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California genetic food vote is no victory for science - New Scientist (2012)

California genetic food vote is no victory for science - New Scientist (2012) | Ag Biotech News |

... Nearly a billion people go hungry because they cannot grow or buy enough food. And there are problems with the food we do eat. An estimated 2 billion people suffer from a lack of iron, causing everything from tiredness to premature death. Around 250 million preschool children are short of vitamin A, leading to blindness in the worst cases.


The outlook is grimmer still. There will be ever more mouths to feed, and ever more challenges facing farmers. Fuel and fertilisers are becoming more costly, soils are eroding or becoming saline, pests and diseases are evolving to outwit our defences. To add to our woes, the climate is changing and the weather becoming more extreme. In fact, farming is a massive part of this problem - it contributes more to global warming than all the world's cars, trains, ships and planes put together. Rising food prices not only cause suffering, but also threaten political stability.


So the world desperately needs better crops. The good news is that they can be improved dramatically. We know it's possible to boost yields by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, for instance, because some plants have already evolved this improvement. Similarly, there's no doubt we could create crops that need less water, grow in salt water or make their own nitrogen fertiliser, for instance. As for making grains and fruits richer in iron or vitamin A, it's already been done.


So why aren't people in poor countries already eating healthier food, richer in iron and vitamin A? Partly they can't afford to pay for it, so commercial companies have little incentive to develop such crops. Instead, such work has to be funded by public money or philanthropists such as Bill Gates. A big part of the problem, of course, is the vociferous objection to GM foods... The opposition to GM crops is making it much harder to get funding to carry out the necessary research and to get over all the regulatory hurdles... 


The Monsantos of this world have the economic muscle needed to get crops approved despite protests, but for cash-strapped universities, it's a different story. Their development of the crops we so desperately need is being impeded by anti-GM protesters.


How can this opposition be overcome? Not by rational argument, that's for sure. Even for those who understand that nature is the ultimate mad scientist, and that plants are riddled with all kinds of genetic modifications, from mistakes made during DNA replication to insertions of viral DNA, it doesn't make existing GM crops any more appealing. Rather, we need to win people's hearts as well as their minds. 


... we need a new generation of GM crops that offers clear benefits to consumers, from looking better to tasting better to being better for us. Scare stories about cellphones causing cancer didn't stop them taking off because they are so useful. Similarly, scare stories about GM foods will lose their power if GM products that help prevent cancer or heart disease can be bought in supermarkets...


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Bringing light into the discussion about GMOs? – A rather long reading list

[updated July 24, 2016]  


These days I received an apparently easy request: “Do you have any recommendations for reading about the debate on GMOs? I think there is a lot of heat, but too little light in the discussion; I trust you can send me some…” To which I answered carelessly: “Sure, I will look into it, select a few references and post them…” 


I thought I’d have a quick look into my collection of bookmarks and references and post some of the links to satisfy the request. Obviously there would be too many individual studies and crop-specific or country-specific reports, but focusing only (i) on what was published in recent years, (ii) on sources where all this information was already aggregated (literature reviews, meta-analyses, authoritative statements, FAQs, etc.), and (iii) on academic or publicly funded sources should produce a fairly concise list, I thought. 


While not unmanageable, the list has become quite long. To get a rough idea of the current state of knowledge, it may be sufficient to peruse the first 1-2 (starred *) references under each heading, and to have a quick look at the abstracts and summaries of some of the others. (Given the controversy surrounding this topic I did not want to suggest just one or two sources, but show a bit the width of the scientific consensus, and to offer some titbits of related information.) ...


Jennifer Mach's comment, March 30, 2013 9:05 AM
I admit I haven't read this list... but for future reference, I'll definitely have a look.
Karen Ashby's curator insight, April 5, 2016 4:26 AM

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This Article Won’t Change Your Mind: The facts on why facts alone can’t fight false beliefs - Atlantic (2017) 

This Article Won’t Change Your Mind: The facts on why facts alone can’t fight false beliefs - Atlantic (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |
“I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘She’s totally lying.’ At the same time, I remember something in my mind saying, ‘And that doesn’t matter.’” For Daniel Shaw, believing the words of the guru he had spent years devoted to wasn’t blind faith exactly. It was something he chose. “I remember actually consciously making that choice.” There are facts, and there are beliefs, and there are things you want so badly to believe that they become as facts to you… Shaw eventually found his way out... and became a psychotherapist… 

The theory of cognitive dissonance – the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict – was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger… “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change… Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point… Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.” 

This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as “motivated reasoning.” Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe – they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs. 

Spreading a tall tale also gives people something... it lets them know who’s on their side. If you... explain why you think the contrails left by airplanes are actually spraying harmful chemicals, the people who take you at your word are clearly people you can trust, and who trust you. The people who dismiss your claims, or even those who just ask how you know, are not people you can count on to automatically side with you no matter what... 

In these charged situations, people often don’t engage with information as information but as a marker of identity. Information becomes tribal… Whether people “believe” in evolution or not has nothing to do with whether they understand the theory of it – saying you don’t believe in evolution is just another way of saying you’re religious. Similarly, a recent Pew study found that a high level of science knowledge didn’t make Republicans any more likely to say they believed in climate change… Democrats are overwhelmingly supportive of bills to ban the chemical BPA from household products, even though the FDA and many scientific studies have found it is safe at the low levels currently used. This reflects a “chemophobia” often seen among liberals… 

Especially because a lot of false political beliefs have to do with issues that don’t really affect people’s day-to-day lives... “Most people have no reason to have a position on climate change aside from expression of their identity… Their personal behavior isn’t going to affect the risk that they face. They don't matter enough as a voter to determine the outcome on policies or anything like this. These are just badges of membership in these groups, and that’s how most people process the information”… 

There are small things that could help... people can be “inoculated” against misinformation. For example... a message about the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change included a warning that “some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try to convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.” Exposing people to the fact that this misinformation is out there should make them more resistant to it if they encounter it later… 

Muddying the waters of partisanship could make people more open to changing their minds. “We know people are less biased if they see that policies are supported by a mix of people from each party… Anything that's breaking this pattern where you see these two parties acting as homogeneous blocks, there’s evidence that motivated reasoning decreases in these contexts”… It seems like if people are going to be open-minded, it’s more likely to happen in group interactions… “One real advantage of group reasoning is that you get critical feedback”

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Might also be an explanation for why some people oppose GMOs or favour organics... 
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Genome editors take on crops - Scheben & Edwards (2017) - Science

Genome editors take on crops - Scheben & Edwards (2017) - Science | Ag Biotech News |

The global population is expected to rise from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050. At the same time, climate change poses increasing risks to crop production through droughts and pests. Improved crops are thus urgently needed to meet growing demand for food and address changing climatic conditions. 

Genome-editing technologies such as the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat)/Cas (CRISPR-associated protein) system show promise for helping to address these challenges, if the precision of genome editing is improved and the technology is approved and accepted by regulators, producers, and consumers...  

From 1981 to 2000, rice, maize, and wheat varieties that had been improved through traditional plant breeding boosted crop yields by 22 to 46% in Asia and Latin America. To meet growing demand by 2050, however, a global increase in crop production of 100 to 110% from 2005 levels is required. At the same time, climate change is predicted to lower regional crop yields... 

Traditional plant breeding is based on crossing germplasm and then selecting individuals with desirable traits. Although this approach has been extraordinarily successful, it can take more than 10 years, and in some cases decades, to develop an improved variety. Genomic tools can improve selection efficiency, but breeding remains laborious and dependent on shuffling existing diversity. 

Given the food security concerns that the human population faces, scientists are turning to genome editing approaches such as CRISPR/Cas. Advantages of genome editing over conventional and earlier transgenic approaches are the low cost, ease of use, lack of transgenes permanently introduced into crop germplasm, and the high level of multiplexing (editing of multiple targets) possible... 

The low costs and ease of use of genome editing may also facilitate improvement of subsistence crops such as cassava, with potentially substantial yield increases in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America... 

Scientists can edit the genomes of elite varieties to produce new varieties in a single generation, unconstrained by existing variation and without having to select for favorable combinations of alleles in large populations. However, unlike traditional breeding, such targeted genome editing requires knowledge of the nucleotide sequence and function of the target to design the guide RNA and predict the editing outcome. 

