GM reality checks

December 2013

Waiting For The Harvest
Soybeans. CC photo by Scott Robinson on Flickr
 2013 may well go down as the year of the GM reality checks. 

Reality Check No.1

GM crops increase the use of toxic chemicals in our food and in our environment. 

In August, the US Department of Agriculture quietly approved the first next-generation GM crop, Bayer's soya which is resistant to 'Balance' herbicide containing 'isoxaflutole' (IFT).   

IFT is classed as a “probable human carcinogen”, and is linked to liver and thyroid tumours and foetal toxicity.  The herbicide is persistent in the environment, including ground-water sources of drinking water. 

Right behind IFT in the GM/pesticide pipeline, a veritable “herbicide Armageddon” with matching GM crops is looming:
  • Dow AgroSciences is awaiting approval of 2,4-D-resistant maize and soya.  This herbicide has been linked to immune-system cancer and adverse reproductive impacts.
  • BASF is preparing an imidazolinone-resistant soya.  One form of this herbicide has been linked to bladder and colon cancer
  • Syngenta has GM soya resistant HPPD inhibitors (related to IFT) which have been linked to toxic effects in the liver.
  • Monsanto has its own GM soya and cotton resistant to Dicamba, a herbicide linked to cancer and developmental toxicity.
If you're really unlucky, you'll find yourself eating these traits stacked with our old friends glyphosate- and glufosinate-resistance, along with a cocktail of all the associated chemicals.  Also, as the grape-growers in Winsconsin have found to their cost, you might get any of these herbicides in any non-GM food grown near a GM field (that is, if your non-GM food has survived the spray-drift).

Genetic damage from 'inert' dsRNA

December 2013

This year, 2013, kicked of with the publication of another alarming GM feeding study.  It involved double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) which can be generated by artificial DNA to control existing genes rather than generate novel proteins (see [1]). 

Research has already established that dsRNA is stable and can transfer from food into the consumer.  Once inside, the long chains of dsRNA are cleaved into an assortment of smaller chains ('siRNA') which can interfere with metabolic processes. 

The reason for the latest feeding study wasn't anything to do with GM foods or crops.  It was to clarify a technical detail in the way laboratory investigations of insect genes are carried out.  When studying gene function, it's common practice to disable the gene using an appropriate siRNA.  As a comparative control in such experiments, scientists have been using a sequence of dsRNA which couldn't arise naturally.  Their assumption has been that the foreign siRNA won't find any DNA in the insect genome to interfere with.  However, unexpected observations of changes in gene expression, pigmentation and developmental timing in control bees (who should have been entirely 'normal') put this assumption in doubt.  Further investigation was clearly warranted.

N-Fix - too good to be true?

November 2013
Berillo wheat variety
CC photo by Wheat initiative on Flickr
The holy grail of gene technology has long been the creation of plants which can fix nitrogen from the air to provide their own nitrogen fertiliser.  Scientific and financial resources have been poured into attempts to develop such GM crops in Britain. 

There's no doubt that world agriculture desperately needs to find an alternative to our current dependence  on artificial nitrogen fertilizers.  They’re expensive, energy- and fossil fuel-hungry, climate-, environment- and health-damaging. 

Natural conversion of nitrogen gas in the air to a form usable by plants is carried out by soil bacteria.  Scientists who are aware of the complexity of nitrogen-fixation in such bacteria have reservations about whether the process can be translated by GM into higher plants.  Besides the 20 genes involved (each structured to express in bacteria not in plant cells) and the enzymes needed (some of which are assembled from separately generated components and some of which incorporate iron and molybdenum ions), the reaction itself can only take place if oxygen is excluded.  The energy costs and metabolic contortions needed to achieve such novel reactions and conditions in a plant are so extensive that achieving a robust crop at the end of the day may be a “pipe-dream” (Institute of Science in Society). 

However, researchers at Newcastle University have been following another line of inquiry.  They've come up with 'N-fix' technology. 

The Minister for GM hype

November 2013

NP Ghana 15_lo
CC photo by CIAT on Flickr
Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith, has dubbed Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, the UK's “Minister for GM Hype”. 

Goldsmith describes Paterson's recent well-broadcast comments on the 'wicked' campaigners who voiced concerns about GM 'golden rice' [1] as “staggering”, and his suggestion that anyone has died because of their actions as “grotesque”.  Indeed, Goldsmith backs up his remarks with a concise summary of all the main issues surrounding the vitamin A producing rice, and concludes that
“Without the success story, GM relies on hype”. 

GM cotton contact

November 2013

Cotton worker, India
Cotton worker in India. CC Photo by Jeremy Evans Thomas on Flickr
When you think 'cotton', you probably think T-shirts, towels, bedding, bandages, personal care products.

All the cotton bolls which are processed into such textiles start off full of seeds which have to be removed. The spare seeds are use up by conversion to animal feed. Other cotton by-products of textile production consist of 'gin trash', a mess of seeds, stalks, leaves, burrs, twigs and dirt.

Gin trash is sold on to food processors to create cotton seed oil (a common component of 'vegetable' oil), vitamins, food additives, and bulking agents.

So, besides the cotton derivatives which end up inside you via your gut, there's a lot of cotton textile dust in the air which ends up inside you via your lungs.

