Re-thinking the yield obsession

June 2018

"For the last 60 years we have been on a pesticide merry-go-round, where successive generations of pesticides are released, and a decade or two later they are banned when the environmental harm they do emerges. Each time they are replaced by something new, and each new group of chemicals brings new and unanticipated problems. Considering our intelligence, it is remarkable that we humans can keep making the same mistake over and over again" signed by 12 scientists who have spent decades studying the fragile web of insects, the environment, and the crops on which we all depend for survival. 
This merry-go-round is harming both ourselves and our environment: why can't we get off it?

Mega-pest moths

June 2018

A great deal of technical and commercial effort has been devoted to GM crops with soak themselves with their very own, self-generated 'Bt' insecticides.

Particular biotech industry targets for Bt have been cotton bollworm, a widespread pest in Africa and India, and corn earworm, a widespread pest in the Americas.

These 'worms' are actually the larvae of two related species of moth which cause billions of dollars of crop damage every year feasting on monoculture banquets.

Cotton bollworm is a particularly notorious pest, with a fast generation time, an extreme mobility, and an unusually diverse gene pool to draw on. It attacks over 100 crop types and has developed resistance to all pesticides used to try to control it. All in all, a top-class super-pest.

Superfit GM superweeds

June 2018
Protester dressed as a superweed
CC photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr
World-wide, the big biotech success story is crops which are genetically transformed to survive glyphosate-based herbicides.

Glyphosate interferes with a plant enzyme key to the production of, for example, auxin (a plant growth hormone, also important in reproduction), lignin (woody supportive material), and defensive compounds against pests and disease. All of these are vital and are part of tightly controlled processes in a healthy plant. When glyphosate wipes out that enzyme, the weed or non-GM plant dies.

The magic gene inserted into glyphosate-tolerant crops generates a novel version of the enzyme which isn't inactivated by the herbicide. However, the expression of an artificial gene, isn't controlled. GM glyphosate-tolerant plants will therefore generate an excess of the enzyme, and this suggests that their growth, reproduction, physical robustness, and susceptibility to disease will be altered.

GM maize data mountain

June 2018

A recent article in Forbes Magazine suggested that the "mountains of scientific proof" of "how big the benefit and small the risk is from GMO crops" should "put a categorical end to (the) worries" of the apparently uninformed public in whom "GMO paranoia continues to rage".

A succession of sick pigs?

May 2018

In a re-run of the GM wonder-crop revolution which promised weed-free fields growing pest-free crops, it looks like we're getting a GM wonder-pig revolution of disease-free herds (soon to be followed by flocks of GM wonder-hens and shoals of GM wonder-fish).

Scottish scientists have modified pig genes to "massively increase resistance and resilience to infection". The first targets are 'Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus' (PRRSV) which causes breathing problems and leads to still births and stunted offspring when sows are infected, and African Swine fever.

A beer-like beverage

May 2018

Craft beer brewing is an art form whose products are fast gaining in popularity. Typically, a craft brew is tastier than industrial versions because it uses far more hop flowers whose complex essential oils impart the characteristic beer flavour and aroma.

The variability of hop flowers make them an irritation to big brewers because their market demands uniformity, their factories demand recipes, and art is beyond them. Hops are also expensive. But the other vital beer-ingredient, yeast, is cheap.

Food lesson for the future

May 2018

What's going to happen when the long-term consumption of GM foods takes its toll on our health?

If we're lucky, medics will notice a spike in some chronic disease, and toxicologists will manage to link the problem to GM elements in our diet. And then what? Will the novel culprit be withdrawn from sale?