Molecular-level manipulations of every element that makes up the living world are being sold to us as “nature-based solutions” that can provide cures for almost all our problems. However, the hype that surrounds these sets of approaches is fatally undermined by the failure of past engineering approaches to deliver what they promised. Even with unprecedented global investment and effort by some of the world’s most expert professional genetic engineers trained in the task of taming SARS-COV2, it is clear that just one virus continues to surprise and outwit humans’ best attempts to control biology and that social divisions are increasing as a consequence. Here we explore what other technologies would-be molecular manipulators are developing as part of their ongoing mission for human mastery. We assess the likelihood that these approaches could be applied in practice, what surprises and failures engineers of these processes may encounter and what risks the application of such technologies might pose to biodiversity, the wider environment and communities in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the late 1990s, best-selling authors like Jeremy Rifkin and transnational corporations like Monsanto predicted that manipulating the genetics of organisms at the molecular level would enable scientists to mould the living world at their whim within a few years. With mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering having been at the heart of the first, second and third industrial revolutions, genetic engineering is still – 30 years later – being heralded by some as being part of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’.
A handful of corporate billionaires have joined with some powerful governments to create a global public relations campaign to persuade us that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are feeding the world, while simultaneously reducing the use of chemicals that poison our environment and that they stand to solve the climate crisis. The reality on the ground, however, is that GMOs have so far almost always made matters worse for people and ecosystems wherever they have been deployed. Most GMOs in use in agriculture today are engineered into one of two types of plants – one that stays alive after being sprayed with weedkillers, such as the herbicide glyphosate; the other produces chemicals that are toxic to insects. Some GMOs have both of these characteristics. Beyond these uses, GMO bacteria and other microorganisms are in use for the production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals and materials.
In the case of agricultural GMOs, soybeans, corn, rapeseed and cotton are the crops most commonly subjected to these genetic changes. Far from reducing the application of toxic chemicals, the use of GMOs have actually increased their use. Many Asia-Pacific countries, such as India and China, still enact bans on the growth of GMOs for foods. However, for a few years now, agri-tech corporations have been seeking to re-boot these failed technologies by popularising a more innocuous-sounding name for them: “new genomic techniques” (NGTs).
NGTs are not different from the processes of genetic engineering – or as their proponents now prefer to call it, “gene editing” – that have gone on for half a century. All that has changed is a streamlining of the engineering process, reducing the cost of the process whereby genetic material is removed or transferred within the same or closely related species. The best known of these molecular tricks, CRISPR/Cas9, earned two of its pioneers the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and a fortune in patent rights.
Among other uses, CRISPR/Cas9 has enabled the development of an experimental technique its inventors have dubbed “gene drive”. They have placed these “exterminator genes”, as they might better be known, into insects and some other sexually-reproducing organisms in the laboratory. A gene drive is a piece of genetic engineering that distorts the inheritance process so that newly introduced genes are inherited by all offspring of a particular species within a few generations. In theory, gene drives could allow genetic engineers to deliberately spread a particular genetic code throughout ecosystems and potentially across the whole planet. Introducing a genetic change could make the organism infertile, which may be done with the aim of lowering the survival chances of a pest species.
It is conceivable that the release of such gene drive organisms (GDOs) into the environment could lead to the spread of an engineered genetic sequence at an exponential rate, driving entire species to extinction. There is a risk, the likelihood of which has not been subject to research, that exterminator genes could pass into closely related species and thus wipe out entire groups of species with uncertain impacts on ecosystems. Just like pesticides and GMOs before them, GDOs could eliminate beneficial pollinators, with no guarantee that they would be able to achieve the outcome for which they have been designed – controlling pests and disease.
GDOs are designed to spread and intentionally impact entire ecosystems. They are therefore likely to become invasive in wild populations. As we have seen with the growth of Covid-19 variants, evolution will likely intervene to create mutations. Evolution will produce other surprises: successful local eradication of one species might unpredictably open space for the expansion of another species, which may in turn carry diseases, affect pollination, or otherwise threaten biodiversity. Forced extinction is incompatible with conservation and likely to be upturned by evolution.
GDOs do not spring from traditional knowledge systems of ecological management but from elite knowledge systems (such as synthetic biology) backed by monopoly protections and rooted in a colonialist mind-frame. These attempts at techno-fixes are an ill-informed gamble that waste immense resources at a time when we know that humanity should be focusing on the root causes of our problems (see Box 1).
