Bill Gates, the World Economic Forum and Silicon Valley investors routinely tout CRISPR gene-editing technology as the solution to global food security, but scientists told The Defender there are better — and safer — ways to produce enough food for everyone.
Bill Gates, the World Economic Forum (WEF), Silicon Valley investors and others routinely tout gene editing — specifically, CRISPR technology — as the solution to global food security.
But some scientists — including two who spoke with The Defender — are critical of the technology which, they said, carries known and unknown risks. And besides, they said, there are better and safer ways to produce enough food for everyone.
Claire Robinson, managing editor of GMWatch, criticized pro-GE (genetic engineering) scientists, government authorities and a “compliant media” that “mislead people about the level of complexity and risk involved in gene editing, never mind attempts to pretend it is not even a form of genetic modification.”
Dr. Michael Antoniou, head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London, said CRISPR brings “nothing useful at all” to agriculture.
“There’s been a lot reported in terms of gene editing of food crops,” Antoniou said. “But I would say every one of those is a complete and utter waste of time because it hasn’t done the consumer any good whatsoever.”
Despite the risks and questionable benefits cited by Robinson and Antoniou, Bill Gates, the WEF and major chemical manufacturers who hold multiple CRISPR patents continue to heavily invest in the technology while lobbying to weaken or eliminate regulatory controls.
‘GMO free-for-all,’ ‘recipe for disaster’ that can cause ‘unintended DNA damage’
CRISPR — which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — acts as a “precise pair of molecular scissors that can cut a target DNA sequence, directed by a customizable guide.”
Put differently, this technology allows scientists to edit sections of DNA by “snipping” specific portions of it and replacing them with new segments. Gene editing is not a new concept, but CRISPR technology is viewed as being cheaper and more accurate.
The issue for Robinson is that CRISPR is far from a “precision” technology.
“I think the thing to remember with gene editing, like all forms of genetic modification, is that it can have unintended effects in terms of plants,” Robinson said. “We’re worried about unexpected toxins or allergens. Plants are naturally very good at producing their own toxins, but with conventional breeding, you know what to look for.”
“CRISPR doesn’t only cut the DNA at the intended cut point at that intended sequence, because there will be other sequences in the genome that are very similar to that target sequence. So it can also cut out other places where you don’t want it to cut. And it can also have all kinds of knock on effects … in terms of DNA damage that it causes to the genome.
“And the worry is with these unintended damages to the genome, in the case of gene-edited plants, the worry is that this will change the composition of the plant and it could become unexpectedly toxic or allergenic.”
The same is true with regard to the gene editing of animals, according to Robinson:
“These were also risks with the old style GMOs [genetically modified organisms], and they are still risks with these gene-edited GM plants with animals.
“The risks, if you’re gene editing them … are that there will be knock-on effects on the animals, welfare or health that we can’t anticipate, such as deformities or changes in the function of certain genes in the animal.”
Antoniou agreed, stating that, “innately, gene editing also can bring about unintended DNA damage … even at the site of your intended edit or elsewhere in the DNA of your target cells, with unknown downstream consequences.”
Antoniou, Robinson and other scientists warn that CRISPR is not the miracle technology its promoters portray it as.
Antoniou told The Defender:
“We should not fall into this trap of — either in a medical context or in the agricultural context — that somehow manipulating genes is the solution to all of our problems. We need to look at a situation and see where the gene defect is the problem. Then we can go in and try to solve it.
“But in the majority of cases that isn’t true, and then we need to look at the root cause, which is non-genetic.”
Using cancer as an example, Antoniou said, “It does have a faulty gene function at its basis,” but “the cause of the cancer was not what caused the genetic damage that caused the cancer in the first place.”
Instead, exposure to toxic chemicals and pollutants in the environment and food “are the root causes … of the chronic disease epidemic.”
In an online campaign, the Institute for Responsible Technology shares this view, arguing that gene editing “threatens our food and the genetic integrity of all living things,” adding that it “is cheap, easy, prone to side effects, poorly regulated, and can permanently alter nature’s gene pool — a recipe for disaster.”
What this means, according to the campaign, is that “new GMOs can be deployed without safety assessments of any kind.”
