Por Mauro Rebelo

Combating invasive species at the Biodiversity COP

The heated discussions on biotechnology and biodiversity at COP14 confirm the growing perception in Brazil that environmental problems are actually social problems.
Among these problems is the distancing of the general population, especially traditional and poor populations in forest areas, from the technological advances experienced in universities and large urban centers. “Who will benefit from these technologies?”
It doesn’t matter if there is a law on benefit sharing. Traditional populations want to be heard in decision-making processes, even if they don’t fully understand the technologies and their impacts. This applies to society as a whole, since without scientists, it is not possible to understand these advances or even translate them for society. And Brazil has less than half the world average of scientists per 1 million inhabitants.
Unable to understand the phenomena that are happening and to give an informed opinion about them, these populations retreat and, motivated by fear, choose to propose a ban and moratorium on technologies: DSI (digital sequencing information) Gene drive (directed and accelerated evolution of a species) and synthetic biology (genetic modification with DNA synthesized in a laboratory).
While they worry about possible but improbable problems (the transfer of genes from a genetically modified organism to the natural population), real and immediate problems, such as the dispersal of invasive species by the transportation of goods, by tourism; the loss of habitat by burning and other low-tech practices, are left out of the discussion.
“We have to estimate the cost of doing nothing,” said an African researcher in a session on the life-saving potential of mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles (which transmit malaria) genetically modified to spread infertility. Malaria is still the scourge of humanity and the disease that kills the most people in the world. Especially in Africa. Current mosquito control technologies have no potential to eliminate the problem and projections indicate that thousands of people will continue to die from malaria if we do nothing. Not using all the tools at our disposal, especially the high-tech ones, to tackle our problems should be the real crime. But the leaders of the traditional communities, who are the ones dying from the disease, ask what will happen to them when they eat the fish that ate the genetically modified mosquitoes? Do they run the risk of mutating and becoming infertile? Can they die? How do you explain to these people how safe technology is that they can’t understand? We’ve been feeding the world’s livestock with genetically modified grains for 30 years and there have been no documented cases of death or side effects. But if the people who die from malaria aren’t convinced by technical and logical arguments, how can we expect to convince the whole of society?
These are questions I don’t know how to answer, but I’m sure that a ban and a moratorium are not the answer. Never in the history of mankind has a civilization advanced by refuting technological advances. Never has government interference in determining what can and cannot be researched by scientists resulted in better use of technology.
Science advances by challenging the known. By pushing the boundaries of knowledge. It is inevitable that this will have an impact on society. The possibility of transplanting organs and saving thousands of lives has led society to discuss the very definition of life and death.
But this discussion is slow. The current mechanisms, which I had the chance to witness at Cop as a representative of the Brazilian delegation, are incredibly slow. Delegates from over 150 delegates gathered to read the text of the guidelines word for word, stopping to discuss each time a country raised an issue.
Perhaps what we need is more social technology, new mechanisms to speed up discussion and decision-making in society. More biotechnology and more socio-technology. Until then, the COP’s tendency has been to prioritize the technical point of view. And once again that’s what we’ve seen, with the creation of a technical chamber to discuss the use of gene-drive in the environment.
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With Elisa Dezolt from CNI and Frineia Resende from Reservas Votorantim at the Business Approach to Aichi Targets side-event at COP14