The future of potatoes

December 2018

GM potatoes with a little extra something for everyone are wending their way into American supermarkets. To please the potato processors, these wondrous spuds don't get black spots when bruised [1]. To satisfy French fry aficionados, they don't turn brown when they're old and fried.

To coax consumers, GM relieves them of the dread threat of 'acrylamide' carcinogen in their fries [2]. To suit farmers, they promise blight-free crops. These spuds are very novel and very uniform. They come at a cost, and with more than a few risks [3].

Uncomfortable questions about GMOs

December 2018

Twenty years and two continents apart, two scientists sounded the same warning about the same GM crop. Both were mad-keen on the promises of genetic engineering, until they looked at the results of their own experiments and changed their minds. The crop which brought about this dawning was the potato [1].

In Scotland, 1998, Dr. Arpad Pusztai spoke out about the multiple adverse effects he saw in his laboratory rats fed GM spuds. In America, 2018, Dr. Caius Rommens reviewed his years of work in industry creating thousands of GMOs: he realised his "almost daily experience" was that "most GMO varieties were stunted, chlorotic (yellowed), mutated, or sterile, and many of them died quickly, like prematurely-born babies".

Rommens is now very clear that real scientists are people who love to study the natural world, not to modify it. Those who call themselves 'scientists' today spend their days staring at computer screens, generating and analysing numbers. Their focus is on imposing a controlled predictability on the capricious natural world so as to liberate society from the erratic forces of nature. Genetic engineering is not science, nor even a profession but "the expression of distorted mind-set".

Is Pandora a myth?

December 2018

'Pandora's Potatoes' might seem an odd name for a book examining the scientific reality of the GM potatoes now in American supermarkets. Its author, Caius Rommens, and creator of these very spuds, chose the name because, once he had detached himself from the biotech industry and reviewed his past work and the scientific literature, he identified concerns he simply hadn't been able to see before.

Primarily, he noticed the extent of unintended effects in his novel potatoes [1,2]. He realised his GM creations had hidden issues and, just like the contents of Pandora's Box (which should never have been opened), would unleash sickness, death and lots of unexpected evils in the world.

The second part of the book's title is even more intriguing: 'The Worst GMOs'.

Acrylamide in potatoes

December 2018

One of the hot issues in 2002 was the discovery of 'acrylamide' in food, especially in potatoes.

This wasn't good news because the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies acrylamide as Group 2A, 'probably carcinogenic to humans'. The main evidence for this is that, at high doses and in pure chemical form, acrylamide causes cancer in laboratory animals. It's linked to a whole stack of other toxic effects too, but it's the carcinogenic one that regulators struggle with most because of the difficulty in defining the actual risk and in setting a 'safe' dose.

Stay-white GM spuds

December 2018

When genetic engineer whizz-kid, Caius Rommens put his mind to enhancing the potato-experience for all spud-users from farm to factory to fork, he homed in on the annoying black patches which often sully the whiteness of the perfect potato.

The black areas are caused by the presence of a black pigment made by the potato itself, so the remedy was obvious: pop in a bit of artificial DNA which would switch off one of the genes the potato needed to create the black stuff.

Thus were born, 'Innate' stay-white spuds which don't bruise when harvested from the field, nor when they're trucked to the shops or factories, nor when they're streaming through a processing machine. Users don't have to spend time, energy and money cutting out all those black bits, and there's less waste at every level of the bruising supply chain.

All this sounds like a GM fairy-tale ending, and it might have been except that ...

A brief history of GM potatoes

December 2018

After the damp-squib of the earliest attempt to market a GM vegetable, the 'Flav Savr' tomato, all the signs were that the humble potato was going to be the real cheerleader for fresh, recognisable biotech food.

Glyphosate kills bees by stealth

November 2018

Increasing suspicion is falling on glyphosate herbicides' effects on microbes in the gut of consumers.

The innards of all animals are teeming with bacteria whose quantity and diversity exert multiple influences on health.  Many of these microbes have enzymes in common with plants, and, like plants, can be harmed when glyphosate interferes with them.

Cost-cutting in Brazil

November 2018

In 2016, organic food sales in Brazil were mushrooming by 20 to 30 percent a year.  At the same time, some 70 percent of organic produce was being exported to Europe.  Farmers there recognise that "Growing organics is the future", and the people are increasingly "wanting healthier food free from pesticides".

