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Visit to vandalized Golden Rice field trial - IRRI (2013)

IRRI and PhilRice officials visit the Golden Rice field site that was vandalized... A crowd of 300 had stormed the Department of Agriculture (DA) Regional Field Unit 5's (RFU5) Bicol Experiment Station, overwhelming the police and guards, and vandalizing the research plots of Golden Rice... 


Regional Executive Diretor Bragas said that they were taken by surprise. They had assembled DA officials and staff in the office, waiting for the group to come in and sit down for a peaceful dialogue. Instead, the militants poured into the compound, overwhelmed the police and village security, broke down a section of the fence surrounding the research area, and entered, uprooted, and trampled the crop. 


The officials shared that there were farmers in the group, but they just watched and stayed on the sidelines. Local customs and traditions dictate that the destruction of a living field brings bad fortune – Bicolanos refer to it as "Bosung". Those who entered the field to vandalize were mostly young men and some covered their faces. 


The local officials and the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) recounted that the rallyists had been assembled in Legazpi City the day before, and brought overnight to Naga City in a convoy of about a dozen jeepneys. In Naga City they had been housed in local hotels. It was reported that the group included foreigners. 

Alexander J. Stein's insight:

Interesting to read how little regard the anti-GMO activists apparently had for local customs, traditions and beliefs (which otherwise they probably claim to be dear to their heart), simply overpowering local farmers and stakeholders rather than empowering them. (A jeepney can easily accommodate more than a dozen passengers, i.e. a dozen jeepneys can have bussed in more than half of the "farmers" from Legazpi City who vandalised the field trial.) 

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

[updated 31 July, 2015]  


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.
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‘Big Farmer’ firms plan pesticides to manipulate gene expression - New Scientist (2015)

‘Big Farmer’ firms plan pesticides to manipulate gene expression - New Scientist (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

Spray away? Pesticides that work by tinkering with gene expression in the pest without modifying crop genes could get around regulations on genetic modification. The technology is based on a process called RNA interference and may be ready within the next five years... researchers showed that an RNA spray can kill the Colorado potato beetle, protecting potato plants for more than 28 days... 

Because this approach silences genes but does not introduce heritable changes into the genome, it may not be regulated as a GM product. “In effect these are chemical pesticides, they just happen to be RNA”... The approach is based on RNA interference (RNAi), a protective mechanism that occurs naturally in cells. The process has evolved to detect the double-stranded RNA produced by viruses, but can be repurposed to silence any gene. One way to do this is to use short sequences of double-stranded RNA to trigger enzymes in the cell to stop any proteins being made that correspond to its sequence.


In the past, crops have been genetically modified to produce RNA molecules that protect the plant by triggering RNAi in the insects that eat them – but GM crops are less likely to be approved and used, particularly in Europe. Researchers are now developing RNA sprays for crops instead.

One advantage touted for this technology is that it would allow farmers to target pests more specifically. Chemical pesticides, for example neonicotinoids, can harm other species. By using sequences of RNA that match specific gene sequences in a pest, RNAi should leave other species unscathed. “By carefully targeting unique regions of pest genes, the effect can be highly targeted to avoid unintended effects”... 

In practice this could be difficult. To kill an insect, the RNAs must silence a gene essential for life, and species often share genes of such crucial importance, making it difficult to target one insect over another. “They need to find another gene in the insect that is essential for it but not in other organisms”... 

Bacteria might absorb the sprayed RNAs and use them. “Bacteria can take up nucleic acids,” says Jones. But he says this would only be a potential hazard if the RNAs provided them with a selective advantage. “This would be highly unlikely in the case of RNAi”... 


A sequence used to kill an insect might, by chance, also match an important sequence in humans. “That can be tested... With all technologies, there’s always a risk,... My opinion is the RNAi approach would be a better option than pesticides that are less specific.”


An increasing number of pesticides are being banned for their unspecific effects. “If you talk to farmers, particularly in northern Europe, they’re very concerned about the limited range of crop protection chemicals that they have available to them because of concerns about the broader environmental effects”... it would be “wonderful” if a specific RNAi treatment that doesn’t harm bees were able to replace neonicotinoids.


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Genetic modification: 'The most critical technology' for feeding the world - ScienceDaily (2015)

Genetic modification: 'The most critical technology' for feeding the world - ScienceDaily (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

Nina Fedoroff, molecular biologist and former Science and Technology Adviser to Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, warns of the detrimental influence of politics and misinformation on the safety of GM crops... "GM crops are arguably the safest new crops ever introduced into the human and animal food chains."

Addressing safety concerns, Fedoroff highlights recent studies that have revealed that plant modification by molecular techniques has less impact on gene expression, protein and metabolite levels than conventional genetic crosses. New methods are also rapidly being developed that promise to further increase the specificity and precision of genetic modification.

"The overwhelming evidence is that the GM foods now on the market are as safe, or safer, than non-GM foods," argues Fedoroff. She also cites a recent overview by the European Union of more than 130 research projects over 25 years concluding that GM methods are not inherently more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies. Fedoroff adds: "Every credible scientific body that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion"... 

The human population has grown seven-fold over the past two centuries, with the addition of a further 2-3 billion anticipated during the 21st century... food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050... "Current yield growth trends are simply insufficient to keep up...To live sustainably within planetary constraints, we must grow more on the same amount of land using less water, energy and chemicals. The molecular genetic revolution of the late 20th century that powered the development of precise GM methods is the most critical technology for meeting these challenges."

The negative impact of climate change on agriculture is also predicted to worsen... and arable land continues to be lost to urbanization, salinization, and desertification. "Supplies of fresh water for agriculture are under pressure, as well... Yet the major crops that now feed the world -- corn, wheat, rice, soy -- require a substantial amount of water."

The advances in knowledge of plant stress responses and tools for plant breeding have already resulted in the introduction of new drought-tolerant crop varieties, both GM and non-GM... But opposition to GM crops... impeded progress... "European influence has been especially detrimental in Africa, causing African leaders to be excessively precautionary in approving GM crops and even to ban the import of GM grain to alleviate famine."

Fedoroff discusses missed opportunities in using GM technology for addressing global malnutrition. Severe vitamin A deficiency causes up to 2.8 million preventable deaths[,] and blindness in half a million children annually. The GM crop 'Golden Rice' produces enough β-carotene so that a few ounces of cooked rice could eliminate the morbidity and mortality of vitamin A deficiency. "Golden Rice remains mired in controversy and has been tied up in the regulatory process... Millions suffer and die while Golden Rice remains in test plots." 

More positive stories on the adoption of GM crops are highlighted... more than 90% of farmers growing biotech crops today are smallholder, resource-poor farmers... GM crops have reduced pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22% and increase farmers' profits by 68%: "The simple reasons that farmers migrate to GM crops are that their yields increase and their costs decrease."

Taking a historical perspective, Fedoroff suggests that much of the opposition to GM crops could lie in our understanding of what constitutes 'genetic modification'. "Humans practiced genetic modification long before chemistry entered agriculture... transforming inedible wild plants into crop plants, wild animals into domestic animals and harnessing microbes to produce everything from cheese to wine and beer. Oddly, it is only our contemporary methods of bending organisms' genetic constitution to suit our needs that are today recognized as genetic modification"... 

"Will we have the wisdom to overcome our fear of new technologies and re-invest in the kind of agricultural research and development that can simultaneously increase agricultural productivity and decrease its environmental impact, so that we might preserve what remains of our extraordinary biological heritage?...The answers to these questions will, for better or worse, shape our future civilizations."

Original article:


Alexander J. Stein's insight:

Not sure how helpful it is to present *any* technology in superlative terms, no matter what its merits indeed are. Smacks too much off a silver bullet and it's difficult to satisfy inflated expectations -- i.e. it might even backfire when people get a lot of benefits but take those then for granted and expect ever more... 

