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EU set to OK new GM corn after Germany drops objection - Phys (2014)

EU set to OK new GM corn after Germany drops objection - Phys (2014) | Ag Biotech News |

A new genetically modified crop, US firm Pioneer's TC1507 corn, is set for approval in Europe next week after Germany dropped its objections... 


"Germany is moving from being against to abstaining" in a vote on the long-running controversy... Ministers meeting in Brussels on Tuesday are to hand down a final decision... after a European Court ruled... that the company's 2001 request for permission must be dealt with... 


The European Union's general affairs ministers will decide next week using qualified majority voting—which is weighted to take account of the bigger states. If there is no majority against due to one nation's abstention, then approval will be automatic... 

Currently Britain, Spain and Sweden are leaders of the "yes" camp, France and Hungary lead opponents and sources say the position of Germany, whose government is divided, will not change the outcome.


There are another six applications for authorisation... To date GM crops have won repeated safety approvals from experts around the world... The Pioneer crop, for instance, has already six times been given a clean bill of health by the European Food Standards Authority... and the six pending applications have also secured EFSA backing...

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

[updated May 1, 2017]  


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


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


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


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

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

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Heterogeneous Yield Impacts from Adoption of Genetically Engineered Corn and the Importance of Controlling for Weather - Lusk &al (2017) - NBER

Concern about declining growth in crop yields has renewed debates about the ability of biotechnology to promote food security. While numerous experimental and farm-level studies have found that adoption of genetically engineered crops has been associated with yield gains, aggregate and cross-country comparisons often seem to show little effect, raising questions about the size and generalizability of the effect. 

This paper attempts to resolve this conundrum using a panel of United States county-level corn yields from 1980 to 2015 in conjunction with data on adoption of genetically engineered crops, weather, and soil characteristics. Our panel data contain just over 28,000 observations spanning roughly 800 counties. 

We show that changing weather patterns confound simple analyses of trend yield, and only after controlling for weather do we find that genetically engineered crops have increased yields above trend. There is marked heterogeneity in the effect of adoption of genetically engineered crops across location partially explained by differential soil characteristics which may be related to insect pressure... 

While adoption of genetically engineered crops has the potential to mitigate downside risks from weeds and insects, we find no effects of adoption on yield variability... Across all counties, we find adoption of GE corn was associated with a 17 percent increase in corn yield.

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“It’s morally wrong to patent food:” Inconsistent reasoning at its finest - TLOS (2017) 

“It’s morally wrong to patent food:” Inconsistent reasoning at its finest - TLOS (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

This is one of the most common arguments against GMOs... and it is frequently accompanied by claims like, “I am not anti-GMO, but…” In reality, however, this argument is usually nothing more than an excuse designed to protect people’s ideology, misplaced fears, and, yes, denial of science. This argument is so riddled with problems and so completely inconsistent with how people behave on any other topic that it is difficult to accept that it is truly the reason that people oppose GMOs, and... it usually turns out that it is just a symptom of an underlying ideology (generally rooted in appeal to nature/emotion fallacies). 

As I will explain, if you are truly motivated out of ethics and a concern for feeding the hungry, then you should be embracing GMOs, not opposing them (or, at the very least, you should be very selective about which GMOs you oppose). So, if you are someone who frequently uses this argument, then, as always, all that I ask is that you hear me out and rationally consider whether or not you are being logically consistent... 

First, it is vitally important to realize that the ability to patent crops is not unique to GMOs, nor is it a result of them. In the US, the first piece of legislation that made it legal to patent crops was the Plant Patent Act that was passed in 1930, over half a century before the first GMO crop... For example, seedless grapes were patented in 1934, yet I don’t hear anyone complaining about them.

The organic industry (and yes, it is a multi-billion dollar industry) also patents plants. For example, Vermont Organics owns patents on five different plants. So, if you are outraged over Monsanto patenting plants, then you had better be equally outraged over Vermont Organics doing so... 

Further,... patents expire. For example, Round-up read soybeans are no longer protected by patent laws because those patents expired in 2015. Does that mean that anti-GMO activists are going to stop protesting them? I somehow doubt it.

Finally, it is worth making it explicitly clear that GE companies, organic companies, etc. are not “patenting Mother Nature.” They are patenting unique crops that do not occur in nature and that they invested in developing... 

Additionally, it is worth talking about why crops can be patented in the first place. Producing a new crop is very expensive, especially for a GMO. It takes millions or even billions of dollars to research and develop a new product, and that is money that company has to invest up front with the expectation that they will be able to turn a profit later. Thus, patents are a way of allowing companies to get a return on their investment. This is true for all patents, and in most areas, people have no problems with that. No one says that Apple is evil because the patent the technology for each new iPhone rather than giving its technology away freely... So why should GMOs be any different? ... 

Additionally, it is important to realize that a lack of patents would stifle innovation. There are non-profits and independent scientists involved in the development of GMOs but a lot of the breakthroughs come from big companies, and there is a very good reason for that. Namely, research costs money, and big companies are the ones who have money to invest. However, companies are, admittedly, after profit. So they aren’t going to invest millions of dollars into something unless they think that they can turn a profit... If you want agricultural developments (as you should if your goal is really to feed the hungry), then you should allow companies to make a profit, because that is the only way that they are going to invest heavily in researching agricultural advances.

Next it is important to realize that although large companies dominate the development of GMOs, not all GMOs are about money. Golden rice, for example, is being developed entirely for humanitarian purposes. You see, many countries suffer from extreme vitamin A deficiencies, and many of those countries grow primarily rice. Thus, scientists and humanitarians developed golden rice, which is simply rice that produces vitamin A. That way, these countries can grow the same crop that they always have (thus they don’t need to change their agricultural practices) but they will get the vitamin that they so desperately need... 

This is related to the previous point, but it is worth making saying it explicitly: GMOs help to feed the poor. Studies have repeatedly shown that using GMOs increases crop yields and reduces the amount of resources need to grow crops. Consider, for example, this 2014 meta-analysis that found “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.”

