By Dr Jonathan Menary, a Nuffield Department of Health researcher specialising in food and farm systems, with a particular interest in sustainability, biotechnology and innovation.
Yet recent advances in biotechnology, such as genetic engineering, now allow us to make unprecedented interventions in the environment, including for biodiversity conservation.
Cane toads, an invasive species dangerous to native Australian wildlife, could be modified to prevent the proper development of its poisonous glands; corals bred to be more heat resistant as oceans warm. And for small island rodents, the escaped mice and rats that so devastate isolated seabird populations, a synthetic “gene drive” could bias the sex ratio of pups, driving them to local extinction without the need for poison or trapping. The grey squirrel, once a stranger to British shores, could find itself in the same situation in aid of trees and the native red squirrel.
Could (or, more importantly, ‘should’) these technologies play a role in biodiversity conservation? Will they help us “live in harmony” with nature? In a sector where new technology is sometimes seen as a threat to rather than saviour of biodiversity, this idea has already proven challenging to broach: a 2019 report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was, for some conservationists, not balanced enough in its stance towards genetic technologies. (The IUCN is still grappling with its position on genetic engineering for conservation.)
In association with Natural England, researchers at the University of Oxford recently held a forum to discuss genetic engineering in conservation in a UK context; and to find out what else we need to know to govern new genetic technologies in the environment.
Together with conservation professionals and policymakers, we found that public trust and engagement would be critical. Making sure the right species is targeted – it could be one that is threatened, or one that threatens other species – is likewise essential. It is also important to compare the potential use of genetic engineering with the existing practices such as poisoning and trapping. Would this change the calculation for someone opposed to using genetics to control an invasive species?
No doubt, the thought of (further) modifying the natural environment will cause disquiet for many, but initiatives of this kind are already underway: modified mosquitos have been released in several countries to reduce the number carrying malaria, dengue and Zika. What for now are local public health initiatives will eventually become cross-border conservation issues requiring international agreements.
It will be important for social scientists to be at the front, rather than the back, of the development of these new technologies. Meaningful engagement with and empowerment of local communities and indigenous groups (2) will be essential for the responsible scale-up of gene-edited organisms in the environment (if we want them at all). In this, progress has already been impressive. There is a growing body of work for UK policymakers to draw upon when it comes to the ethical, social and governance dimensions of conservation biotechnology. It is worth opening the discussion here, now, as these technologies reach maturity, rather than when they are on the cusp of being deployed in natural settings.