ETC_EDITOR

Jun 042017
 

Photo: KennethR

via Biofuelwatch:

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”). 

Cyanobacteria in flask. Photo: Willem van Aken, CSIRO

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. 

Photo: Aqua Mechanical

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.

Cyanotech microalgae ponds, Hawaii. Photo: Cyanotech

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.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES/LINKS:

Synbiowatch

Campaign to Stop GE Trees

ETC Group

EcoNexus

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

Consultation responses:

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

Comments submitted to: EPA Workshop for Public Input on Considerations for Risk Assessment of Genetically Engineered Algae, Rachel Smolker, October 2015

Submission of information on synthetic biology too the Convention on Biological Diversity, Rachel Smolker, April 2015

May 092017
 

Cross-posted from Biofuelwatch

Green algae covering a lake

Cyanobacteria. Credit: Christian Fischer.

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?

Apr 062017
 

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’.

Click here to download the Plant Breeding report

Click here to download the Gene Editing report

 

Apr 052017
 
a cheese burger held by bright yellow tongs on a vivid blue background

The Impossible Burger. Photo via Forbes.

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?

Dec 202016
 

UN Biodiversity Convention grapples with threats posed by extreme biotech industry

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.

###

Expert contacts:

Jim Thomas, + 1 (514) 516-5759, jim@etcgroup.org

Dana Perls, +1(925) 705-1074, dperls@foe.org

Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, r.steinbrecher@gn.apc.org

Ed Hammond, eh@pricklyresearch.com

Silvia Ribeiro: +52 1 55 2653 3330, silvia@etcgroup.org

Communications contacts: Trudi Zundel, +1 (226) 979-0993, trudi@etcgroup.org; Marie-Pia Rieublanc, +52 (1) 967-140-4432, territorios@otrosmundoschiapas.org

More information on synthetic biology and gene drives at:

http://www.synbiowatch.org/

http://www.foei.org/news/greater-regulation-needed-synthetic-biology-cop-13

http://www.etcgroup.org/

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/COP/13/L34

UNEP/CBD/COP/13/L29

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;

Dec 152016
 

mariann_web-file-610x259by Friends of the Earth International

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

Dec 152016
 
Mariann Bassey Orovwuje, from Friends of the Earth International, distributing the Biopiracy Awards at the Moon Palace during COP 13. ©Friends of the Earth International

Mariann Bassey Orovwuje, from Friends of the Earth International, distributing the Biopiracy Awards at the Moon Palace during COP 13. ©Friends of the Earth International

by Friends of the Earth International

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:
ETC Group
Third World Network
Friends of the Earth US
Public Eye
African Center for Biosafety
Heinrich Boell Foundation
Navdanya
Biofuelwatch
ExoNexus
SEARICE

Dec 132016
 

hook-awards-posterCANCUN – The Coalition Against Biopiracy (CAB) hosted the 6th Captain Hook Awards ceremony at the Thirteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on December 9, 2016. The public action in the main lobby of the Conference “celebrated” five biopirates – corporations, governments, and organizations that play a part to privatize genetic resources from Indigenous Peoples and local communities for profit – with an awards ceremony attended by civil society organizations and government delegates.

“High-tech ‘digital’ biopiracy is becoming easier than ever,” said the award’s Master of Ceremony, Captain Hook. “With the accelerating tools of genome-editing and synthetic biology, today’s biopirates no longer need to carry their booty offshore in boats and airplanes – they can upload DNA as digital sequences in one location and then recreate it as synthetic DNA on the other side of the planet.” The implications of digital sequencing is a hot topic at COP 13.

