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Ag Biotech News
Scoops on GMOs, agricultural biotech, innovation, breeding, crop protection, and related info, incl. on science communication. (Scoops are not necessarily endorsements). CLICK on the titles to get to the full, original, and possibly hyperlinked versions!
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Scooped by Alexander J. Stein!

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

[updated July 24, 2016]  


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


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


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


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

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

Scooped by Alexander J. Stein!

Will You Eat This Yeast-Made Cheese? - Forbes (2017) 

Will You Eat This Yeast-Made Cheese? - Forbes (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

“We were prepared for a lot more negativity than we’ve ever seen,” Ryan Pandya, co-founder of Perfect Day told me. The question, I’d asked him was: “Are people freaked out by your product?” Perfect Day utilizes cellular agriculture to create dairy products. No cows. Just yeast. 

Consumer acceptance should be a top concern for any entrepreneur in the food-tech space... a plethora of up-and-coming businesses may be doomed before they even launch... startups developing products like shrimp made from algae, vegetable burgers that bleed and egg whites made with yeast. Folks like Bill Gates, Arielle Zuckerberg, and Marc Benioff, along with... Google Ventures, Tyson Foods, Mitsui and General Mills are banking on “alternative proteins” to play a significant role in the future of food. This future, many also argue, is necessary to feed the growing global population, set to reach 9 billion in 2050. 

But can animal-free dairy become commonplace if today’s most common form of food technology – GMOs – is so vehemently vilified? Answering that requires one to figure out why GMOs are so often scorned, and what new startups can do to avoid the same future. “I think the reason... is we’re... making something with a purpose that resonates with people, especially with Millennials.” 

When it comes to the food industry, distrust in big businesses is at an all-time high. According to a survey... 81% of U.S. Millennials believe that large food brands pursue policies that make Americans less healthy... This lack of trust has been generated, in large part, by an opaque, complex food system that leaves most consumers in the dark on what it is that they’re eating... 

Perfect Day is taking the alternate approach, emphasizing their personal value system and how it’s reflected in their product, and then opening the doors to let anyone who wants to know more... Go to Perfect Day’s website and you’re greeted with... the message: “Milk Reinvented: Sustainable. Kind. Delicious.” Scroll down and you’ll find a user-friendly description of Perfect Day’s “process”... and links to learn even more. Then, an overview of why Perfect Day is more sustainable than traditional dairy products (e.g. 65% less energy consumption, 84% less greenhouse gas emissions and 98% less water consumption than traditional dairy). 

Perfect Day’s mission – “to empower you to enjoy the dairy foods you love while making the world a kinder, greener place”... they’re motivated by similar concerns around the environment and sustainability as many others their age. “This idea of making meat that’s better for the planet, better for people, better for animals just captivated me and that’s why I’m here doing this work,” says Perumal Gandhi, Ryan’s partner... Years ago, Perumal became concerned about the environmental impact of animal products, and “went vegan.” Soon, “I just missed cheese and yogurt and ice cream and all the different dairy products that I grew up with”... Now, Perfect Day is focused on “making the best animal-free dairy products you’ve ever had.” 

How are they doing it? Organisms... follow a blueprint to construct every little piece of their bodies... That blueprint is DNA. “What’s really cool about DNA is that it’s a language that every single organism speaks... It’s not different for a cat or a walnut.” That means that once you have the blueprint for something – like casine, the milk protein – the DNA can be read and executed just as well by yeast as a cow. “You put that gene into yeast and for all intents and purposes it’s now behaving like a cow in that one way that matters to us.” It makes milk. “We call our yeast Buttercups”... 

While this may sound a bit sci-fi, the practice of genetically modifying yeast is nothing new. In fact, this method has been utilized for human insulin since 1978. “Today, the vast majority of insulin is made by this engineered yeast or bacteria”... Yeast engineering is also used to make perfume, oil, flavors... Once these products hit the market, will the general public be enthusiastic about eating them? In short, will people who avoid GMOs be willing to try a non-GMO product made by GM yeast? As Ryan notes, their product is receiving less pushback than anticipated. Why? Is it that the do-good story is putting consumers at ease? “We’re really concerned about making sure that we have a planet healthier than the one we were born in,” says Ryan, and he believes that others his age feel the same...

“People don’t know what they can do. We want to say: ‘Here’s the easiest thing in the world. You love cheese. Keep on eating cheese... because every time you buy this instead of cow cheese, you’re incrementally helping.’ That’s the kind of easy choice that there should be more of.” Yeast-made milk... is far more efficient and sustainable than cow-made milk. “We’re not anti-cattle at all”... But... as the world’s population inches up toward 9 billion, “we need to create more while using less.” One hundred percent of the feed you put into yeast becomes a unit of milk. Not so with a cow, who uses that feed to grow, to excrete. Eating their cheese... is a bit like using a thermos instead of purchasing bottled water, or choosing Patagonia over REI, because you believe in Patagonia’s use of recycled materials. You can do good with your dollars. 

The entrepreneurs hope that this approach – focusing on sustainability, transparency and consumer empowerment – will help them avoid the skepticism created by other food technologies. And so far, they say, so good. Keep an eye out for Perfect Day’s first products, which are set to hit shelves sometime this year.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Contrary to what the author seems to suggest, also GM crops can contribute to more efficient and sustainable agriculture, and their developers try to achieve things like improvements in nutrition (biofortified crops) or reductions in insecticide-use (insect-resistant crops), which also make "the world a kinder, greener place". But no matter the similarities, perhaps the narrative is different if it's a start-up by two young guys vs work that has come to be seen as the profit-driven product of big, established companies. (No matter that in other fields profit-driven innovative products, such as Tesla cars or iPhones, are perfectly acceptable to most.) However, also GM crops were developed by smaller companies at first, so the question is what will happen to the narrative if/when companies like Perfect Day are bought by Nestlé, KraftHeinz, or Mondelez... 
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Scientists remove reliance on seasonality in new line of broccoli – potentially doubling crop production - John Innes Centre (2017) 

Scientists remove reliance on seasonality in new line of broccoli – potentially doubling crop production - John Innes Centre (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Scientists at the John Innes Centre (JIC) are developing a new line of fast-growing sprouting broccoli that goes from seed to harvest in 8-10 weeks. It has the potential to deliver two full crops a season in-field or it can be grown all year round in protected conditions, which could help with continuity of supply, as growers would no longer be reliant on seasonal weather conditions.

The part of the broccoli plant that we eat is the flower buds. This innovation in crop production builds on the wealth of fundamental research... on vernalisation – the need for some plants to experience a period of cold weather before they can flower. The timing of the switch to flowering is critical for a plant’s adaptation to the environment and its resulting yield... 

