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Just Say No to Agricultural Gene Drives

By forcing laboratory-made genes on an entire population or species, cutting-edge gene-drive technologies have the power to transform entire ecosystems in one fell swoop. But where leading industrial agriculture firms see dollar signs, farmers in the regions where gene drives could be unleashed see a mortal threat to their livelihoods.

LAGOS – First, the agribusiness giants came to take our land and disrupt our food systems with synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, proprietary seeds, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Now, these firms’ hired hands are upping the ante with “gene drives,” a deliberately invasive technology designed to propagate genetic material across an entire population or species. As a result, Africans are now confronting a new and serious threat to our land, biodiversity, rights, and food supply.

To mark World Food Day (October 16) this year, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) – a network of farmers’ organizations operating in 52 out of 54 African countries – is joining with hundreds of other leading advocates worldwide to oppose the use of gene drives. We have called on the United Nations and other multilateral organizations to enact a global moratorium on the release of these biotechnologies into the environment, and particularly in agricultural settings.

Gene drives have been described as “genetic forcers,” because they literally force genetically engineered traits onto entire populations of insects, plants, fungi, and other organisms. What was once a nightmare scenario regarding GMOs – the uncontrolled spread of harmful engineered genes across an ecosystem – may become a deliberate strategy.

Specifically, researchers have already created “engineered selfish genes” that spread themselves automatically in two insect species. Normally, the offspring of sexually reproducing organisms have a 50% chance of inheriting a gene from their parents. But with gene drives, the probability is almost 100%, meaning that the offspring and all of its future progeny will carry the trait.

Gene drives pose a clear threat to natural systems. If released into the environment, they could potentially alter food chains, eradicate beneficial organisms such as pollinators, and disrupt indigenous agro-ecological practices and cultures.

The researchers behind gene drives have only just begun to consider the implications of laboratory-produced genes behaving at odds with what their theoretical models predict. Yet one cannot rule out the possibility that genes for female sterility could find their way into species that pollinate crops or serve as a food source for birds, reptiles, and even humans. Nor can one discount scenarios in which artificial genes disable beneficial natural genes, or even cause outbreaks of new diseases.

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Gene-drive developers have spent millions of dollars trying to sell this technology as a quick fix for achieving ambitious health and conservation goals, such as those outlined in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In my part of the world, West Africa, scientists with millions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Target Malaria” project are aggressively pursuing a plan to release gene-drive mosquitos into the wild (after first conducting a test run with bioengineered non-gene-drive mosquitos).

Needless to say, many of us in the region feel as though we are being used as lab rats in an experiment that could devastate African farming families’ capacity to feed themselves and their communities. Moreover, it is an experiment that could prove doubly self-defeating, given that malnutrition can heighten the risk of death from malaria. Fearing for their health and that of their environments, African farmers who are committed to agro-ecological practices – as well as groups like AFSA, La Coalition pour la Protection du Patrimoine Génétique Africain (COPAGEN), and Terre À Vie – are leading the campaign against field experiments with genetically modified mosquitos.

Local communities are not blind to the fact that the use of gene drives against malaria-transmitting mosquitos is largely a public-relations gambit. The real end game is agriculture. According to “Forcing the Farm,” a new report from the ETC Group and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, even leaders in the gene-drive field quietly accept that the technologies they are developing will be used in agribusiness more than in any other sector.

After all, gene drives have the potential to change the entire business model of industrial agriculture. Rather than merely altering the crops that farmers bring to harvest, biotechnology corporations will now try to control the genetic makeup of every component in the agricultural ecosystem, from the pollinators to the weeds and pests. For example, some researchers want to use gene-drive organisms (GDOs) to infiltrate and eliminate entire pest species within a few generations.

Having been sold on gene drives as a possible magic bullet, farming organizations such as the California Cherry Board and the US Citrus Research Board are collaborating with Agragene Inc., the world’s first agricultural gene-drive company. And, of course, the major agribusiness firms – Monsanto-Bayer, Syngenta-ChemChina, DowDuPont (now Corteva Agriscience), and Cibus – are lurking in the shadows of gene-drive policy discussions, having been advised by scientists and public relations advisers to keep a low profile.

Some gene-drive proponents have argued that GDOs could be compatible with agro-ecological approaches such as organic farming. But make no mistake: a gene-driven farm would epitomize the industrial approach to agriculture, which has failed the test of sustainability. That is why it is increasingly being rejected in favor of an agro-ecological model based on the principle of “food sovereignty.” The latter approach, which has been endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, calls on farmers to share their existing knowledge and seeds with one another other, and to protect local ecosystems.

Next month, representatives from more than 190 countries will meet in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, for the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (UN Biodiversity Conference). While there, they will consider whether to press the brakes on gene drives, to ensure that farmers and indigenous peoples are fully consulted before these technologies are unleashed in their communities. One hopes that the international community will uphold its duty to protect food supplies, as well as the rights of farmers around the world.