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We must abandon the utopia of a nature enslaved by humanity

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Modified mosquitoes, transformations of living things, genetic manipulation... Advances in biotechnology give us a feeling of omnipotence. And it is nature that pays the price. Isn't it time to ask the right questions?

 
Threats to ecosystems and climate are forcing a change in direction. In its latest report entitled "Biodiversity and health: humanity's new relationship with living things? "the National Advisory Committee on Ethics in the Life Sciences and Health (NACHE) calls for "rethinking our relationship to the living world". The aim is to relearn the meaning of its limits, those of our "power" to transform and possess life. While the question of growth is central, the answers provided by the various parties must be looked at from a less dominant and more supportive perspective in order to rethink progress and improve well-being in a limited but diverse world. At the same time, the High Council for Biotechnology (HCB) is publishing its opinion on the use of genetically modified mosquitoes. Frameworks that seem very fragile when tested against economic logic...
 
ADoes awareness of danger make us wise? The "Wise Men" of the National Advisory Committee on Ethics in the Life Sciences and Health (NACHE) have never been so clear-sighted! We must "abandon the utopia of a nature enslaved by humanity" hammered their last report on Biodiversity and HealthIt is an appeal to everyone's responsibility to "avoid leaving future generations an Earth that is less conducive to humanity than it is today".
A matter of survival, really. "20 % of humanity control, manage and consume 80 % of resources, while a significant part of the population has no access to food, drinking water and health care".
It is also a matter of obligatory solidarity that affects the health of all. "The rapid disappearance of certain species or the threat hanging over them is an indication of the damage we are causing in terms of environmental degradation and its consequences for human health". 
We are witnessing the most precarious fragility since, according to the WHO, "80% of the world's population depend on traditional medicines from wild species".

Health through concern for others, human and non-human

What's the point of such statements, you tell me! Admittedly, alerts and attempts to change our production systems have been legion since the 1980s... Who remembers in particular the initiative of Nicolas Hulot (with the now deceased molecular biologist André Adoutte) to set up an "Environmental Ethics Committee"? That was in 1997, 20 years ago.
Today the "defender of the planet" is in the driver's seat. And political and economic reconfigurations are multiplying, soon to be forced march. The various transitions are in the process of "making a system". While they are ahead in agriculture (even the push of organic farming or agroecology) and the energy sector, they have not yet really penetrated the world of health. However, the findings are dramatic, as the CCNE report reminds us: "The WHO indicates that air pollution alone causes the premature death of 8 million people a year in the world. Half of these deaths are linked to outdoor air pollution, and the other half, mainly in poor countries, to indoor air pollution caused by the domestic use of fossil fuels".
The NEAC wants to promote an ecosystem approach to health, which is essential in the face of the globalization of health risks. "The inappropriate or abusive use of antibiotics in human and animal health can unbalance bacterial ecosystems in the environment, starting with the human intestinal microbiota". This inappropriate use, which undermines the evolutionary capacities of living organisms, leads to dreadful therapeutic deadlocks. In order to overcome the limitations of conventional approaches to infectious diseases, a new concept, called " One Health /Une seule santéThe "Health and Environment" programme, aimed at strengthening the links between human health, animal health and environmental management, has been developed. This new approach to health, based on intersectoral and interdisciplinary collaboration, is encouraged by the French government.

READ IN UP' : Revision of bioethics laws in 2018: not without citizens!

Revisiting our imaginations of progress

But the report is forceful in revising the notion of progress: "The notion of progress hitherto equated with an increasing control of living things must be questioned. The implementation of the "precautionary principle" or "ecological compensation" often dispenses with a reflection on the dynamics of natural processes and the medium- and long-term interest of a co-evolutionary approach limiting the alteration of these processes". 
 
