The Concerns Surrounding Genetically Engineered Soil Microbes

by Ella

In a recent gathering in downtown Salinas, California, a diverse assembly of farmers, biotechnology startups, and pesticide corporations convened to discuss the burgeoning role of biology in agriculture. While the agricultural sector has long relied on chemical solutions in the form of pesticides and fertilizers, there’s a growing interest in harnessing biology for the benefit of farming practices. This meeting marked the inaugural ‘Biologicals Summit,’ hosted by the Western Growers Association, one of the largest farmer trade groups in the United States, with sponsorship from industry giants Syngenta and Bayer. The focus of the discussion was biologicals, agricultural inputs derived from living organisms such as plants and bacteria, in stark contrast to the conventional reliance on fossil fuels, which serve as the basis for the majority of modern pesticides and fertilizers.

“Biologicals used to be the underappreciated presence in our agricultural toolkit,” remarked Prem Warrior, a senior technical advisor at Syngenta and a participant in the summit. “But now, every company in the world is eager to explore their potential.”


One particular area of interest among these companies is genetic engineering, specifically the modification of microscopic soil-dwelling organisms like bacteria and fungi to bolster their capacity for pest control or nutrient generation, such as nitrogen production.


A recently released report by Friends of the Earth delves into the potential ramifications of this novel application of genetic engineering, which differs fundamentally from the genetic engineering (GE) of crops that has been the subject of debate for decades. Microbes, unlike crops, have a propensity to readily exchange genetic material with each other, facilitated by wind-borne dispersal. Consequently, genetic modifications introduced into GE microbes could traverse species and geographical boundaries, presenting unforeseen and potentially irreversible consequences. The scale of release is substantially larger, while the likelihood of containment is considerably diminished. For instance, the deployment of GE bacteria could introduce a staggering 3 trillion genetically modified organisms per half acre, equivalent to the number of GE corn plants across the entire United States.


The entry of major agrichemical corporations into this domain, driven by their interest in genetically engineering microbes, raises alarm bells. Historically, these corporations have played a dominant role in the creation and dissemination of GE crops, often criticized for disregarding environmental and human health concerns, undermining small-scale farmers, distorting facts, and resisting regulatory oversight.


The comprehensive report outlines a spectrum of concerns, underscoring the high stakes involved. Healthy soil is indispensable for our capacity to sustain food production in a changing climate, acting as the foundation of resilience against droughts and floods while potentially mitigating climate disruptions by serving as a carbon sink. The microscopic soil inhabitants wield outsized influence, regulating global carbon and nitrogen cycles, enhancing soil structure, providing crops with immunity to pests and diseases, and unlocking essential nutrients for crop growth.

So, what could go awry with genetic engineering in this context? Recent scientific insights shed light on a range of unforeseen genetic mishaps that can occur when manipulating living organisms, such as unintended gene insertions and deletions. A notable example is Pivot Bio’s patent application for Proven®, a prominent GE microbe promoted as a nitrogen fertilizer source for farmers. This application lists at least 29 distinct genes, along with numerous proteins and enzymes, that can be modified to, in their own words, “short circuit” the microbe’s nitrogen-sensing capabilities and “trick” it into overproducing nitrogen. A study conducted by Pivot Bio scientists revealed that knocking out two of these genes unexpectedly enhanced nitrogen production, a result that could have just as easily diminished it. This highlights the intricate complexity of genetic regulatory processes.

Then there’s the issue of the environment into which these GE microbes will be released. Consider this – of the billions of microbe species constituting the living soil, our understanding is limited to a few hundred thousand, accounting for less than one percent. Our comprehension of the intricate interplay among microbes themselves and with plants and other organisms is even more limited.

Despite these uncertainties, biotechnology and pesticide companies are rapidly advancing the commercialization of GE soil microbes, often with minimal government oversight. Proven® is already being deployed on over three million acres of U.S. farmland, while BASF offers a 2.0 version of its Poncho®/VOTiVO® seed treatment, spanning 40 million acres and incorporating a GE bacteria aimed at bolstering plant health.

However, the identities of these GE microbes are shrouded in secrecy, making it nearly impossible to ascertain what they entail. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims to have registered eight GE microbes as pesticides on its website, but essential information regarding their nature or commercialization status remains undisclosed. This alarming lack of transparency hampers the informed, scientific discourse that should ideally accompany such a groundbreaking technology.

Compounding the issue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA hold jurisdiction over different categories of GE microbes, further complicating the regulatory landscape. Moreover, neither agency has formulated regulations tailored to account for the unique attributes of these organisms. Once these products are introduced into the market, there is a dearth of programs dedicated to monitoring their usage and safety over time.

The current regulatory framework appears poised to swiftly approve new GE microbes with insufficient evaluation of potential health and environmental risks. Given the booming biologicals market, with behemoths like Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, and Corteva investing millions in biologicals companies in recent years, we may be on the brink of a wave of new GE biologicals transitioning from the laboratory to the field.

While a shift towards biological solutions holds considerable promise for the environment and public health, farmers and policymakers will face the challenge of discerning credible claims from marketing ploys. Companies like Bayer have resorted to discredited rhetoric, invoking the notion of ‘feeding the world’ in their marketing of biologicals. They also lay claim to leadership in regenerative agriculture. Yet, the industry suggests that biologicals are intended to complement, rather than replace, their toxic products. Take BASF’s 2.0 seed treatment, which combines a GE biological with a harmful neonicotinoid insecticide associated with the decline of pollinators and mounting human health concerns.

This strategy was unambiguously articulated during the Biologicals Summit when Bayer’s representative, Peter Muller, asserted that “biologicals are one instrument in an orchestra. They will play an important part as a complement with many tools in the toolbox.”

In the face of climate change and biodiversity loss, a more profound transformation is imperative. Integrating biologicals into a faltering industrial farming system and manipulating microbes to emulate chemicals, such as nitrogen production, fails to harness the true potential of biology – the intricate, living relationships among soil organisms, plants, air, and water that sustain life on Earth. Farming practices attuned to these relationships, drawing from centuries of farmer experience and decades of modern organic and agroecological farming, offer a more promising path forward.



Wellfoodrecipes is a professional gourmet portal, the main columns include gourmet recipes, healthy diet, desserts, festival recipes, meat and seafood recipes, etc.

【Contact us: [email protected]

Copyright © 2023