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'GMO-Free' Is A Boon For Companies Chasing 'Health Halo' Profits - NPR (2015)

'GMO-Free' Is A Boon For Companies Chasing 'Health Halo' Profits - NPR (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

The Chipotle Cultivate Festival... had it all: an indie pop band onstage, long lines at the beer booths. It was like a Grateful Dead concert, only with free burritos.

But this... were more than just a classic summertime music festival... Chipotle... was the first national restaurant chain to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from most [i.e. only where it's easy and cheap] of its menu. Now, the company is going a step further: using its anti-GMO stance as a marketing opportunity... even though the world's leading scientists say GMOs are safe.

As sales of GMO-free food skyrocket into the billions, savvy companies are noticing. The demand for those foods falls under what the industry calls the "health halo," the perception that a food is healthful. And that brings us to the marketing of such products as GMO-free potato chips.

"It's almost like the era of Mad Men where the slick marketers and the big money could convince people that things that weren't good for them were good for them," says Cathy Calfo, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers. She says all those people who want non-GMO labels already have one. It's called "organic," and if you buy anything with that green USDA stamp, you will be eating GMO-free food.

Now, organic companies don't want to criticize other food companies, but they do worry that marketing a product as GMO-free can mislead consumers who may think that food is healthful. And they're watching while the demand for GMO-free foods outpaces organics...

And in a case "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," the California Certified Organic Farmers recently created another label. It reads "Non-GMO & More," which the group hopes will help organics tap into the growing, non-GMO multibillion-dollar business.



Alexander J. Stein's insight:

... speaking of being driven by financial interests... 

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Are GMOs and organic foods compatible? - Sci over Coffee (2015)

[Video] We chat with Professor Ian Godwin from The University of Queensland about genetically modified food crops. Ian believes that GMO foods and organic agriculture are perfectly compatible. He explains that scientists are creating GMO plants to achieve a more sustainable agriculture. The idea is to create plants resistant to pests and diseases... 


He points out that our beloved “organic” potato is actually sprayed with copper to control disease and the use of copper fungicides in organic farming may be resulting in increased levels of copper in the soil and the food we eat. So maybe it’s time we embrace GMOs for more sustainable agriculture and healthier food?


If you are after more information about this topic, below are a few good articles to get you started...


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Honey Bees Rapidly Evolve to Overcome New Disease - OIST (2015)

Honey Bees Rapidly Evolve to Overcome New Disease - OIST (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

An international research team has some good news for the struggling honeybee, and the millions of people who depend on them to pollinate crops and other plants.

These valuable pollinators have faced widespread colony losses over the past decade, largely due to the spread of a predatory mite called Varroa destructor. But the bees might not be in as dire a state as it seems... Researchers found a population of wild bees from around Ithaca, New York, which is as strong today as ever, despite the mites invading the region in the mid-1990s.

“They took a hit, but they recovered,” said Alexander Mikheyev... lead paper author. “The population appears to have developed genetic resistance.” Mikheyev and his collaborators... studied the population genetics of the wild colony by comparing the DNA of specimens collected in 1977 with bees collected from the same forest in 2010...

Such a study is extremely rare, especially with bees. Few people collect them, and even fewer collect in a way that is good enough for a population level study... This is the first time scientists have been able to observe genome-wide changes after a specific event like the mite invasion... “we see how evolution happens as compared to how we think it happens”... 

Many people think of evolution happening over thousands or millions of years, but in fact, it is happening from generation to generation. External forces cause certain traits to be selected and passed on to offspring to enhance their chance of survival and reproduction. By comparing bees from the same colony only a few decades a part, the team was able to see this natural selection in action.

The bees changed in several different ways. First, mitochondrial DNA... changed significantly... That genetic material is only passed on from the mothers, so a major change indicates the old queen bees were wiped out and there were large-scale population losses. Even so, the population still maintained a high level of genetic diversity throughout the rest of genome, which is stored in the cell nucleus... 

One of the most interesting changes in the bee population was in a gene related to a dopamine receptor... has suggested this receptor is involved with bees grooming themselves to get rid of the mites by chewing them up. 

The researchers also found many changes in genes associated with development. Mites reproduce and feed on the bee during the bees’ larval stage, so the researchers hypothesize that bees evolved to disrupt that process. Also, there were physical changes – today’s bees are smaller than the older bees and their wing shape is different.

The researchers note changes observed cannot be prescribed to any one factor, such as the mites... However, many of the changes are too large to be due to random genetic fluctuations, or the introduction of genes from other sources...

“These findings identify candidate genes that could be used for breeding more resistant bees... More importantly, it suggests the importance of maintaining high levels of genetic diversity in domestic bee stocks, which may help overcome future diseases.”


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The stale and illogical debate around genetically modified crops must not be allowed to inhibit exciting new technologies - The Times (2015)

The stale and illogical debate around genetically modified crops must not be allowed to inhibit exciting new technologies - The Times (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

The debate around genetically modified crops would almost certainly puzzle an alien. “I don’t get it,” he’d beep, arriving for his first tour of Earth. “You’ve found a way to boost crop yields and reduce your reliance on pesticides. Repeated, peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown there is no downside. It could be the answer to a pending crisis of global hunger, and vast swathes of the world do it already, with no ill-effect. Yet it still makes lots of people very angry, and many governments avoid it in horror. Why?” 


Humanity's representative, whoever it should be, could only grimace...


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Trends in pesticide use on soybean, corn and cotton since the introduction of major genetically modified crops in the United States - Coupe & Capel (2015) - Pest Management Sci

Genetically modified (GM) varieties of soybean, corn and cotton have largely replaced conventional varieties in the United States. The most widely used applications of GM technology have been the development of crops that are resistant to a specific broad-spectrum herbicide (primarily glyphosate) or that produce insecticidal compounds within the plant itself... 

There has been a reduction in the annual herbicide application rate to corn since the advent of GM crops, but the herbicide application rate is mostly unchanged for cotton. Herbicide use on soybean has increased. There has been a substantial reduction in the amount of insecticides used on both corn and cotton since the introduction of GM crops.

The observed changes in pesticide use are likely to be the result of many factors, including the introduction of GM crops, regulatory restrictions on some conventional pesticides, introduction of new pesticide technologies and changes in farming practices... 


The data assembled for this study indicate that there has been a substantial decrease in the mass of insecticides applied since the introduction of Bt corn and cotton. Although most of this change can be attributed to the introduction of GM crops, some of the decrease may have been caused by other factors. Regulatory restrictions caused the decrease in the use of some conventional insecticides, such as the organophosphates, and an industry-wide move to introduce new insecticide chemistries that are more potent, resulting in lower application rates in terms of mass applied. Also, the widespread use of the neonicotinoids as seed treatments, starting in the mid-2000s, has changed the dynamics of insecticide use in the United States.


It is less clear if there has been a reduction in the mass of total herbicides applied since the introduction of GRT [glyphosate-resistant trait] soybean, corn and cotton. The overall rate of herbicide application to soybean initially diminished soon after GRT soybean was introduced, but by the early 2000s the rate was higher than it was before... As with soybean, the total rate of herbicide application to corn and cotton also decreased soon after the introduction of GRT corn and cotton, but after a few years the total herbicide application rate on corn and cotton began to rise... 

Some of the reduction in herbicide use on these crops was probably due to other factors beyond the use of glyphosate resistance technology. There have been regulatory restrictions on the use of some conventional pesticides... Additionally, new pesticides have been introduced and adopted that are more potent, and thus require lower mass-based rates of application.... Reductions in herbicide application may also have been a result, in part, of changes in farming practices, as well as increased awareness by producers of the need to be responsible stewards of the land...


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The Regulatory Status of Genome-edited Crops - Wolt &al (2015) - Plant Biotechnol J

Genome editing with engineered nucleases (GEEN) represents a highly specific and efficient tool for crop improvement with the potential to rapidly generate useful novel phenotypes/traits. Genome editing techniques... and the ancillary processes they employ generate phenotypic variation that is indistinguishable from that obtained through natural means or conventional mutagenesis; and therefore, they do not readily fit current definitions of genetically engineered or genetically modified used within most regulatory regimes.