The billions of dollars invested into research in GDOs by the US military, as well as attention paid by the Biological Weapons Convention, illustrate that they are already being envisioned for military and hostile use. The potential uses of gene drives for biowarfare include the destruction of an enemy’s agricultural system or the weaponising of flying insects as vectors for pathogens that could wipe out human or non-human populations.
One immediate threat from the commercial scaling-up of genetic interventions is the use of gene-silencing pesticides, which are synthetic nucleotides (such as artificial RNA) designed to alter the genetics of organisms when they come into contact with them. Attempts to deploy genetically engineered microbes into agricultural soils are another risky venture.
According to an emerging vision for the molecular manipulation of agriculture, crops and livestock would be tailor-made for the conditions predicted and controlled by computer algorithms. These developments would be certain to destabilise food systems and undermine the livelihoods and the autonomy of smallholder, peasant and family farms. They would also be likely to severely damage biodiversity and the environment. Yet, scientists in Australia and New Zealand are pursuing research into all the technologies that make up this “new” era of genetics.
Box 1: AIM4C - a new global mission
At least 70% of the world’s population relies on peasant or Indigenous food production, which usually requires none of the fossil fuel inputs of industrial food production, and in many cases, sequesters carbon, cares for the land, and preserves biodiversity. There’s one hitch: peasant and Indigenous food producers don’t generate mega-profits for investors.
Corporate-funded lobbyists are making renewed attempts to influence global policymakers by claiming that molecular manipulation will be part of a high-tech package of inputs to help humanity adapt to climate change and fix “broken” food systems with “climate smart” crops.
The latest of these gambits came at COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow in November 2021, where the US and United Arab Emirates launched the Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C), with the support of the Gates Foundation and 29 other countries, nine of which are in the Asia-Pacific region. If implemented, AIM4C would ramp up investment and political action to support large-scale monocultures that could require even greater use of fossil fuels and toxic chemicals, reinforcing the very industrial food chain that is already devastating biodiversity and driving climate change. As in their first incarnation thirty years ago, some of the “new” GM crops that US and other global corporations have in the pipeline are still being engineered to be tolerant to the herbicides on which the same corporations (such as Bayer and ChemChina) have a monopoly.
Worst of all for the environment, the imposition of GMOs, GDOs, drones and robots would displace the smallholder and peasant farmers who, through agroecological farming, do the most to protect biodiversity and cool the world.
One of the markets that corporations are eyeing for future profits through molecular manipulation is alternative proteins, including dairy and meats (alt-meat). In response to policy priorities to reduce meat consumption, several of the world’s most powerful businesses are now proposing engineered protein products, including simulated eggs and simulated dairy products that are cultivated in sterile vats of engineered microorganisms. They claim simplistically that these ‘petri-proteins’ will both address animal welfare and climate change issues by displacing industrial animal agriculture. Led by meat giants like Tyson ($40 USD billion turnover in 2018) and Cargill ($114 billion), a shift from livestock farming to industrial bio-manufacture is already gathering pace. These giants plan to hedge their bets on the future of animal proteins by taking on a simultaneous new role as petri-proteins conglomerates. This mostly uses one of two techniques:
- The direct cultivation of meat-like substances grown from animal stem cells. In December 2020, Singapore became the first government to give regulatory approval for a protein-rich “nugget” cultured in the lab from chicken cells by the San Francisco-based start-up Eat Just. Despite billions of dollars, technical feasibility studies suggest that such cellular approaches can only produce to scale if massive government subsidies underpin them.
- Proteins from genetically engineered microbes, such as yeast, bacteria or algae are used to mimic certain qualities of meat, dairy or eggs – such as taste, colour or protein content – through a closed fermentation synthetic biology process. The Impossible Burger (which uses a biosynthesised blood substitute) is an example of such an engineered product that is being prepared for launch in the Asia-Pacific region. Hong Kong-based start-up Avants Meats is using this technique to produce fake seafoods.
Closed fermentation processes, on which most current petri-proteins currently rely, do not simply use engineered microorganisms. They also require feedstocks derived from large amounts of sugar or corn, crops usually grown with intensive pesticide, herbicide and fertiliser use and that are also associated with high greenhouse gas emissions from poor land use. They are also often linked (particularly in the case of sugar) to human rights abuses and land grabbing, which displaces those using more sustainable farming methods and may also directly causes deforestation. Centralised production, which is at the core of petri-protein manufacturing, means that there would be an additional cost in carbon emissions for transporting every chemical or mechanical input to and from centralised industrial facilities that house the vats. Compared to smallholder agriculture, in which meat is produced in, and largely consumed in, local communities, industrial production of proteins would be part of regional and global distribution networks. Like existing factory farming systems, but maybe worse – manufacturing petri-proteins would cause widespread water and air pollution, with resulting human and environmental health hazards.
