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Frankensoil – Why We Must Stop Big Ag From Genetically Engineering Soil Microbes

| Sep 28, 2023

The genetic engineering (GE) of soil microbes is the new frontier of industrial agriculture, but it represents a massive threat to human and planetary health. We need to put pressure on regulators to stop the devastating consequences of this practice before it’s too late. Action Alert!

In the 1990s, the EPA was weeks away from releasing a GE soil bacteria that could have ended all life on Earth.

Scientists had developed a GE bacterium that could convert plant matter into alcohol. The plan was for farmers to take their leftover crop residues, put them in barrels, add the GE bacteria, and produce alcohol to run their tractors. The nutrient-rich sludge left at the bottom of the barrels could then be spread on their fields as fertilizer. The EPA had approved a field test of the bacteria…until a graduate student at Oregon State University ran an experiment showing that plants grown in soil mixed with the GE bacterium died within weeks. Previous field tests by the EPA had shown that GE bacteria could spread geographically at a breathtaking pace, eventually across the entire globe. If the Oregon State graduate student had not done the test and sounded the alarm, a GE bacterium that destroys most plants it meets could have been released and infiltrated soils across the planet, causing an ecological cataclysm and, potentially, even ending life as we know it here on Earth.

An ”Unprecedented, Open-Air Experiment”

These are the stakes when we tinker with Nature, yet these lessons are routinely disregarded by the agrichemical industry. Companies like Bayer, Syngenta (ChemChina), Corteva (Dow-Dupont) and BASF are investing heavily in the development of GE microbes for soil application, with at least two GE soil microbes currently being used. Genetic engineering of microbes was long the preserve of scientists looking for ways to decontaminate polluted soils – but now the technology has spilled over into agriculture, supposedly to enhance yields – but at what price? While these products are referred to by industry as “biologicals” in an effort to cast them similarly to natural soil microbes, they are more correctly “engineered biologicals” given their profound changes that follow human tampering with their genetic code.

Unlike synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, these engineered biologicals are derived from naturally occurring microbes typically found in soil or plants. Then follows their all-important genetic engineering. As a new report from Friends of the Earth puts it, the use of GE microbes “represents an unprecedented open-air experiment that may have irreversible consequences.” Even scarier is the complete lack of transparency and federal oversight for these products, the release of which could have monumental consequences for human and planetary health.

Throwing a (GE) Wrench in the Works

Just as human health relies on our gut microbiota, a plant’s health also relies on a microbiome, one made up of the innumerable microbes (notably bacteria and fungi) that occupy the soil around the plant’s roots. The plants microbiome is referred to as the rhizosphere, and a healthy, living soil contains more life per unit area than anywhere else on the planet. The rhizosphere represents an incredibly dense, intricate ecosystem that plays profound roles in supporting life on this planet, such as making nutrients in the soil available to crops and regulating global carbon and nitrogen cycles. What’s more, a living soil represents a huge interconnected network that allows plants to communicate with one another, triggering defenses and sharing nutrients in ways that benefit the wider ecosystem, even within an agroecosystem. A network that can be thrown into disarray when herbicides, fungicides and other pesticides are thrown into the mix – let along new-to-nature GE bacteria. This technology meddles hugely with the unknown: of the billions of species of microbe in our soils, we’ve only scientifically characterized a few hundred thousand—probably less than 1 percent.

The truth is that Big Ag and Biotech are tinkering with profound forces about which we (and they) know very little. Releasing GE microbes into the soil is a terrible idea, plain and simple, because we just can’t be sure how or where the modified genetic material will end up or how it might be altered. Soil bacteria are specialists at moving genetic material around – in fact it was this understanding that spurned the GE revolution in the 1970s and ‘80s.  Yet with little or no proper oversight, GE microbes are being applied to US soils as we speak, and companies are racing to develop more and more GE biologicals. As of now, the two traits Big Ag are working with are about enhancing their ability to kill pests or generate nutrients like nitrogen (as in Pivot Bio PROVEN product, one of the GE biologicals currently in use).

Risks and Unintended Consequences

There are catastrophes in recent history that show us the problems that can arise with the outdoor release of GE organisms. In Brazil, for instance, GE mosquitoes were released with the goal of reducing the mosquito population, but they may have unintentionally changed the gene pool of the local populations and created stronger mosquitoes.

This risk is much greater with GE microbes, which can exchange genetic material with other microbes through horizontal gene transfer (the same process that causes bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics). What happens when GE microbes are released into soil and exchange genetic information with wild species? What if GE microbes travel to unintended locations, crowd out native microbial communities, and reduce the diversity of life in the soil? Given the complexity of the soil microbiome and the huge gaps in our knowledge about it, releasing GE microbes is an extremely risky and dangerous enterprise. It’s like jumping into a well when it’s too dark to see what’s down there.

The genetic manipulation of microbes is itself a risky process. As we’ve argued before: despite what optimists say, gene-editing is not a precise science and can produce unpredictable and unintended consequences. A recent study involving human embryos found that when CRISPR was used to repair a mutation that can cause hereditary blindness, it appeared to “wreak genetic havoc in about half the specimens that the researchers examined.”

Regen Ag Now!

The industrial approach to agriculture has put us on this path. Monoculture (the cultivation of large areas with a single crop), especially when coupled with intensive use of agrochemicals, that try to counter the low intrinsic resistance of the crop, and synthetic fertilizers, that try to boost yield, depletes the soil of nutrients, microbial life and makes crops vulnerable to pests and diseases. This generates the fertilizer and pesticide “treadmill” that farmers struggle to get off: a new chemical is developed to kill weeds, weeds become resistant to that chemical, soils become sterile, so a new, more potent chemical is developed, more fertilizer is applied, and so on and so on. Companies are now turning to biologicals as the agrichemical era looks ever less promising, and genetic engineering, in its many forms, is now the new frontier. GE in agriculture parallels the similar growth in interest in genetic vaccines in the healthcare space, a trend that became clear with the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

GE ag is far from our only option. The alternative is to look to nature and adopt the principles of regenerative agriculture.

In a follow-up to this article, we will delve into the way government agencies are, or are not, regulating GE microbes — and we’ll look at what can be done to avert a potential environmental catastrophe.

Action Alert! Write to Congress and the EPA telling them that we cannot allow Big Ag to risk human and planetary health with GM soil microbes! Please send your message immediately.

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