Synthia grounded?: UN science body considers curfew for synthetic biology's machine-made microbe

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At the same moment that J. Craig Venter announced in Washington DC that his team had created the first-ever synthetic and self-reproducing microbe on May 20, 2010, a UN meeting in Nairobi called for precaution before Synthia (as his synthetic life form is called) is let out in the wild. The scientific body (the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice -- SBSTTA 14) of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) wrapped up its two week-long meeting this evening in Nairobi with a call for the establishment of global rules over synthetic life forms.

As the world prepares to take stock of the dramatic destruction of global biodiversity on the International Day of Biodiversity (May 22, 2010), there is concern among governments that new engineered species will speed the loss of natural species.

The draft text adopted by the meeting amounts to a de facto moratorium on the release synthetic life forms. However, the text will remain in square brackets -- meaning that it has not achieved unanimous agreement among the Biodiversity Conventions 193 member countries at this time. These draft decisions will go to the 10th Ministerial meeting of the UN Convention's Conference of the Parties (COP 10) that will take place in Nagoya Japan, 18-29 October 2010. While the text was warmly supported by most governments, and especially those from Africa and Asia, some countries (notably Canada) vocally opposed restraints on synthetic biology while social and environmental risks were examined.

Background on CBD: Putting Brakes on Controversial Technologies

Because the CBD customarily functions on a consensus basis, it is extremely difficult to get unanimous agreement on a moratorium related to a specific technology. Nevertheless there have already been several such moratoria. ETC Group advocated for a moratorium against Terminator Technology at the CBD's meeting in 2000 and the moratorium has remained in place ever since. Terminator is genetically modified "suicide seed" technology where seeds are engineered to die at harvest time, forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every growing season. Then, in 2008, at the CBD's last major meeting in Bonn, ETC Group and allies pressed for a moratorium on ocean fertilization - a form of geoengineering related to climate change -- and that too was unanimously adopted by governments. Last week, in Nairobi where the SBSTTA was meeting, ETC Group and other civil society groups successfully urged governments to adopt a third moratorium on all forms of geoengineering. Since the CBD's scientific body doesn't have the authority to establish moratoriums by itself (only the Conference of the Parties can do so) the language for a geoengineering moratorium will go in square brackets to the ministerial meeting in Japan in October. The proposed moratorium on synthetic biology will now follow the same process.

In the CBD's decisions, the word "moratorium" does not actually appear in any of the texts. Nevertheless, when 193 member governments adopt a text by consensus there is enormous diplomatic pressure on all governments to comply with the UN resolution. When Canada and Australia, for example, attempted to overturn the Terminator moratorium at the CBD meeting in Brazil in 2006, the Brazilian President of the COP ultimately announced that the challenge was rebuffed, reiterating that there was a "moratorium" against the use of suicide seeds. When the German environment Minister -- who hosted the last meeting of the CBD in Bonn in 2008 -- announced the unanimous decision on ocean fertilization to the media, he also referred to it as the "moratorium."

ETC Group, which monitors new technologies, has been the lead international civil society organization supporting each of these moratoria. We regard them as "stop-gap" measures that should only be undertaken under emergency conditions when any delay would be dangerous. The reason the number of these "stop-gap" initiatives is increasing is straightforward: the international community lacks the capacity to monitor or regulate new technologies with broad social or environmental impacts. It would be preferable for the United Nations to establish something like an International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT) which would allow governments to properly track new technological developments from the lab right through to commercialization. That way, regulatory mechanisms could evolve, as appropriate, for all new technologies in an orderly and predictable manner and the public would have reliable information on their benefits and risks.

Language adopted by SBSTTA

Below are the key texts on these risky technologies that will be forwarded to the ministerial meeting (COP 10) in Japan.

The precision language on synthetic biology in the biofuels paper reads as follows1:

[ 14. Decides to convene an ad-hoc technical expert group on synthetic biotechnologies and other new technologies that are used or projected to be used in the next generation of biofuels to assess their impact on biodiversity and related livelihoods.] (2)

[16. Urges Parties and other governments, in accordance with the precautionary approach, to ensure that living organisms produced by synthetic biology are not released into the environment until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and due consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity, and the associated socio-economic risks, are considered]

(2) This paragraph is in square brackets due to (i) financial implications, and (ii) a lack of consensus from the meeting on the need for the ad-hoc technical expert group and its mandate.

In the paper on new and emerging issues (L.14), the decision2:

Invites parties, other governments and relevant organizations to submit information on synthetic biotechnology and geoengineering in accordance with the procedure of decision 9-29, for consideration of SBSTTA, while applying the precautionary approach on field releases of synthetic life, cells or genomes into the environment.

Last week, the SBSTTA adopted the following text on geoengineering3:

(w) [Ensure, in line and consistent with decision IX/16 C, on ocean fertilization and biodiversity and climate change, and in accordance with the precautionary approach, that no climate-related geo-engineering activities take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts

The challenges ahead

The startling developments in Nairobi (and Washington) suggest that there will be a heated battle as governments and civil society groups from around the world prepare for the CBD COP in October. The organizations working now in Nairobi, including Ecoropa, Econexus, the Gaia Foundation, ETC Group and many others will be preparing for that fight, ensure that high-risk technological fixes that are commercially driven and have potentially devastating impacts on the peoples and ecosystems in the global South are stopped and that proper international rules, bases on the precautionary principle, are put in place.

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