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.

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