Old Dicamba, same old problems

July 2019

As Roundup herbicide and Roundup-tolerant GM crops become increasingly obsolete, the biotech industry has been trying to move 'forward' with a 'new' package: the antiquated broadleaf herbicide dicamba and dicamba-tolerant GM crops. 

Back in 1994, some 5.7 million pounds of dicamba were used annually in US agriculture, almost all of it on corn.  It was already well-established that dicamba is prone to drift during spraying, especially in hot weather, and that it's a persistent environmental contaminant.  "Since dicamba can damage or kill most broad leaved plants, any unintended exposure can have important consequences.  These effects have been studied mostly in agriculture and little is known about impacts on native plants" (Cox).  A quarter of a century on, the situation isn't much different.

Live life on the veg

July 2019

The kiss of the sun for pardon
The song of the birds for mirth
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.
(Dorothy Gurney 1858-1932) 

Professor of Biological Sciences (and avid gardener) Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex advocates growing your own fruit and vegetables because it's good for the environment, saves money, and "is also extremely good for the soul, giving people a real sense of satisfaction and getting them out into nature". 

TV chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, chipped in "Anything that takes you away from anonymous, industrialised food is good for your spirit and your health.  It's in season, it hasn't travelled far and it hasn't been packed in inert gases to give it a long shelf life". 

A study in America where, despite its wealth, more than 10% of households experience food insecurity in any given year looked into the benefits of growing your own vegetables. 

New gene editing - more of the same old thing

July 2019

Gene editing has been described as 'promising', 'powerful', 'precise', and of course 'safer'. What is it actually going to do to our food and farming?

Recently published work by Chinese scientists is probably a good indication of what to expect.

The GM cassava mutagenic machine

July 2019

Cassava is a starchy root vegetable consumed by more than a billion people. It's a primary staple food in South America, Africa and Asia. Each year, the crops are plagued by cassava mosaic virus, with losses of 20 percent of the yield.

The first generation GM cassava was designed to produce an 'RNAi' (see [1]) which inactivates the virus by silencing a vital gene. This was initially hailed as a success, but the viruses soon evolved their way around the GM obstacle.

Biotech engineers then hit on the novel idea of permanently installing a 'CRISPR-Cas9' [2] mechanism into cassava to destroy the attacking virus.

Single nucleic acid editing

July 2019

The latest refinement in gene editing tools is nucleic acid editing: this alters a single pair of the many nucleic acids which make up the double strand of DNA*, and promises deft improvements in crop and livestock genomes. 

'Knocking-out' a gene creates a new one

July 2019

Long-held concerns that forcing artificial DNA changes into a crop plant will generate toxins and allergens in our food now seem more real than ever.

The latest GM trick is gene editing, a range of techniques designed to make small changes in existing genes which alter their function or destroy their function completely. Because they have homing devices which target specific sites in the genome and because the DNA alterations they induce are minimal, gene editors are considered to have little potential for unexpected side-effects. They are, therefore, promoted as precise and safer.