaria control in Africa. While claiming potential health benefits, any application of such powerful technologies should be subject to the highest standards of transparency and disclosure. Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Releasing risky GM organisms into the environments of these African countries is outrageous and deeply worrying,” said Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of The African Centre for Biodiversity.
Information revealed in the Gene Drive files includes:
- The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is reported to have given approximately $100 million for gene drive research, $35 million more than previously reported. If confirmed, DARPA appears to be the largest single funder of gene drive research on the planet.
- Emerging Ag, a privately-held public relations firm, received over $1.6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work on gene drive topics and to focus on exerting influence on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the key body for gene drive governance. Following calls in 2016 for a globalmoratorium on the use of gene drive technology, the CBD sought input from scientists and experts in an online forum. According to the Gene Drive Files, Emerging Ag recruited and coordinated over 65 experts, including a Gates Foundation senior official, a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) official, and government and university scientists, in an private attempt to flood the official UN process with their coordinated inputs.
- The attempt to covertly influence the UN process online centrally involved three members of an associated UN expert committee (The Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology). Two of them are from institutions that together received over $100 million in U.S. military and other funds expressly to develop and test gene drive systems. One served as “stakeholder engagement lead” for a Gene Drive development project. The Expert committee meets this week in Montreal Canada.
- The secretive JASON group of military advisors have undertaken two classified studies on genome editing and gene drives at the request of the U.S. government. The gene drive study, which included input by a Monsanto executive, focuses on hostile use of gene drives and use of gene drives in agriculture.
- DARPA is revealed to be funding a high profile UK team of researchers targeting African communities with gene drive mosquitos. This funding was not previously made public.
- The files reveal how far along the two leading gene drive teams (Target Malaria for the UK and GBIRD, based in North Carolina) have proceeded towards building gene drive organisms and are preparing for open field trials, including steps to select test sites in Australia, New Zealand, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Mali and Ghana, and to create government and community acceptance of the use of gene drives in key testing sites.
ABOUT THE RECORDS
The Gene Drive Files may be accessed at: http://genedrivefiles.synbiowatch.org
The Gene Drive Files consist of records recently released in response to U.S. and Canadian open records requests. The bulk of the files are from North Carolina State University, and were released on 27 October 2017 under a request by Edward Hammond/Third World Network. The files also include records from Texas A&M University, also requested by Edward Hammond/Third World Network and released on 21 August 2017 (Request TAMU R001428). Additional records from an Access to Information request filed in Canada by ETC Group are also included at the same site.
Please take note of the information provided (readme file) on proper citation of the records.
Background on Gene Drives:
- “Gates Foundation Paid PR Firm to Secretly Stack UN Expert Process on Controversial Extinction Technology”
- “Gene Drive Files Expose Leading Role of US Military in Gene Drive Development”
- Reckless Driving: Gene drives and the end of nature
- “The Case for a Global Moratorium on Genetically-engineered Gene Drives”
For more information, see letter from civil society to the Convention on Biodiversity Executive Secretary: “Addressing conflict of interest issues in the CBD, its Protocols and subsidiary bodies,” published December 4, 2017
Documents show that makers of the “Impossible Burger” ignored FDA’s warnings about safety of burger’s key GMO ingredient
Cross-posted from ETC Group.
August 8, 2017
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Creators of a fake-meat burger made with a high-profile genetically engineered ingredient may have landed their experimental industry in a sizzling food safety mess, casting doubt on a Silicon Valley foodtech investor bubble.
As reported on in today’s New York Times, recently obtained documents from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reveal that Impossible Foods, maker of the Impossible Burger, the meatless burger that supposedly “bleeds,” was told by FDA officials that it hadn’t provided adequate proof of safety for a genetically engineered protein that gives the burger its meat-like taste and color. Impossible Foods put the genetically engineered product on the market for public consumption even though the company privately admitted to the FDA that it had not conducted or designed safety tests. The FOIA-produced documents state that the “FDA believes that the arguments presented, individually and collectively, do not establish the safety of SLH for consumption, nor do they point to a general recognition of safety.”
“The FDA told Impossible Foods that its burger was not going to meet government safety standards, and the company admitted it didn’t know all of its constituents. Yet it sold it anyway to thousands of unwitting consumers. Responsible food companies don’t treat customers this way,” said Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “Impossible Foods should pull the burgers from the market unless and until safety can be established by the FDA and apologize to those whose safety it may have risked.”
“Under no circumstances should any food company ignore FDA safety warnings and put consumers’ health at risk,” Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “The FDA must be the authority when it comes to determining food safety, and that means overhauling the broken regulatory process so that companies like Impossible Foods cannot self-regulate and rubber stamp their products as safe.”
The FDA’s safety designation of “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) allows a manufacturer, like Impossible Foods, to decide for itself, without FDA input, whether or not a product is safe. The self-determination does not require notice to the public or the FDA, and may apply to food chemicals regardless of industry conflicts of interest, or whether the chemicals are new or not widely studied.