Captain Hook Awards 2016 included:

DivSeek, a large international digital gene banking project for crop diversity, was gifted the Digital Biopiracy award. “In the world of genetic information, DivSeek is working diligently to write the biopirate symphony,” says Edward Hammond of Third World Network. “DivSeek understands biopiracy perfectly clearly, and it deliberately chose to be part of the problem, not part of the solution, because it was easier.”[1]

The Canadian Delegation at COP 13 was granted the Worst Government Behavior Award. “Canada deserves this award for attempting to delete any reference to digital sequences in the text at COP 13,” proclaimed Captain Hook. The Canadian government has also announced an investment of 30 million dollars into digitizing its biological collections without considering digital biopiracy or treaty rights implications.[2]

Brazilian Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply Blairo Maggi was given the Two Faces Award for “saying one thing in the talks and doing another at home.”  Maggi’s ministry has adopted measures in Brazil that limit the Brazilian commitments in the CBD; as one example, instead of ratifying Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing, they support the creation of the Legal Framework of Biodiversity which legalizes biopiracy in Brazil.[3]

Finally, the Greediest Biopirate award was shared by Coca Cola and Clarins. Coca Cola, the ubiquitous soft drink, earns massive profits on its so-called ‘Coca Cola Life’ while the holders of the traditional knowledge of the sweetness of Stevia, the Guarani groups living across Paraguay and Brazilian borders, make very little. “It is true that Stevia to has a bitter sweet taste,” remarked Captain Hook.[4] Clarins was (dis)honored with the same prize for patenting African medicinal knowledge of harungana tree and selling its product for US $7000/kilo, while only paying $2/kilo to African farmers for dried leaves. “Clarins then had the audacity to call this deal a ‘fair trade’!” Captain Hook exclaimed.[5]

But it’s not all skulls and crossbones! The seas are also alight with beacons of hope. The ceremony also celebrated biodiversity defenders with the 2016 Cog Awards, which recognizes communities, organizations and individuals fighting against biopirates and threats to biodiversity on their land.

Tinkerbell presented the award for Most Creative Legal Defense to the Mayan Council in Bacalar, Quintana Roo, including The Agroecology School “Educe”; The Beekeepers “Kabi Habin”; The Seeds Collective Much Kanan; and several ejidos. They received this award for halting thousands of hectares of transgenic soy in their region through an innovative legal strategy: refusing to be ‘consulted’ by the corporations,” Tinkerbell explained.

Tinkerbell also presented the Best People’s Defense to People’s Permanent Tribunal – Mexico Chapter for their 2014 ruling in favour of a total prohibition on transgenic corn in Mexico, and for declaring transgenic maize a crime against humanity.

captain-hook captain-hook-awards captain-hook-press-conference tinkerbell

 

 

 

 

Note to editors:

Captain Hook: Jim Thomas, +1 (514) 516-5759, jim@etcgroup.org

Tinkerbell: Veronica Villa, +52 1 55 5432 4679, veronica@etcgroup.org.

Communications contacts: Trudi Zundel, +1 (226) 979-0993, trudi@etcgroup.org

More information and supporting materials for the Captain Hook and Cog Awards can be found at http://www.synbiowatch.org/captain-hook-awards-2016.

The Captain Hook Awards are put on by the Coalition Against Biopiracy, an informal group of civil society who first came together at the CBD in 1995.

[1] For more information on DivSeek and the CBD see: http://www.twn.my/announcement/digital_genebanks_final_uslet.pdf

[2] For more information on Canada’s digital sequencing project, see this article (and stay tuned for new developments) http://www.synbiowatch.org/captain-hook-awards-2016/?lores

[3] For more information on Brasil’s national policies and the CBD, see the Coup Against Biodiversity document circulating the COP 13 venue and distributed at the press conference today. Maggi’s promotion of deforestation and his treatment of peasants, traditional peoples and communities in Brazil see this report from Greenpeace: http://www.greenpeace.org/brasil/pt/Noticias/maggi-o-bar-o-da-soja-e-tamb/

Dec 082016
 

mosquitoby Friends of the Earth US

Citizens/environment will not be impacted by novel experiment releasing millions of GE mosquitoes

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Food and Drug Administration announced that it will not move forward with the controversial release of millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in the community of Key Haven in Monroe County, Florida. The release of the GE mosquitoes would have been the first-ever in the United States, but the FDA failed to conduct adequate testing for potential impacts to people, threatened and endangered species, and the environment. During the November 2016 election, local citizens voted against the release of the insects.

A coalition of public interest groups – including Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Foundation Earth, the International Center for Technology Assessment, the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, and Food & Water Watch – yesterday received a response to their 60-day notice of intent to sue the FDA under the Endangered Species Act for failing to take into account impacts to federally listed species in a fast-tracked approval of the release of the GE mosquitoes.