Rapid increases in food production can be achieved by enhancing crop pest resistance, particularly for East and West Africa, where pesticide use is low and pests can cause yield losses averaging more than 50%. CRISPR/Cas has been used to enhance resistance to bacterial blight in rice in a laboratory setting... A later, laboratory-based study used a similar approach to promote powdery mildew resistance in wheat...

Altered rainfall patterns caused by climate change may also lead to substantial yield losses because more than 70% of global agriculture relies on rain. Researchers addressing this challenge recently used genome editing to enhance drought tolerance in maize... 

However, progress in crop improvement through genome editing is limited by technical and sociopolitical constraints. Despite the wealth of genomic data available for major crops, researchers have yet to broadly connect genotype with phenotype information, model the behavior of gene networks, characterize regulatory elements, and develop databases to integrate and analyze this information... 

The growth of genome-edited crops also faces sociopolitical challenges, including government regulation, public acceptance, and adoption by producers such as smallholder farmers... Organisms edited by using CRISPR/Cas without permanent introduction of transgenes are not currently regulated by the United States. The legal status of genome edited crops remains contentious in the European Union, and a decision on their regulation is unlikely before 2018. 

If regulatory authorities evaluate genome-edited crops that do not contain transgenes as non-GMOs, they will be more cost effective for seed companies to commercialize, and a greater variety of traits and species may be targeted. However, public acceptance of genome-edited crops is also required for their development to avoid the backlash that occurred previously with GMO crops... 

Clarification on the regulation of genome-edited crops is urgently needed to support their development, and open public debate is required to give the public confidence in the safety and benefits of these crops. Coordinated efforts to help provide improved varieties to smallholder farmers and accelerate their adoption are also crucial to increase food security, particularly in developing countries.

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Carolina researchers make discovery that could increase plant yield - U North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2017) 

Scientists... pinpointed a key genetic switch that helps soil bacteria living on and inside a plant’s roots harvest a vital nutrient with limited global supply. The nutrient, phosphate, makes it to the plant’s roots, helping the plant increase its yield. 

The work... raises the possibility of probiotic, microbe treatments for plants to increase their efficient use of phosphate. The form of phosphate plants can use is in danger of reaching its peak... in just 30 years, potentially decreasing the rate of crop yield as the world population continues to climb and global warming stresses crop yields, which could have damaging effects on the global food supply.

“We show precisely how a key ‘switch protein’, PHR1, controls the response to low levels of phosphate, a big stress for the plant, and also controls the plant immune system... When the plant is stressed for this important nutrient, it turns down its immune system so it can focus on harvesting phosphate from the soil. Essentially, the plant sets its priorities on the cellular level”...  

Evidence that soil bacteria can make use of this tradeoff between nutrient-seeking and immune defense, potentially to help establish symbiotic relationships with plants. Bacteria seem to enhance this phosphate stress response, in part simply by competing for phosphate but also by actively ‘telling’ the plant to turn on its phosphate stress response... 

Investigating further, the team showed that PHR1 – and probably to a lesser extent PHL1 – not only activates the phosphate stress response but also triggers a pattern of gene expression that reduces immune activity, and thus makes it easier for resident microbes to survive.

The findings suggest that soil-dwelling microbes have figured out how to get along with their plant hosts, at least in part by activating PHR1/PHL1 to suppress immune responses to them... These microbes may even be necessary for plants to respond normally to low-phosphate conditions. It could be possible, then, to harness this relationship – via probiotic or related crop treatments – to enable plants to make do with less phosphate.

“Phosphate is a limited resource and we don’t use it very efficiently... As part of fertilizer, phosphate runs off into waterways where it can adversely affect river and marine ecosystems. It would be better if we could use phosphate in a way that’s more efficient.”

Underlying article:

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I Have a Dream: Organic Movements Include Gene Manipulation to Improve Sustainable Farming - Ryffel (2017) - Sustainabil

I Have a Dream: Organic Movements Include Gene Manipulation to Improve Sustainable Farming - Ryffel (2017) - Sustainabil | Ag Biotech News |

Several papers... have recently discussed various aspects to evaluate whether organic farming and gene manipulation are compatible. A special emphasis was given to new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs). These new approaches allow the most predictable genetic alterations of crop plants in ways that the genetically modified plant is identical to a plant generated by conventional breeding. 

The articles of the Special Issue present the arguments pro and contra the inclusion of the plants generated by NPBTs in organic farming. Organic movements have not yet made a final decision whether some of these techniques should be accepted or banned. 

In my view these novel genetically manipulated (GM) crops could be used in such a way as to respect the requirements for genetically manipulated organisms (GMOs) formulated by the International Federation of Organic Movements (IFOAM). Reviewing the potential benefits of disease-resistant potatoes and bananas, it seems possible that these crops support organic farming. 

To this end, I propose specific requirements that the organic movements should proactively formulate as their standards to accept specific GM crops... Based on the IFOAM criteria, I propose the following requirements to be essential to make a GM crop acceptable for organic farming: 

(1) The GM crop should not contain any DNA that is not present in sexually compatible species. Thus, only cisgenic or genome-edited plants are acceptable and the absence of any foreign DNA should be verified by genome sequencing. 

(2) Any GM crop that contains DNA from a species that is not sexually compatible should be absolutely sterile to avoid transgene escape. The same rule applies to intragenic plants, as they contain gene arrangements that are most unlikely to occur naturally. 

(3) The GM crop should allow cultivation under organic farming standards. Specifically, it should not require any synthetic chemicals such as herbicides or fertilizers. 

(4) The GM crop should be freely available and any farmer should be allowed to propagate and further improve the GM plants. 

In my view, with these four basic rules, organic farming can absorb gene manipulation to support the principles of organic farming including health, ecology, fairness and care. 

The organic movement should also support a loose regulatory regime, if any, for such genetically modified crops to allow broad development by small entities as well as to apply these new breeding techniques to a broad spectrum of valuable cultivars to maintain seed diversity.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
"The GM crop should not contain any DNA that is not present in sexually compatible species... genome-edited plants are acceptable." >> But could genome editing not result in DNA that is not present in sexually compatible species? 

"Any GM crop that contains DNA from a species that is not sexually compatible should be absolutely sterile to avoid transgene escape." >> Interesting, now detractors of GMOs should be convinced that "terminator" or "suicide seed" technologies are something good and desirable? 

And how does this go along with the requirement that "The GM crop should be freely available and any farmer should be allowed to propagate and further improve the GM plants"? >> How will farmers be able to propagate plants that are absolutely sterile? (Not to mention that hybrids are permitted in organic farming and make it pretty much impossible to propagate the plants in any useful way.) 

And how do freely available GM crops and farmer propagation "allow broad development by small entities"? >> Also small entities need to recoup their R&D costs by selling their products over a number of years, which they cannot do if the crops are free and their seeds can be re-used.  

"The organic movement should also support a loose regulatory regime, if any, for such genetically modified crops" >> Also interesting that now, when the organic industry is presented as beneficiary, detractors of GMOs should accept that GM crops do not need to be regulated any longer. So food safety concerns etc. were overblown all along? 

"The GM crop should allow cultivation under organic farming standards... it should not require any synthetic chemicals such as herbicides or fertilizers." >> That's a bit misleading. Neither herbicides nor fertilizers are automatically "synthetic chemicals". (As any Google search for "organic herbicides" or "certified organic fertilizer" shows -- and I'm not sure whether non-selective organic herbicides are better than selective synthetic ones, or whether e.g. processed rock phosphate is worse than granulated rock phosphate.) 

But at least the author recognises that organic farming (a) is not sustainable per se, and (b) can improve by adopting products and practices that are currently only used in conventional agriculture... Even if it is perhaps more difficult to change a farming system with strict, self-imposed rules that are based in ideology and not evidence, i.e. organic agriculture, than it would be to change a farming system that can use the whole bandwidth of legal products and processes, i.e. conventional agriculture:

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Aflatoxin-free transgenic maize using host-induced gene silencing - Thakare &al (2017) - Sci Advances

Aflatoxin-free transgenic maize using host-induced gene silencing - Thakare &al (2017) - Sci Advances | Ag Biotech News |

Aflatoxins, toxic secondary metabolites produced by some Aspergillus species, are a universal agricultural economic problem and a critical health issue. Despite decades of control efforts, aflatoxin contamination is responsible for a global loss of millions of tons of crops each year. 

