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Initial risk assessment of genetically modified (GM) microalgae for commodity-scale biofuel cultivation - Henley &al (2012) - Algal Res

Initial risk assessment of genetically modified (GM) microalgae for commodity-scale biofuel cultivation - Henley &al (2012) - Algal Res | Ag Biotech News |

Genetic modification (GM) of microalgae to improve commercial production of biofuels is underway. Inevitable governmental regulations will likely address environmental, economic and human health impacts. Proactive addressing of such regulatory protection goals should begin now, during early development of this new, potentially large and transformative industry. We present strategies for ecological risk assessment of GM algae for commercial mass cultivation assuming that escape of GM algae into the environment is unavoidable. We consider the potential ecological, economic and health impacts of GM algae that persist in and alter natural ecosystems.


Horizontal gene transfer with native organisms is of particular concern for certain traits, especially when cultivating GM cyanobacteria. In general, we predict that most target GM algal traits are unlikely to confer a selective advantage in nature, and thus would rapidly diminish, resulting in low but nonzero ecological risk. Genetic and mechanical containment, plus conditional matching of GM algal traits to unnatural cultivation conditions, would further reduce risk. These hypothetical predictions must be verified through rigorous ongoing monitoring and mesocosm experiments to minimize risk and foster public and regulatory acceptance.

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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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The positive side of genetic engineering - SZ (2017) 

The positive side of genetic engineering - SZ (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

[Minimally edited machine translation.] 

How can green biotechnology help produce good crops – and not just corporate markets? There is not much time left to regulate this.

Stefan Jansson has fought. He built beds and covered them with nets. He collected the caterpillars from the plantlets and worked with biological plant protection. At some point, the researcher... started harvesting and making food from it: a pasta dish. He also served a press release that attracted worldwide attention. 

Jansson was the first European to cultivate and consume a plant that has been modified by a new, revolutionary method of genetic engineering: gene editing. The authorities had approved his attempt. Because Sweden wants to step into a new agricultural era – and is not alone. 

The German government also wants to enable new forms of plant breeding... The bill already has the blessing of the Cabinet. But since the first reading in the Bundestag it rumbles in the political groups and committees. At an expert hearing and in the plenum, it became clear how the fronts on the issue of genetic engineering are hardening. Ostensibly, the draft law is about the prohibition of the cultivation of genetically modified plants such as the notorious GM maize... 

But the biggest controversy rages around a second detail of the novella: a paragraph, which... is about gene editing: the modern methods that introduce a whole new way of changing the genetic make-up of plants – and thus differ from the old green biotechnology. One of these procedures is welcome in Germany, says the Federal Government. The technology ensures "a high degree of safety" on the basis of the precautionary principle and the innovation principle. Specifically, this is about a method called CRISPR-Cas – exactly the same method that the Swede Jansson used. 

But what about Gene Editing? Is it a danger? Or a chance? Advocates of genetic engineering consider gene editing... the future. Critics of the law, on the other hand, complain that green biotechnology is still being introduced through the back-door into Germany. 

Plants produced by new method are not to be assessed as GMOs, according to current EU legislation Because GMOs are only plants which could never be produced by natural modification or by conventional breeding. In contrast to the products of the old genetic engineering, this definition rarely applies to genetically edited plants. But how can these plants be classified? The EU Commission had announced several times to make a decision, and several times the resolution has been postponed. Meanwhile there is an ongoing trial before the European Court of Justice. No clarification is to be expected before the year 2018. 

And this is how a debate is going on, which is mainly about a question: Does the concept of genetic engineering need to be redefined? Under experts, the answer is clear. On the occasion of a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, the German Ethics Council and the German Research Community in Berlin... recognized experts from plant biology, jurisprudence, business and philosophy have voted for a new definition by a large majority. 

The Genetic Engineering Act is intended to avert damage to consumers... Possible damages are, however, "not dependent on the method of production, but on the product, that is, on the plant which has thus been produced." Hardly a specialist would contradict this today. 

