Horizontal gene transfer is widespread

July 2014

Photo from Creative Commons
From GM day-1, there's been a culture of denial over the possibility of artificial genes moving between organisms (horizontal gene transfer).
 
Some lip-service has been paid to the danger of anti-biotic-resistance marker genes (ARMs)* moving from GM crops to bacteria in the environment to create untreatable diseases. Europe even decided to ban GM crops containing such genes, but somehow it never seems to have happened.

Natural GM

July 2014
 
Leaf detail. CC photo by Lylir Horton on Flickr
At the same time as genetic engineers have been having fun building chains of nucleic acid (NA) molecules into artificial DNA sequences and using them to infect cells, scientists have been piecing together the story of natural genetic engineering.

Living cells have to adapt very quickly to changes in their environment. If they didn't, there wouldn't be much life on earth. Waiting for an appropriate Darwinian 'random genetic mutation' to crop up would be too slow. Since cells are intelligent enough to correct, as a matter of routine, between 99.9% and 99.99% of DNA errors, and if all else fails have the wisdom to self-destruct instead of reproducing the mistake, random genetic mutations are too rare to rely on for something as important as survival. 

Big data, patents and GMOs

July 2014

Photo of a vortex of ones and zeros
CC photo by Infocux Technologies on Flickr
The vast majority of the world's food producers are traditional farmers. Building upon the wisdom of their ancestors, they have added a life-time of further learning about their own soil and crops. Sharing with the local community consolidates this wisdom. This is a knowledge which moves with the ever-changing needs and conditions.
 
In modern high-tech, industry-led farming, the consolidation of seed- and agri-chemical suppliers with their associated technical-know-how, all geared for world markets, has created a global juggernaut to supply food to the developed world. These ships are floating in a GM-driven current, and are moving forward relentlessly, no matter how stark those ice-bergs are on the horizon.
 
The farmers riding these juggernauts can't get off: there's total dependence on the biotech industry for seed choice and use, and the chemicals to cure all ills.  
 
And things are about to get worse. Meet Big Data...

GM crops in Europe - game on

July 2014
Photo credit "Épône - récolte du maïs01" by Spedona - Own work
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%C3%89p%C3%B4ne_-_r%C3%A9colte_du_ma%C3%AFs01.jpg#mediaviewer/File:%C3%89p%C3%B4ne_-_r%C3%A9colte_du_ma%C3%AFs01.jpg
The Westminster GM plot, hatched in 2012 and nurtured along by former UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, seems to be reaching fruition [1].
 
EU ministers have been persuaded to agree to the planting of two new GM maize crops. This has been made possible by a concurrent decision to allow Member States with on-going concerns to opt out of growing GM, rather than blocking their approval. The proposal also includes a clause on liability for damage caused by the biotech crops, and a clause which makes it compulsory for Member States to implement rules for the prevention of contamination.
 
Around half of EU Member States have indicated a wish to opt out. But will it be that easy?

Modifying regulation

July 2014
US rally to support GMO food labelling.
CC photo by CT State Democrats on FLickr
If you've been following the news on GM foods in America, you'll have realised that an overwhelming majority of the people wants GM to be labelled. American democracy being what it is, vast sums of money are being spent by pro-labelling public-interest groups on the one hand, and a good deal more by anti-labelling industry giants on the other hand. The main result has been a tug-of-war which has served to raise awareness of the issue but resolved nothing.
 
Given the current level of information on food packages, which includes nutrients, trace nutrients, weird processed stuff, calorific values, sweeteners, and strings of additives, it's not obvious why it should be so difficult to add in the words “genetically modified”, and the industry claim that it would increase food prices is ludicrous.
 
A look at how US food regulations were bent into shape to approve one of the earliest GM offerings, 'New Leaf' potatoes, might give you an inkling of where the problem lies.  

Pests create pests

July 2014
Brinjal, or Aubergine, is an important crop in Bangladesh (see article)
CC photo by Joe Athialy on Flickr
In 1978, US entomologist and champion of biological pest control, Professor Robert Van den Bosch, looked at the data and pointed out that pesticides create pests.
 
Chemical pesticides are a disaster for all mankind except, of course, those who sell them.
 
Then, as now, truths inconvenient to industry addressed the evidence by shooting the messenger. Poor Prof. Van den Bosch.
 
The problem, already obvious four decades ago, was industrial agriculture. Since then, all the most harmful aspects of this chemical-based agri-infrastructure have been made worse by GM.

Vermont's GM labelling first

June 2014


Demonstrators hold placards aloft which read label GM food
March against Monsanto in Washington US, May 2014.
CC photo by Stephem Melkisethain on Flickr
On 8 May, the Governor of the US State of Vermont signed into existence a State Law which will require all GM ingredients to be labelled from July 2016. Foods so labelled will no longer be able to be called 'natural'.
 
Marking the importance of this first-of-its-kind law*, the occasion merited an outdoor signing ceremony.

*Unlike the bills passed last year in Maine and Connecticut, which require four or five other states to pass GMO labelling laws before they can be enacted, Vermont's law contains no "trigger" clauses.
 
Certainly no one in the US Government, biotech companies, nor food industry is underestimating the significance of this event.