Use of gene-edited organisms in wild could put pollinators at risk
Experts urge caution over new biotech
Published: Dec 11, 2022 05:58 PM Updated: Dec 11, 2022 05:52 PM
Plants are seen at a cactus and succulent exhibition in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 5, 2022.(Photo: Xinhua)

Plants are seen at a cactus and succulent exhibition in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 5, 2022.(Photo: Xinhua)

 Dozens of scientists, experts and campaigners called for a ban on the release of genetically edited organisms into the wild, in a statement Friday warning of potentially severe risks to the world's pollinators.

The appeal was launched at crunch biodiversity talks in Montreal, where delegates from almost all the world's countries were meeting to negotiate a strategy to halt human environmental destruction, which threatens the natural life support systems of the planet.

A host of new genome-editing tools that modify the genetic material of living beings have emerged in recent years, and are being researched and developed largely to target insects and plants in agriculture.

Supporters argue that they could help human health, agriculture and even species conservation.

But their use in the wild carries "understudied risks which could accelerate the decline of pollinator populations and put entire food webs at risk," according to the letter drafted by the French non-governmental organization Pollinis.

The signatories - including researchers specializing in insects, pollinators and agroecology - called for countries party to the UN biodiversity talks to oppose the deployment of genetic biotechnologies in nature. They said current scientific research was unable to provide "reliable and robust" risk assessments for potential harms to other species including pollinators and the plants, animals and whole ecosystems that rely on them.

"Pollinating insects are already facing an alarming decline due to external stressors. Adding hazardous and unassessed genetic biotechnologies to this fatal mix will aggravate the stress on pollinators and may precipitate their extinction," the statement said.

The UN talks in Montreal are tasked with laying out an ambitious plan for how people can live "in harmony with nature" in the coming decades, as scientists warn a million species are threatened with extinction.

One of the targets up for negotiation looks specifically at the potential risks of genetic biotechnology and the decision on this point could lead either to greater regulation or help facilitate their use.

Unlike genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which introduce an external gene into a plant or animal, new gene editing techniques directly modify the genome of a living being, without adding external elements.

One example is so-called gene drive technology. This can push an engineered trait so it is passed down to a higher proportion of offspring than would have occurred naturally, across many generations.

In 2018 researchers were able to wipe out an entire population of malaria-carrying mosquitos in the lab using a gene editing tool to program their extinction.