Damning review of the approval of Roundup herbicide

December 2012

Just before the safety of Roundup herbicide jumped into the spotlight (see GM MAIZE NOT SAFE TO EAT - News, October 2012), a review was published which explains how this damaging formulation found its way into our food chain.

The review focused on “Teratogenic Effects of Glyphosate-Based Herbicides: Divergence of Regulatory Decisions from Scientific Evidence” ('Roundup' is the most common commercial formulation of these glyphosate-based herbicides), and the lead author was medical toxicologist, Michael Antoniou.

Bending the truth about cancer

December 2012

The obvious panic in pro-GM circles caused by the publication of Professor Séralini's life-long feeding study on 'NK603' GM maize and its associated herbicide, 'Roundup', stems largely from its unexpected findings of cancer. (A selection of our articles on this is listed below.)

Cancer is a very sensitive issue. Cancer Research UK gives some very unpleasant statistics on the subject. In 1975, when the chemical-laden 'green' revolution of our food was well underway, our risk of cancer was already 25%. By 2003, our risk of cancer had risen to 38%. That means two in every five of the people around you will suffer cancer during their lifetime. In most cases, however, you won't know which ones until they're over 60.

Séralini's study was widely criticised for its poor scientific design because it was based on only 10 rats per test group while the established protocol for carcinogen studies demands 50 animals. The findings were also declared invalid because the rat strain used has a known tendency of to develop cancers in old age. Indeed, the control animals, fed on conventional maize and no Roundup, did suffer cancers at the usual rate and at the usual time.

Biology-free assessment

December 2012

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was created in 2002 in the aftermath of the mad-cow disease crisis. It is responsible for the risk assessment of food and feed in the EU, including GM.

EU regulations on GMOs, which the Authority is tasked with implementing, set high standards of safety for the environment and consumers, based on the precautionary principle. It is stated by the EU that
“... genetically modified food and feed should only be authorised for placing on the Community market after a scientific evaluation of the highest possible standard, to be undertaken under the responsibility of the European Food Safety Authority, of any risks which they present for human and animal health and, as the case may be, for the environment ...”
It was this science-oriented remit which led the EFSA executive director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle to declare that the Authority had “brought science to centre stage in food policy-making” (see TRANSPARENCY IS A FINE WORD - December 2012).

In 2003, the EFSA created its own department for biotechnology, including a GMO panel.

A fairy tale for Christmas

December 2012

It seems a wicked witch has been plying the Environment Minister in Westminster, Owen Paterson, with a rosy-red GM apple.

The UK government has been engaging in a pre-Christmas high-pressure media campaign pushing its wish-list of fantasy GM crops which will be good for the environment, increase yields, prevent crop disease, reduce pesticide use ... and anyway public hostility to GM is waning ... (yes, you've heard it all before, and it remains as untrue, as unproven, and as misleadingly presented today as it ever was).

The biggest wish that the fairy godmother has failed to deliver is the claim that concerns about the health effects of GM foods are “misplaced”, “a complete nonsense”, and that those voicing the concern about GM “poisons in foods” are “humbugs”.

In Scotland, we have our very own government GM-propagandist in the form of Tory MSP, Murdo Fraser, who is faithfully repeating all the same fantasies (surprise, surprise) including “there is no more risk in eating GM food than eating conventionally farmed food”.

However, in light of the results of Professor Séralini's long-term feeding study (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT- October 2012) claims of 'misplaced concern' and 'no risk' sound very hollow. The indications of endocrine disruption, cancer, and liver and kidney disease from eating Roundup Ready GM maize and the Roundup herbicide it accumulates sound like very serious health risks indeed.

Since the Tories in government are clearly too busy reciting the fairy stories prepared for them by the biotech industry to have time to read the science, here is a perfect opportunity for YOU to tell everyone about Professor Séralini's study:
  • Complain to your MP and MSP about the industry misinformation being spread by government, and mention Séralini's study as clear evidence of risk. Your can do this through
  • If you see any article in the press or hear any item on the air which repeats the industry misinformation being spread by government, drop the editor a short note and mention Séralini's study as clear scientific grounds for concern.
The reference to quote is: Gilles-Eric Séralini et al., 2012, Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize, Food and Chemical Toxicology, on-line August 2012

Perhaps if Mr. Paterson and Mr. Fraser want to live happily ever after, they should seek better advice in future or choose their friends more carefully.

  • A GM fairy-tale for Christmas, GM-Free Cymru Press Notice 11.12.12
  • Kirsteen Paterson, Tory claims GM crop field trials ban is 'holding back science', Metro12.12.12
  • GM health fears 'complete nonsense', says Owen Paterson, Guardian, 10.12.12
  • Robert Winnett and James Kirkup, Food minister Owen Paterson backs GM crops, Telegraph, 9.12.12
  • Christopher Hope, Speed up roll-out of GM crops, says Downing Street, Telegraph, 10.12.12

War over unsafe GM maize

December 2012

The publication of a unique, long-term GM feeding experiment was clearly a worst-nightmare come true for the biotech industry.  It revealed multiple evidence of harm not only from eating a GM maize and but also from drinking the herbicide that the maize was transformed to accumulate (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT - October 2012).

This was bad enough, but the things that caused the real panic in biotech circles were the indications that both test materials (GM maize NK603 and Roundup herbicide) promoted cancer and disrupted endocrine function.

