child burkina faso Kaan Bozdogan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Cutting Corners on Consent

A new UN agreement requires organizations seeking to release gene-drive organisms – which will fundamentally change or even eliminate entire populations of that species – to obtain the “free, prior, and informed consent” of potentially affected communities. But what that requirement implies needs to be spelled out – before it's too late.

MONTRÉAL – On November 29, after two weeks of contentious negotiations at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, 196 countries agreed to stringent rules on the use of so-called gene drives. Given the far-reaching consequences of a technology that causes a particular set of genes to propagate throughout a population – fundamentally changing or even eliminating it – such rules are badly needed. But are they enough? 

Some countries would have preferred a full moratorium on the release of gene-drive organisms – a view shared by many indigenous peoples, food sovereignty activists, and African civil society organizations. The UN’s final agreement met them halfway, recognizing the “uncertainties” inherent in the use of gene drives – which opponents call “exterminator drives” – and calling upon governments to exercise great caution in releasing drive-modified organisms for experimental research. 

According to the agreement, such experiments should be carried out only when “scientifically sound case-by-case risk assessments have been carried out,” and “risk management measures are in place to avoid or minimize potential adverse effects.” Moreover, organizations seeking to release gene-drive organisms should obtain the “free, prior, and informed consent” of potentially affected communities.

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