Environmentally-friendly, but dead

December 2017

In 1999, biotech boffins in Canada invented the 'Enviropig' genetically transformed to digest grain-based feedstuffs which pigs don't naturally eat, but which are now part-and-parcel of modern intensive pig-rearing [1].

This piggy-wonder was touted as being cheaper and greener to produce because, thanks to its novel digestive system, it wouldn't excrete huge amounts of polluting phosphates, and wouldn't smell. 'Environmentally-friendly' is always a good PR hand to play.

A hopeful herd of Enviropigs was maintained for 17 years, waiting for the market to want to eat them.

The pigs are all dead now. Total disaster. No customers. All cost and no return.

Fake news machine

December 2017

'Fake news' - false, often sensational information disseminated under the guise of news reporting. - Collins 'Word of the Year' 2017

COMMENT


Cornell University's 'Alliance for Science' has announced a further contribution to its work from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Originally endowed with $5.6 million in 2014, this new grant brings the total Gates' contribution to $12 million.


The mission is to promote GM in agriculture by "depolarising" the global debate and training the uninformed in "evidence based decision making". One of the Alliance's major initiatives has been to teach "strategic communications" to local advocates so they can spread the word, and train others in developing countries where GMOs are contentious.

Five times removed from natural

December 2017
© Greenpeace / Statchett
A huge focus of GM development has been on crops which can generate their own insecticides against key pests. Such crops have added genes copied from the, seemingly ubiquitous, soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis ('Bt') which enable the plants to produce 'Bt' toxic proteins targeting specific insects.

'Bt' crops are promoted by industry and regulators as environmentally-friendly, farmer-friendly and consumer-friendly. After all, they target specific pests only, they breakdown quickly in the soil, they are designed to reduce the need for expensive chemical insecticide applications in the field and on our food. B. thuringiensis is a "naturally occurring" bacterium, producing natural protein toxins which will be naturally digested in the human gut and are, therefore, naturally safe to eat. Moreover, so the story goes, approved commercial Bt preparations have been "extensively" and safely used for "over half a century" in organic farming and in forestry, decades before the GM crop era.

This 'naturalness' and 'history of safe use' have been used by industry and regulators to justify the minimisation of actual testing.

Roundup impairs soil fungi

December 2017

Modern farmers are proud to grow crop plants in isolated splendour; they make sure nothing much ever gets a chance to live alongside them in the fields. Their yields are impressive, and the drain on soil health even more so.

Soil is a living material. It generates the nutrients plants need, and its resilience comes from a vast living, interacting biodiversity of bacteria, fungi, single-cell organisms, plants and animals. Agrichemicals designed to kill change all that.

Scientific methods are, of course, used to check out the effects of agrichemicals on select representative soil life-forms. For example, tests of key features of the well-characterised soil fungus, Aspergillus nidulans, include growth rate, spore germination and germination delay, pigmentation and organisation of the fungal strands. If no effects are detected at some measured level of exposure to a pesticide, the chemical is pronounced safe for the soil at any lower concentrations.

However, science has moved on a long way from looking at gross changes under a microscope such as the above. And, none of the chemicals tested in isolation in the laboratory is ever present in isolation in the field.

A recently published study based on state-of-the-art 'proteomic' analyses revealed subtle biochemical disturbances in A. nidulans exposed to glyphosate. This raises a number of concerns.

Glyphosate in European soils

December 2017

A snapshot survey of European agricultural soils in 2015 has revealed a worryingly extensive presence of glyphosate herbicide and its break-down product, 'AMPA'*.
*aminomethylphosphoric acid

Glyphosate is widely used on GM herbicide-tolerant crops in the Americas, but in Europe, it's typically applied only once a year to cereal and oilseed crops, or three times a year in orchards and vineyards. This doesn't sound like very much.

Scotching the GM myth

December 2017

'Food security' is a complex problem for which simple solutions have long been tried, and as long have failed. In fact, 'food security' isn't even easy to define.

Prior to the 1980s, the problem seemed straightforward: just add together all the food produced in the area of interest, add net food imported, and divide the total by the number of people living there. If there were enough calories available per person, the area was 'food secure'.