Addressing ambiguities regarding the regulatory status of genome editing techniques is critical to their application for development of economically useful crop traits. Continued regulatory focus on the process used, rather than the nature of the novel phenotype developed, results in confusion on the part of regulators, product developers, and the public alike and creates uncertainty as of the use of genome engineering tools for crop improvement.

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Framework for the socio-economic analysis of the cultivation of genetically modified crops - Kathage &al (2015) - JRC

In the future the cultivation of GM crops in the EU may increase, which can have a number of socio-economic consequences for farmers, upstream and downstream industries as well as consumers.


The European GMO Socio-Economics Bureau (ESEB) has compiled topics, indicators, methodological guidelines and potential data sources to carry out analyses of these socio-economic effects. This document provides a framework applicable to any GM crop...


Almost 100 indicators, which range from farm adoption rates to consumer surplus, have been identified... Evidence of impacts in the EU already exists for some crop/trait combinations both ex post and ex ante but for most topics it is very limited.


Methodologies have been developed by the scientific community for many of the topics and indicators (from simple partial budget analysis to complex aggregated models)... the main challenge to conducting socio-economic assessments is a lack of data.


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Should I eat GMO foods - Mens Health (2015)

Should I eat GMO foods - Mens Health (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

Q: What are genetically modified organisms? A: A GMO – also known as a transgenic organism, if you want to sound smart – has had its genetic material altered in a lab. Dr Kevin Folta, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, explains: “We use laboratory techniques and recombinant DNA technology to move a trait from one organism to another”... quicker and more predictable. “The goal is to get favourable traits into one place... Traditional breeding gives you a foundation. The addition of another gene through a laboratory gives you one more level of precision.”

Q: What kind of “favourable traits” are we looking at here? A: ... Far from engineering a species of super-powered plants, modification is generally used to make crops better able to resist insects, viruses and herbicides, chiefly in the developing world. “Without it, you’d see crop losses much higher. In places like India, you’d see a return to old-school insecticides applied by people who don’t necessarily have the best protective wear”...

“Genetic modification... That’s been tested a lot. There will be more variation in nutrition from if you grow them on the south side of the road or the north side than from whether they’re GM or not”... 


Q: If it's so harmless, what’s with all the 'GM-free' labels in my local health food shop? A: If gluten-gate taught us anything, it’s that popping a ‘free from’ sticker on your packaging is enough to put people off the ousted ingredient... “If they can scare people away from conventional farming, they’ll sell more of their products. They have a market share based on how well they can get foods labelled”... We're not pulling out the ‘conspiracy’ card here – but with 18 years of solid use and no health scares, GM foods have a pretty clean record.

Q: So who gets to decide what’s a GMO and what’s not? A: That's the other problem with labelling: there’s no uniformity. “Do you label things like cheese that’s made using an enzyme from a genetically modified microbe? In the EU they’ve said, ‘We’re not going to call that a GMO.’ Well it absolutely is – they just see that the industries would be affected... Many things would be labelled. Even medicines, chemotherapy agents, insulin”... 

Q: What effect is this anti-GM food movement having? A: The public perception problem is fairly far-reaching... “We have so many good technologies… in the US and in China and everywhere, that could be outstanding solutions to help people and farmers and the needy... But those aren’t developed because of this very strong fear component. And that has definitely slowed development of good technology.”


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Thirteen Lessons in Critical Thinking for Leaders of the Anti-GMO Movement - Slate (2015)

Thirteen Lessons in Critical Thinking for Leaders of the Anti-GMO Movement - Slate (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

In the past couple of years, some of the country’s best science journalists... have shredded many of the movement’s claims and arguments. Three weeks ago Slate poked more holes in the case for banning or labeling genetically engineered food. Some GMO critics, to their credit, seem open to reforming the movement... trying to refocus the debate on transparency, herbicidal applications, and long-term monitoring.

Others are clinging to the same old discredited attacks on GMO safety. Chief among them is Claire Robinson... Her arguments fail, but they do so in an instructive way. By exploring these common anti-GMO errors, you can learn a lot about how to think critically, and not just about GMOs. Here are some of the lessons.

No. 1: Don’t rely on authority... I agree. That’s why I drilled down into four case studies to look at specific evidence. The evidence, not the assurances, is what debunks the arguments against these GMOs...

No. 3: Read the fine print. To scare you about glyphosate, an herbicide that is used in tandem with some genetically engineered crops, Robinson displays a headline from Nature: “Widely used herbicide linked to cancer.” She puts the headline in a graphic, so you can’t click through to read the article. If you look up the article, you’ll find caveats: The risk is unquantified, and according to an expert quoted in the story, “the evidence cited here appears a bit thin”...

No. 4: Respect evidence. Robinson says you can’t trust me... But the important thing is that I’ve put facts on the table so we can debate them and test our assumptions against data. If you follow Robinson’s approach – ridiculing propositions as absurd a priori – you’ll learn nothing.

No. 5: Keep an open mind. Robinson points out that... I have “a history of bad judgment calls,” and therefore you shouldn’t trust me. She has it backward. The people you shouldn’t trust are those who reject new information. When events or experiments don’t turn out as you expected, you have to rethink your assumptions. Otherwise you end up clinging to dead dogmas... 

No. 7: Compare the options. When you’re told something is bad, apply the same standard in judging the alternatives. Glyphosate is a good example. GMO critics say it’s hazardous, but they’re strangely quiet about the herbicides it has replaced... If you look up which pesticides have declined in use as glyphosate has increased, you find many that are far more hazardous...

No. 8: Watch for moving goalposts... They testified that genetically engineered papayas had never been tested for safety in animals. I pointed to a study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, in which the papayas had been fed to rats. Rather than acknowledge that... Robinson also says the study was too short. But just in case scientists follow up with a longer study, she’s ready to move the goalposts again: Even a two-year study in cows (“equivalent to around eight years in human terms,” according to Robinson) isn’t enough. The allegations and demands are endless. When you keep reaching for higher standards and new rationalizations, you’re just protecting your beliefs from falsification.

No. 9: Beware of political agendas. Robinson dismisses Golden Rice, which is engineered to relieve vitamin A deficiency, as “a poster-child for GM” and “a weapon to attack the biotech industry’s critics.” But when you see everything in political terms, you lose sight of the underlying reality. Rice is food. Vitamin A is a nutrient. If you campaign against a nutritional project because you see it as a weapon for the other side, you are the one playing politics. This kind of us vs. them thinking can corrupt anyone. In the case of GMOs, it has corrupted too many environmentalists and public health advocates.

No. 10: Beware of business agendas. Robinson discounts GMO research by anyone who has ever been linked to Monsanto. But she sees no problem with her own connections to the Organic Consumers Association, which represents “several thousand businesses in the natural foods and organic marketplace,” which would benefit from mandatory GMO labeling... 

No. 11: Beware of conspiracy theories... They make you feel vigilant, when in fact you’re being credulous.

No. 12: Check your behavior against your values. When you find yourself rooting for the failure of nutritionally enhanced crops, arguing that it’s OK to try to block these crops as long as you don’t succeed, or dismissing vitamin A deficiency in 15 percent of Filipino toddlers and preschoolers as no big deal, it’s time to ask yourself how you got to this point.

No. 13: Think about the big picture. Robinson brushes aside two case studies in the Slate article, noting that genetically engineered papayas are “little grown” and Golden Rice is “unavailable.” But if you ignore the best applications of a technology, and you restrict or ban it because you don’t like other applications, you foreclose its possibilities. Why would you demand a label that puts the rice, the papayas, and safer potatoes in a category with products engineered for herbicide tolerance? Genetic engineering is a technique, not a type of food, and banning it would shut down all the good things it can do.

