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The deadly threat of gene drives

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The UN Biodiversity Conference began on 13 November 2018 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and until its close on 29 November will call on decision makers from more than 190 countries to step up efforts to “halt biodiversity loss and protect the ecosystems that support food and water security and health for billions of people”.

On 17 November, the Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity begins. On the agenda is a vital subject that has been moved to the centre of the meeting’s deliberations: a technology called ‘gene drives’. This part of the UN Biodiversity Conference will discuss several key draft decisions about the risks it poses and how to deal with them, including through a moratorium on the technology.

What are ‘gene drives’? Gene drive organisms are supposed to ‘force’ one or more genetic traits onto future generations of their own species. The term for gene drives used by French scientists, ‘Forçage Génétique’ (genetic forcer) makes the intention clear: to force an engineered genetic change through an entire population or even an entire species. If permitted, such organisms could accelerate the distribution of corporate-engineered genes from the lab to the rest of the living world at dizzying speed and in an irreversible process.

As a must-read explainer of this menacing new technology, prepared by the ETC Group and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, has put it, such organisms “are designed, over time, to replace non-gene drive organisms of the same species in a population via an uncontrolled chain reaction – this ability may make them a far more dangerous biohazard than genetically modified organisms (GMOs)”. [The report, released in October 2018, is ‘Forcing The Farm: How Gene Drive Organisms Could Entrench Industrial Agriculture and Threaten Food Sovereignty’.]

Recently, a study by the Bundesamt für Naturschutz, which is the central scientific authority of the German federal government for both national and international nature conservation, warned that “with gene drives, GMO applications are moving directly from crop plants to modifying wild species. Major consequences on semi-natural and natural ecosystems are expected.” The research concludes that “a clear understanding
and analysis of these differences is crucial for any risk assessment regime and a socially acceptable and
ethical evaluation that is vital for the application of [GDO] technology”.

More pertinent to the current model of the transnational cartelisation of industrial agricultre, a group of French researchers recently concluded: “The time frame of gene drive perfectly fits the economic development strategies dominant today in agribusiness, with a focus on short-term return on investments and disdain for long-term issues. The current economic system based on productivity, yields, monoculture, and extractivism is a perfect match for the operating mode of gene drive.” [From ‘Agricultural pest control with CRISPR‐based gene drive: time for public debate’ by Virginie Courtier‐Orgogozo, Baptiste Morizot and Christophe Boëte in EMBO Reports.]

Reading these warnings helps form better clarity about what GDOs are and are not. From what I have been able to understand, normal reproductive biology gives the offspring of sexually reproducing organisms a 50:50 chance of inheriting a gene from their parents. The gene drives however is an invasive technology to ensure that within a few generations, all that organisms offspring will contain an engineered gene!

Why the phase shift from the already dangerous GMO to the threatening of an entire species by GDO? Thanks to rising consumer awareness of the dangers of GMO food crops, vegetables and fruit – which is now visible even in India (a generation-and-a-half later than Europe) where the central and state governments have put not a rupee into educating consumers about pesticide and synthetic fertiliser poisoning, let alone GMOs) – the uptake of GMOs is levelling off as the predicted risks have become evident, such as the intensification of the treadmill of increased use of toxic chemicals. The so-called ‘gene editing’ techniques, and particularly GDOs, has given the industrial agriculture-biotech-seed multinational corporations a strategy to regain the pace of their domination of food cultivation and therefore food control.

Recognising the extreme danger, the UN Biodiversity Conference which is now under way in Egypt, and particularly the part of the conference beginning on 17 November which is the Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have placed gene drives on the agenda. [The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. It was adopted on 29 January 2000 and entered into force on 11 September 2003.]

