Science for Democracy and the Associazione Luca Coscioni have written to the new FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu to congratulate him on his election, invite him to the 6th World Congress on the Freedom of Scientific Research and request a meeting to discuss the future of food.
In particular, the topic of new breeding techniques was brought forward, as it could provide at least a partial solution to world hunger. Leadership by the new leader of the international body responsible for food and agriculture would help to address the resistance of governments wanting to stifle to scientific progress and to prevent their citizens from enjoying its benefits, thus contravening the human right to science.
Read the Letter from ALC and SfD.
During the past few months, the international bodies that supervise, among other issues, the implementation of the “right to science” and the “rights of science” have been affected by an unprecedented budgetary crisis that is gripping the United Nations.
The right to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress and its applications (the “right to science”), the right to health, and a set of rights and corresponding duties that concern scientific research and technological development, collectively known as “the rights of science” (e.g. the right to protection of the moral and material interests resulting from inventors’ work, the right to work, the duty States have to encourage scientific research and to facilitate cross-border cooperation) are codified in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and their implementation is supervised by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Other “rights of science”, such as freedom of expression, academic freedom, the right to seek and disseminate knowledge, and the right to associate, are codified in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and their implementation is supervised by the Human Rights Committee.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Human Rights Committee are two of the ten so-called “Treaty Bodies”, expert bodies that have been established to supervise the implementation of the nine key international human rights treaties. In April 2019, the Chairpersons of all ten UN human rights Treaty Bodies were informed that six of them are very likely to have sessions in 2019 cancelled for financial reasons (and, at the time of this writing, they did), an unprecedented consequence of some member States delaying payments due to the United Nations. This means that reviews of periodic reports by States, as well as consideration of complaints by individual victims of serious human rights violations – not just of the right to science and the rights of science, but also torture, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and many more – will not take place as scheduled. The cancellation of sessions will also have numerous other negative consequences, and will seriously undermine the system of protections which States themselves have put in place over decades. Treaty Bodies are already struggling carrying out these. There is hardly enough time and resources to carry out their tasks. The UN financial crisis is threatening the survival of the UN human rights infrastructure. How did we get to this point?
- UN human rights treaty bodies: what are they?
The UN system of protection of human rights is currently composed of nine major multilateral treaties. Two of them, the Covenants, are very broad and are considered, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the centerpieces of the so-called Universal Bill of Rights. The other seven are dedicated to a specific issue (e.g. torture) or a vulnerable group (e.g. persons with disabilities). Each of these treaties is endowed with a body (a Committee) comprising elected independent experts who seek to ensure that States parties fulfil their legal obligations under the given treaty. Currently, the UN has 10 such treaty bodies. They are
- The Human Rights Committee (supervising the implementation of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights);
- The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (supervising the implementation of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights);
- The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (supervising the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination);
- The Committee against Torture (supervising the implementation of the Convention against Torture);
- The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (part of the regime established by the Convention against Torture);
- The Committee on Migrant Workers (supervising the implementation of the Convention on Migrant Workers);
- The Committee on Enforced Disappearances (supervising the implementation of the Convention on Enforced Disappearances);
- The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (supervising the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women);
- The Committee on the Rights of the Child (supervising the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child);
- The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (supervising the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).
In essence, the UN human rights treaty bodies carry out three essential functions:
1.Review of Periodic Reports: They review the reports that each state that has ratified one or more of these treaties must present periodically (usually every 5 years). These periodic reports detail what the state in question has done to discharge its obligations under the given treaty during the reporting period. Over the span of several months, the body engages the state in a discussion over its performance. Crucially, civil society (i.e. NGOs, national, foreign and international) is given the possibility to participate through the submission of “Parallel Reports”. The outcome of the review process is a document in which the treaty body recommends the state to take a series of steps to improve its compliance with the given treaty.
2.Consider Individual Complaints: Most of these treaty bodies can also receive complaints (“communications” in UN Human rights jargon) from individuals alleging violation of their rights under one of these treaties by a state that has ratified it. This is a quasi-judicial function. It is called “quasi-judicial” because it is similar in process to the way in which courts operate, but it is different in the sense that the outcome is not a binding order, but “views”, that is to say, a non-binding recommendation to the state in question about steps to be taken to remedy the violation the treaty body has identified.
3.Clarify the Scope of Obligations: Almost all of these treaty bodies issue “General Comments”. General comments add detail to the barebones provisions of these treaties, helping states to better understandwhat the obligations contained in them exactly entail. They are regarded as “authoritative interpretations” of these treaties.