Again, this should be great news if your concern is really feeding the poor. These crops will let impoverished countries greatly increase the amount of food that they can grow, so they are a huge win for fighting world hunger. Really think about this, by opposing GMOs you are trying to force poor countries to grow fewer crops than they could with GMOs. You are literally trying to deny people food. How is that moral?

It is also worth mentioning that GMOs are good for farmers (that is why they have adopted them). Anti-GMO activists often try to paint farmers as the victims of evil “Monsatan,” but the reality is that famers love GMOs, because GMOs allow them to increase their yield and/or decrease the amount of effort/resources that they have to invest. This should be obvious if you just think about it for a second. Why on earth would so many farmers switch to GMOs if they weren’t beneficial? No one is putting a gun to their heads and forcing them to use GMOs. Farmers choose their seeds from catalogues where numerous companies compete for their patronage, and Monsanto doesn’t have a monopoly on the food supply... Further, farmers aren’t stupid. They wouldn’t use GMOs if better, cheaper methods were actually available. Farmers have widely adopted GMOs precisely because they are beneficial...  

In the remainder of this post, I want to deal with some truly awful counter arguments. The most common of which is that Monsanto sues farmers for accidentally using their seeds/cross-pollination. The rebuttal for this one is easy: no they don’t. Monsanto has never sued a farmer for accidentally using their product/cross-pollination.  

Having said that, there have been a few cases where Monsanto sued someone for deliberately violating the patent agreement (e.g. selling seeds). That is, however, an entirely different issue from suing a farmer over accidental contamination. A deliberate violation of the patent agreement is a theft of intellectual property, plain and simple. It is a crime. It is no different from selling bootlegged DVDs or CDs... 

Do you know what group of people I almost never hear make this complaint? Farmers. The reality is that in the modern era, most farmers don’t save the seeds regardless of whether or not their crop is a GMO. One of the key reasons for this is simply that doing so results in a lower quality harvest than you would get from buying new seeds. So, as with so many anti-GMO arguments, this argument is based on a complete lack of understanding about modern agriculture...  

“The real problem is food waste. If first world countries weren’t so wasteful, there would be plenty of food to feed the world.” This is what is known as a “nirvana fallacy.” It proposes an extremely unrealistic ideal situation, then claims that any plans that fall short of that standard shouldn’t be used because they aren’t perfect or don’t address the “real” issue. To be clear, food waste is a problem, and I agree with you 100% that we should be limiting it, but limiting it to the point that we could feed the world is an incredibly difficult (probably impossible) thing that is not going to happen in the near future. Meanwhile, there are people suffering from vitamin A deficiencies who could easily be saved by implementing GMOs. People are literally dying while you sit there demanding that we wait for an unrealistic solution...  

The final argument that I want to discuss is this general aversion to the notion of big, money-loving companies being involved in food production. This is important, because I think it is actually a key motivating factor driving everything that I have talked about. As I have shown, the opposition to patents and Monsanto more generally isn’t actually about facts or logic. In some cases it stems from science denial, but in many, I think it stems from this emotional connection to our food, but that is irrational for several reasons.

First, as I explained previously, GMOs benefit the poor, farmers, etc. so this argument is clearly wrong right from the start. Second, this is, once again, inconsistent with how we treat every other company on the planet. If, for example, a family that owns a farm tries to make a profit off that farm, no one villainizes them. No one says that they are evil for profiting from the production of food. Indeed, we would applaud their industry and hard work. So if it is fine for them to make a profit off of food, when is it wrong for GMO companies to do that?

Now, you might object to that on the basis that Monsanto is a multi-billion dollar company, but that doesn’t help your inconsistencies one bit for two reasons. First, the initial argument was, “it is wrong to profit from food,” but now you are trying to implement some arbitrary threshold of profit at which it becomes immoral.  Second, organic farming is also a massive, multi-billion dollar industry. Indeed, Whole Foods (a large organic store chain) makes nearly as much money as Monsanto, and is profitable enough that Amazon just paid 13.7 billion dollars  for it. So, if making billions of dollars off food makes Monsanto evil, then it must also make Whole Foods evil, but no one thinks that Whole Foods is evil, and many GMO opponents shop there! ... 

Finally, this argument is inconsistent not just with organic food chains, but also with how we view companies more generally. Let me break it down this way, at its core, this argument claims that Monsanto and GMOs are evil because they aren’t feeding the hungry, but we could make that same claim about essentially every massive, for profit company. Apple could spend its vast wealth feeding the hungry, yet no one says that they evil for hoarding their wealth. Why should Monsanto be any different? ... Again, to be clear, I’m not a huge fan of massive companies, and I do think that they should do more to help the poor, but that reasoning has to be applied consistently...

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Pest scenario and appropriate management for Bt cotton in Belgaum Karnataka - Shashikumar & Biradar (2017) - Int J Plant Protec

Prior to introduction of Bt cotton the Belgaum district had more area under short staple and very less area under extra long staple cotton. After the introduction of Bt cotton in 2003-2004... the area under cotton decreased; however, yield levels increased drastically. 

Bt cotton suppressed bollworms which were major threat but at the same time minor sucking pests... emerged as major pests... The increased length of cropping period for extra long Bt hybrids was the reason for more occurrence for pest and diseases. The unscientific follow up of general recommendations with more number of sprays, lowered the interest of farmers in taking up Bt cotton. 

However, the study area followed scientific and appropriate management practices with minimum dosage and less number of sprays for control of pests. This resulted in acceptance of Bt cotton in and around project area... demonstrated avoidable losses due to important pests and diseases on cotton.

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Genetically modified sugarcane developed by CTC in Brazil is approved at CTNBio - Unica (2017) 

The new variety is resistant to sugarcane borer, the main pest that affects the crops in Brazil, generating losses that reach R$ 5 billion per year. 

The ... CTNBio (National Biosafety Technical Commission) has approved the commercial use of the first genetically-modified sugarcane (Bt Sugarcane) developed by the Brazilian sugarcane breeding and technology company... CTC. The Bt Sugarcane variety was submitted to CTNBio, which considered the safety of the biotechnology-derived variety for the environment and human and animal health. This is the first genetically-modified sugarcane approved for marketing in the world.

