Do GMOs have conservation value?

Below is an article that I recently had published on the website called The Conversation, and since their articles are all under a Creative Commons licence, I am able to share with our readers here. Understanding the relationship that biotechnological organisms have to the value awarded to biodiversity is something that I have been philosophically grappling with over the last year or so. The article republished below, is a popular science version of a longer academic article I published (also available by open access) asking whether anyone cares about ‘synbiodiversity’. All comments, feedback, ideas and reactions would be most welcome as I continue to work to establish a philosophical position on this difficult topic.


Should genetically modified organisms be part of our conservation efforts?

Fern Wickson, GenØk – Centre for Biosafety

Biotechnology is rapidly evolving through developments in genome editing and synthetic biology, giving birth to new forms of life.

This technology has already given us genetically modified (GM) plants that produce bacterial pesticides, GM mosquitos that are sterile and GM mice that develop human cancers. Now, new biotechnological techniques are promising to deliver a whole host of new lifeforms designed to serve our purposes – pigs with human organs, chickens that lay eggs containing cholesterol controlling drugs, and monkeys that develop autism. The possibilities seem endless.

But do these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have conservation value?

The biodiversity of life on earth is globally recognised as valuable and in need of protection. This includes not just wild biodiversity but also the biodiversity of agricultural crop plants that humans have developed over thousands of years. But what about the synthetic forms of biodiversity we are now developing through biotechnologies?

Does anyone care about this synbiodiversity?

It’s a question I was compelled to ask while conducting research into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV).

A frozen ‘Noah’s Ark’ for seeds

The SGSV is the global apex of agricultural biodiversity conservation, an approach to conservation where collections of diverse seed samples are kept in frozen storage in genebanks for future use by plant breeders. The SGSV is a frozen cavern in a mountain on the arctic island of Svalbard, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It has been called a Noah’s Ark for crop plants (also the “doomsday vault”) because it is the place where genebanks from all around the world send backup copies of their seed collections for safe-keeping. Here the seeds are sealed inside bags sealed inside boxes locked in a freezer locked in a mountain. They are sent there to be kept safe from the threats genebanks can face, such as energy shortages, natural disasters and war. img_2911 Seeds in the SGSV can only be accessed by the genebank that deposited them and only one withdrawal has been made so far, by researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) seeking to restore their collections after the destruction of Aleppo in war-torn Syria.

The SGSV is managed through a collaborative agreement between the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).

It opened in 2008 and currently houses 870,971 different samples of 5,340 species from 233 countries, deposited by 69 institutes. img_2893 Are there any GMOs frozen in the vault?

During my research into the SGSV I asked if it held any GM seeds. Despite initially receiving conflicting responses, the formal answer was ultimately “no”. But different reasons were given for this and all are open to change.

The vault is not a certified facility for GMO storage

Facilities working with GMOs require certification to do so. While the SGSV is not currently certified, it could be since requirements typically relate to ensuring strict containment and the SGSV is already oriented towards this goal. Also, since no analysis of seeds is performed at the SGSV or required for deposits, the collections may actually be unintentionally (and unwittingly) contaminated. This is because a mixing with GM crops could have happened via seed or pollen flow before the material was sent to the vault.

There is no political will to include GM crops

Currently, no one in the SGSV management wants to become (any further) entangled in the controversy surrounding GM crops. They already face what they see as false conjectures about the role of the biotechnology industry (fuelled no doubt by the fact that organisations involved in the biotechnology industry have donated funds to the Crop Trust). Several of the depositing genebanks also actively support biotechnology research. Therefore, if they wanted to store GMOs in the future, the will to seek certification may certainly change.

Norway has a strict GMO policy that requires not just evidence of safety but also of social utility and contribution to sustainable development. This means no GM crop has yet been approved for either cultivation or import. But this is currently being challenged by a government committed to speeding up assessments and advocating for weakened interpretations of the law. This further indicates the potential for political will to change.

