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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2017

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New Genetic Engineering Techniques: Precaution, Risk, and the Need to Develop Prior Societal Technology Assessment

Business has been arguing that governments should override the precautionary principle in favor of an “innovation principle.” The new genetic engineering techniques (sometimes called “new breeding techniques”)1 provide the perfect cover for this argument. Proponents assure us that these new techniques are essential to address the crises we face and will provide economic benefit, as long as we set aside the precautionary approach that they claim increasingly hampers technological progress. We are in the midst of powerful high-risk technological developments with potentially severe and irreversible health, environmental, and societal implications. It is vital to develop processes for examining new technologies while they are still being developed. We argue that precaution needs to guide technology development in this area. Indeed, it should precede the technology development. An adequate technology assessment and decision-making process requires concerted effort, courage, and restraint, and it must include the option to decide against developing or deploying some technologies altogether.


Ricarda Steinbrecher is a biologist, molecular geneticist and co-director of EcoNexus. She has worked on GMOs, their risks and impacts on agriculture, environment and health since 1995, including more recently synthetic biology and the new genome editing techniques. She is involved in UN-led processes, in particular the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and has been appointed to international expert groups on the risk assessment of GMOs, as well as synthetic biology. She's a founding member of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility and works closely with civil society and small-scale farmers' groups worldwide.

Helena Paul is co-director of EcoNexus, a not-for-profit public interest research organization based in Oxford, UK. She has been involved in the UN Conventions on climate change and biological diversity. She's worked on indigenous peoples' land rights and tropical forests; oil exploitation in the tropics; biodiversity and agricultural biodiversity; agriculture and climate change, especially bioenergy; patents on life; genetic engineering (GE); synthetic biology; geoengineering; land-grabbing and corporate power.

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