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Beekeeper Ross Conrad weighs in on CRISPR

Ross Conrad of Dancing Bee Gardens spoke with passion to Middlebury College students about the gene editing and CRISPR. Unfortunately, the audio was not usable, but here are written notes on the conversation.
Have you ever heard of gene editing?
Yes
What are your initial reactions to GMOs?
I was cautious optimism until I learned more about them.
Do you think some GMOs are more widely accepted among farmers than others? Which ones?
Depends on the farmer but generally speaking yes since most farmers are chemical farmers and they utilize GMO crops.
Do you think it is ethical to grow genetically modified crops? Why or why not?
No. We simply do not know enough about gene editing/addition/subtraction to know that we are sure to avoid catastrophic consequences and there is little to no regulation of these novel life forms. The dearth of meaningful regulation combined with the wealth and power of today’s global agribusinesses creates a very risky situation, especially since the people who run corporations are partially shielded from liability for the damage their actions may cause.
a) Genes from GMOs are able to transfer to the gut microbes in honey bees. There is increasing concern that genes giving resistance to antibiotics (antibiotic resistant markers) can be passed from the Genetically modified plants through bees into bacteria and viruses. It has been found that DNA from pollen can survive for up to seven weeks in honey and thus could be transferred to humans and other animals. Antibiotic resistant AFB appeared shortly after GMOs became common. Even though the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes has been mostly abandoned, the damage is done at least to honey bees and the beekeeping industry.
b) Use of BT GMOs are leading to pest resistance which hurt organic farmers who no longer have the BT tool to rely on in order to avoid toxic chemical pesticides
c) Use of GMOs have also led to a dramatic increase in the use of pesticides in agriculture, the opposite of what industry claimed would happen.
d) Patent infringement lawsuits have ruined farmers when GMO plants have somehow gotten onto their land.
e) Epigenetics is fairly new branch of science and still being understood. We really don’t have a clue how varying environments impact all genes and yet we are manipulation and changing genes thinking we know how they will respond.
f) False notion that each gene only impacts a single trait when we now know that a single gene can impact more than one trait. For example it has been found that a single gene for one trait is also responsible for producing certain proteins. It is just a coincidence that the number of people with allergies to soy has skyrocketed and that those suffering from celiac (leaky gut syndrome) and are gluten intolerant have greatly increased since the advent of GMOs? Admittedly, part of this problem seems to be due to the increase in pesticide use on GMO crops as opposed to GMOs directly.
g) The development of most GMO organisms and technology has been publicly funded by government agencies, but privatized by corporations for profit. New paradigm of corporate secrecy that even denies scientific researchers from being able to independently test GMOs leaving those with economic conflicts of interest in charge of the research and data we rely on for safety evaluations.
h) Independent research has found serious questions about the safety of human ingestion of GMOs and products derived from GMOs. Industry attacks researchers personally and seeks to discredit them rather than question actual scientific facts and findings.
Do you grow genetically modified crops? If yes, how so? Why or why not?
Absolutely NOT. See above.
Would you consider using CRISPR to produce more crops or prevent disease in your crops/cattle/farm?
Absolutely NOT
How do you market your products? For example, if organic, do you emphasize that they are organic? How?
Note that I use organic methods on label and guarantee that I do NOT use synthetic pesticides or antibiotics in hives. Certify organic shiitake mushrooms grown on the side.
Do you have any concerns about how gene editing may affect your business?
Yes. Most GMO work so far has been conducted on plants and plants and pollinators are closely linked. People are also working on GMO bees. When we manipulate the genes of an organism in ways other than traditional breeding we are playing with the foundation of life on the planet and given what little we really know and understand about the potential consequences, there is the potential for a catastrophic mistake that could threaten the survival of multiple life forms on earth at the very least. GMOs and genetically manipulated life forms such as those created by CRISPR become biological pollutants. Once released into the environment, there is no calling them back. They will migrate, mutate, and reproduce and become part of the fabric of life on Earth. Genetic engineering breaks the rules of nature that prevents life forms of different species from mating with each other. Why would such a rule of nature develop? We do not even understand why this would be important and yet we quickly jump to breaking these rules. Do we really think we can improve on what nature has come up with after millions of years of constant evolution? Too much focus in on the short-term goals of making money, getting scientific recognition, etc. and not enough focus on the long-term potential risks and hazards.
We should base our successes and the benefits of what we do based upon what we give up in order to obtain those benefits and successes. Too much of what our technological solutions are used to fix are only symptoms of larger problems. Band Aids that avoid the underlying causes of issues.
Examples include: use of BT toxin containing GMOs to kill insects that threaten crops when the problem is the type of agriculture that encourages insect depredation on crops through mono-cropping, lack of crop rotation, etc.
Another example is Golden Rice engineered to contain more vitamin A. The problem is not that rice is not nutritious enough but that our society has embraced an economic system that is racist and promotes inequality so certain people and countries simply are not able to access enough food, while other countries have so much food they waste large percentages of it. CRISPR is being heavily promoted as a way to combat genetic tendencies that lead to illness and disease. Another Band-Aid fix.
We should instead be looking at what are the environmental factors (e.g. chemical, radiation or electromagnetic radiation exposure) that will trigger genes to activate and lead to disease states.

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