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Biotechnology for biodiversity

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the one for Peace, should be read as an invitation to foster collaboration between science and decision-makers to improve the quality of life for humanity providing sustainable viable answers rooted in scientific progress.

The Prize for chemistry went to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their development of CRISPR-Cas9, a method for genome editing, while the World Food Program (WFP) was awarded the medal for its efforts to combat hunger and improve conditions for peace. 

The recognition of the work of Charpentier and Doudna has been a welcome development for those who, like us at Science for Democracy, believe that research and trials should be allowed in order to test the safety and efficacy of new scientific developments before adopting rules and regulations on them. 

For a few years, together with our friends and colleagues at EU-SAGE we have tried to raise awareness on CRISPR through thematic debates at the UN, and public demonstrative actions in front of the European Parliament, cuationing institutions not to impose arbitrary, and to a certain extent anti-scientific, hurdles to the development of genome editing on plants. 

We believe that this year’s Nobel to gene editing is a message to the scientific and political communities with global implications that go beyond chemistry. The award should be read also keeping in mind the General Comment on Science adopted at the UN in April 2020 – a document that unfortunately does not include meaningful mentions to biotechnologies – and put in perspective for the innovations that CRISPR can bring about.

In the eight years since its invention, studies on CRISPR have shown that the tool can alter DNA in organisms from butterflies to rice, from mushrooms to tomatoes, and even humans. Many believe that we have never had a technology as powerful and versatile, and affordable, as genome editing with CRISPR. 

The WFP was declared winner of the prestigious award “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. CRISPR could be a potent ally to improve food security and more generally to promote a more sustainable development assisting local communities do conserve or improve their peculiar crops.

The FAO estimates that up to 40% of food crops are lost annually due to plant pests and diseases leaving millions of people without enough food to eat seriously damaging agriculture, the primary source of income for rural poor communities. 

Climate change, and human activities, have altered ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and creating new niches where pests can thrive. International travel and trade has tripled in volume in the last decade and, as we have seen this year, it can quickly spread diseases around the world causing great damage to all.

2020 was proclaimed the International Year of Plants Health to advocate, among other things, on prevention to avoid the devastating impact of pests and diseases on agriculture, livelihoods and food security.

We need to enroll biotechnologies in the struggle to protect the environment and to make sure that human activities do not continue to destroy biodiversity. 

This is the message that we need to send to States when they will meet in Canada in November within the framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity as in their preparatory documents there is no mention of how biotechnology can assist us in promoting a more sustainable future based on scientific evidence.