Nasty GM surprises

March 2020

Farmers' knowledge about the cycles of nature, their land, their crops and livestock, their soil, and all the life that shares their estates seem to have been swept aside by reductionist 'solutions' sold to them by corporations with $-lined technological tunnel vision.

Simple, GM 'solutions' have a habit of leading to complex outcomes and nasty surprises.

Herbicide headache II

March 2020

"...we used to sit next to the neighbours in church on Sunday. We don't even want to be in the same congregation with them anymore" (Ruff). This is what the latest GM soya is doing to the US farming community.
Just as biotech giant, Bayer, is coming to grips with the glyphosate lawsuits it acquired when it bought Monsanto in 2018 [1], it's finding itself with another herbicide headache.

The first of several suits against BASF (makers of older brands of dicamba herbicide) and against Bayer (makers of dicamba-tolerant GM soya seed and the dicamba formulations to go with them) came to court in January [2].  Compensation sought is $20.9 million plus punitive damages.

Blaming the activists

March 2020

Once upon a time (actually 2012), the Westminster Government launched a GM spin offensive on the UK public. The tactic was to make GM a 'hot topic' which kept popping up in the news, despite nothing having actually happened. Part of this strategy seems to have employed the talents of writer and speaker Mark Lynas [1].

Lynas' qualifications are in history and politics, but he writes and speaks about science. He seems to be a man who needs the glamour and theatre of a cause to champion, and in his youth was happy to join anti-GM crop activists in 'decontaminating' GM field trials (or one at least, by his own account). He has even been, in his own words "accused of having been the global founder of the anti-GMO movement".

However, creeping around the countryside dressed in black on a dark night isn't glamorous or theatrical. Nor is unlawful activity lucrative for someone who earns his living from writing. (It's also been suggested Lynas' comrade crop-trashers didn't like him very much.) There's much more mileage for a talented writer in declaiming the excesses of biotech industry PR, and sharing in the bounty of its deep pockets. So, he swapped sides and devoted himself "pretty much full time to the GMO issue".

CRISPR knock-out or knock-on?

March 2020

Having fixated on the notion that the DNA sequence which forms a gene will be expressed as a specific protein, biotech scientists were then convinced that, if they disrupted a tiny part of that DNA sequence, the cell's ability to generate the protein would be lost.

Enter 'CRISPR', a molecular device which can be engineered to latch onto a very specific section of the genome and induce a small localised disruption in the DNA [1]. This provided scientists with a simple means to 'knock out' a gene. 

However, a year ago, a paper was published which reported that, while CRISPR did, indeed, knock out the planned gene, the damaged DNA could still code for a protein in 50% of the cells analysed, albeit a different one [2].

Since then, another team has taken a closer look at what was actually emerging from knocked out genes. 

Glyphosate on the plate

March 2020

Food-related uses of glyphosate-based herbicides in a nutshell:

The vast majority of commercial GM food crops - including maize, soya, canola, sugar-beet and cotton (consumed as cotton-seed oil) - are glyphosate tolerant and therefore sprayed with glyphosate-based herbicides. Applications of the herbicide on these crops have been stepped up year-on-year due to evolving weed resistance.

Besides GM crops, glyphosate-based herbicides are used as a pre-harvest desiccant on wheat, barley, oats (and other grains), sugar cane, lentils, beans, peas, chickpeas, sunflower, mints, potatoes and cantaloupe.

Glyphosate on the road

March 2020

After the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded there's enough robust scientific evidence to consider glyphosate herbicide "probably carcinogenic to humans" [1], Edinburgh and Barcelona City Councils announced their intention to take action [2].

Edinburgh commissioned a report on the options and costs of alternative weed control methods such as special blow-torches, hoeing and hot water.  Barcelona was looking at a ban on the herbicide in favour of a sustainable, ecological style of management for its gardens.

Four years later, where have these flagship initiatives led?

GM plants set to increase magnetically?

February 2020

It's an interesting thing about new GM techniques: each one that emerges reveals all the flaws, down-sides and short-comings of the previous ones.

In the 1990s, the only limit to what GM could do was the imagination of the genetic engineer. It seems however that either genetic engineers suffer from a woeful lack of imagination, or GM just isn't that simple: over two decades on, all that's in the ground amounts to a few varieties of a handful of crop types dominated by only two GM traits, glyphosate herbicide tolerance and Bt insecticide.

The reason for this was made clear in a paper published in 2017.

Unhealthy effects of working with Bt cotton

February 2020

An anthropological field study during the years 2012-2016 surveyed what was going on down on the commercial smallholders' farms in five villages in India [1].

In the face of the limited advantages of growing GM cotton, and some serious disadvantages, plus a global glut of cotton, Bt insecticidal GM cotton still represents over 80% of the crop. The study therefore raised the question of why Indian farmers remain so devoted to biotech cotton? It seems to boil down to fashion and male pride: a GM crop shows you're modern, while an impressive stand is public proof of a good agricultural ability (even if the quality of the produce and the cost of inputs mean reduced profitability).

A small-scale field-based study undertaken in 2018 interestingly complements this earlier survey. In particular, the new study took a gender-specific perspective, aiming to reveal the roles and voices of women farmers. Interviews were carried out in an informal setting to facilitate talk and so hear unhindered stories from a sector of the Indian population not often heard.

