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“Jurassic World” and the Dinosaurs at the USDA

The USDA fails to regulate even as biotechnologists deploy risky new genetic engineering techniques.

The new movie Jurassic World offers more than a few lessons relevant to the state of our world. (Photo: Dinosaur Fossil via Shutterstock)

The new movie Jurassic World offers more than a few lessons relevant to the state of our world. There is the obvious point about scientists bringing back to life genetically engineered dinosaurs with no real concern for the havoc they may wreak. Then there is the very clear link to real-world “de-extinction” scientists who seriously aim to bring back mastodons and passenger pigeons, while others are finding ever more potent means to mess around with the code of life to manufacture completely new organisms through synthetic biology.

There are also the dinosaur-like regulations of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), developed way back in the 1980s before many of the new biotechnologies were even conceived. Those regulations are in desperate need of an overhaul if they are ever to protect the public from the onslaught of dangerous and unpredictable impacts that necessarily accompany the derailing of billions of years of evolution for the purpose of corporate profit-making.

Right now in fact, the USDA is in the process of evaluating and overhauling these antiquated regulations, a process that should have been completed a decade ago (more below on this, and on how to take action). Better late than never, however, especially given the current push to genetically engineer a post-fossil-fuel bioeconomy!

A bioeconomy on the scale of our fossil economy would require many planets worth of biomass.

As a rather jaded climate activist, I find my workdays often feel like a torrent of bad news and troubling trends. But just lately there seems to be a long overdue shift afoot! The coal industry is taking serious hits and in fact, the entire fossil fuel empire is increasingly referred to in terms of “stranded assets.” In St. Paul, Minnesota, in early June, thousands protested against tar sands. I rejoiced to see the Raging Grannies firmly ensconced in front of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig in Seattle along with a swarm of colorful “kayaktivists.” Beyond Extreme Energy and allies organized 10 days of actions against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and its rubber-stamping of fracking and gas export infrastructure at Cove Point. Here in my mighty little home state of Vermont, a band of merry warriors is fighting (and winning) against a fracked gas pipeline! Even Pope Francis is speaking up about climate and making plenty of sense!

While this is all inspiring some hope, that hope is tempered for me by a now familiar sense of anxiety about some of the implications. I’ve watched for years as over and over, vague and unspecified supports for “action” or “solutions” to the problem of climate change have devolved into ever more subsidies, mandates and outrageous investments into fantasy technologies, especially those promising to maintain “business as usual.” The main game has been to find ways to avoid actually changing the system, and instead, at most, just change the fuel source that runs the system.

Especially eager to maintain business as usual, and to profit wherever and whenever possible, Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Aviation and the very Big US Military are all joining hands in a big dance for big biofuels. Their dance turns in circles around Big Biotech, which is working like crazy to facilitate the “fuel switch”: tweaking, synthesizing and engineering the genetic heritages of all manner of crops, trees, microbes, algae and other forms of life, seeking to turn things from their evolved place in the web of life into living chemical factories that spew out biofuels, biochemicals and the raw materials for human industrial economies. It is, after all, an inconvenient truth that virtually anything now derived from, or powered by, fossil fuels could, theoretically at least, be derived from living biomass. Thus, the hopeful embrace of a bioeconomy to seamlessly replace our fossil economy.

A bioeconomy on the scale of our fossil economy would, inconveniently, require many planets worth of biomass. Consider this example, just for illustration: Recently, it was enthusiastically announced that Alaska Airlines will be testing wood-derived biofuels. Based on the figures provided, one ton of wood yields 45 gallons of jet fuel. A loaded jet in flight burns about 14 gallons of fuel per minute. A one-hour flight would therefore require about 840 gallons of fuel. That means it would take about 18 tons of dry wood to fly for one hour. But dry wood weighs about half of what fresh cut, wet wood weighs, so to fly for an hour, it would be necessary to harvest around 36 tons of wood! For one plane to fly for one hour.

