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- Genetically Engineered Soil Microbes: Risks and Concerns
Genetically Engineered Soil Microbes: Risks and Concerns
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.