Twenty years ago, proponents of genetic engineering promised that GMO foods would increase yields, reduce pesticides, produce nutritious foods and help feed the world. Today, those promises have fallen far short as the majority of GMO crops are engineered to withstand sprays of Roundup herbicide, which is increasingly documented as a risk to human health.
Now, new genetic engineering technologies such as synthetic biology and gene editing are being hailed with the same promises of revolutionizing food production, medicine, fuels, textiles and other areas.
But a closer look at this next generation or "GMOs 2.0" technologies reveals possibly even greater risks than existing GMO technology with possible human health risks and negative impacts on farming communities worldwide, among other unintended consequences. And while products developed using current genetic engineering methods are regulated by the U.S. government, GMOs 2.0 products are entering the market with few or no regulations.
Synthetic Biology: Extreme Genetic Engineering
While traditional genetic engineering involves inserting genes from one species into another, GMOs 2.0 technologies like synthetic biology aim to create life from scratch with computer-synthesized DNA.
"Genetic engineering has moved on from the first generation GMO crops," said Jim Thomas, program director at the ETC Group, a non-profit advocacy group that tracks the new GMO technologies. "There are different ways to genetically engineer an organism by creating synthetic DNA or editing DNA."
The ETC Group describes synthetic biology or "extreme genetic engineering" as "the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems that do not exist in the natural world and also the redesigning of existing biological systems to perform specific tasks."
"Synthetic biology is about synthesizing genetic sequences, designing them increasingly from scratch as if they were parts to put together in a particular way to get a predicted outcome," Thomas said.
The synthetic biology process involves altering the DNA of microorganisms such as algae, bacteria and yeast so they produce compounds like flavors and fragrances that previously have been extracted from plants. Scientists and software engineers are altering the DNA of existing microorganisms and designing new ones.
Synthetic biology companies are producing a wide range of compounds for food, pharmaceutical, fuel and industrial use. Evolva has created a synthetic biology form of vanillin, an alternative to natural vanilla extract. Perfect Day has engineered yeast cells to produce proteins similar to those found in cow's milk with the aim of producing vegan milk. Impossible Foods engineered heme, a molecule that makes meat sizzle and look pink for the company's meatless Impossible Burger. According to the ETC Group, there are some 350 synthetic biology products on the market or in development.
The claimed benefits of synthetic biology products such as flavors and fragrances are that they can be produced in greater and more consistent quantities and at lower prices than crop-based plant materials that are subject to climate conditions, crop failures and transportation logistics.
CRISPR Gene Editing
Another GMOs 2.0 technology is a gene editing method called CRISPR. This enables scientists to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA. The aim is to activate or deactivate genes to produce a desired effect. Proponents say CRISPR has the potential to treat illnesses that have a genetic basis such as cancer, sickle cell anemia, hepatitis B or high cholesterol.
GMO seed companies are using CRISPR to develop new plant varieties. Cibus used the technique to develop an herbicide tolerant canola. Pioneer Hi-Bred is developing waxy corn hybrids with high starch content for food and non-food uses. Monsanto recently announced it was licensing the CRISPR technology to develop new seed varieties.
Proponents say CRISPR is "the simplest, most versatile and precise method of genetic manipulation."
"It's a lot more precise in that it targets a specific gene in the genome where it exists while genetic engineering involves inserting a gene at random in the genome, which could disrupt the functioning of other genes," said Jim Orf, professor emeritus, plant breeding and genetics at the University of Minnesota.
But Thomas said scientists are seeing unintended effects using CRISPR. In fact he said "some scientists are intentionally not using CRISPR because of off-target effects." Orf also admitted that the technology is not "100 percent foolproof." Dr. J. Keith Joung of Massachusetts General Hospital said there is growing evidence that CRISPR might alter regions of the genome other than the intended ones.
Causing unintended consequences is one of the problems with current genetic engineering methods, and these could be even worse with GMOs 2.0 technologies, particularly synthetic biology.
"You're not just adding one gene with all the implications of that. Here you are dealing with stretches of DNA that are invented on a computer. The level of novelty and the depth of intervention are much more significant."
Synthetic biology techniques could create secondary metabolites or molecules or different levels of compounds that could have negative impacts.
An underlying problem with the techniques is that they are based on an outdated premise of how biology and nature function.
"One of the dangers with synthetic biology is that it pretends that life is a linear, predictable system that you can engineer as if you can re-engineer a car or computer and that DNA is just a code," Thomas said, "But all those metaphors are falling apart in the biological sciences."
There are also social concerns. Companies like Evolva that make synthetic biology flavors like vanillin are hurting the market for natural vanilla produced by farming communities in Madagascar.
"These companies are trying to disrupt those markets and take that value," Thomas said. "If you can produce vanillin, then you will start affecting the supply chains and livelihoods of vanilla farmers."
Natural and Non-GMO Claims
Another problem is that some synthetic biology and gene editing companies are claiming that their products are natural or even non-GMO. Cibus calls its gene-edited canola "non-transgenic." Synthetic biology companies say that even though the production organism they create is a GMO, they claim the final ingredient is non-GMO.
"They'll argue that the (GMO) production organism is a just a processing aid," Thomas said. "That's a bit like saying a cow is a processing aid for making milk."
The Non-GMO Project also disagrees.
"There is a growing attempt on the part of biotechnology companies to claim that new types of genetic engineering, such as gene editing and synthetic biology, are not actually genetic engineering," said Megan Westgate, executive director of The Non-GMO Project. "To bring clarity in the face of this misleading trend, the Non-GMO Project has explicitly included these technologies in our Standard and cannot be used in a Non-GMO Project Verified product."
On the organic side, the National Organic Standards Board has proposed redefining genetic engineering in the National Organic Program to include GMOs 2.0 technologies, but the new definition hasn't yet been formally adopted.
There is virtually no regulation of GMOs 2.0 techniques in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't consider gene-edited crops such as Cibus's canola and Pioneer's waxy corn as falling under the agency's regulations for genetically engineered crops.
But Orf said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is deciding how GMOs 2.0 crops should be regulated. "They're reviewing their process to see if these crops should be regulated on a case-by-case basis or in a general way. These are different technologies doing things in a different way than transgenics."
Synthetic biology manufacturers are claiming their products such as vanillin are the same as the natural compounds and consider them to be "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS.
"Some companies are going to the Food and Drug Administration and saying 'we would like this to be GRAS' and the FDA is doing that," Thomas said.
Can GMOs 2.0 products be tested to detect their presence as current GMOs are?
"At this point, they are not developed, but they are developable," Thomas said.
"The companies will say their products can't be tested because they are the same as natural compounds. But if you talk with testing labs, they say they could develop a test. It is inevitable that tests will be developed because you have certifiers like the Non-GMO Project saying you can't use synthetic biology products."
By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.