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Past Activities 2017-2018

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Limitations within the Topic 3 question and further comment [#8758]
Dear colleagues,

My name is Fred Bass and I am physician representing the Canadian Friends Service Committee, which is concerned about the ecological and social justice aspects of synthetic biology.

Many thanks to Nikolay Tzvetkov for taking on the daunting task of moderating this discussion and for your helpful updates on its progress.  The technical issues of synthetic biology and its broad social and ecological importance make our discussion both intimidating and consequential.

The phrasing of the first question concerns me.  If we are to confine our attention to already-developed living organisms or to those currently under development, the CBD will always be behind in its work.  It seems to me that the CBD should be imagining and anticipating future  developments in synthetic biology so as to prepare for the long-term. 

The second question — evaluating the tools to detect and monitor the organisms, components and products of synthetic biology — is also too narrow, I believe.  We need to direct attention to the biological contexts that receive the organisms synthetic biology produces, in addition to the organisms themselves.  We are now in the sixth major extinction of species and yet the AHTEG discussions, and the data we have available, bear little relation to measures of biodiversity and its startling decline.  This is particularly important in regard to ecosystems, fundamental elements of biodiversity (noted in Convention on Biodiversity, first paragraph in the definitions of Article 2). 

Recognizing that the monitoring of ecosystem health and function may be extraordinarily complex and expensive, it would still be useful to consider synthetic biology in the light of available measures of ecosystem health.  In public health, for example, in addressing a viral illness for which there is no population data, it is still useful to have available population mortality data. 

Also, I also believe we need to link our consideration of synthetic biology to summary data available for the key populations noted in the Preamble to the CBD:
Indigenous and local communities
Least developed countries
Small island states
Those in poverty.

In other words, the CBD should help us relate its work in synthetic biology to its stated priorities.  To me it seems that we are chasing after synthetic biology without having in view strategic information important to the CBD priorities.  Our job is to help make synthetic biology safe for the world, not vice versa.

By now many, if not most, participants in this discussion may view the above as part of the frequent cacophony of CBD discussions described by Ms. Maria Mercedes Roca in contribution #8733.  I agree with her that reports to the Parties need to communicate the various and sometimes conflicting views of AHTEG participants and the perspectives from which those views are drawn.  The CBD reports might convey not only what was said but why was it said. 

Diversity of opinion may be as important to optimal problem-solving as is biodiversity to the endurance of ecosystems.  A recent workshop on synthetic biology, politics, and philosophy at the University of Bristol (1) noted :

...The main argument of the talk was that instead of avoiding or fearing friction, as many in the synthetic biology assemblage do, it should be embraced as a reality.  Friction reveals deep ontological conceptions of the way the world is and ethical commitments about the way it should be, including what constitutes human progress.  Friction is a result of diversity, occurring at the interface of diversity, and it is diversity and plurality that makes society more resilient to future challenges...

I would like to offer two suggestions:

1) The CBD might issue another update on synthetic biology following the Technical Series 82 volume and relate actual and potential technical developments in synthetic biology to the priorities of the CBD and include relevant ecological and social data.

2) Engage institutions such as that at the University of Bristol to help this and other    
AHTEGs with strategies to enhance the formulating of policy in synthetic biology.

Thank you.

(1)  University of Bristol, BrisSynBio, Univ of West of England:  Report of the Synthetic Biology, Politics, and Philosophy Workshop June 8, 2017, University of Bristol, UK
posted on 2017-09-17 19:03 UTC by Dr Frederic Bass, self-employed