I can’t promise you every GMO is safe, any more than Robinson can promise every non-GMO is safe. I’m not here to sell you an ideology or win a fight. I’m here to encourage you to think critically. If you follow these 13 rules, you’ll avoid the worst mistakes of the anti-GMO movement. And you’ll free yourself from dogmatists, even those who claim to speak for doubt.


Alexander J. Stein's insight:

"Beware of political agendas. Robinson dismisses Golden Rice, which is engineered to relieve vitamin A deficiency, as “a poster-child for GM” and “a weapon to attack the biotech industry’s critics.” But when you see everything in political terms, you lose sight of the underlying reality. Rice is food. Vitamin A is a nutrient. If you campaign against a nutritional project because you see it as a weapon for the other side, you are the one playing politics. This kind of us vs. them thinking can corrupt anyone. In the case of GMOs, it has corrupted too many environmentalists and public health advocates."

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Public Acceptance of Plant Biotechnology and GM Crops - Lucht (2015) - Viruses

Public Acceptance of Plant Biotechnology and GM Crops - Lucht (2015) - Viruses | Ag Biotech News |

A wide gap exists between the rapid acceptance of genetically modified (GM) crops for cultivation by farmers in many countries and in the global markets for food and feed, and the often-limited acceptance by consumers. This review contrasts the advances of practical applications of agricultural biotechnology with the divergent paths... of political and regulatory frameworks for GM crops and food in different parts of the world. These have also shaped the different opinions of consumers. Important factors influencing consumer’s attitudes are the perception of risks and benefits, knowledge and trust, and personal values.


Recent political and societal developments show a hardening of the negative environment for agricultural biotechnology in Europe, a growing discussion – including calls for labeling of GM food – in the USA, and a careful development in China towards a possible authorization of GM rice that takes the societal discussions into account. New breeding techniques address some consumers’ concerns with transgenic crops, but it is not clear yet how consumers’ attitudes towards them will develop. Discussions about agriculture would be more productive, if they would focus less on technologies, but on common aims and underlying values... 


When discussing customer acceptance of GM crops, different cases have to be distinguished. Farmers themselves are customers of seed companies and distributors. Due to clear advantages to them, their adoption and hence acceptance of GM crops in many world regions where biotech seeds are available is very high. Additionally, in international commodity trade, the acceptance of GM plant varieties – mostly used as feed – is broad, and certified non-GMO commodities represent only a niche market. On the other hand, consumers in many countries have doubts about possible risks and benefits of GM crops and food, and stated acceptance among this customer class for GM food products is lower, especially in Europe.


Consumers’ attitudes take many factors into account, including information, trust, beliefs, perceptions of risks and benefits, and develop on the background of a complex set of personal values that to a large degree predetermine how external information is processed and evaluated. Therefore, a rejection of genetically engineered plants and products derived from them often is not based just on clearly defined arguments. Rather, GM crops have become a lightning-rod for negative emotions caused by everything that is considered bad about modern agriculture and the food system, worries about the place of the individual in modern society, feelings of limited individual self-determination versus the increasing influence of large corporations, and concerns about misguided economic developments, globalization, and growing inequality. This makes many discussions about GM crops difficult or even futile, since apparently they revolve around disputed “scientific” facts, like possible effects of a GM plant on the environment or whether a GM plant might have unexpected health impacts, but in reality they are about fundamental differences in the underlying values of the discussion participants, which may be impossible to reconcile.


That consumers’ attitudes and behavior are not the result of purely logical processes is illustrated, for example, by the discrepancy between the facts that the large majority of the many millions of tons of soybeans imported annually into the EU as feed are genetically modified varieties, on the one hand, and the stated strong rejection of GM crops by many consumers on the other. Information about the ubiquitous use of GM crops as feed for animal food production in Europe is readily available to anyone who wants to know, but most consumers choose to ignore this issue. Only a minority actively tries to avoid food produced with the help of GM crops, by buying organic food or from labels that renounce GM feed. Thus, the apparently deep conviction with which many consumers in Europe reject GM crops has remarkably little consequences on their actual behavior.


What are the chances for changes to the deeply engrained negative attitudes of consumers towards GM crops and food in Europe? The current situation in many countries is not encouraging. Politicians of all colors, food companies and retailers have taken opportunistic positions critical of GMOs, public support for them has largely disappeared, and few have the courage to speak out in favor of them. Almost no GM food products are found on European grocery shelves, so consumers have no chance to make practical experiences with them – which would be an important contribution to an attitude change. Environmental NGOs have realized this, and make sure that the situation stays unchanged, by putting strong pressure on retailers to exclude authorized, safe and correctly GM labeled products from their product line.


An increasingly dysfunctional, politicized authorization system and onerous regulatory requirements make bringing a new GM crop or food product to the market less and less attractive. The withdrawal of plant biotech companies’ R & D from Europe due to unfavorable framework conditions diminished the innovation potential of European commercial plant research, and reduced the chances that GM crops tailored to European farmers’ needs will be developed. Academic research for the development of GM crops meets with resistance in many places, too. So, also the negative development for plant biotech research in Europe contributes to the absence of GM crop or food products that could convince consumers to change their minds. A change in this increasingly hardened political and societal situation will unlikely come from the consumers’ side, but rather derive from economic or ecologic pressures for which GM crops might provide a solution, and it will require considerable political courage.


In the U.S., the long dormant discussion about GM crops and foods has increased in intensity. Political initiatives for mandatory GM labeling and voluntary GM-free labeling schemes have brought this topic to the attention of many consumers, and it is possible that the niche market for food produced without support from genetic engineering will grow. However, it is unlikely that in a country where many foods since many years have ingredients derived from GM crops the wheel can be turned back completely and U.S. consumers’ attitudes will become as hostile towards GM food as those of the Europeans, where labeled GM foods have been kept off the market.


Interesting will be the developments in China, which tries to balance the need for modern technologies including GM crops to support a more productive and sustainable agriculture with an increasing societal discussion about their benefits and drawbacks. Here, decision-makers have shown a growing openness and willingness to listen to consumers’ concerns, and have realized that a decision to authorize GM foods without support in the society would be difficult.


Consumer attitudes globally will have an increasing impact on the development of plants with new and improved properties, either by classical genetic engineering or by the new breeding techniques, including cisgenesis and genome editing... Consumers’ decisions will determine which products will be successful in the market, and their political decisions will shape the regulatory framework for the development and application of new technologies.


How can an apparently increasing skepticism of consumers and society in general towards modern plant breeding technologies be reconciled with the need to develop plants that contribute to a more productive and at the same time more sustainable agriculture, using the full toolbox available to plant breeders? One important objective would be to move beyond the GM debate. Only by leaving the old patterns of the “pro/contra-GM” discussion, by focusing less on by which technologies a new plant property was introduced but more on the advantages and possible drawbacks of the new properties themselves and on the common aims will it be possible to address the challenges of global food security and agricultural sustainability in a productive manner. This discussion should also acknowledge and openly debate fundamental differences in the values that contribute to the development of individual attitudes. This does not necessarily resolve the conflict, but makes clear what is at the core of the dispute, thus clarifying the opposing views and possible criteria for decisions.


Finally, the political framework should support the right of consumers to make individual decisions – even if these are not based solely on “scientific facts”, but take into account more broad discussions... The inclusion of these democratic elements into the discourse should help making truths more robust and contribute to the sharing of responsibility for future developments between all elements of society, including science as one integral part of it. Hopefully, these discussions will eventually contribute to a societal framework that will not block, but enable innovations that might benefit society as a whole.


Alexander J. Stein's insight:

A note of caution, the journal "Viruses" is published by MDPI, a company that is listed as a possible predatory publisher at

meaning the article should not be considered a proper, peer-reviewed article. For the rest, it makes some of the same points (on the discrepancy between consumers' stated vs revealed preferences) as this paper:

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GM technology isn't good or evil – it's what we do with it that counts - Guardian (2015)

GM technology isn't good or evil – it's what we do with it that counts - Guardian (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

Just mentioning genetic modification (GM) creates division. The anti-GM lobby sees red mist, the pro-GM lobby seemingly wants to roll out the red carpet and others see GM as a red herring, a distraction from other (more easily acceptable) solutions to our huge food challenges... 