All Treaty Bodies are composed of “Independent Experts”, persons with particular knowledge in the field of the given treaty, who serve for variable periods (about 4-year, renewable, terms). The composition of each treaty body as a whole represents the whole of the United Nations according to the principle of “equitable geographical” representation (hence in a committee of 18 persons, there will be, for instance, 4 from Africa, 4 from the “Western Europe and Other Countries” group, 3 from the “Latin America and Caribbean” group etc.). Crucially, all members of these committees work part-time (meeting about three times a year for “sessions of 4-5 weeks each”) and do not receive a salary, nor a pension, neither from the United Nations nor from their countries, but only reimbursement for their expenses to participate in the sessions. They are not employees of the UN, as far as compensation is concerned.
The work of all treaty bodies is supported by the staff of the United Nations, and, in particular, by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is headquartered in Geneva.
- The UN budget
The work of the United Nations is funded by member States. The UN General Assembly approves the UN regular budget every two years. The UN has two main budgets: The Regular Budget, which is used to fund all UN activities with the exception of peacekeeping operations, and the Budget for Peace-Keeping Operations. All member States are assessed a portion of both budgets, according to their “capacity to pay”. The size and strength of each national economy is taken into consideration. The highest contributing member (the United States) pays 22% of the total while the smallest state pays 0.001%.
According to the report entitled “Financial Situation of the United Nations” delivered by Jan Beagle, Under-Secretary-General Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, to the Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly, on 7 May 2019, in 2019, the total assessed contributions to the regular budget were $2.85 billion ($362 million more than 2018). However, payments received by 30 April 2019 totaled only $1.7 billion. Unpaid assessed contributions as of 30 April 2019 amounted to $1.7 billion, higher than the previous year by $146 million. By the end of 2018, 152 member States had paid their regular budget assessments in full. That is only 152 out of 193 members in total, but also seven more than at the end of 2017. As of 30 April 2019, only 89 Member States had paid their assessments to the regular budget in full, one more than at the same date last year, but not enough to avert a financial crisis. The United States, which is the main contributor to the UN, is also the one with the largest unpaid bill: $1.055 billion. It is followed by Brazil ($143 million), Japan ($136 million) and Argentina ($52 million). All other non-paying members combined owe the organization $186 million.
Throughout its history, the UN has always had some members delaying payment of their assessed contributions. Some were withholding payments for political reasons, signaling disagreement with the organization on this or that issue, others because were short of funds due to domestic financial crises. The UN managed to continue operating by managing its cash flow, and, occasionally, by last minute payments by the major contributors. However, over the past few years, the regular budget has been facing severe liquidity issues, with cash deficits occurring earlier in the year, becoming larger, and lingering for longer periods. To get an idea of how bad the financial crisis has become, last June, Secretary General Antonio Guterres told member States that he considered selling the Secretary General’s residence in midtown Manhattan, a four-story townhouse with a garden overlooking the East River, located in the posh Sutton neighborhood, and estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars. Of course, he found out that he could not sell it because he does not have the authority to sell it under UN agreements with the United States, the host government of the United Nations NY headquarters.
At the end of October 2018, the regular budget cash deficit reached its highest at $488 million, following shortfalls starting as early as the end of May. In October, the reserves of $353 million (that is $150 million from the Working Capital Fund, and $203 million from the Special Account) had been completely exhausted. The deficit, taking into account these reserves, was $135 million. This was covered by borrowing from the accounts of closed peacekeeping operations. As of this writing, the crisis has no solution in sight.
- The funding of the UN human rights system
Although human rights are recognized as one of the three pillars of the UN system, the proportion of the budget earmarked for them is less than 8%. Even when that 8% is paid in full, it is not enough. Only about 40% of the income of the OHCHR comes from the United Nations’ regular budget ($125.5 million) The rest ($188 million) is extra-budgetary, made of voluntary contributions from member States and other donors (e.g., international organizations, the EU Commission, UN partners).
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the bureaucracy that supports the work not only of the treaty bodies, but all human rights work in the UN, budgets according to certain need-based formulas. This involves staff positions, physical infrastructure, travel, consultancies, services etc. The overall budgetary UN crisis triggered an across-the-board internal freeze on use of 25-37% of the budget for 2019. The OHCHR decided not to cut any staff position. That is rational if the crisis is considered to be a temporary one. It focused rather on cuts in travel and Daily Subsistence Allowance (DSA, a consultancy-related per diem), which made the treaty bodies, whose budget includes a significant component of travel and per diem (the experts themselves being unpaid and based outside Geneva most of the year), particularly vulnerable.