What does 36 tons of wood even look like? And what if we multiplied that by even just a single day’s worth of flights for just that one airline? Or, even more astonishing, by just half the flights that grace our skies on any given day. How much land area would have to be harvested; how much soil, water, nutrients, displaced food, farming and forests; how much air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions from harvest equipment and trucking? How can that possibly be considered a “sustainable” or environmentally friendly solution? Our ability to grapple with the magnitude of these figures is, frankly, stunted, and industry has taken advantage of that handicap, referring in glowing terms to plentiful and abundant “wastes and residues.” Several planets worth!

Researchers are working to develop “gene drives” intended to deliberately force new genes to spread in nature.

We are fed nonsensical rhetoric about “energy independence” and “low carbon fuels,” while this convergence of corporate interests grows fatter and fatter, feeding off the subsidies that hemorrhage out of every conceivable budget. Smiling puppet politicians proclaim to offer “solutions” to our vague demands, blatantly ignoring the heaped mountains of science and common sense that show us biofuels can never deliver energy independence, that most are in fact as bad or even worse for the climate than the fossil fuels they supposedly displace (but in reality, augment), that food is pricier and people are hungrier when fuel competes with food, and that cutting down trees, turning them into pellets, shipping them across the ocean and burning them in European coal plants bears no relationship whatsoever to “clean,” “renewable” or “climate-friendly” fuels.

In addition to the unimaginably vast amounts of biomass required, achieving a bioeconomy depends on some unimaginable feats of genetic engineering, which is why the Big Biofuel dance circles all around Big Biotech. They are tasked with engineering the genetics of crops and trees to grow faster and be more easily converted into chemicals and fuels. And they are tasked with hijacking the metabolic processes of yeast, E. coli, algae and various microbes, forcing them to squirt out industrial and commercial fuels and chemicals. The US Department of Energy ARPA-E, for example, now hosts a project referred to as “PETRO,” an acronym for “Plants Engineered to Replace Oil.” Along with other government agencies, they seek to fast-track field tests of a suite of genetically engineered crops and trees across the southeastern United States. Perhaps even more troubling is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which opened a new “Biological Technologies Office,” with a “Living Foundries” program.

Biotechnologists working in this realm have a whole range of new synthetic tools to wield. Synthetic biology techniques with names like CRISPR, RNA interference and zinc fingers permit drastic manipulations and rearrangements of the evolved genetic heritage of living organisms, far above and beyond anything previously possible or even imagined.

Researchers are working to develop “gene drives” intended to deliberately force new genes to spread in nature. They have developed means for “directed evolution,” and are working to “enhance photosynthesis.” Others are developing microbes to extract coal bed methane or secrete drilling lubricants for the fracking industry. Biotechnologists have engineered E. coli bacteria to pump out propane, yeast to pump out morphine, microalgae that squirt ethanol, chemicals for plastic manufacturing and any of a variety of other industrial chemicals. AquaBounty seeks commercial release of genetically modified salmon, and scientists amuse themselves by engineering featherless chickens, goats that produce pharmaceutical milk and chickens with dinosaur faces. Others seek the techno-resurrection of extinct species or are banking on profits from patented climate-change-resistant seed varieties.

In garages and back rooms, do-it-yourselfers insert mail ordered gene sequences into microbes, offer glowing plants in exchange for Kickstarter donations and struggle to poke “milk” out of yeast. Tree biotechnologists engineer designer trees to fulfill the vast dreams of pulp and paper or biofuel industries (and Alaska Airlines). Synthetic microalgae secrete ingredients for face creams and vanilla flavoring is squeezed from yeast (while vanilla farmers are squeezed out of business). In April, Chinese scientists announced they had succeeded in using new “gene editing” techniques on human embryos.

That’s when a number of scientists said, “Hey, wait a minute! We need to talk about ethics!”