I’m fed up with arguments that GM is necessary to give us enough food in the future, but also tired with those who dismiss the technologies out of hand... It is time to reframe the debate – one that needs to be about the problems GM is seeking to solve, not about the technology in isolation...


Technologies move on – just look at mobile phones. We need to debate the extent to which they are fit for purpose and the conditions in which they can be used. A technology can’t itself be good or evil – the real issue is in how it is applied...“Do we need GM?” is a polarising and leading question. The challenge for policymakers and researchers is to ask different questions and not stick to the same old debates...


Rather than get stuck on whether GM is right or wrong, we need to get back to the most important question of how to solve our major food challenges: the need to ensure food security, environmentally sustainable food production and consumption, and food policies that promote public health – all in socially just ways.


Alexander J. Stein's insight:

"We could demand independent, objective evidence" >> This implies that currently there is no such evidence. Fortunately this is untrue: There IS plenty of independent and objective evidence! Of course there are industry studies (not least because the industry needs to generate data for the approval process) and there are also a few studies by anti-GMO activists or sympathisers, but there are also many independent (publicly-funded) studies by scientists from public research institutes or universities.


For instance in a 25-year long research effort the European Commission has invested over EUR 300 million on research on the biosafety of GMOs, in which more than 500 independent research groups have been involved: ... finding that GMOs "are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies":

But also beyond the EU there hundreds of independent have been carried out, and independent scientific bodies the world over -- such as the European Science Academies, the UK's Royal Society, the Australian Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Sciences, the German Academies of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, etc. -- agreed that there is nothing inherently more dangerous about genetic engineering than about conventional breeding technologies: e.g. &


Having said that, of course it's perfectly true that "a technology can’t itself be good or evil – the real issue is in how it is applied." Genetic engineering is a means and not an end, but there are potentially worthwhile ends that can be supported by individual GMOs, i.e. they should not be met with dogmatic opposition or subjected to blanket bans. But should we have "people’s panels" to judge them? No such panels judge crops that result from mutation breeding, no such panels judge whether or when an aircraft company should rivet or weld the components of its planes, no such panels assess the merits of stents vs bypasses in cardiac surgery... Why then would such panels of lay persons be (more) competent than the regulatory bodies that make science-based decisions on the use of technologies in high-tech fields? 

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Regulatory, certification systems creating paralysis in use of genetically altered trees - OSU (2015)

Regulatory, certification systems creating paralysis in use of genetically altered trees - OSU (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

Myriad regulations and certification requirements around the world are making it virtually impossible to use genetically engineered trees to combat catastrophic forest threats... In the United States, the time is ripe to consider regulatory changes... .


North American forests are suffering from an onslaught of threats including local and imported pests, as well as the impacts of a shifting climate. These threats pose “a real and present danger” to the future of many of our forest trees...


“The forest health crisis we’re facing makes it clear that regulations and certification policies must change to consider catastrophic losses that could be mitigated by using advanced forest biotechnologies, including genetic engineering... With the precision enabled by new advances in genetic engineering – and their ability to make changes more rapidly and with less disruption to natural tree genetics than hybrid breeding methods – they can provide an important new tool”...


New regulatory approaches should be implemented in the United States and globally that focus on the product, not the process – and consider need, urgency and genetic similarity of modifications to those used in breeding. The researchers note the striking discrepancy between the speed at which pests and changing climates are affecting trees... and the onerous and slow pace of modifications to certification policies and regulatory review of genetically engineered trees that could be used to help fight these threats.


“If we have a technology that can help stop a forest health crisis, we should also have a regulatory system that can respond in a time frame that can make a difference, and certification policies that do not impede such efforts... All major sustainable certification systems for forestry ban genetically engineered trees and will not certify any land as sustainable if genetically engineered trees are grown at all – even if the trees are being used solely for research or are designed to help stop a forest threat.


The authors stress that they are not advocating for separate regulations for genetically engineered trees. Rather, they call for an approach that would give agencies the option to fast-track field research for products intended to address forest health problems or that use methods that modify natural genes and thus are comparable in scope to those of conventional breeding.


“Obviously, these changes will take time and require wide-ranging input... but we need to start now. We depend on forests for so many ecological, social and economic values – and all of these are being threatened.”


Original araticle:


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Selection of β-carotene Enhanced Transgenic Soybean Containing Single-copy Transgene and Analysis of Integration Sites - Qin &al (2015) - Korean J Breeding Sci

β-carotene biofortified transgenic soybean was developed recently through Agrobacterium-mediated transformation using the recombinant PAC gene in Korean soybean. GM crops prior to use as food or release into the environment required risk assessments to environment and human health in Korea... to test the hypothesis that the inserted DNA does not trigger production of unintended transgenic proteins, or disrupt plant genes... As these reasons, we selected four transgenic soybean lines expressing carotenoid biosynthesis genes... and analyzed the integration sites... for the biosafety assessment and for the identification of the β-carotene biofortified transgenic soybean.


Alexander J. Stein's insight:

Interesting, South Korea working on beta-carotene biofortified GM soybeans. 

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Probability functions to build composite indicators: A methodology to measure environmental impacts of genetically modified crops - Areal & Riesgo (2015) - Ecological Indicators

Probability functions to build composite indicators: A methodology to measure environmental impacts of genetically modified crops - Areal & Riesgo (2015) - Ecological Indicators | Ag Biotech News |

There is an on-going debate on the environmental effects of genetically modified crops to which this paper aims to contribute. First, data on environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) and conventional crops are collected from peer-reviewed journals, and secondly an analysis is conducted in order to examine which crop type is less harmful for the environment.

Published data on environmental impacts are measured using an array of indicators, and their analysis requires their normalisation and aggregation. Taking advantage of composite indicators literature, this paper builds composite indicators to measure the impact of GM and conventional crops in three dimensions: (1) non-target key species richness, (2) pesticide use, and (3) aggregated environmental impact.

The comparison between the three composite indicators for both crop types allows us to establish not only a ranking to elucidate which crop is more convenient for the environment but the probability that one crop type outperforms the other from an environmental perspective.

Results show that GM crops tend to cause lower environmental impacts than conventional crops for the analysed indicators.


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Why People Oppose GMOs Even Though Science Says They Are Safe - Sci American (2015)

Why People Oppose GMOs Even Though Science Says They Are Safe - Sci American (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

Many people believe that GMOs are bad for their health – even poisonous – and that they damage the environment. This is in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that proves that GMOs are safe to eat, and that they bring environmental benefits by making agriculture more sustainable. Why is there such a discrepancy between what the science tells us about GMOs, and what people think? To be sure, some concerns, such as herbicide resistance in weeds and the involvement of multinationals, are not without basis, but they are not specific to GMOs. Hence, another question we need to answer is why these arguments become more salient in the context of GMOs...

Negative representations of GMOs are widespread and compelling because they are intuitively appealing. By tapping into intuitions and emotions that mostly work under the radar of conscious awareness... such representations become easy to think. They capture our attention, they are easily processed and remembered and thus stand a greater chance of being transmitted and becoming popular, even if they are untrue...

Psychological essentialism, for instance, makes us think of DNA as an organism’s “essence” – an unobservable and immutable core that causes the organism’s behaviour and development and determines its identity. As such, when a gene is transferred between two distantly related species, people are likely to believe that this process will cause characteristics typical of the source organism to emerge in the recipient. For example, in an opinion survey in the United States, more than half of respondents said that a tomato modified with fish DNA would taste like fish (of course, it would not)... Anti-GMO organizations, such as NGOs, exploit these intuitions by publishing images of tomatoes with fish tails... 

