Genetically engineered soil microbes could threaten soil health

As biotech and agrichemical companies work to commercialise genetically engineered (GE) soil microbes for agriculture, a new report from Friends of the Earth USA reveals potential risks and recommends policy action.

Corporations including Bayer, BASF and Pivot Bio have developed commercially available products. At least two GE microbes are already being used across millions of acres of US farmland, whose genetic market is less regulated than the UK.

The first-of-its-kind report provides context for this novel technology, poised to be applied to bacteria and other microbes that make up the earth’s living soils.

The report offers insight into future trends, a summary of potential health, environmental, and socioeconomic risks, and policy recommendations that would ensure robust assessment and oversight as GE microbes increasingly move from experimental laboratories to the soil that is the backbone of America’s agriculture.

Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth USA, said, “Genetically engineered soil microbes are fundamentally different from GE crops. Microbes can share genetic material with each other far more readily than crops and can travel great distances on the wind, so the genetic modifications released inside GE microbes may move across species and geographic boundaries in unpredictable ways. The scale of release is also far larger, and the odds of containment far smaller, than for GE crops. An application of GE bacteria could release approximately 3 trillion genetically modified organisms every half an acre – that’s about how many GE corn plants there are in the entire US.”

A handful of healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on the planet. Soil ecosystems are marked by incredible complexity. Of the billions of species of microbes that make up the living soil, we scientifically understand the role and function of far less than one 1%.

In the UK, Organic Farmers & Growers’ chief executive, Roger Kerr, said that he believes the emergence of a GE approach that alters essential biology raises huge practical and ethical concerns.

“We’re all now well versed in the damage caused by traditional pesticides and fertilisers that were marketed as ‘completely safe’. The same level of corporate involvement in promoting these so called ‘precision-bred organisms’ (PBOs) is frankly terrifying. We must be extremely circumspect about their use given pesticide businesses have a reputation for turning a blind eye to environmental and health impacts, resisting regulation, and monopolising agricultural practices.”

The passing of the UK Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 earlier this year gave a green light to pesticide and biotech companies to develop and sell genetically engineered products in Britain.

Mr Kerr said, “Without a strong regulatory framework to assess the long-term outcomes of introducing GE microbes, the unintended consequences could be catastrophic. If things do go wrong, it’s almost impossible to detect these organisms, let alone retrieve them.

“To reverse climate change and biodiversity loss, we need a transformational shift. Adding GE microbes to an already failing industrial farming system by tricking them to act more like chemicals doesn’t harness the true power of the natural world, it further perverts and violates it.

“The [Friends of the Earth USA] report clearly and repeatedly advocates for organic farming practices which it states are already scientifically proven to ‘achieve the benefits that proponents of GE microbes claim for the technology’.”

Soil contains billions of tiny creatures, such as bacteria and fungi, which play an enormous role in agriculture. They regulate global carbon and nitrogen cycles, build soil structure, provide crops with immunity to pests and diseases and unlock nutrients in the soil so crops can thrive.

Scientists are increasingly aware that healthy soil is central to regenerative agriculture and farmers’ ability to feed the world in a changing climate. Soil is the basis of farmers’ resilience to droughts and floods, and it serves as a carbon sink.

Kendra Klein, PhD, deputy director of science for Friends of the Earth, said, “Soil is the basis of human civilisation – we depend on soil for 95%of the food we eat. And yet, biotech companies are rushing to commercialise GE soil microbes with little scientific understanding of the potential consequences. The release of GE microbes across millions of acres of farmland is an open-air genetic experiment that may have irreversible consequences. Once they are released, GE microbes cannot be recalled.”

Friends of the Earth USA recommends:

  • Recognise that engineered microbes are novel and that genetically engineered microbes do not fit neatly into past experience with genetic engineering
  • Distinguish genetic engineering from biologicals in general
  • Define genetically engineered microbes inclusively – microbes engage in a wide array of genetic functions that are not found in plants and animals
  • Potential regulators should initiate a rulemaking on the extent to which field trials of genetically engineered microbes constitute an irrevocable environmental release
  • Prevent containment failure from being used as a weapon of economic coercion
  • Place a moratorium on any field testing of ‘guided biotics’ applications (the development of GE microbes that are intended to propagate and transmit engineered DNA — organisms that indiscriminately genetically engineer other organisms
  • Require greater transparency and use a precautionary approach

Read the full report: Genetically Engineered Soil Microbes: Risks and Concerns


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