A (very) short history of agriculture
For ten thousand years humans have been manipulating plants for food production. This began at a very basic level, saving slips or seeds from the fastest growing, highest yielding, best tasting and most nutritious plants for the following season. This form of conventional breeding eventually led to the development of hybrid crops which involved cross-breeding two genetically different lines in the same genus and usually the same species. These changes in the plants were limited to the genes already present within the plants.
This all changed dramatically with the advent of genetic engineering in the 1970s and 1980s. Genetic engineering allowed the transfer of genes between species, even between species of different kingdoms, as when bacteria DNA were inserted into plants-and court decisions allowed, for the first time, patents on life. Since then, genetically engineered organisms, often called genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have become a ubiquitous feature of industrial agriculture in the U.S., comprising roughly 88% of the corn, 94% of the soybeans, 90% of the canola, 90% of the cotton, and 95% of the sugar beets grown in the country.2 These crops have been engineered and patented by chemical companies, including Monsanto and Bayer, to either withstand increasingly heavy doses of herbicides or to produce their own systemic pesticide.
Synthetic Biology – Extreme Genetic Engineering
In the second decade of the 21st century, we are likely to see even more radical changes on the horizon, this time via a rapidly growing field known as synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is a broad term used to describe a collection of new biotechnologies that push the limits of what was previously possible with “conventional” genetic engineering. Rather than moving one or two genes between different organisms, synthetic biology enables the writing and re-writing of genetic code on a computer, working with hundreds and thousands of DNA sequences at a time and even trying to reengineer entire biological systems. Synthetic biology’s techniques, scale, and its use of novel and synthetic genetic sequences make it, in essence, an extreme form of genetic engineering.
Synthetic biology is a nascent but rapidly growing field, worth over $1.6 billion in annual sales today and expected to grow to 10.8 billion by 2016.3 Many of the largest energy, chemical, forestry, pharmaceutical, food and agribusiness corporations are investing in synthetic biology research and development or establishing joint ventures, and a handful of products have already reached the cosmetic, food, and medical sectors with many others not far behind. Much of this focus is being placed on agriculture applications to become the next wave of GMOs – let’s call them synthetically modified organisms (SMOs).
Synthetically Modified Organisms
Monsanto, the biotech and chemical giant, recently announced a joint venture with Sapphire Energy, a synthetic biology algae company. Monsanto is interested in algae because most types of algae reproduce daily, compared to traditional agriculture crops which only reproduce once or twice a year. Monsanto hopes to isolate traits in algae at a much faster rate than can be done in plants, which could then be engineered and inserted into crops.4 Such technologies will potentially allow increasing numbers of (and more extreme) genetically engineered crops on our fields.
J. Craig Venter, a leading synthetic biologist who built the world’s first synthetic genome by copying a rather simple goat pathogen’s genome, created a new company, Agradis, to focus on applying synthetic biology to agriculture. Agradis aims to create “superior” crops and improved methods for crop growth and crop protection. The company plans to create higher-yielding castor and sweet sorghum for biofuels through undisclosed “genomic technologies.”5
There are even plans to “improve” photosynthesis in plants through synthetic biology. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado believe that “the efficiency of photosynthesis could be improved by re-engineering the structure of plants through modern synthetic biology and genetic manipulation. Using synthetic biology, these engineers hope plants can be built from scratch, starting with amino acid building blocks, allowing the formation of optimum biological band gaps,”6 meaning plants could turn a broader spectrum of light into energy than done naturally through photosynthesis.
Other food and agriculture applications of synthetic biology in the works include food flavorings, stevia, coconut oil, animal feed additives, and even genetically engineered animals with synthesized genes. Food flavorings may sound benign, but actually pose another set of risks: economic risks to farmers. These natural botanical markets are worth an estimated $65 billion annually and currently provide livelihoods for small farmers, particularly in the global South.7 Replacing the natural production of these products by farmers with synthetic biology in biotech vats in the U.S. and Europe will have major socio-economic impacts and may drive smallholder farmers further into poverty.