Intuitions about purposes and intentions also have an impact on people’s thinking about GMOs. They render us vulnerable to the idea that purely natural phenomena exist or happen for a purpose that is intended by some agent. These assumptions are part and parcel of religious beliefs, but in secular environments they lead people to regard nature as a beneficial process or entity that secures our well-being and that humans shouldn’t meddle with. In the context of opposition to GMOs, genetic modification is deemed “unnatural” and biotechnologists are accused of “playing God”. The popular term “Frankenfood” captures what is at stake: by going against the will of nature in an act of hubris, we are bound to bring enormous disaster upon ourselves.

Disgust also affects people’s attitudes towards GMOs. The emotion probably evolved, at least in part, as a pathogen avoidance mechanism, preventing the body from consuming or touching harmful substances. We feel repelled by things that possibly contain or indicate the presence of pathogens such as bodily fluids, rotten meat, and maggots. This would explain why disgust operates on a hair trigger: it is better to forego an edible meal under the misguided assumption that it is contaminated, than to consume sickening, or even lethal, food that is erroneously thought to be safe. Hence, disgust can be elicited by completely innocuous food.

GMOs probably trigger disgust because people view genetic modification as a contamination... However, DNA is DNA, whatever its source. The impact of disgust explains why people feel more averse towards GM food than other GM applications, such as GM medicine. Once disgust is elicited, the argument that GMOs cause cancer or sterility... becomes very convincing and is often used. Disgust also affects moral judgments, leading people to condemn everyone who is involved with the development and commercialization of GM products. Because people have no conscious access to the emotional source of their judgments, they consequently look for arguments to rationalize them.

Our cognitive analysis is not intended to debunk every anti-GMO claim a priori. A particular GM application may have unwanted effects, which can also be the case with a product of organic or conventional farming. The risks and benefits should be assessed on a case-to-case basis, regardless of the process. The current applications have been proven to be safe. One may take issue with the involvement of multinationals or be concerned about herbicide resistance, but these issues have to do with how GM technology is sometimes applied and certainly do not warrant resistance to the technology and to GMOs in general. The emotional and intuitive basis of anti-GMO sentiments however prevents people from making these distinctions.

The impact of intuitions and emotions on people’s understanding of, and attitudes towards, GMOs has important implications for science education and communication. Because the mind is prone to distorting or rejecting scientific information in favour of more intuitive beliefs, simply transmitting the facts will not necessarily persuade people of the safety, or benefits, of GMOs, especially if people have been subjected to emotive, anti-GMO propaganda...

Education starting from a young age and specifically targeted at tackling common misconceptions might immunize the population against unsubstantiated anti-GMO messages. Other concerns can be addressed and discussed in the wider context of agricultural practices and the place of science and technology in society. However, for now, the best way to turn the tide and generate a more positive public response to GMOs is to play into people’s intuitions as well. For instance, emphasizing the benefits of current and future GM applications — improved soil structures because herbicide resistant crops require less or no tilling, higher income for farmers in developing countries, reduced vitamin A deficiency, virus and drought resistance... — might constitute the most effective approach to changing people’s minds. Given the benefits and promises of GM technology, such a change is much needed.


Alexander J. Stein's insight:

Stupid photo in the original article, though... 

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EU sowings of GM crops tumble, but imports large - Agrimoney (2015)

EU sowings of GM crops tumble, but imports large - Agrimoney (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

European Union cultivation of genetically modified corn has fallen to a three-year low, undermined by lower grain prices and red tape, even as the bloc's reliance on imports of biotech soybeans are growing.

Of the 180m hectares sown worldwide with genetically modified seed, only 128,103 hectares have been planted in the EU – all of... the only biotech crop approved by Brussels for cultivation... attributed to factors including weaker corn prices, new European Commission rules encouraging diversification of crops and, in Romania, a near wipe-out of GM crops fuelled by bureaucracy.

In Romania, the area of corn planted with the lone approved biotech corn seed is likely to have fallen "drastically" to 2.5 hectares, from 771 hectares last year... "This is mainly due to the fact that feed manufacturers and livestock farmers prefer to avoid segregation in the warehouses and to reduce the paperwork associated with the use of genetically engineered corn"... Spanish farmers remain the only sizeable growers... 

Overall, "commercial cultivation of genetically engineered crops is minimal in the EU, as a result of strong regulatory constraints," which are being encouraged by a strong anti-GM lobby.

However, the EU's consumption of imported genetically modified crops remains undiminished... "As the global cultivation of genetically engineered crops expands, it is increasingly difficult for European importers to source non-biotech products... Their availability is declining and prices are on the rise."

Of the roughly 30m tonnes in soybeans and soymeal that the EU imports every year, "the share of genetically engineered products… is estimated at around 90%"... the 200,000-800,000 tonnes of distillers' dried grains (DDGs) the EU buys in mainly from the US comes some 80% from GM sources.

However, suspicions surround the non-biotech corn imported from Ukraine, the primary origin for EU imports. "No production of genetically engineered crops has been officially allowed in Ukraine, but there have been reports that around one-third of the corn grown in the country is genetically engineered"...


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What genetic engineering and organic farming have in common - TED (2015)

What genetic engineering and organic farming have in common - TED (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

Genetic engineering and organic farming are often set up in opposition to one another.... Well, in the household of Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, they live together up close and personally, as the genetic scientist and organic farmer are married. Recently, the couple discussed the complexity of modern agriculture, what they see as common misconceptions of genetically engineered crops – and the implications these have on those who need food the most...

The problem with genetic engineering is the communication. “Most consumers accept most science. But there are a few cases where established science is rejected by a segment of the population. Consider for example: vaccination, evolution, global climate change and plant genetics,” says Ronald. “Why do certain aspects of science seize the public’s imagination like this? ... What’s surprising to plant breeders and geneticists is that 50 years ago we were doing much more dramatic things with plants, things like mutagenesis and hybridization, and they never really caught the public’s imagination”... For his part, Raoul Adamchak attributes much... to fear. ”So much of the information about genetically engineered crops is misinformation, and it seems like information that’s intended to produce fear in people”...

Much of the communication around genetic engineering is driven by marketing, not science. “If you look at genetic engineering in isolation, the evidence doesn’t support the claims of some marketers that the food is unhealthy or harmful to agriculture,” says Adamchak. For him, issues such as pesticide use or soil erosion are far more important topics of discussion, yet they haven’t caught the public attention... For her part, Ronald is skeptical about the motives of companies like Chipotle, which have used anti-genetically engineered food language...


“In terms of human health and sustainable agriculture, it does not make sense to reject farmers that grow genetically engineered crops... Every major scientific organization has concluded genetically engineered foods are safe to eat. Some of these crops have massively reduced the use of chemical insecticides, benefitting consumers and the environment.” That’s not all. “Chipotle says it’s switching away from ‘GMOs’ because it says there is a problem with herbicide use. That may be true, but Chipotle is not banning crops grown with herbicides. Instead, it’s switching to another genetically modified sunflower that was developed using a different genetic technique, and it’s using a different kind of herbicide, which is more toxic than the type used on genetically engineered crops that has also led to the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds.”


Ronald doesn’t hide her frustration at the misinformation promoted by many groups. “Companies say things like, ‘GMO cultivation hurts the environment,’ but they don’t specify what exactly they mean by this. Every crop is different. There’s clear evidence for the positive environmental benefits of many crops that were developed using genetic engineering, such as decreased soil erosion, decreased insecticide use or increased crop yield”...

All genetically engineered crops are not created equal. “It’s very difficult to talk about GMOs as an entity, because there are very distinctly different genetically engineered crops,” says Adamchak. “The genetically engineered virus-resistant papaya grown in Hawaii has nothing to do with herbicides, has nothing to do with mono-cropping, and has nothing to do with Bt eggplant grown in India. You can’t look at all of the products and say they all have the same sorts of effects, because they’re actually very distinct and have their own benefits and maybe their own issues as well.”