What happened next was that a scientific civil war broke out.  As the study's lead scientist, Gilles-Eric Séralini, put it, on one side are supporters of biotech "science" and on the other side supporters of the science which he practices which is “not made to feed the insatiable ogre of finance but to protect the human beings of today and tomorrow”.

What are Séralini's grounds for this disparaging statement about his fellow-scientists?

Transparency is a fine word

December 2012
Europe's food safety watch-dog, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), celebrated its 10th anniversary in November 2012.

The occasion was marked at a conference in its Parma headquarters during which the creation of the Authority was described as a “defining moment” in which food safety in the EU “turned firmly towards science” and “brought science to centre stage in food policy-making”. Executive director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle described a number of “success stories” which highlighted the EFSA's ten years of “transparency, independence and scientific excellence”.

Meanwhile, outside the conference venue, farmers, NGOs, students and local activists were staging a demonstration. They were calling for fundamental reforms of the EFSA and EU law, in particular to:
1. prevent conflicts of interest
2. ensure substances are tested independently and not by the industry itself
3. establish a code of scientific practice
4. improve transparency and accountability
5. ensure wider participation.

Fish oil without the fish doesn't work

December 2012

Fish oil capsules (tran, trankapsler)
Fish oil capsules. Photo by jcoterhals on Flickr.
Scientists in Cambridge have found scientific support for what many would consider common-sense.

After reviewing 38 studies involving 800,000 people in 15 countries, they confirmed that a diet rich in fish consistently had a protective effect against stroke. Previously such findings have been attributed to the high omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils, and a huge industry has sprung up selling fish-oil capsules to health-conscious people. However, the scientists further concluded that taking such supplements made no difference in preventing strokes.

Genetic modification in a thirsty world

November 2012

Drought tolerant maize lines at Kiboko, Kenya
Drought-tolerant non-GM maize in Kenya. Photo by CIMMYT on Flickr
In summer 2012, the arrival was announced of “the holy grail of seed companies, drought-tolerant corn,”. Farmers in Iowa, who are suffering their first major water shortage in 24 years, were shown the “latest gee-whiz addition to seed offerings” to help them beat the drought.

Monsanto was plugging its 'DroughtGard' GM corn, which it plans to have on the market by next year. Authorisation has already been given for the GM corn by the US government, but to sell its “exciting technology” on the global market, approval is still needed in several key countries. The Company expects DroughtGard to yield 5 to 10 percent above normal in dry areas.

Earlier in the year, GM-concern group, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), produced a report detailing “Why Genetic Engineering Is Not Solving Agriculture's Drought Problem in a Thirsty World”.

Background noise

November 2012

A clarification on why animals fed GM are more likely to drop dead in the lab than in the field.
In August 2012 we reported that, during two livestock feeding trials of Syngenta's 'Bt176' GM maize, in America and Germany, some of the cows sickened and died; the illness was never identified (see DEAD COWS UNDER THE CARPET - August 2012).

These unexpected events during tests haven't translated into widespread deaths in the field when animals have been given feed containing Bt176 corn, or other GM crops with the same artificial gene (cry1Ab).

It's been drawn to our attention that our explanation of why the laboratory and field studies could give such different results was too concise. So, in the interests of clarity, here's a fuller description.

Anti-allergen milk... with added allergens

November 2012

Photo of non-gm cow by JelleS on Flickr
The U.S. media has made much of the latest “impressive (GM) technical feat that won plaudits in the biotechnology world”. This impressive feat is the creation by scientists in New Zealand of a GM cow called Daisy.

Daisy's milk is missing 'β-lactoglobulin', a “key” protein often responsible for triggering allergies. In the first year of life, as many as two or three in every hundred infants are allergic to this protein.

Rather than report the huge ethical, scientific and safety issues surrounding the novel cow, journalists have chosen instead to lament the “hopeless logjam” caused by the U.S. government in its failure to rush GM animal products to market. Also due to the regulatory incompetence which, it seems, is having “a chilling effect on animal biotech efforts”, GM animal research is being abandoned or transferred overseas. One Canadian scientist is quoted as saying his GM pigs have had to be banked in cold storage until “societal attitudes improve”.

Before blaming the government and public for the lack of GM super-animals in the world, perhaps the journalists should have considered the matter in more depth.

No GM-labelling for America... yet

November 2012
Right2Know march by MillionsAgainstMonsanto on Flickr
Earlier this month, California's attempt to vote in a law which would have required labelling of GM foods in the State failed by a very narrow margin (43% for, 57% against).

Given the enormous support it had up until the beginning of October (3:1 in favour), this might come as a surprise. The reason for the sudden swing, however, is clear: the proposed law simply “got crushed under fat stacks of cash” (Philpott). The opposition comprised the biotech/agrichemical giants, including Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and German firms Bayer and BASF (who obviously don't want the same thing happening in the US as has in their home market). It also comprised all the leading food-processing industries (including Kraft, Nestlé, and Coca Cola). They combined forces to throw $45.6 million into a campaign to persuade Californians that they don't really want to know what's in their food. Supporters of the bill raised a staggering $8.7 million, but were outspent by five dollars to one.

Choices no one wants

November 2012

A woman smiling as she buys organic vegetables at a farmer's market
Garfield Farmers' Market in United States. Photo by heacphotos on Flickr
 In the United States, 78% of families say they regularly purchase organic foods (Organic Trade Association Study, 2011). The market for locally-grown foods is worth some $7 billion, with small farms (less than $50,000 turnover) accounting for 81% of sales (USDA Economic Research Service Report, 2011).

