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Wake-Up Call for Organic Advocates: Synbio Poses Greater Threat than Old-School GMOs

We in the organic sector need to stop thinking in terms of GMOs. Those old-school crops and suspect agricultural practices are still a problem for organic growers.

But the new synthetic biology is an even larger and growing threat.

First, it is not disclosed or labeled.

Second, everything—everything—is now being gene-edited in a million different ways.

Third, if it's not just gene-edited, then it is being built from scratch using artificial intelligence (AI) and rapid sequencing to create novel gene sets and living organisms whose behavior might be useful.

Fourth, useful to whom? Tens of billions of dollars of investment are flowing into the synthetic biology space, all of it focused on capturing ownership of intellectual property that can be protected, capitalized and profited from.

In spite of their creators’ enthusiasm and belief in a new scientific paradigm, the products of synthetic biology actually reinforce the current food, agriculture and medical paradigm.

These products don't prevent diabetes, instead they attempt to create new insulin.

They don't stop indiscriminate use of antibiotics, they instead create novel antibiotics to overcome newly resistant pathogens.

They don't support soil health, animal welfare and biodiversity, they merely find ways to capitalize on CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation, or factory farm) agriculture and glyphosate remediation.

In short, the ideology of innovation underpinning synthetic biology intends to change soil, animals, humans, insects and microbes to adapt to a dangerously malfunctioning system—rather than fix the system itself.

The goal of profiteering by externalizing costs to the environment, and in turn public health, is the economic foundation of nearly every synthetic biology start-up. We even have new metaphors to describe this irrational belief: #GeneticFallout, #GeneLitter, #GeneLitteracy, and #GeneticFukushima.

Remember, bio-containment measures focus only on pathogens; genes and gene sub-units are not controlled for, either in the labs that create them or the water treatment facilities they eventually pass through. 

The organic community is about to face a buffet of temptations from synthetic biology.

Is a synthetic RNAi spray that activates or silences genetic programming innate to an organic crop an allowable method?

If a gene-edited anti-fungal treatment can be delivered to crops via gene-edited insect to save the harvest, will farmers embrace it?

If a gene-edited cover crop will deposit extra "natural" nitrogen into soil, should conventional farmers be encouraged to use it as a path to transitioning to certification?

In short, these and other reductionist solutions have the power to dazzle and distract organic producers from their original principles and goals: nurture the existing natural system as a whole to grow nutritious food in ways that can continue forever.

So, hey! Let's all wake up here. Our collective understanding of genetic engineering, based on 30 years of fighting the battle against Roundup and herbicide-tolerant crops, is woefully outdated.

The new paradigm is stealthy, massively complex, constantly innovating and wrapped in a global coordinated propaganda campaign to normalize it.

Regulators have abandoned all oversight. Synbio tools and techniques are available to anyone, anywhere, at relatively low cost. Currently hundreds of botanicals are being grown in gene-edited ferments and sold as authentic ingredients. They are cheaper now, but only until agriculture production is put out of business—then the price gouging begins. 

The one bright spot is that new laboratory methods have been developed to detect synthetic materials, especially those grown in ferments. While the target molecule may be nearly identical, synthetic production methods introduce unusual entourage materials that can be readily identified and quantified.

But why is it up to the organic community to discover and pay for these testing methods? That should be the responsibility of whomever is creating these novel materials.

Alan Lewis is a board member of the Non-GMO Project and the Organic and Natural Health Association. He navigates government affairs and supply chain integrity for Natural Grocers. These are remarks made to the National Organic Coalition and reprinted here with permission from the author.

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