Were it not for the alliance between the government and Big Agriculture, which is driving the economy, and the supermarkets, which are controlling the food supply system, organics would be a key growth industry.  Instead, it remains a tiny fraction of the whole, swamped by Big Ag's desire for GM crops and their supporting chemicals.  Supermarkets, of course, promote cut-throat competition amongst their suppliers, and the 'winners' are the unrestrained fraudsters passing off conventional pesticide-laden food as 'organic'.

Faced with this scenario, the Brazilian government is busy pushing through two far-reaching pieces of legislation.

GM papaya in China

November 2018

Papaya is a short-lived perennial crop. Under ideal conditions, the trees begin to bear fruit within months of planting and continue profitably for three years.  This provides a valuable non-stop harvest.

The greatest single threat to papaya production globally has long been considered papaya ringspot virus (PRSV).  This rapidly spreading disease devastates yield and fruit quality.  In the absence of any naturally-resistant strains for conventional breeders to tap into, genetic transformation is viewed as "the most effective approach to prevent and control PRSV".  The favoured GM trick is to insert a vital PRSV gene into the papaya which has the effect of silencing that vital gene in the virus.

Poisoning our great-grandchildren?

November 2018
Disturbed by the higher incidence of birth defects he observed after moving to a mid-west farming state, one US paediatrician decided to investigate.  His research homed in on two of the most heavily used herbicides in the state: atrazine and glyphosate.  Atrazine is used on corn and soya crops, and has a habit of ending up in drinking water*.  Glyphosate is used on most GM corn and GM soya and has a habit of ending up everywhere [1].

So far, studies on humans have shown that if you plot the levels of atrazine in drinking water and birth defects, they fit each other "like a hat".  At the same time, glyphosate has been found in the body of "virtually every pregnant mother" tested in the state, and has been linked to shortened pregnancy [2].

Looking at rat experiments carried out in the US (atrazine) and Argentina (glyphosate), things become scary. 

Could GM fish oil wreck the environment?

November 2018

Concerns about eating salmon stuffed with GM omega-3 oils may be over-blown [1], but the risks to the environment are very real.

GM veggie oil for fish

November 2018

The earliest suggestions that certain 'fatty acids' (the building block of oils) might be, like vitamins, vital to health in small quantities were ridiculed by the scientific establishment: oils were viewed as simply a concentrated source of energy for the body and devoid of any role in health promotion.

Science has moved a long way since then: fatty acids have been implicated in the healthy function and development of cells and tissues at every stage of life.  Two fatty acids in particular, 'EPA' and 'DHA' omega-3s*, are the subject of an "impressive documentation ... related to health benefits” with special reference to the heart and cardiovascular system.  Despite this, "the cellular and molecular mechanisms for (EPA and DHA) action are still insufficiently understood" (Gil). 

Golden Rice: a new definition of precision

October 2018

Two years ago, a group of Nobel laureates published a letter in support of "Precision Agriculture (GMOs)", or more specifically, Golden Rice to combat vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in Africa and Asia.

This begs the question, what's so precise about GMOs, or more specifically Golden Rice?

Golden Rice: a curious sort of safety evaluation

October 2018

Project 'GM Golden Rice' was embarked on over 20 years ago to "reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia".

Despite all these years of development, Golden Rice has still not been tested to see if it can alleviate VAD. Nowhere has it received the appropriate regulatory authorisation or institutional review board clearances, nor authorisation for unconfined environmental release. In short, GM vitamin A-enriched rice hasn't reached the starting line.

Curiously, however, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) now developing Golden Rice has asked the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), and Health Canada for an opinion on the GM rice.

Since Golden Rice is clearly not intended for cultivation or consumption in any of these areas, why start by seek confirmation of its acceptability there?

Novel golden substances

October 2018

Forcing rice to produce GM carotene (vitamin A precursor), a substance with no role in the grains of the plant, has long posed safety questions.

The genes to generate carotene are put into 'Golden Rice' to create a bio-fortified staple food for areas in Africa and Asia where vitamin A deficiency ('VAD') is all too common.

