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Common crop pesticides kill honeybee larvae in the hive

Common crop pesticides kill honeybee larvae in the hive | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Four pesticides commonly used on crops to kill insects and fungi also kill honeybee larvae within their hives, according to new research. Scientists also found that N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone -- an inert, or inactive, chemical commonly used as a pesticide additive -- is highly toxic to honeybee larvae... 

 

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140127122825.htm

 

Original article:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0077547

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Scoops on GMOs, agricultural biotech, innovation, breeding, crop protection, and related info (not necessarily endorsements). CLICK on the titles to get to the full, original, and possibly hyperlinked versions!
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Bringing light into the discussion about GMOs? – A rather long reading list

[updated May 19, 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.) ... 

 

http://ajstein.tumblr.com/post/40504136918/
 

 

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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, 4:26 AM

Conflicted about how your view on GM ties in with a career in Biotech? Look no further

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How to be Cautious but Open to Learning: Time to Update Biotechnology and GMO Legislation - Hansson (2016) - Risk Analysis

How to be Cautious but Open to Learning: Time to Update Biotechnology and GMO Legislation - Hansson (2016) - Risk Analysis | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Precautionary measures to protect human health and the environment should be science based. This implies that they should be directed at a potential danger for which there is credible scientific evidence (although that evidence need not be conclusive). 


Furthermore, protective measures should be updated as relevant science advances. This means that decisionmakers should be prepared to strengthen the precautionary measures if the danger turns out to be greater than initially suspected, and to reduce or lift them, should the danger prove to be smaller. 


Most current legislation on agricultural biotechnology has not been scientifically updated. Therefore, it reflects outdated criteria for identifying products that can cause problems. Modern knowledge in genetics, plant biology, and ecology has provided us with much better criteria that risk analysts can use to identify the potentially problematic breeding projects at which precautionary measures should be directed. 


Legislation on agricultural biotechnology should be scientifically updated. Furthermore, legislators should learn from this example that regulations based on the current state of science need to have inbuilt mechanisms for revisions and adjustments in response to future developments in science.


http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/risa.12647


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Invasive species could cause billions in damages to agriculture - Penn State University (2016)

Invasive species could cause billions in damages to agriculture - Penn State University (2016) | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Invasive insects and pathogens could be a multi-billion-dollar threat to global agriculture and developing countries may be the biggest target... The United States, China, India and Brazil, all large agricultural producers, would have the highest potential cost from invasive species... 

"China and the U.S. are large and have diverse cropping systems ranging from subtropical to temperate environments and this diversity of cropping systems supports a wide range of potential pest and disease species... Also, China and the U.S. have very active trading relationships with many countries worldwide and these provide potential links for transport of pest and disease organisms"...  

While big agricultural countries, such as the United States and China, may take the biggest monetary hit, smaller developing countries may suffer proportionately higher damage... the most vulnerable countries were located in sub-Saharan Africa. 


"These countries generally do not have diverse economies making them disproportionately more dependent on agriculture... As a result any threat from invasive species can potentially have a greater relative impact on these countries"... 

As trade increases and more connections are made between countries, the researchers suggest that the problems associated with invasive species will mount.

http://news.psu.edu/story/415199/2016/06/20/research/invasive-species-could-cause-billions-damages-agriculture


Underlying article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1602205113


Alexander J. Stein's insight:
... all natural... 
(But increasing the need for pest control.) 
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‘Chemophobia’ is irrational, harmful – and hard to break - Aeon (2016) 

We all feel a profound connection with the natural world... biophilia: ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. That sense of connection brings great emotional satisfaction... But lately biophilia has spawned an extreme variant: chemophobia, a reflexive rejection of modern synthetic chemicals... an outgrowth of the modern environmental movement, especially Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962)... Carson’s words helped to inspire unleaded gasoline, the US Clean Air Act, the banning of DDT, and other hugely important environmental advances. However, even as much of the world became cleaner, the anti-chemical movement became so polarised that all artificial chemicals are now considered tainted. This false assumption has led to a popular demand for products that are ‘natural’ or even ‘chemical-free’.

In reality, ‘natural’ products are usually more chemically complicated than anything we can create in the lab.... The distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals is not merely ambiguous, it is non-existent. The fact that an ingredient is synthetic does not automatically make it dangerous, and the fact that it is natural doesn’t make it safe. Botulinum, produced by bacteria that grow in honey, is more than 1.3 billion times as toxic as lead... A cup of apple seeds contains enough natural cyanide to kill an adult human. Natural chemicals can be beneficial, neutral or harmful depending on the dosage and on how they are used, just like synthetic chemicals. Whether a chemical is ‘natural’ should never be a factor when assessing its safety.

Misconceptions about natural versus synthetic compounds can have devastating consequences. The anxiety over formaldehyde is a telling example. Formaldehyde occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and foliage... It is found at levels of around 2 ppm in a healthy human body, where it plays an important role in the production of DNA. Formaldehyde is also used in various industries as a preservative... Unlike the harmless trace quantities of formaldehyde, however, the avoidance of vaccination has caused many preventable deaths, including localised measles outbreaks in California, Germany and Wales in recent years. 


Fighting back against fear is difficult but not impossible. The scientific community describes chemophobia as a ‘non-clinical prejudice’... that is... a learned aversion. That insight suggests a few promising strategies. A lot of the solution begins in schools... Chemistry teachers need to counteract the notion that laboratories are dirty places where contaminated things are created. As one student responded to me: ‘If I can’t eat in a lab due to fear of contamination, how could food made in a lab possibly be safe to eat?’ ... Teachers should talk about industrial quality control and purification techniques to communicate the extremely high standards of purity required before chemical products can be certified safe for human consumption.

Educating consumers that ‘natural’ products are not always safe will encourage smarter healthcare choices. Tighter regulation of marketing terms is also important. The global market for ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ personal care products is projected to reach $16 billion by 2020, even though those products generally have no demonstrated safety advantage over their ‘synthetic’ equivalents. ‘Pure’ should refer to single-ingredient products only. ‘Natural’ products should be sold exactly as they occur in nature, and ‘natural’ should be forbidden as a marketing term for cosmetics and other products. Finally, the use of ‘chemical-free’ – a logical impossibility – on product labels needs to be stopped.

The roots of chemophobia run deep. We are irrationally hard-wired to overestimate the magnitude of risks that are imposed upon us. Americans are 35,000 times as likely to die from heart disease as from terrorism, yet terrorism tops people’s list of worries. It’s only through a better knowledge of chemistry and toxicology that we can begin to assess chemical risks in a more rational, healthier way. Then perhaps we can bend chemophobia back toward biophilia – creating an awareness that humans are chemically connected to all of the world around us. 


https://aeon.co/ideas/chemophobia-is-irrational-harmful-and-hard-to-break


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Challenges of transgenic crop commercialization in China - Lu (2016) - Nature Plants

Challenges of transgenic crop commercialization in China - Lu (2016) - Nature Plants | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Transgenic biotechnology offers great opportunities for food security. But the potential effects on human health and the environment are a major concern to the public, which hinders the application of the technology. Along with continually implementing rigid biosafety assessment, educating the public is critical for promoting transgenic crops in China. 


Over the past few years, transgenes have become… concerning matters for Chinese civilians. People often get anxious or even angry when speaking of transgenic foods. The focal point of the concerns is whether foods derived from transgenic, or genetically modified (GM), crops are safe for human health and the environment. These public concerns and debates have influenced decision-making in China on the commercialization of GM crops, particularly transgenic staples such as rice. As a result, China dropped to sixth place in the world ranking of GM crop cultivation in 2007 from fourth place in 2002, being overtaken by Brazil and India. In contrast to the situation in China, GM crop commercialization in other countries has benefited greatly from rapidly progressing biotechnology, driven by increased demand for food… 


By the end of 2014, about 18 million farmers across 28 countries worldwide had cultivated over 181 million hectares of GM crops… maize, soybean, cotton, canola, potato, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya, poplar, tomato, squash and eggplant. GM technology… facilitates crop breeding in an efficient and targeted way, and has led to… a 22% increase in crop yield and a 37% reduction in chemical pesticide use. It can also bring about greener agricultural ecosystems, for example by saving millions of tons of chemical pesticides and approximately 28 billion kg of CO2 discharge. 


