In the summer of central Salinas, California, a group of biotechnology companies and pesticide start-ups met to discuss the advantages of biology. Although the field of fertilizers and pesticides has been dominated by chemical for over a century but it appears that biology is about to have its day. This was the first “Biologicals Summit” hosted by the most important agricultural trade associations across the United States, the Western Growers Association which counts Syngenta and Bayer as the main sponsors. Biologicals are agricultural inputs which are produced by living organisms, such as bacteria and plants, instead of fossil fuels that are the origin of the majority of modern fertilizers and pesticides.
“Biologicals used to be the uncool kid in the classroom,” stated Prem Warrior an expert in technical advisory at Syngenta who attended the summit “but now every company in the world wants to do something with them.”
One of the things they want to accomplish is to genetically engineer them. Specifically, they want to engineer microscopic living things within the soil, like bacteria and fungi, in order to increase their capability to kill insects or produce nitrogen-based nutrients.
An upcoming study released by Friends of the Earth explores the possibilities for this innovative use of genetic engineering, a process which is completely different from Genetically modified (GE) crops which have been the subject of controversy for a number of years. Microbes transfer genetic material between each with greater ease than plants and travel a long distance by wind. The genetic modifications that are released in GE microbes can cross the boundaries of species and geographical borders that could have unintended and irreparable effects. The magnitude of release is far greater and the likelihood of containment are much less. The use for GE bacteria may release three trillion organisms genetically modified each half an acresthat’s approximately the amount of GE corn plants exist throughout the U.S.
The entrance of large agricultural chemical companies into the field and their interest in genetically engineered microbes raises alarm bells.
The report provides various issues. The stakes are very high. Healthy soil is crucial for our ability to continue providing food for ourselves in the face of a changing climate. It is the foundation of farmers resistance to flooding and drought and can assist in slowing climate change by acting in the role of a carbon-sink. The microbes in soil play a huge role in regulating the nitrogen and carbon cycle in the world and soil structure. They also play a role in giving crops immunity to disease and pests and releasing nutrients in the soil to allow crops to flourish.
What is the most likely to happen in the event that we engineer genetically? Recent research highlights the number of genetic calamities that may occur when we modify living organisms, such as deletions and gene insertions we didn’t intend to. Pivot Bio’s patent application for the most famous GE microbe that farmers can access – a bacterium called Proven(r) which is marketed as a nitrogen fertilizer. It lists at least 29 genes, as well as a myriad of enzymes and proteins that can be altered to the extent that they, “short circuit” the microbe’s ability to detect the presence of nitrogen in its surroundings as well as “trick” it into overproducing nitrogen. An study released by Pivot Bio researchers shows that they were astonished to discover that knocking out two genes in these genes increased nitrogen production, but it could equally reduce it. The fact that we can alter the genetic regulation process doesn’t mean that we know the complexities of the system.
There’s also the environment that the release of these GE microbes. Think about this: out of the millions from microbes that compose living soil we know the role of just a few hundred thousand, which is smaller than a tiny fraction. We don’t even know the intricate interactions that microbes share with one another as well as with plants and the other life forms.
There are likely to be many additional GE microbes that are available to farmers but it’s almost impossible to identify the nature of them. It is reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that it has recorded the registration of eight GE microbes in its pesticide categories on its website however, there isn’t any public information about the nature of these microbes or if they’ve been commercialized. This total absence of transparency hinders the kind of informed, scientific discussion that we ought to be having on this latest technology.
There are two agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture and EPA are responsible for various kinds of GE microbes, creating confusion. Neither has come up with regulations that reflect their distinctive properties. After the products have been released there isn’t a program that is devoted to monitoring the extent of their usage or safety in the long run.