Saudi Arabia finds GM food pollution

November 2013

market day in riyadh
Market in Riyadh. CC photo by Edward Musiak on Flickr
Saudi Arabia imports around 60-70% of its crops and food. Quality checks are made regarding the nutrient content and mycotoxin levels in the food, but GM declarations have never been required and there's no labelling.

Noting that in Europe regulators demand labelling of imported food and feed at GM levels above 0.9%, and noting that GMOs have been detected in raw and processed foods in Brazil, Egypt, Canada and Malaysia, scientists in Saudi Arabia carried out a survey of the food on sale in their country.

Are pests needed to control climate change?

November 2013

CC photo by William Warby on Flickr
A recent study by American ecologists has cast an interesting new light on our intuitive concept of the carbon cycle, especially on the realities of carbon storage, carbon release as CO2, and the resulting threat of climate change.

We've never before doubted that plants left undisturbed will grow maximally, and store maximum carbon from their photosynthetic endeavours. Nor have we ever doubted that the destruction of plants by herbivorous animals will reduce carbon storage, while the action of carnivorous animals will keep the herbivores in check and thus offset the carbon lost to them.

We've never questioned the role of liberal applications of insecticidal chemicals, and more recently 'Bt' GM plants which suffuse themselves with insecticidal proteins, in enabling maximal carbon storage and growth of our crops.

But, interestingly, no one's ever scientifically verified these 'intuitions'.

The Golden Rice blame game

November 2013

Golden Rice grain GN7_9547-9B
Golden Rice. CC photo by IRRI Photos on Flickr
The recent report calling on governments to 'Wake-up Before It Is Too Late' [1] must have been the last thing our pro-GM Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, wanted to hear.

Paterson has been staging a campaign to steer UK agri-research down a GM route for the past year [2]. This latest, very major and authoritative, UN report didn't single out GM but condemned all such technical quick-fixes, coming down firmly in favour of small-scale, local food and wealth creation as the only real answer to world hunger.

In what has all the hallmarks of a damage-limitation exercise, Paterson seems to have revived the oldest GM trick in the book: golden rice. A well-timed open letter from “eminent international scientists” appeared in a top science magazine blaming fear-mongering for a supposed delay in rolling out golden rice. Orchestrated or not, the letter set the scene for Paterson to be 'interviewed' on the subject by a top national newspaper. The result was disproportionately wide publicity for comments on GM we've all heard before (see[3]).

Badgers behaving badly

November 2013

Photo credit Sally Longstaff on Flickr
Is Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, as out of his depth on the subject of gene behaviour as he is on the subject of badger behaviour?

The controversial culling of badgers to stem bovine tuberculosis (TB) in UK herds seem to have got off to a very rocky start.

After a trial run which showed a “modest improvement” in TB incidence when about 70% of badgers in an area had been wiped out, the task set by the government was to cull at least that proportion in areas where herds are affected.

Because badgers scatter when someone's trying to kill them, and because eliminating fewer of the animals (30% in the trial run) actually makes the TB worse, it was stipulated that the cull must be completed within “not more than six consecutive weeks” (National England license terms) to avoid these pitfalls.

Gene pollution update 2013

November 2013

Wheat growing in Oregon, USA. Photo Gary Halvorson
Oregon State Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
The chance discovery of illegal GM wheat growing in a field in Oregon highlighted some uncomfortable home-truths (see GM CONTAMINATION DÉJÀ VU - June 2013).

Despite its wholesale move to GM agriculture and widespread field-trials of experimental GM plants, America isn't monitoring gene 'escapes': the rogue herbicide-tolerant wheat only became obvious when it survived spraying with Roundup herbicide, and its source has never been pin-pointed. While it seems unlikely that a single field could become so widely contaminated accidentally, no other similarly polluted areas have been identified.

US public health trends after GM

October 2013

Photo credit Sarah Nott on Flickr
Since GM food labelling has become a hot topic in America [1], US physicist, Dr Nancy Swanson, suggests
“It behooves us to educate ourselves about this important issue”.
In a series of articles in the Seattle Examiner, Swanson explains the what, how, and where of GMOs in America, and why the laws which should be protecting the public are simply not there. Data was drawn mainly from government sources (USDA:NASS, CDC) and some health institutes have been used to prepare a graphic description of the increasing disease trends correlated with increasing GM crops and increasing applications of glyphosate herbicide, which the majority of GM crops are genetically transformed to accumulate.

Graph after graph shows the same pattern: disease incidence remained relatively stable until around 1995, after which there has been a steady climb which continues year-on-year. The quantities of applied glyphosate and the percentage of GM corn and soya growing are superimposed on the charts. All trends can be seen to be following disturbingly parallel courses.

The remarkable scientific consensus

October 2013

Planet -  Jones Valley Urban Farm
Image credit: Alby Headrick on Flickr
“Genetic engineering has aroused an unprecedented controversy in the scientific world. It has been described by one Nobel prize-winner as creating the greatest ethical problem that science has ever had to face” (Straton).
This apparently topical quote is from an article entitled “The Genetic Engineering debate” and dates from 1977. At this time, the GM being debated involved microbes, viruses and fungi, all much simpler that the higher plants and animals being genetically transformed today.

Since then, what's happened to the GM debate?

