This article was originally published on Third World Network Information Service on November 10th, 2023
Biotech companies, including the largest agrichemical corporations—Bayer-Monsanto, Syngenta, and BASF—are developing genetically engineered (GE) microbes (bacteria, viruses and fungi) for use in agriculture. The first of these products are already being used across millions of acres of U.S. farmland. The release of live GE microbes in agriculture represents an unprecedented open-air genetic experiment. (Item 1)
A new report on GE microbes details a range of ecological, human health and socioeconomic risks, from the rare but potentially disastrous risk of creating an invasive species or novel human pathogen to the potential for agrichemical corporations to use patents on GE microbes to further entrench their ownership over life and the food system.
Microbes can share genetic material with each other and can travel great distances on the wind. The genetic modifications released inside GE microbes could move across species and geographic boundaries with unforeseen and potentially irreparable consequences. The scale of release is also far larger, and the odds of containment far smaller, than compared to GE crops. (Item 2)
Given the serious potential risks associated with mass environmental release of GE microbes, there is urgent need for strong regulations and independent review and assessment of potential health and environmental risks based on the Precautionary Principle. Oversight should include independent assessment for public health and environmental safety, and long-term impacts should be assessed before products are released onto the market or into the environment.
With best wishes,
Third World Network
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED SOIL MICROBES: RISKS AND CONCERNS
Friends of the Earth
Biotech companies are developing genetically engineered microbes for use in agriculture, including the largest agrichemical corporations — Bayer-Monsanto, Syngenta, and BASF. The first of these products are already being used across millions of acres of U.S. farmland.
The release of live genetically engineered microbes in agriculture represents an unprecedented open-air genetic experiment. The scale of release is far larger and the odds of containment far smaller than for genetically engineered crops.
This report provides historical context for this novel technology, insight into future trends, a summary of potential risks, and policy recommendations that would ensure robust assessment and oversight as more genetically engineered microbes move from the lab to the field.
What types of microbes are being genetically engineered for agriculture?
Bacteria, viruses and fungi are being genetically engineered for agricultural uses with bacteria being the most common.
Why are microbes important?
Microbes are tiny living things that are found all around us — they live in water, soil, air and plants as well as in human and other animal bodies. A handful of healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on the planet. Microbes play a fundamental role in agriculture, making nutrients available to plants and boosting crop immunity to pests and diseases. They are also major engines of soil carbon sequestration, which gives them a significant role in the soil’s potential to help mitigate climate change, conserve water resources, and build resilience to droughts and floods.
What genetically engineered microbes have been commercialized for agriculture?
At least two live GE microbes are already being used on millions of acres of U.S. farmland — a nitrogen-fixing GE bacteria from Pivot Bio called Proven® and BASF’s ‘2.0’ version of its Poncho®/VOTiVO® seed treatment, which combines a GE microbe that aims to improve plant health with a neonicotinoid insecticide and a non-GE microbial nematicide. The Environmental Protection Agency’s website states that it has registered eight GE microbes as pesticides. However, the regulatory system is marked by such a profound lack of transparency that there is no publicly available information on what they are or whether they have been commercialized.
What are biologicals?
Genetic engineering is not needed to harness the power of microbes. Hundreds of naturally-derived microbes — known as ‘biologicals’ — are available for use in agriculture already, as biostimulants to improve plant growth, biofertilizers to improve crop nutrition, and biopesticides to manage pests and diseases. Billions of unexplored microbes can be a source of discovery and benefit for generations to come without the use of genetic engineering.
Which pesticide companies are investing in biologicals?
The global biologicals market is expected to nearly triple in a span of eight years to $29.31 billion by 2029. A major driver is the entry of the largest agrichemical companies — Bayer, Syngenta (ChemChina), Corteva (Dow-Dupont) and BASF. These companies have spent millions acquiring biologicals companies in recent years and now offer a range of biological products.
We urgently need a shift in agriculture from the dominant chemical paradigm to a biological paradigm. Use of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers continues to rise, underpinning industrial agriculture systems that have devastating impacts on ecosystems, communities and public health. Biologicals may be able to play a significant role in helping farmers transition to organic and other ecologically regenerative and resilient systems. At the same time, the entry of massive agrichemical companies into the field, and their interest in genetically engineering microbes, raises red flags. The creation and distribution of genetically engineered crops has infamously been controlled by these same corporations, which have a long track record of disregarding the massive environmental and human health impacts of their products, disenfranchising family-scale farmers, obfuscating the truth about their products and obstructing regulations.