Many crops rely on this period of cold before they can flower and so are very susceptible to fluctuating winter temperatures. Recent adverse weather in... Spain led to a shortage of courgettes, iceberg lettuce and broccoli. The team at the John Innes Centre have been working on ways to increase crop productivity and reduce our vulnerability to fluctuations in climate.

“We harnessed our knowledge of how plants regulate the flowering process to remove the requirement for a period of cold temperature and bring this new broccoli line to harvest faster. This means growers could turn around two field-based crops in one season, or if the broccoli is grown in protected conditions, 4-5 crops in a year”... The new broccoli line could be a step towards overcoming the problem of seasonality

The consequences of our changing climate are one of the main issues facing crop production.... “The continuity of food production is being challenged by changes in our climate... We have been challenging the way people think about how we produce food... we are considering the potential of moving some forms of food production into contained horticultural production systems – these could range from simple glasshouse or growth rooms to more complex vertical farms. This new line of broccoli could be grown in such systems and would overcome the problem of seasonality and our dependence on imported crops.” 

The new broccoli line... is one of a number that have been selected to address this issue and as a step toward climate-proofing our crops. “This is a very exciting development as it has the potential to remove our exposure to seasonal weather fluctuations from crop production. This could mean broccoli – and in future other vegetables where the flower is eaten, for example, cauliflowers – can be grown anywhere at any time enabling continuous production and supply of fresh local produce”...  

This line has been developed using conventional breeding techniques. In order for this experimental line to move towards commercialisation the next steps involve flavour and nutritional analysis and performance testing under true protected and field commercial growing conditions.

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Scooped by Alexander J. Stein!

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds - New Yorker (2017) 

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds - New Yorker (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason. 

In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones. 

Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.

As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. Though half the notes were indeed genuine... the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.

In the second phase of the study, the deception was revealed... Finally, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly... At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well – significantly better than the average student – even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse... 

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.” A few years later, a new set of Stanford students was recruited for a related study... Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs”... 

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding... Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way? ... 

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question... Reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context... Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed... to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups. 

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves”... Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments... 

It must have some adaptive function, and that function... is related to our “hypersociability.” Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own...

This lopsidedness... reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments... It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us... 

Steven Sloman... and Philip Fernbach... believe sociability is the key to how the human mind functions... 

Graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped... 

Sloman and Fernbach see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people... We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate... that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins... 

This borderlessness, or, if you prefer, confusion, is also crucial to what we consider progress. As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.

Where it gets us into trouble... is in the political domain... Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention... 

“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding”... And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.

“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe... In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently... 

If we... spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This... “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes”...  

Jack Gorman... and... Sara Gorman... probe the gap between what science tells us and what we tell ourselves. Their concern is with those persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous. Of course, what’s hazardous is not being vaccinated; that’s why vaccines were created in the first place... 

The Gormans don’t just want to catalogue the ways we go wrong; they want to correct for them. There must be some way... to convince people that vaccines are good for kids, and handguns are dangerous. (Another widespread but statistically insupportable belief they’d like to discredit is that owning a gun makes you safer.) But here they encounter the very problems they have enumerated. Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science. “The challenge that remains... is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.”

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
"If we spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This 'may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes'... Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science. 'The challenge that remains... is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.'" 
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The dark side of social media - Nature (2017) 

The dark side of social media - Nature (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Cyber-ethnographers... dedicate their careers to studying the way that people behave online.

Arguments rule the online world... And although sometimes amusing, it doesn’t take much for online banter to slip towards insults, harassment and worse. That is the grim domain of the Internet troll, and it’s this murky online environment that brave cyber-ethnographers are now trying to study...

Psychologists describe how they tried to engage with this troll community, to study their attitudes and behaviour, and to work out what makes them tick... Things got heated when the scientists tried to introduce some science into the debate... 

When one of the psychologists posted a reference to an academic paper... and invited discussion, the trolls were more interested in insults and attacks on the researcher’s motive, labelling them a “shill” and blocking them when they tried to steer conversations back to the findings.

Previous research on trolls has identified key phrases that act as calling cards and draw activity. In this study, the word ‘shill’... was a red rag, and led to more and more trolls circling the discussion and piling in. 

What can we learn from the study? One powerful theme of the anti-McCann messages is motherhood... But there were much nastier motives on show, too: although most of the trolls argued that they were fighting for justice, the researchers conclude that this was thin cover for being able to hurl insults anonymously... 

Most of the abusive and offensive messages sent and received were against the rules of the social-media provider, yet no action was taken. And second, to ‘not feed the trolls’ has little impact. They are cultural scavengers who feast on alternative facts and false news already in the system, and thrive on condemnation...

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Genetically modified foods: consumer awareness, opinions and attitudes in selected EU countries - Popek & Halagarda (2017) - Int J Cons Stud

Genetically modified foods: consumer awareness, opinions and attitudes in selected EU countries - Popek & Halagarda (2017) - Int J Cons Stud | Ag Biotech News |

The aim of this study was to investigate consumer opinions regarding genetically modified (GM) foods. The research also aimed at verifying the differences in the attitudes of respondents from two, relatively culturally diverse research sites.

To obtain empirical data a face-to-face survey was conducted in 2015. It covered a total of 976 randomly selected individuals. The study was carried out in the capital of the United Kingdom - London and the Polish capital - Warsaw. The results of the study show that almost half of the respondents were familiar with the GMO concept... 

An almost equal number of respondents showed the intention of purchasing GM food products (35%), an intention to act otherwise (33%) or they were undecided (33%). No statically significant differences between the answers of respondents from the UK and Poland were found... 

The outcomes show that almost half of the respondents were familiar with the concept of GMO... The main fears concerned unpredictable consequences of DNA modification, production of species-specific toxins and food allergenicity. 

As many as 68% of the people surveyed were in favor of the obligatory labeling of GM foods... A considerable 28% of the subjects surveyed showed negative attitudes towards GM foods, whereas only 20% positive...

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
33% said they would not buy GM food, i.e. 67% might buy it. (And it's everybody's best guess how many of those who now *said* they would not buy GM food, would actually buy it if it was on the market and e.g. had a lower price or brought some other benefits...) 

28% showed negative attitudes, i.e. 72% were indifferent or positive about GM food. (The other way around, many people show positive attitudes e.g. about free-range eggs, but this does not translate into actual purchasing decisions...) 

68% wanted GM foods to be labelled, i.e. 32% didn't care. 

48% said they'd be familiar with the term GMO, i.e. 52% didn't know what GM food is. 