Because of the unpredictable nature of GM plants, and because rice grains aren't adapted to manufacture or store carotene, and because vitamin A-related substances are highly biologically active (see Note), Golden Rice could contain novel harmful elements, especially to the young.

USA missing the main markets

October 2018

America has been gung-ho about declaring gene-edited plants somehow not really GM, paving the way for the new-GM crops now lining up for entry to the US food market [1,2].

The back-drop to this is interesting.

New GM wheat with fibre

October 2018

Wary of negative public reaction and export market collapse, America has never pursued the commercialisation of GM wheat.

However, the recent US Department of Agriculture (USDA) decision that gene-edited crops are somehow not genetically engineered [1], has opened the door to the development of new-GM wheat.

Bt allergic reactions?

October 2018

Food allergy is an important public health problem, affecting some 8% of children and 3% of adults.

Allergic individuals suffer from an immune system disturbance which causes an inflammatory reaction to substances which are normally tolerated. A first exposure to the substance primes the system and subsequent exposures cause a reaction. Sometimes several earlier exposures are needed before the body reacts, especially in the case of food.

Allergic responses are highly complex, involving several different cell types and organ systems. They vary according to the route of exposure, for example, skin, nasal or lungs, digestive tract, or body penetration. To add to the complexity, substances referred to as 'adjuvants' which aren't themselves allergens can induce an allergic reaction to other materials presented at the same time.

Acute, severe allergic reactions can be life-threatening. Chronic allergies can be severely debilitating and indirectly fatal.

GMOs are not GMOs in America

September 2018

Unlike the Brits, who easily talked themselves into believing gene-edited plants are somehow 'natural' enough not to need regulation, only to be disabused of that notion by the European Court of Justice [1], the American biotech industry has had no such problems. Never having had any GM regulations in the first place made things much more straightforward*. With no clear legal nor scientific concept of what constitutes artificial manipulation of the genome, or of the nature of the risks, it was easy for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to pronounce gene-edited plants the same as any other.

Keep hidden gene-edited crops out of the food chain

September 2018

Biotech scientists in the UK have successfully fooled themselves and their regulators into believing that artificial mutation is somehow a "natural phenomenon", and that the outcomes of new mutagenesis techniques could somehow happen in nature. Earlier this year, encouraged it seems by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), our Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was happy to give consent for field trials of GM Camelina*. These experimental crops include two lines produced using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing [1].

Both scientists and regulators were so convinced that the preliminary opinion issued by the European Court of Justice Advocate General in January this year had said that all mutagenesis techniques should be exempt from regulation instead of what it did actually say [2], that they forged ahead with the development of gene-edited crops. The field trials have, therefore, not been subject to any GM-related safeguards.

Court rules: gene editing is genetic modification

September 2018

Concerns that the European Commission was getting itself in such a twist just trying to define new mutagenesis techniques that it would never get its head round how to regulate them [1] seem to have been straightened out by the European Court of Justice.

Gene editing creates a precise mess

September 2018

CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology is causing the jitters. Hailed as "highly precise" and "virtually impossible to detect", CRISPR has become the GM technique which biotech and medical researchers are banking on [1]. The reason, it seems, for CRISPR's "highly precise" reputation is that it's designed (by humans) to latch onto a highly precise location in the genome.

So convinced have scientists been of the mechanistic nature of CRISPR-Cas9's seek-and-chop action, that checks on possible associated mutations have been limited to the immediate vicinity of the target site and to DNA sequences elsewhere with a known similarity to the target.

In fact, confidence is such that correction of faulty human genes using CRISPR has already moved to human trials. This may have been premature, because two studies have now pointed out that the human cells which allow their faulty genes to be sorted have other inherent faults which can lead to cancer [2].

Realistic mixtures of common chemicals are not safe

September 2018

The chemicals we're exposed to are checked by careful scientific experimentation to see what level we can safely consume. Science doesn't allow side issues to muddle the results: the substance being tested isn't contaminated, the animals fed the substance aren't compromised by background ill-health, poor nutrition or old age. This is good, controlled, repeatable science.

To add to the certainty that nothing irrelevant is skewing the result, a key part of the definition of a 'toxin' is that the substance becomes more harmful as exposure to it increases.

