New gene editing - more of the same old thing

July 2019

Gene editing has been described as 'promising', 'powerful', 'precise', and of course 'safer'. What is it actually going to do to our food and farming?

Recently published work by Chinese scientists is probably a good indication of what to expect.

The GM cassava mutagenic machine

July 2019

Cassava is a starchy root vegetable consumed by more than a billion people. It's a primary staple food in South America, Africa and Asia. Each year, the crops are plagued by cassava mosaic virus, with losses of 20 percent of the yield.

The first generation GM cassava was designed to produce an 'RNAi' (see [1]) which inactivates the virus by silencing a vital gene. This was initially hailed as a success, but the viruses soon evolved their way around the GM obstacle.

Biotech engineers then hit on the novel idea of permanently installing a 'CRISPR-Cas9' [2] mechanism into cassava to destroy the attacking virus.

Single nucleic acid editing

July 2019

The latest refinement in gene editing tools is nucleic acid editing: this alters a single pair of the many nucleic acids which make up the double strand of DNA*, and promises deft improvements in crop and livestock genomes. 

'Knocking-out' a gene creates a new one

July 2019

Long-held concerns that forcing artificial DNA changes into a crop plant will generate toxins and allergens in our food now seem more real than ever.

The latest GM trick is gene editing, a range of techniques designed to make small changes in existing genes which alter their function or destroy their function completely. Because they have homing devices which target specific sites in the genome and because the DNA alterations they induce are minimal, gene editors are considered to have little potential for unexpected side-effects. They are, therefore, promoted as precise and safer.

Artificial fortification of Nature

June 2019

One of the first GM 'decontaminations' by activists in the UK was carried out in 1999 when two field trials of 115 GM poplar trees were trashed.

The reasons given for this action were blunt:
"those who are manipulating the DNA of trees using a very powerful but dimly understood technology, show contempt for our planet and the life it supports, including human life".
Media warnings were succinct: GM trees could lead to "a silent spring in the forests of the future".

Until the activists struck, Britain was intent on becoming a world leader in GM trees.

A healthy cure for citrus greening

June 2019

For more than ten years, a majority of orange groves in Florida have been afflicted with 'citrus greening'.  The disease has devastated millions of acres of citrus crops throughout America and elsewhere.

The visual symptoms of citrus greening include short internodes (stem length between leaves), tiny leaves, asymmetric chlorosis (loss of green colour in leaves), flowering out of season, and leaf and fruit shedding.

Trees that succumb to this disease produce fruits that are green, misshapen and bitter.  They're unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or for juice.  Most affected trees die within a few years.

Research into citrus greening has consumed well over $540 million of funding without a single recovered orange or cured tree to show for it.

Revolution, legend or myth

June 2019

The Legend of the Green Revolution in India

Once upon a time in India, there were too many people and their agriculture was too old-fashioned and burdensome to feed them all.  There was famine in the land, and so many were facing death from starvation that there were fears the people would soon be feeding on each other.

Then came the Green Revolution.  Modern high-yielding wheat and rice which only needed a dab of artificial fertiliser and pesticides to grow just about anywhere.  The foundations of this Revolution lay in crops with short stalks which didn't collapse under the weight of their great big yield.

Thus, a billion lives were saved, Indian peasants were freed from the drudgery of farming, and they all lived happily ever after.