Also see my review the "Acceptance of 'GM' food in Europe: What people say and do"

P.S.: An interesting statement by the authors: "These results reflect women’s more emotional attitude towards food and nutrition." Given that this statement is not supported by any reference that could confirm that women do indeed have a more emotional attitude towards food and nutrition, the authors must consider this as a self-evident truth. Well... (Not sure they have come across some of the - male - anti-GMO crackpots...)
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GM foods: why presenting "just the facts" won't work - Univ Adelaide (2017) 

When it comes to controversial science issues, scientists need to rethink their approach to engaging the public... The results of focus groups... show that if scientists continue to present "just the facts", most people won't engage or modify their thinking – even if those people are highly educated. The results have implications for public engagement across other controversial science issues, such as nuclear energy, climate change, vaccination and water fluoridation, the authors say.

"We were interested in previous surveys that showed women consistently were more opposed to GM foods than men, and so we set out to better understand the reasons why... GM foods are an important issue for the community, and with women still playing greater roles in the provision of home care and food preparation, we need to better understand how women are thinking and what their values are in relation to these issues"...  

"All of the women with science backgrounds used evidence to support their stance, but the way they did so came as a surprise to us... Women who had backgrounds in plant science said the lack of evidence of harm meant that GM food was safe to eat. But the women in health sciences said it was a lack of evidence of safety that made them cautious about consuming GM food. These perceptions are based on two very different concepts of risk, despite both groups being highly educated in science.

"For women without science backgrounds, GM food presented 'unknown' risks, and hence was to be avoided. There was a range of other issues apart from the science that arose in our study, a major one being a general lack of trust of science"... 

"It's important for scientists to realise that science has economic, social, and cultural impacts, and if people are presented with 'just the facts', the discussion leaves out critical topics and values... People – including people highly educated in science – come to these issues with their own ideas, experiences, and values, and they are not necessarily going to endorse particular scientific theories or applications based simply on facts being provided to them"... 

"Importantly, our work points to shared food values between those who eat and those who do and would not eat GM foods. Shared values are an important foundation for science communication, and we hope that our work can contribute to the development of better engagement strategies for both scientists and the public."

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Diet Culture Exists to Fight Off the Fear of Death - Atlantic (2017) 

Diet Culture Exists to Fight Off the Fear of Death - Atlantic (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Knowing a thing means you don’t need to believe in it. Whatever can be known, or proven by logic or evidence, doesn’t need to be taken on faith. Certain details of nutrition and the physiology of eating are known and knowable: the fact that humans require certain nutrients... But there are bigger questions that don’t have definitive answers, like what is the best diet for all people? For me? 

Nutrition is a young science that lies at the intersection of several complex disciplines – chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, psychology – and though we are far from having figured it all out, we still have to eat to survive. When there are no guarantees or easy answers, every act of eating is something like a leap of faith... 

All animals must feed on other life to sustain themselves, whether in the form of breastmilk, plants, or the corpses of other animals. The act of incorporation, of taking a once-living thing into your own body, is necessary for all animals’ existence. It is also disturbing and unsavory to think about, since it draws a direct connection between eating and death... 

The act of ingestion is embroidered with so much cultural meaning that, for most people, its roots in spare, brutal survival are entirely hidden. Even for people in extreme poverty, for whom survival is a more immediate concern, the cultural meanings of food remain critical... Who wants to think about staving off death each time they tuck into a bowl of cereal? Forgetting about death is the entire point of food culture.

When it comes to food... the desire for more life – not just delaying death today, but clearing the bar of mortality entirely – grew into an obsession with transforming the self into a perfected object that might achieve a sort of immorality. Diet culture... are cultural structures we have built to attempt to transcend our animality.

By creating and following diets, humans not only eat to stay alive, but they fit themselves into a cultural edifice that is larger, and more permanent, than their bodies. It is a sort of immortality ritual, and rituals must be performed socially. Clean eating rarely, if ever, occurs in secret... 

As humans, we are possibly the most promiscuous omnivores ever to wander the earth. We dine on animals, insects, plants, marine life, and occasionally non-food: dirt, clay... We seek variety and novelty, and at the same time, we carry an innate fear of food... the anxiety that arises from our desire to try new foods (neophilia) paired with our inherited fear of unknown foods (neophobia) that could turn out to be toxic...

Humans do not have a single, definitive rulebook to direct our eating, despite the many attempts nutrition scientists, dietitians, chefs, and celebrities have made to write one. Each of us has to negotiate the desire for food and fear of the unknown... Almost all children go through a phase of pickiness with eating. It seems to be an evolved survival mechanism that prevents us... from eating something toxic... 

Our omnivorousness gives us an exhilarating and terrifying amount of freedom. As social creatures, we seek safety from that freedom in our culture, and in a certain amount of conformity. We prefer to follow leaders we’ve invested with authority to blaze a path to safety.

The heroes of contemporary diet culture are wellness gurus who claim to have cured themselves of fatness, disease, and meaninglessness through the unimpeachable purity of cold-pressed vegetable juice. Many traditional heroes earn their status by confronting and defeating death... Wellness gurus are the glamorously clean eaters whose triumph over sad, dirty animality is evidenced by... photographs of green smoothies in wholesome Mason jars, and by their own bodies, beautifully rendered. 

There are no such heroes to be found in a peer-reviewed paper with a large, anonymous sample, and small effect sizes, written in impenetrable statistician-ese, and hedged with disclosures about limitations. But the image of a person you can relate to on a human level, smiling out at you from the screen, standing in a before-and-after, shoulder-to-shoulder with their former, lesser, processed-food-eating self, is something else altogether. Their creation myth and redemption... is undeniably compelling.

There are twin motives underlying human behavior... the urge for heroism and the desire for atonement. At a fundamental level, people may feel a twinge of guilty for having a body, taking up space, and having appetites that devour the living things around us. They may crave expiation of this guilt, and culture provides not only the means to achieve plentiful material comfort, but also ways to sacrifice part of that comfort to achieve redemption. It is not enough for wellness gurus to simply amass the riches of health, beauty, and status – they must also deny themselves sugar, grains, and flesh. They must pay.

Only those with status and resources to spare can afford the most impressive gestures of renunciation. Look at all they have! The steel-and-granite kitchen! The Le Creuset collection! The Vitamix! The otherworldly glow! They could afford to eat cake, should the bread run out, but they quit sugar. They’re only eating twigs and moss now. What more glamorous way to triumph over dirt and animality and death? ... 

This is how the omnivore’s paradox breeds diet culture: Overwhelmed by choice, by the dim threat of mortality that lurks beneath any wrong choice, people crave rules from outside themselves, and successful heroes to guide them to safety. People willingly, happily, hand over their freedom in exchange for the bondage of a diet that forbids their most cherished foods, that forces them to rely on the unfamiliar, unpalatable, or inaccessible, all for the promise of relief from choice and the attendant responsibility. 

