Jeffrey Smith on the Threat of Gene-Edited MicrobesJun 30, 2022 ● By Sandra Yeyati
courtesy of Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy
When most people didn’t know what a GMO (genetically engineered organism) was 25 years ago, Jeffrey Smith, the founder and executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, was one of the leaders of a global movement that helped consumers understand the dangers of genetically engineered foods. The success of these efforts prompted significant swaths of the population to reject GM comestibles, leading food manufacturers to develop non-GMO alternatives. His most recent efforts focus on gene-edited microbes.
Why do you believe that unregulated releases of gene-edited plants, animals or microbes could devastate our planet?
First, GMOs can persist forever in the gene pool. They’re self-propagating. Second, the most common result of genetic engineering is surprise side effects. Third, gene editing is so inexpensive that virtually everything with DNA can be a target. You can buy a do-it-yourself CRSPR kit online for less than $200. Already, it’s being used in high school biology labs. Nature’s gene pool is up for grabs with no real safety net, and the impact can last for thousands of years from a single release.
What are the world’s most dangerous organisms to gene edit and why?
The microbial ecosystem known as the microbiome. It is a basis for human and environmental health. Experts say we’ve outsourced about 90 percent of our metabolic and chemical functions to our microbiome, and imbalances in the microbiome are precursors to about 80 percent of diseases. The microbiome is essential for soil health and health in virtually every ecosystem. If you release a genetically engineered microbe, it might travel around the world, mutate and swap genes with thousands of other microbes. These, in turn, can travel and mutate with unpredicted side effects and changes in function. This can potentially damage or collapse ecosystems around the world.
How can we stop this threat?
We need to disallow any release of genetically engineered microbes through legislation and international treaties. Without such laws, we could see a million GM microbes released in this generation, which could destroy the nature of nature, and all future generations would be forced to grapple with our mistakes. We also should restrict access to these technologies and ban so-called gain-of-function enhancement of potentially pandemic pathogens, even in so-called bio-secure laboratories, because over 1,000 recorded accidents show that bio-security isn’t reliable enough to create and house pathogens which, if released, could lead to another pandemic.
How did you help build a movement that led to wide-scale rejection of GMOs?
I’ve spoken in 45 countries, counseled politicians and leaders, written two books, made five movies, trained 1,500 speakers and helped organize over 10,000 activists in more than a hundred groups. We exposed the dangers of GMOs and the corrupt practices by the biotech industry and regulatory agencies. Now, 51 percent of Americans and 48 percent of global consumers correctly believe that GMO foods aren’t safe. This was designed to influence purchasing choices to put economic pressure on food companies to remove GMO ingredients. The tipping point of consumer rejection is underway.
How are you mobilizing a movement against GM microbes?
Our choices in supermarkets won’t stop the release of genetically engineered microbes, so we need to focus on enacting new laws in individual countries and international treaties. But we can’t rely on consistency of government laws. We need to build a popular movement so that everyone in the world realizes we have now arrived at an inevitable time in human civilization where we can damage the streams of evolution for all time, and that we need to become far more responsible in our relationship with nature. We need to institutionalize the choices in academia so that everyone growing up, just as they now learn about climate change, also learns about the dangers of genetic technology and what we need to do as a civilization to protect nature’s gene pool forever.
How can people help?
I invite people to visit Protect Nature Now, sign up for our newsletter and watch the 16-minute film Don’t Let the Gene Out of the Bottle. We post action alerts for people to reach out to elected officials and local papers, and we’ll have plenty more opportunities for people moving forward, including training programs and a global advocacy network.
Sandra Yeyati, J.D., is a professional writer. Reach her at [email protected].