We show that host-induced gene silencing is an effective method for eliminating this toxin in transgenic maize... After pathogen infection, aflatoxin could not be detected in kernels from these RNAi transgenic maize plants, while toxin loads reached thousands of parts per billion in nontransgenic control kernels...

These results demonstrate that small interfering RNA molecules can be used to silence aflatoxin biosynthesis in maize, providing an attractive and precise engineering strategy that could also be extended to other crops to improve food security... 

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 25% of the world’s food crops are affected by fungal toxins, often in areas that experience significant food security challenges. In particular, aflatoxins create broad economic and health problems that have an effect on the consumption of maize and several other crops. 

These toxins become more prevalent and thus become more of a food safety concern during severe heat and drought, because these conditions are optimal for the fungal invasion of crops. Aflatoxin-contaminated products cause significant economic and trade problems at almost every stage of production and marketing. 

Our study shows that HIGS [host-induced gene silencing] is a viable control mechanism to alleviate aflatoxins in maize and could be applicable to other crops. Furthermore, we have shown that, by targeting the mycotoxin biosynthetic pathway, aflatoxin levels can be effectively reduced below the regulatory threshold without producing any overt off-target effects on the host crop plant. 

In a wider context, metabolic-targeted HIGS could be effective at eliminating a broad range of adverse bioactive compounds in plants and their pests.

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Engaging in Effective Science Communication: A Response to Blancke et al. on Deproblematizing GMOs - Landrum & Hallman (2017) - Trend Biotechnol 

Engaging in Effective Science Communication: A Response to Blancke et al. on Deproblematizing GMOs - Landrum & Hallman (2017) - Trend Biotechnol  | Ag Biotech News |

As science communication scholars, we encourage interdisciplinary efforts... to engage with the public on GMOs and genetic engineering broadly. We extend the advice given by these scholars with tips based on what we know from the science of science communication... 

Audiences often assume that science should be value-free and that science communicators should aim simply to inform. However, in addressing the science behind controversial issues, science communicators often describe some positions as being superior to others, leading audiences to believe that the communicator primarily intends to persuade. In such cases audiences may come to believe that they have been misled, and react negatively... 

While facts matter, people also heavily consider their own prior knowledge and beliefs. In doing so they often engage in motivated reasoning, rejecting evidence and arguments that conflict with their existing beliefs, values, and affective assessments. Thus, people may understand but still reject scientific consensus when it clashes with their own views... 

While science can answer whether the GM products currently on the market pose any health risks to consumers, it cannot answer a host of ethical, legal, and social questions that concern the public. Scientists should anticipate such questions, as well as queries about their own personal views and behaviors with respect to GMOs... they need to recognize that their views are subject to the same biases as all other humans. When responding to such questions, they ought to make it clear to their audiences that they are speaking as informed citizens and not as experts with unique authority in such matters... 

Not every opportunity to speak about controversial issues like GMOs leads to positive outcomes for those involved. Too often, public forums devoted to controversial issues such as GMOs are constructed and advertised as a clash between ‘pro’- and ‘anti’-GMO forces, and scientists are often asked to defend biotechnology in these debates. We urge careful consideration of what is likely to be gained by participating in events that are explicitly framed as conflicts. We also suggest caution in accepting invitations to take part in other events that specifically frame GMO issues as a contrast between risk and safety, science and nature, farmers and industry, God and man, or good and evil. Such events may fill auditoriums, but it is not clear that they advance public understanding, and instead are likely to continue to ‘problematize’ GMOs in the public’s imagination.

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US immigration order strikes against biotech - Nature Biotechnol (2017) 

The United States is the world’s greatest developer of medicines and new inventions to ameliorate and cure intractable diseases, a status achieved through massive investment in private and public companies, academia and R&D. Most importantly, our success has been founded on the creativity and dedication of our most precious resource – our people. 

Our people include researchers, clinicians, entrepreneurs and business executives from all over the world. They are colleagues in our laboratories, management teams and boardrooms. They discover and develop therapies that drive US biomedical innovation and deliver new medicines to patients, not only in America, but also across the globe. And they start companies that drive the economic growth and employment provided by biotech... Indeed, a study found that in 2014, 52% of the 69,000 biomedical researchers in the United States were foreign-born. 

The biopharma industry originated in America and is dominated by American companies. US companies employ tenfold more people than European companies. Over the past decade, a total of $98.4 billion was invested in US emerging therapeutic companies through venture capital, follow-on public offerings and initial public offerings. US companies spent over $138 billion on upfront payments for in-licensing assets or acquiring global R&D-stage emerging companies. Larger US biopharma companies spent $161.7 billion over the past ten years on market-stage acquisitions. 

The United States has led the world in medicine production for decades, not only because of its ability to finance drug discovery, but also because, more than any other country, the United States represents opportunity regardless of borders, gender, race, sexual orientation or political cast. This has enabled our industry to attract the best talent, wherever it is found. This aspect of our industry is a core reason the United States has built its unique strength in biopharmaceuticals. 

At a stroke, the new administration has compromised years of investment in this national treasure. Our colleagues who are here on visas or are in global outposts are now fearful and uncertain of their status. Scientists based in other countries and employed by our companies are afraid to come to the United States or are canceling trips. The parents and families of immigrants who live and work in the United States are reluctant to attempt to travel to and from the United States... 

Our global employees interpret the underlying message as, “America is no longer welcoming of any immigrants, whatsoever.” They fear similar orders could be issued for other countries at a moment’s notice. They fear being stigmatized and discriminated against, simply because of their religion, irrespective of the nation they come from. Several among us have heard from employees about their deportation fears, how they do not feel comfortable leaving the country on business or how they now feel cut off from their family abroad. 

Every nation has the right to determine who comes across its borders. Every nation needs to be vigilant in defending itself against and hunting down terrorists. The actions taken by the Trump administration, however, were poorly conceived and implemented; they have raised deep fears and concerns across the biotech industry, in which diversity and the free flow of ideas and people have created an American powerhouse of medicine. 

If this misguided policy is not reversed, America is at risk of losing its leadership position in one of its most important sectors, one that will shape the world in the twenty-first century. Indeed, it will harm an industry dominated by smaller companies and startups, the very kind of industry the administration has said it wants to support. It will slow the fight against the many diseases that afflict us, as well as carry negative economic consequences for the United States. 

America must remain the world’s greatest engine of innovation, as well as the beacon of liberty it has been for more than 200 years. The two are inextricably intertwined...

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
"America must remain the world’s greatest engine of innovation" >> Not so sure other countries/regions wouldn't be happy to take over... 

Take Germany. Apart from its many, solid, tuition-free universities [1] – the very best of which are grouped in an Excellence Initiative [2] – there are also plenty of research institutes, be it the Helmholtz Centres [3], the Max Planck Institutes [4], or the Fraunhofer Institutes [5], as well as leading companies such as BASF or Bayer, and biotechnology clusters of smaller biotech companies that are grouped in several "BioRegions" [6]... 

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De-Problematizing ‘GMOs’: Suggestions for Communicating about Genetic Engineering - Blancke &al (2017) - Trends Biotechnol

De-Problematizing ‘GMOs’: Suggestions for Communicating about Genetic Engineering - Blancke &al (2017) - Trends Biotechnol | Ag Biotech News |

The public debates concerning genetic engineering (GE) involve many non-scientific issues. The ensuing complexity is one reason why biotechnologists are reluctant to become involved. By sharing our personal experiences in science communication and suggesting ways to de-problematize GE, we aim to inspire our colleagues to engage with the public. 

GE continues to be a controversial topic with the public, but there is strong consensus among scientists concerning the strengths and limitations of this technology. Biotechnologists and other scientists can play a significant role in laying public concerns to rest. However, not many feel inclined to communicate with the public, not only because science communication takes time and energy that they might rather spend on research but also because discussions with the public can become highly convoluted. 