The new variety, CTC 20 BT, is resistant to crop damage caused by the main sugarcane pest in Brazil, the sugarcane borer. According to a survey carried out by agricultural experts, damage caused by the sugarcane borer results in approximately R$ 5 billion per year, due to losses in sugarcane yield and quality, lower grower insecticide use and costs, and impacts on processors of sugar and ethanol. The helpful Bt gene (Bacillus thuringiensis), found in CTC 20 BT, has been used widely in both Brazilian and global agriculture for over 20 years in biotechnology-derived crops like soybean, maize, cotton, among others. 

“The Bt Sugarcane approval by CTNBio is a great achievement by CTC and the national sugar-ethanol sector”... In the next years, we plan to expand the portfolio of varieties resistant to the borer, adapted to each of the producing regions of Brazil. Further, CTC plans to develop other varieties that are resistant to other insect pests and also tolerant to herbicides... in addition to the economic gains from CTC 20 BT, producers can both simplify their logistics and improve their operation’s environmental management.”

The extensive scientific dossier, which evaluated the genetically-modified sugarcane (GM), was submitted to CTNBio at the end of 2015 for the assessment of health and environmental safety using internationally-accepted standards. Processing studies proved that the sugar and ethanol obtained from the new variety are identical to those products derived from conventional sugarcane. Studies additionally showed that both the Bt gene and protein found in CTC 20 BT sugarcane are completely eliminated from sugarcane derivatives during the manufacturing process. Further, environmental studies did not find any negative effects on soil composition, sugarcane biodegradability, or insect populations, with the exception of the target pests (mainly the borer)... 

CTC will work closely with producers, starting with CTC 20 BT seedling distribution and followed by closely-monitored field planting... “The seedling propagation process will proceed like any conventional new variety introduction, with a planted area growth rate that increases gradually, as new plants are replanted to expand cultivated area and not used in sugar production. This process is aligned with the schedule for obtaining international approvals for the sugar produced from the GM sugarcane”...

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Maize yield response, nitrogen use efficiency and financial returns to fertilizer on smallholder farms in southern Africa - Jama &al (2017) - Food Sec

Maize yield response, nitrogen use efficiency and financial returns to fertilizer on smallholder farms in southern Africa - Jama &al (2017) - Food Sec | Ag Biotech News |

Maize is considered as “life” in southern Africa because it is the staple food crop and the main component of food aid interventions. However, its productivity is very low, partly because of the limited use of external inputs. 

Although maize response to fertilizer has been the focus for many years of studies on research stations, information is scanty on the level of crop response and profitability on smallholder farms in most parts of southern Africa... 

To determine yield responses, nitrogen use efficiency and returns to investment in fertilizer in the unimodal rainfall region of southern Africa. This analysis compared yield responses to various rates of nitrogen (N) fertilizer with maize grown without external inputs... across Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and the southern highlands of Tanzania. 

Across the sites, average yields were 1.6 t/ha in the control, 2.8 t/ha with ≤50% of the recommended N rate and 4 t/ha where 100% or more of the recommended N rate was applied... 

Net present values (NPV) were also positive in over 50% of the cases, indicating that investments in N fertilizer will generate profits over time. In contrast, for maize grown without N fertilizer, NPVs were negative in over 68% of the cases across the four countries... 

Growing maize without N inputs results in loss of land productivity and profitability while application of 50% or more of the recommended N fertilizer ensures substantial increases in yields and profitability.

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GMOs and natural selection: Nature doesn’t give a crap about you - TLOS (2017) 

GMOs and natural selection: Nature doesn’t give a crap about you - TLOS (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Last week, I shared a meme about GMOs on my blog’s Facebook page, and several people responded by arguing that genetic engineering (GE) shouldn’t be used because “it bypasses the natural evolutionary test of fitness.” I’ve heard this argument before, and it is basically just a dressed-up appeal to nature fallacy that asserts that something that has undergone natural selection will somehow be better for us than something that has not. That notion... has all the problems of a normal appeal to nature fallacy, plus it relies on numerous misconceptions about evolution, GMOs, and agriculture in general. So, let’s take this one step at a time and go over why this argument doesn’t work.

Nature doesn’t care about you

This first, and perhaps most obvious, problem with this argument is that it assumes that nature is somehow looking out for your best interests. It implicitly asserts that natural selection is acting on fruits and vegetables to bring about a result that is beneficial for you. In reality of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Natural selection is nothing more than a sampling bias that operates off of two simple premises. 1). There is heritable variation for traits. 2). That variation affects individuals’ ability to pass genes on to the next generation. When those two conditions are met, individuals with beneficial traits will pass on more genes than individuals who lack those traits, and, as a result, those traits will be more common in the next generation. That’s it. That’s all it is. You will notice, however, that those two requirements have absolutely nothing to do with you or humans more generally. There is no third requirement that states that a given trait has to be beneficial for humans. Indeed, your needs  have no bearing whatsoever on the evolution of other organisms. You’re not that important.

This should, of course, by blatantly obvious, because nature is full of things that are utterly terrible for humans. Consider mushrooms in the genus Amanita for example. They produce chemicals known as amatoxins that are extremely toxic to humans at anything but an incredibly low dose. If you eat a single one of these mushrooms, you will spend the next 24-48 hours with agonizing abdominal cramps, as well as fluids gushing uncontrollably out of both ends of your digestive system. Your only escape from this will most likely be the sweet release of death when your liver eventually shuts down. There is currently no known antidote... 

Our crops didn’t come from natural selection

The next major problem is the simple fact that our crops were produced by artificial selection, not natural selection (i.e., they were made by the same process that made the Chihuahua, not the process that made the wolf). Because nature is a jerk that doesn’t care about humans, we had to step in and make the crops ourselves. We took the small barely edible products of nature, and over thousands of years of careful breading, we modified their genetic codes and transformed them into the large, delicious items that we consume today. Wild bananas, for example, are small and full of giant seeds. Similarly, wild corn (teosinte) does not produce the large cobs that we consume. Indeed, virtually none of the items on our produce shelves can be found in nature.

