This week, agribusiness giant Monsanto continued its streak of acquisitions and mergers by acquiring Agradis—a company started by Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) founder, J. Craig Venter, and dedicated to cultivating microorganisms that can be used to “improve agricultural productivity.” But this marriage between the leading synthetic biology company and one of the biggest agribusinesses in the U.S. could be catastrophic, empowering two major corporations to create synthetic life in the name of advancing industrial agriculture consolidated on too few hands.
Synthetic Genomics Inc. specializes in an extreme form of genetic engineering called synthetic biology. Instead of transferring genetic material from one species to another, synthetic bioengineering places new, synthetically created genetic material into microorganisms. SGI plans on using its franken-microbes for all sorts of applications including biofuels, renewable chemicals, vaccines and coal bed methane recovery. This technology is even newer than traditional genetic engineering, so it is still unclear how it would be proven safe and regulated. Today’s transgenic crops are at least permitted and commercialized through a three-agency regulatory process, albeit flawed. But these organisms would be tossed into a quagmire of federal regulatory programs involving at least seven agencies including the USDA, FDA, EPA, DOT, NIH, CDC and even the FBI due to biosecurity risks; making it more likely to fall through the bureaucratic cracks.
What could this mean for the future of agricultural biotechnology? R&D from this agreement will likely fall under Monsanto’s agricultural biological platform BioDirect, which means Monsanto could be developing new, microbial pesticides that could be approved and sprayed on crops to fight weeds, insects and viruses. With further investment in and research with SGI, Monsanto will soon have the means to incorporate synthetic biology into its microbial pesticides without a defined regulatory pathway to check its development along the way.
The attempt to disguise the use of synthetic biology in agriculture as “sustainable” is an egregious abuse of the word. Releasing microbes with novel traits and functions into the wild and onto our food crops could have devastating effects on the safety of our food and the quality of our environment. The implications of this technology for the environment and its biodiversity are unknown because there has been no risk assessment performed. But just as superweeds have evolved to be resistant to all types of herbicides, microbes will surely begin to evolve to adapt to the environment in which they are placed and outcompete the natural, beneficial microorganisms for space or sustenance, throwing off entire ecosystems. The point is: there is no way to know the extent of the damage until the damage has already been done.
Despite looming risks, ethical questions and a lack of appropriate oversight, President Obama has praised synthetic biology and toted the need for more research and development in the field in last year’s misguided National Bioeconomy Blueprint. Instead, the President should be practicing precaution to protect agriculture, the environment and human health and our federal agencies should be refusing to make decisions on this technology until all risks have been evaluated in the public’s best interest, rather than that of the profit-driven biotechnology companies.
This is one toxic relationship made in agricultural hell.