Currently, China feeds more than 20% of the world's population using less than 7% of the world's arable land. Moreover, the continued increases in human population, progressive decreases in arable lands and natural resources (for example, water and soil nutrients), and the rapid losses of agricultural labour have posed even greater challenges for sustainable agricultural production and food security in China. As such, China depends heavily on imports; the country imported more than 100 million tons of various crops in 2014, reflecting a great shortage of locally produced food… To increase crop production, the only option is to maximize crop yields per unit area using crop varieties with improved performance. Traditional breeding… has proved very successful in increasing crop performance, as shown by the triumph of the ‘green’ and hybrid rice revolutions. GM technology is superior in its efficiency in modulating plant genetic architecture, opening the opportunity for a ‘transgenic green’ revolution. 


China has played an important role in the research and development (R&D) of GM biotechnology, with a comprehensive R&D platform established during the past 30 years. With strong support from the government, Chinese public research institutions and universities are actively involved in GM biotechnology R&D. So far, more than 50 plant species have been explored, including the 10 most cultivated crops worldwide, and transgenes conveying more than 100 types of diverse agronomic traits have been used in genetic transformation. This has yielded a large number of patents for transgenic lines, many of which have entered different stages of national biosafety assessment. By the end of 2014, more than 2,140 biosafety certificates had been granted by the Biosafety Management Office of the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) of China for a number of crops including cotton, papaya, rice and maize… 


In fact, the R&D history of GM crops in China can be traced back to the 1980s… In 2008, Chinese government launched another huge programme, with an initial plan to invest US$3.5 billion in the GM development of five key crop species (rice, wheat, maize, cotton and soybean)… a clear demonstration of a governmental ambition to secure food supply by developing transgenic biotechnology. In 2009, the MOA granted biosafety certificates to two insect-resistant GM rice lines and one phytase GM maize line after nearly ten years of comprehensive biosafety assessment. The approval of GM rice was marked as an important milestone for genetic engineering of this staple food crop in China… However, seven years after biosafety approval, the GM rice and maize lines have not yet entered commercial production. Although farmers welcomed the insect-resistant rice, strong opposition from the public is one of the major reasons for the delay. The dilemma now is that, on the one hand, the government has invested heavily in GM crop development, but on the other, the ‘end users’ (that is, the public) are not prepared to accept GM products due to safety concerns. 


Safety is users’ primary consideration before accepting any products derived from a new technology… further work needs to be done to address public concerns, as they can still hinder GM crop commercialization even though biosafety assessment has been passed. Better promotion of GM crops depends on both a more receptive public and more reasonable regulations. All GM crops that are officially approved for commercial production have passed rigorous biosafety assessment, but public worries persist partly because the detail of the technology is difficult to understand. People very often do not have access to the correct channels providing science-based and understandable information, and could be easily misled. Nevertheless, the public are the end users, and without their support and consumption, GM products would have no market. Thus, educating the public with the relevant knowledge of transgenic biotechnology, its benefits and potential biosafety issues is critical for promoting the acceptance of GM crop cultivation. 


Besides implementing rigid biosafety assessment, the current biosafety regulations need updating… For example, there is no allowance threshold for low-level adventitious presence of transgenes, which makes GM labelling and detection difficult to implement. Also, the existing regulations have not included proper measures to regulate the GM crops produced by new generations of technologies, such as stacked multiple transgenes and gene silencing. Promoting commercial production of GM crops in China is not an easy task. But, so far, there seems to be no alternative option that can sustain the growing food demand. In the absence of a reasonable replacement, it is time for China to join the rest of the world in appreciating the benefits brought by GM biotechnology. 


http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/NPLANTS.2016.77


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How grassroots lobbying push blindsided Monsanto - Politico (2016) 

Big EU capitals get cold feet on approving widely used weedkiller, push Commission to take political hit. 


American agricultural giant Monsanto thought it was on a glide path to EU renewal of its... weedkiller Roundup. It was wrong. Advocacy groups seized on a routine World Health Organization report from last year, which connected the active ingredient... to cancer, to inflame politicians. They generated enough outcry to prompt key players, including Germany and France, to publicly back away from what the industry and the European Commission thought would be a no-hassle vote after food safety officials declared in November that the pesticide is safe to use across Europe, as it has been for decades. 


Those NGOs and their backers are declaring victory this week following a vote on the chemical’s future that ended in a deadlock. The Commission is scrambling to figure out how to keep Europe’s most widely used herbicide on the market to make a June 30 license expiration. It could face a raft of lawsuits from agriculture heavyweights if it fails to pass an extension… The left-leaning groups’ ability to mobilize political opposition to an industrial giant fits a pattern. They are gaining strength in public debates as well as national politics, with their work also evident in the Commission’s flagging effort to secure a mammoth free trade deal with the U.S. The fight underscores a challenge facing big institutions and their ability to adapt quickly to deal with insurgent campaigns fueled by social media and savvy NGOs. 


The Commission could issue the renewal without public support – and wind up bolstering the image of top-down governance that doesn’t consider populist views… Under Commission rules, the majority of member countries representing at least 65 percent of the population need to sign on, a benchmark it failed to reach this week… Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been pushing countries to be more accountable for EU actions and avoid hiding behind the Commission on politically unpopular decisions. Juncker could override member countries and reauthorize glyphosate without their backing, but thus far that is something he hasn’t wanted to do… Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told his fellow 27 commissioners... that he had been privately contacted by the governments of France, Germany and Italy ahead of the vote urging the Commission to move forward with the reauthorization without their support… he blamed the three for silently supporting the pesticide but publicly blaming the Commission. 


The Commission’s predicament in large part stems from a March 2015 report from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, released as the EU was nearing the end of a standard review of the chemical, which happens every 15 years. German authorities had said in January 2014 that the pesticide was safe when used as intended, and the European Food Safety Agency was reviewing those findings to make a recommendation to the Commission… it concluded glyphosate is safe at the level at which Europeans are exposed to it. The agency called for reauthorization and the Commission issued a proposal for a full 15-year renewal. 


Advocacy groups turned to their members to lobby lawmakers in national capitals and Brussels to reject the proposal, arguing that EFSA’s work was too influenced by the industry… Protesters dressed as bottles of Roundup and called for officials in Paris, Berlin and Brussels to ban the chemical at rallies this spring. Avaaz also launched a petition urging the EU to “immediately suspend approval of glyphosate.” More than 2 million people signed on. Their efforts have been effective but inexpensive… consisted mostly of member outreach as well as some advertising… One ad touts the group’s petition and other public opinion surveys on glyphosate, with an image of a skull and crossbones carved into an apple and the catchphrase “We are not lab rats.” “The campaigns did have a lot of influence over left-wing parties who are currently under pressure from populists parties within their countries”… 


The weedkiller has become a victim of its own success. Residues of the chemical are everywhere, in food and rivers, in human blood and breast milk… Meanwhile the industry was quietly lobbying its way with commission officials… Monsanto… called for the Commission to follow the recommendations of the European Food Safety Agency, arguing that “regulatory decisions should be based on the best available science.” When the Commission finally scheduled a vote in late May on a new proposal for a nine-year extension, with recommendations for restrictions on the pesticide’s use in residential areas and public parks, it was confident that Germany would be on board and other countries would fall in line. They didn’t… 


http://www.politico.eu/pro/europes-weedkiller-wars-glyphosate-roundup-who-european-commission/


