Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G) is urging farmers to heed warnings from a new Friends of the Earth report. ‘Genetically Engineered Soil Microbes: Risks and Concerns’ highlights the threat posed by introducing bacteria-based biological solutions.

The passing of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 earlier this year gave a green light to pesticide and biotech companies to develop and release genetically edited (GE) microbes, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi found in soil, with the claim of enhancing agricultural capabilities.

Already being commercially used across farmland in the US, OF&G’s chief executive, Roger Kerr, believes the emergence of a GE approach that alters essential biology raises huge practical and ethical concerns under the guise of what he describes as ‘regenerative greenwashing’.

“We’re all now well versed in the damage caused by traditional pesticides and fertilisers that were marketed as ‘completely safe’. The same level of corporate involvement in promoting these so called ‘precision-bred organisms’ (PBOs) is frankly terrifying,” he says.

“We must be extremely circumspect about their use given pesticide businesses’ have a reputation for turning a blind eye to environmental and health impacts, resisting regulation, and monopolising agricultural practices.”

“Regenerative farming is not regulated and is wide-open to unscrupulous commercialisation, with pesticide companies now claiming leadership while indicating that these GE microbes (or ‘biologicals’ as they prefer to call them) are in fact just add-ons rather than replacements to their other environmentally damaging products.”

The report references a ‘green wall of silence’ associated with the extreme lack of transparency and regulation in the application of GE microbes. A silence illustrated by the UK Government’s refusal to implement clear labelling on foods that use GE products.

Soil health is essential for food production and climate resilience, with billions of microbial species being fundamental to maintaining the process. However, scientists currently understand little or nothing of over 99% them nor do they understand their complex interrelationships with other living organisms.

“Without a strong regulatory framework to assess the long-term outcomes of introducing GE microbes, the unintended consequences could be catastrophic. If things do go wrong, it’s almost impossible to detect these organisms, let alone retrieve them,” Mr Kerr adds.

“To reverse climate change and biodiversity loss, we need a transformational shift. Adding GE microbes to an already failing industrial farming system by tricking them to act more like chemicals doesn’t harness the true power of the natural world, it further perverts and violates it.

“The FOE report clearly and repeatedly advocates for organic farming practices which it states are already scientifically proven to ‘achieve the benefits that proponents of GE microbes claim for the technology’.

“If we blindly pursue the GE dream and fail to call out the barefaced regenerative greenwashing in the sector, we risk unleashing an irreversible disaster. If we are to truly meet the challenges ahead there must be a massive shift towards genuine sustainable farming practices with strong and clear ethical and environmental protection for us all,” Mr Kerr concludes.