Public debates concerning GE include discussions about safety for humans, animals, and the environment, topics that a scientist usually feels comfortable talking about. However, quickly enough, he or she will find him- or herself discussing a wider variety of topics, including the desirability of the use of pesticides, agricultural policies, small farmers versus multinationals, patents, politics, food production, and so on... Debates concerning GE have evolved to a point where effective participation requires a substantial learning curve... Nonetheless, given the increasingly important role of science and technology in agriculture and society at large, it has become more necessary than ever to contribute to an informed public understanding of science... 

Simply providing people with information about GE will not suffice. Research on science communication and the public understanding of science has amply shown that improving people's knowledge only has a limited effect on public opinions concerning GE. Instead, people are more likely to interpret the information in personally relevant ways. If people think negatively about GE, they will either discard the information as untrustworthy or modify the information so that it fits their background beliefs. We propose to frame the communication about GE in such a way that the audience is willing to listen, even if they oppose the technology. 

Our central message is that GE is only a genetic improvement method, or rather a set of methods – nothing more, nothing less. This observation may seem obvious to scientists and science communicators. However, we want to emphasize that it provides a good starting point for communicating about GE, especially because students and lay people often do not have the slightest notion of how even elementary breeding works. We compare genetic modification with other breeding methods, such as traditional breeding and mutagenesis, and we explain why GE per se poses no more risk... 

Opposing GE in general makes absolutely no sense... ‘the technologies, the traits and contexts of deployment of specific GE crops are so diverse that generalizations about GE crops as a single defined entity are not possible’... The end-product, not the breeding method nor the technology that has been employed, needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for its own risks and merits. The important question is not, for instance, whether a blight-resistant potato is the result of GE or classical breeding (both routes are possible), but whether it is safe to put it on the market, no matter how it has been developed... 

Once the audience realizes these important distinctions, it becomes easier to show that many important criticisms targeted at genetic modification are not integral to the technology. It also enables us to meet our audience on common ground. We make clear that many of their concerns are legitimate, but that we need to decouple these concerns from the technology. This happens mostly after the talks, when we open the floor for questions and engage directly with specific concerns from the audience... 

A debate about GE organisms often digresses into a lively discussion about agricultural models and the societal role of agriculture. However, our approach makes clear that genetic modification is not wedded to one particular model, nor does the technology necessarily support policies or practices that people reject, or infringe public values. As a result, people come to realize that GE is not the problem. On the contrary, they acknowledge that, for many significant problems in all types of agriculture, whether they are industrial, organic, or agroecological, GE can provide (part of) the solution. In our experience, de-problematizing GE results in a more informed attitude towards a technology that can make a valuable contribution to sustainable agriculture...

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Knocking out consumer concerns and regulator’s rules: efficient use of CRISPR/Cas ribonucleoprotein complexes for genome editing in cereals - Wolter & Puchta (2017) - Genome Biol

Knocking out consumer concerns and regulator’s rules: efficient use of CRISPR/Cas ribonucleoprotein complexes for genome editing in cereals - Wolter & Puchta (2017) - Genome Biol | Ag Biotech News |

It is possible to use CRISPR/Cas ribonucleoproteins (RNPs) to achieve selection-free site-directed mutagenesis by bombarding embryos of the main crop plants maize and wheat... 

Multiple new tools have been developed for plant genome engineering and it has become possible to edit a greater variety of plant species. Application of the technology is becoming more attractive for agronomical purposes... 

The use of RNP-mediated editing is now possible for two of the world’s most important crop plants, and... the farming of the resulting plants with improved traits should not be blocked by regulation hurdles worldwide as they cannot be regarded as genetically modified organisms (GMOs)... 

From the scientific point of view, the answer is easy: if the respective plants cannot be discriminated from a natural variant, which will always apply for plants that carry an induced mutation of one or a few changed nucleotides without a transgene insertion in their genomes, it is completely pointless to classify them as GMOs. One always has to keep in mind that classic mutagenesis by chemicals, as well as radiation, is widely used for the production of new varieties of crops... 

The drawback of the classic strategy is that attractive mutations can only be obtained in an undirected manner and at the cost of many more unwanted changes in the same genome that can only partly be eliminated from the final product by outcrossing. Nevertheless, over 3000 crop varieties have been produced over the years using radiation mutagenesis and are used worldwide without the slightest legal restriction.

In the USA, three agencies are responsible for the regulation of GMOs... USDA... FDA and... EPA. The evaluation mainly takes into account the end product of the procedure that is planted in the field by the farmer. Thus, only plants with transgenes permanently integrated into the genome are regarded as GMOs. The current US regulation has already classified a number of crops mutated by synthetic nucleases as non-GMOs, as they contain an induced mutation but no transgene. 

In contrast, in Europe, EU legislation defines GM crops specifically as “an organism (…) in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”. Here, the process is also relevant... Interestingly, at the end of 2015, the Swedish Board of Agriculture confirmed the interpretation that some plants which have had their genomes edited using CRISPR/Cas9 technology do not fall under the European GMO definition. 

Nevertheless, due to public concerns, a restrictive interpretation of process principle might become an important hurdle in the future for the use of gene-edited plants within the EU, although such a regulation would never be experimentally verifiable. As the decision of the EU might be a guiding light for a number of other nations, such a decision would have worldwide consequences.

To avoid such risks, the idea arose to modify genome-editing approaches in such a way that the synthetic nuclease is not expressed in the transformed cell from a recombined nucleic acid, but is delivered in its active form similar to chemical mutagens in classic breeding. Therefore, plants where mutations are induced by proteins such as synthetic nucleases or RNPs, for example Cas9, should not fall under the current EU regulation and qualify the respective plants as non-GMOs... 

We will only be able to address challenges of the world, including ensuring sufficient food supply, if we evaluate newly developed technologies for their risk potential and their sustainability in a rational way. Hopefully, the two publications discussed here will help to achieve this goal and make the CRISPR/Cas technology more accessible for use in agriculture all over the globe.

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Golden Rice: no progress to be seen. Do we still need it? - Wesseler & Zilberman (2017) - Env Dev Econ 

The article, ‘The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition’... generated substantial interest, not only in academia but also among civil society groups. In this note, we address some of the concerns that have been raised about our results. Our main conclusion remains that misguided regulations in the case of Golden Rice have cost millions of healthy life years and billions of dollars... 

In this note, we address two main concerns that have been raised about the paper. First, we assumed that Golden Rice would have been available for utilization in 2002, but it has not yet been commercialized. We used 2002 as the starting point based on the expectations by experienced rice breeders and experts in genetic engineering. However, the regulatory system delayed the introduction of the technology, and these delays are discussed in detail... 

The second concern raised is that ‘Golden Rice’ is not needed because alternative solutions exist... The claim... is in fact discussed in our paper... But... there are still important parts of the world where [Vitamin A deficiency] prevails, namely in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa... Even if Vitamin A deficiency can be reduced using alternative means, the alternatives can be expected to be expensive, and Golden Rice can be an important cost-effective part of the solution... 

There is clear evidence that the introduction of Golden Rice is delayed by regulation... induced by opposition to the technology. If there is a sense of urgency to save healthy life-years of individuals who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency... regulatory frameworks can be streamlined... Our main conclusion remains that misguided regulations in the case of Golden Rice have cost millions of healthy life-years and billions of dollars, a claim that has recently been supported by more than 100 Nobel Prize Laureates.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Exactly, millions of people still suffer from vitamin A deficiency and its health consequences -- despite current solutions being tried and implemented since decades... Clearly these solutions do have their shortcomings and limitations. On the other hand, it's not only the effectiveness of a solution that matters but also its cost: If an alternative solution can achieve the same result for less money, most people would agree it's a no-brainer to go for this solution -- and to spend the money that's saved on other, urgent interventions... 
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Modifying Bananas: From Transgenics to Organics? - Dale &al (2017) - Sustainability 

Modifying Bananas: From Transgenics to Organics? - Dale &al (2017) - Sustainability  | Ag Biotech News |

Bananas are one of the top ten world food crops. Unlike most other major food crops, bananas are difficult to genetically improve. The challenge is that nearly all banana cultivars and landraces are triploids, with high levels of male and female infertility. There are a number of international conventional breeding programs and many of these are developing new cultivars. However, it is virtually impossible to backcross bananas, thus excluding the possibility of introgressing new traits into a current cultivar. 