GM crops do not meet the requirements for multilateral access

The International Plant Treaty is a crucial foundation for the SGSV. As such, depositing genebanks are required to agree to multilateral access to their collections if they wish to deposit backup copies in the SGSV. <p>But GM crops are not freely accessible to all as part of the common heritage of humanity. They are patented inventions owned by those claiming to have created them. The SGSV requirement that deposits be available for multilateral access can be waived though.

But if GM crops are not in the SGSV, should they be?

Do GMOs have conservation value?

Very little work has examined the moral status and conservation value of GM crops.

As the fields of genome editing and synthetic biology are now undergoing rapid development though, we have an important opportunity to consider how we relate to biotechnological forms of biodiversity. We can also think about whether it might be possible to navigate through syn- to symbiodiversity.

That is, instead of focusing on these life forms as synthetic human inventions, we could begin to think about them as co-creations of human-nature interactions. In doing so, we may then shift the focus away from how to make synthetic organisms to satisfy our needs and place more emphasis on how to interact with other life forms to establish symbiotic relations of mutual benefit.

The French sociologist of science and anthropologist Bruno Latour has urged us to love our monsters, to take responsibility for our technologies and care for them as our children. Certainly it seems fair to argue that if we don’t care for our biotechnological co-creations with a sense of (parental) responsibility, perhaps we shouldn’t be bringing them to life.

How do we care for GM crops?

The model of freezing seeds in genebanks and backing up those collections at the SGSV is one way to conserve biodiversity. Another, however, is the approach of continuing to cultivate them in our agricultural landscapes.

While this model of conservation has generated and maintained the biodiversity of traditional crop varieties for thousands of years, there is now a significant shift taking place. More than 90% of traditional crop varieties have now disappeared from our fields and been replaced by genetically uniform modern varieties cultivated in large-scale monocultures. Meaning, there may be no GM crops frozen in the SGSV, but there are plenty in the ground.

So this leaves me questioning what it is we really cherish? Are we using our precious agricultural resources to expand the diversity of humanity’s common heritage? Or are we rather placing our common heritage on ice while we expand the ecological space occupied by privately owned inventions? And who cares about synbiodiversity anyway?

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

The Condor and the Eagle – feedback on the SKI Seminar in Durban


Bald Eagle in FlightIn mid September I attended the annual Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI) Seminar, which was held just outside Durban. Participants from NGOs, social movements, gene banks, universities and research institutions in South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Peru and Switzerland came together for the event. The Seminar sought to share knowledge and information as well as develop a vision statement and a strategy for moving forward for the group.

The keynote address was given by  Alejandro Argumedo from the famous Potato Park in Peru. Alejandro is the Director of the Association ANDES. This organisation, based in Cusco, is an NGO founded by indigenous people with the goal of protecting biological and cultural diversity, as well as the rights of indigenous people of Peru.  Alejandro also coordinates the International Indigenous People’s Biodiversity Network (IPBN), and is a Senior Research Officer for Peru on the ‘Sustaining Local Food Systems, Agricultural Biodiversity and Livelihoods’ Program of the International Institute for Environment and Development for England.

In his talk, Alejandro spoke about the Peruvian prophecy of the condor and the eagle which speaks of dualisms such as the divide between the mind and heart and between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge. In this prophecy, the eagle (science, rationality, mind) has come to dominate the condor (heart, tradition, intuition). This began at the time of colonial encounter, however, the prophecy tells of how they will come together again after some 500 years following the split. This brings us to the current period in which we are experiencing  a call for these supposedly different knowledges to come together.

A key theme of the seminar this year which was explored by many presenters was the idea that seed is intrinsically embedded in cultures and traditions.  Alejandro explored the link between seed, knowledge, tradition and spirituality using examples of the farming practices of indigenous framers in Peru. Alejandro showed us a short documentary that followed the journey of a group of farmers from the potato park as they took a sample of their sacred potato seed (which they refer to as family) to Svalbard in Norway in 2011 to keep it safe in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault against changing climates. This journey is one accompanied by prayer and song and much emotion as seeds are not mere commodities but sacred and living for these communities. Following the prophecy, he provided an example of a collaboration between farmers and scientists in the preservation of seed.


