Freeze on genetic technology would have been a disaster, say scientists, but activists plan to renew the fight.
World governments at a United Nations biodiversity meeting this week rejected calls for a global moratorium on gene drives, a technology that can rapidly spread modified genes through populations and could be used to engineer entire species. But environmental activists’ appeals for a freeze on gene-drive field trials, and on some lab research, are likely to resurface in the future.
“I’m very relieved,” says Andrea Crisanti, a molecular parasitologist at Imperial College London, who is part of an effort that seeks to use gene drives to control malaria. He and others worry that a moratorium would make research on the technology more difficult, scare away funders and prevent field tests. “It would have been a disaster for developing the technology,” he says. But the calls for a ban, discussed at the meeting of the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in Cancún, Mexico, on 4–17 December, are not going to go away, he says. “Those who are opposed to this technology will be more organized next time.”
The idea of a moratorium found support among some countries. But a final agreement released on 16 December merely urged caution in field-testing the products of synthetic biology, including gene drives, while supporting better risk-assessment of the products’ potential effects.
“It’s a way of governments saying ‘we need to know more about these technologies before making these decisions. At the same time, we are worried they may have impacts on biological diversity,’” says Calestous Juma, a former executive secretary of the CBD and an expert on science and technology policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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