In a letter to CFS attorneys, counsel from the FDA noted, “per the public referendums which took place on November 8, 2016, and the subsequent board meeting of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) on November 19, 2016, the proposed field trial is no longer moving forward in Key Haven, FL. Because residents of Key Haven voted against the trial, FKMCD commissioners agreed that the trial will not be conducted there.”

Release of GE mosquitoes elsewhere in Monroe Country will require the manufacturers, Oxitec, to resubmit a new application for a trial release with environmental data for the new site. If the FDA considers alternate locations proposed by Oxitec for a trial release, it will need to conduct the mandatory Environmental Assessment and indicate Findings of No Significant Impact for any new site.

“FDA knew it was reckless to approve the release of a novel species without first assessing the potential impacts. The agency didn’t do its homework so the local community spoke up and they had the law on their side,” said Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Safety.

“This is a victory that protects local communities from reckless experiments,” said Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth U.S. “The FDA should never let people and ecosystems be treated as laboratories. We need long-term and sustainable solutions to prevent mosquito breeding grounds.”

“We are glad the FDA finally recognized that it should not allow a company to release experimental GE mosquitoes into a community without their consent,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. “The FDA needs an entirely new approach to evaluating the potential risks form GE insects.”

“We expect Oxitec will reapply for a permit to include all of Monroe County. FDA must push Oxitec to answer questions the company has avoided, like why have the mosquitos not been tested for pre-existing disease, especially when Zika transfers to eggs; and what is the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant bacteria promotion. Finally, FDA must require a full Environmental Impact Statement on the long term effects of the GE Mosquito DNA entering the sustainable wild populations,” said Barry Wray, Executive Director, Florida Keys Environmental Coalition.

Background:

On November 9, residents of Key Haven, Florida, the proposed release site of the GE mosquitoes, voted against the release of the insects, which were not adequately assessed for risk before being approved by the FDA.

The lack of independent scientific research on the release of GE mosquitoes constitutes a most troubling factor in the drive to release millions of these insects. While the desire to control viral diseases like zika and dengue is understandable, Oxitec, the company manufacturing the GE mosquitoes, has not demonstrated that its release of the mosquitoes in Brazil, Cayman Islands and Malaysia has reduced disease. Few studies, if any, have been done to understand the unintended evolutionary effects of introducing new genes into a species. GE mosquitoes are intended to be sterile, but not all are.

In addition to potential threats to sensitive ecosystems and a lack of evidence to support the GE mosquitoes’ efficacy at minimizing the spread of disease, there is little information about what ingesting these insects could do to people. So many mosquitoes are released in the Oxitec trials (millions are released multiple times a week) that people complain of being forced to breathe in and eat mosquitoes.

Center for Food Safety’s mission is to empower people, support farmers, and protect the earth from the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture. Through groundbreaking legal, scientific, and grassroots action, we protect and promote your right to safe food and the environment. Please join our more than 750,000 consumer and farmer advocates across the country at www.centerforfoodsafety.org. Twitter: @CFSTrueFood, @CFS_Press

Friends of the Earth fights to create a more healthy and just world. Our current campaigns focus on promoting clean energy and solutions to climate change, ensuring the food we eat and products we use are safe and sustainable, and protecting marine ecosystems and the people who live and work near them.

Food & Water Watch champions healthy food and clean water for all. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.

The Mission of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition is to coordinate and support organizations, businesses and individuals, who work to protect the coral reefs and ecosystems of the Florida Keys and to provide a unified voice for our community.within our island environment, do everything we can to protect it.

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Contacts:
Courtney Sexton; (202) 547-9359, pr@centerforfoodsafety.org
Kate Colwell, (202) 222-0744, kcolwell@foe.org

Dec 052016
 
Webridge (revised from) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Webridge (revised from) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

CANCUN, MEXICO – This week, international conservation and environmental leaders are calling on governments at the 2016 UN Convention on Biodiversity to establish a moratorium on the controversial genetic extinction technology called gene drives.