The Perils of Synthetic Biology
While some of these developments sound promising, synthetic biology also has a dark side. If an SMO were to be released into the environment, either intentionally (say, as an agricultural crop) or unintentionally from a lab, they could have serious and irreversible impacts on the ecosystem. Synthetic organisms may become our next invasive organisms, finding an ecological niche, displacing wild populations and disrupting entire ecosystems.8 SMOs will lead to genetic pollution-as happens commonly with GMOs-and create synthetic genetic pollution which will be impossible to clean up or recall. Using genes synthesized on a computer instead of those originally found in nature also raises questions about human safety and the possibility that SMOs could become a new source of food allergens or toxins.
What’s different and possibly more hazardous about synthetic biology is that the DNA sequences and genes being used are increasingly different than those found in nature. Our ability to synthesize new genes has far outpaced our understanding of how these genes, and the biological systems they are being inserted into, actually work. It is already difficult to assess the safety of a single genetically engineered organism, and synthetic biology raises this level of complexity enormously. To date, there has been no scientific effort to thoroughly assess the environmental or health risk of any synthetic organism, which can have tens or hundreds of entirely novel genetic sequences.
Biotechnology is already regulated poorly in the U.S., and SMOs will only push the boundaries of this antiquated regulatory system. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates GMOs through plant pest laws, since most have been engineered through a plant virus. Synthetic biology opens up the possibility for SMOs to be created without plant viruses, meaning those crops may be completely unregulated by the USDA-or any agency.
Our risk assessment models for biotechnology are quickly becoming outdated as well. Safety of GMOs is typically determined if it is “substantially equivalent” to its natural counterpart. This idea of “substantial equivalence” quickly breaks down when looking at the risk of an SMO which has genes that have never existed before in nature and whose “parent is a computer.”9
An End to Industrial Agriculture As We Know It
Synthetic biology may hold some promises, but is a dangerous path to follow if we don’t know better where it leads. The past few decades of agriculture biotechnology have produced a multitude of problems, many of which will be exacerbated by synthetic biology, including genetic contamination, super-weeds, an increasing dependence on ever more toxic industrial chemicals, larger areas of unsustainable monocultures, fights over intellectual property and the suing of farmers, and the further concentration of corporate control over our food supply.
Far from making “agriculture as we know it disappear,” as Craig Venter hopes to do, we should work to make industrial agriculture as we know it (and its dependence on biotechnology and toxic chemicals) disappear, refocusing our energies on agricultural systems we know to work, such as agro-ecology and organic farming. For example, a recent USDA study found that simple sustainable changes in farming, such as crop rotation, produced better yields, significantly reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides, and reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater, all without having any impact on farm profit.10 Such systems have shown to be equally if not more productive than industrial agriculture systems, and are also better for the planet and our climate11 and produce food that is healthier and more nutritious without a dependence on hazardous, expensive and unproven technologies.
A moratorium on the environmental release and commercial use of synthetic biology is necessary to ensure that our ability to assess its risks and regulate it to protect human health and the environment keep pace with the technology’s rapid developments, and to provide time to explore and support alternatives.12 Instead of continuing down the road of GMOs to SMOs, let’s look to solutions that already exist to create a vibrant, healthy, sustainable and just food system.
Eric Hoffman is a food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth.
1. Hylton, Wils S. “Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World.” New York Times 30 May 2012
2. “What Is GMO?” The Non-GMO Project, <http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo/>.
3. “Global Market for Synthetic Biology to Grow to $10.8 Billion by 2016.” BCC Research, Nov. 2011.
4. Fehrenbacher, Katie. “Monsanto Backs Algae Startup Sapphire Energy.” Thomson Reuters, 8 Mar. 2011.
5. “Biofuel Crops Breeding and Improvement.” Agradis, Web.
6. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL’s Multi-Junction Solar Cells Teach Scientists How to Turn Plants into Powerhouses. N.p., 12 May 2011.
7. Synthetic Biology: 10 Key Points for Delegates. ETC Group, Oct. 2012. <http://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/synbio_ETC4COP11_4web_0.pdf>.
8. Rodemeyer, Michael. New Life, Old Bottles: Regulating the First-Generation Products of Synthetic Biology. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Synthetic Biology Project, 2009.
9. Wade, Nicholas. “Researchers Say They Created a ‘Synthetic Cell.'” The New York Times. 20 May 2010.
10. Bittman, Mark. “A Simple Fix for Farming.” New York Times, 19 Oct. 2012.
11. “Agroecology and Sustainable Development.” Pesticide Action Network North America, Apr. 2009.
12. “Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology.” Friends of the Earth, Mar. 2012.