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New Zealand Must Not Block Global Consultation Of Synthetic Biology

New Zealand must heed concerns of the International Union for Conservation Of Nature (IUCN) calling for global consultation on Synthetic Biology.

The IUCN resolution to ensure that global consultation on Synthetic Biology (SBGE) is undertaken calls into question the policies of Ministries in New Zealand, which actively oppose this high-level consultation and are considering relaxing safeguards.

The Convention on Biodiversity (COP) informal meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice (SBSTTA-24) recognised that synthetic biology and gene drives could have the potential to result in irreversible impacts on biodiversity.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade position acknowledged that no scientifically sound data or risk assessment has taken place but did not support a “strong” precautionary principle toward synthetic biology organisms and gene drives. The Ministry’s position reflects the more commercial views that risks and scientific uncertainty should not preclude claimed benefits of environmental release. [1]

“Ecologists are adding their voices to other concerns of civil society and indigenous peoples that demand caution on synthetic biology organisms. New Zealand is wrong to allow commercial pressures to compromise biosafety at a global scale,” said Jon Carapiet, GE-Free NZ spokesman.

“New Zealand should stop obstructing and support the consideration of Synthetic Biology and gene drives, as a new and emerging issue by the international community at the next Convention on Biodiversity meeting.”

The IUCN meeting also acknowledged that precautionary principle must inform decision-making bodies, given “significant data and knowledge gaps about synthetic biology (including genetic engineering and engineered gene drives), and on their ecological, ethical, social, and cultural impacts.”

This precaution goes against the Ministry of the Environment briefing to the Minister saying that the stringency of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) means we are “missing out” on “…future opportunities”—implying GE and Syn-Bio techniques.

“The rush to embrace synthetic GE technologies shows that MfE are willing to overlook the dangers that come with these technologies. These technologies have the potential to unleash serious ecosystem collapse and have unknown persistent dangers,” said Claire Bleakley, GE-Free NZ president.

“That is why it is a global concern. Synthetic biology, including gene drives and gene editing is outpacing the ability of society to understand the technology. The new technologies are neither properly understood nor tested.”

Recent studies are raising concern among scientists over the serious unintended consequences of transgenic and all types of Genetic Editing techniques.

The finding by Leibowitz el al (2021) shows that Gene Editing causes fragmentation of the chromosome leading to tens to thousands of chromosomal rearrangements causing nucleus and chromosome defects which initiate a mutational process, called chromothripsis. [2]

Further, some scientists and others have obscured the dangers of SDN-I gene edits to avoid regulation by referring to them as “natural.” This is seen as false semantics aimed at avoiding necessary oversight of risks. A paper by Dr. J. Heinemann et al (2021) calls for rigorous regulation and proposes a regulatory framework that is innovative and responsive to all sectors. [3] [4]

There is a serious disjunction between the interests of scientists in commercial biotech. They appear no longer show unbiased or respectful attitudes to independent science or to data revealing a different view.

The risk to effective regulation is exacerbated by the revolving door of personnel between biotech companies and regulatory bodies. Regulation implementing the precautionary principle when considering synthetic biology, including GE, must be upheld as the IUCN has specified.

References:
[1] https://www.gefree.org.nz/assets/Uploads/R-OIA-27593-Jon-Muller-Requested-Information-Redacted.pdf - MFAT reply to OIA: Synthetic Biology p.32/122. 
[2] Leibowitz, M.L., Papathanasiou, S., Doerfler, P.A. et al. Chromothripsis as an on-target consequence of CRISPR–Cas9 genome editing. Nat Genet 53, 895–905 (2021). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33846636/
[3] https://eveningreport.nz/2021/09/23/calling-the-latest-gene-technologies-natural-is-a-semantic-distraction-they-must-still-be-regulated-166352/
[4] Heinemann, JA, et al. 2021. Differentiated impacts of human interventions on nature: Scaling the conversation on regulation of gene technologies. Elem Sci Anth, 9: 1. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00086

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