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.