Ultimately, the researchers want to make a change of perspective, and this makes sense: so far, the manufacturing process has decided whether a plant is considered genetically modified. In the future, the researchers want to look at the plant itself. For the old genetic engineering blasted alien genes from other plant species, bacteria or animals in the crops' genes. Gene Editing, on the other hand, can work subtly with what the plant and its family tree bring with it. 

As a rule, known properties are introduced by wild varieties. This usually suffices for a small change, which could also happen by sunlight or other accepted methods. From this point of view, gene editing is an accelerated, but in the end normal breeding. And everything goes very fast: As a rule new varieties are created within months instead of decades. 

Gene Editing also opens up the opportunity to counteract monopolization in plant breeding. Because the small interventions are so simple and favorable that not only seed companies, but also small cooperatives would be able to develop completely new plants promptly... For example varieties that are robust against heat, cold, drought or humidity. The harvest could be armed against insects, fungi diseases and other dangers. 

Swiss researchers have demonstrated this in the German favorite fruit: From wild apples they won with CRISPR-Cas a resistance to fire blight and copied them into their fruits. The new fruit does not differ from a normal breeding. Above all, it does not need a precautionary shower with antibiotics, as is usual with apples. (The agent streptomycin has therefore already been detected in honey.)  

Fertilizers, insect killers and herbicides could also be saved by means of edited plants, on a large scale. Productivity on poor soils would be increased. And the ecological diversity would also rise again. In the past, three quarters of the crops have disappeared from the fields and with them a large part of the animals and herbs. Every second insect species in Germany is threatened, several hundred butterfly species are in danger. The stocks of 200 wasp species decrease dramatically. In some regions, 80 per cent fewer insects are caught. This is because intensive agriculture forces a massive use of chemicals. 

There is also agreement in Berlin policy – practically across all parties – that this can not remain so. Politically, however, it is under discussion what needs to be done. The Greens in particular are convinced that an agricultural turnaround can also be possible without gene technology. 

The industry is pushing... politicians are following the view of experts who regard genetic engineering as a safe and necessary tool – including the hated old green biotechnology, which has regularly proved to be safe. However, these methods are complex, the development is expensive. And above all, it is highly controversial in the population. Due to the expensive licensing, only large corporations could afford the development of GM plants. And these GMOs had to be profitable... 

Also gene editing is not immune to similar problems if ideological reservations and hasty regulations ensure that this technology is left to the seed conglomerates. The interest of industry in the new genetic engineering is huge...

So how can we prevent that gene-editing shares the fate of the old green biotechnology and the seed conglomerates? It is clear to the majority of experts that only a product-related assessment of new plant varieties can safeguard the opportunities of technology. Only in this way can new blockbusters be created instead of ecologically adapted, diverse crops. There is not much time left to regulate this. All major seed companies are working with the new methods.... Without laws that clearly emphasize and protect the good side of genetic engineering, certainly no loving garden dish will emerge, as from Stefan Jansson.

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Transgenic plants against malaria - CRAG (2017) 

Transgenic plants against malaria - CRAG (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Since... ancient times, mankind has used plants to treat diseases. An example is... Artemisia annua, used for over 2,000 years... to treat intermittent fevers. Nowadays, the artemisinin molecule – the active ingredient synthesized in the microscopic hairs (trichomes) of this plant – is the main component of malaria treatments worldwide... The Chinese scientist Youyou Tu was awarded in 2015 with the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of artemisinin and its application... 

Regardless of artemisinin’s effectiveness against malaria and other diseases caused by parasites and despite its anti-tumour potential, its usage faces a problem: the low content produced by the plant and the high cost of its chemical synthesis result in a scarce and expensive drug.
Now, an international research team... has been able to obtain, through genetic engineering, Artemisia annua plants that produce twice as much artemisinin. The work... identifies a gene involved in the formation of plant trichomes and in the synthesis of terpenes, such as artemisinin... “By manipulating this gene, we have managed to grow plants which contain much more artemisinin than their wild-type counterparts”... 

