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22.05.2019 |

International scientists urge precaution with gene drives: new study

Bern/Berlin, 21 May 2019

Gene drives should be treated with the utmost precaution, international scientists conclude in a new and comprehensive study which will be published and presented on May 24 in Bern. The emerging technology is currently not fit for application due to important uncertainties at the scientific, technical and practical levels and due to serious limitations with their functioning, the study shows.

Most gene drives are intended for release in the wild and their influence on ecosystems is unknown, potentially irreversible and very likely to cross national borders. “Existing biosafety rules are deficient and not fully equipped to manage the unique risks posed by gene drives”, says Lim Li Ching, expert on international regulation and an author of the study. Until effective, legally binding international regulation is in place, as well as genuine public engagement, no gene drive organisms (GDOs) should be released, the study recommends. “The public must be involved from the very beginning in defining the problems to be addressed and setting priorities, without an a priori preference for gene drives as a solution”, adds Tamara Lebrecht, project coordinator and another author of the study.

Rather than starting from the suggestion that gene drives will solve problems like invasive species or the spread of diseases like malaria, all available potential solutions and paths to development for such problems should be weighed against each other. Other solutions are often already available or around the corner but may miss the political will and/or funding needed for their development and application. Public interest, not private interest, should control gene drive development. In addition, the use of gene drives for harmful or military applications needs urgent public attention.

These are the prime conclusions of the study published by three independent scientific organisations: Critical Scientists Switzerland (CSS), European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) and Federation of German Scientists (FGS/VDW). Experts from the life sciences, environmental and agricultural sciences, philosophy and law have brought together current knowledge on the science, applications, social aspects, ethics and regulation of gene drives.

CRISPR/Cas, the new genetic engineering method, has allowed the idea of gene drives to be realised. GDOs are designed to ‘drive’ their modified genes into wild populations, by enforcing their own propagation to all offspring and circumventing the rules of inheritance. Examples under investigation are malaria mosquitoes modified to breed only males and thus die out, invasive mice similarly modified to die out, mice modified to prevent their ticks conferring Lyme disease to humans, or weeds modified to take away their resistance to weedkillers. However, the study shows that many claimed features of gene drives are unrealistic and carry a high degree of scientific uncertainty and unpredictability. “Although the technology only exists in the lab, great promises on what gene drives will achieve once released in the wild, are already being made and propagated in the media and scientific publications, thereby overstretching expectation both among the public and among funders”, says Tamara Lebrecht.

The summary of the study is available at https://genedrives.ch/report.

The complete study will be available on May 24 at https://genedrives.ch/report.

The symposium is still open for registration; for details see https://genedrives.ch/symposium/.

For preliminary reporting, interview request and accreditation for the symposium please contact Tamara Lebrecht at lebrecht@criticalscientists.ch

Press contact

Tamara Lebrecht

Executive secretary of CSS and author of the study

lebrecht@criticalscientists.ch

+41 (0) 31 372 02 80

14.05.2019 |

Russia joins in global gene-editing bonanza

A US$1.7-billion programme aims to develop 30 gene-edited plant and animal varieties in the next decade.

Russia is embracing gene-editing. A 111-billion-rouble (US$1.7-billion) federal programme aims to create 10 new varieties of gene-edited crops and animals by 2020 — and another 20 by 2027.

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Barley and beets

The decree lists four crops — barley, sugar beet, wheat and potatoes — as priorities. Russia is the world’s biggest producer of barley and a major producer of the other three, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

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Yi Li, a plant scientist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, says that the programme’s launch is “a significant move” both for Russia and the world. He says that it could prompt China to invest more in gene-editing technologies, and help to fuel growing enthusiasm for such technologies in the United States. “For European countries, this can be a very interesting development in the light of the European court of justice ruling on genome editing,” he adds.

13.05.2019 |

Gene drive organisms: What Africa should know about actors, motives and threats to biodiversity and food systems

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) has produced a briefing paper in regard to a new and controversial genetic engineering (GE) technology to produce gene drive organisms (GDOs). These GDOs have been specifically designed to spread an engineered, ‘modified’ genetic trait such as sterility, with the potential to eradicate entire wildlife populations and even species. The briefing is also available in French.

Deploying gene drives to eliminate malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes is proposed by the Target Malaria project, which is funded inter alia by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As part of a ‘phased’ approach, Target Malaria plans to release gene drive mosquitoes in a third phase, following a first-phase release of 10,000 non-gene drive sterile GM mosquitoes in Burkina Faso. This release of the GM (non gene drive) mosquitoes was planned for 2018 but due to community resistance in Burkina Faso, as well as reported technical difficulties experienced by the Target Malaria project, the release has not yet taken place.

12.05.2019 |

Seeds from Bt brinjal trials not deposited with govt body

The use of GM crops is contentious, with arguments existing on both sides. Still, with India not allowing the use of genetically modified brinjal, the developments in Haryana are a clear violation of the law.