This may happen again next year, and the problem remains that the tenuous nature of the work of the treaty bodies (part time, not pegged to any rigid performance indicia, unremunerated) make it an easy target for cuts, despite the fact that there is earmarked budget for the treaty bodies.
The current crisis threatening the essential work UN human rights Treaty Bodies carry out is due, first, to the overall UN financial crisis. The main culprit of that is the United States. One can also argue that the current US administration is setting a dangerous precedent, not incentivizing other members to pay their dues, too. The second problem is the tenuous basis of the funding of the overall UN human rights system. Although the fact that it is funded in significant part by voluntary contributions insulates it, somehow, from the crisis affecting the regular UN budget, it still makes it difficult to give the system of human rights protection the solid funding it requires to be as entrenched as it should. This is one of the reasons why treaty bodies are staffed by part-time experts, and not professional full-time employees (like the judges of the International Court of Justice, and the Yugoslav and Rwanda Tribunals are). When funds get tight, the first cuts are variable expenditures, leading to the reduction of the number and frequencies of sessions of Treaty Bodies, worsening the backlog of individual communications and state reports they already have.
Cesare Romano, Science for Democracy’s co-founder
The research could eventually lead to new sources of organs for transplant, but ethical and technical hurdles need to be overcome.
A Japanese stem-cell scientist is the first to receive government support to create animal embryos that contain human cells and transplant them into surrogate animals since a ban on the practice was overturned earlier this year.
Hiromitsu Nakauchi, who leads teams at the University of Tokyo and Stanford University in California, plans to grow human cells in mouse and rat embryos and then transplant those embryos into surrogate animals. Nakauchi’s ultimate goal is to produce animals with organs made of human cells that can, eventually, be transplanted into people.
Continue reading the article on Nature
On July 25th, the Luca Coscioni Association, Federazione Italiana Scienze della Vita, Società Italiana Genetica Agraria, and Science for Democracy presented to the Italian Chamber of Deputies the open letter to the European institutions and the Italian government, one year after the decision of the European Court of Justice that considered the most recent mutagenesis techniques to be GMOs.
The letter follows a position paper coordinated by the Flemish Biotechnology Institute (VIB), thanks to which the European scientific community, in agreement and with one voice only, has asked and continues to ask for a structural rethinking of what was decided by the Court on new mutagenesis techniques (genome editing), applied to plants.
“The decision by the Luxembourg Court heavily undermines public research centres which will see plants with mutations similar to those happening spontaneously in nature labelled as GMOs” said Filomena Gallo, secretary-general of the Luca Coscioni Association “and will seriously penalise Italian agriculture, which could excel in sustainable production taking safe innovative instruments away – and perhaps consolidating the need to import from abroad GMO products like soja and corn, for the final production of many Made in Italy specialties.
Gennaro Ciliberto, president of the Italian Federation of life sciences, reminded how “the Italian and European scientific community once more ask institutions and citizens to appropriately modify legislation that appears outdated by the most recent knowledge”. The European GMO directive is from 2001, while one of the most promising genome editing technologies, also known as CRISPR, was registered in 2012.
“Genomic technologies including genome editing” reminded Enrico Pe’, president of the Italian Society for Agrarian Genetics, “are a great instrument, efficient, safe and cheap, and can give a substantial contribution to agricultural sustainability in the XXI century”. He was partly responding to an anti CRISPR statement by Slow Food, where science was accused of being overbearing.
Marco Cappato, coordinator of Science for Democracy, stated why the organisation is interested in these themes, underlying how “it is about allowing the greatest enjoyment of the benefits of the latest scientific discoveries – the so-called right to science – to allow citizens to improve their quality of life”. Besides directly sending out the open letter, Cappato also announced a future engagement “to unite under a European Citizens’ Initiative, launched by a network of young researchers, asking to exonerate CRISPR from the European Court of Justice’s decision by proposing an addendum to the 2001 directive. We deem it proper to join this scientists’ mobilisation also with the goal of involving public opinion with this new participatory democracy instrument available to European citizens”.
The XVI Congress of the Luca Coscioni Association, to be held in Bari October 3-6, will include, among other topics, a thematic debate on plant biotechnology.
The European Commission authorised ten Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): seven for food and feed uses (cotton GHB614xLLCotton25xMON1598, maize 5307, maize MON 87403, maize 4114, maize MON87411, maize Bt11xMIR162x1507xGA21, soybean MON87751), two renewed authorisations also for food and feed (oilseed rape Ms8xRf3 and maize 1507xNK603) and one carnation as ornamental cut flower.