Why should we be concerned about genetically engineered soil microbes?
The report details a range of ecological, human health and socioeconomic risks, from the rare but potentially disastrous risk of creating an invasive species or novel human pathogen to the potential for agrichemical corporations to use patents on GE microbes to further entrench their ownership over life and the food system.
The gaps in our knowledge and limitations of our ability to predict or control the outcomes of this novel technology are profound and varied. Soil microbiomes are marked by incredible complexity that we are only beginning to understand. Of the billions of species of microbes that make up the living soil, only a few hundred thousand, far less than one percent, have been scientifically characterized in detail.
Unlike plants and animals, microbes are able to share genetic material with each other far more readily, even across completely unrelated organisms in a process known as horizontal gene transfer. As a result, the genetic modifications released inside genetically engineered microbes may move across species boundaries in unpredictable ways.
Genetic engineering, including gene editing techniques like CRISPR, can result in an array of unintended genetic consequences, including insertions, deletions, inversions and translocations that were not expected. And when we attempt to intentionally alter soil microbiomes, there is no guarantee that the outcomes will be what we intend. Releasing genetically engineered microbes in agriculture could enable new associations to form with weed or pest species with unforeseen and potentially irreparable consequences.
What is the state of the U.S. regulatory system related to genetically engineered microbes in agriculture?
The current U.S. regulatory system for genetically engineered microbes for use in agriculture is inadequate and outdated. Existing regulations do not account for the unique features and risks of GE microbes — live organisms that can reproduce and quickly spread across state and national borders. And authority is split between the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture, creating confusion and gaps in oversight.
The regulatory system is also marked by an extreme lack of transparency. Companies are able to redact almost all details from public view in most regulatory filings under the self-designation of ‘Confidential Business Information.’ Even these redacted records are difficult to access and not clearly identified with the end products in which they appear. Once products are released, there is no program dedicated to surveilling the extent of their use or re-evaluating their safety over time.
Given the serious potential risks associated with mass environmental release of genetically engineered microbes, it is imperative that civil society, farmers, and concerned scientists push for strong regulations and independent review and assessment of potential health and environmental risks. A far greater level of transparency is also fundamental to our ability to grapple, as a society, with the potential risks of this novel technology.
Regulatory bodies should use the Precautionary Principle to guide action, meaning that precautionary measures to minimize or avoid threats to human health or the environment should be taken based on the weight of the available scientific evidence rather than waiting for full scientific certainty about cause and effect, which can take years or decades while harm accrues. The Precautionary Principle also elevates the importance of a full evaluation of safer approaches before moving ahead with a potentially risky new technology. Oversight should include independent assessment for public health and environmental safety, and long-term impacts should be assessed before products are released onto the market or into the environment. The Precautionary Principle also guides the incorporation of public input into decision-making processes, as the impacts of new technologies such as GE microbes in agriculture will be borne by society as a whole. Finally, socioeconomic concerns arising from the expansion of corporate property rights over microbes must be incorporated into decision-making before products are commercialized.
OP-ED: BIOLOGICALS 2.0: WHY GENETICALLY ENGINEERED SOIL MICROBES ARE CONCERNING
On a summer day in downtown Salinas, California, a group of farmers, biotechnology start-ups and pesticide corporations gathered to talk about the benefits of biology. While the realm of pesticides and fertilizers has been dominated by chemistry for the past eight decades, it seems like biology may soon have its day. The event was the first ever ‘Biologicals Summit’ hosted by one of the largest farmer trade groups in the United States, the Western Growers Association, with Syngenta and Bayer among the sponsors. Biologicals are farm inputs that come from living organisms like plants and bacteria rather than from fossil fuels, the source of nearly all modern pesticides and fertilizers.
“Biologicals used to be the uncool kid in the classroom,” said Prem Warrior, a senior technical advisor at Syngenta who took part in the summit, “but now every company in the world wants to do something with them.”
Among the things companies want to do is genetically engineer them—specifically, to engineer microscopic living creatures in the soil, like bacteria and fungi, to enhance their ability to kill pests or to or generate nutrients like nitrogen.