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Improving resource-use-efficiency with no-till and crop diversity - Anderson (2016) - Renew Ag Food Syst

Improving resource-use-efficiency with no-till and crop diversity - Anderson (2016) - Renew Ag Food Syst | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

We conducted a case study that showed a no-till, diverse cropping system increasing corn yields in a semiarid climate compared with a tilled, corn-soybean rotation. Further analysis showed that the no-till system improved resource-use-efficiency of corn; inputs were reduced 42% averaged across five resources. The largest reduction with inputs involved nitrogen fertilizer and fuel. Reduced fertilizer input was attributed to greater soil microbial activity. A surprising trend was that cost of weed management in corn was 45% lower in the no-till system, due to resistant weeds being present only in the tilled, corn-soybean system. Crop diversity in the no-till system suppressed development of weed resistance. Integrating a diversity of crops with no-till can improve efficient use of resources. 


http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1742170516000090


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Concern About Hunger May Increase Receptivity to GMOs - Carter &al (2016) - Trends Plant Sci

Concern About Hunger May Increase Receptivity to GMOs - Carter &al (2016) - Trends Plant Sci | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Due to a phenomenon known as the ‘backfire effect’, intuition-based opinions can be inadvertently strengthened by evidence-based counterarguments... Views on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be subject to this effect. We explored the impact of an empathetically accessible topic, world hunger, on receptivity to GMO technology as an alternative to direct evidence-based approaches... 


Informing the public about technologies to which they are already resistant is difficult to do, and potentially counterproductive due to a psychological phenomenon known as the ‘backfire effect’... In the case of GMO resistance, we are most often dealing with the ‘worldview’ type of backfire effect, whereby those who are strongly fixed in their views can become even more committed to their current views when confronted with counterarguments... 


Leading with the topic of GMOs is likely to trigger the backfire effect as cognitive defense mechanisms take over before the rational argument can be heard... With all of this in mind, we predicted that students who are presented with meaningful information about an issue that they can easily empathetically understand, namely hunger, might become more open-minded on related issues to which they may have otherwise been ideologically opposed, such as bioengineered crops and other aspects of modern agriculture... 


There appears to have been a shift in a significant number of students’ attitudes toward GMOs without any direct, explicit instruction on the issue. These results are congruent with the notion that increased awareness of hunger as a human health issue might lead to increased receptiveness to genetic modification technology. This is an important finding as it implies successful navigation of the backfire effect without mentioning GMOs, after which instruction on the safety and benefits of GMOs would almost certainly be more effective. 


This sort of approach to addressing emotions and intuitions before instruction on sensitive subject matter... may be important when teaching about socially controversial topics in general, as research indicates that lack of acceptance of a concept can... prevent students from developing an understanding of the concept. Moreover... helping students reach a position of deferred judgment on such topics is paramount in overcoming cognitive barriers rooted in prior rejection... When countering positions based on emotion and intuition, it is important to appeal to those intuitions before building a rational argument based on evidence.


http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2016.05.003


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EU Member States’ Voting for Authorizing Genetically Engineered Crops: a Regulatory Gridlock

- Smart &al (2015) - GJAE

Several authors suggest a gridlock of the European Union’s (EU’s) approval process for genetically engineered (GE) crops. We analyse the voting behaviour of EU Member States (MSs) for voting results from 2003 to 2015 on the approval of GE crops to test for a gridlock; no reliable data are available pre-2003 - a time which included the EU’s moratorium on GE crops. 


After the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has given a favourable opinion on the safety of a GE crop, the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH) votes on the application. If the SCFCAH reaches no decision, the Appeal Committee (AC) (pre the Treaty of Lisbon: the Council) votes... if no decision is reached here, the final decision is left to the European Commission. All EU Member States (MSs) are represented on both committees; decisions are made by a qualified majority (QM) voting system... 


Our data include 50 events; and 61 ballots at the SCFCAH and 57 ballots at the Council / AC. A QM has been achieved once only at the SCFCAH, but never at Council. At Council / AC level, Austria and Croatia have consistently voted against an approval, while The Netherlands has always supported approvals. All other MSs showed differences in their voting decisions at the SCFCAH and Council / AC level at least once. 


MS-fixed-effects are the major factors explaining the voting results supporting the gridlock hypothesis, while crop characteristics and crop use play no apparent role in MSs' voting behaviour. We maintain that a QM is unlikely following the latest directive for MSs to ‘opt-out’ on GE crop cultivation in their territories. 


http://www.gjae-online.de/inhaltsverzeichnisse/pages/protected/show.prl?id=818


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Health Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency approve AquAdvantage Salmon - Canada News Centre (2016) 

Health Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency approve AquAdvantage Salmon - Canada News Centre (2016)  | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have completed thorough and rigorous scientific reviews of AquAdvantage Salmon (a genetically modified [GM] salmon) for food and livestock feed use and determined that it is as safe and nutritious for humans and livestock as conventional salmon. These were the final Government of Canada scientific assessments required to allow AquAdvantage Salmon to be sold in Canada. The AquAdvantage Salmon is a GM salmon developed… to promote rapid growth during early life. This was achieved by introducing a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon to an Atlantic salmon. 


GM foods are becoming more common every day and are part of the regular diets of Canadians. GM foods… have been consumed in Canada for many years, and are safe and nutritious. Changes to the genes of plants and animals can improve food quality and production – for instance by reducing the need for pesticides, making crops resistant to drought, preventing bruising, or allowing foods to be grown more quickly. 


The AquAdvantage Salmon has undergone separate safety and nutrition assessments by Health Canada for use as food and by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for use as livestock feed. These reviews both found the salmon to be as safe and nutritious as conventional salmon. The assessments complement a regulatory environmental and indirect human health risk assessment… Canada is not the first country to approve this product for use as food and livestock feed. In November 2015, the AquAdvantage Salmon was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration following the Agency’s scientific safety review. 


Health Canada requires labelling for food products, including genetically modified foods, where clear, scientifically established health risks or significant changes to the nutritional qualities of the food have been identified and can be mitigated through labelling. For example, an allergen present in a food must be labelled to alert consumers. In this case, given that no health and safety concerns were identified, there are no special labelling requirements for AquAdvantage Salmon. The Government of Canada uses a stringent evidence-based process for evaluating the safety of genetically modified animals for food and livestock feed use… 


http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=1068309


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Left uncontrolled, weeds would cost billions in economic losses every year - K-State (2016) 

Left uncontrolled, weeds would cost billions in economic losses every year - K-State (2016)  | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it
Imagine that weeds were left to grow uncontrolled in corn and soybean fields... That scenario would cut U.S. and Canadian yields by about 50 percent, resulting in $43 billion in annual economic losses to those two crops alone… The research… spanned seven years from 2007 to 2013… “We were interested in trying to understand just how much impact weeds still have on our crops. Despite the great improvements we have in crop genetics and fertility, we’re still having to manage weeds”… weeds compete with crops for everything from sunlight to moisture to nutrients in the soil… “What we saw in corn is that we’d lose over half of our yield if we didn’t manage those weeds… And in soybeans, almost the same – 49.5 percent total yield loss… The United States leads the world in both soybean and corn production, while Canada ranks 7th and 11th… 

“We wanted to document that weeds were still a significant pest to manage, that we need to maintain all the different weed control practices that we have… that these weeds are still so important and that we need to come up with every option that we can to manage them.” A recent dramatic reduction in research funding for weed management in crops is a trend… scientists find disturbing. 

