Synthetic Biology Threatens African Biodiversity, Health, and Livelihoods

By Jean Fallow, AGRA Watch Intern

This is a summary of the report “What Does Synthetic Biology Mean for Africa?” by Dr. Eva Sirinathsinghji and Mariam Mayet of the Building International Capacity on Synthetic Biology Assessment and Governance (BICSBAG) Project, which is coordinated by the African Center for Biodiversity, ETC Group, and the Third World Network. Unless otherwise noted, all material in quotes is from the report.

This 2018 analysis describes some of the potential dangers posed by recent technological innovations in “synthetic biology.” This oxymoronic term encompasses a range of genetic engineering techniques including DNA/RNA synthesis, genome editing, sequencing, and gene drives. The report focuses on the risks involved in exporting these techniques from the U.S. and Europe to African nations, arguing that while “the claimed modus operandi of many of the latest developments is to help Africa to feed itself, in the absence of domestic biotechnology expertise, it also conveniently provides the opportunity for the shaping of the biosafety discourse to suit the technologies’ developers and others that stand to benefit from the use of the technology.” Among the concerns raised by the report are:


  • Manufacturing alternatives to natural ingredients by synthetically producing them in living organisms. This often involves the use of genetically engineered microbes such as yeast or algae, which feed on sugar. Negative effects on biodiversity include reducing demand for natural plants (such as shea, cocoa, cassava, stevia, artemisia, and vanilla) and creating a demand for large amounts of sugar, which is often produced by agribusiness with unsustainable methods and high water requirements. Moreover, many of the natural plants do not require agrochemicals, are drought resistant, or are well suited to grow in a variety of soils, whereas the genetically engineered plants that replace them are not.


  • Increased dangers of biopiracy. Biopiracy is “the unethical or unlawful appropriation or commercial exploitation of biological materials native to a particular country or territory without providing fair financial compensation to [its] people or government” (Merriam-Webster). Due to recent technological advances in digital sequencing and DNA synthesis, information needed to create genetically engineered crops can now be transmitted electronically across borders, without having to transport a physical seed or plant. Since current laws and policies regulate the transfer of physical material only, “open access to digital sequences is likely to facilitate further biopiracy and profit extraction of African plant resources.”


  • Gene drives. Designed to target pests and diseases, gene drives create “mutagenic chain reactions” designed to spread throughout a population, leading to its permanent alteration or extinction. One example is the Target Malaria project, which is working to genetically engineer sterility in male mosquitoes, with core funding from the Gates Foundation. Currently in “contained use” facilities in Burkina Faso, the insects could be released into the environment sometime this year, even though Burkina Faso’s biosafety regulations lack “specific guidance for conducting risk assessment for GM [genetically modified] mosquitoes, or what public consultation is required.”


  • RNA interference crops. These crops are genetically engineered to “silence” genes in pests. For example, Monsanto’s MON87411 maize is designed to target a gene in the Western corn rootworm. However, “Recent studies have shown that not only do non-coding RNA molecules survive mammalian digestion, but they also go on to regulate the genes of mammals that have consumed them. They are also known to have off target effects.”


The BICSBAG Project analysis concludes that recent developments in synthetic biology pose “clear risks to the environment, health and biodiversity of the African region, and threaten livelihoods.” It warns that laws and policies regulating genetic engineering in agriculture are not keeping up with technological innovations and are in urgent need of updating, especially with regard to biopiracy concerns and the development of “gene drive” organisms.


Posted in Agra Watch Blog Posts, Slider.

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