How can it be OK to eat food from plants engineered to secrete pesticides?

New techniques, new organisms, new horizons and new frontiers for profit-making. For a few, the prospects are exhilarating. For many, they are terrifying. The scale and scope for biotechnology has blasted wide open and in the process, transgressed some sensitive boundaries. Even the World Economic Forum recently expressed concern, referring to synthetic biology as an emerging global risk with serious security and ethical concerns. While we might like to assume that these new biotechnology developments are controlled and regulated, they are absolutely not. We are very precariously poised: Even as biotechnologists are deploying these new and ever more potent and invasive tools for grossly manipulating the genetic codes and functions of living organisms, our regulatory agencies have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Way back in 2008, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed rules for the regulation of genetically engineered organisms. They received over 88,300 comments in response. Industry thought the regulations too restrictive (what a surprise), while many others considered the rules grossly insufficient and slack. APHIS recently decided to respond to the divergence of opinions by withdrawing the proposed ruling. In the interim, regulatory oversight of biotechnology has languished, falling further and further out of step with the rapid pace of advancement in biotechnologies.

Now APHIS has announced a rebooted process. Reform of arcane and technologically inadequate regulations is certainly desperately needed, and the time to do so is right now (or 10 years ago)! The track record does not instill confidence. Farmers are sued for all they are worth because, unwittingly and unavoidably, their crops were contaminated by neighboring GMOs. Battles rage over scientific independence and integrity as Monsanto and their compatriots work to suppress critical voices, using mockery, economic coercion and even violence. Superweeds overtake farms and fields, while oceans of glyphosate (the probable carcinogen) and other toxic chemicals are sprayed, leach into soils, flow into waterways and lodge in our bodies. Industrial farms and forests are scattered with the corpses of monarch butterflies and honeybees, ponds thick with scum host two-headed tadpoles and our own children are born with malformed genitalia and disrupted hormones.

But our regulatory agencies told us these things were safe! Well, actually, they appear to consider pretty much any and everything to be safe. APHIS in fact seems never to have met a GMO (or a biotech company) it did not love. Even recently, new crop varieties that can be sprayed with some of the most toxic compounds known to humankind, like 2,4 D and dicamba (think Agent Orange) resistant soybeans, corn and cotton, were granted the seal of safety approval. Those were in fact developed as a “solution” to the escalating emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds, a problem that was predicted long ago, but not considered a reason to withhold permitting.

How can it be OK to eat food from plants engineered to secrete pesticides or endure spraying with carcinogens, “probable” carcinogens, mutagens, hormone disruptors and more? Why have we put poison experts (like Monsanto) in charge of our food? Now we not only have to contend with food crops engineered to withstand various poisons and environmental stresses, but we are also faced with a whole new genre of industrial crops and microbes engineered for fuel and chemical production.

We are holding in our hands tools that are so powerful, they literally enable us to create, recreate, resurrect and redesign life forms.

Industry welcomes the vast regulatory loopholes through which various new frankencreations are falling, willy-nilly and unremarked, from laboratory benches straight onto your dinner plate, into your field or out in your forest. The loophole is one that the USDA appears to have crafted for itself, deliberately and willingly, embracing a vanishingly narrow interpretation of their mandate to regulate, based on antiquated technology. In the old days, viruses and the bacterial pathogen Agrobacterium were commonly used to deliver new genes into plants. Nowadays, new technologies allow biotechnologists to insert and manipulate genes without using any of those “plant pests.”

The USDA claims that it is only required to regulate those organisms engineered using plant pest materials. Hence an engineered loblolly pine was recently granted a free bypass of regulation simply because of the way the genes were inserted and manipulated. Of course the consequences of those introduced genes may be just as bad or even worse than if they had been introduced using plant pests. But the USDA is apparently happy to turn a blind eye. That gigantic loophole is the same one that Simplot potato, Scotts bluegrass and glowing synthetic plants have fallen through in recent years. All were developed using new techniques that are considered potentially very risky, even though they do not involve plant pests.