The meeting will discuss, under ‘Risk assessment and risk management’ (which are Articles 15 and 16 of the Protocol) draft decisions on gene drives and, we must hope, take them while imposing a moratorium on this evil technology. [Draft decision document CBD/CP/MOP/9/1/ADD2]. The draft decisions are:

3. Also recognises that, as there could be potential adverse effects arising from organisms containing engineered gene drives, before these organisms are considered for release into the environment, research and analysis are needed, and specific guidance may be useful, to support case-by-case risk assessment;

4.Notes the conclusions of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology that, given the current uncertainties regarding engineered gene drives, the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities might be warranted when considering the possible release of organisms containing engineered gene drives that may impact their traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water;

5. Calls for broad international cooperation, knowledge sharing and capacity-building to support, inter alia, Parties in assessing the potential adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity from [living modified organisms produced through genome editing,] living modified organisms containing engineered gene drives and living modified fish, taking into account risks to human health, the value of biodiversity to indigenous peoples and local communities, and relevant experiences of individual countries in performing risk assessment of such organisms in accordance with annex III of the Cartagena Protocol;

The concerns of the CBD and the warnings of scientists have been entirely ignored by the agricultural biotechnology corporations and by the inter-connected funding organisations and research groups engaged in synthetic biology. As the report, ‘Forcing The Farm’, has said, multimillion-dollar grants for gene drive development have been given by Gates Foundation, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the Open Philanthropy Institute, the Wellcome Trust and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These include generous allowances for what is called ‘public message testing’ and ‘public engagement exercises’ – making GDOs sound beneficial to society and glossing over the dangers – and lobbying of governments and policy-makers.

What is particularly worrying for us in India is the role of the Tata Trusts in financing research on GDOs. In 2016 October an American university, the University of California San Diego, received a US$70 million commitment from the Tata Trusts (which now is the umbrella organisation for what earlier were the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, the Sir Ratan Tata Trust and the Tata Education and Development Trust, and in terms of funding capacity is probably the largest in India) to establish the Tata Institute for Active Genetics and Society (TIAGS).

This new institute is described as a collaborative partnership between the university and research operations in India. A university press release had said: “UC San Diego, which will be home to the lead unit of the institute (TIAGS-UC San Diego), will receive US$35 million in funding, while the remainder of the committed funds is anticipated to support a complementary research enterprise in India (TIAGS-India).”

India is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (signed 23/01/2001, ratified 17/01/2003, entered into force 11/09/2003) and its reporting to the Protocol on risk assessments of GMOs (which have officially not been used on food crops) has been worse than desultory – the five risk assessments submitted by India are all in 2012 for Bt cotton hybrids.

The shameful co-option of the statutory Genetic Engineering Approval Committee by India’s biotech companies, which was fully revealed in 2016 during the furore over the Committee’s bid to have GM mustard approved, has shown that the entire biosafety assessment process in India and its ability to actually protect our environment and citizens’ health from the profoundly menacing risks of biotechnology, is compromised.

The Gates Foundation, which has graduated from influencing central and state government policy in health and agriculture to becoming an implementing agency, and which has invested heavily in synthetic biotechnology and GDOs (such as ‘Target Malaria’, which uses gene drives against mosquitoes) is now collaborating with the Tata Trusts in health, nutrition and crop cultivation together with the American aid agency USaid and other foundations that claim philanthropic intentions. The risks to our agro-ecological methods, our local crop cultivation knowledge, our food and our public healthcare system have now become far more threatening.

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The ideologies about knowledge

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RG_TERI_terragreen_201605

The few paragraphs that follow are taken from my recent article for the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) magazine, Terragreen. Published in the 2016 May issue, the article links what we often call traditional knowledge with the ways in which we understand ecology and the ways in which we are defining ‘sustainable development’.

quotes-blueSustainable development has today become a commonly used term, yet it describes a concept that is still being considered by different kinds of societies, by each in a manner of its choosing. This has happened because while historically how societies grew to be ‘developed’ was a process that took a variety of pathways, today the prescribed pathway to the ‘modern’ scarcely changes from one country to another.