If you are free to choose, you can be blamed for anything that happens to you: weight gain, illness, aging... But diet culture is constantly shifting. Today’s token foods of health may seem tainted or passé tomorrow, and within diet culture, there are contradictory ideologies... There is no certain path to purity and blamelessness through food. The only common thread between competing dietary ideologies is the belief that by adhering to them, one can escape the human condition, and become a purer, less animal, kind of being. 

This is why arguments about diet get so vicious, so quickly. You are not merely disputing facts, you are pitting your wild gamble to avoid death against someone else’s. You are poking at their life raft. But if their diet proves to be the One True Diet, yours must not be. If they are right, you are wrong. This is why diet culture seems so religious. People adhere to a dietary faith in the hope they will be saved. That if they’re good enough, pure enough in their eating, they can keep illness and mortality at bay. And the pursuit of life everlasting always requires a leap of faith...

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
"This is why arguments about diet get so vicious, so quickly. You are not merely disputing facts, you are pitting your wild gamble to avoid death against someone else’s. You are poking at their life raft. But if their diet proves to be the One True Diet, yours must not be. If they are right, you are wrong. This is why diet culture seems so religious. People adhere to a dietary faith in the hope they will be saved. That if they’re good enough, pure enough in their eating, they can keep illness and mortality at bay. And the pursuit of life everlasting always requires a leap of faith..."
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Stanford researchers measure African farm yields using high-resolution satellites - Stanford U (2017) 

Stanford researchers measure African farm yields using high-resolution satellites - Stanford U (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

By using high-res images taken by the latest generation of compact satellites... scientists have developed a new capability for estimating crop yields from space. The approach... could help estimate agricultural productivity and test intervention strategies in poor regions of the world where data are currently extremely scarce. 

“Improving agricultural productivity is going to be one of the main ways to reduce hunger and improve livelihoods in poor parts of the world... But to improve agricultural productivity, we first have to measure it, and unfortunately this isn’t done on most farms around the world.”

Earth-observing satellites have been around for over three decades, but most of the imagery they capture has not been of high enough resolution to visualize the very small agricultural fields typical in developing countries. Recently, however, satellites have shrunk in both size and cost while simultaneously improving in resolution...   

The new study... set out to test whether the images from this new wave of satellites are good enough to reliably estimate crop yields... The scientists compared two different methods for estimating agricultural productivity yields using satellite imagery. The first approach involved “ground truthing,” or conducting ground surveys to check the accuracy of yield estimates calculated using the satellite data... 

“We get a lot of great data, but it’s incredibly time consuming and fairly expensive, meaning we can only survey at most a thousand or so farmers during one campaign... If you want to scale up our operation, you don’t want to have to recollect ground survey data everywhere in the world.”

For this reason, the team also tested an alternative “uncalibrated” approach that did not depend on ground survey data to make predictions. Instead, it uses a computer model of how crops grow, along with information on local weather conditions, to help interpret the satellite imagery and predict yields.

“Just combining the imagery with computer-based crop models allows us to make surprisingly accurate predictions, based on the imagery alone, of actual productivity on the field... Our aspiration is to make accurate seasonal predictions of agricultural productivity for every corner of sub-Saharan Africa... This approach... could allow a huge leap in in our ability to understand and improve agricultural productivity in poor parts of the world.”

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Rothamsted Research is granted permission by Defra to carry out field trial with GM wheat plants - Rothamsted (2017) 

Rothamsted Research is granted permission by Defra to carry out field trial with GM wheat plants - Rothamsted (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Rothamsted Research... submitted an application... for permission to carry out GM field trials on the Rothamsted Farm between 2017 and 2019. The risk assessment was reviewed by the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), and a 48-day public consultation was carried out... ACRE is satisfied that all scientific issues raised by the public with respect to this application have been addressed... Scientists... developed wheat plants that can carry out photosynthesis more efficiently i.e. convert light energy into plant biomass more efficiently. This trait has the potential to result in higher yielding plants. The purpose of the proposed trial is to evaluate the performance of the engineered plants in the field. 

Ensuring food security is a major challenge given the projected need to increase world food production by... 70% by 2050. Wheat is one of the major grain crops worldwide and provides approximately one-fifth of the total calories consumed globally. However, wheat yields have reached a plateau in recent years and predictions are that yield gains will not reach the level required to feed the 9 billion population... Traditional breeding and agronomic approaches have maximised light capture and allocation to the grain. A promising but as yet-unexploited route to increase wheat yields is to improve the efficiency by which energy in the form of light is converted to wheat biomass... 

“The efficiency of the process of photosynthesis integrated over the season is the major determinant of crop yield. However, to date photosynthesis has not been used to select for high yielding crops in conventional breeding programmes and represents an unexploited opportunity. But there is now evidence that improving the efficiency of photosynthesis by genetic modification is one of the promising approaches to achieve higher wheat yield potential... In this project we have genetically modified wheat plants to increase the efficiency of the conversion of energy from sunlight into biomass. We have shown that these plants carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in glasshouse conditions”... 

During the field trial, we will measure the photosynthetic efficiency of the plants in the field and we will determine total aboveground plant biomass and grain yield on an area basis at full maturity. We will also measure the number of wheat ears on an area basis and the grain number and weight per ear. From these data we will estimate the harvest index, which is the proportion of biomass allocated to the grain”...  

“This trial will be a significant step forward as we will be able to assess in ‘real environmental conditions’ the potential of these plants to produce more using the same resources and land area as their non-GM counterparts. These field trials are the only way to assess the viability of a solution that can bring economic benefits to farmers, returns to the UK tax payer from the long-term investment in this research, benefits to the UK economy as a whole and the environment in general”...

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The FDA Wants to Regulate Gene-Editing That Makes Cows Less Horny - Atlantic (2017) 

The FDA Wants to Regulate Gene-Editing That Makes Cows Less Horny - Atlantic (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Dairy cows grow horns. But dairy cows in the U.S. rarely have horns because they are seared, cut, or chemically burned off in a process that is as painful as it sounds. When Scott Fahrenkrug... learned about dehorning, he decided to apply his genetics expertise to creating a hornless dairy cow. And he left academia job to co-found a company, Recombinetics.

Fahrenkrug and his team ended up using a relatively new gene-editing technique called TALENs. They took a hornless gene from a breed of beef cattle and inserted it into a breed of dairy cattle. The resulting cattle are hornless, good at producing milk, and still genetically 100 percent cattle. In the past, breeders could have crossed dairy cattle and hornless beef cattle to get hornless dairy cattle after many generations. Gene editing is much, much faster, but the end results are genetically almost the same. Does this kind of gene-editing still need to be regulated?

The answer is yes... the FDA made clear that it could regulate any “portion of an animal’s genome that has been intentionally altered” as an animal drug. Recombinetics, as far as the FDA is concerned, has essentially been making animal drugs with its hornless cows...