All of these Genetically Modified Organisms have gone through a comprehensive authorisation procedure, including a favourable scientific assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The authorisation decisions do not cover cultivation. All Member States had the right to express their view in the Standing Committee and subsequently the Appeal Committee. Given the outcome of the process the European Commission has the legal duty to proceed with the authorisation.
The authorisations are valid for 10 years, and any products produced from these Genetically Modified Organisms will be subject to the EU’s strict labelling and traceability rules. For more information on GMOs in the EU see here.
All these GMOs had received a favourable opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but are controversial, particularly because of their resistance to herbicides, such as glufosinate resistant maize 1507 and glyphosate resistant NK603.
The previous European Parliament objected to all these authorisations on public health and environmental grounds, both for GMOs and products containing them, citing in particular shortcomings in EFSA’s risk assessment. However, Parliament’s objections are not binding.
The Member States, on the other hand, had concerns, but failed, at expert level and then in the Appeal Committee, to obtain the qualified majority required to reject or approve the Commission’s proposals. Under the current comitology procedure, they are in this case deemed not to have “an opinion”.
Serbia becomes the first country in the Balkans to introduce open science principles in a law on science and research.
The Serbian government has passed a new law on science and research that recognizes open science as a fundamental principle of science and research.
The new Law on Science and Research, passed on 8 July 2019, confirms Serbia’s commitment to open science. It comes just a year after the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development (MESTD), the main national funder of research in Serbia, adopted a national open science policy, the Platform for Open Science, mandating open science to all publicly funded research.
Continue reading on EIFL’s (Electronic Information for Libraries) website.
Ultimately, we were fined 500€ and threatened with criminal prosecution shall we refuse to pay.
In response, exactly one year after the European Court of Justice’s ruling, our Coordinators Marco Cappato and Marco Perduca wrote a letter outlining the reasons behind our action and why we believe the fine is unjustified.
Below you can read the English translation of the letter:
We confirm reception of your fine.
We challenge this fine, and we believe to have committed no crime.
Indeed, the Federal Agency for the Security of the Food Chain’s action was based on the fact that on the occasion of the « Give Crispr a Chance » event rice modified with the Crispr technique, which has a doubtful legal status in Belgium, was consumed.
However, by admission of your agents, no technical analysis of the product has been made. How can we then know that the AFSCA’s action had a legitimate basis, as the action was launched following an act of denunciation?
To better put in context what we did on the 5th of March, we deem it useful to remind the reasons that brought us to organise it. The goal was to raise awareness on the ruling by the European Court of Justice of July 25th, 2018 on mutagenesis techniques that did not take into account the most recent scientific discoveries. On that occasion, the Court established that:
- Article 2(2) of Directive 2001/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 March 2001 on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms and repealing Council Directive 90/220/EEC must be interpreted as meaning that organisms obtained by means of techniques/methods of mutagenesis constitute genetically modified organisms within the meaning of that provision.
Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/18, read in conjunction with point 1 of Annex I B to that directive and in the light of recital 17 thereof, must be interpreted as meaning that only organisms obtained by means of techniques/methods of mutagenesis which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record are excluded from the scope of that directive.
- Article 4(4) of Council Directive 2002/53/EC of 13 June 2002 on the common catalogue of varieties of agricultural plant species, as amended by Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 September 2003, must be interpreted as meaning that genetically modified varieties obtained by means of techniques/methods of mutagenesis which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record are exempt from the obligations laid down in that provision.
- Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/18, read in conjunction with point 1 of Annex I B to that directive, in so far as it excludes from the scope of that directive organisms obtained by means of techniques/methods of mutagenesis which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record, must be interpreted as meaning that it does not have the effect of denying Member States the option of subjecting such organisms, in compliance with EU law, in particular with the rules on the free movement of goods set out in Articles 34 to 36 TFEU, to the obligations laid down in that directive or to other obligations.
The Court’s decision heavily disadvantages public research centres that see plants with mutations similar to those happening spontaneously in nature labelled as GMOs, which damages a European agriculture that could excel in the production of sustainable products – and which forces the importation of GMO products such as soya and corn, for the final production of a high number of typical European products.
It is in this context that we have organised our demonstration. We believe that applying a 2001 law in 2018 to techniques invented in 2012 is unsuitable and goes against the latest scientific discoveries. Our action had the objective of inviting competent authorities, through the organisation of the snack in front of the European Parliament, to a revision of these laws.