The alternative strategy is to “modify” the cultivar itself. We have been developing the capacity to modify Cavendish bananas and other cultivars for both disease resistance and enhanced fruit quality. Initially, we were using transgenes; genes that were derived from species outside of the Musa or banana genus. However, we have recently incorporated two banana genes (cisgenes) into Cavendish; one to enhance the level of pro-vitamin A and the other to increase the resistance to Panama disease...  

As these banana cultivars are essentially sterile, transgene flow and the outcrossing of modified genes into wild Musa species. are highly unlikely and virtually impossible in other triploid cultivars. Therefore, genetic changes in bananas may be compatible with organic farming... Many of the principles of organic farming overlap with the primary principles of the major banana biotechnology programs: elimination of pesticides and the sustainable production of traditional and “heirloom” cultivars and landraces, in the case of biotechnology, through the genetic improvement of these cultivars and landraces. 

Bananas are very different to the broadacre genetically modified commodity crops such as soybeans, maize, cotton, and canola. Only 15% of banana production is exported. This production is based almost exclusively on Cavendish, and is primarily monoculture plantation production with high levels of pesticide usage to control nematodes and fungal diseases. In contrast, the majority of the other 85% of bananas are produced by small holder and subsistence farmers in developing countries and most of these bananas are consumed locally, either on the farm or within a few kilometres. 

It is likely that a very significant proportion of these bananas are grown without inorganic fertilisers and without the application of pesticides or herbicides. Thus, many bananas grown and consumed in the tropics and sub-tropics are, by circumstance, “organic”. It is not that these bananas are unaffected by pests and diseases; they are. Depending on the geographical location, these include weevils, black and yellow Sigatoka, Fusarium wilt... The resources required to control these biotic stresses are invariably unavailable to the small holder farmers and subsequent losses are inevitable and endured. 

The potential of GM is to provide resistance to these pests and diseases in the cultivars and landraces that are traditionally produced by these farmers. Under current definitions, these genetically... improved cultivars with disease resistance would no longer be considered as organic, but their production would be significantly more sustainable. 

Importantly, while about 25% of the non-export bananas are the dominant Cavendish cultivar, the remaining 75% consist of a wide range of diverse cultivars and landraces, which are highly valued locally. These cultivars and landraces are under as much threat as Cavendish, but receive little international publicity; it is the threat of an end to cheap banana fruit to markets in North America, Europe, and Japan, that receives the most attention. 

Although developing a disease-resistant Cavendish or Cavendish replacement is extremely important for both the export trade and local production, just as important is conserving the wonderful diversity seen in local markets throughout the wet tropics and subtropics. As a consequence of the very low fertility of most triploid cultivated bananas, it is essentially impossible to introgress new traits into these cultivars via multiple backcrosses. At present, the genetic improvement, and thus the long term sustainable production of these cultivars, can only be achieved through genetic modification... 

There is an opportunity to incorporate both conventional and GM approaches to optimise new cultivars, but this also is yet to be achieved. Interestingly, the current control regimes for all four of the major diseases of bananas... involve the use of chemicals. The large scale use of fungicides to control black Sigatoka is well documented. One major element of the current control of Fusarium wilt TR4 is the use of disinfectants for boots and vehicles. Elements for the control of banana bunchy top include herbicides to kill infected plants and insecticides to kill the aphid vectors, while disinfectants are used to sterilise tools for BXW control and herbicides are used to kill infected plants. Genetic resistance to these diseases would dramatically reduce the use of harsh chemicals in control regimes. 

The genome revolution is well under way and bananas are not being left behind. Genes for pest and disease resistances will become available at an ever increasing pace, and the majority of these will come from bananas themselves, drawing on the amazing genetic diversity of both wild and cultivated bananas. Banana genes have already successfully been mobilised using GM for the development of bananas with elevated pro-vitamin A and delayed fruit ripening. In parallel, new genetic technologies are being developed and are already being adapted to bananas. 

CRISPR-Cas9 is the first of probably many genome-editing technologies, and groups such as ours are already developing this approach for the next generation of genetically improved bananas. The line between conventionally bred and genetically modified is becoming increasingly blurred, and this will continue. It is likely that smaller labs in the wet tropics and subtropics will develop the capacity to genetically but non-conventionally improve bananas, and it is likely that they will ultimately concentrate on improving their local favourites. 

The future of genetically improved bananas looks very positive, if it is allowed to develop unimpeded: this includes the conservation of traditional and heirloom cultivars and landraces, the elimination of pesticides, and a reduction of the impact of micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries, without the risk of transgene escape from modified bananas to other cultivars or to wild-type plants. Moreover, it is likely that these bananas will be developed with the strong input and influence of local organisations. The genetic resources will be broadly held. Bananas are an excellent example where the likely outcomes of the application of GM match with many of the desired outcomes of organic production.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
"Under current definitions, these genetically... improved cultivars with disease resistance would no longer be considered as organic, but their production would be significantly more sustainable... 

There is an opportunity to incorporate both conventional and GM approaches to optimise new cultivars, but this also is yet to be achieved. Interestingly, the current control regimes for all four of the major diseases of bananas... involve the use of chemicals... Genetic resistance to these diseases would dramatically reduce the use of harsh chemicals in control regimes." 
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The social and economic impact of biofortification through genetic modification - De Steur &al (2017) - Curr Opinion Biotechnol

The social and economic impact of biofortification through genetic modification - De Steur &al (2017) - Curr Opinion Biotechnol | Ag Biotech News |

Genetic modification (GM) has been advocated as an alternative or complement to micronutrient interventions, such as supplementation, fortification or dietary diversification. While proof-of-concept of various GM biofortified crops looks promising, the decision tree of policy makers is much more complex, and requires insight on their socio-economic impacts: Will it actually work? Is it financially sound? Will people accept it? Can it be implemented in a globalized world? 

This review shows that GM biofortification could effectively reduce the burden of micronutrient deficiencies, in an economically viable way, and is generally well received by target beneficiaries, despite some resistance and uncertainty. Practically, however, protectionist and/or unscientific regulations in some developed countries raise the (perceived) bar for implementation in target countries.

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Characterization Of Soybean Genetically Modified For Drought Tolerance In Field Conditions - Fuganti-Pagliarini &al (2017) - Front Plant Sci

Characterization Of Soybean Genetically Modified For Drought Tolerance In Field Conditions - Fuganti-Pagliarini &al (2017) - Front Plant Sci | Ag Biotech News |

Drought is one of the most stressful environmental factor causing yield and economic losses in many soybean-producing regions. In the last decades, transcription factors (TFs) are being used to develop genetically modified plants more tolerant to abiotic stresses. 

Dehydration responsive element binding (DREB) and ABA-responsive element-binding (AREB) TFs were introduced in soybean showing improved drought tolerance, under controlled conditions. 

However, these results may not be representative... in the real field situation. Thus, the objectives of this study were to analyze agronomical traits and physiological parameters of... GM lines under irrigated and non-irrigated conditions in a field experiment, over two crop seasons and quantify transgene and drought-responsive genes expression. 

Results... showed higher intrinsic water use and leaf area index... Oil and protein contents were not affected... These field screenings showed promising results for drought tolerance. However, additional studies are needed in further crop seasons and other sites...

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
... it's not only private US companies that are doing research on GM soybeans... 
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Accelerating the Domestication of New Crops: Feasibility and Approaches - Thulin Østerberg &al (2017) - Trends Plant Sci

Accelerating the Domestication of New Crops: Feasibility and Approaches - Thulin Østerberg &al (2017) - Trends Plant Sci | Ag Biotech News |

The domestication of new crops would promote agricultural diversity and could provide a solution to many of the problems associated with intensive agriculture. 

We suggest here that genome editing can be used as a new tool by breeders to accelerate the domestication of semi-domesticated or even wild plants, building a more varied foundation for the sustainable provision of food and fodder in the future. 

We examine the feasibility of such plants from biological, social, ethical, economic, and legal perspectives.

A second wave of the green revolution is underway that focuses on environmental sustainability, low input, and increased nutritional value. 