The rapporteurs insist: "Human development cannot be achieved at the cost of disturbances that jeopardise the capacity of ecosystems and species to adapt and evolve. It must give priority to the concept of its co-evolution with the living". We recognize here the thought developed by the philosopher Cynthia Fleury, notably in the collective book she coordinated with Anne-Caroline Prévot. Concern for nature« . An effort to say how much experience of nature (relationship and not connection) can transform public policy.
This is a question of considering the living conditions of organisms whose potential is totally dependent on their insertions. Bernard Chevassus-au-Louis and Gilles Pipien explain this perfectly: "While describing biodiversity in terms of entities is a legitimate approach [...], an individual of a species can only exist if he weaves, from birth, multiple relationships with other individuals of his species or with other species, relationships that will determine both his own future and the role he will play in the functioning of ecosystems: biodiversity is first and foremost a matter of relationships! » (see Chevassus-au-Louis B. and Pipien G. (2014). La biodiversité, du " grand inventaire " à la " toile du vivant ", Humanité et biodiversité n°1, 15-24.

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On the subject of progress, the authors point out that the damage to our mode of development is now undeniable because "widely documented ». This leads to serious threats. "Approximately 60% (15 out of 24) of the ecosystem services considered in this assessment (including 70% of regulating and cultural services) are being degraded or exploited unsustainably. Ecosystem services that have been degraded over the past 50 years include fisheries, water supply, waste treatment and detoxification, water purification, protection against natural disasters, regulation of air quality, regional and local climate, erosion, spiritual fulfilment, and aesthetic enjoyment.
For the CCNE, "the lack of respect for the obligations of States (UN world charters concerning the financial economy or trade as well as health and nature) is worrying because these commitments constitute a prerequisite for any effective ethical consideration of biodiversity by all humanity".
 
The authors also wish to denounce the erroneous positions assumed by scientific colleagues. They point out that the scientific community can be both a breeding ground for whistle-blowers on the fragility of living things, but also a melting pot of conservatives, true "believers in science" and therefore unable to revise their conception of progress. In 1992, on the eve of the Rio Summit, several hundred scientists launched the Heidelberg Appeal, which denounced "the emergence of an irrational ideology opposed to scientific and technical progress" and then abandoned scientific analysis and all future-oriented thinking, continuing that "humanity has always progressed by putting nature at its service".
It was later learned that the Philip Morris company and asbestos manufacturers had co-signed that call. This type of collusion is not to be put down to the exceptions of the past... The war with the climatosceptics continues to rage since it allowed Trump to get out of the Cop21 agreement. It also resurfaces very regularly as soon as GMOs are mentioned. This is how we saw last July 100 Nobel Prize winners sign a petition in support of Golden Rice against Greenpeace....

Modifying genomes: the dangers of a loss of traceability and control

The field of biotechnology is addressed by the authors of the report, who are aware that the "surgery of the genome" made possible by editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 amplifies two problems: the absence of traces (and therefore the inability to account for them) and the short-circuiting of the rules of evolution by genetic forcing techniques. What responsibility can then be assumed if one does not know who does what? And what impacts may arise?

READ IN UP' : Collateral damage: CRISPR would cause unexpected genetic mutations. 

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The NEAC recommends three areas of vigilance. The first is to ensure that "any new function transplanted is compatible with the existing functions of the organism, including its reproductive capacity. The second is to respect biological balances. The last is to take into account the hazardous expression of genes. Three safeguards that are hard to see translated into practice? Typically, what will we do in the face of proposals from GMO mosquitoes?
 
The issue is timely as the NEAC report is released on the same day as a much-anticipated advice from the High Council for Biotechnology (HCB) on the use of genetically modified mosquitoes. The recent Zika crisis has indeed rekindled the problem of insects that are vectors of diseases that cause one million deaths a year worldwide (malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, Nile fever, zika, chikungunya...). « It's the most dangerous animal for mankind... ", insists Pascal Boireau, vice-president of the HCB scientific council. And the threats no longer concern only the DROM-COMs but metropolitan France where a new species of mosquito, the tiger mosquito, vector of major viral pathogens, is now well established.

READ IN UP' : Zika is just the first biological warfare front of the 21st century.

As always, the HCB opinion combines scientific work - established here with the National Centre of Expertise on Vectors (CNEV) - with the examination of socio-economic and ethical aspects by the HCB's Economic, Ethical and Social Committee. From the outset, it is clear that the growing resistance to insecticides (there is only one authorised one left, by the way) puts the authorities at risk of impotence.