At the heart of this corporate-controlled technological frontier is biodigital convergence – the attempt to engineer biological processes using digital systems. Those promoting these biodigital systems foresee a new landscape of agro-ecosystem functions shaped through genetic engineering that is itself designed and driven by algorithms [cross reference to digitalisation article]. It means that the big names in food in the coming decades are most likely to become data processors, including Amazon and Alibaba.
Amazon’s data services division is now partnering with major seeds and agrochemical companies as well as carrying genomic data initiatives like the Earth Biogenome Project. Alibaba has developed an ‘ET Agricultural Brain’, while giant agri-businesses such as Bayer (now incorporating Monsanto), Yara and John Deere are reinventing themselves as data providers, crunching data generated from farmers’ fields – forming strategic alliances with digital and synthetic biology platforms.
In the next decade, we predict that these biodigital conglomerates will continue to develop ever more hype-laden packages of algorithm engineered crops, microbes, insects and ‘gene sprays’ that match the biodigital prescriptions of their data platforms. Consider soil: The world’s three largest agribusiness firms have ploughed billions of dollars into describing the “ag-biome” – the specific communities of soil microbes that maintain fertility, cycle nitrogen, sequester carbon and move other nutrients and minerals. Just as health-genomic start-ups now want to sell “probiotic” cocktails tailored to individual guts, so does agribusiness want to use the soil insights from digital farming to offer individualised microbe mixtures to boost specific soils, notably of soils they have helped to destroy by half a century of agro-toxin use.
Bayer has a $100 million joint venture with synthetic biology powerhouse Gingko Bioworks (also known as Joyn Bio) to produce genetically engineered microbes for release into agricultural soils to improve the nitrogen fixation capacities of degraded industrial agriculture soils. For Bayer, who does not yet have fertiliser interests, the prospect is that their digital platform will recommend microbes that could be engineered, patented, licensed and sold to precisely address specific (degraded) soil types.
As digital surveillance identifies new diseases or environmental stresses, corporations may respond with the rapid production of genetically engineered seeds, sold with the promise that they can tolerate such threats. Similarly, new gene-silencing sprays could be marketed as part of a targeted digital prescription for the farm.
The ag-tech industry has already attained global titan status by facilitating the destruction of previously fertile and biodiverse lands and water bodies with their products – poison-coated seeds, toxic pesticides and soil-sapping fertiliser. The new biodigital schemes offer what appear to be merely pseudo-solutions, but which could see their short-term profits boom by completing a near-total financial capture of what is left of our ecosystems.
The investment bubble behind molecular manipulation is buoyed by talk of “nature-based solutions”. The battle cry of “nature” is part of an attempt to persuade us that new forms of engineering, such as GDOs, are natural because they involve nothing very different from what farmers have been doing for thousands of years by breeding animals and crops. But the comparison is false. It is like saying the use of nuclear fission to make electricity and atom bombs is natural because we have used fire since the era of Homo erectus.
A critical look at the recent promises made by biotech boosters in the adjacent field of healthcare is sobering. In February 2021, a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, some were predicting that billionaire self-appointed futurologists like Bill Gates had been right and that genetically engineered mRNA and DNA vaccines would soon confirm scientists' ability to control the virus. Now, as vaccine apartheid encourages multiple mutations of the virus, it is becoming clear that scientists cannot be so confident about controlling living systems at the molecular level and that the over-focus on high-tech genetic interventions may have distracted policymakers from the low-tech and social approaches that were slowing the spread of Covid in the early phase of the pandemic.
As they look beyond the wicked problems of the pandemic to the even more thorny challenge of climate change, the latest chant of corporate genetic engineers is “nature is not enough” – meaning that nature will have to be genetically enhanced to survive human-made warming. Yet, the pandemic experience of putting too much faith in genetic techno-fixes should increase the appeal of the precautionary principle to policymakers – especially given the likely limits of humanity’s ability to neutralise rogue products of genetic engineering should things go wrong. And this leaves us asking why our governments would want to play poker with the planet – allowing corporations to transfer yet more molecular manipulations from the laboratory into living systems. Asia-Pacific’s past experience with this type of engineering of living systems, through the introduction of invasive species, the construction of mega-dams, plantations and large environmental modification schemes has proven disastrous in the past. Given this, the rush to further molecular manipulation seems like a high-stakes game of poker, a game in which our people and our environment are bound to lose.