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.