Are GE Soil Microbes Endangering Healthy Soils?

Are GE Soil Microbes Endangering Healthy Soils?

One summer day in downtown Salinas, California, a group of farmers, biotech innovators and pesticide organizations gathered to talk about the benefits of biotech. While the field of pesticides and fertilizers has been dominated by chemistry for the past eighty years, it seems that biology is having its day. The event was the first ‘Biologicals Summit’ hosted by one of America’s largest farmer trade groups, the Western Growers Association, with Syngenta and Bayer among the sponsors. Biodiversity is farm inputs from living things like plants and bacteria instead of fossil fuels, the source of all modern pesticides and fertilizers.

“Biology used to be the cool kid in the classroom,” said Prem Warrior, senior technology consultant at Syngenta who participated in the conference, “but now every company in the world wants to do something about them.”

Among the things companies want to do is to genetically modify genes—specifically, to engineer small organisms in the soil, such as bacteria and fungi, to increase their ability to kill insects or produce or produce nutrients such as nitrogen.

A new report from Friends of the Earth examines the potential consequences of this novel use of genetic engineering, something very different from the genetically engineered (GE) crops that have been at the center of debate for decades. Viruses can share genetic material more easily than plants and can travel long distances through the air. Genetic modifications released within GE viruses can travel across species and geographic boundaries with unintended and potentially irreversible consequences. The size of the release is very large, and the chances of getting caught are very small. The use of GE bacteria could release 3 trillion genetically modified organisms on a regular basis half an acre that’s about how many GE corn plants there are in the entire US

The entry of large agrichemical companies into the field and their interest in genetically engineered microbes raises red flags. The creation and distribution of GE crops is often controlled by these same businesses, which have a long record of ignoring the environmental and human health impacts of their products, displacing family farmers, obfuscating the truth, and obfuscating laws.

A new report details a range of concerns. The stakes are high—a healthy soil is key to our ability to sustain ourselves in a changing climate. It is fundamental to farmers’ resilience to drought and floods, and can help slow climate change by acting as a carbon sink. Microorganisms in the soil play a huge role—regulating the carbon and nitrogen cycle, building dry soil, giving plants the ability to protect themselves from pests and diseases, and opening up nutrients in the soil for plants to thrive.

What can go wrong when we genetically engineer ourselves? Recent science highlights the range of genetic errors that can occur when we engineer organisms, such as gene insertions and deletions that we did not anticipate. Pivot Bio’s patent application for GE’s best microbe available to farmers, a bacterium called Proven® that is marketed as a source of nitrogen fertilizer, lists at least 29 different genes and dozens of proteins and enzymes that can be modified, in their names, “the short circuit” the microbe’s ability to sense nitrogen levels in its environment and “cheat” into overproducing nitrogen. A study published by Pivot Bio scientists shows that they were surprised to find that knocking out two of these genes improved the production of nitrogen, as it could easily be reduced. Just because we can deal with genetic control systems doesn’t mean we understand the complexity of the process.

And then there’s the place where we’re going to release these GE microbes. Consider this—of the billions of microbial species that make up the living world, we understand the work of a few hundred thousand, far less than one percent. And we understand more and more the complex relationships that exist between microbes and plants and other living things.

Despite this anonymity, biotech and pesticide companies are rushing ahead with the commercialization of GE soil microbes with little government oversight. Proven® is already used on over three million acres of US land. And BASF is selling version 2.0 of its 40-million-acre Poncho®/VOTiVO® seed treatment that includes GE bacteria aimed at improving plant health.

There may be more GE viruses available to farmers, but it’s impossible to find out what they are. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it has registered eight GE microbes as pesticides on its website, but no information is publicly available about their whereabouts or whether they have been sold. This extreme lack of transparency prevents the kind of scientific debate we should be having about this new technology.

The US Department of Agriculture and the EPA have jurisdiction over the various types of GE microbes, adding to the confusion, and there are no established regulations that define their unique properties. Once the products are released, there is no system dedicated to monitoring their usage or safety over time.

The regulatory process is set to quickly green light GE viruses without assessing the risks to health and the environment. And because the biologics market is booming—with Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, and Corteva spending millions to acquire biologics companies in recent years—we may be on the cusp of GE’s new biologics moving from the lab to the field.

While switching to biological solutions could be a major win for the environment and public health, farmers and policy makers will be challenged to clarify legitimate claims from false advertising. Now, Bayer and other companies are pulling the ‘feed the world’ trope from their bio marketing. They also claim their leadership in regenerative agriculture. However, the industry indicates that it is looking for biologics to be supplements rather than replacements for its toxic products. Take BASF’s 2.0 seed treatment – it combines GE biological and neonicotinoid insecticides that are toxic and associated with the destruction of pollinators and a growing concern for human health.

This plan was made clear at the Biologicals Summit when Bayer’s representative, Peter Muller, said, “biologicals are one instrument in the orchestra. They will play an important role as a complement to many tools in the toolbox. “

In the face of climate change and biodiversity loss, we need radical change. Adding biology to an inefficient farming system and tricking microbes into being more chemically efficient, by pumping nitrogen, for example, doesn’t take advantage of the true power of biology—the complex, living relationships between soil organisms, plants, air, and water. save life on earth. We can cultivate in harmony with this relationship. Millenia of farmer experience and decades of modern organic and agroecological agriculture show the way.

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Photo courtesy of Adrian Infernus, Unsplash

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