Weed scientists conduct a number of weed control studies each year… asked them to provide the yield data from corn and soybean trials, specifically the untreated plot yield, and yield from plots with their best weed control methods. The team looked at the yields from both and took the difference to calculate how much yield loss happened… “The idea… was they did everything right to produce their best crop – their best seed, they fertilized it, they irrigated it – whatever they needed to do, but they just didn’t control the weeds in the untreated plots, so we could see what kind of yield loss impact that would have”… The scientists used data from these trials, plus… how many acres were harvested of those crops and the value of the crops over the years studied to determine the total potential impact of weeds on the crops… 

To break weed management into four categories: (i) Chemical weed control – herbicides. (ii) Biological – in some crops, insects will eat certain weeds and in others, livestock grazing helps, but those methods don’t work in row crops. (iii) Cultural – narrow row crop spacing (to limit the area where weeds can develop) or fertilizing just the crop and not the weeds are examples. (iv) Mechanical – Tillage is sometimes used before the crop is planted or after it’s established… 

Use more than one strategy to control them. “Weeds are smart. They keep figuring out how to survive whatever we throw at them… The reason some people ended up with herbicide-resistant weeds is that they often used a really good product over and over again and the weeds weren’t exposed to other control practices. If we change it up, keep the weeds on the defensive, then they potentially won’t become resistant because we’ve controlled those resistant ones with a different technique.” 

The WSSA researchers are planning to release similar reports across winter and spring wheats, grain sorghum, vegetable crops, rice and cotton. 



Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Using data from field trials and applying the difference (loss) between the best and worst results in an experimental setting to the total area of actually harvested crops might be a bit optimistic -- in the real world yields will probably not as high as under ideal field trial conditions, and there would probably always be some minor weed control -- but as the text says, the reported cost represents the "potential impact". 
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Consumers’ Willingness-To-Pay for RNAi versus Bt Rice: Are all biotechnologies the same? - Shew &al (2016) - AAEA 

Consumers’ valuation of food products derived from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have played a… constraining role in the development of biotechnology advances in agriculture. As a result, agricultural companies have started exploring new biotechnologies that do not require the genetic modification of crops. One of these emerging biotechnologies is a non-GMO RNA interference (RNAi) liquid application that could be used to control specific insect pests. When ingested by a targeted sub-species of an insect during production, RNAi blocks the expression of a vital gene, which in turn kills it. RNAi is non-toxic to humans and kills only targeted sub-species of insects… RNAi could selectively eliminate a specific sub-species of caterpillar pest, while not harming a monarch butterfly caterpillar. In contrast, conventional pesticides often kill insects indiscriminately and vary in human toxicity levels. 


Since agricultural producers and researchers have faced opposition to GMOs, this may be an alternative to controlling commonly encountered insects; however, consumers’ valuation of traditional GM compared to RNAi derived foods has not been evaluated in the scientific literature. Thus, we conducted a Willingness-To-Pay (WTP) survey in the USA, Canada, Australia, France, and Belgium to analyze whether consumers need a premium or discount for: (1) a hypothetical GMO rice using the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene for insect control; and (2) a hypothetical non-GMO rice using RNAi for insect control… Measuring consumers’ valuation of rice produced by alternative biotechnologies provides vital information for crop breeders and policy makers. The results suggest that consumers require a discount for RNAi and Bt rice compared to a conventionally produced rice, but the discount required for the non-GMO RNAi rice was 30-40 percent less than that needed to purchase GMO Bt rice. 


http://purl.umn.edu/235110


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As Big Candy Ditches GMOs, Sugar Beet Farmers Hit A Sour Patch - NPR (2016) 

As Big Candy Ditches GMOs, Sugar Beet Farmers Hit A Sour Patch - NPR (2016)  | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Sugar, you might think, is just sugar, no matter where it comes from. But not anymore. About half of all sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, and the other half comes from sugar cane. Now, for the first time, sugar traders are treating these as two different commodities, with two different prices. It's all because about eight years ago, nearly all the farmers who grow sugar beets in the United States decided to start growing genetically modified versions of their crop. The GMO beets, which can tolerate the weedkiller glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup, made it easier for them to get rid of weeds… The people who buy sugar for industrial uses – as an ingredient in cereals and candies and baked goods and things like that – they've not expressed big concerns about it… 


In the past two years… food companies have decided to label their products as non-GMO. And because practically all sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically modified, those food products are now using sugar derived from sugar cane grown in Florida, Louisiana or outside the U.S. There isn't any genetically modified sugar cane… Meanwhile, the amount of beet sugar looking for buyers has been increasing, while there's a shortage of cane sugar. That shortage is bad enough that sugar users, such as candy companies, are asking the USDA to allow more imports of cane sugar to ease the shortage… 


Sugar beet farmers are thinking about going back to growing non-GMO beets… they would prefer not to do it. Planting genetically modified sugar beets allows them to kill their weeds with fewer chemicals. Beyer says he sprays Roundup just a few times during the growing season, plus one application of another chemical to kill off any Roundup-resistant weeds… planting non-GMO beets would mean going back to what they used to do, spraying their crop every 10 days or so with a "witches brew" of five or six different weedkillers. "The chemicals we used to put on the beets in [those] days were so much harsher for the guy applying them and for the environment… it's insane to think that a non-GMO beet is going to be better for the environment, the world, or the consumer." 


http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/05/12/477793556/as-big-candy-ditches-gmos-sugar-beet-farmers-hit-sour-patch


Alexander J. Stein's insight:
So people buy candy - which is bad for them - but then they worry about whether the sugar in that candy is coming from GM beets?! (For which there is no indication that it's bad for them.) A brilliant - but also despicable - move of the junk food industry: By offering people candy that's non-GM, people can feel somehow nebulously good about buying that stuff (and thereby justify to themselves their excessive and harmful sugar consumption - or even their decision to feed junk to their kids). 

As to the sustainability of this non-GM sugar, not sure about the environmental footprint of importing cane sugar from abroad vs using local beet sugar that's efficiently produced with a minimum of weedkillers... 

Also, the statement that “There isn't any genetically modified sugar cane” is not entirely true - it may not yet be fully commercialised, but several countries are at various stages of development: 

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Robust seed systems, emerging technologies, and hybrid crops for Africa - Gaffney &al (2016) - Global Food Sec

Robust seed systems, emerging technologies, and hybrid crops for Africa - Gaffney &al (2016) - Global Food Sec | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Hybrid crops are underutilized in many developing countries. Subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) rely predominantly on outdated hybrids and open-pollinated varieties, which has limited the region's ability to achieve food security and agricultural sustainability goals. 


Key challenges in SSA include lack of access to improved hybrid seed, insufficient infrastructure to support a formal seed system, and limited smallholder farmer access to input and output markets. Implementing improved seed systems and creating greater market access will require engagement from the public and private sector and the governments within Africa. 


This paper reviews the importance of hybrids in agriculture, the challenges associated with creating new hybrids, and the technological advancements that will enable more efficient production of quality hybrids in Africa.


http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2016.06.001


Alexander J. Stein's insight:
While not necessarily affecting the validity of the paper, it's perhaps not surprising that the authors chose this topic, given their affiliation... 
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Crop breeding is not keeping pace with climate change - U Leeds (2016) 

Crop breeding is not keeping pace with climate change - U Leeds (2016)  | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Crop yields will fall within the next decade due to climate change unless immediate action is taken to speed up the introduction of new and improved varieties... The research... focusses on maize in Africa but the underlying processes affect crops across the tropics... 


"In Africa, gradually rising temperatures and more droughts and heatwaves caused by climate change will have an impact on maize. We looked in particular at the effect of temperature on crop durations, which is the length of time between planting and harvesting. Higher temperatures mean shorter durations and hence less time to accumulate biomass and yield." 


