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.