In real-life, however, things are different. We're not all young, healthy and well-fed, and in truth we're routinely exposed to a witch's brew of substances plus impurities, albeit on a micro-scale.

Triple stacked GM maize causes leaky stomachs

September 2018
Because partially digested food can be held in the stomach for some hours, the stomach is the part of our body most exposed to the materials in our diet. Yet, tests able to reveal pathological changes and gastric dysfunction, such as measurements of stomach tissue structure or diagnostic staining of stomach cells, are never included in GM safety assessments.

An Australian team of scientists has made a start on filling this gap.

Creeping grass with creeping toxins

August 2018

Pure creeping bentgrass and nothing but creeping bentgrass is a must-have for golf-courses.

Its fine texture and ability to 'creep', forming a dense, even cover, are prized by groundskeepers. For professional tournaments with big money at stake, weeds are a no-no. Anything other than 100% bentgrass makes any kind of putt on a green unreliable.

Back in 2003, when agribusiness giants Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto trialed RoundupReady bentgrass which needed nothing more than a squirt of Roundup herbicide to keep it pristine, they thought they were onto a winner. In fact, it turned into a giant headache which continues to this day [1].

CRISPR cancer warning

August 2018

An inescapable and potentially catastrophic weakness in all forms of the genomic molecular manipulations currently fashionable in science, is that healthy cells don't tolerate interference.

Biotech scientists have devised a plethora of clever tricks to force unwanted changes on the cell. The tricks range from ballistic missiles, to pathogenic microbes, to viruses, to chemical- or electrical-disruption, to weird nucleic acid* constructs, and are all designed to by-pass the mechanisms which keep a cell whole, functional and viable.

Forward-looking FriendlyTM mozzies to beat malaria

August 2018

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Paraguay officially free of malaria after zero recorded cases in five years. Algeria, Argentina and Uzbekistan are on track to be declared malaria-free later this year.

As the head of the WHO said, the importance of this success story is that it shows what is possible: "If malaria can be eliminated in one country, it can be eliminated in all countries".

The problem with malaria is that, although it can be eliminated locally by wiping out the mosquitoes which harbour it and treating its victims so they don't pass the disease on, the mozzies and their parasites will always come back. Human beings will visit malarial regions and return with infections, mosquitoes will fly in from neighbouring infected areas, and both the flies and the parasites will evolve resistance to the chemicals designed to kill them. All this means you have to keep on the case.

Holistic gene reality

August 2018

In 2012, entrepreneur Craig Venter was going to save the world with synthetic microbes. In his view life is simply "DNA software" with a "cell there to read it" [1].

He set about creating a cell with the smallest number of genes, "a cell so simple that we can determine the molecular and biological function of every gene". His plan was to identify a core set of genes and synthesise a minimal genome able to produce an independent, replicating cell. The ultimate goal was the construction of a designer cell with whatever properties human beings desired.

By the time he published a paper on his project four years later, Venter had realised the whole life thing is more complex than he'd envisaged: the genes not critical for simply staying alive in a perfect, stress-free environment are nevertheless needed for "robust growth".

Meta analysis shows how different GM really is

August 2018

Domestic breeding has been a 'powerful evolutionary force' on our food plants, to which the introduction of GM plants has added a whole new dimension. Noting this, a Mexican team of scientists took a look at the extent of the changes now present in conventional and GM crops compared to their wild ancestors.

Non-GM maize gems

August 2018

US maize farmers have an arsenal of chemical weapons to fight their enemy No.1. But it isn't winning them the war.

'Western corn rootworm' grubs are munching away underground in maize crops in five US States. The worms are oblivious to the toxins applied to the soil, to the toxins applied to the seeds, and to the Bt toxins generated by GM plants themselves. Adult rootworm moths, which snip at the corn silks and prevent pollination, are equally oblivious to chemical attack.

Root feeding damage leads to reduced uptake of nutrients and water by the plant and instability, especially in adverse weather conditions. Yield losses can be catastrophic: western corn rootworm isn't called the "billion-dollar bug" for nothing [1].

No Bt soya for US farmers

July 2018

After spending more than a decade testing the performance of its GM 'Intacta 2 Xtend' soya in preparation for US commercialisation in 2021, Monsanto has pulled the plug.