It takes anywhere between 10 and 30 years to breed a new crop variety and have it adopted by farmers. The rate at which temperatures are increasing across the tropics means that by the time the crop is in the field it is being grown in warmer temperatures than it was developed in. 


By looking at a range of data on farming, regulatory policy, markets and technologies, the researchers developed average, best and worst case scenarios for current crop breeding systems... Only the most optimistic assessment – in which farming, policy, markets and technology all combine to make new varieties in 10 years – showed crops staying matched to temperatures between now and 2050. 


The research team... looked at the options for ensuring that crops can be developed and delivered to the field more quickly. These range from improved biochemical screening techniques to more socially-centred measures, such as improving government policies on breeding trials and farmers' access to markets... 


"Investment in agricultural research to develop and disseminate new seed technologies is one of the best investments we can make for climate adaptation. Climate funds could be used to help the world's farmers stay several steps ahead of climate change, with major benefits for global food security." 


The researchers have also proposed an alternative plan: use global climate models to determine future temperatures, then heat greenhouses to those temperatures and develop new crop varieties there... "The challenge here is in knowing what future emissions will be and ensuring that climate models can produce accurate enough information on future temperatures"... 


https://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/3877/crop_breeding_is_not_keeping_pace_with_climate_change


Underlying article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3061


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New plant engineering method could help fill demand for crucial malaria drug - Max Planck (2016) 

New plant engineering method could help fill demand for crucial malaria drug - Max Planck (2016)  | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

A new and inexpensive technique for mass-producing the main ingredient in the most effective treatment for malaria, artemisinin, could help meet global demands for the drug... Artemisinin is produced in low yields by a herb called Artemisia annua (A. annua)... Researchers... discovered a new way to produce artemisinic acid, the molecule from which artemisinin is derived, in high yields. Their method involves transferring its metabolic pathway... into tobacco, a high-biomass crop.

“Malaria is a devastating tropical disease that kills almost half a million people every year... For the foreseeable future, artemisinin will be the most powerful weapon in the battle against malaria but, due to its extraction from low-yielding plants, it is currently too expensive to be widely accessible to patients in poorer countries. Producing artemisinic acid in a crop such as tobacco, which yields large amounts of leafy biomass, could provide a sustainable and inexpensive source of the drug, making it more readily available for those who need it most”...  

Although further increases in these production levels will be needed if global demand for artemisinin is to be met, the study lays the foundation for much cheaper production of this life-saving therapy in a high-biomass crop, in contrast to a single medicinal plant. It also provides a new tool for engineering many other complex pathways, with the potential to increase production of other essential therapeutic ingredients.


http://www.mpimp-golm.mpg.de/2069723/rbock-malaria-drug-in-tobacco


Underlying article: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.13664


Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Tobacco is a good target plant: Not a food crop, high yielding, and offering tobacco farmers an alternative source of income than supplying the tobacco industry... 
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Glyphosate and adverse pregnancy outcomes, a systematic review of observational studies - Araujo &al (2016) - BMC Public Health

Glyphosate and adverse pregnancy outcomes, a systematic review of observational studies - Araujo &al (2016) - BMC Public Health | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Concerns on the teratogenic potential of glyphosate-based herbicides... prompted us to conduct a systematic review of the epidemiological studies testing hypotheses of associations between glyphosate exposure and adverse pregnancy outcomes including birth defects.

A systematic and comprehensive literature search was performed... The search found ten studies... Evidence that in South American regions of intensive GM-soy planting incidence of birth defects is high remains elusive... 


Except for a possible association with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder needing confirmation by further studies – data from existing epidemiologic studies do not lend support to the notion that [glyphosate] is a human reproductive and developmental toxicant. 


Nonetheless... human risk assessment would greatly benefit from a set of good quality epidemiologic studies... with quantitative estimations of exposure... before pre-conception and during pregnancy.


http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s12889-016-3153-3


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The essential need for GM crops - Pickett (2016) - Nature Plants

The essential need for GM crops - Pickett (2016) - Nature Plants | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

The need for GM crops is growing rapidly as a consequence of the overriding priority for the sustainable generation of vastly increased food production. Although demands for energy and raw materials from the bioeconomy remain, they may become eclipsed by the quest for more food. 


Agriculture has long been a driver of technological innovation in the bioeconomy. But any attempt to generate more food with current technologies, all of which require high inputs of energy for soil preparation and production as well as delivery of fertilizers and pesticides, will raise even further the already excessive carbon emissions resulting from agriculture. The highly energy-demanding Haber-Bosch process – an artificial nitrogen fixation process – demonstrates how dramatically we are subsidizing current food production. About 80% of human bodily nitrogen has passed through the Haber-Bosch catalytic fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. In addition to major inputs relating to land preparation, nitrogen fixation and phosphorus acquisition, our efforts to counter inputs in crop resistance to pest diseases and weeds also contributes to the high carbon footprint of agriculture, and reductions in harvests due to these constraints are losses for which the carbon footprint has already been made. Thus… we need to deliver, as rapidly as possible, new traits by seed and other planting materials so as to minimize and even eliminate the need of seasonally applied inputs. Nonetheless, by approaching these objectives, we will raise the opportunity for such sustainable interventions as to allow active reduction in carbon footprint and the sparing of land for ecosystem services. 


Currently, we see no clear approach to solving many of these problems other than by using genetic modification (GM). Complex traits, such as those associated with nitrogen fixation, may also require extensive molecular guided breeding programmes. Nonetheless, GM will be the tool of choice in this dramatically difficult scientific and technological quest. Interim solutions, including improved decision support systems, are essential – but entirely new technology will also be crucial. It seems inevitable that to reduce the intensity of land preparation much arable farming will need to convert from annual to perennial cropping systems. This perennialization will undoubtedly be achieved by sophisticated breeding efforts, but augmented by GM-based traits to overcome the expected problems associated with such new crops. For example, perennialization will aggravate problems of rhizosphere pests and diseases, including nematodes and soil-inhabiting fungi, and so crop varieties will need to be made more resistant to such assaults. Here, the generic term GM includes all the new and emerging techniques of genome editing and synthetic biology. These will be even more important when addressing nitrogen fixation, improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, and transferring other essential traits to crop plants. However, to solve these problems, we face two major challenges: public acceptability and a paucity of relevant genes. 


In the UK, public engagement at all levels and particularly with younger generations, through social media, has fortunately reduced the effectiveness of GM crop destruction as a political statement by those most vehemently ill-disposed towards this technology. This should by no means make scientists in the field complacent, however, and it is essential that a dialogue be maintained with all stakeholders, including the public. With some specific exceptions, such destruction of GM crops continues in Europe, and non-evidence-based criticisms of GM make the widespread development of these technologies difficult, forcing out of Europe such activities by major industrial players… Although there is a belief among many life scientists that GM is the only way forward to deal with problems of food sustainability without damaging the environment, there must not be a return to the levels of arrogance seen in the scientific community during the early, rapid-expansion stages of GM crops. The acceptance of field experiments with GM in the UK (and some other regions in Europe) is not a direct indication that large-scale incorporation of GM products into the food chain will be accepted in the near future. Even where this is already the case, such as in the US and Brazil, there are still substantial and vociferous detractors… 


But we have not yet made sufficient progress in identifying genes that can be engineered to improve efficient nitrogen fixation and effective scavenging of bound phosphorus available within current cropping systems. The range of robust genetics for disease and herbivore resistance is limited, and large resources are still directed at relatively traditional breeding programmes rather than capturing genetics from sources taxonomically distant from the current ‘elite’ cultivars… There are also examples of truly excellent research programmes in crop production, specifically for C4 photosynthesis and biotechnological nitrogen fixation. However, an even greater effort is needed to translate these studies into practice…


http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/NPLANTS.2016.78


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Scientists identify protein which boosts rice yield by fifty percent - John Innes Centre (2016) 

Scientists identify protein which boosts rice yield by fifty percent - John Innes Centre (2016)  | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Developed rice crops with an improved ability to manage their own pH levels, enabling them to take up significantly more nitrogen, iron and phosphorous from soil and increase yield by up to 54 percent. 

