Recent developments in synthetic biology could impact the $22 billion global flavour and fragrance market and the livelihoods of producers of natural commodities. These developments impact the sustainable use of biodiversity and fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the genetic resources that produce natural plant products. The worlds largest producers of food ingredients, flavors and fragrances are all now partnering with Synthetic Biology companies to develop biosynthetic versions of key high value natural commodities such as saffron, vanilla, vetiver and patchouli - replacing botanical sources.
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At the end of April 2013, ETC Group learned that three biohackers from Singularity University in California had mounted a project on the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter. It was a plan to carry out the worlds first environmental release of an avowedly Synthetic Biology organism - a glow-in-the dark arabidopsis plant. Shockingly the 'Glowing Plants' kickstarter project promised to mail up to 100 bioengineered seeds to anyone from the United States who gave them $40 online . To date over 4000 people expect to receive syn bio seeds in the post. Even more shockingly they claim that the US Government had agreed not to regulate, assess or monitor this widespread random and nation-wide release of synthetic organisms.
ETC Group is now mounting a counter-kickstarter campaign: - the Kickstopper! Read how you can be part of it.
New, high-risk technologies, ranging from the very small (synthetic biology, nanotechnology) to the very large (geoengineering), are being rapidly developed. Promoters promise solutions, but the precautionary principle and social and economic impacts are often ignored in the rush to deploy the latest technofix. Without the strict application of the precautionary principle, and a transparent and real participatory way to assess impacts, these new technologies could wreak more havoc on our already fragile planet, battered by reckless and unsustainable forms of production. To deal with the onslaught of ever more powerful technologies, civil society organizations, movements, indigenous peoples and peasant organizations need to self-organize to create Technology Observation Platforms (TOPs).
The undersigned, a broad coalition of civil society groups, social movements, local and indigenous communities, public interest, environmental, scientif ic, human rights, religious and labor organizations concerned about various aspects of synthetic biology’s human health, environmental, social, economic, ethical and other impacts, offer the following declaration, The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology.
An efficient, transparent pathway for technological advancement would save national governments time and money while reducing risk. Those proposing new technologies and their backers seek to minimize risk. Especially, re-insurers and investors welcome steps that make government intervention and/or public responses predictable.
It is said that no one can predict the past but had the UN maintained its monitoring capacity over the last two decades – and had civil society been vigilant – the world might have saved itself billions of dollars, millions of lives, and much time. Find in this briefing some post-Rio (1992) examples…
The timing is never right for technology assessment. It is always too soon, too late, too much, too fast or too slow. Here’s how the arguments go...
Pat Mooney analyses the different threats to be addressed at Rio+20 in 2012 and the counter proposals global civil society and its allies could avance. Interview made at the World Social Forum in Dakar in February 2011 for "The commons on the global agenda" chapter in remixthecommons.org.
Governments should adopt a process to develop an international technology evaluation and information mechanism – based on the Precautionary Principle – that will strengthen national sovereignty and build capacity, especially in the global South, to assess the health, environmental, economic and social impacts of new and emerging technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and synthetic biology.
So-called “green technology” is now a major feature of the Rio+20 “green economy” vision. G-77 countries are, understandably, focused on facilitated access to useful technologies that can contribute to sustainable development; the best way to make sure the right technologies are transferred to the right places in the right way is to subject them to meaningful assessment. An emphasis on the positive potential of new technologies requires a concomitant emphasis on a strengthened global, regional and national capacity to monitor and assess technologies. Anything less will incite distrust and invite disaster. Powerful new technologies (such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering) are being proposed and promoted without prior evaluation and no regulation. If technology assessment is deemed too costly or time-consuming, we are likely to find that the cost of not assessing technologies is even greater.
This case study illustrates how a key pharmaceutical ingredient, shikimic acid – traditionally derived from star anise cultivated by Chinese farmers – can be rapidly replaced by a new technological production process. Using synthetic biology, shikimic acid is now being produced commercially in drug industry fermentation tanks. The transition took less than a decade. Shikimic acid is just one example of a raw material that may be affected; it is conservatively estimated that at least 50% of today’s commercial pharmaceutical compounds are derived from plants, animals and microorganisms. No inter-governmental body is addressing the potential impacts of synthetic biology on the conservation and use of biodiversity and on the livelihoods of those who depend on agricultural export commodities (including high-value flavors, fragrances, essential oils, etc). The Convention on Biological Diversity is the most appropriate forum to address this new and emerging issue.
It's not just that we are facing "something new", we are facing "something else". The speed, breadth and depth of technological change is out-pacing and out-scoping policymakers. Since 1992, the convergence of technologies (living and inert) at the atomic - or nano - scale is adding new dimensions to the nature of technological transformation. Governments need global tools to respond to "something else". Find in this briefing ten technology leaps making the case for prioritizing Technology Assessment at the UN.
Rio +20 can call for a UN-level technology facility (either combining or separately addressing the need for technology transfer and technology assessment), the details of which can be scheduled for final negotiation in the follow-through to the conference. Grounded in the Precautionary Principle, the facility would have the institutional capacity to identify and monitor significant technologies, including an evaluation of the technologies’ social, economic, cultural, health and environmental implications. Assessments would be completed before a new technology is released.
Clean green technologies are at the center of the many special reports leading to Rio+20. Understandably, governments have focused on access to “know-how.” Since 1992, however, costly, resource-wasting experience has taught that “know-how” must be accompanied with “know-what” – assessment of the technology choices available – and “know-why” – a participatory analysis of socioeconomic and environmental needs a technology is to address.
Does establishing a UN facility for technology assessment politicize science? Some agencies and treaties have subsidiary scientific bodies and some of these have been accused of allowing governments to interfere in their scientific work. However, one of the biggest changes since the 1992 Earth Summit has been the transformation of publicly-funded science to work in the service of private industry.
It’s difficult to describe Rio+20 as anything other than a tragedy. Despite years of preparation and months of negotiations, nothing said or done in Rio can cover up not just the 20 lost years since the original 1992 Earth Summit – as seasoned delegates have quietly noted – but also the half-century of intergovernmental failures since Rachel Carson catalyzed the sequence of global environmental congresses following the publication of her book, Silent Spring, in 1962.
The notion of a "great green technological transformation" enabling a "green economy" is now being widely promoted as the key to our planet's survival. The ultimate goal is to substitute the extravtion and refining of petroleum with the transformation of biomass. Who will be in control of the future green economy?
In this joint report, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the ETC Group reveal the new "Biomassters" and argue that in the absence of effective and socially responsive governance, the green economy will perpetuate the greed economy.
Although Rio+20 negotiators are discussing marine applications of geoengineering (so-called “ocean fertilization”) in the context of climate change and technological “quick fixes,” the wider issues of geoengineering, including so-called solar radiation management, are not being discussed. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity established a de facto moratorium on all forms of geoengineering in 2010. Nevertheless, some governments are continuing to look toward technological methods of blocking or reflecting sunlight and other planetary system adjustments. Rio+20 should make a firm statement banning geoengineering to prevent a handful of countries -- a new “coalition of the willing” from taking the Earth’s thermostat into their own hands.
Purpose: The Ban Terminator Campaign seeks to promote government bans on Terminator technology at the national and international levels, and supports the efforts of civil society, farmers, Indigenous peoples and social movements to campaign against it.