A Quaker Perspective: Technology, Synthetic Biology, and Extinction

Industrial technologies have extended across the earth and provided benefits like food, clean water, sanitation, and housing to billions of people. However, with increased consumption of resources and the social changes that technologies and capital-driven economies have brought, they have also disrupted ecosystems and human communities.1 In fact, the global, ecological impact of humans and our technologies has already led to the Sixth Mass Extinction of life.2 We are in the midst of a global, biological catastrophe.
One of the far-reaching technologies that has emerged in recent decades is synthetic biology. It focuses on the redesign and engineering of DNA to develop a variety of biological applications — medical, research, agricultural, military, energy-production, cosmetics, and others yet to be imagined. Synthetic biology, with its focus on direct manipulation of DNA, seems intent on supplanting nature and evolution.3 It may do so for beneficial reasons, but often the emphasis is also to maximize return on investment.
Given the present massive loss of biodiversity, precaution is urgently needed. Such an approach would be holistic, placing top priority on the welfare of people and ecosystems. A precautionary perspective is often found among Indigenous Peoples, small-scale farmers and fishers, those sensitive to ecological and evolutionary processes, and those who connect deeply to the world around them.4 Quaker discernment shares this holistic perspective.
For decades, Canadian Quakers have been actively concerned with the understanding and governance of biotechnology. We have worked closely with the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), publishing a review of the impacts of genetically modified crops,5 endorsing Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology, forming Quaker study groups on synthetic biology, and offering news updates on developments in the field. In November 2017, the World Council of Churches and CCC held the first multi-faith-group conference on synthetic biology, with very active participation from Friends.
In 1992, given the worldwide loss of biodiversity, the United Nations formed the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), whose  three aims are: the conservation of biodiversity; its sustainable use; and the fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources. In 2015 and 2017, the CBD reviewed developments in synthetic biology through an Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG). CFSC was invited to join the AHTEG, so I attended its meetings in 2015 and 2017.
I found the discussions technical, intimidating, and constrained by the formal language of the Convention. There was little reference to the first objective of the CBD – to conserve biodiversity.6 To make matters worse, there was little attempt to relate synthetic biology to measures or estimates of biodiversity loss.7 In 2015, the AHTEG and the subsequent Conference of the Parties (nations) reached a formal definition of synthetic biology,8 however no recommendations were made that could be considered precautionary. So when the AHTEG met again in December 2017, I was determined to raise the pressing reality of mass extinctions and to muster within me all the Quaker I could find to pursue this issue.
I was pleased that there were now two representatives from Indigenous communities in the AHTEG (there had been none in 2015). Yolanda Teran from Ecuador, eloquently stated on the first day, “For thousands of years, we Indigenous people have had a different and direct way of knowing the world. It’s different than the technical approach.”
The second day, I noted to the AHTEG that, after months of online discussions and after two days of conversation among 80 participants, there had been no mention of extinction of species, nor of loss of biodiversity. If there was a global emergency, one would not know it from our conversations!
On the final day of the meeting intense discussion continued past midnight. Part of these discussions was a proposal I made that would reflect the state of peril in our world:
14. The AHTEG, with respect to safe use and best practices, and, keeping in mind the objectives of the Convention (conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of biodiversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of its genetic resources):

(a)  recognizes the persistent and profound loss of global biodiversity frequently identified as the Sixth Mass Extinction and notes that the Preamble of the Convention states “biological diversity is being significantly reduced by certain human activities”;

(b) seeks to have the development and use of the products of synthetic biology proceed so as not to further the over-consumption of biodiversity; and
(c) urges the CBD to develop and implement best practices for synthetic biology’s sustainable use of Mother Earth’s resources; and, further, to develop these best practices in a way that is equitable to Indigenous Peoples and to local communities, consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms the rights of free, prior, and informed consent.

To my delight, the AHTEG approved including these ideas (albeit in a somewhat watered-down way) in its report, despite a few participants objecting to the word “extinction.” My scientific training, though helpful, was not critical in making this contribution. Anyone in a democratic society who is paying attention to the state of the world can confront our over-consumption.
Quakers have a strong tradition for gathering wisdom and then speaking truth to power. Shared silence and then shared discernment arising from the silence allow for deep reflection and strong motivation to act.
The testimonies that most Quakers share are highly relevant to a world preoccupied with profit and immodest consumption:
Simplicity — the antidote to over-consumption
Peace — the values that would impede military application of biotechnology
Integrity — not only personal integrity but that of the wider community
Community — supporting the human and more-than-human community
Equality — fair and equitable sharing with all people
Stewardship — of biodiversity, of people, of nature’s creation.
In these challenging times, it is good to be a Quaker.
Fred Bass (Vancouver Meeting) is an associate member of CFSC.

  1. Franklin, Ursula. “The Ursula Franklin Reader; Pacifism as a Map.” Toronto: Between the Lines, 2006, pp. 16-19
  2. Kolbert, Elizabeth. “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” New York: Henry Holt, 2014, pp. 1-3
  3. Church, George and Regis, Ed. “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.” New York: Basic Books, 2012
  4. Franklin, pp. 141-142
  5. Mitchell, Anne, Rajagopal, Pinayur, Helmuth, Keith et al. “Genetically Modified Crops: Promises, Perils, and the Need for Public Policy.” Quaker Institute for the Future Pamphlet #3. Caye Caulker, Belize: Producciones de la Hamaca, 2011
  6. The full text of Convention on Biological Diversity is available at https://www.cbd.int/convention/text/default.shtml
  7. On this topic see the UN commissioned Millennium Ecosystem Assessment at https://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/About.html
  8. The definition is listed on https://bch.cbd.int/synbio/