Tue, Oct 23, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Big Agriculture eyeing genetic tool for pest control

For health campaigners battling malaria and conservationists desperate to save island birds decimated by avian malaria and invasive rodents, gene drive seems almost too good to be true



That potential was clear early on. One of the cornerstone patents — co-owned by Kevin Esvelt of Harvard University, often described as one of the inventors of gene drive — lists dozens of agricultural applications. Esvelt has retreated somewhat from his initial blanket enthusiasm.

“Given recent history, it’s clear that early commercial applications in agriculture would seriously jeopardize popular acceptance of the technology as a whole,” he said, noting that public health aims should take priority. “A temporary moratorium on commercial applications of gene drive wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

The gene drive issue will be front-and-center when the 195-nation UN Convention on Biological Diversity meets in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt next month.

A preparatory meeting in July of the Convention’s science and technology advisory board “was an almighty fight and circus around gene drive,” said Thomas, a member of the board’s Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology.

A petition released on Tuesday, World Food Day, by nearly 200 civil society and small-farmer groups call for “a global moratorium on any release of engineered gene drives,” a position supported by numerous developing countries. There is also a fairness issue for local communities in the regions where gene drives might be released, Thomas said.

“This isn’t just about environmental impact, it’s also about consent,” he said by phone.

Gene drive technologies have been funded to the tune of several hundred million dollars by a handful of backers, including the US military, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, India-based Tata Trusts, and the Facebook-backed Open Philanthropy Project.

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