Noting that 90% of malaria cases and 92% of deaths caused by this disease occur in sub-Saharan Africa, this finding could be a major step towards reducing the production costs of such a necessary drug... “One of the main goals... is to produce artemisinin of the same quality but at a lower cost. Our ambition is to reduce the price of the drug, so it can be accessible to everyone in the future... We want to use Artemisia as a natural low-cost factory for antimalarials, and we are testing different strategies to do it”... 
“in addition to its role in Artemisia, the identification of this gene can also be useful for other plants whose trichomes produce substances of interest... There are many plants that produce substances of interest in their trichomes. For example, menthol and thymol are terpenes produced in the trichomes of mint and thyme, respectively.”

Underlying article:

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Modeling Preference and Willingness to Pay for Drought Tolerance (DT) in Maize in Rural Zimbabwe - Kassie &al (2017) - World Dev

Modeling Preference and Willingness to Pay for Drought Tolerance (DT) in Maize in Rural Zimbabwe - Kassie &al (2017) - World Dev | Ag Biotech News |

Maize plays a leading role in the food security of millions in southern Africa, yet it is highly vulnerable to the moisture stress brought about by the erratic rainfall patterns that characterize weather systems in the area. 

Developing and making drought-tolerant maize varieties available to farmers in the region has thus long been a key goal on the regional development agenda. Farm-level adoption of these varieties, however, depends on local perceptions of the value they add, along with willingness to pay (WTP) for it. 

Focusing on Zimbabwe, this research aimed at estimating the implicit prices farmers are willing to pay for drought tolerance in maize compared to other preferred traits. 

Using a choice experiment framework, we generated 12,600 observations from a random sample of 1,400 households... The results reveal drought tolerance, grain yield, covered cob tip, cob size, and semi-flint texture to be the most preferred traits by farm households in Zimbabwe. 

The WTP estimates show that farmers are willing to pay a premium for drought tolerance [DT] equal to 2.6, 7.0, 3.2, and 5.0 times higher than for an additional ton of yield per acre, bigger cob size, larger grain size, and covered cob tip, respectively. 

We suggest designing and implementing innovative ways of promoting DT maize along with awareness-raising activities to enhance contextual understandings of drought and drought risk to speed adoption of new DT maize varieties by risk-prone farming communities...

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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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From HIV to climate change: how to spot denialists in action - New Scientist (2017) 

From HIV to climate change: how to spot denialists in action - New Scientist (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

US president Donald Trump has sparked anxiety in the scientific community by denying climate change, casting doubt on the use of vaccines, and generally decrying experts who don’t toe the Trump administration’s line. Virtually everything Trump disagrees with is dismissed as “fake news”.

Denialism is inevitable whenever powerful financial, governmental, cultural or religious interests come into conflict with scientific reality. HIV researcher Glenda Gray saw this first hand at the turn of the millennium, when South African president Thabo Mbeki refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS. This prevented vital research and treatment, leading to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Today’s professional deniers, with their deep pockets and sophisticated use of media, are better than ever at convincing the general public that black is white and vice versa. So in these challenging times, it pays to remind ourselves of the cunning moves in the denialists’ playbook... Six tactics that all denialist movements use... 

- Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.

- Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility”...  

- Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.

- Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.

- Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.

- Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.

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"From HIV to climate change"... to GMOs, and vaccines, and... 
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Unique wheat: importance to agriculture, the environment and undernourished people - Aarhus University (2017) 

Unique wheat: importance to agriculture, the environment and undernourished people - Aarhus University (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Stronger legs in fast-growing broilers, reduced phosphorus emissions to the environment, improved health for undernourished populations in developing countries and better use of scarce resources – these are some of the perspectives of a unique type of wheat; a wheat with a specific ability to increase the digestibility of phosphorus and other important minerals... 

It all started with a single wheat plant. The scientists were on the lookout for certain cereal genes that affect the availability of vital minerals in feed and foods. Minerals such as phosphorus are often tightly bound in phytate. The enzyme phytase helps to break down phytate, thus increasing mineral availability.

Monogastrics such as pigs and poultry are unable to produce phytase. Cereals contain genes that code for phytase activity but the activity is not sufficient to break down all phytate compounds in the feed. Therefore, enzymes are added to the feed in conventional farming to help the animals utilize phosphorus. 

Adding enzymes to organic feed is not an option. If the animals do not utilize phosphorus optimally, it can affect their growth and health. In addition, the non-digested surplus is excreted and ends up in the environment.