U.S. government documents, obtained by ETC Group and Friends of the Earth U.S. through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that Impossible Foods was warned by FDA officials that its key genetically engineered ingredient, “soy leghemeglobin” (SLH), would not meet the basic FDA GRAS status. SLH, or “heme,” is a bio-engineered protein additive that adds meat-like taste and color. Impossible Foods recognizes that SLH has never been widespread in the human diet in its natural or genetically engineered form. Despite touting the color properties of the engineered “heme,” Impossible Foods did not seek FDA approval as a color additive, which has stricter safety regulations.
In discussion with FDA, Impossible Foods also admitted that up to a quarter of its “heme” ingredient was composed of 46 “unexpected” additional proteins, some of which are unidentified and none of which were assessed for safety in the dossier.
The case of Impossible Burger raises concerns that surpass this one patty and implicates the extreme genetic engineering field of synthetic biology, particularly the new high-tech investor trend of “vat-itarian” foods (meat, dairy, and other animal proteins grown in a biotech vat instead of from an animal). While Impossible Burger is the poster child for this vat-grown approach, other companies such as Perfect Day (synthetic biology cow milk) and Clara Foods (synthetic biology egg whites) appear also to be racing to market. Just as biofuels were pitched as a “clean tech” fix to climate change a decade ago, the vat-itarian venture capitalists are now attempting to capitalize on animal welfare concerns through “molecular farming.”
While the health and environmental damage caused by large-scale industrial livestock production should not be minimized, the success of non-animal burgers like the non-GMO Beyond Burger demonstrates that plant-based animal substitutes can succeed without resorting to genetic engineering.
A 2013 US National Survey by Hart Research found that 61% of respondents felt negative about synthetic biology-produced food additives. Polls also show that consumers increasingly want GMOs to be labeled as such, but so far, most companies selling products with synthetic biology ingredients, including Impossible Foods, are not labeling on the products or menus.
Friends of the Earth and ETC Group reached out last week to Impossible Foods, inviting the company to a discussion on the safety of the Impossible Burger.
Impossible Burger FOIA documents are available here.
For further information and analysis see ETC Group’s on-line searchable database of synthetic biology derived ingredients, including Impossible Food’s “heme”.
See Friends of the Earth’s blog on synthetic biology animal replacement products “Is ‘Food-Tech’ the Future of Food?” and website for additional information on synthetic biology’s risks to our health and environment.
Expert Contacts: Dana Perls, +1(925) 705-1074, firstname.lastname@example.org, Jim Thomas, +1 (514) 516-5759, email@example.com, Pat Mooney, +1 (613) 240-0045, firstname.lastname@example.org, Michael Hansen, +1(917) 774-3801, email@example.com
Communications Contacts: Friends of the Earth, Erin Jensen, (202) 222-0722, firstname.lastname@example.org; ETC Group, Pat Mooney, (613) 240-0045, email@example.com
“Biotechnology for Biofuels” includes in-depth investigations of three biofuel companies – Algenol, Mascoma, and Solazyme/TerraVia, and will be updated with forthcoming reports on algal and ligno-cellulosic biofuels, followed by further materials.
Policy-makers and industry leaders are pinning their hopes on biofuels and an entire bioeconomy where fuels, consumer goods, plastics, chemicals and materials currently derived from fossil biomass (oil, coal, natural gas) will instead be produced from living biomass (trees, crops, microbes). They mistakenly view this as a solution to climate change.
First-generation biofuels from corn, sugar, palm oil and soya are linked to deforestation and land conversion, competition with food, loss of biodiversity, land grabs and human rights abuses; along with reliance upon genetically engineered crops. But we are told that the “next generation” of ligno-cellulosic and algal fuels, made from “non food” biomass, will be better.
After at least a century of unsuccessful attempts to turn solid biomass into liquid biofuels through the use of heat and pressure, researchers and companies are focussing on biotechnology as key to cellulosic biofuel production and to a wider bioeconomy. This includes the use of potent new biotechnology tools, i.e. synthetic biology (aka “new breeding technologies”).
Researchers are engineering trees and crops to produce massive amounts of biomass designed for refinery processes, and are manipulating the genome of microbes, including micro-algae to secrete oils, enzymes and other chemicals of commercial and industrial interest. This is a primary focus of biotechnology, with a massive wave of new patent applications and the lure of large profits. But these engineered organisms are largely unregulated and poorly understood. They pose a serious threat to ecosystems and human health if they are released or escape into nature, which is inevitable.
Even after decades of research, there is no commercial production of ligno-cellulosic and algal biofuels. Companies are turning instead to using their genetically engineered organisms to production small quantities of high end consumer goods – expensive cosmetics, flavorings, nutraceuticals and various coproducts to maintain their profit margins. Some genetically engineered microorganisms are also being used to make conventional corn ethanol production more efficient.
