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.

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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.

Keeping Up With New and Emerging Technologies

This year the Agri/Cultures Project has spent a significant amount of time attending and presenting at various international seminars, conferences and events (as our previous blog posts demonstrate). Last week this continued as I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Studies of New and Emerging Technologies (S.Net).

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This interdisciplinary society held its 8th annual conference in Bergen from October 11-14 and had an incredibly diverse program. It included keynote speeches from intellectual heavyweights Silvio Funtowicz, Sheila Jasanoff and Joseph Dumit, as well as presentations from a range of philosophers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and legal scholars interested in different new and emerging technologies. Beyond the standard academic talks though, the program also included other formats and approaches, such as a hands on do-it-yourself biology workshop analysing microplastics in fish using standard household ingredients, a workshop on art and performance based exercises for advancing responsible innovation and a film night showing short films from the biofiction film festival (which I participated in as a member of the discussion panel afterwards). It was truly wonderful to participate in such a diverse event bringing together different fields of science and art in creative ways to analyse the socio-ecological relations around new and emerging technologies. I would highly recommend anyone interested in social, ethical and legal aspects of new and emerging technologies to consider attending the next meeting, which is planned to be held in Phoenix in October 2017.

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Although at this event I presented work I am doing as a partner in other projects (NANoREGNorNanoReg, REDiG) on responsible innovation within the field of nanotechnology, I also took the opportunity to attend several sessions dealing with biotechnology issues. This included an interesting talk by Koen Beumer on biotechnology in Africa analysed from an identity politics perspective. He was specifically talking about how the identity of “the farmer” is being differentially constructed and performed by those inside and outside the biotechnology community. In another session, the always energetic Dorothy Dankel provided an insight into how the CRISPR/Cas system is being deployed to study and develop sterile salmon for the aquaculture industry and facilitated a debate on whether we would/should be eating GM salmon in 5 years. While in another interesting presentation, Alberto Aparicio presented some of his PhD research on the field of xenobiology (or orthogonal biology) in which scientists seek to develop new forms of life not based on DNA. He presented this work as promoting itself as useful for the potential containment and control of future GMOs.

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All of these talks made me realise that not only do we currently have very little empirical research available on how the GMOs currently in commercial circulation are reshaping our agri/cultures and socio-ecological relations, but also that there is now a groundswell of new developments underway that researchers interested in social, ethical and legal aspects of biotechnology will have to work very hard to keep up with. This makes working at the interface between biology and philosophy, and between biotechnology and society, both extremely exciting and uniquely challenging right now, and perhaps more important than ever before.

GMOs: Assessing Social and Ethical Aspects

In addition to my work as a researcher, I also serve on several national and international committees. This includes a position as member of the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board.

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The role of this board is to both encourage public discussion and debate and to provide advice to the Norwegian government on issues related to biotechnology, and particularly on social and ethical issues. The work of this advisory board covers both the use of biotechnology in medical applications and the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. The board is made up of a diverse range of professionals with very different perspectives, beliefs and areas of expert knowledge. Our discussions are always extremely interesting, informative and very often involve canvassing a range of issues and different positions on controversial topics of public interest. For example, since I was appointed as a member, we have come with advice on topics as diverse as whether single women should have State supported access to in vitro fertilisation (IVF), whether parents should be allowed to perform genetic testing on their children, whether sperm donors should be subject to genetic testing, how the regulation of genetic testing for medical research may differ from that for clinical applications and whether Norway should accept GM crop products for import. Our recommendations on the topics we discuss are always made publically available (in Norwegian) and when the Board is divided in its views, the positions of each Board member are made clear in the recommendation.

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As part of its work and in addition to the meetings of its members, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board also regularly arranges public events, lectures and seminars. On June 8th, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a breakfast seminar in Oslo on the topic of assessing social and ethical aspects of GMOs, which was videoed and is now available online. In this talk, I drew on the research we have been performing in The Agri/Cultures Project and sought to explain why assessing social and ethical issues around GMOs is important, as well as show different ways in which this can be approached and argue that we need to be considering these matters at various points along the innovation chain.