The scientists succeeded in finding the genes controlling phytase activity... Next, they... found a mutant in which the phytase genes are expressed more powerfully than in ordinary cereals, resulting in increased phytase activity... The name of the new wheat is HIGHPHY... 

The next question was if this super wheat with its increased phytase activity would be able to cope with the digestive system. The wheat was tested in broilers... and the test results have now been published... The broiler experiments demonstrated that supplementing the feed with HIGHPHY wheat was a very efficient way of releasing the phosphorus in the feed and make it easily available to the animals. 

For feed in which regular wheat had been completely replaced by HIGHPHY wheat the experiments demonstrated improved digestion coefficients for calcium and phosphorus of 15 and 23 percent, respectively, compared to feed containing regular wheat and with a supplement of phytase enzyme... 

Improved phosphorus digestion in livestock will result in reduced phosphorus emissions to the environment. In addition, calcium phosphate is a very scarce resource, so if phosphorus becomes more readily available to the animals, we can reduce our use of this important resource... 

Organic farmers cannot add enzymes to animal feed. This means that organic livestock miss out on most of the phosphorus in the cereals, which will instead end up in the environment. This problem is easily solved by using the patented wheat... 

The new cereal may also be of significant importance to people in developing countries, as phytase also affects the availability of other minerals such as iron, zinc and... calcium. Major parts of the populations in developing countries suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies.

700 million people worldwide suffer from iron deficiency because of the high phytate level of their diets. If wheat containing its own phytate-metabolizing enzyme became available, this could significantly improve the health of the population in many of these countries...

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Alexander J. Stein's insight:
"Organic farmers cannot add enzymes to animal feed. This means that organic livestock miss out on most of the phosphorus in the cereals, which will instead end up in the environment." 
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Golden bananas in the field: elevated fruit pro‐vitamin A from the expression of a single banana transgene - Paul &al (2017) - Plant Biotechnol J

Golden bananas in the field: elevated fruit pro‐vitamin A from the expression of a single banana transgene - Paul &al (2017) - Plant Biotechnol J | Ag Biotech News |

Vitamin A deficiency remains one of the world's major public health problems despite food fortification and supplements strategies. Biofortification of staple crops with enhanced levels of pro-vitamin A (PVA) offers a sustainable alternative strategy to both food fortification and supplementation. 

As a proof of concept, PVA-biofortified transgenic Cavendish bananas were generated and field trialed in Australia with the aim of achieving a target level of 20 μg/g of dry weight (dw) β-carotene equivalent (β-CE) in the fruit. 

Expression of a Fe'i banana-derived phytoene synthase 2a (MtPsy2a) gene resulted in the generation of lines with PVA levels exceeding the target level with one line reaching 55 μg/g dw β-CE... Wild-type plants with the longest fruit development time had also the highest fruit PVA concentrations. 

The results from this study suggest that early activation of the rate-limiting enzyme in the carotenoid biosynthetic pathway and extended fruit maturation time are essential factors to achieve optimal PVA concentrations in banana fruit.

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Identification of quantitative trait locus and prediction of candidate genes for grain mineral concentration in maize across multiple environments - Zhang &al (2017) - Euphytica 

Identification of quantitative trait locus and prediction of candidate genes for grain mineral concentration in maize across multiple environments - Zhang &al (2017) - Euphytica  | Ag Biotech News |

Trace metal elements are essential in daily diets for human health and normal growth. Maize is staple food for people in many countries. However, maize has low mineral concentration which makes it difficult to meet human requirements for micronutrients. 

The objective of this study was to identify quantitative trait locus and predict candidate genes associated with mineral concentration in maize grain. Here, a recombinant inbred line population was used to test phenotype of zinc (Zn), iron (Fe), copper (Cu) and manganese (Mn) concentrations... 

We found that five candidate genes... The genetic and phenotypic correlation coefficients were depended on the nutrient traits and they were significant between Fe and Zn, Fe and Cu, Fe and Mn in all environments. 

The results of this study illustrated the genetic correlation between maize grain mineral concentrations, and identified some promising genomic regions and candidate genes for further studies on the biofortification of mineral concentration in maize grain.

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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.”

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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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