The dicamba conundrum

July 2018

Despite the host of problems presented by the expanded use of dicamba herbicide last year [1], the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cut a deal to allow the chemical's continued application. Monsanto was "very excited" by the EPA's decision.

This excitement isn't surprising because dicamba is vital to the Company's next generation of GM soya. Now that weed resistance to Roundup is rendering Monsanto's Roundup Ready GM soya obsolete, future fortunes are depending on dicamba tolerance technology as a replacement.

The greening of unsold GM papaya?

July 2018

Shoe-horning your agriculture into the modern high-input, energy-hungry globalised system is particularly problematic for remote areas. Even Hawaii - American soil but a long way from the mainland - has realised it has an economic imperative for self-sufficient and sustainable resource management.

Knotty DNA

July 2018

When you think of 'DNA', the odds are you picture the famous double helix: a neat ladder-like structure made of two strings of nucleic acid (NA) molecules each holding hands with its partner on the opposite string, and elegantly twisted like a corkscrew. Extending this ladder with an extra section, chopping out a bit, changing rung or two, or even adding in a whole extra ladder, is proving increasingly easy to engineer.

At the same time, it's becoming increasingly clear that DNA doesn't always sit in the form of a pretty helix.

Living DNA is a highly responsive and dynamic structure [1,2]. The ladder is stable, but to transition to an active form, the two halves come apart. The strings of nucleic acids can then hold hands in all different ways to form hair-pins or even three- or four-stranded pleats, with bulges and loops.

Too much trade is bad for you

July 2018

Once upon a time, trade was a mutual give-and-take which promised lasting prosperity for both partners; and with prosperity would come well-being.

The modern way redefines 'prosperity' in terms of ever-expanding trade whose boundaries are global. Now, 'trade' has winners and losers, and the 'well-being' part is nowhere.

Let there BE labels on genetically modified food

July 2018
'Genetically engineered food' has never sounded like something anyone would rush to eat, and frankly "If you put a label on (it) you might as well put a skull-and-crossbones on it" (Asgrow Seed Company President 1994).
So, how do you sell genetically engineered food to the public?

What glyphosate has achieved in Argentina

June 2018

While the agrichemical and biotech industries insist their products are SAFE when used as directed, and regulators can't seem to figure out whose interests (the people's or industry's) to prioritise, what's happening in the real world where people have to live with the chemicals and the GMOs?

Befuddled bees

June 2018

The two most widely used pesticides in agriculture, especially on GM crops, are neonicotinoid insecticides and glyphosate-based herbicides. These have become the preferred choice due to their effectiveness as they spread systemically through the plant, and to their low toxicity in mammals.

Inevitably, traces of both are likely to be found together in the same plant where our pollinators will be exposed to them.

Indeed, analyses have shown neonicotinoid and glyphosate contamination not only in the nectar and pollen collected by honey bees but in their honey stores inside the hive. This means all bees, at all stages in their life will be exposed to both toxins.

Although neither pesticide causes instant bee death, increasing concerns are focusing on the possibility of more subtle, long-term and indirect effects on bee behaviour which will ultimately lead to the collapse of the colony [1].

Re-thinking the yield obsession

June 2018

"For the last 60 years we have been on a pesticide merry-go-round, where successive generations of pesticides are released, and a decade or two later they are banned when the environmental harm they do emerges. Each time they are replaced by something new, and each new group of chemicals brings new and unanticipated problems. Considering our intelligence, it is remarkable that we humans can keep making the same mistake over and over again" signed by 12 scientists who have spent decades studying the fragile web of insects, the environment, and the crops on which we all depend for survival. 
This merry-go-round is harming both ourselves and our environment: why can't we get off it?

Mega-pest moths

June 2018

A great deal of technical and commercial effort has been devoted to GM crops with soak themselves with their very own, self-generated 'Bt' insecticides.

Particular biotech industry targets for Bt have been cotton bollworm, a widespread pest in Africa and India, and corn earworm, a widespread pest in the Americas.

These 'worms' are actually the larvae of two related species of moth which cause billions of dollars of crop damage every year feasting on monoculture banquets.

Cotton bollworm is a particularly notorious pest, with a fast generation time, an extreme mobility, and an unusually diverse gene pool to draw on. It attacks over 100 crop types and has developed resistance to all pesticides used to try to control it. All in all, a top-class super-pest.

