Nature's Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies
Elaine Ingham would never treat soil like dirt. She reveres it, as we all should, since this precious substance is the thin brown line between plenty and starvation. Given the necessity of topsoil to human survival, you'd think we'd have legions of soil biologists on the case, but Elaine is one of only a handful of serious scientists delving into this microcosmos that feeds the world and helps support life on earth.
Until recently an associate research professor of forest science at Oregon State University, Elaine has twenty-five years of experience in microbiology, botany, plant pathology, and soil and ecology research. She founded Soil Foodweb Inc. and is currently president of the Soil Foodweb Institute in Australia and research director of Soil Foodweb in New York. She serves on the boards of several sustainability organizations and is an active member of numerous prestigious microbiology and ecology associations. She has done stints as president of the Soil Ecology Society and program chair of the Ecological Society of America and has penned over fifty peer-reviewed scientific papers.
Elaine speaks to groups around the world on how to grow plants without the use of toxic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers while at the same time increasing soil fertility and crop production. She has led countless workshops and training sessions at which farmers are taught highly practical techniques for building soil health, using sophisticated composting methods, and enhancing microbiological communities for crop production. Unquestionably one of the world's leading specialists in soil health, she is an exceptionally creative innovator who has made major contributions to our understanding of the soil food web (as she likes to call it) and its structure and function in terrestrial ecosystems from arctic to tropical climates.
Her research spans agricultural. grassland, and forest ecologies, where she has analyzed the action of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and mycorrhizal fungi from over 30,000 soil samples.
When a scientist of Elaine's stature warns us about the catastrophic potential of topsoil loss and the escape of genetically modified organisms into the already compromised environment, we do well to pay close attention. ----
Unnatural Selection: The Bacterium That (Almost) Ate the World
Elaine Ingham IN MY PROGRAM at Oregon State University in the early 1990s, we started testing the ecological impacts of most of the genetically engineered organisms being produced at that time. The question our lab was asked to address was, Did these engineered organisms have any impact out there in the real world?
The first fourteen species that we worked on - microorganisms, bacteria. and fungi - were organisms incapable of surviving in the natural environment. Putting them in the world would be like taking penguins from the South Pole and dropping them into the La Brea tar pits. Would there be any ecological effect if we dropped a penguin into the middle of the tar pit? Probably not; the impact would be rapidly absorbed by the system.
These first fourteen species of GMOs that we tested had a similarly negligible impact. On this basis. the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the regulatory agency that was determining U.S. policy on genetically engineered organisms, set a course that essentially said that a genetically engineered organism posed no greater risk to the environment than the parent organism does.
GMO number fifteen, however, was a very different story. Klebsiella planticola, the bacterium that is the parent organism of this new strain, lives in soils everywhere. It's one of the few truly universal species of bacteria, growing in the root systems of all plants and decomposing plant litter in every ecosystem in the world.
The genetic engineers took genetic material from another bacterium and inserted that trait in the GMO to allow Klebsiella planticola to produce alcohol. The aim of this genetic modification was to eliminate the burning of farm fields to rid them of plant matter after harvest. The idea was that you could, instead, rake up all that plant residue, put it in a bucket. and inoculate it with the engineered bacterium, and in about two weeks' time you would have a material that contained about 17 percent alcohol. The alcohol could be extracted and used for gasohol, for cleaning windows, or for myriad other uses: cooking with alcohol in Third World countries, for instance.
The genetic engineers thought this transformation would bring huge benefits. We would no longer have to burn fields, we would breathe better in the fall, and both the company and farmers would get a product that could be sold. There was actually a fourth win: the sludge at the bottom of the bucket is an organic fertilizer, and there are no waste products from that material.
So what's the problem? Suppose you're a farmer and you've got live, alcohol-producing Klebsiella planticola that you're going to spread on your fields (which might be easier than gathering up all the plant waste and putting it in buckets). Can it wash into the root systems of your plants? Most likely. Once it's there and growing in the root systems of your plants, it's producing alcohol. What level of alcohol is toxic to plants? It's one part per million. How much alcohol does this engineered organism produce? Seventeen parts per million. Very soon you will have drunk dead plants.