In the early days of genetic engineering in the 1980s, the Reagan administration decided not to pass a new law regulating the technology. Rather, it divvied up regulatory authority among existing agencies under existing laws: The USDA would oversee genetically modified crops under plant pest rules, the EPA crops engineered to contain insecticides under pesticide rules, the FDA genetically modified animals under animal drug rules. The whole thing is called the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology...  

This patchwork is massively confusing, but it’s worked okay. New gene-editing technologies, however, have created problems for these old laws. In the past, genetic modification has involved recombinant DNA, which means taking DNA from one species, like bacteria, putting it into a second, like cotton. Recombinant DNA clearly involves adding something new and man-made into an organism. But TALENs... and CRISPR... allow scientists to make precise edits and deletions to the genome.

The different agencies are now making... different decisions... When the comes to plants, the USDA has decided a mushroom with a gene deleted using CRISPR does not fall under its regulatory authority because it contains no new foreign DNA from plant pests. Now, the FDA, has announced it is seeking comment on whether crops that have been edited via techniques like CRISPR pose additional risks compared to traditional breeding. In other words, where the USDA has stepped out, the FDA could now step in...  

Fahrenkrug... fears the regulation could stifle his relatively small company. “It will kill the industry. It will restrict the industry to only the most wealthy companies”...

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Molecular characterization of genetically-modified crops: Challenges and strategies - Li &al (2017) - Biotechnol Adv

Molecular characterization of genetically-modified crops: Challenges and strategies - Li &al (2017) - Biotechnol Adv | Ag Biotech News |

Molecular characterization lays a foundation for safety assessment and subsequent monitoring of genetically modified (GM) crops. Due to the target-specific nature, conventional polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based methods cannot comprehensively detect unintended gene insertions, let alone unknown GM events. 

As more and more new developed GM crops including new plant breeding technology (NPBT) generated crops are in the pipeline for commercialization, alternative -omics approaches, paticularly next generation sequencing, have been developed for molecular characterization of authorized or unauthorized GM (UGM) crops. 

This review summarizes first those methods, addresses their challenges, and discusses possible strategies for molecular characterization of engineered crops generated by NPBT, highlighting needs for a global information-sharing database and cost-effective, accurate and comprehensive molecular characterization approaches.

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Biofortification in Millets: A Sustainable Approach for Nutritional Security - Vinoth & Ravindhran (2017) - Front Plan Sci

Biofortification in Millets: A Sustainable Approach for Nutritional Security - Vinoth & Ravindhran (2017) - Front Plan Sci | Ag Biotech News |

Nutritional insecurity is a major threat to the world’s population that is highly dependent on cereals-based diet, deficient in micronutrients. 

Next to cereals, millets are the primary sources of energy in the semi-arid tropics and drought-prone regions of Asia and Africa. Millets are nutritionally superior as their grains contain high amount of proteins, essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins. 

Biofortification of staple crops is proved to be an economically feasible approach to combat micronutrient malnutrition. HarvestPlus group realized the importance of millet biofortification and released conventionally bred high iron pearl millet in India to tackle iron deficiency... 

Biofortification in millets is still limited by the presence of antinutrients like phytic acid, polyphenols, and tannins. RNA interference and genome editing tools needs to be employed to reduce these antinutrients. In this review paper, we discuss the strategies to accelerate biofortification in millets by summarizing the opportunities and challenges to increase the bioavailability of macro and micronutrients.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Consumers accept "new" food if it brings them direct and tangible benefits (such as cholesterol-lowering products for people with high cholesterol blood levels). Consumers are also more likely to accept new food if they have a greater pertinent knowledge. Also interesting that Italians seem to embrace related "healthy" products. 
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Gene editing in legal limbo in Europe - Nature (2017) 

Gene editing in legal limbo in Europe - Nature (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

The European Union is dragging its feet on gene-editing rules and scientists should push the issue... Plant scientists say that new editing tools, including CRISPR-Cas9, involve no more than making tiny, precisely targeted changes to a gene that are indistinguishable from natural mutations... 

Germany’s national science academy, hosted a debate on the issue. Officials from the federal environment ministry and its office for nature protection spoke passionately in favour of ever-greater regulation, whereas the agriculture ministry and the office for consumer protection and food safety disagreed.

The debate might never have taken place if the European Union itself had been able to decide on the issue. But it is habitually paralysed whenever genetic modification is discussed. Two years ago the European Commission requested all member states to hold back on giving the all-clear on gene editing while it considered its options. Now its hand is being forced... by the referral of the issue by France to the European Court of Justice (ECJ)... 

French non-governmental organizations and trade unions had called on the French state to regulate organisms created through all methods of mutagenesis, including classical methods. They argued that easy-to-use, modern gene-editing tools will encourage large numbers of new plants to be created... 

The ECJ told Nature that a decision is not expected before 2018 because the case is so politically sensitive. That’s a long time to wait, given that so much is at stake. GM-style regulation is complex and exorbitantly costly. 

CRISPR technology... has already led to many gene-edited plants that are ready for outdoor field trials. Such studies should not be held up. Some are intended to shed light on basic plant biology, such as how plants adapt themselves so readily to their environments. Others will determine whether the gene-edited plants have new traits that make them better crops. 

European scientists are competing with countries such as the United States, where gene-edited products are not considered equivalent to GM products... The European Ombudsman stated that the legal limbo does not mean that gene editing should be put on freeze.

Some EU member states are forging their own way through the muddle... Sweden decided that the technical and legal issues in favour of non-regulation were crystal clear and told its plant scientists that they could go ahead... Stefan Jansson at Umeå University made such swift progress that he hosted a press lunch last summer where he served up ‘tagliatelle with CRISPRy fried vegetables’... including a gene-edited cabbage. According to those present, it was delicious. Last year, Finland chose a similar path... 

Germany, meanwhile, is being forced to wait for the ECJ decision. In 2015, the consumer protection office told the... biotechnology company Cibus that its herbicide-resistant oilseed rape... would not need to be regulated... Opponents immediately brought a court case – but that local court is now awaiting ECJ guidance. And during this election year, the German government is highly unlikely to risk making sensitive decisions.

The ECJ has an unfortunate history of delivering highly conservative or scientifically confused verdicts on complex biological issues. In 2011, it outlawed patents that depended even indirectly on human embryonic stem-cell lines, adding that similar basic research was immoral. And in the same year it nearly upended the European honey market with a muddled decision about alleged traces of pollen from GM maize.

Plant scientists should spend the waiting time engaging in public dialogue like the one Germany is leading about the safety and value of gene editing. Reason and science need to prevail this time.