Superfit GM superweeds

June 2018
Protester dressed as a superweed
CC photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr
World-wide, the big biotech success story is crops which are genetically transformed to survive glyphosate-based herbicides.

Glyphosate interferes with a plant enzyme key to the production of, for example, auxin (a plant growth hormone, also important in reproduction), lignin (woody supportive material), and defensive compounds against pests and disease. All of these are vital and are part of tightly controlled processes in a healthy plant. When glyphosate wipes out that enzyme, the weed or non-GM plant dies.

The magic gene inserted into glyphosate-tolerant crops generates a novel version of the enzyme which isn't inactivated by the herbicide. However, the expression of an artificial gene, isn't controlled. GM glyphosate-tolerant plants will therefore generate an excess of the enzyme, and this suggests that their growth, reproduction, physical robustness, and susceptibility to disease will be altered.

GM maize data mountain

June 2018

A recent article in Forbes Magazine suggested that the "mountains of scientific proof" of "how big the benefit and small the risk is from GMO crops" should "put a categorical end to (the) worries" of the apparently uninformed public in whom "GMO paranoia continues to rage".

A succession of sick pigs?

May 2018

In a re-run of the GM wonder-crop revolution which promised weed-free fields growing pest-free crops, it looks like we're getting a GM wonder-pig revolution of disease-free herds (soon to be followed by flocks of GM wonder-hens and shoals of GM wonder-fish).

Scottish scientists have modified pig genes to "massively increase resistance and resilience to infection". The first targets are 'Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus' (PRRSV) which causes breathing problems and leads to still births and stunted offspring when sows are infected, and African Swine fever.

A beer-like beverage

May 2018

Craft beer brewing is an art form whose products are fast gaining in popularity. Typically, a craft brew is tastier than industrial versions because it uses far more hop flowers whose complex essential oils impart the characteristic beer flavour and aroma.

The variability of hop flowers make them an irritation to big brewers because their market demands uniformity, their factories demand recipes, and art is beyond them. Hops are also expensive. But the other vital beer-ingredient, yeast, is cheap.

Food lesson for the future

May 2018

What's going to happen when the long-term consumption of GM foods takes its toll on our health?

If we're lucky, medics will notice a spike in some chronic disease, and toxicologists will manage to link the problem to GM elements in our diet. And then what? Will the novel culprit be withdrawn from sale?

Real-life infant harm from Glyphosate

May 2018
Glyphosate is the most heavily used herbicide worldwide. Where high-tech monoculture is the agricultural norm, GM glyphosate-tolerant crops account for huge and widespread use of this one herbicide.

In Argentina, for example, 65% of pesticides used are glyphosate-based. In the American mid-west, over 90% of the millions of acres of corn, soya and canola, are GM and glyphosate-tolerant.

After starting its commercial life with a 'safe as salt' ticket [1], long before modern sub-cellular and molecular safety tests had been developed, glyphosate has certainly become "one of the world's most studied chemicals" (President of The Agribusiness Council of Indiana). However, its real-life complexity is only now being recognised by scientists.

Glyphosate and AMPA in the air

May 2018

GM crops are still hanging on to their 'environmentally-friendly' image.

Resistance to glyphosate-based herbicides is a feature of most GM crops. This GM trait enables soil-preserving no-till farming, and provides easy weed control with a single chemical reputed to be toxic only to weeds and to disappear readily from the environment. All this, plus glyphosate's early 'safe-as-salt' tag for humans [1] provided little incentive for scientific study of side-effects of the herbicide during the past decades of increasing use.

However, things are changing since the International Agency for Research on Cancer came to the conclusion that glyphosate is 'probably carcinogenic to humans' [2]. Questions are gradually surfacing about where glyphosate actually goes when it 'disappears' from the environment.

The emerging answers don't paint a comforting picture.

Who's stirring the GMO pot?

May 2018

Would you believe that, after decades of blaming the pesky Greens for stirring up consumer resistance to GM foods, US scientists have worked out that it's really the pesky Reds!

