Synthetic biology – don’t believe the ‘climate friendly’ hype

November 29, 2015 by Staff Reporter

As campaigners and policymakers gather in Paris for the opening of the COP21 Climate Summit , a new report highlights risky proposals to develop synthetic biology under the banner of “Climate-Smart” agriculture.

As we’ve written about previously, the term “climate smart ” agriculture, while once meaningful, has been co-opted by large corporations pushing an industrial farming agenda that includes using more GMOs.

Now according to the ETC group report Outsmarting Nature?, some of the world’s largest agro-industrial corporations will be flying the flag for “climate-smart agriculture” at the upcoming Paris talks and claiming that that hi-tech crops and intensive industrial agriculture are necessary to rescue farmers (and the hungry) from a warming world – a claim widely dismissed by peasant movements and civil society groups.

Extreme biotechnology

The new report uncovers plans to use several extreme biotechnology approaches known as ‘synthetic biology’ to move forward this industrial “climate-smart” agenda. These interventions range from trying to alter the way in which plants carry out photosynthesis to releasing”‘gene drives” into the wild to alter natural populations of weeds.

Synthetic biology (or ‘synbio’) describes a set of new and emerging genetic engineering techniques and a much-hyped young industry that is designing and engineering life-forms from scratch for industrial purposes.

It is a risky, and as yet unregulated, next step in genetic modification that involves using entirely man-made DNA, produced via a computer programme, to alter living organisms.

Until now most of the commercial products of synthetic biology have been fuels, flavors and chemicals produced by engineered microbes. But the field is rapidly expanding to encompass bioengineered crops and other agricultural applications that will involve environmental release.

Pushing intensification over agroecology

The ETC group report details some of the ways in which synthetic biologists – in the name of being ‘climate smart’ – are venturing into riskier and more extreme areas of technological development.

“Farmers’ movements and their allies have already made it absolutely clear that so-called climate-smart agriculture is the wrong fix for climate change. Applying synthetic biology to the challenges that agriculture faces is doubly wrongheaded,” explains Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group’s Latin America Director, currently en route to the Paris climate negotiations.

“To cool the climate what needs to be recognized and supported is agroecological and resilient small scale and peasant farming systems, not falling for false fixes from the Big Agribusiness corporations that brought us climate change in the first place.”

Unjustifiable and unjust

“In Paris civil society will be saying we need system change to fight climate change. What we certainly don’t need are risky techno-fixes,” adds Lili Fuhr of Heinrich Böll Foundation.

”Agribusiness corporations would have us believe it is better to change fundamental natural processes such as photosynthesis than to move away from industrial agriculture and its damaging impacts – that is not just insane, but fundamentally unsustainable and unjust.”

The 20-page report includes:

  • An overview of the players lining up behind the “Climate-Smart” brand and the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA)
  • Details and critique of public and private research projects to alter photosynthesis pathways in plants and microbes, theoretically to increase the carbon sequestration of plants
  • Details and critique of Synthetic Biology projects that aim to increase nitrogen fixation in plants and create ‘self-fertilizing plants,’ theoretically to reduce fertilizer applications
  • An exposé of new Syn Bio applications developed by agrochemical giant Syngenta that make the activation of ‘climate-tolerance’ traits dependent on the application of proprietary pesticides – thereby tying farmers closer to agrochemical use
  • Proposals to release controversial ‘Gene Drive’ technology into the wild to make weed populations more susceptible to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, altering ecosystems to extend the commercial viability of that agrochemical

Tied to a failing system

Far from taking us into a secure future, the report shows that the multi-billion dollar synthetic biology industry is now actively tying its future to the very oil, coal and gas extraction it once claimed to be able to displace.

“Outsmarting Nature?” is the second of two reports prepared by ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foudation exploring the intersection between Synthetic Biology and climate change issues. The first report, “Extreme Biotech meets Extreme Energy” explores the way in which synbio companies are collaborating with oil, coal and gas interests to extend fossil extraction.