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,

Dana Perls, +1(925) 705-1074,

Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher,

Ed Hammond,

Silvia Ribeiro: +52 1 55 2653 3330,

Communications contacts: Trudi Zundel, +1 (226) 979-0993,; Marie-Pia Rieublanc, +52 (1) 967-140-4432,

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 The relevant decisions are:



UNEP/CBD/NP/COP-MOP/2/L11 (available at

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

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,

Tinkerbell: Veronica Villa, +52 1 55 5432 4679,

Communications contacts: Trudi Zundel, +1 (226) 979-0993,

More information and supporting materials for the Captain Hook and Cog Awards can be found at

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:

[2] For more information on Canada’s digital sequencing project, see this article (and stay tuned for new developments)

[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:

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.


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 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.


Courtney Sexton; (202) 547-9359,
Kate Colwell, (202) 222-0744,

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


Expert contacts:

English: Jim Thomas, (514) 516-5759,; Dana Perls, +1 (925) 705-1074,; Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, +44 (776) 973-3594,

Spanish: Silvia Ribeiro, +52 55 2653 3330,; Veronica Villa, +52 1 55 5432 4679,

Communications contacts: Trudi Zundel, (226) 979-0993,; Marie-Pia Rieublanc (se habla español), +52 1 967 140 4432,

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
  2. The organizers of the letter are still inviting organizations to join as signatories. Additional organizational signatures can be sent to:
  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: 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.
  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 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
Dec 012016

workshop-flyerThere’s an exciting program of events covering synthetic biology, GMO 2.0, biosafety, gene drives and lots more at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP13 in Cancun over the next 2 weeks. If you’re going to be in Cancun it’s well worth checking these out!

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Nov 302016


“Genetic engineering is passé. Today, scientists aren’t just mapping genomes and manipulating genes,
they’re building life from scratch – and they’re doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight.”
– Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group, whose mission is to access the consequences and impacts of new technologies.

Listen to the podcast here:

KWMR Post Carbon Radio:

Our two guests are: Claire Hope Cummings, author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds. Her concerns are how gene drives are proposed for use in conservation (Island Conservation’s daughterless mouse) and the whole idea of the eradication of the female (daughterless anything) and anything people need to know about the regulatory issues – most notably that there is no regulatory response to these new developments and the response to GMOs was terribly inadequate and facilitated widespread contamination, among other risks which are still a problem.

Jim Thomas is a Research Programme Manager and Writer at ETC Group, located in Ottawa, Canada. His background is in communications, writing on emerging technologies and international campaigning. For the seven years previous to joining ETC Group Jim was a researcher and campaigner on Genetic Engineering and food issues for Greenpeace International – working in Europe, North America, Australia/New Zealand and South East Asia. He has extensive experience on issues around transgenic crops and nanotechnologies has written articles, chapters and technical reports in the media and online.

Nov 212016

vat-768x432by Mary Lou McDonald (Safe Food Matters)

New words like “synthetic biology”, “GMOs 2.0”, “CRISPR”, and “new biology” are being heard.  And new compounds are in our fragrances, flavourings, cosmetics and foods.

The new words are for new techniques of genetic engineering. What are the techniques and their products, and should we be concerned?

New Techniques­

The old techniques of genetic engineering (GMOs 1.0) dealt with organisms, and inserted genes by either blasting them into an organism or transferring them via a virus. This was not very precise.

1. Gene Editing. A new technique is called “gene editing”. It is more on target. It can cut the genetic code of organisms with greater precision, insert new code, remove a code and swap out genes with others. Tools used in gene editing include “CRISPR-Cas9”, “Zinc Finger Nucleus” and “TALEN”.

2. Synthetic Biology. Another new technique is the creation of genetic code from scratch, without involving living organisms. This is called “synthetic biology” or “put together life”. It uses computer design technology to engineer and produce new codes in the lab.

Applications and Technologies

These techniques, when applied, have resulted in far-reaching technologies.

a) Applications of Gene Editing

Gene Drives.  A much talked-about technology is “gene drives”.  It drives the particular gene down to the offspring and doesn’t allow space for an alternate to arise, as would occur in natural evolution. Once a trait is forced down at the expense of the alternatives, the extinction of the “alternate” offspring is the ultimate result.

Gene drives have so far been used on yeast, fruit flies and 2 mosquito species, but have not yet been released to ecosystems. There is widespread discussion about using them to eradicate mice on islands, mosquitoes, and pests.

GMOs 2.0.  Gene editing is also used in agriculture, the old domain of GMOs 1.0. With GMOs 2.0, food is being engineered to insert, delete or replace DNA, and entirely new sequences are being created. Gene edited mushrooms (deletions in a gene for non-browning) and canola oil (a gene removed to tolerate herbicide) have both been commercialized. Monsanto in September, 2016 licensed the use of CRISPR to engineer food and Dupont in October 2015 predicted that CRISPR plants would be on dinner plates within 5 years. Proponents of gene editing argue that the resulting organisms are not “GM” or “novel substances”, and therefore aren’t subject to current regulation.

b) Applications of SynBio

Foods, Flavours, Fragrances. The synbio technique has spawned many new applications, including the creation of new compounds in consumer products that are so similar to existing products consumers can’t tell the difference.  The method used is to engineer artificial code into microbes and then ferment them on a large scale in vats. Manufacturers use the word “natural” because fermentation is involved.

