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U.N. Body Urges Caution on Synthetic Bacteria, Geoengineering

Stephen Leahy

NAIROBI, May 24 2010 (IPS) - Scientists announced the creation of first self-replicating synthetic life form last Friday, and a few hours later, a United Nations science advisory body meeting here urged countries to take a strong precautionary approach to avoid release of such entities into the environment.

Acting as the world’s guardian on biodiversity, it also expressed deep concern about the potential impacts of geoengineering schemes to combat climate change on the Earth’s ecosystems.

The same advisory body made a similar recommendation two years ago that led to a de facto global ban on a form of geoengineering called ocean fertilisation, an experimental method of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to combat global warming.

“We are worried about the negative impacts of geoengineering and synthetic life forms on Africa,” said a representative from Malawi at the final session of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA). This group is made up of scientific and technical experts from more than 100 countries that are signatories to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The CBD is charged with reducing the dramatic loss of species that underpin the Earth’s life support systems, and the SBSTTA offers expert advice and recommendations.

“There is no question that many feel the release of synthetic life forms will have a big impact on the objectives of the convention,” said Spencer Linus Thomas of Grenada, the chair of SBSTTA, which finished its two-week meeting on Friday.

“The precautionary principle as enshrined in the Convention ought to be applied,” Thomas told IPS.

Craig Venter, who gained worldwide fame in 2000 when he mapped the human genetic code, oversaw the team of scientists that claimed last week to have created the world’s first living, self-reproducing bacterial cell with a synthetic genome made by a machine, paving the way for the creation of more complex synthetic organisms.

In 2005, Venter launched a company called Synthetic Genomics to use genes culled from the sea and elsewhere to create synthetic organisms to turn crops such as switch grass and cornstalks into ethanol, produce hydrogen, secrete nonpolluting heating oil, or break down greenhouse gases.

A SBSTTA delegate from the Philippines urged the 195 countries that are members of the CBD to develop an international agreement with a strong precautionary approach regarding “living organisms produced by synthetic biology” at their biannual negotiations this October in Nagoya, Japan.

“We believe that there should be no field release of synthetic life, cell or genome into the environment until through scientific assessments have been conducted in an open, transparent and participatory process involving all parties (members), indigenous and local communities,” said Mundita Lim of the Philippines.

“We have a de facto moratorium,” Silvia Ribiero of the non-profit Etc Group told IPS, regarding the SBSTTA recommendation.

However, some countries disagreed over the wording of the recommendation and it will be a contested issue in at the meetings in Nagoya, where member countries will consider it further.

Ribiero also says the SBSTTA’s recommendations concerning all climate-related geoengineering schemes amount to a global moratorium. “Geoengineering” refers to any large-scale human-made effort to intentionally adjust major planetary systems, and includes proposals such as giant vertical pipes in the ocean, pumping vast amounts of sulfates into the stratosphere to block sunlight or blow ocean salt spray into clouds to increase their reflectivity.

Companies backing some of these schemes hope to profit from the rising public clamour for action on climate change, and politicians desperate to avoid serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Last March, scientists and geoengineering proponents attended an invitation-only conference in Asilomar, California to discuss various geoengineering ideas and a “voluntary code of conduct”.

“The geoengineers are going to be furious with this moratorium,” Ribeiro acknowledged. “The last thing they want is for the United Nations to step in. [They want to] self-regulate their experiments.”

The moratorium proposal received near-unanimous support with strong statements from countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, Ribiero said. Delegates were almost unanimous on the need to use the precautionary approach, in which no geoengineering would take place until science demonstrates its safety and that it works as promised.

Canada was notable in its dissension on this and other issues, many here said. It should be noted that the U.S. is not a signatory to the CBD and has no official role at the meeting.

“Canada is the bête noire of climate change negotiations and nobody was surprised to see it stand out as the main objector to this proposal. The delegation itself was embarrassed,” Ribeiro said.

These recommendations demonstrate the importance of the CBD as the guardian of biodiversity. “The CBD still makes decisions mainly on principles and not politics,” she said.

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