What was particularly interesting for me was to see how the announcement of this seminar was treated on social media. Before I even got a chance to give my talk, groups on Facebook and users of Twitter were already dismissing the content as biased and irrelevant, as well as criticising me and GenØk Centre for Biosafety for being anti-GMO activists. Although none of the net trolls seemed to have the courage to attend the event, actually hear my thoughts on the topic and have a face to face conversation with me, it is amazing how the GMO debate continues to generate such strong emotional reactions amongst people. Indeed, in my talk I try to highlight how this emotional response is indicative of the importance of addressing social and ethical dimensions of the technology. I also challenged this approach to the debate by suggesting that we need to move out of the current trench warfare approach of pro-anti GMO camps dug in and defending their positions by throwing bombs at the other, and actually start to have more sophisticated conversations in which we look at concrete cases, contexts and empirical research. This is becoming increasingly important as biotechnology is now diversifying rapidly through the use of genome editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 and we need to carefully consider what we mean by the term ‘GMO’ and whether all biotechnology techniques should be considered alike in terms of their potential social and environmental impacts, ethical aspects and regulation.

Responsible Governance of (New) Agricultural Biotechnologies

In an earlier post, I described an international workshop we held in November 2015 with experts on risk assessment, responsible innovation and ethics of agricultural biotechnology. Happily, I can now report that our learning from that worskhop has been available for everybody in the form of a publication in the journal PLoS Biology.

In the published paper, entitled “Essential Features of Responsible Governance of Agricultural Biotechnology” we argue that changes to the governance of agricultural biotechnologies have become particularly urgent as new genomic tools and products (such as CRISPR-Cas9, RNAi, synthetic biology, and GM animals) continue to emerge and controversies surrounding GM crops remain unresolved.

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What we have seen is that much of the current debate around these new genomic tools and products is focused on whether or not they fit within existing regulatory frameworks. This is no doubt a very important debate that will have significant consequences no matter which way nations decide. However, it is also important to question whether or not the existing regulatory frameworks are sufficient for addressing the issues that continue to generate controversy in this field. Since they have not been capable of allieviating controversy around GM crops, we argue that the new wave of biotechnologies provides a useful opportunity to revise not just our specific regulatory frameworks but also our general approach to governance so as to make it more socially robust and ethically responsible.

Integrating findings from both our dedicated workshop and several decades of work within social studies of science and procedural ethics, we propose five features that are essential to advance responsible governance of agricultural biotechnology. These essential features are:

  1. Commitment to candour
  2. Recognition of underlying values and assumptions
  3. Involvement of a broad range of knowledge and actors
  4. Consideration of a range of alternatives
  5. Preparedness to respond.

Each of these are outlined in more detail in the paper, where we also give specific examples of how social scientists have been working to advance these features in technology governance. In doing so we seek to show how ideas from several fields can be fruitfully integrated into a common framework to advance scientifically and socially responsible forms of governance for both existing and emerging agricultural biotechnologies.

Published in an open access journal, we hope that you might find this paper interesting and encourage you to share it with friends and colleagues. Of course, we would also welcome your questions and feedback!

Paper Published…and therefore no longer ours

In an earlier post, I described a paper I was working on together with Assoc. Prof. Christopher Preston on the value of using a care ethics lens in the governance of emerging technologies, using agricultural biotechnology as an example. I am pleased to report that that paper has now been published. While the general content of the article was outlined in the earlier post, anyone wanting to read the work in all its glorious detail can access it here.

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Or at least, they can access it via that link until May 3rd. After that, all readers (or their supporting institutes) will have to pay to see the full content of the paper. Alternatively, for us as authors to make the content free to everyone through the open access mechanism, we will have to pay $US 1800.

The challenge of weighing up different criteria when publishing a paper was something I presented in a previous post. The topic of how to handle the competing demands of publishers wanting to recoup their costs (and make a profit) and authors wanting to reach as broad an audience as possible (and minimise their research costs) was also the topic of a lunch discussion here at GenØk this week. Are researchers ethically bound to respect the exclusive contract they sign with their publishers, or can it also be acceptable for them to take additional actions to enable their work to reach as broad an audience as possible?

