Imagine a scenario, perhaps a few years from now, in which Canada decides to release thousands of mosquitoes genetically modified to fight the spread of a devastating mosquito-borne illness. While Canada has deemed these lab-made mosquitoes ethical, legal and safe for both humans and the environment, the US has not. Months later, by accident and circumstance, the engineered skeeters show up across the border. The laws of one land, suddenly, have become the rule of another.
Image: Angelica Alzona/Gizmodo
If modern science can can defy the boundaries of borders, who exactly should be charged with deciding what science to unleash upon the world?
A version of this hypothetical scenario is already unfolding in the UK. Last year, the British government gave scientists the green light to genetically engineer human embryos. But in the US and most other nations, this possibility is still both illegal and morally fraught. Opponents to the practice argue that it risks opening up a Pandora's Box of designer babies and genetically engineered super-humans. Even many more neutral voices argue that the technology demands further scrutiny.
And yet, the UK, at the vanguard of genetic engineering human beings, has already opened that box. In 2015, the British government approved the use of a controversial gene-editing technology to stop devastating mitochondrial diseases from being passed on from mothers to their future children. And last February, the UK granted the first licence in the world to edit healthy human embryos for research. Recently, a Newsweek headline asked whether the scientists of this small island nation are in fact deciding the fate of all of humanity. It is a pretty good question.
This alarming ethical conundrum has not escaped the notice of global governments. A US National Intelligence Council report released this month concluded that "genome editing and human enhancement" are "likely to pose some of the most contentious values questions in the coming decades". Advancements in these arenas, the report said, "will affect relations between states".
At a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity in Mexico last month, activists asked the UN to consider a global moratorium on gene drive, a controversial genetic engineering technique that ranks among the most urgent reasons for international discussions of technological ethics. Gene drives allow scientists to override natural selection during reproduction, which in theory could lead to the alteration of the genetic makeup of an entire species, borders be damned. The UN rejected calls for a moratorium, but the meeting resurfaced discussions about whether the world might need some kind of international framework for genetic engineering.
It's hard to imagine what such a framework might even look like. Just look at genetically modified foods. In the US, GMOs are regarded, at least by regulators, as perfectly safe for human consumption. But France, Germany and many other European and African nations have altogether banned the sale of genetically modified crops, considering them either insufficiently tested or unsafe. These restrictions affect trade, market prices and the expansion of the global food supply. How could one set of global laws possibly govern both ideologies?
"I'm sceptical about the ability of an international body to reflect the very different conditions and, more importantly, cultures of different countries," Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford, told Gizmodo via email.
Greely said he couldn't imagine the US and EU ever agreeing on regulations for genetic modification.
"When countries want different things," Greely said, "international bodies typically end up being ineffective, often with mandates sufficiently vague that everyone could agree to them but that no one will be particularly bound by them."
Just look at the recently-enacted Paris Agreement, a landmark UN climate deal celebrated for getting more than 70 nations to sign on to fight climate change, which has been heavily criticised for not being stringent enough.
In its report, the National Intelligence Council argued that the chance of agreement seems less and less likely the more advanced technologies become — in other words, more opportunity for disagreement makes it less likely for nations to agree.
"How people think about the very nature of life and how people love and hate is likely to be challenged by major technological advances in understanding and efforts to manipulate human anatomy, which will spark strong divisions between people, country and regions," the report concluded.
Many of the issues surrounding new genetic engineering technologies are political. In African nations such as Zimbabwe, for example, a large part of the rejection of GMOs was tied to anti-Western conspiracy theories circulated by ruling parties.
"It's not clear to me that it's simply a regulatory problem. It's a political will problem," said Jack Bobo, communications chief for Intrexon, owner of Oxitec, the biotech firm that has made headlines this past year seeking approval to release genetically modified, Zika-fighting mosquitoes in the US.
Still, the effectiveness of local regulatory bodies does seem to play a large part in influencing that political will. Brazil and Australia, for example, each have regulatory bodies devoted specifically to genetic engineering. And in both of those countries, Oxitec had a much easier time seeking approval for its GMO insects than it has had in the US, where regulatory approval for its Zika-fighting mosquitoes was bizarrely processed through the FDA as an "animal drug". It isn't just fear of mutant mosquitoes that has stymied Oxitec's efforts in the US. Those efforts have also been hampered by a poorly-equipped regulatory body, and a public suspicious of releasing a lab-engineered insect without what feels like proper vetting.
Likewise, it seems no accident that the UK was both the first nation in the world to have an independent legislative body to regulate human embryo research and IVF treatment, and also a pioneer of IVF and engineering human embryos.
If more countries had regulatory bodies set up to deal specifically with genetic engineering, perhaps there would be greater global consensus on how to proceed — or at least a more coherent identification of where the risks lie.
"All countries need to think hard about a good regulatory agency to assess all kinds of modified life forms for their risks," Greely told me, "and balance those against their benefits before deciding whether to allow their introduction."
So how will we ever begin to reconcile our divergent beliefs, to come to some kind of consensus that allows us to recognise the potential new technologies have to offer? There is no easy answer.
History, though, does provide us with reasons to be optimistic. Time and time again, fear of new technologies has impeded progress. In the 15th century, Europe prohibited the printing press. Only a century ago, America boycotted the car. And yet, of course, we now live in a world of far too many cars and an unyielding glut of things to read.