Gaming the 'experts'

October 2013

2013 March Against Monsanto DC 24
March against Monsanto - Washington, USA.
Photo by Stephen Melkisethian on Flickr
The recent global 'Millions Against Monsanto' movement with its global network of 'Marches Against Monsanto', and our own local 'Scotland Against Monsanto', reveal an unprecedented awareness of the modern corruption of our food supply. A single company has been not only permitted, but encouraged to seize total control of a whole swathe of our food from farm to fork. And what's being forced upon us is not a kind of food we want to eat.

GM: a tool or a dangerous distraction?

October 2013

Wheat field (Kingsnorth 2008)
Wheat field, Kent. Photo by Zohar Manor-Abel on Flickr
In the 1990s, we were told all farming and food would be GM in less than a decade. Biotech crops were going to beat the stresses of drought, heavy metals and salinity, they would increase yields, reduce pesticides and fix their own nitrogen.

GM is failing to deliver on any of these promises.

Crop yields continue to improve entirely due to conventional breeding and yield increases in comparable crops have been greater in Europe without GM crops than in the US with its vast GM monocultures.

Lower pesticide use has also been achieved in Europe without GM. Where biotech crops have been grown year on year, pesticide use has begun to escalate after a few seasons.

UN says wake up before it's too late

October 2013

NP India burning 59
Photo credit: CIAT International on Flickr
In September 2013, a “doorstop” of a UN Report on how future generations can be fed was released.

The essence of the Report is in its title: “Wake-up Before It Is Too Late”.

Contributions from 60 leading world experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, called for a paradigm shift away from conventional export-oriented, input-intensive, monoculture agriculture and towards “ecological intensification”, small-scale, crop-diverse, local, food production.

Food genes inside you

October 2013

Photo by By Engl101caison (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]
via Wikimedia Commons
Unless it's been processed out of existence, DNA is present in all food and feed. Because the amount of DNA is low compared with other constituents and doesn't have a significant nutritional value, few studies have been carried out on how the body handles it.

This has allowed regulators to issue blandly reassuring advice about the safety of GM DNA based on generalisations and dogma, and very little in the way of science.

For example, DNA in food has long been claimed to be rapidly degraded in the digestive tract. This assertion is backed up by: “a large number of experimental studies on livestock” have failed to detect GM DNA in animal tissues and fluids. And just in case anyone points out the foregoing aren't quite true, be reassured that, even if an occasional DNA fragment does end up in animal produce, this is no different from the occasional non-GM fragment which also ends up there.

The messages of mere “fragments” of GM DNA which occur only “occasionally” and are “no different” from any other DNA is clear: there is nothing to worry about.

Recent research, however, is repainting the picture.

Sickly GM-fed cows

October 2013

Photo credit: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dairy farming is a major industry. Modern veterinary science has well-established normal reference values for the blood chemistry of cows: a rise or fall in key blood components signals disease in specific organs.

The expected norm in a dairy herd is healthy animals demonstrating normal blood biochemistry.

European dairy cows are now routinely fed on commercial concentrated feed consisting of soya, maize and other grains. The feed is designed to promote optimum milk production.

Strange, therefore, that a study of 240 cows drawn from eight different (run-of-the-mill) farms in Denmark should all show signs of liver and muscle toxicity, and some had impaired kidney function also.

It seems the new norm in our dairy herds is that they are sickly.

The need for natural chunks of DNA

September 2013

An opinion and analysis from the editors of the popular science magazine, Scientific American, implores readers to “Fight the GM Food Scare”.

Public fears, it seems, are based on the misconception that GM foods endanger health.

In support of their assertion that GMOs are just as safe as other foods, the editors describe genetic transformation as a modern tool which inserts a gene here or tweaks a gene there. The reader is asked to compare this with conventional breeding in which “giant chunks” of DNA are swapped between one plant and another. GM, therefore, produces more predictable and precise results, which somehow makes it safer.

Is this argument convincing?

Majority of GM safety studies are irrelevant to humans

September 2013

According to one plant molecular scientist (as he histrionically “sags into his chair and gestures at the air”) there have been “hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth” yet the fears about GM foods persist (Robert Goldberg, University of California at Los Angeles).

This begs a question or two. Amongst these hundreds of millions of genetic experiments, how many were aimed at addressing our fears? How many were relevant the GMOs in our food chain, or to us and our health?

Bt inspired pests

September 2013

Photo of a cotton field in China
Cotton field in China. CC photo by tian yake on Flickr
A long running-debate about the sustainability of 'Bt' insecticide-generating GM crops is that because they kill their single most troublesome pest, no broad-spectrum chemicals are applied and other pests will “go crazy”.

The story of Bt cotton in China supports this concern. More than 90% of Chinese cotton is now genetically transformed to control corn boll-worm (CBW). “Spraying specifically for CBW from 1997 when Bt cotton was introduced until 2010 decreased by a spectacular two-thirds. Total sprayings for all insect pests during this period was reduced by a less spectacular 14%. Spraying for non-CBW pests increased by 60%.” (APHID-FRIENDLY COTTON - July 2012)

Rehashed herbicides in the GM pipeline

September 2013

#Monsanto super weed #MarchAgainstMonsanto  #GMO #MAM25 #MAM #m25 #noGMO
Monsanto superweed protester in San Francisco.
CC photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr
The ubiquitous over-use of Roundup herbicide on GM crops in America has resulted in Roundup-resistant weeds clogging fields across the land.