Some existing and proposed products resulting from this application are artificial biofuels, vanilla, stevia, ginseng, wine, mint, cocoa, caffeine, scents, cleansers and soaps. (See “Are GMOs 2.0 in your Food and Cosmetics”; “What is Synthetic Biology: The Comic Book”).

New Life Forms. Another application is the engineering of completely new genetic codes and life forms. Current players in this sphere include the “DIY” community, students, and start-ups.  A code can be created on the computer and 3-D printed. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (IGEM) is a university and high school competition for building “biobricks” (like lego) to operate in living cells. A recent commercial example of a new life form is a plant that glows in the dark.

Bio Weapons. A third application is military.  In the US, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provides the most funding for synthetic biology in the US government (although the extent to which this is funnelled to bioweapons is not known). In the US, the Army, Navy and Office of the Secretary of State are also funding synbio. (See Extreme Genetic Engineering and the Human Future, p 31).

What is the Concern?

The concern is we don’t know if the new technologies are safe. Why not? Because we don’t completely understand the interactions that occur in living organisms and ecological systems.

Organisms are complex systems in which chemical reactions “fire” at different times and places along interconnected pathways. They do not behave in linear “cause and equal effect” ways, in either space or time. A gene is part of this system. It is a strand of DNA that messages or “fires” at times (or refrains from “firing”) and brings about an action or change in an organism. Similarly, ecological systems are complex systems.  They rely on species interconnections and interactions which also don’t behave in linear “cause and equal effect” ways.

If a complex system does not behave in a linear fashion, the workings of the systems cannot be known ahead of time and its effects cannot be predicted.  Similarly, the effects resulting from a change to one aspect of a system cannot be predicted. The effects can only be known “after the fact”, and, depending on the system, these effects may vary.

This inability to predict the results of a change in the system was the problem with GMOs 1.0, and is the same problem with these new techniques.  The concern will exist every time one of the new techniques is used in a complex living system. The scientific literature even acknowledges that there are often “unintended” or “unpredicted effects” associated with the products of genetic manipulation.  New substances are often created. Even CRISPR-Cas9 technology admittedly has the problem of being “off-target”.

Historical Examples 

The concern of unpredictability is underlined by historical examples of GMOs 1.0 gone wrong. In the late 1990s and early 2000s several people died as a result of reactions to gene therapy procedures, the most notable of which was 18 year old Jesse Gelsinger.  He died from a severe immune reaction to the viral vector used to transport engineered genes. Another example is the food supplement L-Tryptophan.  Genetic modification of the supplement created a new toxin that is linked to EMS, a disease that killed 80 people and afflicted thousands in the late 1980s, early 1990s.  (See “L-Tryptophan”).

Examples of agriculture GMOs 1.0 gone wrong include the case of canola. In 1995 Canada became the first country to approve commercialization of genetically engineered canola. GM canola has now spread and eliminated natural canola almost everywhere in Canada. Other examples of GM plants that have spread uncontrollably are: creeping bentgrass in the USA; cotton and maize in Mexico; BT poplar in China; Bt rice in China; and canola in Japan, the US, Australia and the EU. (See Transgene Escape by TestBiotech).

Supersized Concerns

The concern of unpredictability is more pronounced with these new synbio and gene editing techniques than with GMOs 1.0. Reason? The applications of these new techniques are very broad in scope, and their effects can be devastating.

Gene Drives. The scope of gene drives is obviously major. It extends to the possible extinction of a species, and resulting degradation of its ecosystem.  Even the National Academy of Sciences of the US, in a June 2016 report (at 86), admits that: “[R]eleasing a gene-drive modified organism into the environment means that a complex molecular system will be introduced into complex ecological systems, potentially setting off a cascade of population dynamics and evolutionary processes that could have numerous reverberating effects”.

GMOs 2.0. The scope of GMOs 2.0 extends to the food humans and animals eat and to the environment. The lack of current regulation and the speed at which the products are being advanced means the GMO 2.0 technologies and products will likely be used before they are assessed. This is even though the effects with GMOs 2.0 are compounded.  Testbiotech indicates that with the new gene editing techniques, a single step can be applied several times, causing large changes; plants and animals with genetic changes can be crossed with each other;  different techniques can be used in combination with each other; and that even small steps, if repeated, enable radical changes in the genome.

