No so smart Smartstax

January 2015
Image © Greenpeace

Agapito-Tenfen et al.'s study looking at the effects of breeding GM plants together to stack multiple artificial DNA constructs into one crop [1] has thrown a very uncomfortable shadow over Monsanto's 'SmartStax' maize.

Indications from this study are that, even with only two transformation events stacked, there's reduced expression of the novel genes and significant changes in biochemical pathways such as energy-production, detoxification, cellular processes, genetic information processing, and others. If this degree of perturbation happens when only two events are stacked, what is happening in SmartStax which has eight events stacked? 

Less than almost zero safety testing

January 2015

CC photo by International Maize and
Wheat Improvement Center on Flickr
In recent years, more than a quarter of the GM crops in commercial production were 'stacked' with more than one artificial gene construct (or 'event'). Such plants have been produced by breeding single-construct varieties together until all the desired GM traits were together in a single crop.

Despite the recognition that crossing two GMOs will produce an entirely novel GMO, stacked plants are being approved on the unjustifiable basis that all their parent GMOs have been approved.

Even in Europe, which has arguably the most stringent GM regulations in the world, and requires a full risk-assessment, stacked GMOs have been approved without investigation of the final product.

At the end of 2014, the first study was published which looked at the metabolic consequences of breeding plants with two artificial gene constructs from single-event parent GMOs.

Maize pollen travels a long way

January 2015
Field of corn. CC photo by Joel Dinda on Flickr
German scientists have come up with a large and well-controlled data-set which suggests that the management of 'Bt' insecticidal maize (the only GM crop grown on any scale in Europe) is fundamentally flawed.

A scientific note on glyphosate

January 2015

In 2013, a novel use for 'glyphosate' and its major metabolite 'AMPA' was examined in a paper in the Journal Drug Design, Development and Therapy.

Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient of the weed-killer 'Roundup', which is sprayed on GM Roundup-tolerant crops. Other exploitable (patented) properties of glyphosate include its ability to bind strongly to metal ions and its antibiotic effects.

A Chinese-American team of scientists suggested the possibility of using glyphosate or AMPA as a drug due to their chemical similarity to 'glycine'. Glycine is the simplest amino-acid, a building block of proteins, and is an intermediate in many biochemical pathways and physiological processes.

Roundup hurts hearts?

January 2015
Pesticide spraying. CC photo by Global Water Partnership on Flickr
There could be as many as five million agricultural workers in the developing world who suffer an episode of pesticide poisoning each year. Some of these are accidental and some are, sadly, due to attempted suicide. In these latter cases, death is strongly associated with high blood glyphosate levels. Glyphosate is, of course, the active ingredient of Roundup herbicide used on, and accumulated by, GM 'Roundup Ready' crops.
Roundup intoxication commonly leads to heart malfunction. Anecdotal evidence from hunters describe rabbits dying suddenly after crossing a Roundup-sprayed field, and pet owners have described dogs dying of seizures after exposure to Roundup-sprayed lawns.
Despite these, Roundup's benign image remains intact [1]. But the evidence that the herbicide is far from physiologically inert is mounting.

Roundup annihilates earthworms

January 2015
Roundup canisters. CC photo by London Permaculture on Flickr
More than twenty years after the commercialisation of GM crops designed to be blanket-sprayed with 'Roundup' herbicide, a paper has been published showing that a single spraying put earthworms at risk of local extinction.

Armyworm on the march

January 2015

Fall armyworm. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
'Fall armyworm' is a long-distance migratory insect distributed from Argentina to Canada. It is a major pest of both maize and cotton, and has a wide host range of over 80 plant types, including several grasses.

Shaky meta-analysis of GM benefits

January 2015
Corn harvest. CC photo by United Soybean Board on Flickr
A heavily-promoted 'meta-analysis' of the performance of GM crops world-wide concluded it "revealed robust evidence of GM crop benefits for farmers in developed and developing countries" which "may help to gradually increase public trust in this technology".
Meta-analysis is a statistical technique which examines the combined effect of a number of studies on the same topic, to give an overall picture of what the total data might, or might not, be showing. The more studies included, and the more closely comparable the data sets, the more robust the results.
What the meta-analysis found was "On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.