Hence culturally what these societies have considered as being ‘sustainable’ behaviour – each according to its ecological context – is being replaced by a prescribed template in which interpretations are discouraged. Such a regime of prescription has led only to the obscuring of the many different kinds of needs felt by communities that desire a ‘development’ that makes cultural sense, but also of the kinds of knowledge which will allow that ‘development’ to be sustainable.

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Click for image pdf (600kb) of article

Some of this knowledge we can readily see. To employ labels whose origin is western, these streams of knowledge and practice are called traditional knowledge, intangible cultural heritage, indigenous wisdom, folk traditions, or indigenous and local knowledge. These labels help serve as gateways to understand both the ideas, ‘development’ and ‘sustainable’. It is well that they do for today, very much more conspicuously than 20 years earlier, there is a concern for declining biodiversity, about the pace and direction of global environmental change, a concern over the unsustainable human impact on the biosphere and the diminishing of community identity.

There is widespread acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation – this is perceived across cultures, geographical scales (that is, from local units such as a village, to national governments), and knowledge systems (and this includes both formal and non-formal ways of recognising these systems). The need for such a new dialogue on the situation is expressed in several global science-policy initiatives, both older and recent, such as the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) which is now 22 years old, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), whose first authoritative reports became available in 2015.

Development whose sustainability is defined locally and implemented locally means that the ‘investment’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ (terms that have become popular to describe development efforts) comes from the people themselves. Many diverse agencies at this level – civil society, youth groups, vocational networks, small philanthropies – assist such development and provide the capacities needed. This is the level at which the greatest reliance on cultural approaches takes place, endogenously.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is practitioners of intangible cultural heritage and bearers of traditional knowledge, together with the communities to which they belong, who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with. Besides, they possess the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.

India marches against Monsanto, hauls it back into court

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The anti-GM and anti-Monsanto protest in Bangalore outside the Town Hall on 2013 October 15

The anti-GM and anti-Monsanto protest in Bangalore outside the Town Hall on 2013 October 15

This is an important week for the public movement in India against genetically-modified seed and food, and against the corporate control of agriculture. Just ahead of World Food Day 2013, the Coalition for GM Free India has held public protests, marches and events in major cities – Bangalore, Mumbai, New Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai.

“Today, India is also under threat from the hazardous products that Monsanto wants to profiteer from – these are products that affect the very food that we eat to survive and stay healthy and our environment. These are products that have the potential to jeopardise future generations too,” said the Coalition at the protest meetings and marches.

These actions have come when, in a very significant ruling by the High Court of Karnataka, a petition to dispose criminal prosecution of the Monsanto subsidiary in India, representatives of an agricultural university and a partner company, has been dismissed.

RG-Monsanto_BLR_protest_10Mahyco-Monsanto, the Indian seed company, the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad (which is in the state of Karnataka), and Monsanto collaborating partners Sathguru Consultants were accused by the National Biodiversity Authority and the Karnataka State Biodiversity Board of committing serious criminal acts of biopiracy in promoting B.t. Brinjal, India’s first food GMO.

The Bangalore-based Environment Support Group (ESG) had said to the court that the entire process by which the product had been developed violated the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992, and “constituted an outrageous act of biopiracy of India’s endemic brinjal (eggplant) varieties”.

To substantiate this charge, the ESG produced evidence that all the endemic varieties of brinjal that had been accessed by the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad and Monsanto-Mahyco, with technical support from Sathguru Consultants and USAID, and the act of inserting the B.t. gene (a proprietary product of Monsanto), were undertaken without any consent of local Biodiversity Management Committees, the State Biodiversity Board and the National Biodiversity Authority.