Taxpayers are footing the bill, strung along by grossly hyped up claims about new technological breakthroughs just over the horizon – breakthroughs that will finally provide a clean, green and sustainable path to “consumerism as usual.” However, there is little basis for assuming that ligno-cellulosic and algal biofuels, if they were to ever be produced on a commercial scale, would in fact represent any improvement over first generation biofuels, since they too require land, water and agrochemicals as well as genetically engineered microbes.
Meantime, genetic engineering of trees and crops is being justified by the quest for a ‘bioeconomy’, too.
It is time to ask ourselves: are the risks worth it?
Algenol: Case study of an unsuccessful algae biofuels venture
Algenol is a Florida-based biotechnology company that has received considerable attention as one of the supposedly most promising algae biofuel startups, receiving $35-50 million in grants from the US government. However, after facing significant economic and technological hurdles to commercialization, the company shifted to producing algae products for food and fertilizer. Click here to read the report.
TerraVia/Solazyme: Synthetic biology company claimed to be capable of replacing palm oil struggles to stay afloat
TerraVia (formerly Solazyme) is a California-based algal oil company that received $22 million from the US government to produce algae biofuels. The company is now producing food and nutritional products after operating at a consistent financial loss for years. Click here to read the report.
Mascoma: The biggest misspending of public funds for cellulosic biofuels ever?
Mascoma is a synthetic biology company based in New Hampshire which received at least $100 and possibly over $155 million from the US government for cellulosic ethanol refineries that were largely never built.Click here to read the report.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, VISIT:
‘New breeding techniques’ and synthetic biology – genetic engineering by another name. April 4, 2017 in The Ecologist
Biofuel or biofraud? The vast taxpayer cost of failed cellulosic and algal biofuels. March 14, 2016 in Independent Science News.
Reckless Driving: Gene drives and the end of nature, Briefing by the Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives which includes Biofuelwatch, Econexus, ETC Group, Friends of the Earth US, Hawai’i SEED and Navdanya
Beware false promises: Algal oils and other products of synthetic biology aren’t about to save the orangutan…but carry serious new risks, Joint briefing by Friends of the Earth US and Biofuelwatch, February 2016
Cashing in on cellulosic ethanol: Subsidy loophole set to rescue corn ethanol profits, Almuth Ernsting, Independent Science News, August 2016
Biofuel or Biofraud? The Vast Taxpayer Cost of Failed Cellulosic and Algal Biofuels, Almuth Ernsting, Independent Science News, March 2016
Oil: $30-35 per barrel. Synthetic biology diesel: $3,180 to $7,949 per barrel. Game over?, Almuth Ernsting, The Ecologist, February 2016
Re-engineering life? The dangers of ‘next-generation’ biofuels, Almuth Ernsting, The Ecologist, September 2015
“Jurassic Park” and the Dinosaurs in the USDA, Rachel Smolker, Truthout, June 2015
Is Toxic Algae good for you?, Rachel Smolker, Huffington Post, August 2014
Biofuelwatch response to the Consultation on the “Updated report and synthesis of views in response to paragraph 7(b) of decision XII/24” and the “Report of the meeting of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology”, January 2016
Cross-posted from Biofuelwatch.
In response to the University of California San Diego and Sapphire Energy’s publication of results from open pond testing of genetically engineered microalgae, Biofuelwatch warns that such tests are far more risky than most people realize, and should be cause for concern, not celebration.
It is assumed, and these tests in fact confirmed, that GE microalgae will almost certainly escape into the wild from open air ponds. Once escaped, these single celled organisms can become air or water borne, and disperse widely, or even globally. There is no telling what impact they will have and no way to reverse their dispersal once it occurs.
Biofuelwatch considers it irresponsible to allow such tests to proceed, and recognizes this may be the first open pond test, but it is likely only the beginning given the very rapid pace of research and development of GMO algae for biofuels and a slew of other consumer “bioproducts”, which is proceeding with very little regulatory oversight.
Industry enthusiasts claim that GE microalgae will not likely survive in the wild, but there is no scientific basis for that assumption. In fact, many of the traits that are desirable for fuel and chemical production and industrial cultivation are precisely the traits that would lend a competitive advantage in nature. Those include traits like “improved” photosynthesis, resistance to predators and pests, hardiness and resilience that make them tolerant of industrial cultivation, or the ability to more effectively access and convert available nutrients etc.
Further, microalgae reproduce very rapidly, which means that engineered traits can quickly spread. Microalgae (cyanobacteria especially) are capable of “horizontal gene transfer” meaning that genes can be passed on not only to their direct progeny, but also to other unrelated individuals, and even to other species. Further, there is concern that engineered traits may not remain stable over time. All of these characteristics suggest introduced genes could spread rapidly out of control and change over time in unpredictable ways.
Biofuelwatch further points out that microalgae are notorious for producing “harmful algae blooms”(HABs) under the right conditions. With warming waters and nutrient runoff from agriculture, the “right conditions” are becoming ever more commonplace and we are seeing a dramatic uptick in algae blooms, including those that release toxins such as domoic acid, a potentially lethal neurotoxin.
