Experts urge caution on biotechs that can eliminate insect pests

Dozens of scientists, experts and activists have called for a ban on the release of genetically modified organisms into the wild, in a statement Friday warning of potentially serious risks to the world’s pollinators.

The call was made during biodiversity talks in Montreal, where delegates from nearly every country in the world met to negotiate a strategy to halt human environmental destruction, which threatens the planet’s natural life-support systems.

In recent years, a number of new genome editing tools have emerged that modify the genetic material of living things 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 “little-studied risks that could accelerate the decline of pollinator populations and put entire food webs at risk,” according to the letter drafted by the French non-governmental organization Pollinis.

The signatories – including researchers specializing in insects, pollinators and agroecology – have called on countries participating in the UN Biodiversity Talks to oppose the development of genetic biotechnologies in nature.

They said current scientific research is 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 them.

“Insect pollinators are already facing an alarming decline due to external stressors. Adding dangerous, unevaluated genetic biotechnologies to this fatal mix will exacerbate the stress on pollinators and could accelerate their extinction,” the statement said.

United Nations talks in Montreal are tasked with setting out an ambitious plan for how people can live “in harmony with nature” over the next few decades, as scientists warn that one million species are threatened with extinction.

One of the goals under discussion specifically concerns the potential risks of genetic biotechnology, and the decision on this point could lead to more regulation or help facilitate its use.

– Engineered Eradication –

Unlike genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which introduce a foreign gene into a plant or animal, new genetic modification techniques directly modify the genome of a living being, without adding external elements.

One example is so-called gene drive technology, which uses tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 – DNA-cutting “scissors” that can insert, delete, or otherwise modify genes.

This can prompt an engineered trait to be passed on to a higher proportion of offspring than would have occurred naturally, across many generations.

A flagship project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has 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 “gene silencing” to inhibit certain gene expressions in animals or plants.

This would help combat crop pests such as the Colorado potato beetle, which decimates potato crops, or fruit flies.

Some of these biotechs have already been approved for use in different parts of the world, Pollinis’ statement said, calling for the matter to be “urgently addressed internationally.”

– In nature? –

Proponents of these biotechs want permission to take these experiments out of the lab and conduct trials in the field.

In Europe, Monsanto’s insect-resistant MON810 maize is the only GMO authorized for cultivation.

But biotech products benefit from a much looser framework in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and India, among others.

Christophe Robaglia, professor of biology at Aix-Marseille University and GMO expert at the European Food Safety Authority, said EU regulations on these biotechnologies were largely “outdated”.

When it comes to using on plants, he said using some of these so-called new breeding techniques could “improve them,” making them resistant to viruses or herbicides or making them more drought tolerant.

In September 2021, a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a motion noting the particular importance of the “precautionary principle” with synthetic biology.

Pollinis’ statement is more concerned with using these techniques on insects that aren’t limited to a single area.

He raised particular concern about “gene transfer” between species.

This is the risk that modifications made to parasites could potentially contaminate the genomes of non-target species, potentially destabilizing a cascade of other species.

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