Explaining “Synthetic Biology” and defending Plant Science at the 2018 United Nations Biodiversity Conference

While most of the US was focused on mid-term elections, Washington politics, and the coming Christmas season, a meeting was taking place halfway around the world that could have far-reaching consequences on the ability to use agricultural biotechnology.

SIVB member David Songstad was invited to give a presentation on November 20th at side event on “Synthetic Biology: What it is, what it isn’t, and the applicability of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety”, as part of the 2018 United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.  David based his presentation on theCouncil for Agricultural Science and Technology July 2018 paper on Genome Editing in Agriculture.  This event was very well-attended by about 150 government delegates, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, and the scientific community. Feedback was extremely positive, with governments requesting that industry and academia provide such informative events, and to provide them at additional fora in their countries. Another side-event was on gene drives. This inspiring event featured students and young researchers from Youth Biotech and was organized by PublicResearch Regulators Initiative (PRRI), ISAAA and Imperial College London.

Ray Shillito, a former SIVB member was also present at the meeting as part of an industry delegation, and Wayne Parrott attended the 2016 meeting in Mexico as part of the PRRI delegation.

Why is this an important outreach effort?

Decisions taken at past meetings have had very negative impacts on the use of biotechnology around the world, and future decisions could negatively impact the use of the new biotechnologies, including new gene-editing, synthetic biology, and particularly the movement of materials from one country to another, and even field trials.

The conference consists of concurrent meetings of the “Convention on Biological Diversity” (CBD), the “Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety” (Cartagena Protocol), the “Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation” (Nagoya Protocol).  At the meeting, Parties negotiate about treaty implementation, and several of these issues are particularly relevant to the regulation of biotechnology.  The meetings are held every 2 years – the 2016 one was in Mexico and the next is in China.

A lot of work is done by industry and NGOs during the two-year period between meetings.  Deliberations and decisions taken at the UNBC are usually based on the outcomes of work programs during this 2-year period. These activities include representation in Ad Hoc Technical Expert Groups (AHTEGs), participation as topic experts in capacity building workshops and online fora, information submissions to the Secretariat of the CBD, and the development and review of reports and treaty publications.

Decisions of most impact to SIVB members:

Of most interest to us are matters related to genetic engineering, gene drives, synthetic biology, digital sequence information (DSI), and a procedure for avoiding or managing conflicts of interest in expert groups.  Work programs were extended and expanded for synthetic biology and DSI.  Behind the harmless-sounding DSI acronym is an attempt to classify DNA sequences in data bases as germplasm resources and place them under the terms of the Nagoya Protocol.  These will be the largest issues for the period until the next meeting in China in late 2020.

Ongoing discussions centre around environmental risk assessment of GMOs; the role of socio-economic considerations (SECs) in GMO decision-making; unintentional and illegal transboundary movements of GMOs; public participation, education and awareness; transit and contained use of GMOs; the development of a detection training manual; and capacity building.

The need for engagement

The vast majority of representatives to this meeting have no background in science.  Over the past 20 years, academics and other scientists, disdainful of politics, have historically stayed away.  Therefore, the agenda was being largely driven by NGOs that strongly advocate strict interpretations of the precautionary principle and strongly reject biotechnology.  Hence, it is no surprise some UN agencies place GMOs in a high risk category.

The meeting in Mexico was a turning point.  There was strong participation of scientists organized by PRRI, as well as several young scientist entrepreneurs from Youth Biotech.  For the first time, someone was present who could challenge the misinformation presented by NGOs.  Furthermore, South America and Africa have started to realize the positive benefits of the technology and rely more on their own experiences as guidance.

How can SIVB members get involved? 

Start planning on ways to attend the 2020 meeting in China.   In the meantime, register for the on-going discussion on synthetic biology by nominating yourself (https://bch.cbd.int/synbio/nomination_natl_experts/).  AHTEG (Ad hoc technical expert working groups) are occasionally formed for on-line discussions.  Monitor the Cartagena and Nagoya Protocols for new AHTEG and sign up to participate!

Therefore, in 2016, as in 2018, decisions were less restrictive and negative for biotechnology than in the past.  A major success of the 2018 was a reduced focus on genome editing in the synthetic biology decision and work program.  Significantly, a moratorium on gene drives was rejected in favor of a more risk proportionate approach consistent with current regulatory practices for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

A reduced focus on genome editing under the decision on risk assessment of GMOs was a major step forward. However, the issue of whether countries can claim digital sequence information generated from plants and other organisms that originate in their countries is an ongoing and unresolved debate which is already causing some uncertainty for research and development.



The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is a multilateral treaty under the United Nations Environmental Programs, that came into force in 1993. Its mission is the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, along with fair sharing of the benefits from using biological diversity. It is noteworthy, that of all threats facing biodiversity, the CBD has primarily focused on threats from genetic engineering.  There are two Protocols under the CBD.  The Cartagena Protocol protects biological diversity.  The Nagoya Protocol ensures the equitable sharing of benefits from germplasm and associated indigenous knowledge.  Efforts are underway to categorize DNA databases as germplasm.

Submitted by David Songstad and Ray Shillito
Note: Views presented here represent those of the authors, and not necessarily those of SIVB, BASF or Cibus.