Synthetic biology: Make or break for the CBD?

The CBD has a major decision to make on synthetic biology at COP12. A great deal rests on it. Synthetic biology includes a number of modern biotechnology techniques, including many from standard genetic engineering. However, it goes beyond them in its use of human-made, computer-generated and often highly novel DNA, RNA and amino acids. It is difficult enough to assess the risks around genetic engineering, but synthetic biology greatly increases the level of complexity and the number of
unknowns involved. However, so far there has been no real attempt to assess the impacts of any synthetic
organism or component on biodiversity or human health.
Yet industry attempts to persuade us that synthetic biology does not need special regulation and calculates that it will yield billions of dollars by 2020. Some of the largest corporations are involved, while certain governments, for example the UK, have already decided that synthetic biology will be a major area of investment and source of economic growth, so clearly the pressure to allow industry to proceed with few restrictions are considerable.
This means that the CBD has a special responsibility to act decisively. We need time to assess the implications of synthetic biology. We cannot allow pressure from economic interests to increase the risks to biodiversity and its sustainability. The CBD must apply the Precautionary Principle in its fullest sense to synthetic biology.
This would provide us with the time we need to device and carry out proper risk assessments. That would require the assessment of each of the technologies involved separately and their applications and also how they should be assessed, by whom and according to what guidance. We also need to ensure that proper risk assessments are undertaken that take into account all affected Parties. For example if synthetic vanilla is produced in one country and consumed in another, the impact on vanilla growers and biodiversity where the vanilla grows in the global South must be taken into account.
These are just some of the actions required if we are to be true to the fundamental principles of the CBD.
In fact, synthetic biology is a litmus test for how meaningful the convention is. If the CBD is not able to put the precautionary principle into practice on a new and emerging technology that carries such high risks, what hope is there that it can achieve the 2020 Goals or the Aichi
Targets or halt the loss of biodiversity?

Synthetic biology: Make or break for the CBD?
Helena Paul ECO 50, Issue 2; published at COP12