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.
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Photo courtesy of Adrian Infernus, Unsplash