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Gene Drives

Gene drives are a genetic engineering tool that aim to force artificial genetic changes through entire populations of animals, insects and plants. Unlike previous genetically modified organisms (GMOs) these gene drive organisms (GDOs) are deliberately designed to spread genetic pollution as an agricultural strategy – for example, spreading ‘auto-extinction’ genes to wipe out agricultural pests.

Updates

Report: Gene Drives. A report on their science, applications, social aspects, ethics and regulations, The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, May 2019

Report: Gene drive organisms: What Africa should know about actors, motives and threats to biodiversity and food systems, African Centre for Biodversity, May 2019. “In the African context, where little to no capacity for proper, functioning biosafety systems exist, even for first generation transgenic technologies, open releases of gene drive organisms pose grave risks to the entire continent. Despite the huge questions surrounding both risks and efficacy, a well-funded and aggressive public relations campaign is underway to gain public and regulatory support.”

Update – International Regulation: The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity has not agreed to an international moratorium on gene drives but has agreed that strict risk assessment is needed as well as the consent of local communities and Indigenous peoples. Press Release – United Nations Hits the Breaks on Gene Drives, ETC Group and Friends of the Earth International, November 29, 2018.

Background

 
Gene drives are new tools that force genetically engineered traits through entire populations of insects, plants, animals and other organisms. This invasive technology represents a deliberate attempt to create a new form of genetic pollution. Gene Drives may drive species to extinction and undermine sustainable and equitable food and agriculture.
  • Gene drives are being engineered into flies, insects, worms and other pests to spread sterility as a biological alternative to pesticides.
  • Target Malaria is a project that aims to use gene drive mosquitoes to reduce the population of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes which can transmit the parasite that causes malaria.
  • Researchers are proposing using gene drives as a breeding tool to increase meat production in livestock.
  • “Auto-extinction” gene drives are being engineered into rats and mice as well as beetles that affect storage of grains.Patents have been sought to engineer gene drives into honey bees to control pollination patterns using light beams.
  • Research is ongoing to engineer gene drives into common weed species to overcome herbicide resistance. For example, to make weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate, susceptible to glyphosate-based herbicides again.
  • ETC Group analysis of two key patents on gene drives show that they each reference around 500-600 agricultural uses including brand names of 186 herbicides, 46 pesticides, 310 agricultural pest insects, nematodes, mites, moths and others 
CBAN and more than 200 global food movement leaders and organizations representing hundreds of millions of farmers and food workers set out their clear opposition to “gene drives”. Click here to read the letter.

Target Malaria

 

The research group Target Malaria aims to use gene drive mosquitoes to reduce the population of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, which can transmit the parasite that causes malaria. The project is run by researchers at Imperial College in the UK and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Philanthropy Project (a group of Silicon Valley donors).

Target Malaria is proposing to release GM “male-sterile” mosquitoes in Burkina Faso, West Africa, for training purposes and to test the infrastructure they would use to release gene-drive mosquitoes in the future. These “test” GM (not gene drive) mosquitoes will not offer any benefits for malaria control in Burkina Faso.

Gene drive mosquitoes are an unproven solution for malaria. Further, they have a high potential to become invasive, and their gene drive systems could spread to other species, with unintended consequences. The role of mosquitoes in the ecosystem is not well understood and the implications of removing them may lead to unpredictable ecological impacts (including the possibility that another disease-carrying species may take their place).

Projects such as Target Malaria’s gene drive mosquitoes ignore the root causes of malaria. Measures such as improving sanitation, eradicating mosquito breeding sites, and draining swamps are effective, affordable, and provide other social and public health benefits as well. In fact, the recent example of Sri Lanka, where malaria used to be rampant, presents a valuable model to replicate in other parts of the world. Government agencies and international and national organizations used a range of measures, such as filling pits and flushing water channels, rotating insecticide products, checking and treating all refugees and travellers, focusing on screening and treatment programs to reduce the parasite reservoir, and building public awareness, to control the malaria parasite (instead of the mosquito vector). Sri Lanka is now entirely malaria-free; the last case of malaria was recorded in 2012.

“This technology is in its infancy; the long term impacts on the mosquito populations (the disease vectors) and human health, as well as their potential ecological impacts are completely unknown. It is also clear that once released, the technology cannot be recalled due to its aggressive nature, which overrides natural inheritance patterns. Of course mosquitoes will also not respect borders.”
– Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of the African Centre for Biodiversity

“In Africa we are all potentially affected, and we do not want to be lab rats for this exterminator technology. Farmers have already marched in the streets of Burkina Faso to protest genetically engineered mosquitoes and we will march again if they ignore this UN decision. We are giving notice now that potentially affected West African communities have not given their consent or approval to this risky technology.”
– Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, Friends of the Earth Africa, and chair of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

Read more about Target Malaria

A Question of Consent research project: “We wanted to do an independent investigation and to gather different perspectives from villagers about what they understand of the project and what their concerns are. Our findings indicate that many people in Bobo-Dioulasso, Bana and the neighbouring village of Nasso, are concerned about the potential impacts of Target Malaria’s project and about the absence of risk assessment, and are unaware of many of the details of the project, including where the funding for the project comes from.” 

Critique of African Union and NEPAD’s positions on gene drive mosquitoes for Malaria elimination, African Centre for Biodiversity, November 2018.

GM mosquitoes in Burkina Faso, Third World Network, African Centre for Biodiversity, GM Watch, February 2018.

Update – May 2019: Additionally, researchers have more recently experimented with fungi to kill mosquitoes and published results showing the effectiveness of a specific fungal pathogen genetically engineered to carry insect-selective toxins.

Resources

Forcing the Farm : How Gene Drive Organisms Could Entrench Industrial Agriculture and Threaten Food Sovereignty, ETC Group, October 2018.

GM mosquitoes in Burkina Faso. African Centre for Biodiversity, Third World Network, GeneWatch UK, February 2018.