Artificial selection can have unintended consequences

Now, at this point, you might be tempted to assert that the fact that we have been the ones selecting the crops actually makes the argument better, because surely we would not select a trait that is harmful. However, that response ignores basic concepts of genetics. You see, when you select a trait, hybridize crops, etc. via traditional breeding techniques, you don’t just exchange the genetic code for trait that you are interested in. Rather, you exchange genetic information across the entire genome. Thus, you alter thousands of traits, not just the one that you are interested in... there may have also been genes for producing a deadly chemical, allergen, etc. that you just moved without ever knowing it... Indeed, this is essentially what happened with the Lenape potato... 

This is one of the huge advantages of genetic engineering: it is precise. With GE, you could take the specific genes for drought resistance and move them without moving any other genes! As a result, GMOs should actually have fewer unintended consequences than traditional breeding methods... genetic engineering allows you to be precise and move only the genetic material that you are trying to move. Further, we can even use GE to correct mistakes that have arisen during traditional breeding methods and/or natural selection. For example, when fried, traditional potatoes release a chemical called acrylamide, which is a suspected carcinogen (like I said, traditional breeding methods and/or natural selection can result in nasty unintended consequences for humans)... we have now produced a GMO potato that doesn’t produce that chemical... 


To sum all of this up, nature is not your friend, and the fact that something evolved naturally does not in any way shape or form guarantee or even suggest that it is good for you. Species evolve the traits that are beneficial for them, not the traits that are beneficial for you, and natural selection has produced some of the most horrifying things imaginable. Further, artificial selection and other breeding methods (e.g. mutagenesis) also do not guarantee a safe product. All of them involve altering the genetic code, and that always has the risk of unintended consequences. Genetic engineering is different from these methods in only one important way. Namely, the changes that it makes to the genetic code are more precise. So if we are going to worry about an unintended consequence from changing the genetic code of an organism, surely we should be the least concerned about the method that makes the fewest and most precise changes (i.e., GE).

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Combatting weeds with lasers - Univ Bonn (2017) 

Scientists at the University of Bonn develop a system that has no need for herbicides. A robot automatically identifies weeds in a field and combats them with a short laser pulse. Sustainable agriculture, which avoids the use of herbicides as far as possible, could benefit from this smart idea... 

The computer scientists... are currently developing a novel system: using cameras on an all-terrain robot vehicle or even a tractor add-on, unwanted wild weeds should be automatically identified in the various crops and combatted in a targeted way. “The robot shoots the leaves of the unwanted plants with short laser pulses, which causes a weakening in their vitality”... 

“The idea combines innovative robots with a current sustainability topic”... the analyses of the market and competition for such an application are sound. Pastrana is convinced of the benefits of the laser-based technique for new agricultural machinery: “Our aim is to contribute to achieving more sustainable agriculture”...

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Fertilizing growth: Agricultural inputs and their effects in economic development - McArthur & McCord (2017) - J Dev Econ

This paper estimates the role of agronomic inputs in cereal yield improvements and the consequences for countries' processes of structural change. The results suggest a clear role for fertilizer, modern seeds and water in boosting yields. 

We then test for respective empirical links between agricultural yields and economic growth, labor share in agriculture and non-agricultural value added per worker... 

Half ton increase in staple yields generates a 14 to 19 percent higher GDP per capita and a 4-6 percentage point lower labor share in agriculture five years later. The results suggest a strong role for agricultural productivity as a driver of structural change.

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Impact of Use of Chemical Fertiliser on Farm Households’ Risk Behaviour and Food Security in Ethiopia - Zeweld &al (2017) - J Ag Extension

This paper explores the impact of chemical fertiliser on smallholder farmers’ risk behaviour and food security. 

The findings show that the severity of food security is lower for farmers who adopted chemical fertiliser (15%) than those who didn’t adopt (27%). Risk taking behaviour is predominantly associated with farmers who adopt chemical fertiliser. The number of food secure farmers was higher for risk taker farmers (54%) than that of risk averse farmers (46%). 

Use of chemical fertiliser significantly affected both farmers’ risk behaviour and food security. Therefore, it can be concluded that since risk averse farmers are less likely to adopt chemical fertiliser and other technological innovations, it entails improving their awareness through demonstration, teaching and public discussion.

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Zinc biofortification of wheat through preceding crop residue incorporation into the soil - Hossein &al (2017) - Eur J Agron

We conducted a two-year field experiment to investigate the potential benefit of preceding crop residue incorporation into the soil as a strategy to enhance the density of bioavailable grain zinc (Zn) in a subsequent wheat crop. Sunflower, sorghum, clover and safflower were grown as preceding crop (precrop) on a Zn-deficient calcareous soil in central Iran, followed by a culture of two wheat cultivars... 

The harvested aboveground plant matter was air-dried, crushed into pieces of 0.5-2 cm size, mixed, and after taking a sample for analysis, incorporated manually into the upper 15 cm of the soil of one half of the same plot from which it had been harvested, while the other half received no residues... A treatment with no preceding crop (fallow) and no residue incorporation, but with the same management otherwise, was implemented as control treatment. 

For both wheat cultivars studied, higher grain yield was obtained after clover (between 14 and 26%) and sunflower (between 11 and 20%) than that after safflower, sorghum and the fallow. All precrop treatments significantly increased the accumulation of grain Zn and N and decreased the phytic-acid-to-Zn (PA:Zn) molar ratio (by 5-48%), most effectively the clover treatment. The treatment effects on grain Zn were closely correlated with soil pH and dissolved soil organic carbon (DOC). 

The results show that the cultivation of appropriate precrops, especially legumes, can be an effective strategy to biofortify wheat grains with Zn without compromising yields.

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Increasing grain size, weight may improve wheat yields - SD State (2017) 

Increasing grain size, weight may improve wheat yields - SD State (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Larger, heavier wheat kernels... to increase wheat production... Li is collaborating with Yang... to increase wheat grain size and weight using a precise gene-editing tool known as CRISPR/Cas9... to develop new wheat varieties as part of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) Program... to enhance the genetics related to yield and develop varieties adapted to different regions and environmental conditions.  