Rice is a major crop, feeding almost 50 percent of the world’s population and has retained the ability to survive in changing environmental conditions. The crop is able to thrive in flooded paddy fields - where the soggy, anaerobic conditions favour the availability of ammonium - as well as in much drier, drained soil, where increased oxygen means more nitrate is available. Nitrogen fertilizer is a major cost in growing many cereal crops and its overuse has a negative environmental impact. 


The nitrogen that all plants need to grow is typically available in the form of nitrate or ammonium ions in the soil, which are taken up by the plant roots. For the plant, getting the right balance of nitrate and ammonium is very important: too much ammonium and plant cells become alkaline; too much nitrate and they become acidic. Either way, upsetting the pH balance means the plant’s enzymes do not work as well, affecting plant health and crop yield... 

Rice contains a gene called OsNRT2.3, which creates a protein involved in nitrate transport. This one gene makes two slightly different versions of the protein... OsNRT2.3b is able to switch nitrate transport on or off, depending on the internal pH of the plant cell. When this ‘b’ protein was overexpressed in rice plants they were better able to buffer themselves against pH changes in their environment. This enabled them to take up much more nitrogen, as well as more iron and phosphorus... plants gave a much higher yield of rice grain (up to 54 percent more yield), and their nitrogen use efficiency increased by up to 40 percent... 


“Now that we know this particular protein found in rice plants can greatly increase nitrogen efficiency and yields, we can begin to produce new varieties of rice and other crops. These findings bring us a significant step closer to being able to produce more of the world’s food with a lower environmental impact”... 


https://www.jic.ac.uk/news/2016/06/john-innes-centre-scientists-identify-protein-which-boosts-rice-yield-fifty-percent/


Underlying article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1525184113


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Commission to seek short-term glyphosate extension - Politico (2016) 

EU member countries will be asked to vote... on a... proposal from the Commission to extend authorization of the weedkiller glyphosate until the European chemicals agency issues a pending study on its safety next year... The proposal also includes prohibitions on the mixing of glyphosate with certain co-formulants, restrictions on where it can be used and call for minimizing pre-harvest use... 


Andriukaitis... the commissioner said the European safety standards for pesticides are the strictest in the world. Decisions on pesticide authorizations “must be based on scientific opinions, not political opinions... Otherwise there will be big problems with distrust”... 


http://www.politico.eu/pro/commission-to-seek-short-term-glyphosate-extension-monday-pesticides/


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Local and/or organic: A study on consumer preferences for organic food and food from different origins - Hempel & Hamm (2016) - Int J Consumer Studies

Local and/or organic: A study on consumer preferences for organic food and food from different origins - Hempel & Hamm (2016) - Int J Consumer Studies | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Consumer preferences for different food products of varying place of origin (i.e. local, Germany, neighboring country, non-EU country) and production practices (i.e. organic vs. non-organic). Consumer surveys combined with choice experiments were conducted with 641 consumers in eight German regions... 


Consumers prefer locally produced food to organic food. However, conclusions... should not be generalized since they vary depending on product type and consumers' place of residence... Consumers living in rural areas... are less willing to pay a premium for organic products than urban consumers... 

http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/ijcs.12288


Alexander J. Stein's insight:
So consumers living in rural areas are less willing to pay a premium for organic products than urban consumers? One of these two groups perhaps has a better understanding of how the food is produced... 
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What consumers don’t know about genetically modified food, and how that affects beliefs - McFadden & Lusk (2016) - FASEB

In the debates surrounding biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) food, data from consumer polls are often presented as evidence for precaution and labeling. But how much do consumers actually know about the issue? New data collected from a nationwide U.S. survey reveal low levels of knowledge and numerous misperceptions about GM food. 


Nearly equal numbers of consumers prefer mandatory labeling of foods containing DNA as do those preferring mandatory labeling of GM foods. When given the option, the majority of consumers prefer that decisions about GM food be taken out of their hands and be made by experts… 


Results suggest that consumers think they know more than they actually do about GM food, and queries about GM facts cause respondents to reassess how much they know. The findings question the usefulness of results from opinion polls as a motivation for creating public policy surrounding GM food. 


http://dx.doi.org/10.1096/fj.201600598


Alexander J. Stein's insight:
This is similar to what I concluded in a recent literature review on the acceptance of GM food in Europe, namely that there is “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…” (in which consumers were more accepting of GM food the more realistic the scenarios were). http://www.researchgate.net/publication/280578072

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Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects - National Academies of Sciences (2016)

Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects - National Academies of Sciences (2016) | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

Genetically engineered (GE) crops were first introduced commercially in the 1990s. After two decades of production, some groups and individuals remain critical of the technology based on their concerns about possible adverse effects on human health, the environment, and ethical considerations. At the same time, others are concerned that the technology is not reaching its potential to improve human health and the environment because of stringent regulations and reduced public funding to develop products offering more benefits to society. While the debate about these and other questions related to the genetic engineering techniques of the first 20 years goes on, emerging genetic-engineering technologies are adding new complexities to the conversation. 


“Genetically Engineered Crops” builds on previous… reports… by undertaking a retrospective examination of the purported positive and adverse effects of GE crops and to anticipate what emerging genetic-engineering technologies hold for the future. This report indicates where there are uncertainties about the economic, agronomic, health, safety, or other impacts of GE crops and food, and makes recommendations to fill gaps in safety assessments, increase regulatory clarity, and improve innovations in and access to GE technology.  


http://www.nap.edu/catalog/23395/genetically-engineered-crops-experiences-and-prospects


[And in the following a summary of summaries of the report from the Grist, New York Times, NPR, and National Geographic websites.] 


If you’ve been holding out any hope that there is an objective reality and that evidence of this reality might change minds and shape policy, then the National Academies of Sciences is here for you. Abraham Lincoln set up this organization to provide independent scientific guidance, and it has been the gold standard ever since. So, it’s worth paying attention to its latest report assessing all the science on genetically engineered crops… It’s really good. If you want to know what the deal is with GMO crops – whether you are interested in safety, environmental effects, or social impacts – go read it. It’s clear and accessible… 


You just want to know if GMOs are good or bad? The team of researchers that assembled the report knew you would say that… But instead of drawing sweeping conclusions, the report keeps coming back to the fact that every crop is different. The main generalization we can take from it is that we shouldn’t make generalizations about GMOs… The National Academies wants us to stop obsessing over whether something is a GMO, and ask instead if a given crop makes the world better or worse… Instead of applying special scrutiny to how crops are bred, regulators would focus on which new foods pose the greatest risks. The researchers recommended regulation “that is based not on the breeding process but on considerations of novelty, potential hazard, and exposure as criteria”… 


Are GMOs safe? … The researchers identified “no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health” from eating GMOs. And they noted that their previous reports have found “no strict dichotomy between genetic engineering and other forms of plant breeding with respect to risk”… Are GMOs hurting ecosystems? Food production is the single biggest cause of environmental degradation… But when researchers tried to find evidence to pin some of these problems on GMOs specifically, they found “no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems.” In other words, they’re no more guilty than regular crops. 