The campaign also warns that because CRISPR technology is “cheap and easily accessible,” it may lead to a vast amount of new GMOs in the next 25 years wherein “even organic and non-GMO certified products could eventually be overrun,” in a “GMO free-for-all.”
‘Just because something looks like a tomato doesn’t mean that it is’
A report published in the Journal of Genetics and Genomics in 2020 found that CRISPR gene-editing in rice resulted in numerous unintended and undesirable on-target and off-target mutations.
Antoniou described this as “a grave oversight, because we know that gene editing is not precise … the evidence is there to show that you will always have unintended DNA damage in addition to what you want … a whole spectrum of unintended DNA damage that accumulates at the multiple steps of the gene editing process.”
“If you don’t take this into account, as is happening at the moment,” said Antoniou, “you will launch a product that could have marked changes in its biochemistry and therefore composition. And included in that chain-altered composition could be the unintended production of toxins and allergens,” including in food crops.
Both Robinson and Antoniou raised ethical concerns regarding CRISPR, with Robinson saying “These unexpected effects of CRISPR are very well recognized. They’re written about in the scientific literature … Scientists know that these things are not ready yet to go into clinical trials. On the whole, they’re certainly not ready to be used on patients.”
“So, in the medical field, these problems are acknowledged widely,” continued Robinson, “but in the field of agricultural gene editing, there’s a lot of lies … claiming precision, predictability, safety, when not only is the evidence not there for those things, but also the existing evidence suggests that there’s a lot to be concerned about.”
“They ignore this as … ‘oh, well, you see this tomato, it grows like a tomato, it looks like a tomato, tastes like a tomato, therefore there’s nothing wrong with it.’ But I’m sorry, no. Just because something looks like a tomato doesn’t mean that it is,” added Antoniou.
‘Powerful lobby’ vying to exempt gene-edited plants and animals from regulation
According to Robinson, there’s “a very powerful lobby” arguing gene-edited plants and animals should be exempted from the regulations that govern GMOs — and that could lead to “no safety testing, pre-market safety testing, no GMO labeling, and there’d be no traceability.”
“You’ll find a lot of lies are told about gene editing by its proponents,” Robinson said. “They’ll say, ‘oh, we don’t insert foreign genes.’ That’s incorrect. CRISPR can be used not only to deliberately insert foreign genes, but it can also inadvertently result in the insertion of foreign genetic material during the gene editing process because it’s not completely controlled.”
As a result, Robinson said, “If something did go wrong, we would not be able to trace the cause of it, because that gene-edited plant would not be labeled as a GMO and there may not be any record of it being a GMO.”
Antoniou said that “none of these products” and “none of these crops and their products have been tested properly.”
He added, “I’m not saying the products that have been developed so far are harmful. The reason I can’t say that is actually because the work hasn’t been done.”
For Antoniou, the proponents of CRISPR are demonstrating “sheer arrogance.” He said that “they are so completely sure of the so-called prediction predictability and therefore safety of their product that they become … incredibly complacent and they’re simply not prepared to do what, for me, the science says you ought to do — which is a thorough characterization, health risk assessment and environmental risk assessment.”
It’s all about corporate control of the food supply
The same powerful lobby that’s fighting regulation is also contributing to the high cost of CRISPR technology, primarily through patents.
“The technology is patented, the products are patented. Therefore, it is all about increasing corporate control of the food supply,” said Robinson. “We all know that Gates is into what I would call ‘closed-source technology’ — patented technology that is not free to use but is owned.”
“What we want to avoid,” said Robinson, “is a situation where the food supply ends up entirely patented, owned by big corporations … The patents on CRISPR are mostly owned by Corteva. Another patent owner used to be Monsanto, now owned by Bayer.”
According to Antoniou, because Corteva holds the patent rights to the CRISPR applications in agriculture, anyone else who wants to come in “has to first take out a license from them in order to develop and, more importantly, to then market a product. Then there will be massive fees to be paid back, no doubt, to Corteva.”
This means, Robinson said, “that if a farmer wanted to plant a seed or we want to eat a food, we are paying somewhere along the line … you can see where this is going: increased consolidation of the food supply and the seed supply … We will basically be told what kind of food they want us to eat,” including lab-grown meat and dairy.
Antoniou told The Defender:
“And so we have both small and large companies trying to gene edit key food crops … for things that clearly they believe will bring them money … The patents give you control and therefore you can charge what you want, you can dictate what farmers grow, and you can dictate what the public eats.