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The body does not absorb genetic material from our food - DTU (2017) 

The body does not absorb genetic material from our food - DTU (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

A study from the... Technical University of Denmark, finds no evidence that genetic material from food is absorbed in the human body where it would e.g. be able to change the body’s ability to regulate the cholesterol metabolism or influence the immune system... 

The study has been carried out in cooperation with researchers from Stockholm, Barcelona, University of Copenhagen and hospitals... It has tried to validate the conclusion from... controversial studies which... put forward the hypothesis that genetic material from food can be absorbed in the body of the person who eats the food... 

The new study from the National Food Institute and partners consists of two parts: In the first part the researchers have analyzed available microRNA sequencing data from 824 human blood and tissue samples to see if they contain genetic material that could have been derived from food.

The analysis shows that microRNAs from other organisms than humans are only present in 17% of the tissue samples and in 69% of the blood samples, but in negligible amounts (0.001%) compared to the total amount of microRNA present in the samples. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the identified foreign microRNA comes from organisms [that] humans rarely eat, but which are often used in laboratory experiments and animal testing, such as rats and insects.

In the second part researchers studied blood samples from animals that have been fed certain feed to see whether the samples contain microRNA from that particular feed. The researchers have been unable to find evidence that microRNA from the feed had entered the animals’ blood stream.

”The study shows that genetic material from our food is not absorbed into our bodies. If it were possible to influence the body’s functions through microRNA from the food we eat, it would potentially make it possible to develop tablet-based RNA-pharmaceuticals that contain microRNA”... 

Both the analysis and the results of the animal study indicate that when foreign microRNA is found in samples that have been isolated from human blood, it is most likely because the tests have been contaminated with animal or plant material, which has been present in the laboratory... ”The tiniest bit of dirt on a glove has a much greater significance when analyzing a 0.1 microgram sample of RNA than a one microgram sample”... 

In the analysis, researchers have observed that the presence of foreign microRNA occurs separately in the different studies and not randomly. This further strengthens the case for laboratory contamination, because if the foreign microRNAs had come from food, the findings would be expected to correspond with what people eat and there would be greater variety in the findings.

The conclusion reached by the National Food Institute and partners is backed up by other studies, which have not been able to repeat the results from studies [that] have shown that microRNAs from food enter the blood stream.

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Selenium deficiency promoted by climate change - ETHZ (2017) 

Selenium deficiency promoted by climate change - ETHZ (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

As a result of climate change, concentrations of the trace element selenium in soils are likely to decrease. Because the selenium content of crops may also be reduced, the risk of selenium deficiency could be increased in many regions of the world. This was shown by a recent study which used data-mining to model the global distribution of selenium. 

Selenium is an essential micronutrient obtained from dietary sources such as cereals. The selenium content of foodstuffs largely depends on concentrations in the soil: previous studies have shown that low selenium concentrations are associated with high pH and oxygen availability and low clay and soil organic carbon content. In Europe, as is known from regional studies, selenium-poor soils are found particularly in Germany, Denmark, Scotland, Finland and certain Balkan countries... 

Using data mining techniques – involving the assessment of datasets originally collected for other purposes – scientists... have now modelled global soil selenium concentrations. The sixteen datasets assessed (1994-2016) comprised a total of 33,241 soil data points. Analysis of selenium concentrations in the top 30 centimetres of soil, together with 26 environmental variables, indicated the dominant role of climate-soil interactions in controlling soil selenium distributions. 

The main factors influencing soil selenium concentrations are precipitation and... aridity... Precipitation leads to leaching of selenium from the soil. At the same time, precipitation can have a positive effect on selenium concentrations since the oxygen content is lower in wet than in dry soils, which means that the selenium is less soluble... In addition, frequent precipitation leads to a low soil pH, which promotes the binding of negatively charged selenium to soil particles. Higher selenium concentrations are most likely to occur in areas with low to moderate precipitation and high clay content, while lower concentrations are found in arid areas with high pH and low clay content... 

The scientists modelled mean soil selenium concentrations for the periods 1980-1999 and 2080-2099. Under a moderate climate change scenario, selenium levels are predicted to increase in parts of Australia, China, India and Africa. Overall, however, selenium levels are expected to decrease: by the end of this century, 66% of croplands are predicted to lose selenium (mean decrease... 9%). Particularly affected are agricultural areas of Europe and India, China, southern South America, southern Africa and the south-western United States.

These losses could have implications for human health – at present, up to 1 billion people are thought to be affected by low dietary selenium intake... This study serves as an early warning for humanitarian organizations and the agro-industry. Fertilizers containing selenium could be used to combat selenium deficiency, as has been done in Finland... In addition, selenium additives could be used in animal feed. 

Selenium (Se) is essential for human health and has to be obtained from dietary sources. As an antioxidant, it scavenges free radicals, thus supporting the immune system. It is also required for the synthesis of numerous proteins. Up to 1 billion people are thought to be affected by low dietary selenium intake, which can cause cardiomyopathy. However, excessive intake of selenium can also be harmful, leading to vomiting, diarrhoea and liver damage.

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Maize study finds genes that help crops adapt to change - Cornell Univ (2017) 

Maize study finds genes that help crops adapt to change - Cornell Univ (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Over many thousands of years, farmers have bred maize varieties so the crops are optimally adapted to local environments. A new study... analyzed close to 4,500 maize varieties – called landraces – bred and grown by farmers from 35 countries in the Americas to identify more than 1,000 genes driving large-scale adaptation to the environment.

“The study provided a powerful catalog of the genes necessary for corn to adapt to different latitudes and elevations across the world... It takes a thousand genes to attune a plant for a particular latitude and the elevation where it is grown. That’s what we are mapping here”...  

The researchers also identified genes associated with flowering time – the period between planting and the emergence of flowers, which is a measure of the rate of development. Flowering time is a basic mechanism through which plants integrate environmental information to balance when to make seeds instead of more leaves... 

“With global climate change over the next century, we can directly use this information to figure out what genes are important” to greatly speed up breeding efforts of maize... “We’re tapping the wisdom of farmers over the last 10,000 years to make the next century’s corn.”

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High-efficiency breeding of early-maturing rice cultivars via CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing - Li &al (2017) - J Genetics Genomics

High-efficiency breeding of early-maturing rice cultivars via CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing - Li &al (2017) - J Genetics Genomics | Ag Biotech News |
Rice is a staple food for more than half of the human population. It has been estimated that by 2030, 40% more rice will need to be produced in order to meet the growing demand. One of the strategies to improve rice productivity is to enlarge rice growth areas, such as... the northernmost region of China. 

However, the northward cultivation is accompanied with daylength extension and temperature decrease, which are unfavorable for rice, a tropical short-day plant, to complete flowering and seed setting. Thus, the need for early-maturing rice cultivars with extremely low photoperiod sensitivity is urgent. 