Clearly organic and local foods from small producers can no longer be considered 'niche' markets: a great many US citizens are choosing to buy them.

Keep Britain buzzing

November 2012

Closeup of a honeybee on a pink flower
Photo by BugMan50 on Flickr
The Soil Association has presented a time-line of the relentless waves of pesticides used in agriculture since the birth of the 'Green Revolution' in the 1960s. As each chemical has been introduced into our environment, a fresh wave of destruction has unfolded.

  • In the 1960s, DDT insecticide decimated bird populations; DDT was only banned in 1983
  • In the 1970s, organophosphate insecticides (originally developed as a nerve gas for the military) took their toll of aquatic wildlife; some organophosphates were only banned in 2007
  • In the 1980s, pyrethroid insecticides caused untold destruction to butterflies and bees; these were banned in sheep dips in 2010, but their use continues in other areas of agriculture
  • Since their introduction in the 1990s, neonicotinoid fungicidal seed treatments (which spread throughout the plant as it grows) have been disrupting bee behaviour, very likely to the point of colony collapse.
  • In 2004, after five decades of use, the herbicide and endocrine disruptor atrazine was banned
  • In 2012, after four decades of use, the herbicide and endocrine disruptor endosulfan was banned.

Unsafe GM maize a trigger for food shortages?

October 2012 
The reaction of the pro-GM lobby to the long-term experiment which found evidence of harm from NK603 GM maize and its companion herbicide, had all the hallmarks of a full-scale panic (see UNSAFE GM MAIZE A TRIGGER FOR US LABELLING - October 2012).

The more savvy have identified the biotech industry itself as being behind the furore. Biotech finger-prints were all over the scientists who immediately jumped up and tore the study apart in their customary ungentlemanly and unscientific fashion. Not to mention the industry-funded Science Media Centre which rushed to feed all the correct 'science' to the media, most of whom dutifully repeated it. Add to these, who knows what lobbyists (including, it seems, members of the GM assessment panel itself) were primed to make sure the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) took the right pro-GM decisions. All this happened in record time as befits a pre-planned and orchestrated suppression of unwelcome news. Just what the biotech industry PR boys do best.

However, here's another interesting angle to the bigger picture. What are the chances the order to kill the offending science with all possible speed came directly from the Whitehouse? A hotline from the US administration to key parties in Europe?
If that sounds far-fetched, consider the position the USA has got itself into.

Pride in false and misleading advertising

October 2012

In 1996, the Attorney General of New York ordered Monsanto to pull advertisements that misrepresented Roundup herbicide as “safer than table salt” and “practically nontoxic” to wildlife. A decade on, the Company was convicted in France of false advertising of Roundup for presenting it as biodegradable, and claiming it left the soil clean after use. Perhaps believing Brazilians to be more gullible than Americans and French, the Company seems to have tried the same trick again just a few years later: the outcome was another fine.

What happens in your gut when you eat unsafe GM maize

October 2012
Amid the furore of concern, counter-attack, and orchestrated disdain over the French experiment which found evidence of harm from the long-term consumption of NK603 GM maize and Roundup herbicide, one aspect has not been investigated nor discussed.

The NK603 and Roundup eaten by an animal pass through its gut. In the gut, they encounter a huge diversity of microbes with which they must interact: the bugs alter the food, and the food alters the bugs.

The secrecy surrounding GMOs

October 2012

When a team of scientists in France carried out the first long-term feeding trial of a GM maize, 'NK603', and Roundup herbicide, it highlighted a whole stack of flaws in the approach to assessing the safety of GM food (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT and EFSA STATEMENT ON UNSAFE MAIZE - October 2012). The most serious problems stem from the level of secrecy that has come to be part and parcel of every stage of GM development.

Unsafe GM maize a trigger for US labelling

October 2012
Corn grenade. Image by Greenpeace
In the rush to pour cold water on the study which found evidence of wide-ranging harm from a strain of Roundup-tolerant GM maize and Roundup herbicide, many critics fell over their own feet (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT and POLITICAL FALLOUT OF UNSAFE GM MAIZE - October 2012). Read PANIC?

Even the Science Media Centre (SMC) (identified as the driving force of negative press which has surrounded the publication in the UK) seems to have been in such a hurry to rubbish the research that it released a commentary from UK statisticians and experts which made other analysts wonder how closely they had read the paper or, indeed, whether their knowledge of statistical methods was as complete as would be expected. Read PANIC?

Likewise the European Food Safety Authority seems to be using every excuse it can dream up to wriggle out of taking the Roundup Ready Maize study seriously (see EFSA STATEMENT ON UNSAFE MAIZE - October 2012). Read PANIC?

EFSA statement on unsafe maize

October 2012
Only two weeks after the publication of the first ever long-term, comprehensive GM food safety study, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has already dismissed it (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT - October 2012).

The objections seem three-fold.

Pollitical fallout from unsafe GM maize

October 2012
Corn grenade. Photo by Greenpeace
The immediate reaction to the publication of the most in-depth safety study ever of a GM crop was very predictable (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT - October 2012).

The creators of the GM crop (Monsanto) rushed out a very familiar statement declaring the latest study had much the same short-comings as they had claimed for all the previous ones (COMMENT It also suggested they hadn't read the paper). Within hours, the usual gallery of GM aficionados started broadcasting familiar critical remarks about overwhelming design faults in the experiment (COMMENT Suggesting they hadn't read the paper either).

Interestingly, most of these adversaries shoot themselves in the foot.

GM maize is not safe to eat

The most in-depth GM-food safety study to date has been published.