Farmers who have been relying on Roundup to keep weeds down for over a decade, are now desperately in need of a new tool to deal with the problem. And, now that they've been trained, to the exclusion of all other techniques, to use a chemical to cure unwanted plant growth, that 'tool' has to be another chemical.

Organic, conventionally grown and GM soya are different

September 2013

Soy beans
Soy beans. CC photo by Kattebelletje on Flickr
Repeated attempts to persuade the public that organic foods are no better than conventionally grown ones, and that GM is both substantially equivalent to and as safe as non-GM, have resulted in our preferences being viewed as a groundless matter of 'choice' or 'belief'.

And indeed, using the decades-old standard compositional analyses to assess the quality of food and feed, detection of any differences between the three is rarely possible.

Shoring up this are the regulators clinging to the concepts that DNA is intrinsically safe to eat, that protein is digested beyond recognition, and that any agri-chemical used is only on the market because it is safe.

All this leaves little space for the exploration of safety concerns.

Is Glyphosate wrecking aquatic life?

September 2013

Water lily.  CC Photo by Mahmood Al-Yousif on Flickr
At least three published reviews have declared glyphosate (active ingredient of Monsanto's 'Roundup') to be an ideal herbicide due to its specificity and acclaimed low toxicity to non-target organisms in the environment.

Indeed, a majority of short-term studies on the aquatic invertebrate, Daphnia magna, a commonly accepted model animal in environmental toxicity studies, has pronounced 'glyphosate' to have 'no adverse effect', to be 'non-toxic' or 'moderately toxic', or to have 'low toxicity'.

However, experiments over the decades since glyphosate was first marketed have demonstrated an unexplained variability in toxicity across several orders of magnitude.

Glyphosate is heavily used in agriculture, forestry, gardening and waterway management, from where it seeps into ground-water and drinking water. With the advent of 'Roundup Ready' GM monocultures, quickly followed by Roundup-resistant super-weeds, the quantity of glyphosate entering the ecosystem has increased exponentially.

Glyphosate and cancer

September 2013

Crop spraying. Photo Oliver Dixon [CC-BY-SA-2.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
French professor, Gilles-Eric Séralini, has trodden firmly on regulatory and biotech toes on more than one occasion.

In 2007, he mentioned the taboo words 'endocrine disruption' in his re-analysis of the safety data submitted by Monsanto on its MON683 GM maize to the European Commission.

This was followed by a number of publications critical of the superficial nature of existing risk assessments for GM crops, and adding further evidence on endocrine effects.

In 2012, Séralini published experimental results suggesting that GM herbicide-tolerant maize, NK603, and the 'Roundup' herbicide used with it are linked to increased mammary tumours in susceptible animals (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT - October 2012).

With the incidence of newly-diagnosed breast cancers running at nearly 50,000 per year in the UK, Séralini's findings have to be taken seriously.

First ever long-term GM feeding study on pigs

August 2013
... more than 150 scientific studies have been done on animals fed biotech crops and to date, there is no scientific evidence of any detrimental impact” (biotech representative, CropLife International).
With a bit of cherry-picking of what constitutes appropriate scientific evidence this may be true. However, it's easy to see why no 'detrimental impact' has emerged. The 'scientific studies' has been largely based on animal models with little relevance to humans, on diets restricted to single GMOs, on very short time-scales, and on superficial data relevant only to commercial livestock production.

When a team of Australian and American scientists, led by Dr. Judy Carman, carried out an experiment which avoided the above short-comings, it raised concerns.

Big PR

August 2013


It would be funny if it wasn't serious.

Big Biotech, Big Agrichemical and Big Food (more than 50 companies in all) have joined together to create the biggest ever PR drive to shove GM down our unwilling throats.

The result?A freshly hand-picked PR firm (not yet identified), a new front group (Alliance to Feed the Future), and a new website ( inviting you to “join the conversation and ask your questions about GMOs”.

GM crop decontamination in Oregon

August 2013
Sugar beet. CC photo by USDA on Flickr
Something's happening in the US State of Oregon that we, in Europe, have been led to believe Americans don't do. People are pulling up GM plants: 6,500 GM sugar-beets to be precise.

It's not too hard to understand why such anti-American behaviour should emerge in this particular State. The State has already had more than its fair share of awareness-raising events.

Earlier in 2013, another GM-impossible happened there: rogue GM wheat was found growing on an Oregon farm (see CONTAMINATION DÉJÀ VU - June 2013). Such genetic pollution by a GM plant not approved anywhere in the world could cost American farmers billions of dollars. Despite Department of Agriculture scouring of grain elevators, fields and research stations, the source of the contamination hasn't been found: it could happen again any time, anywhere.

The power of labelling

August 2013

Right 2Know March (GMO Labeling)
Right2Know March in the US. Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr
Way back in the pre-dawn of the GM era, the President of Asgrow Seed Co, a subsidiary of Monsanto, said:
“If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it” (Kansas City Star, 7.03.94).
At about the same time, UK regulators found themselves grappling with the novel foods expected to flood our food chain. The food safety advisory body dreamed up the idea that all that was necessary was to educate the people about GM and they would be happy to accept it.