Of the more than 300 000 plant species that exist, less than 200 are commercially important, and three species – rice, wheat, and maize – account for the major part of the plant-derived nutrients that humans consume.

Plants with desirable traits, such as perennials with extensive root systems and nitrogen-fixing plants, are currently being domesticated as new crops.

Recent years have given rise to the use of CRISPR/Cas9 for genome editing in plants. The method allows mutations to be generated at precise locations in genes that can lead to knockout or knockdown of protein activity.

Several traits in crops that were crucial for their domestication are caused by mutations that can be reproduced by genome-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9, offering the potential for accelerated domestication of new crops.

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Consumption of Bt Maize Pollen Containing Cry1Ie Does Not Negatively Affect Propylea japonica (Thunberg) (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) - Li &al (2017) - Toxins

Consumption of Bt Maize Pollen Containing Cry1Ie Does Not Negatively Affect Propylea japonica (Thunberg) (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) - Li &al (2017) - Toxins | Ag Biotech News |

Propylea japonica (Thunberg) (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) are prevalent predators and pollen feeders in East Asian maize fields. They are therefore indirectly (via prey) and directly (via pollen) exposed to Cry proteins within Bt-transgenic maize fields. 

The effects of Cry1Ie-producing transgenic maize pollen on the fitness of P. japonica was assessed using two dietary-exposure experiments... Survival, larval developmental time, adult fresh weight, and fecundity did not differ between ladybirds consuming Bt or non-Bt maize pollen... In contrast, the larval developmental time, adult fresh weight, and fecundity of P. japonica were significantly adversely affected when fed diet containing the positive control compound... 

P. japonica are not affected by the consumption of Cry1Ie-expressing maize pollen and are not sensitive to the Cry1Ie protein, suggesting that the growing of Bt maize expressing Cry1Ie protein will pose a negligible risk to P. japonica.

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Conventional Produce Is Not Dirty, But The Marketing Tactics Of Big Organic Are - Forbes (2017) 

Conventional Produce Is Not Dirty, But The Marketing Tactics Of Big Organic Are - Forbes (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

An organization called the Environmental Working Group has issued what it calls a “Dirty Dozen List.” It names crops it claims to have high pesticide residues and recommends that consumers purchase organic versions of these crops. They base their list on a seriously distorted interpretation of a taxpayer-funded testing program called the PDP (Pesticide Data Program, USDA). What the PDP actually documents is that our food supply is extremely safe. 

EWG has repeatedly been called out for promoting this science-free list and for the counter-productive effect it is having on produce consumption by Americans. Yet, EWG persists in employing this strategy as a means of fund raising. Presumably it also serves the interests of their corporate funders in the organic food industry... 

In its latest campaign, EWG is singling out a few crops for added demonization – notably spinach. They highlight certain specific chemicals that were detected in spinach samples by the USDA in 2015. I have looked in detail at this same, publicly available data. It turns out that 7% of the 2015 spinach samples were organic. The very same chemicals that EWG choses to talk about were found on those organic samples. 

As with virtually all of the residues found on all crops, the quantities that the USDA analytical chemists found were at very low levels – well below any possible level for health concern. Still, it is ironic that the same flawed logic that EWG uses to scare consumers away from perfectly safe conventional spinach says that they should also avoid the organic alternative.

Experts agree that one of the best things we can do for our health is to consume a lot of fruits and vegetables. Sadly, all too few Americans do that. Spinach is one of the more popular vegetables that can help move consumers in the right direction, particularly since it has become available as a convenient fresh, pre-washed option. Discouraging consumption of any kind of spinach is a notably irresponsible thing to do, particularly through disinformation... 

Using the USDA’s data and legitimate toxicological information... consumers can visualize just how safe products like spinach actually are. For instance, a child could safely eat up to 310 servings of spinach a day without negative effects from the trace chemicals on that crop... 

EWG focuses on the synthetic pyrethroid insecticide, permethrin... pyrethroids all have the same mode of action as the natural product called pyrethrin derived from Chrysanthemums (pyrethrin is used on organic crops)... 

Pyrethroids are only slightly toxic to mammals and are considered safe enough to be in many household, garden and pet products sold to consumers. One of the synthetic versions, Permethrin, is among the most used crop protection agents on spinach to prevent damage from caterpillar pests and infestations with aphids. These are not things we would like to find in our salads!

The USDA detected an average of 0.8 parts per million of permethrin on the 2015 conventional spinach samples. That is only 4.2% of the conservative tolerance set by the EPA, meaning it isn’t even close to something to worry about. On the organic samples from the same season, the USDA detected an average of 0.9 parts per million permethrin... 

EWG also calls out the fact that traces of DDT and its metabolites were found in some spinach samples. These are unfortunate, long-term soil contaminants still slowly decomposing decades after that old product was banned. Their presence is certainly not related to whether the current spinach crop is grown conventionally or under the organic rules. Fortunately, the levels are tiny – seven parts per billion for the conventional and 11 parts per billion for the organic. These are only 1-2% of the level that the EPA considers to be of concern. 

Permethrin and DDT are the products detected on spinach that the EWG chose to talk about. There were residues of 30 other synthetic pesticides on the organic spinach in 2015. The USDA does not test for at least two dozen other organic-approved pesticides that are used on spinach (biocontrol agents, mineral compounds, natural product chemicals). 

None of this means that organic spinach is “dirty.” Conventional spinach isn’t “dirty” either. What is “dirty” is the tactic is telling consumers they need to buy organic because of residue concerns without acknowledging that the organic products have similar, low-level residues. In my opinion the “Dirty Dozen” should refer to the eleven big-organic companies that support the EWG and the EWG itself.

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Comment: The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture - Stein (2017) - Blog

Comment: The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture - Stein (2017) - Blog | Ag Biotech News |

These days a new paper evaluating – and cautiously promoting – organic agriculture has been published in Science Advances: “Many shades of gray – The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture”, by Seufert and Ramankutty:

Why all these efforts to boost a practice that only covers 1% of global agricultural land (as the authors report), and that is severely restrained in its adaptability by ideology-driven rules that are set in stone? The authors write e.g.: “The use of sewage sludge, currently not permitted by most organic regulations, could potentially increase nutrient availability and recycling.” “Could”, perhaps, but that’s just wishful thinking. The authors also recommend “targeted research programs to develop new crop varieties" – while not mentioning it, this nevertheless implies that genetic engineering could help achieve the objectives of organic farming. But again, such suggestions (that are made explicit by other authors in other papers) are futile, as many recent modern breeding technologies are prohibited in organic farming. 

Similarly, the authors write that "organic certification mostly provides benefits to farm workers when coupled to Fair Trade certification of smallholder farmers. Instead, large-scale organic production often does not provide any benefit for farm workers because it is typically not Fair Trade-certified.” So here the benefit doesn’t come from the rules of organic farming, but from the rules of the Fair Trade certification – and conventional production can be Fair Trade-certified just as well. The same is true for the authors’ suggestion that organic agriculture can provide “livelihood benefits, especially for farmers in low-income countries, such as the organization of farmers in cooperatives, building of social networks, integration of traditional knowledge, providing training, and access to health and credit programs through the certifying and exporting agency”, which are “sometimes considered one of the most important benefits of organic agriculture for smallholder farmers.” If these services are so paramount, why promote organic farming as a way to provide these services, instead of promoting the services directly and to all smallholder farmers? 

More generally, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus efforts on making the other 99% of global agriculture more sustainable? Conventional agriculture does not have a set of fundamental rules and conventional farmers are free to use the best practices and products available. And the authors of the paper concede as much, when writing: “Many conventional farms have, in recent years, increased the use of organic practices such as conservation tillage, cover cropping, or composts.” However, in their final sentence the authors then apply double standards when writing: “A further expansion of organic agriculture and integrating successful organic management practices into conventional farming are important next steps.” Why should successful practices only be integrated from organic into conventional farming, and not also the other way round? 

The authors themselves conceded that organic agriculture has not only many potential benefits but also weaknesses – and why shouldn’t these be addressed by integrating successful practices also from conventional into organic agriculture? (That’s hypothetical, of course, because many of them can’t because they are excluded by organic certification rules.) In the long run there would then be only sustainable agriculture, not conventional vs organic. (Alas, this could then also mean the organic industry loses their profit margins – the authors write that “breakeven premiums needed to allow organic farmers to match profits of conventional farmers are only 5 to 7%”, but they also report a study that indicates that a fully organic diet would cost 50% more, so it seems there’s a lot of potential profit in this market.) 