It represents a landmark on three counts:
  • It's what GM-free Scotland and similarly concerned people have been asking for since the 1990s
  • The study is unprecedented in scale, control of variables, exposure time, and the breadth of parameters measured
  • And, it confirms that existing GM food safety testing protocols are totally inadequate to identify harm.
What was found was a shocking catalogue of chronic ill-health in all animals exposed to test diets. With regard to the disturbances in renal function alone, the lead author, Eric-Gilles Séralini, said “Any doctor would panic for a patient in this case.”

Government report reveals desperation of Indian cotton farmers

September 2012

Picture of a farmer manually weeding a cotton field in South India
Farmer manually weeding a cotton field in Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh, South India.
Picture by jankie on Flickr
Close on the heels of the publication of a German study which concluded that “Bt cotton has created large and sustainable benefits, which contribute to positive economic and social development in India” (see ANOTHER Bt SUCCESS STORY - September 2012) comes a government report which reached a very different conclusion.

Another Bt cotton success story

September 2012

Picture of agricultural labourers working in a cotton field  Andhra Pradesh, South India
Agricultural labourers working in a cotton field Andhra Pradesh, South India.
Picture by jankie on Flickr
The 'success' or 'failure' of Bt cotton, now widely grown in India, continues to be steeped in controversy.

Biotech industry trials and short-term economic studies on these GM crops with built-in insecticide describe their performance in glowing terms. However, serious doubts about the long-term impacts remain.

A new study of Bt cotton, aiming to address the “uncertainty about longer term effects”, has been published.

Fighting with DNA

September 2012
Adult stage of the Western Corn Rootworm which damages plants' ability to absorb water.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons
What better way to create resistance to a pesticide than by growing vast monocultures of plants able to suffuse themselves perpetually with the same, single chemical?

This logic didn't escape the biotech industry when it created commodity crops genetically transformed to generate 'Bt' insecticidal proteins. However, by using simplistic modelling and peddling a few glib assumptions regarding the science of evolution, it was possible to persuade regulators that Bt-resistant insects could be kept at bay.

GM quality costs

September 2012

In the 1990s as the first Roundup Ready GM soya crops were entering our food chain, Monsanto enthusiastically broadcast to the public that:
“Roundup Ready soyabeans are just like any other soyabeans in safety, nutrition, composition and the way they process into high-protein animal fed and ingredients in the food we eat, such as margarine, salad dressings and bakery products.” 
The Company website quoted “1800 evaluations” concluding RR soyabeans are the same as other commercially available varieties.

Despite the fact that glyphosate interferes with the biochemical pathways involved in the synthesis of lignin in plants, this important material was not analysed. Only the total fibre content of the GM soya was measured as part of Monsanto's thousands of tests.

Permanent built-in stress

September 2012

Rice Plants being Propagated usingTissue Culture
Rice research. Photo by IRRI images on Flickr
Cutting-edge science is revealing layer upon layer of adaptive mechanisms within the cell which can be passed on to future generations, but which don't alter the genetic code.

Research on lower animals is showing how the expression of DNA (genes and non-gene sequences) triggers a cascade of events and feed-back loops in the cell: the cascade not only alters the RNA messenger molecules and proteins, but comes back full-circle to re-formulate the DNA's own structure (but not its base sequence) and the chromosomes which carry it.

Sense in pollution

September 2012

Canola field in Western Australia. Photo credit: I [GFDL (,
CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL
(], from Wikimedia Commons
Australian farmers have had eight years to learn that GM canola (oilseed rape) isn't wanted. Most have learned the lesson well, but in Western Australia they've learned the hard way.

Once upon a time, manufacturers supplied retailers with what the end-customer wanted, and the end-user paid for the goods. The system flowed and everyone lived happily ever after.

Down-under, this supply-and-demand logic seems to have been stood on its head.

Sprayed to death by Glyphosate

September 2012

'Roundup' weed-killer for use on Roundup Ready GM crops is also registered for pre-harvest application on many other crops. The purpose of spraying with the herbicide shortly before harvest is to prevent the harvesting machinery clogging up with green material (weeds and crop leaves, especially if applied fungicides have preserved them), and to clear the ground for the next planting. Some farmers also use Roundup to try to dry down their crop and speed up the harvest time, although there's not much data supporting this tactic.

Glyphosate, the major active ingredient of Roundup, is used as a pre-harvest treatment on many food crops including wheat, soya, oats, lentils, flax, oilseed rape, beans, barley, chickpeas and potatoes.

In March this year, GM-free Scotland reported how glyphosate is increasing in our food. This is happening courtesy of GM soya, maize, oilseed rape, and sugar-beet all designed to accumulate glyphosate without damage therein.

Viptera GM corn fiasco

September 2012

Monsanto gets a lot of bad press for its GM-promoting tactics, but are the other biotech giants any better?

GM-free Scotland recently reported that Syngenta is facing criminal prosecution in Germany for with-holding evidence about one of its GM maize crops which has been linked to illness and death in cow feeding trials on both sides of the Atlantic (See DEAD COWS UNDER THE CARPET - August 2012).

At the end of last year, Syngenta was also in hot water in America after it gave away bags of its new 'Viptera' GM corn seed throughout the Midwest.

DIY GMO labelling

August 2012

A confluence of protests at the White House
GMO labelling protest in Washington DC, USA. Photo by mar is sea Y on Flickr
Last summer, we described how Americans were waking up to the fact of GM hidden in their food: in major cities across the USA 'guerilla theatre' was educating shoppers and catching the attention of the media, while a rash of state legislature was rolling out (see AWAKENING THE AMERICAN LION - June 2011).