Do we need GMOs to feed the world? To feed the world’s growing population, we need to increase food production and decrease food waste. The researchers noted that some GMOs would help with both challenges, but cautioned… “Treating genetic engineering and conventional breeding as competing approaches is a false dichotomy; more progress in crop improvement could be brought about by using both conventional breeding and genetic engineering than by using either alone”…  


https://grist.org/food/heres-where-the-science-on-gmos-stands/


The National Academy of Sciences – probably the country's most prestigious scientific group – has reaffirmed its judgment that GMOs are safe to eat… The report marks an anniversary. Twenty years ago, farmers started growing soybeans that had been genetically… Even before this report came out, an anti-GMO group… accused some members of the committee that prepared the report of… having… ties to the industry… The preemptive attack frustrates Fred Gould… who chaired the committee. Gould has been known in the past as a GMO critic. He has pushed for restrictions on the planting of some GMO crops. "I have not been a darling of the industry. As a matter of fact, they denied me seeds and plants to do my experiments"… Gould says that over the two years that… members of this committee worked on this report, they had one important rule: "If you had an opinion, you had to back it up with data. If you didn't have the data, it didn't go into the report"… 


The most basic conclusion: There's no evidence that GMOs are risky to eat. The committee also found that GMOs… have allowed farmers of some crops to spray less insecticide to protect their crops… Also, there's no evidence that GMOs have reduced the amount of wild plant and insect life on farms… The report urges federal agencies to change the way they regulate GMOs. Up to now, companies have introduced just a small number of different kinds of genetically modified crops. That could change very soon, because there's new technology, called gene editing, that isn't exactly genetic engineering, but it's not traditional plant breeding, either. The report urges regulators to look at all new crops, no matter how they're created, if they "have novelty and the possibility of some kind of risk associated with them"… Many scientists who got their first look at the report Tuesday praised it. Some called it the most comprehensive review of GMOs that anyone… has carried out.  


http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/05/17/478415310/top-scientists-say-gmos-are-safe-but-dont-always-deliver-on-promises


Genetically engineered crops appear to be safe to eat and do not harm the environment, according to a comprehensive new analysis by… the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine… The report also says that new techniques, like a way to make small genetic changes in plants using genome-editing, are blurring the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding, making the existing regulatory system untenable. It calls for a new system that pays more attention to the attributes of the crop, as opposed to the way in which it was created… 


This is the latest of several reports on genetically modified crops by the National Academies, which are… set up by Congress to give advice on issues related to science, technology and medicine. A previous report by the groups, released in 2010, found that genetic engineering had provided environmental and economic benefits to American farmers. The new report was written by a committee of 20, almost all of them from academia. There was no one from crop biotechnology companies like Monsanto or DuPont on the committee… The committee examined more than 1,000 studies, heard testimony from 80 witnesses in a series of public meetings and webinars, and analyzed 700 comments submitted by the public… 


The committee concentrated its review on the genetically engineered crops that account for the vast bulk of such plants grown in the United States… The report says that foods made from such crops do not appear to pose health risks… Several other regulatory, scientific and health organizations have previously also concluded that the foods are safe. The committee also looked at the incidence of certain diseases… It said it found no evidence that the crops had contributed to an increase in the incidence of cancer, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, autism, celiac disease or food allergies. 


The document also says the regulatory system should be tiered, with potentially riskier products receiving greater scrutiny before they can be marketed, whether those products are made using genetic engineering or not. Other new products, regardless of how they are made, might need virtually no scrutiny… Regarding environmental effects, the report says there is “no conclusive evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship ship between G.E. crops and environmental problems… The report says use of the insect-resistant crops has clearly led to a decrease in the spraying of chemical insecticides. Conversely, the use of herbicide-resistant crops might have led to an increase in the spraying of chemical weed killers in some cases… However, looking only at the pounds of chemicals sprayed per acre is misleading because different chemicals have different toxicities… 


The committee concludes that the use of crops has generally provided economic benefits for the farmers and can increase their output in certain cases, for instance, by protecting crops from insect damage. Nonetheless… “G.E. crops are pretty much just crops. They are not the panacea that some proponents claim, nor the dreaded monsters that others claim.”


http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/18/business/genetically-engineered-crops-are-safe-analysis-finds.html


Genetically-engineered crops are as safe to eat as their non-GE counterparts, they have no adverse environmental impacts, and they have reduced the use of pesticides. That’s according to a comprehensive report released by the National Academy of Sciences today -- a group founded by the U.S. Congress to provide expert scientifically-based advice on a wide variety of issues… The report acknowledges that beyond safety, other issues need to be addressed, including earning the public’s trust. It recommends a more transparent and inclusive conversation about GE crops going forward… 


The assessment is generally positive, but there are many caveats… here’s the nutshell version… GE crops are safe to eat… They have… helped farmer protect yields from insects and weeds… The report found no adverse affects on biodiversity or danger from interbreeding between GE crops and wild relatives… The economic benefits to farmers have been well-documented… Regulation should be based on the characteristics of the crop, rather than the technique used to develop it, whether GE or non-GE… Both genetic engineering and conventional breeding are important to crop improvement… 


The report sees an important role for genetic engineering, and “the committee expects that its potential use in crop improvement in the coming decades will be substantial.” Increased nutrition, better nutrient use, decreased greenhouse gas emissions, and pathogen resistance are just some of the ways GE crops can improve human and environmental health, farmer well-being, and agriculture’s sustainability… 


http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/17/scientists-say-gmo-foods-are-safe-public-skepticism-remains/


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Is organic agriculture really better for the environment? - Washington Post (2016) 

Is organic agriculture really better for the environment? - Washington Post (2016)  | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

There are lots of techniques organic farmers employ to improve [soil]. They use compost and manure, rotate their crops and grow many kinds of plants. They do use pesticides, but only certain ones (mostly non-synthetic, with a few approved synthetics), and often only when other pest-control methods fail. But plenty of conventional farmers do a lot of those things, too. 


When you pony up the extra money to buy organic produce, are you supporting environmental benefits? … There’s never a clear-cut answer to a question like that when you’re talking about something as complicated as farming… all conventional is not the same, and all organic is not the same… Nevertheless, some important differences… the organic systems… Have more-fertile soil. Use less fertilizer and much less herbicide. Use less energy. Lock away more carbon in the soil. Are more profitable for farmers. The conventional systems: Have higher yields. Are best at reducing erosion (when a no-till system is used)… 


Some tools that mitigate environmental harm aren’t available to organic farmers; one of them is genetically modified crops. Although reasonable people disagree about how the advantages and disadvantages of those crops balance out… many scientists and farmers [say] that both major types of GMOs – the kind that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate and the kind that have a built-in organic insecticide – can help cut pesticide use. Also, it’s difficult for organic farmers to implement no-till. Without herbicides, the best weed-killing tool is tilling, and that can lead to erosion, nutrient runoff and the disruption of the microbial community that organic farmers work so hard to foster… 


But there’s a problem. The environmental advantages generally are not why consumers are willing to pay extra for organic products…. consumers buy organics primarily because they believe the products are better for their health: either more nutritious or safer. So it’s not surprising that organic food purveyors and advocates often promote a product by implying it’s more nutritious or safer, a claim not supported by most of the evidence… Labels for some organic products use the word “toxic” to describe the pesticides they’re not using, despite the fact that some toxic pesticides… are allowed in organic agriculture. Although… the evidence indicates that trace amounts of pesticides in food are not dangerous to human health…. 


Unfortunately, you can’t believe organic food is more nutritious and safe without believing conventional food is less nutritious and safe, and that infuriates advocates of conventional food… I’ve noticed some schadenfreude at food-borne illness outbreaks pegged to organic foods… Conventional food is as safe and nutritious as its organic counterparts, and if consumers are told otherwise, they’re being deceived, and conventional producers are being harmed. 