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The “biotech industry’s strategy of ‘leak illegal seeds first, contaminate and spread the cultivation and present a fait accompli’ for obtaining approval is well known. It did this with Bt cotton in India,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, convener of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

11.05.2019 |

2,000-kg HT cotton seeds seized, company MD held

HYDERABAD: Confirming the worst fears of Telangana government that unapproved herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton seed is making its way into the state and farmers are using HT seed on a large scale, a whopping 2,005 kilos of HT cotton seed was seized near Secunderabad railway station on Friday.

Managing director of a seed company and a driver were arrested in a joint operation conducted by Task Force police and agriculture department officials.

08.05.2019 |

Danish Council on Ethics attacks EU's GMO regulations

Council was advised – and misled – by scientists whose links to the GMO industry were not disclosed to the public

The Danish Council on Ethics has published a report recommending that the EU's GMO legislation be changed to facilitate the introduction of gene-edited plants on the grounds that they could help achieve sustainability objectives. The report calls for the current process-based regulation to be abolished in favour of much weaker product-based regulation.

However, GMWatch has discovered that two external advisors on the report have links to the GMO industry, which were not disclosed to the public.

24.04.2019 |

Local company stirs controversy through marketing gene-edited foods

A company co-founded by a University professor has begun distributing gene-edited soybean oil, which is used by an undisclosed Midwest food chain.

Because of the contributions to one company by a University of Minnesota professor, a major Midwest food chain is quietly introducing a genetically edited soybean oil, causing controversy in the agriculture and food industries.

The oil was invented by the Minnesota-based biotechnology company Calyxt, which was co-founded by University professor Dan Voytas.The release of this oil has sparked debate among food industry experts and activists about whether gene-edited foods should be subject to the same regulations as food containing genetically modified organisms.

According to an Associated Press article published last month, an undisclosed Midwest fast food chain is using this soybean oil in food preparation. Gene-edited foods are not regulated like GMOs, and critics worry this may lead to unforeseen environmental consequences and health impacts.

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Dana Perls is the senior food and agriculture campaigner with Friends of the Earth, an organization that advocates for sustainable and organic agriculture practices. Perls said the consequences of gene-editing can be dire and that gene-editing should be classified as genetic modification.

“Many of these genetic engineering proposals are being bolstered by company PR and investor hype. There is robust scientific evidence that shows new genetic engineering techniques like gene-editing are resulting in potentially dangerous consequences and genetic havoc, genetic mutation and unpredictable consequences,” Perls said.

The fact that Calyxt will not disclose the identity of the major food chain for what they claim are competitive reasons is a concern to Perls. It is unknown whether that restaurant discloses to consumers they use gene-edited food products.

“We need a model for strong regulation and we need to let consumers know what they’re eating. People deserve the right to decide what they’re feeding their families and themselves,” Perls said.

18.04.2019 |

Fierce opposition to Corteva’s 2,4-D GM maize seed

Press Release from the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB)

18 April 2019, Johannesburg South Africa

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) has lodged a strenuous objection to three simultaneous applications by Corteva (previously Dow AgroSciences) for permits from the South African biosafety authorities to allow the commercial sale and cultivation of genetically modified (GM) maize seed resistant to the war chemical 2,4-D, as well as to glyphosate, glufosinate and quizalofop. due to grave concerns surrounding the biosafety risks they pose to human health and the environment.

Publication CoverThese join a long line of applications for GMOs to be grown in, and imported into, South Africa. If approved, they will further entrench the current ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust industrial food system, reinforcing corporate capture, control, and consolidation and monopoly of our seed and food systems and pollute our food, bodies and lands with war chemicals.

17.04.2019 |

Industry studies behind EU food safety assessments must be public

Defeat for agribusiness lobby

The European Parliament voted today to introduce new transparency rules for EU food safety assessments, as part of the EU’s "general food law". The amended law will oblige the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to publish the industry studies used in European safety evaluations of products that can end up in food – such as pesticides, GMOs and animal feed additives.

Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said: “The chemical industry will still test the safety of their own products, but at least now the studies will be published so that independent scientists can scrutinise their contents and the advice EFSA gives to lawmakers. EFSA has in the past privileged corporate interests over the public’s right to know, so we will be watching closely to see that the new rules are properly applied.”

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Corporate Europe Observatory commented, "This victory is the result of many years of campaigning by scientists and citizens, in particular the Stop Glyphosate European Citizens Initiative (ECI). While this reform should have been much broader, it is a rare defeat for agribusiness lobbyists, despite their attempt to derail and hollow out the measure. But the battle isn’t over, because industry will be looking for loopholes, and we will have to ensure this transparency law is meaningfully implemented."

16.04.2019 |

Gene-edited livestock: consumers may say no

Relocating to countries with less-stringent regulatory systems to work on gene editing of farm animals might seem attractive (see Nature 566, 433–434; 2019), but could be short-sighted. The technology’s potential for increasing food security — by improving animals’ drought tolerance, say — can be realized only if the public agrees to it.

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National legislators must recognize the public as a valued stakeholder in all such experiments, wherever they are conducted.

Nature 568, 316 (2019)

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