There have been set-backs, but the shift, once started, could only continue.

In March this year, over one million people submitted comments to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on a petition for mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods. This was more than any other petition in FDA history.

Dead cows under the carpet

August 2012

Swiss biotech giant, Syngenta, is facing charges in the German criminal courts over its failure to report evidence of harm caused by a GM crop.

The crop in question is 'Bt176' maize which generates an insecticidal protein, 'Cry1Ab'. This protein is modelled on one found in the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.

Bt176 maize is an old GM crop, developed back in 1994. It was grown in America until 2001 and cultivated in Europe from 1997 until 2007.

The safety of Cry1Ab does not ever seem to have been sensibly questioned. Assumptions that the protein would disappear during digestion, and that the man-made analogue Bt protein inside the plant wouldn't be any different from the natural version in bacteria lying on the outside of the plant seem to have been used to dismiss any likelihood of harm.

Regulators in America and South Africa preparing to green-light 2,4-D crops

August 2012

Regulators in America and South Africa have been busy preparing to green-light a new range of herbicide-resistant GM crops. These plants are genetically transformed to be doused with a very old and much-used weed-killer commonly referred to as '2,4-D'.

A component of the infamous 'Agent Orange' defoliant used during the Vietnam war, the toxic potential of 2,4-D seems to have been eclipsed by the horrific, on-going, consequences of the other ingredients and the dioxin by-products. A search for safety data on 2,4-D turns up a torrent of tangential evidence which never manages to pinpoint harm, but is never convincing about safety either.

Keeping control

August 2012
Image by HenriBlock on Flickr
In 2009, Caitlin Smith, a widely published science writer with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, quietly suggested
“Having only recently begun to map genomes of whole organisms, now we need to systematically keep tabs on all the alterations to these original maps - and their intended, and unintended, consequences”. 
If this doesn't happen, 'science' will become impossible because we will no longer have anything natural or safe with which to compare our latest living invention.

Smart breeding tool

August 2012

There's a new breed of DNA-altered plants looming over the horizon.

These contain no foreign DNA, no man-made DNA, and no viral DNA. In fact they're “all-natural, environmentally safe”, and they have not been subject to any radiation nor mutagenic chemicals (Beetham).

Nor, incidentally, have they been subject to any safety-testing.

The new plants have been created using the latest “smart breeding tool, the 'Rapid Trait Development System' (RTDS).

The 'Monsanto Tax'

August 2012

There's a certain satisfaction in seeing a bully being given a taste of his own medicine.

Monsanto has long dealt severe legal sanctions against farmers it claims have “pirated” its seed. However, farmers in Brazil have decided two can play at that game, and the courts have agreed...

XNA - expanding problems

July 2012
DNA double helix Image by By National Human Genome Research Institute (
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Not content with exploring the vast world of DNA and the even more vast world of the RNA molecules produced by DNA, scientists have now taken to engineering their own weird analogues.

The data of the 'genetic code' are enciphered by DNA in sequences of four 'nucleic acid base' molecules. These four bases pair up with each other in specific ways to form the 'rungs' of the famous double-helix DNA 'ladder'. It's the bases which provide the template from which the cell's movers and shakers, the RNA molecules, are reeled off.

Up until now, Biotechnology has busied itself by playing around with the base-pairs to instill its own, commercially useful, features into cells.

Craig Venter's weird world

July 2012
Craig Venter. Photo F3rn4nd0 from en:Wikipedia [GFDL (
or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Craig Venter caught the world's attention in 1998 when his company, Celera Genomics, decided to race the US government to produce the world's first 'map' of all the genes in a single human being. That race ended in 2000 with the production of two maps and the declaration of a politically expedient tie.

Since then Venter has been busy creating weird microscopic organisms whose DNA is entirely artificial. He's also been creating a great deal of concern over what his weird microbes might do to our world.

GM food through the back door

July 2012
Basmati Rice
Basmati rice. Photo by cookbookman17 on Flickr
Despite its almost total rejection of GM in food, feed and the environment, Europe is getting a lot of GM by the back door.

We all know about the GM animal feed widely used to produce our meat, eggs and dairy. Different UK supermarkets have confusingly different policies on what feed they allow, and consumers will rarely find a label to tell them what they're eating has been eating.

What are the chances that you'll save anyone from starvation by eating GM food?

July 2012
IN137S07 World Bank
Harvesting in India. Photo by World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr
Next time you hear the claim that we need GM food to save the people of developing countries from starvation, ignore any pangs of guilt. Just look at India.

As estimated 250 million Indians don't have enough to eat. One-fifth of its people are malnourished: this is double the rate of other developing countries like Vietnam and China.

Yet, the Indian government has had a scheme in place to deal with this problem since the 1960s. It buys up all the wheat and rice its farmers produce, giving them a higher and more consistent price than they would get on the open market.

Attacking scientific knowledge

July 2012

Ladybird. Kirsty Coghill [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Ladybirds are predators of many small insects, and therefore provide and important natural pest-control service to agriculture. In 2008, Angelika Hilbeck and her colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology published a study on the effects of Bt-toxins on ladybirds.

Noting that the assessments of GM crops have attracted criticism because they're based on the those used for chemicals, Hilbeck aimed to develop a more appropriate method. Her team improved the protocol by using Bt toxins in activated form (which is what Bt crops are supposed to produce) and by testing ladybird larvae (grubs) rather than the much less vulnerable adult insect.