More resources on gene drives and campaigns at CBD COP13

Gene drives, developed through new gene-editing techniques- are designed to force a particular genetically engineered trait to spread through an entire wild population – potentially changing entire species or even causing deliberate extinctions. The statement urges governments to put in place an urgent, global moratorium on the development and release of the new technology, which poses serious and potentially irreversible threats to biodiversity, as well as national sovereignty, peace and food security.

Over 160 civil society organisations from six continents have joined the call. Among them were environmental organizations including Friends of the Earth International; International Union of Food Workers representing over 10 million workers in 127 countries ; organizations representing millions of small-scale famers around the world, such as the La Via Campesina International and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements; the international indigenous peoples’ organization Tebtebba; scientist coalitions including European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility and Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad (Mexico); as well as ETC Group and Third World Network.

“We lack the knowledge and understanding to release gene drives into the environment – we don’t even know what questions to ask. To deliberately drive a species to extinction has major ethical, social and environmental implications,” says Dr. Steinbrecher, representing the Federation of German Scientists. “It is essential that we pause, to allow the scientific community, local communities and society at large to debate and reflect. We can’t allow ourselves to be led by a novel technique. In the meantime, a moratorium is essential.”

“These genetic extinction technologies are false solutions to our conservation challenges,” said Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth. “We want to support truly sustainable and community driven conservation efforts. Gene drives could be co-opted by agribusiness and military interests. We need a moratorium on irreversible and irresponsible technologies such as gene drives.”

“Gene drives will be one of the fiercest debates at CBD this year,” says Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “Gene drives are advancing far too quickly in the real world, and so far are unregulated. There are already hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into gene drive development, and even reckless proposals to release gene drives within next four years.”

“The CBD is the premier international treaty for protecting biodiversity and life on earth from new threats,” said Lim Li Ching of Third World Network. “It is within the mandate of the CBD to adopt this moratorium, and countries that are party to this agreement must act now to avoid serious or irreversible harm.”

A press conference on the Call for a Moratorium will be held on December 5, 2016 at 3pm EST in the Press Conference Room. It can be live-streamed at http://flux.live/cop/coplive/pr.html.

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Expert contacts:

English: Jim Thomas, (514) 516-5759, jim@etcgroup.org; Dana Perls, +1 (925) 705-1074, dperls@foe.org; Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, +44 (776) 973-3594, r.steinbrecher@econexus.info

Spanish: Silvia Ribeiro, +52 55 2653 3330, silvia@etcgroup.org; Veronica Villa, +52 1 55 5432 4679, veronica@etcgroup.org.

Communications contacts: Trudi Zundel, (226) 979-0993, trudi@etcgroup.org; Marie-Pia Rieublanc (se habla español), +52 1 967 140 4432, territorios@otrosmundoschiapas.org.

Note to Editors:

  1. A copy of the Call for a Global Moratorium on Gene Drives is available with a complete list of signatories, and a short briefing outlining the arguments for a global moratorium on gene drives prepared by the Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives is available at http://www.synbiowatch.org/gene-drives/gene-drives-moratorium
  2. The organizers of the letter are still inviting organizations to join as signatories. Additional organizational signatures can be sent to: trudi@etcgroup.org
  3. The UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) is meeting from December 4-17 in Cancun, Mexico. Other synthetic biology topics are being negotiated – more background found in this media advisory: http://www.foe.org/news/news-releases/2016-12-genetic-extinction-tech-and-digital- dna-challenged
  4. In the lead up to COP 13, German Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks wrote a statement saying she would not support the release of gene drives into the environment. https://www.testbiotech.org/en/node/1772
  5. In September 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) adopted a de facto moratorium on the support or endorsement of research into gene drives for conservation or other purposes. At the same time, 30 leading conservationists and environmentalists called for a moratorium. More information on this moratorium is available at http://www.foe.org/news/news-releases/2016-08-genetic-extinction-technology-rejected-by- international-group-of-scientists.
  6. In June 2016, the US National Academy of Sciences released “Gene Drives on the Horizon,” a report that explored the environmental and social concerns of gene drives, and warned against the environmental release of gene drives. More information on the report can be found at http://nas-sites.org/gene-drives/