Friends of the Earth International and ETC Group
Landmark Convention on Biological Diversity decision calls on governments to conduct strict risk assessments and seek indigenous and localpeoples’ consent ahead of potential release of ‘exterminator’ technology.
29 November 2018, Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt: Today, the UN has made a significant global decision on how to govern a high-risk, new genetic engineering technology – gene drives.
‘This important decision puts controls on gene drives using simple common sense principles: Don’t mess with someone else’s environment, territories and rights without their consent,’ explains Jim Thomas, Co-Executive Director of the ETC Group. ‘Gene drives are currently being pursued by powerful military and agribusiness interests and a few wealthy individuals. This UN decision puts the power back in the hands of local communities, in particular Indigenous Peoples, to step on the brakes on this exterminator technology’.
The Convention on Biological Diversity decision (see Box) also requires that, before an environmental gene drive release, a thorough risk assessment is carried out. With most countries lacking a regulatory system for the technology, it requires that new safety measures are put in place to prevent potential adverse effects. The decision acknowledges that more studies and research on impacts of gene drives are needed to develop guidelines to assess gene drive organisms before they are considered for release.
‘In Africa we are all potentially affected, and we do not want to be lab rats for this exterminator technology,’ notes Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje of Friends of the Earth Africa, and chair of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. ‘Farmers have already marched in the streets of Burkina Faso to protest genetically engineered mosquitoes and we will march again if they ignore this UN decision. We are giving notice now that potentially affected West African communities have not given their consent or approval to this risky technology’.
The agreement to seek and obtain consent may immediately impact the most high-profile (and well-funded) gene drive project, by researchers at London’s Imperial College who aim to release genetically engineered mosquitoes in Burkina Faso as a step towards future gene drive mosquito releases. Contrary to Target Malaria’s claims, people living in the villages targeted for potential release have not been consulted, nor given consent.
This decision follows a campaign by hundreds of organizations, along with concerns expressed by several governments represented at the UN, who called for a moratorium on the environmental release of gene drives.
The globally-agreed decision requires that governments must seek the approval of ‘potentially affected indigenous peoples and local communities’ prior to considering any release of gene drives, including experimental releases. Given that gene drives are designed to spread through a species and across geographic regions – a novel feature of this form of genetic engineering – any environmental release could potentially affect communities far beyond the single release site and it will now be necessary to seek wider consent. This puts an important halt to gene drive releases moving forward. The UN decision justifies controls on gene drive releases because of their potential impact on the ‘traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water’ of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
Guy Kastler from La Via Campesina, a global movement that represents over 200 million peasants from 182 organizations in 81 countries, said: ‘The prospect of this technology brings unprecedented risks that we can’t accept. The UN should have decided a clear moratorium on gene drives. La Via Campesina calls on peasants of the world to oppose in every country the implementation of this technology, which can potentially exterminate our crops or animals and other elements of biodiversity essential to our productions and livelihood’.
- Jim Thomas, Co-Executive Director, ETC Group (Canada)
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- Dana Perls, senior food and agriculture campaigner, Friends of the Earth (US)
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- Mariann Bassey, Friends of the Earth Africa, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (Nigeria)
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- Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group (Mexico),
- Tom Wakeford, ETC Group (UK)
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