Is International Governance on the Horizon for Synthetic Biology?

Posted by Daniel Sharp May 31, 2012
Biopolitical Times
Synthetic biology, an emerging, risky and extreme form of genetic engineering, has come under fire in recent months from a broad set of constituencies, and consensus seems to be building that at a bare minimum, synthetic biology merits careful oversight and regulation. Yet so far, on the domestic level, little policy progress has been made to ensure robust governance of this novel field.  So, for those concerned about the health, environmental and social risks of synthetic biology, the question of where to turn next remains pressing.

New developments surrounding the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) may have opened potential avenues for governance on the international level. The CBD has been a historically important body for the discussion of biotechnology and biodiversity-related issues, ever since it adopted the precautionary principle back during the original RIO +10 meetings.  In early May, its Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) met to discuss a number of issues related to biodiversity.

While the SBSTTA doesn’t have much substantive authority of its own, it can make recommendations to the Conference of Parties, the international governing body of the convention. In particular, the SBSTTA has the power to recommend that the Conference of Parties consider and ultimately act upon “new and emerging issues.”

The main emerging issue on the docket for this year was synthetic biology, and the SBSTTA debated whether or not this kind of genetic engineering should be considered, assessed, and governed by the Conference of Parties.

Geopolitically, the governmental actors party to the Convention were split. The primary critical voice calling for precaution on synthetic biology came from the Philippines, while the Canadians argued that synthetic biology presented no new risks. The United States has not ratified the treaty, so was ineligible to formally participate in the meeting.

No consensus was reached on the issue, so the group compromised by presenting a series of three options to be discussed further this June. The most promising element in this compromise proposal concerns the language which made its way into the final proposal.  This was due in large part to a series of detailed documents submitted by NGOs including ETC Group, Friends of the Earth, and the International Civil Society Working Group on Synthetic Biology, which lay out the serious challenges synthetic biology poses to the natural world.

One option is not to add any of the proposed new and emerging issues to the agenda. The second is to invite relevant parties to submit further information on synthetic biology to the SBSTTA. Adopting either of these options would be a missed opportunity by the international community to take up a serious and pressing issue.

The final option, the one closest to the recommendations of civil society NGOs, is by far the most robust. It not only requests that a full report be conducted by the Executive Secretary of the Convention, but more importantly urges a moratorium on the release of synthetic parts and organisms. The text of this proposal (see the link at the bottom of this post) reads:
“[The SBSTTA] urges Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in accordance with the precautionary approach, which is key when dealing with new and emerging scientific and technological issues, to ensure that synthetic genetic parts and living modified organisms produced by synthetic biology are not released into the environment or approved for commercial use until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and due consideration is given to the associated risks for biological diversity, also including socio economic risks and risks to the environment, human health, food security, livelihoods, culture and traditional knowledge, practices and innovations.”

A moratorium on the environmental release of synthetic organisms has been a major centerpiece of domestic activism on the issue, and the proposal was one of the core elements in the Principles for the Oversight for Synthetic Biology, a policy framework for addressing the issue endorsed by 113 civil society groups back in March.

While nothing will be settled until the October Rio+20 meeting in India, bringing synthetic biology into international discussions is in itself a victory for progressives concerned about emerging technologies. International progress on the issue could perhaps prompt further debate and action domestically.

At this point, however, it remains to be seen whether democratic institutions will gain control over synthetic biology, or whether corporate actors will continue to monopolize and disseminate the technology without adequate regulation and safeguards.  If human society is ultimately going to come to grips with this powerful and dangerous new cluster of technologies, binding governance must be put in place at the international level.  One can only hope things continue to move in the right direction.

Previously on Biopolitical Times