Finally, what the authors didn’t address, is the impact of “natural” contaminants in organic produce. When discussing “Consumer health”, the authors only wrote: “The only entirely unequivocal benefit of organic foods is reduced contamination from pesticide residues; although this might not matter for consumers in high-income countries, where pesticide contamination on conventionally grown food is far below acceptable daily intake thresholds”. So, the issue for consumer health seems to be less the use of pesticides as such but the strength of the pesticide regulations in the respective country. Therefore, rather than promoting organic agriculture to avoid pesticide-related risks, perhaps the better and more direct way should be to strengthen pesticide regulations in low-income countries. (This would then also improve farm worker health – as the authors write themselves that farmers in regions with weak pesticide regulations and “in low-income countries often report reduced health risks from pesticide exposure as one of their key motivations for adopting organic agriculture.”)  

But to go back to the natural contaminants: To the extent that organic pest control is less effective than conventional pest control, organic produce can have higher levels of mycotoxins or alkaloids (e.g. insects that are not controlled damage crops and thus facilitate the settling in of fungi, or nightshades that are not weeded can have their seeds harvested with the main crop). And also the greater use of manure can increase the risk of contamination of produce with pathogens. In most cases, these contaminations may still be below the safety thresholds, but so are pesticide residues in conventional crops. A discussion of the trade-off for consumer health would have added more balance to the paper (instead of only mentioning the potential health benefits of organic agriculture).

The bottom line is that neither organic nor current conventional agriculture are, in the very most cases, as sustainable as agriculture could and should be. The question therefore is, which of the two can move first, fastest and furthest towards best sustainable practices? Organics have given rules that its proponents defend vigorously – it is probably for a reason that the authors at one point refer to “organic philosophy” – and the organics industry has financial incentives to defend these rules as their unique selling point, too. On the other hand, conventional agriculture is less burdened by ideology and it has no self-imposed rules that limit farmers’ freedom of action, but to the extent that negative impacts of unsustainable practices are externalised, it does not necessarily offer incentives to implement best sustainable practices, either. To ensure that agriculture becomes more sustainable, it may be necessary for decision-makers to set the path by developing appropriate, evidence-based policies.

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Provitamin A biofortification of crop plants: a gold rush with many miners - Giuliano (2017) - Trends Biotechnol

Provitamin A biofortification of crop plants: a gold rush with many miners - Giuliano (2017) - Trends Biotechnol | Ag Biotech News |

Carotenoids are synthesized de novo by plants, where they play fundamental physiological roles as photosynthetic pigments and precursors for signaling molecules. They are also essential components of a healthy diet, as dietary antioxidants and vitamin A precursors. 

Vitamin A deficiency is a public health problem in developing countries, which has prompted a series of efforts toward the biofortification of plant-derived foods with provitamin A carotenoids (mainly β-carotene), giving rise to ‘golden’ crops. 

Since the ‘golden rice’ exploit, a number of biofortified crops have been generated, using transgenic approaches as well as conventional breeding. Bioavailability studies have demonstrated the efficacy of several ‘golden’ crops in maintaining vitamin A status. 

This review presents the state of the art and the areas that need further experimentation.

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Biotechnology Regulation and Trade - Smyth &al (2017) - Springer

Biotechnology Regulation and Trade - Smyth &al (2017) - Springer | Ag Biotech News |
Food policy will remain a global priority in the foreseeable future. While science and technology will help generate new more productive crops and animals, the real challenge will be to ensure that the governance system works efficiently and effectively. Improving global food security in the coming decades is dependent upon ensuring that the food-related products and processes that are created can be distributed to those most in need. 

This to a significant degree is a two-pronged problem. First, regulatory frameworks are becoming more complex and difficult to navigate for technology developers, increasing the cost and time it takes to receive commercialization approvals. Hence, the transition of technologies and products from developed to developing countries is becoming more difficult and expensive. Second, international commodity trade is in danger of returning to the scenario of 100 years ago where trade barriers were used in a tit-for-tat relationship whereby one country would impose a barrier to a commodity, which would result in the second country responding accordingly, thus ratcheting up trade barriers in commodity trade. 

If global food security is truly going to be enhanced, regulatory and trade solution are desperately required. One of the major areas where these challenges are manifest is the in the international regulation and trade issues surrounding modern agricultural biotechnology. It is difficult to get a handle on the scale of the problem, as trade is pursued both out of absolute need and relative benefit. Determining food independence is complex. A country like Canada, for example, could grow many fresh fruits but buys most of the product from abroad, partly because the product is cheaper and partly because of the seasonality of fruit production in Canada due to the climate. This does not mean Canada is dependent on imports... 

The degree of interdependence in effect comes down to whether a country can feed its population with its own production using its own resources, not whether it actually does so. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that on that measure very few countries are truly self-sufficient. The only countries to unambiguously have the capacity to produce more food than they consumer are Argentina, Australia, Burma, Canada, France, India, Russia, Thailand and the USA, along with a few other small countries. Approximately 16% of the global population currently relies upon imports of food produced elsewhere. 

Fader et al. (2013) undertook a trend analysis, concluding that the exhaustion of farmland, climate change and uneven population growth will raise the proportion of the world population that depends on international exchange to secure adequate food to 50% by 2050. This book is explicitly focused on the challenge of facilitating that expansion in trade. It highlights the regulatory and trade challenges that could limit the achievement of global food security and offers a range of strategic responses to overcome these challenges. 

Scientific advances in the breeding of new crops are proceeding at a rapid pace; however, the benefits of these technologies are only partly reaching food insecure markets due to existing regulatory and trade barriers. The book is organized into three main parts that address these challenges. 

Part I of the book delves into the present state of the global market as it pertains to modern agricultural biotechnology. This part opens with a global synopsis of the state of GM crop adoption and the quantified benefits flowing from this adoption. International trade is adversely impacted by two important challenges, coexistence of GM and non-GM products and the low-level presence of unapproved GM products into markets that do not accept GM products. Discussion of these challenges is then followed by the impact on food security by the changing dynamics of risk assessment, particularly within the European Union, where risk is being politicized. 

Part II of the book examined the current institutional architecture, discussing how there has been a move away from science-based regulation in the past decade to one that is more inclusive of socio-economic considerations, such as under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This group of chapters provides an assessment of how products of biotechnology have challenged the ability of international institutions to effectively manage international regulation of, and trade in, these products. The part concludes with a discussion of international conventions and the precedence of these conventions when it comes to resolving disputes between nations regarding GM crops and products. 

The final part of the book identifies options for breaking the current gridlock of regulation and trade. Options for both regulatory and trade improvement are presented and discussed. 

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Why We Believe Obvious Untruths - NY Times (2017) 

Why We Believe Obvious Untruths - NY Times (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

How can so many people believe things that are demonstrably false? The question has taken on new urgency as the Trump administration propagates falsehoods about voter fraud, climate change and crime statistics that large swaths of the population have bought into. But collective delusion is not new, nor is it the sole province of the political right. Plenty of liberals believe, counter to scientific consensus, that G.M.O.s are poisonous, and that vaccines cause autism.

The situation is vexing because it seems so easy to solve. The truth is obvious if you bother to look for it, right? This line of thinking leads to explanations of the hoodwinked masses that amount to little more than name calling... Here is the humbler truth: On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. Hunting, trade, agriculture, manufacturing... were made possible by this ability... Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats.

Consider some simple examples. You know that the earth revolves around the sun. But can you rehearse the astronomical observations and calculations that led to that conclusion? ... Most of what you “know” – most of what anyone knows – about any topic is a placeholder for information stored elsewhere, in a long-forgotten textbook or in some expert’s head.

One consequence of the fact that knowledge is distributed this way is that being part of a community of knowledge can make people feel as if they understand things they don’t... The sense of understanding is contagious. The understanding that others have, or claim to have, makes us feel smarter... The key point here is not that people are irrational... People fail to distinguish what they know from what others know because it is often impossible to draw sharp boundaries between what knowledge resides in our heads and what resides elsewhere.