So how should consumers think about genetically engineered foods? Adamchak suggests using two lenses: “First, think about how they fit into sustainable agriculture: Do they reduce pesticide use? Do they reduce soil erosion? Do they reduce nitrates leaching into the soil? Do they increase yields? If so, then that’s an improvement to our agricultural system... Next, recognize that technology needs to integrate with other strategies to control pests or reduce soil erosion. Genetic engineering is not a silver-bullet solution; it should be part of an overall strategy to achieve sustainable agriculture.”

As a culture, we’ve become far removed from the reality of farming. “Many of us buy new cell phones in order to have access to the hardware or software,” says Ronald. “Yet we don’t understand that farmers want the latest technology too … and in their case, that means they want the newest, best seeds that can contribute to the health and productivity of their farm.” Farmers plant crops each year, and they’d like to ensure the best yields possible and fight disease using the fewest chemicals, whatever the size of farm they’re maintaining... “You can’t have a productive farm if you don’t take care of it, and you don’t do very well if you don’t have good seed.” Too often, she says, consumers seem to feel that farmers need to make a choice between seeds and good agricultural practices, and that’s a false comparison.

Genetic engineering isn’t just about Monsanto and big business. “The other day someone was earnestly telling me that genetically engineered crops are only grown by farmers in the United States, when in fact there are millions of small farmers with one or two acres growing Bt cotton in India and China and hundreds of farmers growing Bt eggplant in Bangladesh,” says Ronald. “There’s kind of a strange idea that modern plant genetics is only for ‘industrial agriculture,’ even though it’s not clear what people really mean by that.”


And what of the legend of the sterile seed produced by Monsanto... Unfamiliarity with seed, says Ronald. ”People think that genetic engineering causes seed sterility... That’s confusing the process of hybridization, used since the 1920s, with genetic engineering,” she says. “The reality is that most farmers in the developed world, including organic farmers, buy hybrid seed from large seed companies. Monsanto, for instance, dominates the vegetable seed market, so organic farmers are buying much of their seed from Monsanto. So you don’t get rid of Monsanto by getting rid of genetic engineering, which is a common idea I hear over and over again”...

Ronald... we should think of food innovations as we view medical breakthroughs. “Synthetic insulin was invented in the 1970s, and is an entirely genetically engineered medicine,” she says. Not to mention, we take for granted products like vitamin D-enriched milk, iron-fortified bread and iodized salt. ”Many people in the developed world add vitamins to their diet, their food. Consumers in the less developed world... often cannot afford to buy them or do not have access to a diverse diet. If farmers in less developed countries could grow vitamin-fortified crops, such as Golden Rice, their children will be healthier.”

It’s time to rethink the backlash against GE foods. “There were riots in Brazil, with protesters attacking plants that were being grown there; it’s almost gotten to the point of civil unrest,” says Ronald. “India has not planted Bt eggplant yet, even though their own scientific agency has stated it’s safe and it’s very clear it would massively reduce insecticide use. But there are some very prominent fear-mongering voices there that really have influenced consumers – and politicians.” Adamchak concurs... “I think the government in India is very much put off by anti-genetic-engineering protests, so they’ve been very shy about allowing products to come to market”...

Farmers need to take a more public stance. “In the developed world, maybe 1 percent of citizens are farmers, and so, often, the public does not connect with farm workers,” says Ronald. “They don’t see the insecticides that are sprayed or the harm to human health and the environment resulting from some of these sprays. The people who suffer are farmers and farmworkers, especially in the less developed world, where there is little access to protective gear.”


Adamchak agrees... “many people in the world are very focused on building more sustainable agriculture and feeding people as the population increases... This is what agriculturalists do: try to grow more food as effectively as possible. And I think that’s why farmers have been open to these tools, because they help solve problems. I don’t know how far the world needs to be pushed in terms of crop loss due to climate change or having billions of more mouths to feed before the public starts to see the value in this new technology.”


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Are all GMOs the same? Consumer acceptance of cisgenic rice in India - Shew &al (2015) - Plant Biotechnol J

India has more than 215 million food-insecure people, many of whom are farmers. Genetically modified (GM) crops have the potential to alleviate this problem by increasing food supplies and strengthening farmer livelihoods. For this to occur, two factors are critical: (i) a change in the regulatory status of GM crops, and (ii) consumer acceptance of GM foods.


There are generally two classifications of GM crops based on how they are bred: cisgenically bred, containing only DNA sequences from sexually compatible organisms; and transgenically bred, including DNA sequences from sexually incompatible organisms... would Indian consumers accept cisgenically bred rice and if so, how would they value cisgenics compared to conventionally bred rice, GM-labelled rice and ‘no fungicide’ rice?


In this willingness-to-pay study, respondents did not view cisgenic and GM rice differently. However, participants were willing-to-pay a premium for any aforementioned rice with a ‘no fungicide’ attribute, which cisgenics and GM could provide... 76% and 73% of respondents stated a willingness-to-consume GM and cisgenic foods, respectively.


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Optimising environmental risk assessments - Devos &al (2015) - EMBO Reports

Optimising environmental risk assessments - Devos &al (2015) - EMBO Reports | Ag Biotech News |

Regulated products such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), plant protection products (PPPs) or feed additives for livestock are subject to an environmental risk assessment before they can be approved for use in agriculture. This assessment aims to evaluate any possible risk that the deployment of such products may pose to the environment.


Robust environmental risk assessments require an explicit formulation of potential problems to identify plausible and relevant exposure scenarios and potential adverse effects from predicted exposures. The actual risk is then characterised by testing specific hypotheses about the likelihood and severity of these adverse effects. The ultimate decision on what is an acceptable level of risk, and thus whether a GMO, PPP or feed additive can be commercialised, is taken by risk managers – policymakers and regulators – who have to weigh different policy options to accept, minimise or reduce the risks that were characterised through the environmental risk assessment. 

The first step of an environmental risk assessment is to establish the context for the assessment by identifying which components of the environment – species, habitats, services, etc. – are valued by civil society and/or protected by relevant laws or policies. This exercise establishes the so‐called environmental policy protection goals: environmental components that should be protected and taken into account when conducting environmental risk assessments to support regulatory decision‐making. These protection goals can vary between jurisdictions, but their overall aim is to minimise harm to the environment, including biodiversity and ecosystems, caused by human activities...


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Why Scotland will use new EU rule to ban the growing of GM crops - New Scientist (2015)

Why Scotland will use new EU rule to ban the growing of GM crops - New Scientist (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

Scotland’s government has decided to prohibit the growing of genetically modified crops. The move takes advantage of recent EU regulations that allow individual nations and devolved territories to ban the growth of such crops even if pan-European clearance has been granted by European safety authorities.

The government’s main rationale is to avoid any possibility that premium Scottish exports such as whisky could be adulterated with GM material. “Allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland could damage our clean and green brand and our £14-billion food and drink sector”... 

But not everyone is thrilled with the decision... “Any Scottish farmer who may have been interested in using the technology has now officially lost his or her freedom to choose”... The ban is unnecessary because the GM maize... aren’t suitable for growing in Scotland anyway... “Surely if things come up that are more useful in the future, our farmers should be able to use them”... 

One element behind the ban might be the determination of the Scottish administration to make its policies distinctive from those of the UK parliament in London, which openly backs GM crops. “I think it’s flag-waving, an opportunity to be different”... The UK government’s commitment is to base its decisions on the scientific consensus...

The EU currently imports about 34 million tonnes of GM soya each year for feeding to animals... If the ban is introduced, Scottish farmers will still be allowed to feed imported GM fodder such as soybeans to their livestock...


Alexander J. Stein's insight:

"to avoid any possibility that premium Scottish exports such as whisky could be adulterated with GM material" >> Given that there is no GM barley (and neither GM rye, and even GM wheat is still years away), this probably means "premium" Scotch is at least partly made with cheap maize, as this is the only GM cereal on the market. The question then is what is worse in terms of adulteration, if premium Scotch contains GM material or that it contains maize?! 


"Allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland could damage our clean and green brand and our £14-billion food and drink sector" >> If anything, food from GM crops is cleaner than green/organic food, because GM allows for superior control of weeds and insects, i.e. the levels of contamination of the food with nasty stuff like aflatoxin or tropane alkaloids are lower... 


In many cases flag-waving and being different is fine, of course, but e.g. when everybody puts an airbag in their car, it's not very smart to choose to be different by not having one... 

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Time to fix patents - Economist (2015)

Time to fix patents - Economist (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

In 1970 the United States recognised the potential of crop science by broadening the scope of patents in agriculture. Patents are supposed to reward inventiveness, so that should have galvanised progress. Yet, despite providing extra protection, that change and a further broadening of the regime in the 1980s led neither to more private research into wheat nor to an increase in yields. Overall, the productivity of American agriculture continued its gentle upward climb, much as it had before.

In other industries, too, stronger patent systems seem not to lead to more innovation. That alone would be disappointing, but the evidence suggests something far worse.

Patents are supposed to spread knowledge, by obliging holders to lay out their innovation for all to see; they often fail, because patent-lawyers are masters of obfuscation. Instead, the system has created a parasitic ecology of trolls and defensive patent-holders, who aim to block innovation, or at least to stand in its way unless they can grab a share of the spoils. An early study found that newcomers to the semiconductor business had to buy licences from incumbents for as much as $200m. Patents should spur bursts of innovation; instead, they are used to lock in incumbents’ advantages.

The patent system is expensive. A decade-old study reckons that in 2005, without the temporary monopoly patents bestow, America might have saved three-quarters of its $210 billion bill for prescription drugs. The expense would be worth it if patents brought innovation and prosperity. They don’t.

Innovation fuels the abundance of modern life. From Google’s algorithms to a new treatment for cystic fibrosis, it underpins the knowledge in the “knowledge economy”. The cost of the innovation that never takes place because of the flawed patent system is incalculable. Patent protection is spreading, through deals such as the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership, which promises to cover one-third of world trade. The aim should be to fix the system, not make it more pervasive.

One radical answer would be to abolish patents altogether—indeed, in 19th-century Britain, that was this newspaper’s preference. But abolition flies in the face of the intuition that if you create a drug or invent a machine, you have a claim on your work just as you would if you had built a house. Should someone move into your living room uninvited, you would feel justifiably aggrieved. So do those who have their ideas stolen.

Yet no property rights are absolute. When the benefits are large enough, governments routinely override them—by seizing money through taxation, demolishing houses to make way for roads and controlling what you can do with your land. Striking the balance between the claim of the individual and the interests of society is hard. But with ideas, the argument that the government should force the owners of intellectual property to share is especially strong...

Governments have long recognised that these arguments justify limits on patents. Still, despite repeated attempts to reform it, the system fails. Can it be made to work better? ... One aim should be to rout the trolls and the blockers. Studies have found that 40-90% of patents are never exploited or licensed out by their owners. Patents should come with a blunt “use it or lose it” rule, so that they expire if the invention is not brought to market. Patents should also be easier to challenge without the expense of a full-blown court case. The burden of proof for overturning a patent in court should be lowered.

Patents should reward those who work hard on big, fresh ideas, rather than those who file the paperwork on a tiddler. The requirement for ideas to be “non-obvious” must be strengthened... Patents also last too long. Protection for 20 years might make sense in the pharmaceutical industry, because to test a drug and bring it to market can take more than a decade. But in industries like information technology, the time from brain wave to production line, or line of code, is much shorter. When patents lag behind the pace of innovation, firms end up with monopolies on the building-blocks of an industry...


Companion article: Patents are protected by governments because they are held to promote innovation. But there is plenty of evidence that they do not...


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Monarch butterfly studies tell a perplexing tale - Science (2015)

Monarch butterfly studies tell a perplexing tale - Science (2015) | Ag Biotech News |

Each summer, female monarch butter-flies flutter around their breeding grounds in northern North America in search of nectar, a mate, and a milkweed plant on which to lay eggs. And they have an audience. Thousands of volunteers periodically survey the charismatic black and orange insects, helping scientists track population trends. Others count monarchs as they migrate south each fall to warmer climes. Now, one of the most systematic analyses of these tallies and other data has raised questions about how well researchers understand why monarchs have seen a dramatic decline on their major wintering grounds in Mexico...

One paper suggests that, even as wintering populations of monarchs have plummeted over the past 2 decades, there’s been no similarly steep decline in a key summer breeding area that stretches across the midwestern United States and southern Canada. Others find that some fall migration counts also show no major downward trend. At the same time, the butterflies may be laying fewer eggs overall...

The ambiguity is fueled, in part, by the monarch’s complex population structure and life cycle, which includes a lengthy migration completed, relay-style, by several generations of insects. Each spring, many monarchs head north from Mexico to the southeastern United States, where they produce the first of up to three generations that can swell the total population. The offspring then spend the summer feeding and breeding on milkweed throughout the northern United States and southern Canada. In the fall, a final generation makes the trek back to Mexico...

The cycle can make it hard to get a handle on summer and fall monarch numbers, but researchers agree on one thing: Over the past 20 years, the number of monarchs returning to the largest known wintering ground in central Mexico’s highland forests has plunged by more than 90%. Many have blamed the decline primarily on the expansion of herbicide-resistant crops in the summer breeding grounds, which has led to the wide use of chemicals that kill milkweed. But few studies have systematically examined monarch population trends in these areas.

The new papers help fill that gap. One... suggesting the summer population is hanging on. And a second study... found no statistically significant population trend, up or down. There’s “a disconnect” between those results and the wintering data... That’s because if milkweed loss is driving the winter decline, then summer populations seemingly should be shrinking, too... 

The results have also put a spotlight on the need to better understand what is happening to monarchs during their fall migration south... monarch deaths occurring farther south during the migration could be responsible for the sharp winter decline... Migrating monarchs run “a gauntlet of dangers,” including predators, parasites, and even speeding cars... 


Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others have focused on conserving or restoring milkweed breeding habitat. “But if the problem is that the monarchs are dying during the migration... trying to produce more at the start of the [fall] migration is the answer.” Other steps, such as protecting migratory pathways, may also be needed. The concerns over migration are real... but “they should be added to... the other issues we know to be affecting monarchs.”


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Acceptance of "GM food" in Europe: What People Say and Do - Stein (2015) - ResearchGate

Acceptance of "GM food" in Europe: What People Say and Do - Stein (2015) - ResearchGate | Ag Biotech News |

It is often stated that consumers in Europe reject "GM food" – or that GM crops would be outright banned. While the latter is patently false, there is also little tangible evidence to support the assumption that Europeans wouldn't buy food that was produced using genetic engineering: The impression of a general rejection of GM crops by Europeans relies largely on the results of more or less rigorous surveys and the absence of labeled GM food in the mainstream food retail system – which may be more the result of power dynamics and incentives of other stakeholders than a deeper rejection of GM food by consumers. This paper reviews some of the more recent literature on the acceptance of GM food in Europe, draws tentative conclusions why labeled GM food in the European food retail market is largely absent, and highlights implications for the rest of the world.


Stein, A.J. (2015). “Acceptance of ‘GM food’ in Europe:

What People Say and Do.” ResearchGate Technical Report 2015/07. doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.1052.9127.


ResearchGates can be unreliable; the paper is also available here:


Alexander J. Stein's insight:

This manuscript was lingering on my hard disk after I had never heard back from the journal where I had submitted it originally. Perhaps I should have re-submitted it elsewhere, but then there is always something else do to... However, when I saw it's title mentioned almost verbatim ("what consumers say and what they do are different") as an argument in a Twitter exchange on GMOs, I thought I should do something with it after all. So I updated it with the most recent studies on the topic and uploaded it as a discussion paper (or technical report for lack of a better category) to ReasearchGate. Comments welcome. 

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