The goal of IWYP... is to increase wheat yields by 50 percent in 20 years. Currently, the yearly yield gain is less than 1 percent, but to meet the IWYP goal, wheat yields must increase 1.7 percent per year... “We need a lot of work to reach this.”
Humans consume more than 500 million tons of wheat per year... However, United States wheat production is decreasing because farmers can make more money growing other crops... increasing the yield potential will make wheat more profitable.
First, the researchers will identify genes that control grain size and weight in bread wheat using the rice genome as a model.
The CRISPR editing tool allows the researchers to knock out each negatively regulating gene and thus study its function... “CRISPR is both fast and precise... The end products are not genetically modified organisms,” Li emphasized... researchers... screen the plants to select those that carry the desired mutations. “This is null transgenic”... USDA has approved this process in other organisms...

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Organic price premium or penalty? A comparative market analysis of organic wines from Tuscany - Abraben &al (2017) - Food Pol

Studies have examined the price of wines from various wine producing regions using the hedonic price model to determine the correlation between wine attributes and price. However few studies have examined the relationship between organic production or certification and price. 

This study uses a hedonic pricing model to examine the price premiums associated with organic production and organic certification... 

Controlling for a variety of wine attributes, the analysis finds that wines produced with organic practices, but not certified as organic and wines certified, but not labeled as organic receive a higher price compared to conventional wine, for wines with low quality ratings. 

However, as the wine’s quality rating increases, the positive effects of organic practices and certification on price decrease, and for wine with higher quality ratings, organic practices and certification is associated with lower prices relative to otherwise comparable conventional wines.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Interesting find: Low quality products get a boost from an "organic" label, while high-quality products can stand on their own... 
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Genetic engineering tool generates antioxidant-rich purple rice - EurekAlert (2017) 

Genetic engineering tool generates antioxidant-rich purple rice - EurekAlert (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Researchers... developed a genetic engineering approach capable of delivering many genes at once and used it to make rice endosperm – seed tissue that provides nutrients to the developing plant embryo – produce high levels of antioxidant-boosting pigments called anthocyanins. The resulting purple endosperm rice holds potential for decreasing the risk of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic disorders... 

"We have developed a highly efficient, easy-to-use transgene stacking system called TransGene Stacking II that enables the assembly of a large number of genes in single vectors for plant transformation... this vector system will have many potential applications in this era of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering."

To date, genetic engineering approaches have been used to develop rice enriched in beta-carotene and folate, but not anthocyanins. Although these health-promoting compounds are naturally abundant in some black and red rice varieties, they are absent in polished rice grains because the husk, bran, and germ have been removed, leaving only the endosperm... 

Liu and his colleagues first set out to identify the genes required to engineer anthocyanin production in the rice endosperm. To do so, they analyzed sequences of anthocyanin pathway genes in different rice varieties and pinpointed the defective genes in japonica and indica subspecies that do not produce anthocyanins... 

They developed a transgene stacking strategy for expressing eight anthocyanin pathway genes specifically in the endosperm of the japonica and indica rice varieties. The resulting purple endosperm rice had high anthocyanin levels and antioxidant activity in the endosperm. "This is the first demonstration of engineering such a complex metabolic pathway in plants"... 

The researchers plan to evaluate the safety of purple endosperm rice as biofortified food, and they will also try to engineer the biosynthesis of anthocyanins in other crops to produce more purple endosperm cereals.

"Our research provides a high-efficiency vector system for stacking multiple genes for synthetic biology and makes it potentially feasible for engineering complex biosynthesis pathways in the endosperm of rice and other crop plants such as maize, wheat, and barley"...

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Gene Editing in Polyploid Crops: Wheat, Camelina, Canola, Potato, Cotton, Peanut, Sugar Cane, and Citrus - Weeks (2017) - Progr Mol Biol Transl Sci

Polyploid crops make up a significant portion of the major food and fiber crops of the world and include wheat, potato, cotton, apple, peanut, citrus, and brassica oilseeds such as rape, canola, and Camelina. The presence of... sets of chromosomes... present significant challenges to conventional plant breeding and, potentially, to efficient use of rapidly emerging gene and genome-editing systems such as zinc finger nucleases, single-stranded oligonucleotides, TALE effector nucleases, and CRISPR/Cas9. 

However, recent studies with each of these techniques in several polyploid crops have demonstrated facile editing of some or all of the genes targeted for modification on homeologous chromosomes. These modifications have allowed improvements in food nutrition, seed oil composition, disease resistance, weed protection, plant breeding procedures, and food safety. 

Plants and plant products exhibiting useful new traits created through gene editing but lacking foreign DNA may face reduced regulatory restrictions... Such systems that create precise mutations but leave no transgene footprint hold potential promise for assisting with the elimination or great diminution of regulatory processes that presently burden approvals of conventional transgenic crops.

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China approves imports of new US-developed GM crops - FT (2017) 

China approves imports of new US-developed GM crops - FT (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

China, the world’s largest importer of soyabeans, has made a trade concession to Washington by approving imports of two new varieties of genetically modified crops developed by US companies...  

China has tight limits on the domestic cultivation of genetically modified crops, but allows imports to be used in its vast animal feed industry. 

Beijing... promised to speed up the evaluation of eight varieties of GM crops from the US as part of a “100-day plan” to open up trade... China only approved a single new variety of GM crop for import last year... 

China’s demand for soyabeans has skyrocketed in the past decade because of rising meat consumption, which has fuelled the animal feed industry. 

The country imported more than 80m tonnes of soyabeans last year, mostly from Brazil and the US. China is the biggest export market for US agriculture products, valued at more than $21bn in 2016. 

Beijing has in the past taken a tough line on imports of certain GM products. Chinese authorities rejected a number of US corn shipments in 2013 because they contained a GM corn variety... which was not approved in China. 

The agriculture ministry also renewed approvals for the import of 14 other kinds of GM crop, including... corn... sugar beet and ... rapeseed products. The approvals are valid for three years. 

The approvals come as state-owned ChemChina nears completion of a $44bn deal to purchase major European seed and pesticide company Syngenta, with Beijing trying to gain greater control of the agrichemical market... [and] to “dominate the high points of GMO techniques”. 