As new players in facilitating scholarly networking and communication, such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate, gain users and popularity, publishers are increasingly having to police the way their papers are spread online. This is because while researchers routinely share pdfs of their papers online, this usually constitutes a breach of copyright because when academics publish in scholarly journals, they typically transfer their copyright to the journal’s publisher. This effectively means that they are no longer the owner of the article’s content.

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To help authors swallow this bitter pill, we are offered concessions, like the link I have shared in this post which gives everyone free access to the article for 50 days after the date of publication. So I suggest you access this link while you can, download the paper, read and enjoy it, because after May 3rd, my ideas are no longer mine to share as I wish. Unless of course I can find $US 1800 to pay the open access fee.

Perhaps my next paper should be about what a care ethics lens may reveal for the context of academic publishing.

The organic sector urges the Commission to classify new genetic engineering techniques as GMOs: Press release by IFOAM Europe

IFOAM Europe just released the following press release.

The organic sector urges the Commission to classify new genetic engineering techniques as GMOs

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BRUSSELS, 14 January 2016 – IFOAM EU has published a position paper on new genetic engineering techniques, ahead of the legal interpretation of the European Commission, expected by March 2016. The European organic food and farming sector considers that there are no legal or technical reasons to bypass the GMO legislation and to exempt these new breeding techniques from risk assessment and other legal requirements that apply to GMOs, and warns of severe economic consequences if some of these techniques are deregulated by the European Commission.

“New techniques bearing the same potential risks as the GMOs currently on the market should not be used in organic farming nor released into the environment, even less be exempted from risk assessment and traceability”, warns Christopher Stopes, IFOAM EU President.

“Any attempt to exempt these new genetic engineering techniques from risk assessment, traceability and labelling would create havoc on the food, feed and seeds markets, and would backfire like the attempt to introduce GMOs in Europe backfired 20 years ago”, adds Thomas Fertl, IFOAM EU Vice-President.

“The Commission could let consumers and the market decide, but the right to choose can only exist if there is a traceability and labelling system in place, like for currently labelled GMOs. Without traceability, it would be impossible to know if and where such products would be in the environment and in the food chain”, he adds.

“We need innovation in the plant breeding sector and new agronomic approaches that make the most of the diversity of plant genetic resources, but innovation does not have to resort to genetic engineering techniques that can lead to unpredictable side effects, and whose benefits will mainly go the companies that will market them”, adds Eric Gall, IFOAM EU Policy Manager.

The so-called “new plant breeding techniques” addressed in the position paper, such as cisgenesis or CRISPR/Cas, interfere at the sub-cellular and genomic level. Therefore, IFOAM EU considers that they would not be compatible with the principles of organic farming and that they should not be used in organic farming.

Deregulation of new breeding techniques would threaten the freedom of choice of breeders, farmers and consumers. If some of these new techniques are excluded from the scope of the legislation on GMOs, the organic sector would face a situation where genetic modification techniques excluded from organic farming could be released into the environment and the food chain while being exempt from any traceability and labelling requirements.

Read the new IFOAM EU position paper

For more information please contact:

Eric Gall, Policy Manager
+32 (0) 2 280 68 43 / +32 491 07 25 37, [email protected]

Laura Ullmann, Communications Manager
+32 (0)2 808 7991 / +32 (0) 486 88 52 12, [email protected]

Or visit www.ifoam-eu.org

Responsible Innovation & Agri/Cultures

The Agri/Cultures Project was recently given some attention by the Giannino Bassetti Foundation, with our project profiled and introduced to their members, supporters and readers. The Bassetti Foundation has a mission to promote responsible innovation in various fields of technoscience.

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Responsible Innovation is a relatively new governance discourse that is rapidly being taken up in European policy, particularly for seeking to ensure that the development of emerging technologies like biotechnology, nanotechnology and synthetic biology moves in desirable directions. The Agri/Cultures project seeks to generate empirical knowledge on the impacts of agricultural biotechnologies on socio-ecological systems through their development and use and to consider these impacts in light of criteria of sustainability, ethical justifiability and social utility. As such, it is very interested in to what implications the emerging ideas of what constitutes responsible research and innovation have for a technology already in use, such as GM crops, and for their governance. We are very supportive of the work the Bassetti Foundation is doing on the important issue of advancing responsible innovation and look forward to future discussions about how this may be achieved in the case of agricultural biotechnology.