When the British public failed to believe that 'scientists know what they are doing', the 'GM Nation?' debate was organised, including a 'narrow-but-deep' discussion panel expected to show how we would become more accepting of GM once we learned more about it. Our government was wrong: the more people know about GM food, the less they trust it.

dsRNA in the field is bad news

August 2013

Biotechnology Lab Tech 10
Test tubes in a biotechnology lab.
CC photo by wistechcolleges on Flickr
The latest thing in GM technology uses a new tactic: it doesn't involve inserting genes, but creates 'RNA-interference' to alter the expression of existing genes. Crops using one form of this technology, insecticidal double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), are already in the pipeline.

Just when the official damage-limitation response to New Zealand scientist Jack Heinemann's warnings about the risks of dsRNA was fully underway in Australia and New Zealand [1, 2, 3], an even more detailed critic emerged unexpectedly from the 'father' of GM, America.

dsRNA Media Centre

August 2013

Tissue Culture
Plant propagation in a lab. CC photo by IRRI Images on Flickr
It comes as no surprise that safety assessment of the latest DNA-altered crops with 'ds-RNA' traits, is being side-stepped. These GM crops have identifiable risks, and raise many questions which are being 'answered' using assumptions and generalisations, but scant science (see RNA-MODIFIED FOOD and dsRNA:SILENCING REGULATION - July 2013).

Nor does it come as a surprise that the scientists who published safety evaluations critical of dsRNA and the dsRNA-based GM wheat now under development in Australia have come under attack. Needless to say, the studies they prepared are fully referenced, up-to-date in their science, and have passed the most rigorous peer-review process in existence.


July 2013
Non-GM apples. Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons
If you've recovered your wits after reading about the latest biotech 'healthy' GM wheat courtesy of its artificial double-stranded RNA seasoning (see FRANKENWHEAT and RNA-MODIFIED FOOD - July 2013), spare a thought for the humble apple.

Non-organic apples already have a stunning array of pesticides in and on them. Forty-two have shown up in US Department of Agriculture tests. These chemicals include endocrine disruptors and suspected neurotoxins linked to ADHD.

A major reason for the application of all these pesticides is the exceptionally narrow gene-base of the modern apple. We rely on a very few choice varieties cloned from a single parent by repeated grafting. Our apples have lost their ability to get along on their own.

As if things weren't bad enough, the latest craze is non-browning GM apples which have artificial dsRNA to add to the mix. This biotech bit blocks the production of the enzyme which causes a damaged apple to turn brown.

It's been pointed out that the browning of an apple's cut surface is an important defense mechanism against the entry of pathogens. The non-browning varieties may therefore need even more chemicals to keep them disease-free.


No one seems to have looked to see what havoc the novel dsRNA might cause in our cells, or in our children.

There's a good case here for for buying old-fashioned apples which have been grown locally, and are organic if at all possible.

  • Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins, Frankenapple: Bad News No Matter How You Slice It, Organic Consumers Association, 17.04.13


July 2013
Wheat close up 4
Wheat. CC photo by Wheat Initiative on Flickr
The latest development in genetic modification isn't inserting genes, it's inserting DNA to induce RNA interference, in particular double-stranded RNA, 'dsRNA' .

As described in RNA-MODIFIED FOOD - July 2013, the technique has a huge potential for side-effects. Reading this, “How can anyone still think it's safe to apply (RNA interference) in genetic modification?” (Institute of Science in Society).

Yet, dsRNA technology is in several pipe-line GM crops, one of which is a major global staple food, wheat.

This GM wheat is being developed in Australia* to have altered starch composition. The intention seems to be to create wheat grain with starch which is less digestible than normal. The hope is this will make it 'healthier' by improving large bowel health and cholesterol levels, and by reducing blood sugar in the same way as oats, rye, lentils and peas do.

A database investigation, however, has revealed a number of side-effects which will not be so healthy.

dsRNA: silencing regulation

July 2013
DNA extraction
Photo from Creative Commons by CIMMYT on Flickr
If you've just read RNA-MODIFIED FOOD - July 2013, you'll be aware that this latest GM development carries some serious new risks.

This latest GM fad doesn't introduce novel genes or proteins but creates much trickier transgenic regulatory RNA elements.

Now, you may be wondering whether our regulators are awake to the problems?

Lip-service is frequently paid to the 'precautionary principle', but rarely backed up by action. The prevailing regulatory culture seems to be one in which marketing of novel materials is encouraged to proceed until some proof of harm emerges. Scientific uncertainty is not used as a reason to delay their launch.

RNA-modified food

July 2013
Image of biotechnology from Creative Commons / United Soybean Board on Flickr
Up until now, all major commercial GM crops have been created by inserting artificial genes. 'Genes' are stretches of DNA (see definitions below) which the cell uses to create specific proteins.

So far, the novel proteins in GM crops have fallen into only two categories: they have either been enzymes which confer tolerance to a weed-killer (such as 'Roundup'), or have been analogues (adapted look-alikes) of bacterial proteins (such as 'Bt') which kill crop pests.

'New' GM crops now entering the market are simply an extension of these older ones: they have been 'stacked' with combinations of the same genes. Typical biotech crops available to farmers have tolerance to more than one herbicide, and produce several different insecticides.