Microalgae play a key role in regulating fundamental earth systems, as the source of more than half of the oxygen in our atmosphere, and as the base of aquatic food chains. In an article titled “Monster Potential Meets Potential Monster,” the authors point out that microalgae that have been engineered to produce chemicals and fuels will have altered stoichiometry – making them unpalatable to the zooplankton predators and grazers that normally keep populations in check in the wild and could “become a harmful algae bloom species par excellence”. They further state that “…given the ease with which GM microalgae could be transferred around the planet, the potential risk of GM algae to nature should not be underestimated…accordingly a strong argument could be made for the regulation of GM microalgae at the international level because the potential for damage could have global consequences, echoing recent concerns over geoengineering.”
Billions have been invested in developing algae biofuels to no avail, and with little basis for assuming they will ever be viable. Continuing the hype only perpetuates the illusion that we can continue “transportation as usual” in the face of a deepening climate crisis. Meanwhile, microalgae research and development is now focussing on niche markets for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and many other consumer products. The UCSD tests are associated with the startup Sapphire Energy, which has received vast amounts of taxpayer dollars, and is apparently marketing algae derived surfboards. Another company, Solazyme – also a recipient of vast sums to produce biofuels – is producing little other than anti-wrinkle face cream.
The tests performed by UCSD scientists were of very limited scope and little assurance that GMO microalgae are “safe”. Meanwhile, we need to ask ourselves: are these products worth the money and worth the risks to our health and environment?
Cross-posted from African Centre for Biodiversity. Link: http://acbio.org.za/two-simplified-briefings-introducing-new-gm-technologies-and-biosafety-risks/
Last month, the African Centre for Biodiversity released two simplified briefings on plant breeding and gene editing.
These reports introduce the novel techniques and their associated biosafety concerns, refuting the claim that crops developed with these methods represent technological progress in ‘precision’ and ‘safety’.
by Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth US. Cross-posted from https://medium.com/@foe_us/is-food-tech-the-future-of-food-49bd414cfb8b
Today in San Francisco at the Future Food-Tech conference, multinational food and agrichemical corporations, Silicon Valley investors, PR companies, big ag astroturf groups, and biotech startups are gathering to map out the future of our food system — and attract investment into this sector. Companies ranging from PepsiCo to Cargill are in attendance and Vladimir Putin’s former PR Firm Ketchum is a gold partner. Conspicuously absent from the roster of speakers are experts on regenerative farming, consumer groups, food justice groups and others with a big stake in the future of our food system.
So, what does this “food-tech” future look like? According to the conference website, it’s about “innovation and investment from farm to fork,” but based on the program, it appears this “future” is more likely to be “from lab to fork.”
You may have heard about the new meatless “Impossible Burger,” Cargill’s new stevia made from synthetic biology, or the GMO apple owned by Intrexon.
All of these products make use of new, experimental genetic engineering techniques that are raising many questions for consumers, farmers and environmentalists.
These new genetically engineered (GE) foods — which some call “GMOs 2.0” — are quickly entering our food system. The techniques involve new methods of genetically engineering organisms like algae to produce replacements for plant and animal-based food ingredients, or engineering DNA to turn genes on or off, or delete them altogether. You might also hear phrases like “fermentation,” synthetic biology or gene editing, but these new ingredients all involve genetic engineering — and they are almost never labeled as such.
These new GE ingredients are slipping onto the market before regulations can catch up with any safety or environmental assessments or oversight. Whereas first generation genetically engineered ingredients found on our supermarket shelves are mostly from GE corn, soy and canola, engineered to withstand massive doses of toxic herbicides, a new synbio database shows that there are hundreds of new GE ingredients on or about to enter the market.
Before we embrace this “food-tech” vision of the future, we need to ask some important questions about the new wave of genetically engineered foods.
What’s really in these products?
On the surface, the Impossible Burger’s goal to reduce meat consumption sounds important. There are urgent problems with animal factory farming. But at a time when consumers are pushing for more sustainably produced real food, are these biotech products the right answer?
While the Impossible Burger has received glowing press coverage for its “plant-based” product, the specifics about what’s actually in it has been less than clear. The Impossible Burger’s key ingredient, synbio heme, is a hemoprotein produced by genetically engineered yeast, and according to the Washington Post, is what gives the burger a meat flavor. But Impossible Foods doesn’t say what the “plant blood” — the key selling point for the Impossible Burger — actually is, nor does it provide any clear data on safety assessment or environmental impact. This is common among many new synbio startups.
While we and many in the environmental and animal welfare community are fully in support of reducing unsustainable meat consumption, in an era where consumers are increasingly demanding transparency and “real” food and running full speed away from processed, industrial food, it would seem that non-GMO, organic, plant-based meat alternatives that carry less inherent risks are a wiser direction.
Are these products safe?
Any change to genes can have unintended impacts on an organism, species or ecosystem. That’s why safety studies are so important. While there are suggested assessments and regulations being proposed for the USDA, they are riddled with loopholes that would allow many gene-edited foods to slip through the regulatory cracks.