Beijing does not permit the cultivation of any GM crops except for cotton and papaya... Imported biotech products take up to seven years to gain approval in China, compared with up to three in other major markets.

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Research Progress and Prospects of Genome Editing Pigs - Wen &al (2017) - J Ag Biotechnol

With the development of the new genome editing technology, a large number of genome editing pigs with excellent traits and their products spring up. The analysis of literatures and patents about transgenic pigs and genome editing pigs shows that China is in the leading position in this field. 

This review summarizes research and development status of domestic and foreign genome editing pigs, predicting their development directions in the future. 

According to the safety management regulations of genetically modified organisms and the attitudes for genome editing organisms in different countries, we also offer some suggestions regarding safety management of genome editing animals and their products in order to promote the industrialized application in China.

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Mother Nature might be lovely, but moral she is not - Aeon (2017) 

Mother Nature might be lovely, but moral she is not - Aeon (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

To live in Vermont is to be smothered by nature’s beauty on a daily basis. Everywhere you look is another peaceful pond, another shimmering lake or emerald hill or misty field graced by a family of grazing deer… Immersed as we are in these exquisite pastoral gifts, Vermonters tend to forget that Mother Nature might be lovely, but moral she is not. She doesn’t love us or want what’s best for us. With one hand she giveth, and with the other she puncheth in the gut. 

I know this only too well, because… nature personally bestowed on me another of her special gifts: systemic lupus… a drag, where your immune system constantly attacks your own body… The result is a mess of pain, inflammation, fevers, fatigue and a never-ending litany of nasty surprises. That’s why I just don’t buy the idea that ‘natural is best’. Your organic, gluten-free, sprouted ancient-grain bread is all-natural? That’s nice. My disease is all-natural too. My chronic pain, pleurisy and angry kidneys are all-natural, and my death would’ve been too, if I didn’t have access to the decidedly unnatural medications that allow me to lead a somewhat normal, comfortable life. 

A few years ago… a chain smoker paused between drags to scold me for drinking a Diet Coke – or as she referred to it, ‘that poison’. I had the temerity to point out that she was smoking a cigarette. ‘They’re natural,’ she replied smugly… Now, I’m aware that Diet Coke is not exactly a health tonic, but blithely calling it poison in a voice cracked with the tar of innumerable organic butts speaks to a certain cognitive bias. The soda was bad purely because it wasn’t natural, and the cigarettes were good purely because they were. I refrained from asking her if she enjoyed lots of other natural things, such as cobra bites, poison ivy, malaria, and diving headlong into 100 per cent organic molten lava. 

It turns out that a certain counter-rationalist mindset isn’t just a condition afflicting Right-wing reactionaries. This fetish for all things au naturel reached a particularly feverish peak… when Vermonters banded together to implement a mandatory labelling law for GMOs (genetically-modified organisms)… Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that GMOs are safe for human consumption, more than three-quarters of Vermonters supported the law, which stated that all food manufacturers had to slap a chunk of text on their packaging if their product contained any ingredients that were produced through genetic engineering. 

Not the Ye Olde Geneticke Engineereing that humans have practised for millennia, mind you, such as the selective breeding, crossbreeding and hybridisation of plants and animals. Rather… the supporters of the bill clearly differentiated between these timeworn agricultural methods and the modern form of genetic engineering that involves scientists isolating and manipulating individual genes to promote desired traits. If companies refused to comply with demands to label their GMOs, their Chewy Pork-Os and Mini Cheese Conundrums would no longer be sold on our pure, artisanal shelves… 

It doesn’t take much for us to mentally spool back in time, through gauzy montages of kooky historical costume changes, until we arrive at some untarnished, primordial Eve, squatting happily in front of her cook-fire, preparing some kale-and-wholegrain crêpes. Her rhythms are the rhythms of nature. She is at one with the natural world, not above or apart from it, and we are all connected to her across time, space and evolutionary leaps through this bio-mystical thread of the double-helix. But wait; is that a rustling in the shrubberies behind her? … 

We tend to romanticise the past and blame every ailment on this crazy, modern lifestyle and scary ‘new’ technologies, forgetting the mortality and brutality we’ve left behind. If Eve was a real person living in the palaeolithic era, her life expectancy would have been only about 30 years, max. As she approached this ripe old age, she would likely have been prone to many of the same ailments that people today don’t typically start to suffer from until their 60s. She would have been fortunate to live that long, considering they obviously didn’t benefit from miraculous modern medical advances such as antibiotics, cancer treatments, obstetrics, surgery and Bioré pore strips. And yes, the abundance of nutritious food that we enjoy today is thanks, in part, to GM technologies. You know what makes my lupus feel better? When I can afford healthy food, all year round… 

As the labelling deadline approached, I’d marvel at the hundreds of scientifically unfounded anti-GMO lies that would be repeated in the comment sections of newspapers and other media outlets… Some of the claims came from the Vermont Right to Know GMOs website, which was the official hub of the bill’s news and activism activity. It contained a number of untrue or misleading claims… I’d be frightened too, if this were my primary source of information… But there are also multiple independent studies performed on patented GMOs all over the world. So it’s not some kind of science-y petri-dish, Wild West situation; GM seeds have been tested at every stage of development and release for 30 years… 

Nature can seem as inspiring, beautiful, strong and nurturing as a mother, but it would be foolish to believe that this ‘mother’ loves us. There’s no reason we can’t celebrate her glorious natural gifts while also appreciating the important ‘unnatural’ improvements our fellow humans have created…

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Plant genetics, ecologically based farming and the future of food - Prins &al (2017) - Geo Rev

Plant genetics, ecologically based farming and the future of food - Prins &al (2017) - Geo Rev | Ag Biotech News |

For 10,000 years, we have altered the genetic makeup of our crops. 

Conventional approaches are often quite crude, resulting in new varieties through a combination of trial and error, and without knowledge of the precise function of the genes that are being transferred. Such methods include grafting or forced pollinations between different species, as well as radiation or chemical treatments that induce random mutations in the seed. 

Today, virtually everything we eat is produced from seeds that have been genetically altered in one way or another... 