Of the USDA’s loophole, Doug Gurian Sherman, from Union of Concerned Scientists, states: “Many genes from pathogens are no more (or less) harmful than genes from non-pathogens. But because our GMO regulations are based on inadequate laws already in existence in the 1980s, the agencies were left trying to fit a regulatory square peg into a statutory round hole, and came up with the pest-gene ruse.” The “pest-gene ruse,” in light of all the new technologies coming online, has indeed opened up a loophole the size of the Andromeda Galaxy. If carried forward, it could lead in the not-too-distant future to a situation where most GMOs are unregulated. Welcome to the brave new world of biotechnology, where powerful and risky new technologies are welcomed by our regulatory agencies as an excuse not to do their job!

The sheer scale and volume of new, engineered organisms is beyond anything we have ever seen or even imagined a decade ago. New synthetic biology techniques permit the development of tens of thousands of variants in a day, and far speedier design-build-test and production cycles. That in itself creates huge new concerns about how regulations can be implemented

So here we stand in the midst of a maelstrom of new techniques, new organisms, new concerns and potential risks while there is ever greater pressure, funding and incentive to engineer a new bioeconomy. We are holding in our hands tools that are so powerful, they literally enable us to create, recreate, resurrect and redesign life forms that evolved on earth over millions of years. Or do they? Perhaps what they really enable us to do is mess things up royally.

If an organism is genetically engineered, no matter how, it should be regulated. Period.

As a biologist trained in evolution and ecology, I am troubled deeply by the arrogant assumption and worldview of biotechnologists like DARPA’s Alicia Jackson, who see “biology as technology” and seek to “program the living world.” These are people who see the language of life not as something sacred and wondrous, but rather something like a Lego set with interchangeable parts that can be assembled and disassembled, parts plugged in or edited out, discrete functions assumed to be controllable via “switches.” The whole is seen as no more and no less than the sum of its parts, predictable and controllable. All of creation is seen as just waiting to be manipulated and recoded for the service of the human industrial economy.

In reality, we simply do not know enough to really control genes, their expression or their evolution over time. Nature is messy and unpredictable, no matter how much men in white lab coats in their government or industry laboratories might try to convince us otherwise.

As with the rogue dinosaurs in Jurassic World, we may well be on our way to creating rogue superweeds, rogue designer offspring, rogue synthetic food, and perhaps even scarier, rogue microbes – beyond our control and full of unpleasant surprises. Unlike the situation with dinosaurs stranded on an island, we won’t be able to run away and trigger self-destruct. There will likely be no turning back and no “recall” switch because it is a fundamental truth that “life finds a way.”

So what do we do? For one thing, we demand that the USDA stop dragging its heels and get its new, stringent and protective biotech rules up and running, and soon. The agency needs to do its job for the people it serves, not the industries who profit from deregulation. Of paramount importance is to get rid of the loophole(s). After all, if an organism is genetically engineered, no matter how, it should be regulated. Period. All GMOs should be thoroughly and holistically evaluated, taking all known and potential risks into consideration. That includes potential increased use of pesticides or herbicides as well as potential for cross-contamination and socioeconomic consequences. If something is deregulated, it should be tested and monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure problems do not arise once it is out in the world. The processes and reviews must be holistic, public, inclusive and transparent, not narrow or dominated by industry vested interests. Groups like the Center for Food Safety, among others, have long advocated for better regulation and should be supported.

Now is most definitely the time to stand up to the fossil fuel industries, to block the pipelines, the bomb trains, the liquefied natural gas terminals, to chain our bodies to the gears and block passage to Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs. It is also time to attend to the path that lies ahead and call for real solutions, to reduce consumption, to respect life, and to demand that biotechnologists and their starry-eyed bioeconomy backers not be permitted free rein to run amok over our common genetic heritage!

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