Rice heading date, one of the most important agronomic traits that determine rice distribution and production, is controlled by both genetic and environmental factors. Genetically, the heading date of rice varieties is determined by a combination of diverse natural variation alleles of a series of genes and qualitative trait loci involved in the rice photoperiodic flowering pathway... 

Three heading date genes were edited... which led to the extremely early flowering for some lines. For practical applications, it will be more valuable to edit only one of the three target genes so that the heading date of varieties is adjusted moderately... 

In summary, based on CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing, we developed a high-efficiency breeding approach for the manipulation of rice heading date, which is time and labor saving compared to traditional breeding. In future, other flowering time-related genes can also be used as targets to fine-tune the flowering time of rice varieties.

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Armyworm pests invade southern Africa ‘like one of the 10 plagues of the Bible’ - Washington Post (2017) 

Armyworm pests invade southern Africa ‘like one of the 10 plagues of the Bible’ - Washington Post (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Southern Africa has been struck by a pestilence so severe farmers have likened it to plagues of biblical proportions. Hungry caterpillars called fall armyworms are on the move across the continent from Zambia southward. In early February, South Africa’s agricultural department issued a report, noting that for the first time that this unfamiliar pest had been spotted in the country... 

“Little is known on how this particular pest entered Southern Africa... Since this pest is very new in Africa, very little is known on its long term effects. ” It was positively identified as the fall armyworm a few days later... “It’s widespread and seems to be spreading rapidly. It can lay up to 2,000 eggs and its life cycle is very quick.”

Armyworms – which will grow into moths and are not, technically speaking, worms – are so named for their ability to destroy massive amounts of crops, in the manner of troops trampling over a countryside... African armyworms eat in hordes as dense as 1,000 caterpillars per square meter... stripping maize plants bare... An estimate... put Zambia’s possible losses of maize, an important grain staple, as high as 40 percent... 

The Food and Agriculture Organization has set an upcoming emergency meeting to discuss plans to combat the pests. The Zambian government acquired insecticides and has begun stockpiling seeds to help farmers replenish consumed crops... Meanwhile, South Africa planned to import pheromone traps to catch and identify the extent of the pests’ spread.

Pesticides have shown to be effective against armyworms in the past... But it was not yet known if the current caterpillar outbreak had developed a resistance to the usual chemicals that kill them. What’s more, as moths, armyworms are known to fly great distances... “Only time will tell... what the full impact of this armyworm invasion will have.”

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
While this is too late now, putting biosafety regulations in place (as South Africa has them) and approving genetically engineered Bt crops could be one element in future strategies to fight such pests... 
8B DeborahC's curator insight, February 16, 9:52 AM
In early February, worms called fall army worms that are fairly new came in and were first, spotted in the Limpopo province. Nothing much is known about this worm and it only could have been identified after a few days. People talks about how it came to the land as if it was one of the 10 plagues in the bible. This worm is also a huge pest because it grows rapidly in size because it lays many eggs and the life cycle is also very quick. The eggs can be laid up to 2,000 eggs. These army worms will soon turn into a moth but researchers are concluding that these worms are originally from America and that the worms are a combination of two worms. The fall and the African army worm. They're in a huge amount and they also eat a lot. This causes them to eat the crops but also eat the reproductive parts of the crops, this damages the corn crops hugely. The government, such as, the Zambia is providing seeds for the people to harvest and other governments are trying to import certain traps to catch and learn more about of these worms. In the past, army worms, were weak to pesticides but we are not sure if it will be useful now, for they might have built up an immunity to the pesticides. Then again the army worms can fly great distances and spread quickly as moths and we can never know what will happen to these army worms. 

I was really surprised when I first saw this news' title. I'm a Christian and in the bible it said that the grasshoppers were the one to eat the crops but I'm thinking that God is using these army worms to reprimand the sins of people. Even if it might be a punishment to the people, it would be horrible to also starve the  innocent and hard working people. We can try using different ways such as, talking one army worm and see how it acts and its patterns so that we can try to at least predict how it would move later on. Or we might find a different way soon. Mainly, what I think, is that if we don't solve this problem soon, the people in South Africa can face huge problem and it will affect them horribly and other lands so I hope that they can find the solution soon. 
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Combined zinc and nitrogen fertilization in different bread wheat genotypes grown under Mediterranean conditions - Gomez &al (2017) - Cereal Res Comm

Combined zinc and nitrogen fertilization in different bread wheat genotypes grown under Mediterranean conditions - Gomez &al (2017) - Cereal Res Comm | Ag Biotech News |

The combined application of nitrogen (N) and zinc (Zn) appears to be a promising agronomic strategy for the biofortification with Zn. To evaluate such efficiency, a field experiment was conducted... under Zn-deficient soil. 

Four advanced breeding lines and two commercial varieties of bread wheat were fertilized with five treatments: i) control, ii) two foliar Zn applications, iii) one foliar Zn+N application, iv) soil and two foliar Zn applications, and v) soil and one foliar Zn+N application. 

Grain Zn content varied greatly across treatments... Grain Zn concentrations higher than the target level of 38 mg Zn kg-1 were obtained only when two foliar Zn applications were applied, alone or in combination with soil Zn applications, and grain Zn bioavailability also was more adequate (phytate:Zn ratios similar to 15). 

Soil Zn application resulted in grain yield increases between 7-10%, which virtually offset the extra application cost. The combined soil and two foliar treatment could be a good option for biofortifying bread wheat under Zn-deficient soils.

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Plant breeding: past, present and future - Bradshaw (2017) - Euphytica

Plant breeding: past, present and future - Bradshaw (2017) - Euphytica | Ag Biotech News |

Plant breeders can help farmers increase food production by breeding new cultivars better adapted to their chosen farming systems... In situ and ex situ conservation, and evaluation and use of plant genetic resources is vital for future plant breeding. 

The development of scientific breeding from the beginning of the twentieth century was based on understanding the mechanism of inheritance and the mating systems of crop plants. The types of genetically uniform, high yielding cultivars that have been bred from genetically heterogeneous landraces were determined by the mode of reproduction and mating system of the cultivated plant species... 

When genetically heterogeneous crops are desired, mixtures of cultivars and synthetic cultivars can be produced. Future progress in crop improvement will come from three complementary approaches: use of hybridization and selection in further conventional breeding, base broadening and introgression; mutation breeding, cisgenesis and gene editing; and genetically modified crops. 

Breeders will benefit from increased genetic knowledge and combine it with technological advances to aid the discovery of desirable genes and to make breeding faster, more efficient and more effective at achieving desired goals. Breeders will still need to apply appropriate breeding methods to the right germplasm for the right objectives... There does need to be a sense of urgency and an appreciation of the scale of breeding required.