“It’s nothing to do with feeding the world. It’s nothing to do with generating wonder crops to face the challenges of climate change. It’s got nothing to do with … high yields and so on. It’s all got to do with controlling the food supply and making money, and that is for me, just totally and utterly immoral.”
Robinson agreed. “It’s amazing how many promotions of gene-editing technology in agriculture start with this idea that we don’t produce enough food and there’s a shortage of food, and therefore we’re going to have to use gene editing to kind of boost agricultural production,” she said.
But this line of thinking is “nonsense on many levels,” Robinson said, adding:
“There’s no shortage of food in the world. Even in those countries where there are terrible hunger problems, they are producing food and it is available for those to buy if you have money.
“But the problem with hunger is, of course, poverty. The failure of infrastructure, the fact that you cannot get the food to the hungry people. But mostly it’s inequality, things like wars and conflicts that are going on in some countries that mean that supply chains are disrupted. So really, there is no shortage of food and there isn’t ever likely to be.”
Gates, WEF, Silicon Valley ‘obsessed’ with CRISPR
Robinson said she isn’t surprised the WEF is interested in CRISPR technology, adding:
“I’m not an expert on the WEF, but I know that they’re extremely keen on all these things like bioreactor technology, GM — technological fixes to our agricultural problems and food problems.
“They’re very into corporate control of just about everything. So, yes, we need to be careful of how that agenda is being promoted.”
CRISPR is also “an obsession of Silicon Valley,” according to Robinson, and “of some very wealthy investors … that we’re all going to be eating lab-grown meat and dairy.”
But Robinson said this is a “pipe dream, because the energy costs and the resource costs of bioreactor technologies are actually huge, and it simply won’t be possible, especially in a climate of rising energy bills … It simply won’t be possible to feed thousands or millions of people on the products of these technologies.”
Antoniou told The Defender, “Bill Gates has bought into [CRISPR] bigtime and increasingly, because he’s been a staunch advocate of genetic modification of crops for decades now … because of his staunch belief in technological fixes to everything, I’m not surprised that now he’s bought into the gene editing sector as well.”
Describing Gates’ efforts to introduce GMO crops in Africa as “complete failures,” he added that “not a single genetically modified crop has contributed positively to the livelihood of peoples in Africa, and in many cases it’s gone the other way around.”
Robinson, in turn, described Gates as “a real enthusiast for GMOs,” adding that “he puts far more money into gene-editing solutions than he does into conventional breeding, though the latter has been very successful and very cheap in comparison.”
This may explain why Gates is purchasing farmland in large quantities, said Robinson, in a trend she described as “worrying”:
“I think that’s an incredibly worrying trend. He’s buying up farmland … and increasingly big corporations are also buying up farmland all over the world.
“This means basically that they extend their control over the food supply because the person who owns the land gets to decide what is done on that land, [including] if they decide they only want to grow genetically modified crops and that all crops that will be grown will be GM.”
Farmers in India were encouraged to use the seeds, which in many cases appear to have produced smaller-than-promised yields. The farmers frequently incurred significant debts, resulting in a massive wave of suicides. As of 2014, more than 270,000 farmers had reportedly committed suicide as a direct consequence.
Gates also is on record saying, “All rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef.”
Robinson said she suspects Gates may also be interested in CRISPR technology for its potential to edit human genes:
“I suspect he’s also looking at the possibility of gene editing with CRISPR humans, which is something that’s going to be coming up increasingly.
“There is this idea that you should gene edit human beings so that they don’t inherit genetic diseases. But we also have to look at the possibility that some actors will be looking to gene editing [of] humans for certain traits.”
Robinson said this would “commodify the genetic material of human beings,” and could include “things like height, intelligence, skin color, eye color, athleticism and so forth” that would be “marketable traits to the general public” — even if the technology “won’t be accessible to very many people.”
Such concerns are not theoretical. In 2018, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui announced the creation of the world’s first gene-edited babies, via editing DNA in human embryos.
For this, Jiankui was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 3 million yuan ($560,000) for practicing medicine without a license, violating regulations on human-assisted reproductive technology and fabricating ethics review documents. This also led to international calls for a moratorium on what is known as human germline editing.