Although seed is just one component of a sustainable agricultural system, it is an important component. The seed carries the traits that farmers and consumers value: flavor, nutrition, tolerance to pests, diseases, environmental stress, and the like). 

Because planting a new seed variety does not require extra maintenance or additional farming skills, it is scale-neutral technology. This means that farmers of both small and large acreage, including farmers in developing countries, can benefit if the trait is appropriate to their particular geography and farming challenges. 

In the developed world, most farmers, including organic farmers, buy their seed from for-profit seed companies. In less developed countries, the seed is typically developed and distributed by nonprofit institutions... 

The process of genetic engineering has been used for more than forty years to create life saving drugs (for example, insulin), enzymes for cheeses (approximately 90 percent of U.S. cheeses are made with genetically engineered enzymes), and crops resistant to disease. 

After decades of careful study and rigorous peer review by thousands of independent scientists, every major scientific organization in the world has concluded that the genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat and that the process of genetic engineering is no more risky than older methods... These are precisely the same organizations that most of us trust when it comes to other important scientific issues such as global climate change and the safety of vaccines.

Hybridization... genetic engineering of crops launched in 1996 and the genome editing of tomorrow are examples of a continuum of new technologies aimed at helping farmers produce food in a productive and ecologically-based manner... It is important to frame discussions about agriculture in the context of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of agriculture – the three pillars of sustainable agriculture. 

Rather than focusing on how a seed variety was developed, we must ask what most enhances local food security and can provide safe, abundant and nutritious food to consumers. We must ask if rural communities can thrive and if farmers can make a profit. We must be sure that consumers can afford the food. And finally we must minimize environmental degradation. This includes conserving land and water, enhancing farm biodiversity and soil fertility, reducing erosion and minimizing harmful inputs.

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Tillage and fertilizer effect on maize and soybean yields in the Guinea savanna zone of Ghana - Buah &al (2017) - Ag Food Sec

Tillage and fertilizer effect on maize and soybean yields in the Guinea savanna zone of Ghana - Buah &al (2017) - Ag Food Sec | Ag Biotech News |

The most limiting factors for sustainable maize production in smallholder farming systems of sub-Saharan Africa, especially the savanna agro-ecological zone, are erratic rainfall pattern and low soil fertility.

Research was conducted with smallholder farmers in 2013 and 2014 in two communities in the Upper West Region of Ghana to evaluate the effects of NPK mineral fertilizer on growth and yield of maize and... of YaraLegume fertilizer... on growth and yield of soybean... under no-tillage (using pre-plant application of glyphosate) and conventional tillage (using hand hoe)...

The results of these studies showed that no-tillage with fertilizer, whether for maize or soybean, generally resulted in the highest grain yields. No-tillage also gave the highest economic returns. Farmers can get better returns to the money invested in herbicide for producing maize and soybean under no-till than with their traditional practice even on degraded savanna soils with low levels of plant available nutrients.

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New GMO regulations for old: Determining a new future for EU crop biotechnology - Davison & Amman (2017) - GM Crops Food

New GMO regulations for old: Determining a new future for EU crop biotechnology - Davison & Amman (2017) - GM Crops Food | Ag Biotech News |

In this review, current EU GMO regulations are subjected to a point-by point analysis to determine their suitability for agriculture in modern Europe. Our analysis concerns present GMO regulations as well as suggestions for possible new regulations for genome editing and New Breeding Techniques (for which no regulations presently exist)...  

The present GMO regulations stem from the early days of recombinant DNA and are not adapted to current scientific understanding... understanding of GMOs has changed and these regulations are now not only unfit for their original purpose, but the purpose itself is now no longer scientifically valid. Indeed, they defy scientific, economic, and even common, sense. 

A major EU regulatory preconception is that GM crops are basically different from their parent crops. Thus, the EU regulations are “process based” regulations that discriminate against GMOs simply because they are GMOs. However current scientific evidence shows a blending of classical crops and their GMO counterparts with no clear demarcation line between them. 

Canada has a “product based” approach and determines the safety of each new crop variety independently of the process used to obtain it. We advise that the EC re-writes it outdated regulations and moves toward such a product based approach.

Secondly, over the last few years new genomic editing techniques (sometimes called New Breeding Techniques) have evolved. These techniques are basically mutagenesis techniques that can generate genomic diversity and have vast potential for crop improvement. They are not GMO based techniques... since... no new DNA is introduced. Thus they cannot simply be lumped together with GMOs... 

The EU currently has no regulations to cover these new techniques. In this review, we make suggestions as to how these new gene edited crops may be regulated. The EU is at a turning point where the wrong decision could destroy European agricultural competitively for decades to come.

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Safety Assessment of Food and Feed from GM Crops in Europe: Evaluating EFSA's Alternative Framework for the Rat 90-day Feeding Study - Hong &al (2017) - J Agric Food Chem

Regulatory-compliant rodent subchronic feeding studies are compulsory regardless of a hypothesis to test, according to recent EU legislation for the safety assessment of whole food/feed produced from genetically modified (GM) crops containing a single genetic transformation event... guidelines set forth by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for the design, conduct, and analysis of rodent subchronic feeding studies. 

The set of EFSA recommendations was rigorously applied to a 90-day feeding study in Sprague-Dawley rats. After study completion, the appropriateness and applicability of these recommendations were assessed using a battery of statistical analysis approaches including both retrospective and prospective statistical power analyses as well as variance-covariance decomposition. 

In the interest of animal welfare considerations, alternative experimental designs were investigated and evaluated in the context of informing the health risk assessment of food/feed from GM crops... Our results validate simpler, more conservative, yet adequately powered study designs that both reduce and refine animal use and that are in alignment with many provisions for flexibility of design and conduct of rat subchronic studies performed as part of the safety assessment of GM crops as recommended in EFSA's Explanatory Statement.

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Use of CRISPR/Cas9 for Crop Improvement in Maize and Soybean - Chilcoat &al (2017) - Progr Molec Biol Transl Sci

CRISPR/Cas enables precise improvement of commercially relevant crop species by transgenic and nontransgenic methodologies. We have used CRISPR/Cas with or without DNA repair template in both corn and soybean for a range of applications including enhancing drought tolerance, improving seed oil composition, and endowing herbicide tolerance. 