The World Health Organization states that it is not possible to make blanket safety statements about GMOs — they must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Without such studies, we are operating largely in the dark in making major decisions about our food system.
Companies introducing these new GMOs to the market are essentially self-regulated and are asking consumers to blindly trust them.
But given their experience with the first generation of GMOS, will consumers feel them worthy of their trust?
Given the history of problems and failed promises that have arisen with first-generation GMOs, we should be wary of unleashing a wave of new genetically engineered foods without due diligence in conducting rigorous, independent and transparent pre-market safety assessment.
Where is the data about sustainability?
Just as we heard decades of failed promises about first-generation GMOs, we are hearing similar claims about GMOs 2.0 without any supporting data. TerraVia, producer of Thrive cooking oil, made using GE algae raised in vats with feedstocks such as sugar cane or GMO corn, claims its product is sustainable.
But where’s the data? What is the environmental footprint of the feedstock required to feed the GE algae? What is the overall lifecycle impact of this product? How are the GE ingredients contained? These are some questions that must be answered transparently before these products can reasonably claim the halo of sustainability.
Where are the labels?
Investors and companies are excited to use new genetic engineering techniques, but are doing everything they can to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. Some of their new products are even being mislabeled as non-GMO or natural, despite being derived from genetically engineered organisms and grown in a lab.
These companies are letting transparency fall by the wayside while they focus on marketing their products. Will the Impossible Burger tell customers that the secret ingredient is a protein derived from genetic engineering? Polls consistently show that consumers want GMOs to be labeled as such on the packaging, but so far, companies selling products with new GMOs are staying silent, including Impossible Foods. Will consumers trust companies like PepsiCo that spent heavily to keep them in the dark on whether they are eating first generation GMOs? And will companies promoting the next generation of GMOs learn that they can’t hide the truth about what they are feeding people?
Does anyone want these products?
Are consumers asking for apples that don’t rot, or burgers with genetically engineered plant blood? Market data shows that consumers want to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced. As Beth Kowitt wrote in Fortune magazine in 2015,
It’s pretty simple what people want now: simplicity… less of the ingredients they can’t actually picture in their head.
Do we really want to produce our food with patented, gene-edited fungi or algae, fed with chemical-intensive, environmentally destructive feedstocks such as GMO corn or sugarcane, and made in labs? Or do we want to move towards a food system based on transparency and truly regenerative, organic agriculture that is sustainable and healthy for farmers, farmworkers, our planet, and consumers?
Environmental harm caused by industrial farming costs the world $3 trillioneach year according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, from soil erosion and depletion of water resources to oceanic “dead zones” associated with synthetic fertilizer run-off and generation of major greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of investing in risky new food technologies that are potential problems masquerading as solutions, shouldn’t we be investing in proven, beneficial, regenerative agriculture and transparent, organic food that consumers are actually demanding? A series of expert consensus reports over the past decade affirm that ecological approaches to farming are fundamental to feeding all people, now and into the future.
What do we want the future of our food system to look like, and shouldn’t we all have a say in that?
CANCUN, MEXICO — This week, 196 countries meeting at the 2016 UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) Conference of the Parties made progress on the global governance and oversight of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology (syn bio) has become one of the most fiercely debated topics at the Biodiversity Convention, almost 7 years after civil society first brought the need for precaution and regulation of the new set of biotechnologies to this UN body.
During the 13th Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the CBD, countries agreed to investigate how digital genetic sequences may be used to commit biopiracy and warned against a risky new genetic extinction technology called gene drives. They also agreed on a working definition of synthetic biology (2) and to support an ongoing expert group to move forward international discussions on the topic. However, this progress was undermined by a significant ‘move backwards’ in safety oversight and risk assessment when a key standing expert group expected to issue risk assessment guidelines for synthetic biology was dissolved.
“Syn bio was among the hottest topics on the negotiating table,” explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group, who sits on the CBD’s expert group on Synthetic Biology. “Governments now get it: they need to urgently grapple with how synthetic biology and other fast moving, risky technologies are threatening biodiversity, local economies and the rights of farmers and Indigenous Peoples.”
Parties took a big step forward in addressing the controversial issue of digital biopiracy, a fast-emerging loophole in the Biodiversity Convention through which companies and others can access gene sequences of plants and seeds on the internet and then use them, including by re-creating physical DNA via synthetic biology techniques, without the agreement of (or any benefit to) biodiverse countries or communities from whom the genes originated. While some rich countries with large biotech industries (e.g. Canada) tried to take the topic of digital biopiracy off the table, eventually all agreed the topic needed further examination at future meetings.
“We are pleased that there is a specific and agreed plan to address piracy of gene sequences over the next two years,” said Edward Hammond of Third World Network who is another member of the CBD expert group on syn bio. “Wealthy countries can no longer plead that they are unprepared to discuss this loophole. Fast-moving technology demands an equally fast decision, and there can be no more pretending that understandings of genetic resources based on the biotechnology of the 1990s suffice to regulate the field today.”
