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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.

A food and agri trojan horse for South Asia

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Keep your research questions away from our diets and our street food.

Keep your research questions away from our diets and our street food.

What happens when the formation of a “multi-country multi-institutional research programme consortium” is announced, the aim being to aid nutrition in South Asia? In my view, what happens is the beginning of a carefully guided construction of evidence, in some form, that will aid – not nutrition, but – the further industrialisation of crop staple cultivation, its transformation into processed food, and its delivery to urban consumers through retail food oligopolies.

Am I right or wrong? Time will tell, and as this is designed to be a six-year long programme, I think we will see early evidence by end-2013. The programme’s full name is curious as it is revealing – ‘Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA)’. Is the mix of agriculture in South Asia currently unable to provide nutrition? If so what has changed from say 50 years ago? What does ‘leveraging’ mean and who will move the levers? To what end? As I see it, the programme’s name advertises its provenance, and this is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

In the view of the CGIAR and its constituent research institutes, agriculture’s most important task “is to provide food of sufficient quantity and quality to feed and nourish the world’s population sustainably so that all people can lead healthy, productive lives”. According to the CGIAR (and its donors, and its powerful collaborators and patrons, more of which below) achieving this goal “will require closer collaboration across the sectors of agriculture, nutrition, and health, which have long operated in separate spheres with little recognition of how their actions affect each other”.

This view is insidious and its logic is cunning – the CGIAR and its patrons use the climate change problem, they use food insecurity as a totem, and use food price volatility as justification for what they present as solutions. Until the rise of industrial agriculture and chemical fertiliser and the mechanisation of everything from field preparation to remote sensing, agriculture and nutrition and health existed at the core of the holistic existence of agrarian societies.

Vegetables, fresh and local and simple, more sensible by far than 'incentivised' 'interventions'.

Vegetables, fresh and local and simple, more sensible by far than ‘incentivised’ ‘interventions’.

Because the CGIAR imprint is so visible, it becomes immediately clear when we look at the members of this consortium, for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is there. But not leading. The leading institution is the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) of India, and who better – for the CGIAR and its determined patrons – than to have as a helmsman in this spinerette of policy than the man who partnered Norman Borlaug all those years ago in the Punjab? Ah yes, in the shaping of modern agriculture contemporary history does provide inspiration, and I will tell you why in a moment more.

The excuse presented for LANSA to be brought to life is an unremarkable one, it is not original and has been used and abused for all sorts of schemes and programmes ever since India’s days of ‘garibi hatao‘, the 1960s mobilisation cry that was also an election slogan. “Despite rapid economic growth in South Asia, its rates of child undernutrition remain the highest in the world, with nearly half of children stunted or underweight,” complained the LANSA flyer, and added, “progress to reduce these rates is extremely slow. Ironically, most people in the region make their living from farming, which researchers say, offers great potential for improving nutrition”.

Great potential yes, but improving nutrition? We shall see. The programme (according to the scanty literature available, in concert, on all the partners’ websites) “will first examine existing agriculture policies and activities, looking at India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan” (why are Sri Lanka and Nepal excluded? I have a theory, and will comment in a follow-up post). “It will then propose new initiatives to link agriculture and nutrition in the region, working closely with key decision-makers to ensure the research meets their needs.” Read that again – to ensure the research meets their needs! What happened to the children you were so concerned about, dearies? “The goal is to promote cooperation throughout the region, given the trans-border nature of many of the region’s food- and nutrition-related issues”. Yes we share rice and wheat growing ecologies, but what trans-border cooperation does this vastly ambitious consortium have in its collective mind? That too, I think, we shall see soon enough.

I have named two of the members of this group, and the others are: the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC, Bangladesh), the Collective for Social Science Research (CSSR, Pakistan), the Institute of Development Studies (IDS, UK), and the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH, UK). Let’s take the last first. This is the philanthropic part of the Lever that we find today, far more omnisciently, via Unilever, for whom processed food is a large and growing part of its businesses. The IDS is at first glance an odd member of the group, but it has worked with the centres from both Bangladesh and Pakistan, and moreover, carries some weight with the government of Britain, whose chestfuls of pound sterling are fuelling the whole enterprise. Policy-making connections apart, this does seem to me to be mercenary of IDS, but perhaps that is the new nature of development research outfits, and neither vintage nor experience now provides insulation from the temptations of the infernal market.

What have they said they will attempt? The minimalist pamphlet mentions three “core research questions” and these are: 1. How can agriculture be provided with an enabling environment in which to leverage nutrition? 2. How can agriculture and agri-food chains be incentivised to be more pro-nutrition? 3. How can more pro-nutrition agricultural interventions be designed and implemented?

I find these very worrying. What is meant by “enabling environment”? Does it mean the same as “reform” and “austerity” for example? Are they intending to tamper with India’s mid-day meals programme from which many millions of schoolchildren benefit – and who currently (most of them every schoolday at least) eat fresh cooked meals instead of packaged, processed, biofortified, micronutriented cardboard? That second core research question reads like MBA gobbledygook to me, but coming from this famously wise group, becomes all the more worrying – “agri-food chains” and “incentivised” and “pro-nutrition”? Who will do the incentivising and at what public cost – isn’t that a fair research question too? And the third one has “pro-nutrition” again, this time combined with “interventions” – by who? Tesco and Walmart?

It is troubling that hovering behind all this trendy goal-setting and consortium building is the hungry shadow of the CGIAR and its powerful patrons. It has striven mightily to place the agriculture, nutrition, and health combination on the development agenda (formally with the IFPRI ‘2020’ conference in 2011) and including the CGIAR Research Program 4 (insiders call it CRP4). But there are the close links that are far more alarming – to USAID’s Feed the Future, to the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture machinations and to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its championing of agri-biotech. These, in our era, are designed as the heavy machinery that supports foreign and trade policy in the international sphere. With such connections LANSA, I fear and suspect, is a new food and agriculture policy trojan horse being readied for South Asia.