COMMENT This sort of GM tactic will, ultimately, be self-limiting. Accelerated weed-tolerance to the favoured herbicides, accelerated insect-resistance to the novel insecticides, and constitutional constraints on how much foreign protein a plant can be made to churn out while remaining healthy will make it unsustainable.

However, genes, Roundup-resistance and Bt insecticides are old-hat. Biotech science has moved on.

Genetic engineers have turned their attention away from creating genes and novel proteins, to the much more vast field of non-gene DNA.

Trust tested and found wanting

July 2013

No GMO Label
Anti-gm protesters. CC photo by Alan Turner2 on Flickr
As Westminster gears up to 'go it alone' with GM in Europe, do they have the backing of the people they are supposed to represent?

A recent survey commissioned by the Food Standards Agency suggested that two thirds of the public consider it important that GM food, GM food ingredients and food from animals fed GM are labelled. Consumers clearly do not trust GM in their food chain.

A poll commissioned by The Grocer magazine suggested that 72% of the public do not trust retailers to tell the truth about GM food, and 60% do not trust Ministers to be honest about GM.

The answer to the above question appears to be NO.

Westminster rolling out the red carpet for GM

July 2013

Owen Paterson
By US Department of State [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons
The Westminster plot to push GM crop development centre-stage in the UK has moved forward once more [1].

In June, Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, gave a speech to the scientists at Rothamsted Research [2] where GM crops are major focus.

The speech was about the Government's policy of “Making the food and farming industry more competitive while protecting the environment”.

To do this, the Minister explained that he wants the UK to become the best place in the world for research into agricultural science and technology, including GM. “The Government wants to roll out the red carpet for potential researchers and developers”. He ended on the need for a “constructive, well informed and evidence-led” discussion to change the public's negative opinions on GM, and invited the scientists to “play their part”, adding “I'll back you all the way”.

Nothing more needs to be said about Paterson's GM pep-talk, because it consisted of over 80 rousing paragraphs in which every possible sound-byte ever issued by the pro-GM lobby over the last 17 years was repeated in some form: not a single original idea or justification was put forward. 

GM contamination déjà vu

June 2013

Wheat field in Oregon. Photo by Gary Halvorson
Oregon State Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
GM Freeze has repeatedly pointed out that the coexistence of GM and non-GM crops without contamination is almost impossible. GM pollen, GM seed and inevitable human error conspire to spread artificial DNA around no matter how rigorous the prescribed containment procedures.

In May 2013, US regulators announced that Roundup(herbicide)-resistant wheat had been found growing on a farm in Oregon: analysis confirmed it contained Monsanto's modified genes.

Edited science

... Edited out of existence.

June 2013

The gold-standard of science is peer-reviewed publication in an academic journal.

This system ensures that only research which has been appropriately designed and correctly executed with valid materials, and which presents conclusions supported by the results, is accepted into the cannon.
 “If it hasn't been published, it doesn't exist” (Robinson and Latham).
However, before it reaches the peer reviewers there's another hurdle: the science has to please the journal editor, who literally has the power of life or death over papers submitted.

Such power provides opportunities for abuse, and it seems this situation is being exploited by industry.

Genetically modified meals from hot air

June 2013

The oft-cited political (but, certainly not scientific) 'proof' of GM food safety is the huge numbers of people eating it over many years without any directly attributable health effect.

Let's see.

One recent use was in self-styled GM 'expert' Mark Lynas' speech at the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference (see WHEN NON-NEWS IS BAD NEWS - April 2013). Where he announced:
“... my conclusion here today: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe - over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten, there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than get hurt by GM food”.
Investigations by GM Watch trace the origins of this sound-byte back to 2003 when a pro-GM scientist told the Australian press he had “calculated that at least 30 billion meals involving these (GM) crops have been eaten in the last 6 years ... and there is not a single report of adverse health effects.”

Putting this '30 billion meals involving GM crops' into perspective is enlightening.

If you eat GM plants, you will likely have GM toxins inside you

June 2013

A study has been published which blows all assumptions about the safety of 'Bt' insecticidal GM proteins out of the water.

Biotech industry genetic engineers have been getting great mileage out of proteins modelled on those produced by the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis ('Bt'). These transgenic look-alikes come in an infinite variety and can be designed to target specific pests.

Bt proteins' assumed safety is based on their long history of safe use as cultured spore suspensions in foliar sprays. It's taken for granted that their protein chemistry means they will be denatured during digestion, and that their need for activation by specific gut conditions and cell-surface receptors found only in insects will make other animals (including humans) immune to their toxic effects.

Marching orders

June 2013
March against Monsanto rally in San Francisco's Union Square
March against Monsanto rally, San Francisco.
CC Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr
Two rather momentous things happened in May 2013.

The first involved Monsanto's decision to discontinue its lobbying for more cultivation of GM crops in Europe.

This announcement in itself wasn't too surprising: other biotech giants such as Bayer CropScience, BASF and Syngenta had already come to similar decisions, and the rising concern about GM foods in America is probably enough to deal with without tackling Europe at the same time. Monsanto is, instead, content to concentrate on supplying GM animal feed which is much bigger business, has largely escaped the dreaded labelling, and whose end-consumers who are a lot less fussy about what they eat than humans are.

The 'momentous' part of Monsanto's decision is the reason given: its spokesman said 
“The reason is, among other things, low demand of the farmers”. 
 It's no longer the environmentalists, greens, Luddites, idealists, middle-classes, excessive regulation etc. previously being blamed: it's the farmers themselves.