Civil society at the CBD also urged governments to apply strong precaution on gene drives, a new gene-editing technology that enables species-wide genetic engineering by aggressively spreading genetic changes through the wild. The issue was brought to the negotiating table after more than 170 civil society organizations called on governments at the Biodiversity Convention to place a moratorium on the development and release of gene drives because of their potential for unpredictable, and possibly uncontrollable, impacts on biodiversity, wildlife and ecosystems.
Many governments were very alarmed about this new technology. Countries agreed to approach gene drives with precaution and to establish risk assessment and regulation (4), even though Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil, countries with close ties to the biotech industry, bluntly opposed even mentioning the issue. A global meeting of governments and civil society at IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in September 2016 had already adopted highly precautionary language on gene drives.
“The explicit mention of gene drives in the decision is an alert to all governments that they need to pay close attention to this new high-risk technology that is intentionally designed to aggressively spread into wild species and the environment, with potential serious transboundary effects,” added Silvia Ribeiro from ETC Group.
“Gene drives are a false solution to the real problem of biodiversity loss,” said Dana Perls, with Friends of the Earth International. “We should not release dangerous gene drives into our environment without robust systems to evaluate the risks and without an international governance mechanism in place. We want to see real, sustainable, community-based conservation efforts, not a live testing-zone that could allow new destructive agricultural practices or cause permanent damage to ecosystems.”
Unfortunately, the positive decisions addressing definitions, future work, digital sequences and gene drives were accompanied by a slide backwards following a decision on risk assessment of genetically modified organisms under the CBD’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
“Given the rapid advances in technological developments, it is crucial to understand the risks that each of these holds for the environment or human health,” said Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, representing the Federation of German Scientists. “Guidance on risk assessment is very much needed, yet parties failed their duty. They not only blocked the development of new risk assessment guidance for synthetic biology, gene drives or genetically modified fish, but they also closed down the expert group that could have developed such guidance in the future.”
The next Conference of the Parties will convene in 2018 in Egypt, and the expert group on synthetic biology will meet again before that.
Jim Thomas, + 1 (514) 516-5759, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dana Perls, +1(925) 705-1074, email@example.com
Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ed Hammond, email@example.com
Silvia Ribeiro: +52 1 55 2653 3330, firstname.lastname@example.org
More information on synthetic biology and gene drives at:
Notes to editors:
1. The full text of the decisions on Synthetic Biology and Digital Sequence Information on Genetic resources from CBD COP 13 are available at https://www.cbd.int/conferences/2016/cop-13/documents. The relevant decisions are:
UNEP/CBD/NP/COP-MOP/2/L11 (available at https://www.cbd.int/conferences/2016/np-mop-2/documents)
2. Synthetic biology is an emerging biotechnology industry expected to reach almost $40 billion by 2020. The definition of Synthetic Biology now agreed under the Biodiversity Convention is: “Synthetic biology is a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.”
3. Civil society has been calling on countries to assess synthetic biology in light of possible impacts on people, communities and the environment for over a decade and first raised the topic of synthetic biology at the CBD in 2010.The topic was taken up as a new and emerging issue under the CBD following submissions of information by the International Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology – a network of international organizations that currently includes Friends of the Earth, ETC Group, Third World Network, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Ecoropa, Econexus and the Federation of German Scientists.
4. The text of the decision on gene drives:
2. Reiterates paragraph 3 of decision XII/24 and notes that it can also apply to some living modified organisms containing gene drives;
Paragraph 3 of decision XII/24:
3. Urges Parties and invites other Governments to take a precautionary approach, in accordance with paragraph 4 of decision XI/11 and:
(a) To establish, or have in place, effective risk assessment and management procedures and/or regulatory systems to regulate environmental release of any organisms, components or products resulting from synthetic biology techniques, consistent with Article 3 of the Convention;
(b) To approve organisms resulting from synthetic biology techniques for field trials only after appropriate risk assessments have been carried out in accordance with national, regional and/or international frameworks, as appropriate;
(c) To carry out scientific assessments concerning organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques with regard to potential effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account risks to human health and addressing, as appropriate, and according to national and/or regional legislation, other issues such as food security and socioeconomic considerations with, where appropriate, the full participation of indigenous and local communities;
(d) To encourage the provision of funding for research into synthetic biology risk assessment methodologies and into the positive and negative impacts of synthetic biology on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and to promote interdisciplinary research that includes related socioeconomic considerations;
(e)To cooperate in the development and/or strengthening of human resources and institutional capacities, including on methodologies for risk assessments in synthetic biology and its potential impacts on biodiversity, in developing countries, in particular the least developed countries and small island developing States, and countries with economies in transition, including through existing global, regional and national institutions and organizations and, as appropriate, by facilitating civil society involvement. The needs of developing country Parties, in particular the least developed countries and small island developing States among them, and Parties with economies in transition, for financial resources; access to and transfer of technology consistent with Article 16 of the Convention; establishing or strengthening regulatory frameworks; and the management of risks related to the release of organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques, should be taken fully into account in this regard;
Friends of the Earth International and allies call for greater regulation on synthetic biology at the COP 13
Mariann Bassey Orovwuje (Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria) and member of the Friends of the Earth International delegation at the thirteenth Convention of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 13) in Cancun, Mexico, presented a statement on behalf of the Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology during a plenary session, asking for more regulation on synthetic biology, 6 December 2016
Mariann warned the COP13,
“Gene drives have quickly emerged as an extremely high risk synthetic biology application since the last COP and should therefore be placed under a moratorium”.