Crispr is a technique that in its agricultural applications permits to produce more by using less water, less land and less chemical products. In the context of the environmental crisis we are living, and keeping in mind the overpopulation that afflicts our planet, the risk for millions of people of not having access to the food they need is real. At the same time, Crispr can be used to improve the health of plants, a theme which will be at the centre of a world campaign launched by the United Nations for the year 2020.
In light of current legislation, even research of products derived from the Crispr technique is forbidden. We believe that it is time to go beyond an ideological “no” and to allow science to advance so that every citizen can benefit from it.
In light of what is written above, what we shared with your agents in the April 2nd audition and as you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, analyse what was distributed to participants – all of them selected, informed and made identifiable by a white t-shirt with “give Crispr a chance” written on it – we believe the fine to be unjust and therefore not to be paid.
Marco Cappato and Marco Perduca
A Sydney team has developed a box jellyfish antidote so simple it can go on as a spray. But it’s only the first step.
The idea came to Dr Greg Neely after the fruit flies. In May, the Sydney-based scientist and his team of 22 announced they had potentially cured the sting of the box jellyfish, the most venomous creature in the world, whose toxins cause excruciating pain as a best-case scenario, and cardiac arrest as the worst.
It was a simple but groundbreaking technique, using the latest in genetics technology – Crispr, the gene-editing tool that allows scientists to make precise changes to DNA.
The process is fascinating and the implications sprawl across all areas of human health.
Continue reading the original article on The Guardian.
Researchers from the University of Dortmund have created gene-edited tobacco using CRISPR. The nicotine content of the plant is 0,04 mg per gram, as opposed to 16 mg for normal tobacco plants. The lowest amount obtained before that was 0,4 mg.
The abstract of the paper is as follows:
Worldwide approximately 1.1 billion people are smokers and more than 7 million people die fromthe negative effects of smokingevery year(WHO report, 2017). One of the main natural ingredients causingdependence on tobacco is nicotine. Tobacco with a lowered nicotine content could help people to overcome their nicotine addiction. Nicotine‐free (or nicotine reduced) cigarettes may contribute to reduce the number of smokersand nicotine consumption, thus reducing the risk of death from tobacco use. Most genes involved in the nicotine biosynthesis in tobacco are known and well characterized (Dewey and Xie, 2013). This opens the possibility to employ genetic engineering approaches to alter the alkaloid content of the plant, and in particularto reduce the nicotine content. Nicotine itself is composed of a pyrrolidine and a pyridine ring, whichare synthesized in independent pathways (Figure 1 A). Recent approaches dealt with the silencing of upper pathway genes encoding the putrescine N‐methyltransferase (PMT) or A622, a phosphatidylinositol‐4‐phosphate (PIP)‐family member of NADPH‐reductases. The applied RNA silencing methods resulted either in the increased biosynthesisof other alkaloids like anatabine(i.e. Wang et al., 2009) or were only successful in hairy root cultures and BY‐2 cells, but not in whole plants(Kajikawa et al., 2009). The final oxidation step in the biosynthesis ofnicotine, as well as anatabine and anabasine, is proposed to be catalyzed by flavoproteins of the berberine bridge enzyme‐like (BBL) family(Kajikawa et al., 2011). The knockdown of the three most highly expressed BBL‐genes(BBLa–BBLc) by RNAi or the knockout with EMS‐induced mutations resulted in a reduction of the nicotine content without increasing the contentof other alkaloids(Kajikawa et al., 2011; Lewis et al., 2015). Recently, the BBL‐gene family in tobacco was expanded by the identification of BBLd.2 and BBLe,leading to six known isoforms(Kajikawa et al., 2017). Thus, the simultaneousknockout of theseBBL‐genes is a promising approach to generate a nicotine‐free tobacco plant.
Our co-founders Andrea Boggio and Cesare Romano have published an article on the CRISPR Journal about the relationship between the human right to science and human germline engineering.
In it, they argue that the human right to science represents a starting point for an international consensus on responsible scientific advancement and that prohibiting research on germline editing inhibits the debate surrounding this technological development and its potential to ensure that scientific advancement are shared. Current legislation surrounding germline modification often goes counter to international human rights norms, and this paper can be the beginning of a conversation about how to fully implement the human right to science.
You can read the paper for free (until July 24) here. Their findings are part of a book that will be published by Cambridge University Press in January 2020 titled Human Germline Genome Modification and the Right to Science: A Comparative Study of National Laws and Policies.