A new report from Friends of the Earth explores the potential implications of this novel use of genetic engineering, something that is fundamentally different from the genetically engineered (GE) crops that have been the center of debate for decades. Microbes can share genetic material with each other far more readily than crops and can travel great distances on the wind. The genetic modifications released inside GE microbes could move across species and geographic boundaries with unforeseen and potentially irreparable consequences. The scale of release is also far larger, and the odds of containment far smaller. An application of GE bacteria could release 3 trillion genetically modified organisms every half an acre that’s about how many GE corn plants there are in the entire U.S.
The entry of massive agrichemical companies into the field and their interest in genetically engineering microbes raises red flags. The creation and distribution of GE crops has typically been controlled by these same corporations, which have a long track record of disregarding the environmental and human health impacts of their products, disenfranchising family-scale farmers, obfuscating the truth, and obstructing regulations.
The new report details a range of concerns. The stakes are high—healthy soil is central to our ability to continue feeding ourselves in a changing climate. It’s the basis of farmers’ resilience to droughts and floods, and it could help slow climate chaos by serving as a carbon sink. The tiny microbes that reside in the soil play an outsized role—regulating global carbon and nitrogen cycles, building soil structure, providing crops with immunity to pests and diseases, and unlocking nutrients in the soil so crops can thrive.
What could go wrong when we genetically engineer them? The latest science highlights a range of genetic mishaps that can happen when we engineer living organisms, like gene insertions and deletions that we never intended. Pivot Bio’s patent application for the most prominent GE microbe available to farmers, a bacteria called Proven® that’s marketed as a source of nitrogen fertilizer, lists at least 29 different genes and myriad proteins and enzymes that can be manipulated to, in their own words, “short circuit” the microbe’s ability to sense nitrogen levels in its environment and “trick” it into overproducing nitrogen. A study published by Pivot Bio scientists shows that they were surprised to find that knocking out two of these genes enhanced nitrogen generation, as it could just as easily have reduced it. That we can tinker with genetic regulatory processes does not mean we understand the complexity of the system.
And then there’s the environment into which we’ll release these GE microbes. Consider this—of the billions of species of microbes that make up the living soil, we understand the function of only a few hundred thousand, far less than one percent. And we understand even less the complex relationships that microbes have with each other and with plants and other living things.
Despite these unknowns, biotech and pesticide companies are speeding ahead with the commercialization of GE soil microbes with very little government oversight. Proven® is already being used on over three million acres of U.S. farmland. And BASF sells a 2.0 version of its 40-million-acre Poncho®/VOTiVO® seed treatment that includes a GE bacteria aimed at improving plant health.
There may be more GE microbes available to farmers, but it’s all but impossible to figure out what they are. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it has registered eight GE microbes as pesticides on its website, but there is no publicly available information on what they are or whether they have been commercialized. This extreme lack of transparency precludes the type of informed, scientific debate that we should be having about this new technology.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and EPA have jurisdiction over different types of GE microbes, enhancing confusion, and neither has developed regulations that account for their unique properties. Once products are released, there is no program dedicated to surveilling the extent of their use or safety over time.
The regulatory system is set to rapidly greenlight new GE microbes without assessing their potential health and environmental risks. And given that the biologicals market is booming—with Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, and Corteva spending millions to acquire biologicals companies in recent years—we are likely on the cusp of a wave of new GE biologicals moving from the lab to the field.
While a shift toward biological solutions could be a huge win for the environment and public health, farmers and policymakers will be challenged to decipher legitimate claims from false marketing. Already, Bayer and other companies are trotting out the debunked trope of ‘feeding the world’ in their marketing of biologicals. They are also claiming their leadership in regenerative agriculture. Yet, the industry is indicating that it intends biologicals to be add-ons rather than replacements to its toxic products. Take BASF’s 2.0 seed treatment—it combines a GE biological with a toxic neonicotinoid insecticide associated with the decimation of pollinators and growing concerns for human health.
This strategy was made clear from the stage of the Biologicals Summit when Bayer’s representative, Peter Muller, said, “biologicals are one instrument in an orchestra. They will play an important part as a complement with many tools in the toolbox.”
In the face of climate change and biodiversity loss, we need a deeper shift. Adding biologicals to a failing industrial farming system and tricking microbes to act more like chemicals, by pumping out nitrogen for example, doesn’t harness the true power of biology—the complex, living relationships between soil organisms, plants, air, and water that sustain life on earth. We can farm in accordance with these relationships. Millenia of farmer experience and decades of modern organic and agroecological farming show the way.