Genetically Modified Organisms Return to the International Policy Agenda
This primary in a series begins by looking back at GMOs and environmental law
Although the massive news in international biodiversity this week was the discharge of the summary of the primary global assessment from a comparatively latest UN-affiliated body, the subject of one other report warrants attention as well. Yesterday the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published its findings on “the potential positive and negative impacts of synthetic biology on biodiversity conservation.” When those of us who follow environmental law and policy hear of biotechnology and biodiversity, I believe that genetically modified (GM) crops and the associated controversies come to mind. Yet biotechnologies have continued to rapidly develop, yielding latest methods and applications. In contrast to the past ones, a few of these specifically are for environmental objectives, often to conserve or restore biodiversity. An evidence of those issues and the topic of the IUCN’s report requires a little bit of background. That is thus the primary of a brief series of blog posts during which I’ll outline the emerging methods and applications, their politics, and their regulatory environment.
One can consider genetically modified organisms (GMOs), how they relate to the environment, and their governance needs as a series of generations. The primary generation arose within the Seventies and 80s, consisting of bacteria that had been genetically modified using transgenics – that’s, by adding genes from a distinct species – with a purpose to further biological research, to provide pharmaceutical or food substances, to enhance agriculture, and to remediate pollution. For instance, Genentech got its start largely through the use of GM bacteria to synthesize human insulin. Because most (but not all) of those uses were indoors, governance focused on biosafety and containment. Political resistance to first generation GMOs was limited and native.
The second generation was GM agricultural plants and, to a lesser degree, animals that were initially developed within the Nineteen Nineties. These crops could have higher yields, be immune to diseases, contain their very own pesticides, tolerate synthetic pesticides, last more after harvesting, and have greater dietary value. Unlike the primary generation, these second generation GMOs were intentionally placed outdoors, albeit in managed agricultural settings. And in addition unlike the primary, the testing, growth, and sale of transgenic agricultural plants and their products triggered widespread contestation and posed regulatory challenges. Because they were intended to be eaten, these agricultural GMOs provoked deep, instinctive reactions amongst those that perceived their food as perhaps contaminated. The difficulty entered policy agendas coincident with the event of governance to guard biodiversity, whose interrelated ecological complexes GMOs seemed the threaten. GMOs’ international regulation ended up within the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and its protocols, which on reflection was arguably not the perfect institutional home. In Europe, regulation was based on the precautionary principle – which was enshrined within the 1992 treaty that established the EU – and concerns were heightened by the (unrelated) spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”) within the UK.
A pointy transatlantic divide arose over governing GMOs. The US regulates these based on the product (What’s it? What effects could it have on people, crops, and the environment?) whereas the EU does so based also on the method (How was it made?), adopting strict rules which have amounted to a de facto prohibition. This division was exacerbated by the US’s refusal to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity. Within the 2000s, the US and other countries accused the EU of using its GMO regulations as illegal barriers. (Although the World Trade Organization sided with the US, its ruling was mixed.) Throughout these debates, many environmental advocacy organizations opposed the testing, production, and sale of agricultural GMOs. Moreover, many developing countries aligned themselves with Europe and likewise adopted restrictive regulatory regimes.
These debates endured. In a 2012 ballot measure, California voters narrowly rejected a requirement that products with GM ingredients be labelled as such. Instigated by a 2016 law, the US Department of Agricultural recently developed rules for labeling food that incorporates bioengineered ingredients; these go into effect next yr. The transatlantic divide has continued with how governing bodies’ responses to latest CRISPR-based methods that “edit” genes as a substitute of transferring genes from other species. In principle, such resulting organisms might have been developed through traditional breeding techniques, and thus don’t clearly fall inside some past legal definitions of GMOs. Last yr, the US Department of Agriculture stated that it will not regulate products from gene edited organisms beyond their salient characteristics, such being “plant pests.” Just a few months later, the EU’s Court of Justice ruled that gene edited crops could be subject to essentially the most restrictive of the Union’s regulations of GMOs, despite the fact that the definition there appears to not include gene edited organisms.
The third and fourth generations of GMOs are supposed to be introduced into outdoor, non-agricultural – that’s, roughly “natural” – environments, where they’d live and reproduce. I’ll describe these, in addition to synthetic biology, in subsequent posts. Stay tuned.