This was part of a request from 168 organizations worldwide, including Friends of the Earth International, who signed a “Common call for a global moratorium on gene drives”. The signatories want the moratorium to be effective on any further technical development and experimental application of gene drives and on their environmental release.
Gene drives can detrimentally alter ecosystems and boost agrochemical sales
Gene drives are a form of experimental genetic engineering technology which is raising a lot of concern within civil society. It consists of passing on a specific bioengineered trait to all or most of the offspring of a species so the trait becomes dominant in wild populations of the target species over a few generations. This technology can be used to eradicate invasive animal species for conservative purposes, weed species for agricultural purposes or insects like the mosquitoes that transmit malaria for health security purposes.
The problem is that given the current state of scientific knowledge, it is not possible to predict the ecological impacts of the environmental release of gene drives. Eradicating a single species or modify its behavior can alter ecosystems. Suppressing a weed species can lead, for example, to the loss of habitat for animal species and the establishment of invasive ones.
Gene drives are developed using a gene editing system called CRISPR-Cas9. In agriculture, its development can boost agrochemical sales because there have been proposals to render weed species susceptible to proprietary agrochemicals (just like Monsanto rendered its GMOs resistant to Roundup).
Synthetic Biology needs an operational definition
Mariann Bassey called on the Parties to “adopt an operational definition of synthetic biology”, as the absence of a definition has already begun to obstruct work on this topic under the CBD and its Protocols (the Protocol of Nagoya and the Protocol of Cartagena) and has been used as an argument against examining the risk assessment of synthetic biology.
According to the Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology — in which are also participating EcoNexus, Ecoropa, ETC Group, Heinrich Böll Foundation, The Sustainability Council and Third World Network — synthetic biology is “the next generation of biotechnologies that attempt to engineer, redesign, re-edit and synthesize biological systems, including at the genetic level”. The definition that the CBD and the Protocols should adopt “should include techniques for genome editing and genome synthesis”, stated the Group in its document “Synthetic Biology and the CBD”.
Digital sequencing can lead to digital biopiracy if not regulated
The Nigerian activist pointed out the need to address the “urgent issue” of digital sequences and biopiracy at the CBD level and the Nagoya Protocol level. “Rapid advances in sequencing and synthesizing DNA mean that digital biopiracy is now possible, circumventing the rules on access and benefit sharing (ABS)” set up by the Nagoya Protocol, warned the Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology in its document “Synthetic Biology and the CBD”. By ABS, the Nagoya Protocol means the sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and states that it must be done in a fair and equitable way.
The risk with genetic resources (DNA sequencing, for example), is that they can be transferred digitally and synthesized into living matter without physical exchange of biological material, “which poses major challenges to the many ABS systems that assume and utilize material transfer agreements”, wrote the Group. “It is important for the CBD to take a leading role in determining how to ensure that digital sequence information and gene editing are not used to amplify biopiracy and undermine ABS regimes.”
A need to address the Socio-Economic and Ecological impacts of Synthetic Biology
“The Convention requires an ongoing process to address the impacts of synthetic biology on sustainable use of biodiversity — especially the socioeconomic and indirect impacts”, said Mariann Bassey during the plenary. For example, some natural products are being produced with synthetic biology techniques by the synthetic biology industry instead of by farmers, and more synthetic biology products are in development — there is a huge risk that farmers lose their livelihoods.
Mariann Bassey also called on the Parties to address the issue of synthetic biology under the focus of biosafety, at the level of the Cartagena Protocol, where she said they should establish a process for the development of guidance on the basis of the outline on “Risk Assessment under the Cartagena Protocol” developed by the AHTEG. It is urgent given that synthetic biology is likely to lead to the development of organisms that will differ fundamentally from naturally occurring ones.
Information about synthetic biology in this article comes from the document “Synthetic Biology and the CBD”
Information about gene drives in this article comes from the document “The Case for a Global Moratorium on Genetically-engineered Gene Drives”
For Civil Society online resources on Synthetic Biology, visit Synbiowatch
Coca-Cola, Clarins, DivSeek and the governments of Canada and Brasil, were the winners of the 6th “Captain Hook Awards” ceremony that honored the five most important actors of the world of biopiracy this year and in which in which Friends of the Earth International participated.