With state funding, the researchers tried to get a better understanding of the GM food controversy, the hope being that they could "put information out there to make people better understand GMOs ... then that fear (of GMOs) might go away". To this end, professors of sociology and agronomy in Iowa State University joined forces to look at how the media portrayed biotechnology to the public.

If this smells like a grand plan to counter the increasing US public scepticism about GM and all things connected to it, read on and decide for yourself.

Court opinion on NBTs

April 2018

Just to add fuel to the fire of how to define 'new breeding techniques' in a way useful to their regulation or non-regulation [1], the European Court of Justice published a preliminary Opinion at the beginning of the year.

The Court was asked to clarify the scope of GMO Directive 2001 which was put in place before the plethora of new breeding techniques had emerged, plus the validity of the Directive's 'mutagensis exemption'. This exemption was designed to exclude from GM regulation the old fashioned random mutagenic techniques such as the use of radiation and toxins to induce DNA damage, probably because it would be a regulatory nightmare to treat the outcomes of old-fashioned random mutagenesis as GMOs after decades of use. Thus, at the time the Directive was drawn up, only those plant and animal breeding methods considered to have a long safety record were exempted. However, now that we have targeted mutagensis (gene editing techniques), the 2001 Directive has become blurry on the subject.

CRISPR has in-built imprecision

April 2018

It seems the 'CRISPR' gene editing tool, hyped as so precise in its action that all previous concerns about GM side-effects could be swept aside, is not all it's cracked up to be [1].

In reality, man-made CRISPR constructs can roam around the genome snipping sections of DNA you really don't want to damage. Such so-called 'off-target' effects can disable a vital gene completely or impair its functioning, and the outcome can be dire.

Wishful biotech industry thinkers built CRISPR constructs with nucleic acid sequences* designed to bind to, and cut, specific bits of DNA. But in reality they can recognise, bind to, and cut bits of DNA which are simply similar. Scientists are beginning to realise that the nucleic acid sequence is only a part of CRISPR's ability to recognise its target.

It turns out that, besides homing in on perfectly matching target DNA, CRISPR can take stock of the nature, number and position of any nucleic acid mis-matches, and conformational changes in the CRISPR molecule are also involved.

A soya model NOT to follow

April 2018

Argentina's 'modelo sojero', once promoted as a shining economic example for others to follow, seems instead to have led straight to the social disaster many predicted.

The 'modelo sojero' [1] is based on a move to high-tech monocultures of a few commodity crops (in this case mainly GM soya, a lot of wheat and GM maize) produced for export markets and for growing the country's GDP. Boosted by extreme free-trade, light-touch regulations and privatisation, the model channels the cash flowing in from far-off lands into state hand-outs to reduce poverty.

Pesticide divorce proceedings

April 2018
Protest against pesticides in Paris 2016
Photo Creative Commons
The EU's biggest grain grower, grain exporter and food producer, France, has been leading the way in healthy food and farming for the last decade.

France was one of the first Member States to 'opt out' of growing GM crops in 2015 (see Note below).

The following year, a ban on pesticide use in public green spaces was announced by the French government, plus a prohibition on over-the-counter sales of pesticides to non-professional gardeners. From 2019, pesticide use will be prohibited in private gardens also.

'Bt' and kidney disease

April 2018

The EU probably has the most detailed, carefully drafted and thought-out GM regulations in the world. All Member States can give their opinion during the GM approval process, and the precautionary principle underlies it.

New biotech crops on the market come stacked with multiple artificial genes*. In such cases, even if the 'parent' single-trait crops have already been accepted, the EU quite rightly considers the crop to be a new GM organism needing its own regulatory approval.

How the EU system works in practice, however, is less impressive.

Scientific dysfunctional advice mechanism

April 2018

The European Commission (EC) is clearly struggling with the wealth of novel genome tweaking techniques streaming out of the laboratory.

Problem No.1 is finding a collective name for what it's trying to regulate. 'New breeding techniques' seems to be favoured despite the notable presence of manufacturing and absence of procreation in the techniques themselves [1]. Some new breeding techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9 [2], are referred to as gene- or genome-editing giving them an aura of minor and precise correction. Concerned scientists and green organisations have no hesitation in calling them what they are: new GM techniques producing new GMOs which have much the same uncertainties, risks and potential for indirect negative impacts as the old kind.