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Toward the Genetic Improvement of Drought Tolerance in Crops - Nakashima & Suenaga (2017) - JARQ

Toward the Genetic Improvement of Drought Tolerance in Crops -  Nakashima & Suenaga (2017) - JARQ | Ag Biotech News |

Crop damage due to environmental stresses, including drought, high salinity, and high temperature, occurs worldwide. Therefore, genetically modifying plants to increase their environmental stress tolerance is an important global issue. In this paper, we discuss recent developments in basic and applied research aimed at genetically improving crop environmental stress tolerance. 

First, we review the progress made in understanding the environmental stress-tolerance mechanisms in plants, using Arabidopsis or rice as models. Then, we discuss our international collaboration to genetically modify crops such as rice, wheat, sugarcane and soybean that entails greenhouse- or field-based drought-tolerance tests. Finally, we assess the future prospects for developing stress-tolerant varieties... 

Recent molecular studies have revealed some important genes... for stress tolerance... the overexpression of such genes can enhance the stress tolerance in... plants... Transgenic plants containing such genes could improve the grain yields of such crop plants as rice and soybean under drought conditions. We hope that these results will contribute to the development of commercial transgenic varieties. 

In order to address global food and environmental problems, a multinational framework with more interdisciplinary cooperation is needed. Furthermore, the future commercialization of GM crops requires appropriate project management, encompassing science, technology and intellectual property, and GM regulation. We hope that the crops... may contribute to stabilizing agricultural production and providing a sufficient worldwide food supply in the future.

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Positive views regarding GM crops from Japan... 
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A 90-day toxicity study of GmTMT transgenic maize in Sprague-Dawley rats - Fang &al (2017) - Reg Toxicol Pharmacol

A 90-day toxicity study of GmTMT transgenic maize in Sprague-Dawley rats - Fang &al (2017) - Reg Toxicol Pharmacol | Ag Biotech News |

GmTMT transgenic maize is a genetically modified maize plant that overexpresses the γ-tocopherol methyltransferase (γ-TMT) from Glycine max (Gm). The γ-TMT gene was introduced into maize line Zhen58 to encode the GmTMT2a protein which can convert γ-tocopherol into α-tocopherol. Overexpression of GmTMT2a significantly increased the α-tocopherol content in transgenic maize. 

The present study was designed to investigate any potential effects of GmTMT maize grain in a 90-day subchronic rodent feeding study. Maize grains from GmTMT or Zhen58 were incorporated into rodent diets at low (12.5%), medium (25%) or high (50%) concentrations and administered to Sprague-Dawley rats (n = 10/sex/group) for 90 days. The negative control group of rats (n = 10/sex/group) were fed with common maize diets. 

Results from body weights, feed consumption, clinical chemistry, hematology, absolute and relative organ weights indicated no treatment-related side effects of GmTMT maize grain on rats in comparison with rats consuming diets containing Zhen58 maize grain. In addition, no treatment-related changes were found in necropsy and histopathology examinations. Altogether, our data indicates that GmTMT transgenic maize is as safe and nutritious as its conventional non-transgenic maize.

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Why Organic Farming Should Embrace Co-Existence with Cisgenic Late Blight-Resistant Potato - Gheysen & Custers (2017) - Sustainability 

Why Organic Farming Should Embrace Co-Existence with Cisgenic Late Blight-Resistant Potato - Gheysen & Custers (2017) - Sustainability  | Ag Biotech News |

The EU regulation on organic farming does not allow the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)... Mutagenesis using irradiation or chemicals is genetic modification, but the organisms obtained through these techniques are not subject to the provisions of the GMO directive. Such mutants can therefore be used in organic agriculture. 

Derived from its basic principles, organic farming can only use natural substances to control disease and crops should be resilient, which, in the case of disease resistance, means that durable (horizontal) resistance is preferred to vertical (single gene) resistance. 

Cisgenesis can achieve... durable resistance by introducing multiple resistance genes in one step... that can also be introduced by breeding. In case cisgenic plants are not subject to the provisions of the GMO legislation, they can... be legally used in organic agriculture. In case they are not exempted from the GMO regulation... why obstruct a cisgenic potato crop that can hardly be distinguished from a potato crop that is the result of conventional breeding? 

Among the reasons why organic agriculture does not allow the use of GMOs it is mentioned that genetic engineering is unpredictable, it causes genome disruption and it is unnatural. However... we now know that breeding is more unpredictable and causes more genome disruption than genetic engineering. 

Recent field trials have shown the efficacy of cisgenic late blight-resistant potatoes carrying multiple resistance genes. Large-scale growing of such durably resistant potatoes would not only be environmentally beneficial by it would strongly reducing the need for fungicide sprays in conventional potato cultivation and it would also reduce the disease pressure in organic potato cultivation.

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Crop achilles' heel costs farmers 10 percent of potential yield - Univ Illinois (2017) 

Crop achilles' heel costs farmers 10 percent of potential yield - Univ Illinois (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Scientists assumed leaves at the top of a plant would be the best at turning higher levels of light into carbohydrates – through the process of photosynthesis – while the lower shaded leaves would be better at processing the low light levels that penetrate the plant's canopy of leaves. Turns out that in two of our most productive crops, these shaded leaves are less efficient than the top leaves, limiting yield. These findings... could help scientists further boost the yields of corn and Miscanthus, as well as other C4 crops... 

"The wild ancestors of C4 crops are thought to have grown as individuals in open habitats where the number of leaves that they produced would have been limited by water and nitrogen and most leaves would be exposed to full sunlight... Today we grow these crops in ever denser stands, and provide them with nitrogen and water so that they can produce many more layers of leaves. But as a result, the proportion of leaves that are shaded has increased, and the production of grain will depend more and more on the contribution of this increasing proportion of shaded leaves. So how do... C4 crops do when they are on a meager fuel ration in the shade?"

Not well... when top and bottom leaves are placed in the same low light, the lower canopy leaves showed lower rates of photosynthesis. Shaded corn leaves are 15 percent less efficient than top leaves – and worse, lower leaves are 30 percent less efficient than the top leaves of Miscanthus, a perennial bioenergy crop... Considering the crop as a whole, this loss of efficiency in lower leaves may costs farmers about 10 percent of potential yield – a cost that will increase as planting density increases. This... likely applies to other C4 relatives, such as sugarcane and sorghum.

"What's interesting is that we saw this loss in efficiency in the lower canopy was not due to the leaf senescing and dying off... The leaves were still perfectly healthy when we were looking at them; they were even darker. In the article, we show through experiments that this was not caused by age... It will be important to find out why this loss in efficiency occurs and if there's any way that we can fix it... gaining a 10 percent increase in production would be very significant"...

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