We did this experiment under controlled conditions in the laboratory because I wasn't going to take this kind of risk out in the field. We constructed three kinds of microcosms of a field, filled them with normal field soil as a growing medium, and planted wheat plants in the three separate systems - each consisting of multiple units - and put them in an incubator. In the first third of the units, we added only water. We added parent, non-GMO bacterium to the second group and the engineered Klebsiella planticola to the third.
About a week later, we walked into the laboratory, opened up the incubator, and said, "Oops, what did we do wrong?" Many of the plants were dead and were turning into slime on the surface of the soil. In all the units with just water in the system, the plants were doing okay. In those that had been inoculated with the parent Klebsiella planticola, the plants were even bigger, because increased nutrient cycling in the root system makes more nitrogen available, causing the plants to grow bigger. Clearly the parent organism was a benefit to the plant. But where the engineered bacterium was growing, all the plants were dead.
Later we tried this experiment using several different kinds of soils, but the result in every case was dead plants.
Take that information and extrapolate it to the real world. Given that the parent organism lives in the root systems of all plants, what's the logical outcome of releasing this organism into the natural environment?
Very possibly, we would have no terrestrial plants left. Some plants, such as riparian and wetland plants, have mechanisms for dealing with alcohol production in their root systems. But the logical extrapolation of that experiment is that we would lose terrestrial plants.
I have attended some of the United Nations biosafety protocol meetings. At the 1995 meeting in Madrid, the U.S. delegation was the strongest in saying, in essence, "Don't worry, be happy. Trust us. We don't need a biosafety protocol. Why would biotech companies ever do anything to harm people?"
To me, their words echoed those we've heard before from tobacco, pesticide, and fertilizer companies. At one such meeting, I related the story of Klebsiella planticola as an example of the lack of adequate testing for the ecological impact of genetically engineered organisms. The biotech companies object that it costs too 'much to do this kind of environmental testing. In my view, that's just hype, because I pointed out that our lab spent a very insignificant amount of money to do these simple experiments, especially considering that if this bacterium were let loose in the environment, we would have some very significant problems with our food supply.
No one in his or her right mind is going to test for the kind of risk Klebsiella planticola represents because once you release an organism, there is no way to get it back.
How far does a single-point inoculation of a genetically engineered organism spread in one year? An engineered Rhizobium bacterium that was released in Louisiana in the mid-1990s spread eleven miles per year and has by now dispersed across the North American continent.
At these United Nations meetings I warned that corn pollen is going to move a lot more than three feet away from the plant. "Oh no," said the biotechnology representatives present. "Corn pollen falls out of the air three feet from the plant." I would say, "Wait a minute, you've never heard of bees? How about birds? and insects? and wind "Oh no, it falls out of the air within three feet of the plant." Why do our bureaucrats choose to to believe these "scientists"? Just open any plant textbook and you find that corn pollen can be found in the Antarctic and the Arctic. But if you listen to Monsanto, corn pollen can't possibly be there. Armed with the knowledge of this peril, we need to convince members of Congress that appropriate ecological testing must be done prior to releasing GMOs into the environment. If this happens, it could help keep the problems that are already starting to occur from getting worse.
Addendum from Dave Blume:
I talk about the Klebsiella debacle in detail in my book, Alcohol Can Be A Gas, and it was actually a lot worse than this post relates. The original researchers threw out samples behind the lab and discovered the dead plants, got curious and discovered that the Klebsiella was alive and they had to dig up all the soil and incinerate it. Dr. Ingham subsequently elucidated the mechanism. I would add that the organism was engineered to eat cellulose and make alcohol. So in addition to the alcohol poisoning of the roots the bacteria was also eating the cellulosic root tips of the plants. I often tell this story and add that we really need to lock up all the genetic engineers in a very nice country club type prison since they have nearly ended life on earth several times already with bonehead projects like this.