Monsanto's announcement came just after the first momentous event. This was a world-wide 'March Against Monsanto' on 25 May.

Bees vs. business

June 2013
Bee on a Thistle
Bee on a thistle. CC photo by James Bowe on Flickr
Europe seems to have taken a first meaningful step in tackling the collapse of its bee population. A two-year, EU-wide, moratorium has been imposed on three 'neonicotinoid' insecticides used on crops visited by bees and other pollinators.

The decision came in the wake of a series of high-profile scientific studies which linked neonicotinoids to huge losses in the number of queen bees produced and big increases in 'disappeared' bees i.e. those that fail to return to the hive after foraging trips. Regulators concluded there was “a strong, substantive and scientific case for the suspension” after identifying a 'high acute' risk' to honey bees and an unknown risk to wild bees. One bee expert whose research found harmful effects from neonicotinoids warned of “... a very substantial body of scientific evidence suggesting that this class of insecticides is impacting on health of wild bees, and perhaps other wildlife too.”

Roundup promotes botulism

June 2013

GM-free Scotland has previously raised concerns about the effects of GM crops and their associated chemicals on the health of the digestive system, in particular, its vast and vital microflora.

For example, in response to Professor Séralini's evidence of harm from eating 'NK603' GM maize and the 'Roundup' herbicide it accumulates [1], we noted that animals eating this maize will 
also be eating Roundup, which is known to be toxic to bacteria at very low levels. The net result can only be a change in gut microbe composition: some will be killed by the Roundup, other may thrive on elements in the transgenic maize, other might not like the NK603 at all, some will disappear because their vital companions are no longer there, and many will multiply due to the absence of the bugs which kept them in check.” [2]
A new study has been published which gives a perfect, concrete example of these suggested dangers.

Formaldehyde in food?!

May 2013

Corn growing in Ohio by Graylight (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (]
via Wikimedia Commons
The results of a unique US agronomic study have been released. Two different commercial maize crops grown in fields with different management histories were tested for composition. One crop was a GM herbicide-tolerant variety in a no-till field treated with glyphosate (Roundup) for the past 10 years. The other was a conventional variety in a field which hadn't been sprayed with Roundup during the previous 5 years. The two fields were separated by a fence. Environmental stresses on the crops were not unusually high that year.

Compositional analysis was by the 'gold standard' technique of chromatographic separation followed by mass spectrometry to identify the components. (Note that such analysis identifies specific substances, not the broad nutrient categories routinely used to assess the animal feeding value of crops.)

As expected, the GM crops had accumulated glyphosate levels equal to the recently set US maximum residue level. Also as expected (because glyphosate is known to bind to certain substances making them unavailable) the GM crop had lower levels of essential mineral nutrients.

Because the two crops were genetically different cultivars, it would be unlikely for their nutrient to be the same. However, the extent of the difference was extreme: with one single exception out of the fourteen minerals measured, the conventional maize had levels six to four-hundred times higher than the GM crop.

Even more unexpected was the discovery of high readings of formaldehyde in the GM maize. None was detected in the conventional one.

Formaldehyde - the missing link?

May 2013

Some of our most serious chronic health problems seem to have their roots in the 1980s. Why?


In the 1980s, several things began to feature in our lives which have increased year-on-year ever since:

1. Glyphosate weed-killer entered the market place.
Glyphosate has become ubiquitous in fields, food, water, public areas and our bodies [1,2]. Human exposure to this popular weed-killer has risen dramatically since the introduction of herbicide tolerant 'Roundup Ready' GM crops. Compared with other agri-chemicals, glyphosate has always had a very favourable, and marketable, safety profile.

2. Aspartame artificial sweetener entered the market place.
Aspartame has been the sugar-substitute of choice for decades due to its lack of aftertaste and low cost. There's a perception that it breaks down to natural protein components, making it intrinsically safe.

3. Dementia began its steady climb to emerge as another modern epidemic.
Dementia is a progressive impairment of brain function due to chemical abnormalities in the brain cells. It presents in high proportions of the very elderly, but is now being seen in the middle aged.

4. Obesity and type-2 diabetes incidence began their steady climb to emerge as modern epidemics.
Obesity is an excess of body fat and the condition is no respecter of age.
Type-2 diabetes refers to high blood sugar levels. It's a range of conditions in which some requirement of normal sugar metabolism is impaired. Once upon a time this was a condition of old age, but in now presenting in children.

Is the 1980s date of commencement a coincidence, or is there some factor linking these four together?

Oops! No food!

May 2013

CC Photo by Danny Nicholson on Flickr
For many years, GM lobbyists have been telling us that we need GM because people in other countries aren't getting enough to eat. Then, they tried the threat that people in 2050 won't have enough to eat if we don't grow GM now. Since these haven't been too convincing, agriculture minister David Heath has decided to try bringing the argument into our own backyard.

Britain only produces about 60% of its food, and the proportion is falling. To add to this deficiency we have nothing much stockpiled for a rainy day: our never-empty supermarket shelves are a carefully stage-managed illusion created by a steady stream of just-in-time deliveries and a constant rearrangement of the stocks on display. We are heavily dependent on imports and the global food market.

