GMO 2.0: genome-editing 

Gates is an evangelist for genetically engineered foods. He predicts that “GMOs will end starvation in Africa” and GMOs can “end world hunger by 2030.” If the first generation of GMO crops failed to deliver on these hopes, Gates believes new genetic engineering methods will get us there.

With CRISPR-Cas9 and other “genome-editing” techniques, scientists can now add or delete strands of DNA, or turn genes on or off, to produce specific traits in plants or animals — as if writing computer code. Examples include mushrooms that are “edited” to resist browning, “terminator cattle” bred to father only male offspring or harmless strains of E Coli converted to antioxidant factories.

Gene-editing techniques, and especially CRISPR, are efficient but unpredictable. Studies show the CRISPR process can create unexpected mutations including DNA damage and other off-target effects. In 2019, a plan to release CRISPR-edited “hornless cows” to Brazil was scrapped after a U.S. government researcher discovered the cattle had two antibiotic-resistance genes that weren’t supposed to be there. The Recombinetics, Inc. cows were the “poster animals of the gene-editing revolution,” according to MIT Technology Review until the “major screw-up in their DNA” came to light. The company’s researchers missed the extra DNA in their own studies; they reported, incorrectly, that the animals were “free of off-target effects.”

Genetic engineering, including genome editing, “has unpredictable outcomes,” says Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist at King’s College in London. “You don’t know in advance what the consequences are of the GM transformation process … and because you don’t know, the only way to evaluate safety is generical,” Antoniou said. “You basically need to conduct a long-term feeding trial in animals and see what happens … and that’s just not going on anywhere in the world for regulatory purposes, at all.”

Nevertheless, experiments continue on important crops and food animals. Gates Foundation has spent over $40 million on projects to genetically engineer dairy cows, with hopes of creating the “perfect” cow. Acceligen (a division of Recombinetics) is working with a Gates Foundation grant to engineer multiple traits into dairy cows to maximize productivity and durability in hot climates.

The foundation is also a leading funder of gene drive experiments that can force an engineered trait through a species. This month in the Florida Keys, the Gates Foundation-backed company Oxitec released 144,000 mosquitoes engineered to eliminate females in a disease-carrying species. Proposed agricultural uses for gene drives include reversing herbicide tolerance in plants, suppressing weeds, and eradicating agricultural pests. What could possibly go wrong?

Systemic risk 

One of the world’s foremost experts on probability and uncertainty, Nassim Taleb, considered that question — What could go wrong with GMOs? — for a 2014 paper he wrote with colleagues at the New York University School of Engineering. The authors analyzed GMOs in the context of what they called a “non-naive” view of the Precautionary Principle. They concluded: “GMOs represent a public risk of global harm” and should be subject to “severe limits.”

The Precautionary Principle states that if an action has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain, the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety. The authors believe it “should be evoked only in extreme situations” when the potential harm is systemic and the consequences widespread and irreversible; they said GMOs “fall squarely” within this criteria.

Among the systemic risks they cited: GMOs have the propensity to spread uncontrollably, with irreversible system-wide effects and unknown downsides. The ecological impacts are not tested empirically — and therefore not understood — before the technologies are released. The researchers noted two factors that contribute to systemic risk: the engineered genetic modifications and the monocultures in which they grow.

“Instead of a long history of evolutionary selection, these modifications rely not just on naive engineering strategies that do not appropriately consider risk in complex environments, but also explicitly reductionist approaches that ignore unintended consequences,” the researchers said. “Labeling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor — indeed warped — understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.”

Taleb summed up their conclusions in a 2015 New York Times op-ed:

“The GMO experiment carried out in real-time and with our entire food and ecological system as its laboratory, is perhaps the greatest case of human hubris ever. It creates yet another systemic, “too big to fail’ enterprise — but one for which no bailouts will be possible when it fails.”

Monopoly Bill 

If Gates’ plans for the food system make little sense from equity or ecological perspective, they are logical from the point of view of an economic monopolist.

“As the former CEO and largest shareholder of Microsoft, you might think that Bill Gates is a capitalist, but that’s not exactly the case,” Megan Tompkins-Stange, a scholar of philanthropy at the University of Michigan, told The Ink. “Gates’ version of capitalism would better be called monopolistic. He has consistently sought to distort free markets in order to advance his own corporation’s accumulation of wealth, power, and preeminence.”

These ideologies led to the recent controversy over COVID-19 vaccines, in which Gates’ insistence on patents may have impeded vaccine access for the world’s poor. The incident raised concerns about the powerful influence Gates wields over vital issues involving public health. As Timothy Schwab wrote in The Nation, “It is increasingly urgent to ask if Gates’s multiple roles in the pandemic — as a charity, a business, an investor and a lobbyist — are about philanthropy and giving away money, or about taking control and exercising power — monopoly power.”

Gates is playing all the same roles in our food system. “Gates has placed his investment bets in many of the key places in this emerging corporate narrative about what the food system needs: gene drives, geoengineering, fake meat, digital agriculture, carbon sequestration,” says Jim Thomas from the ETC Group, which investigates corporate concentration in the food industry. “Clearly he is set to benefit from these changes, plus his Foundation funding supports all this.”

Agribusiness companies are deploying digital apps on farms around the world to gather data on all aspects of farming: soil health, product inputs, weather, cropping patterns, and more, including genetic information on the world’s most important seeds and livestock and knowledge indigenous farmers have developed over thousands of years. All this data to be owned and controlled by corporations, run through AI algorithms, and sold back to farmers with “prescriptions” for how to farm and which corporate products to buy, with little transparency or explanation.

The hyper-consolidated food and agriculture system has already brought numerous negative consequences to farmers and consumers. A 2019 report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems documents how corporate concentration has squeezed farmer incomes, eroded their choices, narrowed the scope of innovation, and escalated public health and environmental risks. The corporate drive to control Big Data, IPES said, “stands to exacerbate existing power imbalances, dependencies, and barriers to entry across the agri-food sector.”

Gates Ag One 

Impatient with the creeping progress of the techno-food revolution, the Gates Foundation last year launched a new tax-exempt nonprofit that “seeks to accelerate the development of innovations supported by the foundation’s Agricultural Development team” in two of the fastest-growing regions in the world: sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The new “ag-tech startup” will “work with partners from the public and private sector to commercialize resilient, yield-enhancing seeds and traits.” It is located in St. Louis, Missouri, former home of Monsanto and current hub of leading chemical and seed firms, and headed up by Joe Cornelius, the former managing director of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition at Bayer CropSciences. As if to underscore that uniformity and centralized control are core goals of the effort, the new nonprofit is called “Gates Ag One.”

Farm of the future?

In 2019, Cargill (a partner of Ginkgo Bioworks) opened a $50 million factory in Lincoln, Nebraska. The plant manufactures EverSweet, a substance that tastes like the sweetener stevia. To produce it, Cargill combines genetically engineered yeast with sugar molecules to mimic the taste of stevia.

Consumers would not know this by reading the website or looking at the package; the company artfully describes the process as a “centuries-old technique” involving “fermentation.” It markets EverSweet as “non-artificial.”

Cargill also pitches the product as “sustainably produced,” presumably because it moves stevia production off the land, in places like Paraguay where small farmers have been cultivating stevia for generations. But the feedstock for engineered foods made in Cargill’s new plant has to come from somewhere. Cargill would not tell us what it uses for feedstock, but the factory’s location in Nebraska offers a clue: it is surrounded by mono-crops of GMO corn and soy.

Originally published by U.S. Right to Know.