As the Coalition for GM Free India has pointed out repeatedly, Monsanto’s misdeeds in India and its growing threat to food security and the right to food cultivation and consumption choices are considerable:
* Mahyco-Monsanto used its Bt cotton seed monopoly to set exorbitant prices. The Andhra Pradesh government had to use the MRTP (Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices) Commission, which observed that Monsanto-Mahyco was using unfair trade practices in India, while asking the company to reduce the royalty/sub-licensing fee being charged in India.
* Monsanto-Mahyco did not hesitate to sue governments in India on issues related to compensation for loss-incurring farmers or price-regulation.
* After the advent of Bt cotton, Monsanto entered into licensing agreements with most seed companies in India so that out of 22.5 million acres of GM cotton, 21 million acres is planted with its seed, Bollgard. Today it controls nearly 93% of the market share of cotton seeds in India, with little choice left to farmers.
* Monsanto is on the Board of the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, under which bio-safety regime for GM crops was sought to be weakened.
* Monsanto entered into agreements with several states (Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir) under which the states spend hundreds of crore rupees of public funds every year to purchase hybrid maize seeds from them. Such agreements were found to have no scientific or funding rationale to support them. Appraisals have shown these to be risky for farmers. However, the corporation has found huge, ready markets supported by taxpayers’ funds!
* Monsanto is pushing the sales of its herbicide glyphosate which is known to cause reproductive problems. Approval for its herbicide-tolerant GM crops would skyrocket the use of this hazardous chemical in our fields.

The action in court and on the streets of major cities must be recognised by the central and state governments in order to pursue the criminal prosecution against biopiracy in B.t. brinjal. This is critical, said the ESG, because it is for the “first time that India has sought to implement the provisions of the Biodiversity Act tackling biopiracy, and thus the effort constitutes a major precedent to secure India’s bio-resources, associated traditional knowledge and biodiversity for the benefit of present and future generations”.

The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya, and chemodiversity

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The Kallawaya are an itinerant community of healers and herbalists living in the Bolvian Andes. The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Photo: UNESCO/J Tubiana

The Kallawaya are an itinerant community of healers and herbalists living in the Bolvian Andes. The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Photo: UNESCO/J Tubiana

In a short and insightful commentary in the latest issue of the Unesco Courier, Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani has discussed ‘chemodiversity’ as being “one component of biodiversity”. It’s a truth we often miss or overlook. The latest issue of the Unesco Courier, 2001 January-March, celebrates 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry.

Since the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1992), da Silva Bolzani has written, the exploitation of natural resources and the socio-economic benefits of bioprospecting have become increasingly poignant issues. One of the principal goals of the Convention on biological diversity, which was adopted at the Summit, is “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.” But bioprospecting, which consists of making an inventory of the components of biodiversity with a view to ensuring their conservation and sustainable use, has, on the contrary, not ceased to be misused to further the interests of industry, which often patents the substances as they are found.

The tenth Conference of Parties to the Convention, held in Nagoya (Japan) in October this year, will change the picture, though, as it reached a legally binding agreement on the fair and equitable use of genetic resources. As from 2012, this Protocol will regulate commercial and scientific relations between countries which possess not only most of the organic substances, but also the knowledge – often non-scientific – surrounding these resources, and those countries wishing to use them for industrial purposes. A new page has turned in the history of the exploitation of the extraordinary chemodiversity of so-called ‘megadiverse’ countries.

Chemodiversity is one component of biodiversity. Secondary metabolites – alkaloids, lignans, terpenes, phenylpropanoids, tanins, latex, resins and the thousands of other substances identified so far – which have a whole host of functions in the life of plants, are also playing a crucial role in the development of new drugs. And, although we are living in the era of combinatory chemistry, with high-speed screening and molecular engineering, we still continue to turn to nature for the raw materials behind many medically and economically successful new treatments. Nature has provided over half of the chemical substances that have been approved by regulatory bodies across the world over the past 40 years.

[Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani is Professor of Chemistry at the Institute of Chemistry-UNESP, (Araraquara, Sao Paulo, Brazil) and Past President of the Brazilian Chemical Society (2008 – 2010)]