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Bullet-proof bees

May 2019

People need bees to produce over 80% of their food. Bees need flowers to produce 100% of their food. The people, the bees and the flowering plants all have to be in the right place at the right time, or none will survive.

Paradoxically, modern man seems to have gone out of his way to make life impossible for the insects he depends on.

Roundup on trial

May 2019

Monsanto has spent four decades manipulating the science, the regulators, the media, and patent law in pursuit of profit from its blockbuster glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup [1]. When the Roundup-causes-cancer scare reared up, Monsanto seemed confident it could manipulate that too. Bayer, a company well used to handling litigation over harmful products [3], also seemed confident it could ride out the storm, and proceeded with its acquisition of Monsanto despite the impending law suits.

It's interesting to see what's been unfolding in the American courts, where two glyphosate-based cancer cases have so far been judged (although the appeals will no doubt stretch out for some time to come).

Herbicides, GM crops and autism

May 2019

Indications of links between the world's most used, GM-friendly herbicide, glyphosate, and premature death from cancer and Parkinson's disease raise concerns about what we may be inflicting on ourselves in the longer term [1,2].

Do glyphosate-based-herbicides only make their toxic presence felt as we approach old age? What are the chances they cause us damage in the womb and in infancy too?

Many pesticides, including glyphosate, are known to have neurotoxic effects, and increasingly scientific evidence is implicating ambient pesticides as a risk factor for autism spectrum disorder.

Glyphosate and parkinsons disease again

May 2019

In 2012, a rat feeding study on the toxic effects of Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant GM maize sprayed with the herbicide was published [1]. During the experiment, an excess of tumours was observed in treated animals. This unwelcome suggestion of a link to cancer caused panic in the biotech lobby and sparked a controversy which just keeps on simmering [2].

The CRISPR wrecking ball revealed

April 2019

US government information on genome (gene) editing describes it as a "group of technologies used by scientists to change an organism's DNA".

The most popular member of this group is 'Cas9', an enzyme which cuts DNA and can be designed to home in on a precise location in the genome [1,2]. Recently, a variant of this enzyme, 'Cas12a', has been developed: this seems to cut in a way that causes less disturbance at the cut ends of the DNA.

With regard to gene-edited crops, a team of Chinese scientists took a belated, close look at all the DNA changes arising in a novel rice model and what part of the technology caused them.

Insectageddon

April 2019

"... having taken every step science can offer to devitalise the soil and its food that supports him, (man) is now turning his attention to destroying the insect world upon which he is also dependent." ... "... if birds eat insects poisoned by (pesticides) this can kill them - a striking tribute to the intelligence of 'scientists', since birds are our best safeguard against pests." (Easterbrook, 1946)
Green MEP, Molly Cato, describes how she has lost count of the times she has debated the "Armageddon" we are inflicting on our environment, only to be met with "patient, patronising smiles" from fellow MEPs and no action.

The quote above comes from a 1946 article and refers to DDT and other contemporary "powerful insecticides of which far too little is yet known". The author goes on to liken those humans intent on spreading pesticides through their own environment to "schoolboys rat-hunting in a munitions dump with a flame thrower".

Note. DDT was the first modern synthetic insecticide. Its insecticidal properties were discovered in 1939 and it was quickly adopted by the military in World War II to protect the troops. The scientists who identified DDT's pesticidal potential won the Nobel prize for it. DDT has been poisoning the world ever since.

Since then, we've had decades of the Green Revolution inflicting chemical after chemical on our world, and now we have GM crops specially designed for greater chemical applications, and even for producing their own.

Avoiding unwanted genetic baggage

April 2019

The tool of choice for engineering crop plant DNA (be it transgenesis or gene editing) uses a plant pathogen, the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, as the vector.

Wild-type Agrobacterium naturally introduces its own DNA into the plant genome for the purpose of creating a gall (tumour) of plant tissue in which the bacterium can live. Genetic engineers create a GM Agrobacterium, has had its gall-inducing DNA removed and replaced with gene-editing DNA which therefore becomes inserted into the plant instead.

Despite the number of decades Agrobacterium has been in used for the genetic transformation of food and feed, and despite the recognition that such DNA insertion is error-prone, and despite the regulatory need for knowledge of the exact DNA alterations in the GM crops being assessed, the techniques for fully documenting the presence of unwanted changes have only recently become available.