The company's genetic engineers were trying to solve a simple problem faced by farmers all over the world: how to deal with crop residues like leftover corn and wheat stalks after harvest without burning fields and creating thick and dangerous smoke. They figured that they could take a gene that leads to alcohol production from yeast and insert it into the bacteria Klebsiella planticola.
In the end, the scientists hoped that this simple modification could do three things at once: decompose the plant material without burning it, produce alcohol that could be used for gasoline or cooking, and create a sludge byproduct that would be rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, magnesium and calcium to be used as fertilizer. As Dr. Elaine Ingham described it, it would be a win-win-win situation.
But when Dr. Ingham and her team tested the impact that the sludge would have on the ecological balance and the agricultural soil when they applied it as fertilizer, they found that wheat grown in the sludge died after about a week. And as Dr. Ingham pointed out in a presentation in 1998, by modifying the Klebsiella planticola, they fundamentally changed what it does in the soil:
"The parent bacterium makes a slime layer that helps it stick to the plant's roots. The engineered bacterium makes about 17 parts per million alcohol. What is the level of alcohol that is toxic to roots? About one part per million. The engineered bacterium makes the plants drunk, and kills them."
Klebsiella planticola is found in the root systems of every terrestrial plant on Earth, so if the modified bacterium were released into the wild, it would threaten every single terrestrial plant on the planet.
The story of Klebsiella planticola is a cautionary tale: part of why there is such staunch opposition to GMO products is that we really don't know what the long-lasting impacts on our planet's ecological balance could be. Meanwhile, the companies that are developing GMOs care more about making money by getting their products to market -- and lobbying Congress to help them hide their products in plain sight -- than they do about the safety of consumers or the planet.
We need to overturn the DARK Act and implement clear nationwide GMO labeling standards that follow Vermont's, which were struck down by the DARK Act. And beyond that, we need to implement the precautionary principle here in the United States, so that companies like Monsanto and DuPont have to prove that their products are safe before they expose consumers and our natural ecosystems to their potentially highly toxic products.
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