Precautionary principle impedes innovation, says ag expert

By Nkechi Isaac

December 4, 2018

An over-reliance on the precautionary principle threatened to impede innovation in decisions made at last week’s Convention on Biological Diversity (COP CBD), noted one agricultural expert.

Rodrigo Lima, partner director of Agroicone, Brasil, was responding to the stances taken by those who were pushing for more stringent regulations on genetic engineering, gene drives and synthetic biology at the just-concluded 2018 United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

About 6,000 participants from 196 countries were at the conference to deliberate policies for regulating genetic engineering and protecting biodiversity, with some nations proposing a moratorium on the technology — a move rejected by many.  However, the parties finally reached consensus on the need to assess the risks of gene-drive releases on a case-by-case basis. They also agreed that local communities and indigenous groups potentially affected by such releases should be consulted — and their approval secured — before any such experiments occur.

In an exclusive interview with the Alliance for Science in Egypt, Lima stressed that poor information and lack of scientific knowledge tended to affect sound decision-making by many of the parties involved in the conference. However, he underscored the need for key players like scientists and academics to join the discussion to educate people about the potential benefits and possible risks associated with the technologies.

Information and knowledge, rather than precaution, are the way of progress and innovation, he said.

“Damages to biodiversity from any technology may occur, of course, but you need to have information on what is the technology, how it relates to health, environment, the species and so on and to be able to adopt decisions that will really support parties on exceptional cases of damages,” Lima said. “I understand the importance of making decisions, but I really see that there’s a lot of lack of knowledge and communication about the possible effects.”

Academics, researchers and NGOs need to bring information and participate in these debates to ensure the discussions are reasonable and consistent, he noted. Otherwise, participants tend to get overly hung up on the possibilities of damage, when no damages are actually occurring because the technology has not been allowed to proceed.

Lima further noted that “to do research there are biosafety protocols to be followed in medicine and other issues. We’re not just creating little monsters and exterminators. At the end, we want to prevent damages to biodiversity, so let’s look through it to be able to do that and not just prescribe that any technology because it is new is damaging as a whole.”

Earlier, the 54 nation-strong African Union (AU) had taken a decisive stance during plenary in support of gene drives and other developmental technologies, saying African governments had appended their signatures to implement a strategic science and technology plan to develop the continent.

Speaking on behalf of the AU, Eric Okoree, chief executive officer of the Ghana Biosafety Authority and the national focal point for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, said the continent was carefully considering these emerging technologies and putting the necessary regulatory systems in place.

“Africa’s position is to harness all possible emerging technologies,” he said. “We believe science and technology creates the jobs because the poverty gap is also a technology gap and so we want to make the best use of any new scientific procedure to improve our agriculture, health and living standards on the continent.

“Governments have encouraged the various countries in the continent to go in that direction, so we were trying to make sure that policy decision was reflected in the decisions of parties to the conference. So that’s the main reason Africa took that stand — to make sure we’re not left out,” he stated.

Similarly, Chinyere Nzeduru, director of national biosafety for the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in Nigeria, stressed that Africa will support and utilize safe technologies to develop the continent. She contended that Africa will remain underdeveloped, depending solely on consumption of imported technologies for survival, if it fails to recognize the fact that the technologies should be encouraged in Africa.

“This is why the AU member-nations have gotten themselves together to say that as long as the technology is safe for us, our people, our environment, we have to support it. The technology is going to enhance Africa’s economy as long as it is safe, and it would benefit the countries. Definitely, we’ll not allow anything that is unsafe into Africa.”

She noted that AU member-nations supported decisions that enhanced research in areas like synthetic biology, which will “open up new doors for researchers to tap into it, explore and find out how it can benefit the common man. And that is our own take to ensure our society grows alongside other societies. Science is part of life and living and is all encompassing.”