The dark side of golden rice

July 2012

Golden rice and white rice. Photo By International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) [CC-BY-2.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
Every so often, a little bit of new science shines a spotlight on the danger of trying a simplistic, GM quick-fix to address a complex problem.

Golden rice first hit the headline decades go. The carrot-tinted rice is genetically transformed to generate beta-carotene, which our bodies convert to vitamin A. It's aimed at supplementing the diet of vitamin-A deficient populations in developing countries whose staple diet is rice and little else.

Vitamin-A is critical to human vision, bone and skin health, metabolism and immune function. It's involved in the direct activation of several hundred genes. In the mammalian embryo (including human), this global effect on genes renders the vitamin essential for development, growth and tissue differentiation. Chronic deficiency of vitamin-A can be catastrophic.

But, the golden rice has still not made it out there. And, perhaps this is just as well, because beta-carotene has, it seems, a dark side.

Aphid-friendly cotton

July 2012

Cotton. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
China is one of the world's largest producers of cotton. In the six major cotton-growing provinces there, more than 90% of the crops are now 'Bt' insecticidal GM strains designed to kill cotton boll worm (CBW). Scientists in the country have been especially diligent in collecting data to see how the GM cotton is interacting with its environment.

Over the years, several Chinese studies have been published, most of which found very little positive to say about Bt cotton. However, the latest one has finally managed to extract 'good news': just what the media and biotech industry have been waiting for.

DNA-induced disease

June 2012

GM risk assessment has always focused on the novel protein produced by the novel gene. But, evidence from far outside the realms of GM suggest the possibility that artificial DNA itself could induce disease.

In 2006, a comment submitted to the International Commission on Radiological Protection by the Sierra Club stated:
“Numerous academic researchers, independent scholars, and government bodies, such as the US National Academies of Science and National Research Council, have now concluded that the linear no-threshold hypothesis is valid and that there is no “safe” level of radiation exposure”.
What does this mean?

Burying dangerous bad news

June 2012

Illustration by Hendrik Tammen (Enricopedia ⇄)
[CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Ministers at Westminster have “highlighted the 'urgent need' to generate nuclear electricity to meet climate change objectives” (Cheryl Latham). But what bigger problems will this 'solution' create for the future?

More than 60 years after the dawn of the nuclear age, the mountains of highly dangerous by-products have not been dealt with. In the UK, “we now have enough radioactive waste to fill the Albert Hall five times over”. (Louise Gray)

The UK's current plan for nuclear waste is to solidify it, coat it with concrete or clay, and bury it 3,000 feet underground. Elsewhere in the world, the thinking is similar: Sweden and Finland have chosen sites and started digging, while the US is looking to store its nuclear waste in salt mines.

Scientists ignore gene flow in wheat

June 2012

Picture of conventional wheat
Photo by User:Bluemoose (Own work) [GFDL (
CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
The apparently orchestrated media storm surrounding the GM wheat trial at the Rothamstead research facility near London (see THE MEDIA DEBACLE AROUND THE ROTHAMSTED GM WHEAT PICNIC-PROTEST - June 2012) led to a final summing-up article in the Guardian.

Like the GM-concern groups, the Guardian noted that, in contrast to past years, the media reporting and comment have been “mostly neutral and positive about the experiments, or actively hostile to the protester” and that the scientists involved have “adopted a new tactic”. It, too, asked “What has changed?”

The article went on to answer its own question. Seemingly, the researchers have adopted a new strategy of acting with “reason and openness”: they are coming “across as genuine in their desire simply to find out the answers” with a message to the activists “to discuss the issues rather than resort to criminal damage”.

To illustrate the new “reason and openness”, the author described how keen the scientists had been to 'point out' that “the risk of pollen from their wheat reaching surrounding crops is vanishingly small because the crop is self-fertilising”. Thus, the logic continued, the urgency claimed by the protesters to stop an open-air GM trial because it could have profound effects on the environment “simply did not exist”.

Is this true?

No patents on Rothamsted GM wheat? Or humbug?

June 2012

The scientists who are testing GM wheat at Rothamsted research facility have pointed out that their research is publicly-funded and claim that the results will not be patented. The first part's true. You the tax-payer is paying them to create GM wheat whether you like it or not. But is the lack of intention to patent it real or just good PR?

Well ...

The media debacle around the Rothamsted GM wheat picnic-protest

June 2012
Ears of wheat ripen in the July sunshine at Weston Patrick in Hampshire
Conventional non-gm wheat grown in Hampshire.
Photo by Anguskirk on Flickr
Wheat has been genetically transformed to produce chemicals which aphids use to warn each other they're under attack, and that it's time to get out. The signal can also alert their predators. See GM WHEAT IN THE UK - July 2011

Anyone following the news during May 2012 can't have missed the fact that there's a GM wheat trial in the ground in Hertfordshire, and that there has been a protest against its presence.

 The media storm was impressive: 
“People will starve to death because of anti-GM zealotry”; the government must stand up to the 'anarchy and vandalism' and 'hatred' of science''; the protesters' actions are not only criminal but a “willful imposition of ignorance, directly comparable to Nazi book-burning” and an “assault on what remains of Castle Enlightenment”. 
Who were these murderous, anarchic, vandalistic, science-hating, criminal, ignorant, Nazi, book-burning, unenlightened zealots? And, what did they actually do? 

