Do We Need an International Body to Regulate Genetic Engineering?

Do We Need an International Body to Regulate Genetic Engineering?
January 18 14:45 2017 Print This Article

(GIZMODO) – Imagine a scenario, perhaps a few years from now, in which Canada decides to release thousands of mosquitoes genetically modified to fight the spread of a devastating mosquito-borne illness. While Canada has deemed these lab-made mosquitoes ethical, legal and safe for both humans and the environment, the US has not. Months later, by accident and circumstance, the engineered skeeters show up across the border. The laws of one land, suddenly, have become the rule of another.  By Kristen V. Brown

If modern science can can defy the boundaries of borders, who exactly should be charged with deciding what science to unleash upon the world?

A version of this hypothetical scenario is already unfolding in the UK. Last year, the British government gave scientists the green light to genetically engineer human embryos. But in the US and most other nations, this possibility is still both illegal and morally fraught. Opponents to the practice argue that it risks opening up a Pandora’s Box of designer babies and genetically engineered super-humans. Even many more neutral voices argue that the technology demands further scrutiny.

And yet, the UK, at the vanguard of genetic engineering human beings, has already opened that box. In 2015, the British government approved the use of a controversial gene-editing technology to stop devastating mitochondrial diseases from being passed on from mothers to their future children. And last February, the UK granted the first license in the world to edit healthy human embryos for research. Recently, a Newsweek headline asked whether the scientists of this small island nation are in fact deciding the fate of all of humanity. It is a pretty good question.

If modern science can can defy the boundaries of borders, who should be charged with deciding which science to unleash upon the world?
This alarming ethical conundrum has not escaped the notice of global governments. A National Intelligence Council report released this month concluded that “genome editing and human enhancement” are “likely to pose some of the most contentious values questions in the coming decades.” Advancements in these arenas, the report said, “will affect relations between states.”

At a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity in Mexico last month, activists asked the UN to consider a global moratorium on gene drive, a controversial genetic engineering technique that ranks among the most urgent reasons for international discussions of technological ethics. Gene drives allow scientists to override natural selection during reproduction, which in theory could lead to the alteration of the genetic makeup of an entire species, borders be damned. The UN rejected calls for a moratorium, but the meeting resurfaced discussions about whether the world might need some kind of international framework for genetic engineering.

It’s hard to imagine what such a framework might even look like. Just look at genetically modified foods. In the US, GMOs are regarded, at least by regulators, as perfectly safe for human consumption. But France, Germany and many other European and African nations have altogether banned the sale of genetically modified crops, considering them either insufficiently tested or unsafe. These restrictions affect trade, market prices, and the expansion of the global food supply. How could one set of global laws possibly govern both ideologies?

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