Should genetic engineering be used as a tool for conservation?

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Clare Oxborrow 
Senior food and farming campaigner, Friends of the Earth

“No: GM is clunky and outdated”

The use of genetic modification (GM) may appear to be an attractive tool, but lessons from its use in farming suggest we shouldn’t hold our breath. 

GM has had a fair run in agriculture. Over the past 30-plus years much has been promised, and vast amounts have been spent, yet only two simple modifications have been achieved commercially in crop plants – herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. These have caused huge problems for farmers and ecosystems – for example, from resistant weeds emerging that require the use of more chemical herbicides to control them. More useful and complex modifications like drought and salt tolerance and nitrogen fixation, though long awaited and researched, have still failed to materialise commercially. 

Releasing GM plants and animals into the environment is a risk. There will always be uncertainty over the long-term impacts on wild populations and their wider ecosystems. Insect-resistant cotton seemed to provide a sustainable solution to the problem of cotton bollworm, but after only a few generations, problems emerged with secondary pests – thriving because their predators have been controlled by the insecticide produced by the GM plants. 

There is a critical role for good science in conservation. But GM is a clunky and outdated technique unlikely to play a significant role. We shouldn’t get distracted by the lure of a techno-fix. 

 

Thomas Maloney 
Director of conservation science, Revive and Restore

“Yes: to complement, not replace key tenets”

Conservationists have been cognisant of managing the genetic condition of wildlife for generations. Efforts to restore bottlenecked wildlife species have required careful tracking of the pedigree of captive-bred individuals or translocation of distant individuals. These efforts are arguably a form of genetic engineering. In the US, the California Condor recovery programme is making great strides in managing the population genetics of the species as it has recovered from 23 individuals to over 400 today.

Medical and agricultural advances offer transformational tools. Intractable diseases like Chytrid fungus, threatening amphibians, and white-nose syndrome in bats may necessitate genetic engineering solutions. Bioengineering offers applications with invasive pests, disease resistance, facilitated adaptation to climate change, and synthetic alternatives to wildlife products.

In a time when the threats have never been greater and tools more powerful, the fundamental tenets of conservation still apply. Habitat, ecological processes and environmental health are critical. Biotech can complement but not replace these core necessities of a functioning biosphere. Indeed, the power of these tools compels a responsible, deliberate and open consideration of implications. But, given the scale of humanity’s impact, perhaps the question is: “Can conservation afford to not use new genetic engineering tools that could save our wildlife?”

 

Dr Helen Wallace 
Executive director, GeneWatch UK 

“No: de-extinction is hype, not reality”

The idea of ‘de-extinction’, using cloning and genetically engineered eggs, is hype, not reality. The very high failure rates in pregnancies using cloned or genetically engineered eggs in mammals, and other technical difficulties in birds, make rescuing near-extinct species using this technology unlikely. Without the right habitats and the ability to produce sufficient numbers of animals with high genetic variability – unlikely, given the limited DNA from extinct species that is available – this idea makes no sense.

Releasing large numbers of sterile organisms can crash a population, and might affect invasive species, at least temporarily. However, truly sterile organisms that do not evolve resistance are unlikely to be achievable through genetic engineering. Impacts when released into the environment may be negative as a result of the need for repeated mass releases of harmful organisms, or as a result of ecosystem responses over time. If population suppression is successful, this is likely to be temporary, and could also lead to harmful surges in competitor species. 

‘Gene drive’, which in theory could spread genetically engineered traits, such as sterility or disease resistance, is highly speculative and would pose even greater risks. This means trying to engineer whole ecosystems, with consequences which are not fully understood. Far from being the answer to conservation issues, genetic engineering is a distraction that could divert scarce funding.

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