The music of life

June 2012
Human genome. Source Wikimedia Commons
The popular term used to describe 'genes' is that they are a 'blueprint' of life.

Therefore, life is something which emerges from its genes with the precision of an architect's construction, or, of an engineer's machine.  And, this 'blueprint' can easily be altered by adding in or taking away a section.

In the 'blueprint' analogy, the DNA of which genes are made is linear, 4-bit, chemical code able to churn out instructions for the manufacture of the proteins which somehow become alive.  The role of the cell is a chemical factory in which the genes are the managers dictating which proteins roll off the production line.  With the 'blueprint' as its basis, cells are slaves to their genes, and exist whether they want to or not.  Indeed, man-made genes are constructed to have all the qualities of a dictator and are forced into the 'blueprint' in a military-style coup: they fit very comfortably and 'naturally' into this picture.

Realising that the 'blueprint' analogy is a bit too simplistic to describe something as obviously complex as life, a more sophisticated description presents genes as 'computer software' for generating proteins.  The chemical factory in this vision becomes a very high-tech, digital machine in which biotech DNA can sit with ease.

More imaginative analogies used to describe the role of DNA in life use music.

Genetic engineering - how much do we really know?

June 2012

One of the first PR sound-bytes fed to the GM-wary UK public was that “scientists know exactly what they're doing”. 

If this subliminal message of 'nothing can go wrong, so stop worrying yourself' wasn't reassuring enough, images were trotted out explaining that DNA sequences were simply snipped out of a cell (with scissors!) and popped into another one: clearly just another use of nature by humans, a simple extension of conventional breeding.

How truthful is this PR?  Certainly, scientists can extract DNA from cells for study and to get ideas.  Certainly, scientists can engineer precise DNA sequences and can force or smuggle these into living cells and can (sometimes) make them work.  But “know exactly what they're doing”?

Fake blood oranges

May 2012
Blood Orange Sorbet
Blood oranges. Photo by CLC Photography on Flickr
According to the latest research, 48% of men and 43% of women in the UK will be obese by 2030.

This trend will significantly increase the prevalence of strokes, heart disease, diabetes with its many complications, and multiple types of cancer.

Worse, obesity can start in the womb: expectant mothers who are, themselves, obese or diabetic are at risk of giving birth to big babies who are in turn twice as likely to become overweight adults. Since it's self-reinforcing, this shift towards obesity can only get worse.

Roundup and diabetes

May 2012

Headlines in May announced an important piece of research to come out of Scotland. It seems that low levels of the hormone, testosterone, are a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

While it was previously recognised that low testosterone was linked to obesity, an Edinburgh team of scientists has found that the hormone deficiency link to diabetes is not, in fact, dependent on the amount of fat tissue.

People who keep up with GM affairs may have noticed increasing evidence that glyphosate herbicide, and particularly its commercial formulation, Roundup, are endocrine disruptors (see ROUNDUP ENDOCRINE DISRUPTOR - March 2012). A paper published in 2010 described a study of rats fed environmentally-relevant doses of Roundup over a period of 30 days spanning the onset of puberty. The results showed a reduced testosterone production sufficient to alter testicular cell morphology and to delay the onset of puberty.

United States still struggling with food labels while Turkey leads the way

May 2012
Right 2Know March (GMO Labeling)
GMO Right2Know march in the USA. Photo Daquella manera on Flickr
In 1998, the EU responded to its citizens demands and instituted mandatory labelling of GM foods. At the time, Monsanto's PR department carried out the best damage-limitation exercise it could by claiming to agree that “You have the right to know what you eat, especially when it's better ... We believe that products that come from biotechnology are better and that they should be labelled”.

Europeans' right to know what they eat, however, wasn't extended to the animal products from livestock fed GM feed. The result has been that honest information about the main source of GM in our food chain remains dependent on the integrity of individual food suppliers and is, therefore, patchy.

In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can require labelling of GM foods only if they are considered materially different from their conventional equivalents. What this means in practice is that labelling will only ever happen if the biotech industry comes up with a value-added GM product for which a label will, usefully, broadcast the 'benefits'. Because the FDA has no budget for safety-testing, there's zero possibility of labelling on safety grounds. Neither has the FDA any authority to require labels just because a food has GM ingredients nor because US citizens want them: effectively, Americans have a zero right to demand labelling and zero right to know.

Fungi don't like Bt

May 2012
Corn, Corn, Corn
Corn harvest in Minnesota, USA. Photo by PXLated on Flickr
A major focus for GM crop development has been in 'Bt' crops which generate their own insecticides modeled on similar proteins produced by Bacillus thuringiensis soil bacteria.

Because Bt-protein has been passed off as highly specific in its ability to kill certain insect pests, it has been assumed safe for the wider environment. However, no one's actually been testing this assumption.

In the US in 2011, 88% of the corn cultivated was GM. Most of it was transformed to express a Bt insecticide. Globally, GM corn is grown in at least 16 different countries. Shocking therefore, to realise that scientists have only just begun to look at what Bt crops do to the soil. And, not surprisingly, when scientists began to look, they found problems.

Neat topic. Big word

May 2012

Some definitions...
  • science - systematic or formulated knowledge
  • bio - from the Greek word 'bios' meaning the course of life; modern use extends this to include organic life; hence biology - the science of life
  • technology - the science of the industrial (trade or manufacturing) arts
  • tool - mechanical implement
In 2001, when the biotech industry was beginning to realise it wasn't going to be able to 'educate' sceptical UK adults to want its GM food, it had a go at their children.

