Start of an international call to stop genetically engineered organisms spreading into the environment!
Coalition calls for the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to take action.
16 May 2014 – Today sees the start of an international call by a broad coalition of organisations to stop the spread of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. The initiative says that binding regulations must be implemented to prevent the release of genetically engineered plants that can persist and invade the environment or lead to transgene flow into native populations or local varieties at centres of origin and of genetic diversity. The organisations will be approaching the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and encouraging them to become actively involved. The CBD, under its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, requests that effective measures are taken to protect biodiversity and prevent unintended transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms.
The call is supported by Asociándote a Ecologistas en Acción (Spain) Econexus, Ecoropa, ETC Group, European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), Friends of the Earth, Europe (FOE), Gene-ethical Network (Germany), Greenpeace International, Red de Semillas (Spain), Testbiotech (Germany), the Third World Network and the Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad, UCCS (Mexico) and others. Further supporters will be asked to join.
“There are already several well-documented examples of genetically engineered plants spreading uncontrolled into wild populations and ecosystems. There are also cases of repeated transgene presence in landraces or local varieties of crop plants such as maize in Mexico and rice in China”, says Elena Alvarez-Buylla from Mexico. “There is a great risk that we will not be able to go back to the original biodiversity without the bio-active transgenes, which can profoundly alter the dynamics of wild and cultivated native varieties.” Alvarez-Buylla is a leading Mexican biologist, currently travelling in Europe and a Member of the Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad, UCCS (Mexico). She has been involved in several research projects that showed that genetically engineered plants had contaminated native populations and regional varieties in Mexico.
The Third World Network (TWN) has followed the negotiations on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety very closely for many years. The international organisation is very concerned about the long-term impact of uncontrolled gene flow of transgenes into the environment: “Article 17 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety requires Parties to prevent or minimise the risks of unintentional transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms, but the current trend of an increasing spread of these organisms into the environment enhances the potential for genetically engineered plants to move across borders”, says Lim Li Ching for TWN. “The precautionary principle can only be implemented if genetically engineered organisms can be retrieved from the environment in case of emergency. This becomes impossible once transgenes move and accumulate in wild and landrace varieties.”
The international ETC Group warns that technical approaches as proposed by industry and some governments will not bring any solutions: “GURTs (genetic use restriction technologies, also known as “Terminator”), are a set of engineering technologies to make seeds sterile in the second generation and are proposed by the biotech industry as an answer to “biosafety”, but in reality they only serve to stop farmers from reproducing seeds. There are scientific reports indicating that GURTS will not function as predicted and implicate new and additional risks. These technologies are under a moratorium at the CBD because of the risks they present to biodiversity, indigenous and local communities, but despite the moratorium some countries are discussing their release”, says Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group Latin America Director.
The organisations signing up to the call are aiming to mobilise further support from civil society and will bring the issue to the meetings of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Convention on Biological Diversity, in September/October 2014 in South Korea.
Elena Alvarez-Buylla, Laboratorio de Genética Molecular, Desarrollo y Evolución de Plantas
Instituto de Ecología (Dpto de Ecología Funcional), México, firstname.lastname@example.org
Lim Li Ching, Third World Network, tel: , email@example.com
Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group Latin America Director, firstname.lastname@example.org
Christoph Then, Testbiotech, tel , email@example.com
María Carrascosa García, Red de Semillas, Telf. firstname.lastname@example.org
Transgenes – moving without control
The first genetically engineered plants were created in 1983 and have been grown commercially since 1996. Meanwhile, early warnings from many experts have become reality. There is now uncontrolled spread of genetically engineered plants such as maize, rice, cotton, oilseed rape, bentgrass and poplar trees. The countries and regions where this is happening include the USA and Canada, Middle America, Japan, China, Australia and Europe. In many cases, the plants have escaped far beyond the fields into the environment. In some regions, the transgenes have already moved into populations of wild relatives.
There are various reasons for transgene escape. Apart from commercial cultivation and experimental field trials, losses from the import and transport of viable grains for food and feed production are a source of uncontrolled dispersal. The consequences cannot be reliably predicted and from the cases documented in the overview it is evident that no prediction can be made on how these plants will behave in the long-term or interact with biodiversity.
In the light of these findings, the signatores call onto the contracting parties of the international Cartagena Protocol for biosafety to address and halt the spread of genetically organisms into the environment.
Urgent request to address and halt the spread of genetically organisms into the environment!
Several examples of the uncontrolled spread of genetically engineered plants into wild populations and ecosystems have been documented: cotton in Mexico, oilseed rape in North America, Japan, Switzerland and Australia and grasses in the USA. There are also cases of repeated transgene presence in landraces or local varieties of crop plants such as maize in Mexico and rice in China. This increasing trend towards uncontrolled spread of transgenes into wild populations and ecosystems raises a high level of concern for the release of new organisms such as genetically engineered trees, fish and insects and the challenges posed by emerging applications of synthetic biology.
Genetic engineering and synthetic biology represent a radical break from widely recognized natural restrictions on genome regulation and interspecies genetic exchange. Maintaining the ability of organisms to develop under their evolved dispositions and naturally established restrictions and to participate in further evolutionary processes is a crucial aspect of the protection of biodiversity. In the same way that we seek to protect organisms and ecosystems from persistent chemical substances, we should also protect them from the uncontrolled spread of synthetic and genetically engineered organisms. In the short or long term, these organisms have a capacity to self-replicate, evolve and interact with other organisms in unpredictable ways and thereby represent a threat to ecological systems and their resilience.
There is a risk that we will not be able to recover the original biodiversity, as the dynamics of wild and cultivated native varieties will be altered. We cannot rely solely on gene banks, as they are able to preserve only a very small percentage of the genetic diversity present within centres of origin and of genetic diversity.
From a regulatory point of view, spatio-temporal control of genetically engineered organisms is necessary. It is a fundamental precondition for any risk assessment because no reliable predictions can be made concerning the consequences of artificially transformed organisms once they are released or escape into wider environments and become part of open-ended evolutionary processes.
Article 17 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety requires Parties to prevent or minimize the risks of unintentional transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms. The current trend of an increasing spread of these organisms outside of the managed settings for which they were approved threatens to enhance the potential for unintentional transboundary movements. Finally, the precautionary principle can only be implemented if genetically engineered organisms can be retrieved from the environment in case of emergency. This becomes impossible once transgenes move and accumulate in wild and landrace varieties.
While all genetically engineered organisms can pose risks to the environment and health, we particularly call for the prohibition of experimental releases, imports and commercialization of genetically engineered organisms if:
a) they can persist and invade the environment if they escape their containment.
b) they can not be withdrawn from the environment if this is required.
c) it is already known that they can persist or have invasive behavior after release into the environment.
d) their release may lead to transgene flow into populations of local varieties at centres of origin and of genetic diversity and the accumulation of transgenes in the genomes of native varieties.