06/06/2013 12:15 EDT | Updated 08/06/2013 05:12 EDT

The Campaign Kickstarter Shouldn't Be Funding

There is less than a day to go before the popular crowdfunding site hands hundreds of thousands of dollars to a controversial project for the widespread and unregulated distribution of over half a million extreme-bioengineered seeds .

I already wrote about the project here. There's more background here.

Kickstarter, which as a company stands to make over $22,000 from the project, has steadfastly refused to comment on its listing of a project to make and distribute "glowing plants" using Synthetic Biology despite a stream of negative comments on its facebook page. As the funding deadline approaches public opposition to the 'Kickstarter Biohackers' is growing.

On Thursday morning my organisation ETC Group, who this week launched a 'KickStopper' campaign to directly challenge the project, will submit a petition calling on Kickstarter to update their ethical guidelines to exclude funding of bioengineered organisms. Those guidelines currently forbid Kickstarter from funding such comparatively benign projects as energy drinks and sunglasses. ETC Group contends that the funding of this project could open the floodgates to copycat biohacking projects. The petition through has gathered over 8000 signatures in 7 days.

In my view Kickstarter could still do the right thing and refuse to fund this risky release but basically Kickstarter has less than a day to decide what matters most: Does it go after the money it's going to rake in from this and future biohacking projects or does it prioritize protecting our environment as well as its reputation as an ethical social enterprise?

To recap, at the heart of the controversy is the extreme genetic engineering technology of Synthetic Biology which uses artificial DNA to "re-programme" life-forms. According to its founders, the 'Glowing Plants' project, which is associated with Synthetic Biology startup Genome Compiler Corporation, was primarily listed on Kickstarter as a means of raising awareness and support for this new technology.

Kickstarter allowed this even though their guidelines exclude "awareness raising projects." However the project also promised to mail up to 100 synthetically engineered seeds to anyone who donated at least $40. If Kickstarter funds the project on Friday then the Kickstarter biohackers will be obliged to mail out over 600,000 seeds to 6,000 random locations across the USA.

This flies in the face of the established norms on synthetic biology governance. To this date there has never been an intentional environmental release of an organism produced through synthetic biology and bodies including the United Nations Biodiversity Convention, the US Presidents Bioethical advisors and the insurance Industry have cautioned against environmental release at this time. Compounding the controversy, the Kickstarter biohackers have openly said they intend to use a genetic engineering technique called the "gene gun" method that is not covered by existing regulations thereby allowing their project to escape oversight, assessment or monitoring.

A public dialogue? Only if it's real and genuine.

As criticism of the project has grown the Kickstarter biohackers this week claimed that they now plan to "conduct a public dialogue on the project's ethical, legal and environmental issues before shipping any seeds". While ETC Group welcome this proposal such a dialogue is meaningless unless the following basic conditions are met:

  • That any genuine dialogue is designed and carried out independently of the Glowing Plant project by a trusted third party and its terms, including which publics are consulted and the design of the dialogue process, are agreed with the project's detractors, not just the proponents.
  • That sufficient funds are made available to facilitate proper involvement of the public and of civil society groups.
  • That the 'Glowing Plant' project agree to abide by any outcome or findings of a genuine public dialogue and refrain from release of synthetic organisms until that time.

Without agreeing to these terms such a dialogue proposal amounts to empty public relations rhetoric. We would propose that Kickstarter hold back releasing any funds until such a public dialogue has taken place. For good faith Kickstarter could also kick in the $22,000 that it is about to raise to fund a genuine independent dialogue. Such a process could also inform its own ethical guidelines around bioengineering projects.

From Kickstarter biohackers to KickStopping Synthetic Biology - a crowdfunding war?

And if Kickstarter don't do the right thing? Well ETC Group in collaboration with other civil society organizations is now preparing for a longer term campaign to prevent the Kickstarter biohackers from releasing their synthetic biology seeds to the environment. In order to fund that campaign we have mounted own 'counter-kickstarter' crowdfunding campaign dubbed KickStopper. ETC Group originally applied for the KickStopper to be hosted on but were turned down and so took the campaign to rival platform Indiegogo. Crowdfunding wars? watch this space.