Genes outside of context

July 2016
Photo Creative Commons
A review article by the Rothamsted Research team developing GM plants with fish oil [1] describes the scientific process by which their novel crop was created.

'Omega-3' fish oils are essential dietary requirements for fish and humans. Their sole source in the food chain is tiny, one-cell organisms such as algae and some bacteria which are eaten by fish which are, in turn, eaten by humans. Fish-farming is now wide-spread and provides an effective system for producing animal protein for human consumption. Currently, farmed fish are fed on wild fish stocks and omega-3 oil supplemented feed. The limited supplies of both create a bottleneck in aquaculture production and expansion, and are environmentally damaging. GM fish-oil producing crops offer a promising and more sustainable alternative.

Don't look don't see

July 2016
 

Definitions

 
Mutagenesis
 
This 'breeding technique' involves random wrecking of the genomes of a huge number of cells by exposing them to radiation or chemicals. Any of the survivors which can be coaxed to grow into plants are then tested to see if any useful random properties have emerged from the mess. Note that the technique itself doesn't involve breeding.
 
Genetic modification
 
In this 'breeding technique', artificial DNA constructs are inserted randomly into huge numbers of cells or plant embryos. A tiny proportion of the GM plants generated from these may exhibit the desired trait. Note that the technique itself doesn't involve breeding.
 
History
 
"Continuous methodical research, systematic account of natural phenomena" (Oxford English Dictionary)
 
Classical breeding
 
Plants observed to have desirable characteristics are bred together to produce offspring with more desirable characteristics.

GM-fed butterflies don't fly

July 2016
Camelina: Photo Creative Commons
The UK government continues to promote GM crops as a rising star of industry. This isn't because it's enthralled by the herbicide-accumulating or insecticide-generating GM animal feed crops with which Big Biotech has filled overseas fields.

Westminster has its eye on high-value 'nutritionally-enhanced' GM offerings.

Simply fussy plants

July 2016
Oilseed rape: photo Creative Commons
"Genetically modified organism means an organism's DNA was changed to make it different, often to make it ... contain more usable parts."

One old-timer plant biologist recalls "heady times" when he walked up and down rows of flourishing GM oilseed rape growing side-by-side with its "struggling" conventional counterpart in an experimental low-nutrient soil.

This GM rape had an extra artificial gene, copied from barley, which helped it use nitrogen more efficiently. It promised to be the answer to the world's increasingly degraded and depleted soils.

The 'barley' gene itself doesn't seem too controversial, and has been successfully inserted into wheat and rice, both major staple food crops. Nevertheless, while Big Biotech has been developing fertilizer-frugal GM crops for over a decade, it admits these are still at the 'proof-of-concept' stage and nowhere near the market.

The anti-spray movement

July 2016
Photo Creative Commons

"A spray helicopter ... had its electrical wires, oil and fuel lines cut ... a spray crew bus had its brake lines cut." 

" ... a (herbicide spraying) ground crew was attacked by protesters, beaten, their spray gear destroyed, and their leader forced at knifepoint to sign a statement promising not to spray again in that area." 

"... An armed mob threatened to shoot down spray helicopters." 

"Someone ... punctured ten 550 gallon drums of (2,4-D herbicide)" 

"Activists ... contaminated 500 gallons of herbicides to prevent their use." 

"Mobs of activists routinely trespass in areas scheduled for aerial spraying and prevent thousands of acres ... from being sprayed." 

Non-Violent Resistance training weekends are being run to prepare the "occupation forces" to prevent herbicide spraying. 

Civil disobedience and sabotage have become a routine part of the anti-pesticide movement. So much so that an Intelligence Division has been formed with special spray-programme agents to monitor local resistance to herbicides and the activities of local leaders in the antispray movement. 

"... a spray helicopter ... was completely destroyed by fire" after which two women appeared on television and radio to explain that the burned helicopter was "a message to the companies who profit from spraying poisons indiscriminately with disrespect for human and animal life and Mother Earth." Their reason was the years of ill effects from "herbicide contamination, including miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer ... Our present health and genetic future are at stake."

Is this fiction? Are these real people taking action against the threat of herbicides to humanity? Are these ferocious eco-terrorists and saboteurs characters in a novel?

The illusion of safer substitution

July 2016
Plant biologist, Jonathan Latham, recounts how, as a "very young" scientist, he was busy creating GM plants as research tools, hardly imagining that they would ever come to be grown or eaten. Gradually it became clear, however, that commercial interests had other ideas.

Now much more experienced, Latham appreciates just how much all the knowledge and understanding available to scientists is dwarfed by the complexities of biological and natural systems.
After wide reading of the chemical and GM risk assessments used to 'prove' safety*, he has concluded the assessments provide nothing more than a false certainty, a carefully crafted, complex illusion of protection.

What else would you expect when the assessments themselves are performed by those seeking to profit from finding their product safe? 

GMO mushrooms

June 2016
Photo: button mushrooms. Adam Fagen on Flickr
As if to illustrate how simple the latest technique for gene modification is, it seems likely that Americans will be eating 'CRISPR/Cas9' [1] gene-edited 'anti-browning' mushrooms within a couple of years.