The show was organized by the Coalition Against Biopiracy (CAB) on December 9th during the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 13). The CBD is the only UN Convention that tackles biopiracy. In particular it deals with The Nagoya Protocol, aimed at addressing the “Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization”, with a view to setting out rules of access and benefit sharing (ABS) of the genetic resources in order to prevent biopiracy.
The threat of digital piracy
The Captain Hook action aims to raise awareness of the fact that many private companies and governments are responsible for the privatization of genetic resources from Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, violating their rights to free, prior and informed consent, their intelectual property and the rules of ABS.
The development of synthetic biology poses an increasing concern for civil society. A new type of biopiracy has emerged; digital piracy. Technologies such as digital sequencing mean that genetic resources like DNA sequencing can be transferred digitally and synthesized into living matter without physical exchange of biological material. This “poses major challenges to the many ABS systems that assume and utilize material transfer agreements”, according to the Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology, who are calling on the COP for more regulation.
And the winners are…
DivSeek won the Digital Biopiracy award. DivSeek is a large international digital gene banking project which purports to “developing a unified, coordinated and cohesive information management platform to provide easy access to genotypic and phenotypic data associated with genebank germplasm”. “It can be utilized to enhance the productivity, sustainability and resilience of crops and agricultural systems.” The database will host genomes of hundreds of thousands crop seeds and information about each of them. Such a project needs to be regulated to protect farmers from the violation of the rules of ABS and the privatization of crop seeds. To date DivSeek has avoided discussions at the UN level.
The Canadian Delegation at COP 13 won the Worst Government Behavior Award. “Canada deserves this award for attempting to delete any reference to digital sequences in the text at COP 13,” said Captain Hook, aka Jim Thomas from ETC Group, during the ceremony.
Blairo Maggi, the Brazilian Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply, won the Two Faces Award for his tendencay to change his retoric when he is speaking to the COP and outside the negotitaions. “Maggi’s ministry has adopted measures in Brazil that limit the Brazilian commitments in the CBD; for example, instead of ratifying the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing, it supports the creation of the Legal Framework of Biodiversity which legalizes biopiracy in Brazil.”, according to the ETC Group.
Coca Cola and Clarins both won the Greediest Biopirate award.
Coca Cola, the American soft drinks and bottled water company, have made hufe profits from stevia, a substitute to sugar used in the “Coca Cola Life” soft drink. The company refuses to share the benefits of this plant with the Guarani people of Paraguay and Brazil, where the plant is produced. This violates the rights of Indigenous People to the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of a genetic resource in their territory. It was the Indigenous People themeslves who first discovered the sweetening properties of stevia. Coca Cola has refused make amends despite exposure in a report from several NGOs and a petition demanding a change in its behaviour.
Clarins, the French luxury cosmetic company, generates massive self-benefits from Harungana, a small tree native to Madagascar, used in its “Super Restorative” skin care products. The leaves have antiseptic and healing properties and encourage the synthesis of collagen. The Malagasy people first discovered these properties and have used the leaves for medical purposes for decades. Clarins, however, claims to have made the discovery. To add insult to injury Clarins only pays around 2 dollars per kilogram of leaves to the Malagasy workers, when the cream is sold for around 135 dollars per pot.
“There is no evidence of a benefit-sharing agreement between Clarins and the peoples and countries where harungana and medicinal knowledge about it come from, and analysis of published data on Clarins’ trade with Malagasy harungana producers reveals extremely inequitable sharing of benefits from this African biodiversity”, reported Third World Network in October.
On a more positive note “Cog Awards 2016” were given to the best defenders of biodiversity.
The Most creative legal defense Award was granted to rural organizations based in Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico (not far from Cancun): the Mayan Indigenous Regional Council of Bacalar (Consejo Regional Indígena Maya de Bacalar), the Honey Producers “Kabi Habin”, the Agroecology School Educe (Educe A.C.) and the Native Seeds Collective “Much’ Kanan I’inaj”. Collectively they are fighting against an extensive Monsanto GMO soy project in their territory which would have impacts on the environment and honey production. The group brought the case to the Supreme Court of the Nation, which has yet to rule in favor of canceling the project. The group insists that they have not been consulted on the project, since in Mexico, supposedly free, prior and informed consult often turns out to be nothing but an administrative formality for a corporation before effectively forcing a project on local communities and territories.
The Best People’s Defense Award was granted to the People’s Permanent Tribunal (TPP in Spanish) – Mexico Chapter. In November 2014, this moral court integrated by civil society representatives urged the Mexican government to protect biodiversity and forbid growing GMO corn in the country. A statement was made in support of the Collective Demand against Transgenic Corn (Demanda Colectiva contra el Maiz Transgénico), a Mexican movement that struggles to control the illegal production of GMO corn crops. So far prohibition has been maintained, but the possibility of a legal demand by companies to allow production looms large.
Members of the Coalition against Biopiracy:
Third World Network
Friends of the Earth US
African Center for Biosafety
Heinrich Boell Foundation