Call for precautionary approach to synthetic biology, 09 April 2014
Dear Friends and Colleagues
The 11th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2012 adopted Decision XI/11 on “New and emerging issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity”, which included sections on synthetic biology.
The COP recognized“the development of technologies associated with synthetic life, cells or genomes, and the scientific uncertainties of their potential impact on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity”, and urged Parties and invited other Governments “to take a precautionary approach, in accordance with the preamble of the Convention and with Article 14, when addressing threats of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity posed by organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology…”
The COP also noted, “based on the precautionary approach, the need to consider the potential positive and negative impacts of components, organisms and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity”.
It called for additional relevant information to be provided, synthesized and analysed, for the consideration of the CBD’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA). SBSTTA 18 will meet in June 2014 in Montreal, Canada and one of the key agenda items will be on synthetic biology.
The briefing below, produced by ETC Group, highlights the issues raised by synthetic biology, including new biosafety threats and the current lack of oversight or governance. ETC Group supports the precautionary approach and recommends that CBD Parties establish a moratorium on the environmental and commercial release of Synthetically Modified Organisms (SMOs) and assess their livelihood implications.
TOWARD SBSTTA 18 – FOCUS ON SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY
* Synthetic Biology is a multibillion-dollar industry that aims to ‘programme’ living organisms to create ‘synthetically modified organisms’ (SMOs) for the production of foods, fuels and chemicals.[i]
* The release and use of SMOs introduce new direct and indirect risks to biodiversity and human health.
* SMO-derived products may threaten the livelihoods of millions of tropical farmers by displacing natural commodities, including coconut oil, cocoa butter, vanilla, saffron, stevia, rubber, patchouli and vetiver.
* Synthetic Biology provides the means to carry out ‘digital biopiracy’ that evades the Cartagena Protocol.
* SBSTTA 18 must relay clear advice on how to prevent harmful environmental and commercial releases of SMOs.
Box: Definition of Synthetic Biology
Synthetic biology is the applied design and synthesis of new biologically-based parts, devices, and systems at the organismal, cellular or sub cellular level as well as the de novo synthesis or re-design of existing, natural biological systems or genomes. The field is characterized by use of synthesized DNA and other synthetic genetic components and also by the use of engineering-based approaches to construction of living organisms. (ie. Synthetically Modified Organisms).
The synthetic biology industry is already partnering with the world’s largest grain, chemical and oil companies to release products into consumer and other markets. The industry forecasts sales of almost US$11 billion by 2016.
Synthetic Biology at SBSTTA 18:
Synthetic Biology will be discussed under the New and Emerging Issues agenda item (item x). Parties will issue advice on a programme of work based on consideration of two reviews prepared by the CBD Secretariat (see http://www.cbd.in/emerging). The CBD is the first multilateral body to address the topic of Synthetic Biology and has urged governments to take a precautionary approach.
Box/Pullquote: “Recognizing the development of technologies associated with synthetic life, cells or genomes, and the scientific uncertainties of their potential impact on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, urges Parties and invites other Governments to take a precautionary approach, in accordance with the preamble of the Convention and with Article 14, when addressing threats of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity posed by organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology, in accordance with domestic legislation and other relevant international obligations;” CBD Decision XI/11(4)
Seven Issues Raised by Synthetic Biology:
1) New Biosafety Threats: Synthetic Biology creates highly novel, living artificial organisms that may persist and reproduce in nature. There exists no guidance on how to assess and manage SMOs for biosafety risks. Synthetic Biology companies now produce hundreds of thousands of different novel SMO strains per day raising serious questions about monitoring, recall and liability.
2) Threats to Livelihoods and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity: Companies are now bringing to market synthetic versions of natural plant compounds – including vanilla, stevia, coconut oil, cocoa butter, patchouli, rubber, vetiver and saffron. If these substances compete with botanical products grown by tropical farmers, they could destabilize markets, destroy rural livelihoods and impact sustainable use of biodiversity.
3) Agronomic Changes: The Synthetic Biology industry hopes to brew large quantities of commercial fuels, chemicals and other high-value compounds in vats of SMOs that require sugar as a feedstock. Sourcing enough sugar would drive extensive land-use changes and increased use of water, agrochemicals and fertilizer.
4) Digital Biopiracy: Synthetic Biology makes it possible to move genetic resources across borders as digital information. Agreements such as the Nagoya Protocol that govern ‘material transfer’ of genetic resources may become ineffective.
5) Bioweapons and Health Concerns: Synthetic Biology allows for the construction of viruses and bacteria that could be infectious or otherwise harmful to humans and/or animals – either purposefully or by mistake.
6) Lack of Oversight or Governance: Existing regulations to govern genetic engineering were framed before the emergence of Synthetic Biology techniques and are inadequate to provide safe and just oversight.
7) Danger of False Solutions: Speculative proposals to use Synthetic Biology techniques toward environmentally and socially beneficial goals (such as reviving extinct animals) should be assessed with a critical eye.
ETC Group supports the precautionary approach adopted by COP11 and recommends that Parties at COP12 establish a moratorium on the environmental and commercial release of Synthetically Modified Organisms (SMOs) and assess livelihood implications.
For further information see http://www.etcgroup.org/issues/synthetic-biology.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org +1 613 2412267
[i] The CBD Secretariat uses the term Synthetically Modified Organisms to refer to the products of Synthetic Biology in its Draft Document for Review entitled New and emerging issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity – potential positive and negative impacts of components, organisms and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.