The High Council for Biotechnology does not rule out the use of GMO mosquitoes

The range of alternative techniques to chemical treatments is not limited to genetic intervention, notably developed by Oxitec. As early as the 1950s, the strategy of infertile mating by releasing males previously sterilised by irradiation proved its worth on parasitic crop flies. France, and in particular its Research Institute for Development (IRD), has been developing a sterile mosquito release project in Reunion Island for the past eight years. Louis-Clément Gouagna, coordinator of the TIS-Reunion programme is optimistic: "People have been hearing about this research for the past six or seven years and have understood that this solution is a way of preserving the environment while avoiding the uncertainties about genetically modified insects, which our European regulations are not ready to authorise. "he explains.
Another possibility is to use a bacterium called the Wolbachia that sterilizes the females. Infected males cannot have viable offspring with the females (infected or not). So releasing males infected with this bacteria has the same effect as releasing sterile males. Catherine Golstein, Scientific Manager at HCB, explains that "the specificity of action of the different control techniques based on mosquito releases is above all an advantage over insecticides, since a drastic reduction in the associated environmental and health impact is obtained. It will, however, require the deployment of as many interventions as there are targeted vector mosquito species. The risk of replacement of Aedes aegypti by Aedes albopictus is conceivable but has not been observed in the field. It could be countered by controlling both species simultaneously.  
 
These remarks plead for intervention by combining techniques. In any case, " the use of modified mosquitoes will require an extremely thorough assessment and public education," adds Christine Noiville.. On this point, HCB believes that environmental and health impacts should be assessed prior to releases, particularly in terms of modification of ecological niches or vector replacement. The use of these living modified organisms is (...) far from being harmless," says the HCB. economic, ethical and social committee. The perception of populations, the upheavals in ways of living and thinking about the relationship with the living environment ... require the involvement of civil society in the decision-making and monitoring processes, taking into account the cultural perceptions specific to each territory", warns the HCB concerning public information.

For Christine Noiville, " GMO mosquitoes are not a miracle solution but they can be part of the solution. It also remains to legally qualify the status of mosquitoes transinfected with Wolbachia bacteria to know in which category - GMO or non-GMO - they are classified. The reference to the term "living modified organisms" used in the Cartagena Protocol - by broadening the definition of GMOs - could help to make progress. »

READ IN UP' : A GMO is never natural

Finally, on the subject of genetic forcing (or gene-drive) leading to 100% heritability of the grafted trait (instead of 50%), the report proposes more research. No banning of this technique is therefore proposed, even though it was strongly contested by NGOs at the Conference of the Parties of the Biodiversity Summit in Cancun in December 2016. In terms of applications in nature, 160 NGOs stressed the risks associated with the desire to destroy and/or modify so-called "harmful" populations/species in nature. To reassure, 32 international research or research funding institutions published last March, rules of good practice concerning research on "genetic forcing", including the involvement of the public from the design stages of this research.

READ IN UP' : Genetic forcing to eliminate species

In any case, the litmus test of truth on these bioethical issues is in the economic field. The Bill and Melida Gates Foundation has invested $75 million on the CRISPR-Cas9 technique to rapidly develop Anopheles (malaria vector mosquitoes) genetically modified to resist the Plasmodium falciparum...agent of malaria. It helped structure the Target Malaria Consortium hosted at Imperial College London with partner teams in Burkina Faso, Mali and Uganda. "We are targeting fertility genes to produce a mosquito with altered reproductive capacity., explains Austin Burtthe main manager of the Target Malaria programme. We use gene-drive to accelerate the evolutionary process of the species. We have proven in our labs that we can pass a gene to 95% in the offspring.
Far from the ethical warnings of the CCNE or the HCB, here is the "...". Mosquito geopolitics "dear to Erik Orsenna. 
 
 
To go further:
 
- Read in UP' : When economy rhymes with ecology - Interview with Martino Nieddu, director of the REGARDS economics and management laboratory at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne. 
- Book "The economic and the living" by René Passet, Professor Emeritus of Economic Sciences / University of Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne).
 

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