Importantly, by pairing CRISPR/Cas technology with recent advances in plant tissue culture, these changes can be introduced directly into commercially relevant genotypes. This powerful combination of technologies enables advanced breeding techniques for introducing natural genetic variations directly into product relevant lines with improved speed and quality compared with traditional breeding methods. 

Variation generated through such CRISPR/Cas enabled advanced breeding approaches can be indistinguishable from naturally occurring variation and therefore should be readily accessible for commercialization. The precision, reach, and flexibility afforded by CRISPR/Cas promise an important role for genome editing in future crop improvement efforts.

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First Step Taken Toward Epigenetically Modified Cotton - U Texas (2017) 

First Step Taken Toward Epigenetically Modified Cotton - U Texas (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

With prices down and weather patterns unpredictable, these are tough times for America's cotton farmers, but new research led by Z. Jeffrey Chen... might offer a break for the industry. He and a team have taken the first step toward a new way of breeding heartier, more productive cotton through a process called epigenetic modification... 

Scientists have discovered that many traits in living things are controlled not just by their genetics – what's written in the code of their DNA – but also by processes outside their DNA that determine whether, when and how much the genes are expressed, known as epigenetics. This opens up the possibility of entirely new ways to breed plants and animals. By selectively turning gene expression on and off, breeders could create new varieties without altering the genes... 

The researchers identified more than 500 genes that are epigenetically modified between wild cotton varieties and domesticated cotton, some of which are known to relate to agronomic and domestication traits. This information could aid selection for the kinds of traits that breeders want to alter, like fiber yield or resistance to drought, heat or pests. For example, varieties of wild cotton might harbor genes that help them respond better to drought, but have been epigenetically silenced in domesticated cotton.

"This understanding will allow us to supplement genetic breeding with epigenetic breeding... Since we know now how epigenetic changes affect flowering and stress responses, you could reactivate stress-responsive genes in domesticated cotton"... 

Chen and his colleagues... produced a "methylome" – a list of genes and genetic elements that have been switched on or off through a natural process called DNA methylation. A methylome provides important clues for biotechnology firms that want to adapt crops through epigenetic modification. This methylome covers the most widely grown form of cotton, known as Upland or American cotton; its cousin, Pima or Egyptian cotton; and their wild relatives, while showing how these plants changed over more than a million years... 

Cotton is the top fiber crop grown in the world, with more than 150 countries involved in cotton export and import. Annual business revenue stimulated by cotton in the U.S. economy exceeds $100 billion, making it America's No. 1 value-added crop.

The researchers discovered changes in DNA methylation occurred as wild varieties combined to form hybrids, the hybrids adapted to changes in their environment and finally, humans domesticated them. One key finding is that the change that allowed cotton to go from a plant adapted to grow only in the tropics to one that grows in many parts of the world was not a genetic change, but an epigenetic one.

The researchers found that wild cotton contains a methylated gene that prevents it from flowering when daylight hours are long – as they are in the summer in many places, including the United States and China. In domesticated cotton, the same gene lost this methylation, allowing the gene to be expressed, an epigenetic change that allowed cotton to go global.

Chen says modern breeders can modify gene methylation with chemicals or through... gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9. These methods could allow breeders to make targeted changes to a plant's epigenome and create new breeds with improved traits. Epigenetic breeding could be applied not just to cotton but to many other major crops such as wheat, canola, coffee, potatoes, bananas and corn... 

Most animals, including humans, are what geneticists call diploids, meaning each of us has two complete sets of chromosomes – one from our mother and one from our father. But all flowering plants have more than two sets of chromosomes, making them polyploids... including major crops such as wheat, canola, coffee, potatoes, bananas and corn. Hybridization and polyploidy often induce epigenetic changes that can be bred and selected for new desirable traits.

Having multiple versions of the same genes, and the ability to turn some on or off, gave evolution a powerful toolbox of traits to draw from in adapting plants to their particular environments. It's also what makes epigenetic breeding potentially so powerful...

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Health-risk Concerns vs. Medical Benefits of the GM Technology - Saito &al (2017) - AgBioForum

Genetically modified crops have been controversial... and the science community puts substantial effort into communicating with consumers... GM technology is now being used to expand food as well as agricultural functionalities, offering the possibility of wider consumer acceptance. A case in point is the development of a GM rice that alleviates allergic reactions to cedar pollen. 

We conducted an online consumer survey of those manifesting an allergic reaction and investigated whether they respond positively to the new GM benefit. Our results indicate that respondents who perceive at least the possibility of a consumer functionality in GM technology tend to have little health-risk concern in general, and tend to be willing to try medical rice in particular. 

The implication is that GM acceptability can be influenced by the presence of a positive functionality and not by just the apparent absence of negative ones.

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In short: "Ban that stuff! ... Oh, it helps me and not only others? Give it to me!" 
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Consumer valuation of information about food safety achieved using biotechnology: Evidence from new potato products - McFadden & Huffman (2017) - Food Pol 

The role of food labels and information for affecting consumers’ valuation of food safety achieved through application of biotechnological (biotech) methods. In 2002, potato products cooked to a high temperature were first reported to contain the human carcinogen acrylamide. Research discoveries using genetic engineering can substantially reduce carcinogenic-forming potential, and thereby increase food safety of potato products. 

Adult consumers from three distant regions of the U.S. were the subjects in lab auctions of potato products. They engaged in distinct rounds of bidding, first without packaged information and again after receiving information about the food safety risks and benefits of new biotech potato products. 

The study finds that willingness-to-pay (WTP) for these new potato products are not significantly different from conventional potato products under no information. However, exposure to a scientific perspective and scientific plus industry perspectives increases participants’ willingness-to-pay for the new potato products and reduces willingness-to-pay for conventional products. Exposure to the negative perspective on the new technology significantly reduces willingness-to-pay. 

Consumer valuation of the new potato products is affected by food labels, information, and consumer attributes. A consumer information program could be needed to gain consumer acceptance of these potato products or other foods that have been genetically modified to increase certain food safety dimensions.

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