The information which the new industry wanted to feed to young minds was presented in a series of attractive, colourful booklets: “Your World - Biotechnology & You - a magazine of biotechnology applications in healthcare, agriculture, the environment and industry”. These were made available to secondary schools. 'Genetically Modified Crops and Foods' was one edition tucked into a stack of other biotech-science-type stuff to make it look like a useful, up-to-date, teaching aid. Lest there be any doubt that the venture was anything but a GM-promotion exercise, the issue of 'Your World' magazine which described the wonders of GM food ended, chillingly
You probably now understand more about these complex issues than most adults. Go educate your elders”.

The demise of the McClones

May 2012

Sign outside Newmeadow farm, Auldearn, Scotland.
Photo W. L. Tarbert (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
or GFDL (], via Wikimedia CommonsPhoto 
What happened to the McClone clan which came to light in 2010? This clan was a Scottish herd of Holstein milking cows who were apparently the granddaughters of an American cow's ear (see A FEW BUILT-IN PROBLEMS WITH CLONED ANIMALS - GMFS News Archive, November 2010, and McCLONES - July 2011).

The story so far is difficult to piece together from the patchy, and sometimes muddled, information appearing in the press, but it runs something like this...

Danish pig farmer whistleblower

May 2012
Photo by Klaus Höpfner at de.wikipedia [GFDL (
or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
The Danish pig industry is well-known for combining intensive production with outstanding productivity (almost 30 weaned piglets per sow per year), and exceptionally low antibiotic use (as much as a quarter of what some countries find they have to apply). In fact, antibiotic use in Denmark is strictly controlled by veterinarians and is recorded.

Danish pig farmers might be about to become well-known for something else: they may prove the world's whistle-blowers for problems arising in livestock given GM feed.

Three reviews of GM safety

May 2012
GMO maize testing. Photo by I, Yann [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 
( CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
Three reviews of the published science on the 'safety' or 'health impact' of GM plants appeared in 2011.

One of these was the third periodic examination of the scientific literature by Spanish scientist, José Domingo. His reviews have all focused specifically on the “potential adverse health/toxic effects” of GM food plants.

Glyphosate is toxic to mouth cells

April 2012
Spreading Pesticide
Chinese farmer sprays pesticide on crops
Photo IFPRI-Images on Flickr
Glyphosate is the largest selling herbicide world-wide. It's been in use for decades to clear weeds from private and public paths, roads and play-areas, from waterways, and from agricultural fields both pre-planting and pre-harvest. More recently, glyphosate's use has risen exponentially with the advent of GM commodity crops able to survive it, plus the ensuing glyphosate-resistant weeds which need ever increasing doses of the herbicide to kill them.

Tadpole tails and Roundup herbicide

April 2012
Tadpoles were used in a Roundup study
Photo by Olaf Tausch (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
A study has been published which shows, for the first time, that Roundup herbicide stimulates adaptive physical responses during the development of a vertebrate animal.

Roundup is a very widely-used weed-killer. It is sprayed, in particular, on crops genetically transformed to survive it, and can end up in many non-target areas which are the homes of wildlife.

Adaptive physical responses produce important permanent changes during an animal's development which tailor the individual to the particular environment it's going to live in. Conversely, an inappropriate adaptive change can disadvantage the animal.

The study used tadpoles as a model vertebrate.

Glyphosate disrupts chromosomes

April 2012
Frog and lily
Frog on lily pad. Photo by Macomorphosis on Flickr

Environmental pollutants have exacted a very heavy toll on amphibians (frogs, toads etc.) around the globe.

A particular offender has been identified as glyphosate, a weed-killer now widely and repeatedly sprayed on crops genetically transformed to withstand it.

Frogs are particularly vulnerable to chemicals because of their life-cycle and physiology. Tadpoles and spawn are unprotected and live immersed in pooled water along with whatever contaminants have collected there. Adult frogs have skin which serves as a 'lung', and doesn't have the tough, impermeable qualities of, for example, mammalian skin.

A recent study by Argentinean scientists on the effects of glyphosate on two species of frog yielded some ominous results.

Non-GM super rice in China

rice farmer
Chinese rice farmer
Photo by kevsunblush on Flickr
April 2012
“ ... non-GM, breeding methods are fast and inexpensive, hugely successful, and uniquely able to introduce stable complex changes in plants. GM crops have not progressed beyond two basic traits (herbicide-tolerance and Bt-insecticide generation), both of which are extensions of the existing, unsustainable, chemical-dependent model of agriculture. GM crop development remains, not only limited in scope, but expensive, inefficient, and monopoly-, and patent-dependent.”

If you suspect the above statement is anti-GM extremism, look at what's happening in China, a country held up by the pro-GM lobby as a shining example of the benefits Britain is missing out on by not growing GM crops.

Operation exterminate mosquitoes

April 2012
Female Aedes aegypti mosquito
By James Gathany [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
'Dengue fever' is an illness caused by a virus which is transmitted from person to person by biting female mosquitoes belonging to the species Aedes aegypti.

Infection can lead to a full continuum of disease: the symptoms are 'flu-like, but are rarely fatal and up to half of cases are asymptomatic; Dengue Shock Syndrome and Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever are potentially life-threatening; the latter is seen most often in children and causes death in 5% of cases.

The focus of control of dengue is to eliminate the mosquitoes which carry the virus and so break the cycle.

To this end a UK biotech company, 'Oxitec' (see below), has created self-destructing GM mozzies.