The blame for this extraordinarily irresponsible food supply system lies, it seems, on what happened “a few years ago when the idea got around” that the UK agri-sector could be laid to rest because “we would be able to buy our way through whatever was necessary to feed the country”

Irritable bowel syndrome link to GM food

May 2013

'MON810' insecticidal maize is the only major GM feed crop permitted for cultivation in Europe.

However, eight European countries have banned it, and recently, Italy has moved this a stage further and asked the European Commission to withdraw its approval for the crop.

The scientific and anecdotal evidence of problems in livestock fed MON810 and other 'Bt' crops is mounting but fragmented and inconsistent. Over a dozen feeding studies measuring various parameters in various animals given various Bt-based feeds have been published. All have found physiological changes in the animals. Some of the results support each other, others do not, and all are short-term. More than anything else, they highlight the gaps: there's an absence of long-term experiments; there's a lack of in-depth physiological studies, especially of intestinal and immune responses. Most of all, it's clear that no one knows what to look for: there's an urgent need to identify key biomarkers for Bt-maize-linked symptoms

The latest feeding study to be published has shed at least some new light on the biomarker question. It involved a very detailed look at salmon fed GM maize for periods of 1 and 3 months.

Farmers don't trust Bt insecticide

May 2013

Corn/maize field in South Dakota. Photo by Lars Plougmann (originally posted to Flickr as
In the corn field],[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (]
via Wikimedia Commons
In the upcoming growing season, 92% of US maize growers are expected to sow 'Bt' hybrids targetting corn root-worm (CRW), a major pest.

These varieties have been genetically transformed to suffuse themselves with one or more artificial forms of insecticidal proteins modelled on those found in the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, 'Bt'.

Bt crops are touted as needing less chemical insecticides: they are, therefore, safer for people and the environment, and are less expensive and more convenient for farmers. Nevertheless, nearly half of farmers who are choosing Bt maize this year are still intending to apply soil insecticides at planting time.

Bt refuge theory unravels

May 2013
Canola field in Washington County. Photo Gary Halvorson,
Oregon State Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
US regulators and the biotech industry realised from day one that, if farmers grew monocultures of GM crops which produce a single insecticide, it was inevitable that pests resistant to the novel toxin would emerge.

To delay this inconvenience, they devised a 'refuge' strategy. Farmers are required to plant areas of conventional plants to harbour a population of susceptible pests. The theory is that two resistant mutant insects must breed together to produce resistant offspring so that breeding with the normal insects from the refuge will dilute the chances of this happening.

GM feed ban dissolves, except at Waitrose

May 2013

Photo by Greenpeace
In early April, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, the Co-op, and Tesco all announced they will no longer require that farm animals in their supply chain are fed a non-GM diet. This orchestrated action follows on from previous one-man-stands by ASDA (owned by US retail giant Walmart) in 2010 and Morrisons in 2012.

The reason given for this move is that there is a shortage of non-GM soya.

Retailers seem to have been panicked by the action of one large supplier of non-GM soya, which informed them directly that it would no longer be supplying non-GM soya. Its reasons are not fully apparent. That was in December 2012. In February 2013, farmers' representatives (the National Farmers' Union, British Egg Industry Council, British Poultry Council) made a direct appeal to the supermarkets to lift their ban on GM-feed citing shortage and cost.

This 'shortage', however, can't be quite what it seems. Brazil has just had a record harvest of soya, of which about 25% is non-GM. ABRANGE, the Brazilian Association of Non-GM grain producers, has pointed out what's behind this 'shortage' myth.

Take back the Earth!

April 2013
Photo of cucumbers by Muu-karhu (Own work) [GFDL (, 
CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.0 
(] via Wikimedia Commons
The idea that lab-made DNA concoctions are patentable 'inventions' is just about plausible. After all, Nature would never be so stupid as to put bacterial genes into food plants to make them toxic or able to accumulate chemicals.

However, the logic behind allowing patents on artificial genes has been extended in many questionable directions: rights can now be conferred not only on lab-made DNA 'inventions' but on any whole organism incorporating the novel DNA, and on any material derived from such organisms, including their future generations. With successive waves of patented genes, a bit of GM pollen in the air, GM seed spillage, and hybridisation, there's a risk much of the living world might soon belong to the biotech industry, if they have their way.

And it just got worse.

The biotech industry has found ways to bend European law to get exclusive rights over just about any seed it cares to own. A dangerous precedent is now underway to allow patents on conventional varieties of our everyday vegetables and fruits, such as cucumber, broccoli and melon.

When non-news is bad news

April 2013

The Westminster plot to get GM crops and food in to our fields and on to our dining tables continues to unfold.

It seems to have been hatched in the summer of 2012 with a low-key consultation about new “agri-tech” measures for our farms. The execution of the plot was placed in the capable hands of the newly-appointed, and very pro-GM, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. [2]

The strategy is becoming increasingly apparent: create “GM the brand”, GM the 'hot topic', GM the 'obvious solution' to all our key problems, GM desired by anyone with 'any sense'. So that, somehow, GM keeps hitting the headlines for no reason.

As already reported by GM-free Scotland, Paterson is backed in this venture by an army of government and non-government organisations moving in step to the beat of a PR company drum. [2] There are also signs of back-up actions performed by other enlisted guerrillas.

Target number one is the UK public although Scotland has received extra special attention.