The Threat of Rogue Gene Editing and Its Implications on Nature
By Jeffrey Smith
Are the risks really as dangerous as we indicate?
Over the past two decades, we have collected substantial evidence suggesting that GMO foods contribute to rising disease rates. The existential threat to nature, however, goes beyond the health impacts of a single generation. GMOs of all types and all kingdoms, food and non-food, carry unprecedented threats to the future of our planet’s ecosystem. Here is a sampling of a few historic cases that demonstrate widespread risks.
- Back in the 1980s, GMO bacteria were designed to replace their natural counterpart, which causes frost damage on strawberries. Fortunately, commercialization was prevented at the last minute. We now know that the natural bacteria also creates clouds, rain and snow. If the impotent GMO version had been widely released and enjoyed a survival advantage over the natural species, it may have impacted weather patterns.
- In the 1990s, scientists obtained government approval to distribute their alcohol-creating GMO bacteria. Farmers were supposed to mix the organisms in big barrels with crop waste and use the resulting alcohol to run their tractors. The sludge at the bottom of the barrel was to be spread on the fields as fertilizer. Two weeks before an experimental release, a graduate student happened to discover that the fertilizer turned roots and seedlings into alcohol, rendering soil infertile.
- Canadian scientists created GMO salmon equipped with extra growth hormones. When these ravenous fast-growing fish were deprived of adequate food, they became violent and cannibalistic, causing population crashes or extinctions in their tanks.
- GMO medaka fish also grew faster, conferring a mating advantage over natural medaka. The offspring from the GMO fish, however, had a 70% survival rate. Purdue scientists used a computer model to see what would happen if 60 GMO fish were added to a natural population of 60,000. They were shocked to discover that all the fish were wiped out in just 40 generations.
- The UK company Oxitech promised that their GMO mosquito would never persist in the environment. Its sterile offspring would reduce the natural mosquito population and the GMO versions would all die off. Now, after they released hundreds of millions of the insects in four countries, we learn that their trait misfired. The natural gene pool of mosquitoes has become permanently altered, with unknown consequences.
In these and countless other examples, promoters of GMOs willingly risked permanent contamination of nature’s gene pool based on their belief that the technology was predictable and safe. They were wrong. The same misplaced confidence accompanied the introduction of gene editing. Their claims of predictability and safety were soon contradicted by numerous studies confirming the opposite.
Not only can the editing process create hundreds or thousands of mutations, rogue pieces of DNA from the lab environment can be accidentally inserted into the genome. That explains the following near catastrophes.
- The makers of gene edited hornless cows claimed that there were no side effects. They asserted that it was so successful, gene edited animals from then on should not require regulation. Two years later, however, other scientists discovered that the cows’ cells also contained DNA from bacteria, including antibiotic resistant genes. When the surprise finding was announced, the GMO herd that was being bred for sale was killed off. If the bacterial genes had not been discovered, those cows might have spread deadly super diseases.
- The process of gene editing often takes place in a medium of cow or goat serum. When gene edited mice were created, random cow and goat DNA floating in the serum were integrated into the rodents’ genome. The inserted DNA included retroviruses, demonstrating that diseases can be accidentally transferred between species.
It is not important to prove that each of the particular cases listed above would definitely lead to altered weather patterns, vast sterile landscapes, destruction of fish species, dangerous new insects, or the spread of disease. Rather they serve to illustrate the principle of how tiny changes in the DNA of a single organism can have devastating and long-lasting consequences.
Now do the math. Multiply the probability of the combined risks by the number of times these experiments will be conducted. Do we multiply by ten thousand, a million, ten million? Do-it-yourself gene editing kits are sold today as holiday gifts for $159. As their costs drop and their power grows, will we see kits distributed to every child in school?
As the number of experiments grow, the likelihood of a catastrophe approaches certainty. But the ability to correct the problem—or even track its source—is far from certain.
Let us take steps now to prevent a disaster rather than learn our lesson trying to clean one up.
Taking the lead
The Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) pioneered consumer education about the health dangers of GMOs and Roundup. The purpose was to inspire individuals to eat healthier, and thereby collectively exert market pressure to motivate food companies to replace GMO ingredients.
The behavior-change messaging worked beautifully. In the US alone, 46% of surveyed Americans now say they are seeking non-GMO diets. The tipping point in the marketplace has been started, and major food companies are rushing to become “Non-GMO.”
Consumer food choices alone, however, will not be sufficient to stop the threat of gene-edited bacteria, fungus, algae, insects, trees, grass, etc.
A Portfolio of Solutions
There are many areas of society that can be used to address this issue.
- International treaties, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, can establish restrictions on international trade of GMOs.
- Assignment of strict liability for creators of gene edited GMOs can certainly slow down the introduction. Liability can be created through legislation, the court systems, or even the World Trade Organization.
- Sensible laws can limit exposure.
- Scientific organizations can sound the alarm and call for greater caution.
- Institutional Review Boards, which approve studies in universities, can take a significant role in requiring containment of new organisms.
- Academic policies can further restrict certain high-risk experiments.
A key success factor is to engage in mass education via media, social media, films, TV specials, curriculum in schools, and political platforms.
Global Coalition Building
The threat of the replacement of nature is so all-encompassing, many different types of demographics can be engaged, including parents, religions, indigenous communities, nature enthusiasts, gardeners, birdwatchers, animal rights groups, scientists, companies in tourism, and of course the youth.
We can tap into the already vibrant and active infrastructure of activists organizations focusing on climate change, chemical pollution, biodiversity, regeneration, saving the oceans, etc. Ironically, our movement building can take advantage of the fact that more people are focusing on protecting our planet than at any time in history. They are hearing about the devastating collapse of biodiversity — the sixth great extinction, the insect and bird die-off, and how ecosystems are under unprecedented assault. People are realizing that new technologies can have devastating consequences.
If we produce powerful assets with the right messaging, we can motivate existing groups to aid our urgent education efforts through distribution. We won’t have to build a new global movement from scratch.
IRT is pulling together a dream team to pull all this together, sound the alarm, and implement solutions.
Message from Thrive:
We must act now, before it’s too late. Thrive supports the work Jeffrey and his team are doing and hopes you will help spread the message, if you feel called to do so. To get involved in the efforts being made, please use the contacts below.
Donations can be made at www.ResponsibleTechnology.org