Paris (AFP)- Dozens of scientists, experts and activists called for a ban on the release of genetically modified organisms into the wild, in a statement on Friday warning of potentially serious risks to the world’s pollinators.
The call came during the crucial biodiversity talks in Montreal, where delegates from nearly every country in the world were meeting to negotiate a strategy to stop human-made environmental destruction that threatens ecosystems. life-sustaining nature of the planet.
A host of new genome editing tools that alter the genetic material of living things have emerged in recent years and are being researched and developed largely to target insects and plants in agriculture.
Proponents argue they could help human health, agriculture, and even species conservation.
But their use in the wild carries “understudied risks that could accelerate the decline of pollinator populations and endanger entire food webs”, according to the letter written by the French non-governmental organization Pollinis.
The signatories, including researchers specializing in insects, pollinators and agroecology, called on countries party to the UN biodiversity talks to oppose the deployment of genetic biotechnologies in nature.
They said current scientific research was unable to provide “reliable and robust” risk assessments for potential harm to other species, including pollinators and the plants, animals and entire ecosystems that depend on it.
“Pollinating insects are already facing an alarming decline due to external stressors, adding dangerous and unevaluated genetic biotechnologies to this fatal mix will aggravate stress on pollinators and could precipitate their extinction,” the statement said.
UN talks in Montreal tasked with crafting ambitious plan for how people can live ‘in harmony with nature’ in coming decades as scientists warn one million species are threatened with extinction.
One of the objectives to be negotiated relates specifically to the potential risks of genetic biotechnologies and the decision on this point could either lead to greater regulation or contribute to facilitating their use.
Unlike genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which introduce an external gene into a plant or animal, new gene editing techniques directly modify the genome of a living being, without adding external elements.
An example is so-called gene drive technology, which uses tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 – DNA-cutting “scissors” that can insert, delete or modify genes.
It can push an engineered trait to be passed on to a higher proportion of offspring than would have happened naturally, over many generations.
A flagship project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, developed the technology to try to eradicate malaria.
In 2018, researchers were able to wipe out an entire population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the lab using a gene-editing tool to program their extinction.
Pollinis’ letter says the companies have filed patent applications describing the use of gene drive technology to target “hundreds” of agricultural pests.
Another type of biotechnology uses “genetic silence” to inhibit certain gene expressions in animals or plants.
This would help control crop pests such as the Colorado potato beetle, which decimates potato crops, or fruit flies.
Some of these biotechnologies have already been approved for use in different parts of the world, Pollinis’ statement said, calling for the issue to be “addressed urgently at the international level”.
Proponents of these biotechnologies want permission to take these experiments out of the lab and into field trials.
In Europe, Monsanto’s insect-resistant MON810 maize is the only GMO authorized for cultivation.
But biotech products enjoy a much more flexible framework in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and India, among others.
Christophe Robaglia, professor of biology at the University of Aix-Marseille and GMO expert with the European Food Safety Authority, said EU regulations on such biotechnologies were largely “outdated”.
Regarding the use on plants, he said that using some of these so-called new breeding techniques could “improve” them, make them resistant to viruses or herbicides or make them more tolerant to drought.
In September 2021, a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a motion that highlighted the particular importance of the “precautionary principle” with synthetic biology.
Pollinis’ statement is mostly concerned with the use of these techniques on insects that are not confined to a single area.
He raised particular concern about “gene transfer” between species.
This is the risk that pest modifications could potentially contaminate the genome of non-target species, potentially destabilizing a cascade of other species.
© 2022 AFP
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