Canadian Friends Service Committee has been facilitating a consultation and discernment process with Quakers from across Canada around issues raised by synthetic biology. Below is an article written by CFSC board member Fred Bass (Vancouver Monthly Meeting) which originally appeared in The Canadian Friend (reprinted here with permission). For more about these issues, read the Synthetic Biology Kit or contact us.
Move over, Nature (and God)—Synthetic Biology to the rescue!
Homo evolutis , published in 2010, celebrates synthetic biology. It names and defines the species that is about to succeed us, “a hominid that directly and deliberately controls evolution of its own and other species.”
So what is synthetic biology? It’s a new field that combines genetics, engineering, laboratory and computer science to produce new forms of life to meet human needs, such as food, fuel, pharmaceuticals, pollution control, cosmetics and information processing.
Synthetic biology doesn’t just change genes of existing creatures — it creates new creatures… new bacteria, plants, animals and perhaps people. Proudly and immodestly, Nature’s laboratory — evolution — may soon be replaced by science and technology.
Who’s involved? Researchers and academics around the world, including MIT, Harvard, U. Cal and many more, supported by major corporate investment and a little funding from government. The world’s largest chemical, energy, grain-trading and pharmaceutical companies, e.g. Monsanto, DuPont, British Petroleum, Shell, Novartis and International Flavours & Fragrances, have invested billions of dollars in synthetic biology. Government participation and regulation have been minimal, nationally and internationally.
What resources does synthetic biology require? Universities’ students, faculties and facilities and corporate research laboratories are essential. To capitalize on what is learned will require massive amounts of biomass (earth’s biological productivity: plants, soil, plankton, forests, etc). Large quantities of land in Africa, Asia and Latin American have already been purchased by corporations (& some universities) to gain access to biomass, water and other resources . This acquisition is displacing local, traditional agriculture.
What social justice and ecological issues does synthetic biology present? A few are obvious: agricultural land grabbing, prioritizing cosmetics over food, defining the roles of the public and private sectors, solving safety issues and maintaining the health of natural ecosystems. How can potential threats from synthetic biology be prevented while gaining its benefits? More than 100 international, environmental, social & faith organizations (including the Biotechnology Reference Group of the Canadian Council of Churches [BRG/CCC]) have called for implementing the Precautionary Principle before releasing synthetic biology products for sale. This would include independent supervision of synthetic biology research and development, establishing safety measures, surveillance and protection against unintended effects.
Canadian Yearly Meeting in 2012 affirmed three actions in regard to synthetic biology: 1) Asking the BRG/CCC to raise, among all faith groups, awareness of the social and ecological issues related to development of this field. 2) Asking the Canadian Friends Service Committee (CFSC) to provide Canadian Monthly Meetings with basic information and alternative perspectives so 3) they could address three queries (How can the benefits of synthetic biology be applied equitably? How can damaging consequences to eco- and social systems be foreseen and forestalled? Are there zones of activity that should be set off limits for synthetic biology?).
CFSC has prepared an Information Kit (available at http://quakerservice.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/2013-CFSC-Synthetic-Biology-Kit.pdf). The Kit identifies (pages 2-3) four relevant Quaker-Institute-for-the-Future booklets (#2, 3, 5, 6). Sets of these were distributed to Monthly Meetings; each can be downloaded (see links in Kit). Appendix One summarizes QIF #2 Genetically Modified Crops: Promises, Perils, and the Need for Public Policy.
For a brief update on synthetic biology, please see both of the following links:
-from the proponents of synthetic biology: http://synberc.org/content/synthetic-biology-ted, and the book by George Church: Regenesis Mar 2013
-from those cautious about synthetic biology: http://www.etcgroup.org/resources, especially Synthetic Biology: The Bioeconomy of Landlessness and Hunger June, 2013
Many people feel reluctant to comment on synthetic biology because it appears to demand highly complex and technical knowledge . Quakers, more than many people, recognize other means of knowing — particularly when ethical issues are concerned — a direct, non-mediated wisdom derived from the inner power that lies within .
Ursula Franklin, a prominent Quaker and research physicist, noted that technology comprises more than machines or gadgets. It is a comprehensive system that involves “organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.”  That system in Franklin’s view, is bent on “turning the globe into one giant commercial resource base, while denying a decent and appropriate habitat to many of the world’s citizens.”  Franklin also maintains that the uses of technology should not be preordained but adopted as a result of conscious choices. 
In a democratic society, this means choice by an informed public. And that includes you. A Special Interest Group on Synthetic Biology is planned for the 2014 Canadian Yearly Meeting in Winnipeg.
Fred Bass, Vancouver Monthly Meeting
 Enriques, Juan; Gullans, Steve: Homo evolutis New Word City (on-line publisher) 2010
 Personal communication (2013), Tim Bartoo, member of Vancouver Monthly Meeting
 Tim Bartoo, ibid.