Representatives from the Peruvian Potato Park bring potato seed to be stored at Svalbard Image from :

Alejandro also spoke about the repatriation of seed and how this provides the ‘seed’ for relearning, reinventing, rejuvenation or inventing social-ecological or cultural practices. Building on the idea of repatriation, a conversation developed around how we may think of the link between culture, indigenous knowledge and seed.  An enlivened discussion followed about how seed, like culture, is always changing, adapting and shifting.  Through the repatriation of seed, new cultural patterns may emerge, sometimes it will be a rebirth or renewing of the old but sometimes it can also be the start of a new set of practices and relationships. I was very interested in this conversation in relation to what I am working on in Northern KwaZulu Natal. While I am looking at various ‘cultures of agri/culture’ these are by no means bounded and all agri/cultural systems are made up of changing and diverse social-ecological relationships and elements. We only have to look to the often mentioned label of maize as a ‘traditional crop’ in Southern Africa despite it only having been on the continent for 400 years to see how farming systems and traditions develop rapidly and in diverse ways.

Kudzai Kusena, coordinator of the National Gene Bank of Zimbabwe and PhD student through the Bio-economy Research Chair presented on how he feels seed banks need to adapt beyond keeping “sleeping seed” frozen in time. Many of the participants are involved in seed banking initiatives throughout Africa and compared their experiences and ideas around best practice. The importance, merits and challenges of various seed bank models/or scales (such as household seed banks, community seed banks and national seed banks) was discussed. In the potato park in Peru community members manage a central seed bank, similarly in Ethiopia centralized seed banks house seed for groups of farmers. However in Zimbabwe the importance of household seed banks is being explored. Participants explored through this how a resilient farmer led seed system could be bolstered and supported. One participant from Malawi who is involved in helping farmers develop their own seed and look for ways to certify it locally and make it available for sale spoke of the challenges they face with certification standards not being suited to local varieties. It was clear that if small-scale seed systems supporting diverse seeds are to be protected and strengthened there will need to be a diverse set of support systems established. Seed diversity necessitates legal and technological diversity and all other elements that support systems of agri/culture. For so long, commercial agriculture has been supported by laws, policies, research and development and other inputs that have been geared at maximizing profits and boosting yields. If diversity is to be respected as a key tenet of resilience, such arrangements need to be sensitive to this.

The three days of the seminar were a wonderful experience and opportunity to think about the social-ecological relationships surrounding seed, as well as to reflect on the importance of bringing together different bodies of knowledge, whether it be science and traditional/indigenous knowledges, knowledges from different geographical locations, or different disciplines. The conference was recorded visually by Sonja Niederhumer who practices a technique called graphic harvesting where she makes drawings of the discussions. It was wonderful to see how she captured so beautifully the discussion in the room using images and few words. It was a reaffirming and inspiring few days from which to reflect on work I am about to start in the field. I am excited about seeing where the collection of visual and narrative information will lead me in trying to understand better the changing social-ecological relationships around seed.

Attending the Convention on Biological Diversity

In December this year will be the 13th meeting of the conference of the parties to the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Cancun Mexico. This will also include the 8th meeting of the parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing. cbd

Last week I managed to confirm that I will be attending the meeting this year as part of another project that I coordinate (biodiverSEEDy). With that project, we hope to present a couple of side events at the meeting on topics that are also of interest for the Agri/Cultures project. The first of these will be on different perceptions around threats to maize biodiversity and possible solutions for addressing these (based on our work on this issue with indigenous communities in Mexico). The second will focus on new plant breeding techniques within biotechnology and the question of whether the genetically modified organisms created using these different techniques have conservation value as part of the biodiversity of life on earth (as part of our work investigating the operations of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the question of whether GMOs have a place there).


One of the key issues of discussion at this meeting, and particularly under the Cartagena protocol, will be around new plant breeding techniques and the development of synthetic biology, including to what extent they fall within the scope of this international agreement and how organisms generated using these techniques should be understood, defined and governed within the context of global trade and transboundary movement. I look forward to taking part in this meeting, listening to the discussions, observing the negotiations and of course blogging about my experiences and the key topics of debate!