This is especially true of divisive political issues. Your mind cannot master and retain sufficiently detailed knowledge about many of them. You must rely on your community. But if you are not aware that you are piggybacking on the knowledge of others, it can lead to hubris... 

Such collective delusions illustrate both the power and the deep flaw of human thinking. It is remarkable that large groups of people can coalesce around a common belief when few of them individually possess the requisite knowledge to support it. This is how we discovered the Higgs boson... But the same underlying forces explain why we can come to believe outrageous things, which can lead to equally consequential but disastrous outcomes.

That individual ignorance is our natural state is a bitter pill to swallow. But... it also can prompt us to demand expertise and nuanced analysis from our leaders, which is the only tried and true way to make effective policy. A better understanding of how little is actually inside our own heads would serve us well.

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Want more crop variety? Researchers propose using CRISPR to accelerate plant domestication - Science Daily (2017) 

Want more crop variety? Researchers propose using CRISPR to accelerate plant domestication - Science Daily (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Out of the more than 300,000 plant species in existence, only three species -- rice, wheat, and maize -- account for most of the plant matter that humans consume, partly because in the history of agriculture, mutations arose that made these crops the easiest to harvest. But with CRISPR technology, we don't have to wait for nature to help us domesticate plants... 

Gene editing could make, for example, wild legumes, quinoa, or amaranth, which are already sustainable and nutritious, more farmable. "In theory, you can now take those traits that have been selected for over thousands of years of crop domestication -- such as reduced bitterness and those that facilitate easy harvest -- and induce those mutations in plants that have never been cultivated"... 

The approach has already been successful in accelerating domestication of undervalued crops using less precise gene-editing methods. For example, researchers used chemical mutagenesis to induce random mutations in weeping rice grass... to make it more likely to hold onto its seeds after ripening. And in wild field cress... scientists silenced genes with RNA interference involved with fatty acid synthesis, resulting in improved seed oil quality.

"All of the plants we eat today are mutants, but the crops we have now were selected for over thousands of years, and their mutations arose by chance... With gene editing, we can create 'biologically inspired organisms' in that we don't want to improve nature, we want to benefit from what nature has already created."

This strategy also has potential to address problems related to pesticide use and the impact of large-scale agriculture on the environment. For example, runoff from excess nitrogen in fertilizers is a common pollutant; however, wild legumes, through symbiosis with bacteria, can turn nitrogen available in the atmosphere into their own fertilizer. "Why not try to domesticate more of these plants?" ...


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Evaluation of pearl millet [Pennisetum glaucum (L.) R. Br.] for grain iron and zinc content in different agro climatic zones of India - Anuradha &al (2017) - Indian J Genet

Evaluation of pearl millet [Pennisetum glaucum (L.) R. Br.] for grain iron and zinc content in different agro climatic zones of India - Anuradha &al (2017) - Indian J Genet | Ag Biotech News |

Micronutrient malnutrition, especially the paucity of iron (Fe) and zinc (Zn) is posing a big threat to the world affecting nearly 25% of worldwide population. 

Pearl millet is endowed with... variability for micronutrients especially for grain Fe and Zn content. Micronutrient enrichment in pearl millet is possible by identifying stable genotypes for high levels of micronutrients and utilising them in breeding programme... 

There is possibility for simultaneous improvement of both grain Fe and Zn content without compromising for grain yield.

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Facts Series: Golden Rice - VIB (2017) 

Rice is the staple food of more than half of the world’s population. Rice grains are rich in carbohydrates and... a good source of energy but lack many essential nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. For people who barely eat more than a portion of rice a day, those deficiencies can result in serious health problems.

Tackling poverty, the lack of infrastructure and inadequate education are the greatest challenges. In attaining these goals the fortification of staple food crops in developing countries can [represent] a sustainable way of adding additional nutrients to people’s diets. The development of Golden Rice is an example of this. This rice contains provitamin A, a substance that the body converts into vitamin A.

This document discusses Golden Rice as a potential component of the broad strategy against vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. Efforts must continue to be made in combating global poverty and promoting a varied diet. But, for as long as vitamin A deficiency remains a public health problem in several countries, Golden Rice can be of added value... 

Golden Rice offers great potential... to combat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. Development of the plant has already made significant progress... The field trials and analyses however demand a great deal of time, and regulation surrounding GM crops is stringent. Moreover, Golden Rice also faces opposition that primarily arises through misconceptions. All these different factors mean Golden Rice still hasn’t found its way onto the market.

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Pig study tackles major viral disease - Univ Edinburgh (2017) 

Scientists have produced pigs that may be protected from an infection that costs the swine industry billions each year. The team have used advanced genetic techniques to produce pigs that are potentially resilient to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS). 

Early tests have revealed that cells from the pigs are completely resistant to infection with both major subtypes of the virus that causes the disease. The animals are otherwise healthy and the change – introduced using gene-editing technology – should not affect their ability to fight off other infections... 

Genome-editing offers opportunities to boost food security by reducing waste and losses from infectious diseases, as well as improving animal welfare by reducing the burden of disease. Our results take us closer to realising these benefits and specifically address the most important infectious disease problem for the pig industry worldwide.

PRRS causes severe breathing problems in young pigs and breeding failures in pregnant females. Studies have shown that the PRRS virus targets immune cells called macrophages. A molecule on the surface of these cells called CD163 plays a key role in enabling the PRRS virus to establish an infection.

The research team... used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9 to cut out a small section of the CD163 gene in the pigs’ DNA code. Laboratory tests of cells from the pigs with the modified CD163 gene have confirmed that this change in the pig’s DNA blocks the virus from being able to cause infection. The next stage in the study will be to test whether the pigs are resistant to infection when exposed to the virus... 

PRRS is endemic in most pig producing countries worldwide. Vaccines have mostly failed to stop the spread of the virus, which continues to evolve rapidly. It is one of the greatest challenges facing pig producers today. In Europe alone, the disease is estimated to cost the pig industry more than €1.5 billion each year.

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Consumers’ acceptance and preferences for nutrition-modified and functional dairy products: A systematic review - Bimbo &al (2017) - Appetite

Consumers’ acceptance and preferences for nutrition-modified and functional dairy products: A systematic review - Bimbo &al (2017) - Appetite | Ag Biotech News |

This systematic literature review collects and summarizes research on consumer acceptance and preferences for nutrition-modified and functional dairy products... Acceptance for functional dairy products increases among consumers with higher diet/health related knowledge, as well as with aging. General interest in health, food-neophobia and perceived self-efficacy seem also to contribute shaping the acceptance for functional dairy products... Brand familiarity drives consumers with low interest in health to increase their acceptance and preference for health-enhanced dairy products... 

Variables related to consumer's level of knowledge about the relationships between health and nutrition and in general to the consumer's nutritional knowledge, are good predictors of consumer acceptance of some dairy products, such as probiotic yogurts, low-fat products as well as products with added calcium, antioxidant and fiber. However, some of the studies reviewed did not use validated measures to assess consumers’ knowledge, thus their results may need further validation... 

Scholars have investigated consumers’ acceptance of new functional ingredients-dairy products combinations by using the food-neophobia scale... Empirical evidence... shows that food-neophobia is negatively correlated with the consumers’ willingness to buy probiotic yogurt, whereas it does not affect consumers’ willingness to buy other non-dairy functional products... like cholesterol-lowering spreads or milk with claims to lower blood pressure... Results may be confounded by the fact that, for consumers with high cholesterol blood level, there is a “virtual prescription” for cholesterol lowering products, and that medical applications have been found to suppress neophobia, or risk perception... 

In summary, these studies find that psychological factors contribute to shape consumers’ acceptance for nutrition-modified and functional dairy products. Consumers can become more interested in these products once they can perceive/believe in their health enhancing properties (for themselves and/or for people close to them)... Italy saw the highest number of new healthy products launch among European Countries between 2005 and 2009...

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Consumers accept "new" food if it brings them direct and tangible benefits (such as cholesterol-lowering products for people with high cholesterol blood levels). Consumers are also more likely to accept new food if they have a greater pertinent knowledge. Also interesting that Italians seem to embrace related "healthy" products. 
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