 Franklin, Ursula. (1992) The Real World of Technology. (CBC Massey lectures series.) Concord, ON: House of Anansi Press Limited. ISBN 0-88784-531-2, p 12
 Franklin, Ursula. (2006) The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map. Toronto: Between the Lines Books. ISBN 1-897071-18-3, p 288
 Franklin, Ursula. (1992) ibid, p 192
We’re pleased to bring you Quaker Concern Volume 40, Number 1 featuring news, updates, and articles about the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s title case at the Supreme Court of Canada, a pilot youth justice project, and our work in support of the International Middle East Media Center project in Palestine.
Canadian Friends Service Committee offers a four-month summer internship (1 May – 31 August) for young people aged 19 – 29 years. Affiliation with the Religious Society of Friends is preferred but not required.
Interns undertake a wide range of activities to give a sense of the breadth of work under CFSC’s care and to strengthen their experience and skills for working in a charitable organization. Directed studies in Quakerism is also an option for those who are interested.
Read about how the internship has proven beneficial to former interns in the 2014 internship flyer.
Application deadline: February 15th, 2014.
In December, the Canadian Friends Service Committee endorsed the Joint Statement on Physical Punishment of Children and Youth developed by a national coalition of organizations facilitated by the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). Based on an extensive review of research, the Joint Statement provides an overview of the developmental outcomes associated with physical punishment and concludes that:
- the physical punishment of children and youth only poses risks to their development and plays no useful role in the upbringing of children and youth; and
- parents and other caregivers should be strongly encouraged to choose approaches to discipline that don’t rely on physical punishment.
Reflecting on our own testimonies of faith, we find physical punishment of children and youth to be incompatible with our belief that there is that of God in every person and with our rejection of violence as acceptable behaviour. By endorsing this statement we indicate our confidence in its review of research on physical punishment, the conclusions drawn from the review and our support for the recommendations contained therein.
Commentary on the Transformation of South Africa by Gianne Broughton
In the wake of his death, the world has rightfully been celebrating Nelson Mandela’s achievements. Upon reading Brian Stewart’s Nelson Mandela dies: The Lincoln of Africa and just as complex on the CBC News website, I was struck by the congruence between the elements of the history of South Africa’s transformation and the four elements (power-based, rights-based, interest-based and compassion-based) that I described in CFSC’s recent publication, Four Elements of Peacebuilding: How to Protect Nonviolently.
Brian Stewart extols Nelson Mandela’s “magnanimity”, beginning by recalling that negotiations with P. W. Botha’s government began four years before his release from prison. Negotiations are interest-based peacebuilding work. The over-arching product of those negotiations was the new constitution, which Brian Stewart characterises as “one of the world’s more advanced constitutions, [providing] a rule of law, free elections and strong human rights codes that the once oppressed and their former oppressors forged together.” Framing that constitution was rights-based peacebuilding work.
There was a lot of power-based work in the story of South Africa’s transformation, ranging from utterly nonviolent actions (boycotts, unarmed demonstrations, unarmed civil disobedience) to limited violent ones. This power-based work brought the P. W. Botha government to accept the necessity of negotiations. This is how Brian Stewart characterises the latter: “He (Nelson Mandela) was able to draw even the toughest Afrikaner politicians into his orbit because of the absence of innocent blood on his hands. As a liberation movement, the ANC (African National Congress) leadership rejected brutal mass attacks on innocent civilians in favour of acts of sabotage on government installations and, futilely, the occasional direct confrontation with security forces.”
There has been a lot of debate in the peace community about the tactics chosen by the ANC, and some questioned Nelson Mandela’s eligibility for the Nobel Peace Prize because some of the tactics were not nonviolent. In The Four Elements, I point out that the use of power, if it is to be peacebuilding, has to be limited by respect for rights. The quotation from Brian Stewart indicates how the ANC’s use of violence was limited: primarily to destroy things, and when aimed at people, only aimed arms at officially armed agents of the opposition. In fact, in international law, it is lawful for people living in an occupied territory to take up arms against armed agents of the occupying power, and some people might conclude that these terms would apply in the South African situation.
Throughout his article, Brian Stewart highlights the compassion-based element of Nelson Mandela’s approach. He was able to set aside his anger while in prison and call to the common humanity in individuals on both sides, making negotiations possible. The prohibition against attacking unarmed “innocents” is also founded in that recognition of common humanity. The culminating compassion-based achievement came after his election as president, when he and the ANC (as Brian Stewart writes) “… dealt with past crimes through its truth and reconciliation commission (headed by the indomitable Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu), not summary executions.”
As Canadian Friends Service Committee staff in Ottawa, I was privileged with an invitation to the ceremony at which Canada presented Nelson Mandela with honorary Canadian citizenship. He took the opportunity to ironically tell Canada that its tendency to turn refugees and others away raises the value of his honorary status. He also emphasized the vital geo-political placement of D. R. Congo in Africa, and challenged Canada to be instrumental in bringing peace there, in view of Canada’s stated development objectives to make a positive difference in Africa. Listening, I was reminded of the instrumental role he himself had played in bringing an end to the war in Burundi, and his leadership in so many peacebuilding causes. From early on, he really took everything that life brought him and looked for a way to turn it towards peace. We can each do the same.