GM bacteriocins

February 2020
It looks like the next generation of GM wonder-plants is under development in Scotland.

About 5% of world crops, some $50 billion worth, are lost due to bacterial disease each year. One of the most common such infections is Pseudomonas syringae which attacks a wide variety of important crops, including tomato, kiwi, peppers, olive, soyabeans and fruit trees. Once the bacteria have gained a foothold in one part of a uniform commercial crop, they spread rapidly through the whole.

Breeding crops for resistance to bacterial disease has had only limited success. Chemical crop protectants are increasingly unpopular with consumers. Treating crops with conventional antibiotics is frowned upon as it fuels antibiotic resistance in human pathogens and compromises our ability to treat diseases.

Genetic engineers have hit on the idea of creating crops which generate 'bacteriocins'.

Glyphosate attack by stealth

February 2020

As pointed out before, there's a huge scope for current GM foods to impact on the microbes inside our gut and, along with that, our health [1].

Besides the novel nature of the foods themselves, there's the glyphosate-based herbicides sprayed on and accumulated by most commercial GM crops. Glyphosate blocks a vital biochemical pathway in green plants, but the pathway is also present in many bacteria. This suggests a very real possibility that the herbicide in GM foods could be devastating our health by stealth.

What is the science telling us about this?

Scientific mindsets clash over GM mozzies

February 2020

At the end of last year, GM-free Scotland reported a study which found a significant presence of offspring of Oxitec's GM 'sterile' male mosquitoes flying around in areas of Brazil where a trial release had been carried out [1]. The object of the trial was to prevent dengue virus by eradicating its mosquito vector. The predicted "barrage of attempts to discredit the scientists and their science which seem to have become routine in response to any biotech-unfriendly research results" duly unfolded.

No surprise there, except that the attack on the study, including a demand for retraction, was led by one of the paper's own co-authors and supported by five of the others.

What happened to taking back control?

February 2020

  • Democracy - government by the people, direct or indirect
  • Tyranny - government by an absolute ruler

The huge and complex task of 'taking back control' of our regulations preparatory to Brexit seems to be ensuring that current and future rules will not be subject to proper political or public scrutiny [1].

US to eliminate animal testing

January 2020

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving to eliminate all animal testing of new chemicals by 2035. In its place will be cheap, quick and easy computer modelling, cultured cells and tiny invertebrates.

To achieve the shift only requires that the Agency cuts its funding for animal-based trials.

Mozzies ride the wind

January 2020

Efforts to control mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue virus, have focused on eliminating the vector. Long-standing mosquito control methods have involved insecticides and removing the open bodies of water necessary for breeding. More recently, releases of GM sterile males [1], GM fungal pathogens [2], and self-destruct gene-drives mozzies [3] have been trialled.

Yet, paradoxically, even in areas where extreme reductions in the mosquito population have been successfully maintained, and even in areas where the surface water, vital for breeding, is absent for three to eight months of the year, malaria persists.

Edible GM cottonseed

January 2020

In October 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the green light for GM cottonseed to be sold as food.

Cottonseed isn't a familiar food item. This is because cotton plants contain 'gossypol', a rather nasty toxin.

The plight of the honeybee

January 2020

"New evidence is revealing we are teetering on the edge of an era of massive extinction, propelled in large part by the very pesticides and practices used with genetically engineered crops ... In a groundbreaking new study, researchers estimate that 40 percent of insect species face extinction - and we could be looking down the barrel of total insect population collapse by century's end, primarily as the result of the agricultural pesticides and mega-monocultures of industrial agriculture. Designed specifically for intensive chemical use, genetically engineered crops are key drivers of this impact" (Lappé) .

A huge proportion of our food supply is dependent on insects for pollination. In agricultural settings, one of the most abundant pollinators is the honey bee: in fact, one estimate reckons that one in every three bites of food we eat is from a crop pollinated by honeybees; and according to the United Nations Environment Programme, of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world's food supply, 71 are pollinated by bees. Across America, commercial beekeepers are suffering astronomical hive losses averaging 40-50% annually, with some as high as 100%. This severely cripples their ability to meet pollination needs. At least one source of the disaster isn't difficult to find: honeybees are one of the non-target organisms impacted by the use of agrichemicals, and the impact is growing.

Impossible, incredible, awesome, beyond...

January 2020

'... common sense?

The 'Impossible' bleeding plant burger started out back in 2017 as textured wheat protein with fake soyabean 'blood' from GM yeast and some other stuff collectively described by its manufacturer, Impossible Foods, as "simple, all-natural ingredients" [1]. By 2019, Impossible Foods had realised their Impossible burgers weren't sufficiently beef-like and were unpopular with the gluten-intolerant sector of the population. The non-meat burgers were accordingly re-formulated with soya protein.

It seems, however, that sourcing sufficient quantities of affordable non-GM soya to suit its clean, green image and marketing aspirations proved impossible: Impossible Foods' answer was to switch to cheap and plentiful GM soya and hype its way out of the image problem [2].

The Brexit race to the bottom

January 2020

By the time this article pops up on the net, who knows what Brexit chaos might be unfolding. It is, however, worth being forewarned about what's been sneaked into place at the time of writing. As GM Watch points out, there's so much political upheaval in the UK and Europe, we risk "being so overwhelmed by the noise and sense of urgency that we miss what's really going on".

For example ...