Foods, Flavours, Fragrances. The scope of the synbio application is enormous, on many fronts. The flavours and fragrance market is advancing quickly:  it was a US $26.5 billion market in 2016 and is expected to grow to over US $35 billion by 2019. Lux Research indicates synbio will be a “permanent and growing aspect” of the flavours market. A major socioeconomic effect is the displacement of natural botanical farmers: 95% of varieties of natural crops are grown by small-scale farmers, more than 20 million of whom depend on these crops for their livelihood.

The new compounds themselves are pervasive in our consumer products without being identified (except they might be called “natural”).  Common names include:  method, Ecover, patchouli, PeterThomasRoth, Evolva, Clearwood, TerraVia, Neossance Biossance, Eversweet (in Coca Cola Life), Agarwood Oil, Muufri animal free milk, among others.  The effect of these compounds on human beings has not been subject to regulatory assessment, even though they are biologically different than the natural botanical substances.

New Life Forms.  The synbio creation of new life forms in the DIY community is advancing, and there is no way to monitor the proliferation of this technology. The September 2016 report of Genome editing: an ethical review points out that a number of websites provide lab and other support services for amateurs, and DIY CRISPR kits are available on line.  A code can be 3-D printed and Fedexed for less than $100. The seeds and kit for the new glowing plant can be ordered on-line. The potential for intentional and unintentional release obviously exists, again with no regulations in place.

BioWeapons. The scope of the military application of synbio is not known, but appears to be growing as increasing amounts of government funding are directed toward the technology. The obvious risks are the inability to recall a release, and the potential for a release to be off-target.

In Sum

New technologies are advancing quickly and new products and substances are in our world.  Genes can now be created from scratch, a wide array of new products and foods can be created with greater precision, and whole species can be affected. The concerns around safety and unpredictability are the same, but the resulting risk profile has increased dramatically. We would do well to learn the new words.

Nov 082016

hook-awards-image-2-2016The Coalition Against Biopiracy (CAB) will host the 6th Captain Hook Awards ceremony at the Thirteenth Conference of the Parties (COP13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Cancun, Mexico, 4-17 December 2016.

Nominate your least-favourite pirate for a 2016 Captain Hook Award, and your most admired biopiracy resistors for a 2016 Cog Award now!

This award ceremony comes as high-tech ‘digital’ biopiracy is becoming easier than ever. 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 swiftly upload DNA as digital sequences in one location and then recreate it as synthetic DNA on the other side of the planet. As the CBD meets to discuss what to do about Synthetic Biology it’s high time to take on the new cyberthieves of the biodiversity commons.

Previous Captain Hook Award winners have included:

  • In 2014 the UK and Canada received a “Pirates Cove” award for sheltering the syn bio industry and aggressively promoting the industry’s interests at CBD’s COP 12.
  • The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) won the 2004 honour of “Worst International Convention” for proposing a new global patent system to facilitate a one-stop shop for exclusive monopolies.
  • Synthetic biology pioneer Craig Venter has won the lifetime achievement award.

Previous Cog Awards have honoured:

  • In 2008, the “Best Organized Advocacy” Award was given to Filipino / Philippine civil society organizations, fisherfolk and individuals who stood up for the Sulu Sea
  • Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer, won the 2004 honour of “Best Advocate” for defending Farmers’ Rights in the field and the courts
  • COMPITCH and other indigenous peoples’ organizations in Mexico won in 2002 for defeating the US government’s $2.5 million bioprospecting project in Chiapas.

See here for full lists of previous winners.

About Biopiracy

For the first time, the Oxford English Dictionary now includes “biopiracy,” The OED defines “biopiracy” as “bioprospecting, regarded as a form of exploitation of developing countries.”

Biopiracy refers to the monopolization of genetic resources such as seeds and genes taken from the peoples or farming communities that have nurtured those resources. It also refers to the theft of traditional knowledge from those cultures.

Today the main source of biopiracy occurs by corporations, academic institutes and governments claiming intellectual property over genetic resources – patents on life (eg gene patents) or claiming plant breeders rights. The introduction of new biotechnologies such as genetic engineering has facilitated a new wave of biopiracy.

With the advent of nanotechnology ownership of nature has now reached a more fundamental level. As well as gene sequences, nanopirates are claiming ownership of the molecules and even the elements that everything is made from.

Meanwhile the culture industry has been commercially exploiting the art, culture, language and symbols of indigenous cultures – often claiming trademarks on knowledge which they have stolen.

For some Biopiracy only refers to the unauthorised and illegal theft of knowledge and resources, claiming that legal bioprospecting agreements can be worked out to share commercial benefits. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) takes the view that agreements can be made on “access and benefit sharing” to overcome biopiracy. Many Indigenous groups disagree:

“Contractual benefit sharing is like waking up in the middle of the night to find your house being robbed. On the way out the door, the thieves tell you not to worry because they promise to give you a share of whatever profit they make selling what used to belong to you.” – Alejandro Argumedo, Quechua activist

Check out wikipedia’s definition of Biopiracy

For an introduction to Biopiracy and the state of global discussions check out this briefing from ETC Group