The World Council of Churches and the Canadian Council of Churches teamed up recently for an event examining the impact of synthetic biology and genetic engineering on food and farming. Drew Endy, a bioengineering professor at Standford University known for his work on opensource biotechnology, was the keynote speaker. Panelists from around the world examined the ethical questions raised by new genetic technologies. Wide-ranging discussions touched on gene drives – which push a specific genetic trait through an entire population – and “vat-itarian” foods, where the components of what would otherwise be considered a veggie burger are derived from synthetic substitutes. The participatory learning conference, called Redesigning Life: Synthetic Biology, New Genetic Engineering and Ethics, took place in Toronto from November 2–4, 2017.
A watchdog organization called SynBioWatch defines synthetic biology as “a new field of genetic engineering that produces artificial compounds that taste or smell like familiar substances but don’t actually come from the natural source” (synbiowatch.org). The concept is also known as GMOs 2.0 and has, according to SynBioWatch, made its way into our food and cosmetics. Endy says that, “Any natural product that is sourced from a plant is in play.”
As both Endy and Jim Thomas, Technology Critic and Co-Executive Director of ETC Group, laid out their perspectives, there were more questions: Should man engineer living matter? When living matter is engineered, should it be released from the lab without full knowledge of its implications? What happens when large corporations are involved – who ensures they act responsibly?
These questions were taken up by the commentators but not before Endy noted that “scientists have been working on the minimal genome for years, and the number of things we don’t understand is going up.” Thomas added that genetic engineering used to be the work of an individual in a lab but it is increasingly accomplished using artificial intelligence, drones and big data technology.
He went on to note that, “When you genetically engineer something for one outcome, you are going to get a number of other outcomes. . . . The issue with all biosynthesized ingredients is safety.” Endy added that most people are emotional when it comes to ecological and biodiversity issues since “every option is controversial and there’s a sense of desperation in the conservation community.”
After keynote presentations, the panel of commentators responded. Saskatchewan farmer Nettie Weibe said wryly that, “I was never at a meeting where farmers said we need genetically-modified canola.” The audience chuckled, and Weibe pointed out that this need itself was manufactured. The push to genetic engineering 20 years ago, she says, was a “tremendously persuasive” promise to feed the world. But with experience, she is now asking who is driving these changes and who is accountable for these technologies.
Nnimmo Bassey from Nigeria’s Health of Mother Earth Foundation shared his conclusion: We are heading toward a “silent planet” and that these technologies could soon become instruments of war because “biological manipulation is one step away from genocide, or ecocide.” Lucy Sharrat from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network added, “If there is a vision for what we want a new technology to achieve [when it comes to genetic engineering], that new technology has to come from all of us.”
It was clear that governments are one of the largest players in this space, but, according to Sharrat, governments only deal with issues that arise on an individual (not systemic) level, and they do not consult farmers, having left it up to individual companies to determine what is safe. And these companies are growing in size. Thomas reminded the audience of the Bayer and Monsanto merger announcement of 2016, and predicted the next round of mergers could be in the agribusiness space (despite the initial failed merger attempt between John Deere and Monsanto earlier in 2017).
Many of the examples surfaced during the talk were also found within the literature from synbiowatch.org and cban.ca made available at the event. These sites provide further details about actions both consumers and companies can take. And what about this notion of all parties involved working together? The majority of the audience seemed to agree: We cannot simply accept the technology before us.