UN Biodiversity Meeting Supports Gene Drives, Rejects Environmentalists

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The UN Convention on Biodiversity meeting - typically dominated by environmental activists lobbying bloated quasi-world-government committees - recently met in Cancún and when we weren't talking about their enjoyment of catered dinners and $600 a night rooms in a resort town completely lacking in biodiversity, we were talking about the other hypocrisy in the environmental movement; claiming they care about science when they really want to ban all of it.

In this case — synthetic biology. Right now, activists have limited themselves to seeking bans on Genetically Modified Organisms - GMOs - but those are a precise legal term for one product. Mutagenesis and lots of other biological manipulation from 50 years ago are still allowed to be called "Organic" and have gotten a free pass.

Younger activists see the hypocrisy in only banning one type of agricultural science and have been putting on pressure to change that; they want to proactively ban all future biology. In this case, gene drives, a way to cut and paste a desired gene into each organism, making a trait present in an entire population. Public health officials are excited about the technology because it can end diseases like malaria. Environmental activists should be excited too, because it can end malaria without pesticides, but they're not because, who knows, maybe they hate science more than they love poor people.

When the UN group met in 2014, gene drives, which are possible in any organism that reproduces sexually and can support the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR–Cas9 (which is almost all insects, plants and animals) - were too far off in the future to raise money scaring people about but them, but since 2015 it has progressed rapidly, leaving anti-science groups without the well-oiled publicity machine they usually have at these meetings. They knew they had to be against it but they couldn't figure out why, so they muttered the usual stuff about extinction and more testing being needed.

As if any scientist hadn't thought of that.

An actual expert, our Dr. Julianna LeMieux, spent the last few months educating the public about the technology, and her voice of reason has won out. As Joshua Krisch also notes in The Scientist, the UN pushed back against the anti-science barbarians at their gate in Mexico and the final agreement instead only sanely urged caution in testing gene drives.

Exactly what every scientist has said.

The activist group Friends of the Earth, which has led the charge in claiming gene drives will cause extinction of all life on earth, were soundly rejected, but it's not over yet. As Andrea Crisanti, a molecular parasitologist at Imperial College London who is working on gene drives to control malaria, told Ewen Callaway for Nature, “Those who are opposed to this technology will be more organized next time.”