And misinformation does nothing to improve the quality of the public debate… there is value in having farmers employ and improve all kinds of practices…. Sometimes it seems as if every column I write has the same conclusion, but it’s an important one. If we’re going to make progress on food, we need a whole lot less of us vs. them. The USDA’s certified-organic program – from its inception a marketing program, not an environmental initiative – has given organic farmers a way to make a living… by connecting with like-minded consumers willing to pay a premium for a product that is grown in a way that is often labor-intensive and lower-yielding, and produces some bona fide environmental benefits… 


https://www.washingtonpost.com/e9996dce-17be-11e6-924d-838753295f9a_story.html


Alexander J. Stein's insight:
I’m not sure the arguments in the article are entirely coherent. It says that plenty of conventional farmers employ a lot of the good techniques used in organic farming – whereas it says that some good tools that conventional farmers use aren’t available to organic farmers. The article then goes on to say that there is value in having farmers employ and improve all kinds of practices – which, given the preceding statements, seems to indicate that only conventional farming fits that bill, as only conventional farmers can actually employ all kinds of practices. (Whereas the options open to organic farmers are limited to those permitted under their restrictive marketing-driven certification program.) However, the article then concludes that we need also organic ways of feeding our growing population (thus expanding the scope of the article beyond the environmental focus of the headline), highlighting organic’s positives rather than its restrictive practices and – in the context of feeding a growing population – its lower yields. 

And even if one could agree that it’s legitimate for organic farmers to cater to the demands of like-minded consumers who are willing to pay a premium for what are only bona fide environmental benefits (and the question is if the farmers are indeed like-minded or simply exploit a business opportunity), if the concern is feeding a growing population, and doing so safely and sustainably, is organic the best option? To what extent do the lower yields in organic farming reverse the fertiliser, herbicide and energy savings if the same output is produced as in a conventional system? (Which then needs to be done on more land, which is also problematic as it necessarily reduces the land that’s available to natural ecosystems.) How relevant is it that organic farming has more fertile soil if it produces nevertheless lower yields? How is the use of manure accounted for? (Or the use of other “organic” fertilisers such as soybean meal or fish meal – from GMOs and overfishing…) To the extent that such fertiliser is imported from the conventional system, this means organic farming is not self-sustaining and thus not sustainable, at least not at the already lower current yields. 

Why is organic farming more profitable? If there is indeed so much more money to be made in organics, is it realistic to assume that over 90% of US farmers are too stupid to realise this as business opportunity? How accurately can results from field trials (where arguably more knowledge, effort and care is applied) be extrapolated to real-world farming? Or do organic farmers in real life self-select (because they know from experience that the pest-pressure on their fields is lower, because they have access to cheap labour (or less scruples to pay lower wages), or because their operation is suited for other reasons)? Or is it simply because market demand grows faster than organic certification expands, thus creating a temporary seller’s market (that’s not sustainable once supply catches up, or if all farming should convert to organic – which would again be an example for organic only being possible because of conventional agriculture)? Is the up-front cost of the certification properly taken into account? And are the costs really comparable, as the Figure suggests? 

When it comes to food safety (which is also part of feeding our growing population), the article mentions incidents of food-borne illnesses in the organic sector, while affirming that trace amounts of pesticides in (conventional) food are not dangerous to human health. To this one could add that in organic farming not only are food-borne pathogens perhaps more frequent (relatively speaking), but to the extent that pest control is less efficient probably also natural toxins (from fungi that infest insect-damaged crops or from weeds that may end up in the harvested crop) are more common in organic food. And relating more to nutrition than to food safety, the higher price of organic food can also have a negative impact on people’s nutrition if people could afford a healthy and varied diet with lots of fruits and veggies if they opted for conventional produce but instead, with the same budget, can only buy a more limited range of organic staple foods. 
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Rationalizing the GMO Debate: The Ordonomic Approach to Addressing Agricultural Myths - Hielscher &al (2016) - Int J Env Res Public Health

Rationalizing the GMO Debate: The Ordonomic Approach to Addressing Agricultural Myths - Hielscher &al (2016) - Int J Env Res Public Health | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it

The public discourse on the acceptability of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is not only controversial, but also infused with highly emotional and moralizing rhetoric. Although the assessment of risks and benefits of GMOs must be a scientific exercise, many debates on this issue seem to remain impervious to scientific evidence. In many cases, the moral psychology attributes of the general public create incentives for both GMO opponents and proponents to pursue misleading public campaigns, which impede the comprehensive assessment of the full spectrum of the risks and benefits of GMOs… 


Focus attention on common interests, without denying the existence of conflicting ones. The focus on common interests allows reframing the conflictual semantic categories and mental models… to realize the latent win-win potential inherent in social dilemmas… In the case of GMOs, an example of discourse distortions is the disregard for the benign consequences of GMOs, as well as the tendencies to discredit discourse participants as anti-progressive or technophobic...


Global discourses about food and agriculture are in a paradoxical state. There is a widespread consensus about the goals of food security as well as economic, social, and ecological sustainability of agricultural production. At the same time, specific strategies for attaining these goals are the object of fierce debates, which are very far from converging towards consensual standpoints. The encompassing rationality related to the sustainability goals of the global food and fiber system seemingly breaks up into multiple partial rationalities, which are unable to establish rational contacts with each other. The present research note has traced this state of affairs to the prevalence of agricultural myths, or rigid mental models, that are impervious both to scientific arguments and to available data. 


This imperviousness, in turn, is conditioned by the narrow emotional and moral framing of the relevant issues, such as those related to small-scale farming, world hunger, and GMOs. The moral context of the respective discourses opens up new remarkable opportunities for economic ethics… to make a difference in the lives of billions of people whose wellbeing depends on the global food and fiber system. To this end, the ordonomic approach deconstructs moral arguments in those cases when they are dysfunctional and stand in the way of a search for consensus informed by all relevant arguments. In doing so, the ordonomic approach not only paves the way to identifying the latent win-win potentials within the global food and fiber system but also moves this system closer to the ideal of economic, social, and ecological sustainability. 


http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/ijerph13050476


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Attitudes toward genetically modified organisms in Poland: to GMO or not to GMO? - Rzymski & Królczyk (2016) - Food Sec

Attitudes toward genetically modified organisms in Poland: to GMO or not to GMO? - Rzymski & Królczyk (2016) - Food Sec | Ag Biotech News | Scoop.it
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a subject of on-going scientific, political and social discussions… Societies have every right to substantive information and education in biotechnology, yet they appear to be misinformed by contradictory views and sensationalism. The present study investigated the level of knowledge and the attitude of citizens of Poland towards the various uses of GMOs… 

The use of GMOs in medicine and pharmacy received slight approval from the surveyed group, and was generally perceived as the greatest benefit of GMOs. In contrast, most respondents were against the production and distribution of GM food products on the Polish market or at least favoured the labelling of any product that contains a GM component. The majority of individuals who were willing to accept GM foods also demanded their labelling. 

The studied group revealed various concerns related to the safety of GM foods, particularly their potential effect on health and the environment. Generally, the greatest scepticism towards GMOs and GM foods was expressed by farmers, medical workers and school teachers while the greatest enthusiasm was shown by students of medical and life sciences, and researchers… 

Importantly, most of those taking part in the survey admitted that their knowledge of GMOs was insufficient, expressed a willingness to improve it, and expected school teachers, academicians and researchers to be actively involved in this process… The present study underlines the urgent need to implement evidence-based educational programmes so as to raise the public understanding of the current possibilities and limitations of GMO-based technology…  


Alexander J. Stein's insight:
As I discussed elsewhere [1], abstract surveys using questionnaires to determine attitudes towards GM food produce very different results than more realistic studies or people's behaviour in real-world settings: The more concrete the the questions and studies, the more positive the attitudes towards GM food. And the less people know about GM food -- as here where "most of those taking part in the survey admitted that their knowledge of GMOs was insufficient" -- the more likely they are to “play safe” in their responses and state that they see (unfamiliar) GM food in a negative light... 


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