Kickstopper Letter to USDA APHIS

Letter sent by ETC Group and Friends of the Earth to USDA APHIS
07 May 2013


April 30, 2013


1400 Independence Avenue,

SW Room 1147

South Building

Washington DC 20250


Ms. Bethany Jones:

We are writing to draw your attention to and inquire about the regulatory status of a proposed project to insert synthetic bioluminescence genes into Arabidopsis. This effort is being funded through a crowd‐ sourcing campaign on the popular website Kickstarter ( in which people donate money in exchange for a packet of synthetically engineered seeds.

To date, this project has raised $156,870 from 2,693 funders across the United States. If a donation of $40 or more is made, the donor has been promised a package of “glowing plant seeds,” each containing between fifty and one hundred Arabidopsis seeds. Of the current donors, 2, 380 have donated at least $40 and are expecting to receive their “glowing plant seed” packets in May 2014. The number of donors continues to grow, but based on current numbers, there will be somewhere between 119,000 and 238,000 transgenic, synthetic Arabidopsis seeds sent to 2,380 locations across the United States.

According to this project’s website,i their project is legal and the team has been in touch with the US Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA. According to public statements by the “Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity” Kickstarter project, the USDA does not have jurisdiction to regulate the field release of synthetically engineered Arabidopsis as long as gene‐gun techniques are used to transform the plants instead of agrobacterium. This follows the legal argument made by APHIS in its decision to not regulate transgenic Kentucky bluegrass that was also transformed with a gene gun instead of agrobacterium.

We are extremely concerned that the USDA is not planning to regulate the first‐ever field release of an organism engineered through synthetic biology technologies. This decision would be in direct opposition to a call by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biotechnical Issues for proper risk assessment to be conducted before the field release of any organism engineered through synthetic biology.ii Such a release would also go counter to numerous calls by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to apply the precautionary principle when working with organisms and products of synthetic biology.iii This Kickstarter campaign is the antithesis of precaution and must be stopped.

This unregulated experiment would entail at least 238,000 seeds being planted in over 2,000 locations throughout the country. Donors could plant the seeds wherever they choose, meaning there could be field releases in tens of thousands of plots across the U.S. This is bad policy and would set a dangerous precedent for all future agriculture biotechnology products and may pose risks to local environments where these synthetically engineered organisms are planted.

We urge the USDA to put a halt to this risky, unregulated pursuit. We support the call of 116 organizations from around the world for the implementation of a moratorium on the environmentalrelease and commercial use of organisms and products of synthetic biology until the U.S. government, with full public participation, has:

• Developed a research agenda guided by the public interest.

• Ensured that alternative approaches to synthetic biology applications have fully been considered.

• Conducted full and inclusive assessments of the implications of this technology, including but not limited to devising a comprehensive means of assessing the human health, environmental,and socio‐economic impacts of synthetic biology and preventing harms where they are present. • Developed national and international oversight and security mechanisms equipped to keep pacewith the risks as synthetic biology technologies develop.iv

At a bare minimum, the USDA must explain how it intends to conduct risk assessment, monitoring and control for any unpredicted or untoward impacts from the uncontrolled random release of more than 200,000 synthetic biology seeds across the country. In addition, a full Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement should be conducted to review the impacts of all current and near‐term synthetic biology agricultural applications as well as the USDA’s decision to grant non‐regulated status to transgenic organisms that have been transformed without the use of agrobacterium.

We urge the USDA to implement a moratorium on the field release and commercial use of organisms produced through synthetic biology technologies. Without proper domestic and international laws and the development of new risk assessment models, it would be premature and legally questionable to allow the unregulated, controlled, random field release of hundreds of thousands of synthetic organisms into the U.S. environment.


Eric Hoffman Food & Technology Policy Campaigner Friends of the Earth

Jim Thomas Program Manager ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration)

i "Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with No Electricity." Kickstarter. Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with No Electricity. <‐plants‐natural‐lighting‐with‐no‐ electricit>. ii Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. 2010. New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, December 2010, Washington, D.C.

iii XI/11. New and Emerging Issues Relating to the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity.. UN Convention on Biological Diversity, 3 Dec. 2012.. <‐11/cop‐11‐dec‐11‐en.pdf>. iv "Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology." Friends of the Earth, n.d. Web. <

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