A new strain of rice produces more and larger grains and reduces methane emissions from rice farming, perhaps the largest human-based source of the greenhouse gas. But it's genetically modified, which could lead to a backlash.
The debate on whether Kenya should adopt modern agricultural biotechnology continues to receive mixed reactions with anti-GMOs group calling for rejection of biotech products until the safety of such crops is proven. This controversy has given some politicians and anti-GM technology alike, a platform to spread propaganda with allegations that consumption of GMOs will have unknown health impacts on consumers.
Like their counterparts in the rest of the world, Kenyan scientists including biotech experts, continuously avoid plunging into the treacherous world of politics where lies and truth are the “same.”
In Kenya, the debate on agricultural biotechnology, which include unfounded statements that the country has inadequate capacity to appropriately handle GMOs, is the clearest indicator that some policymakers need to be encouraged to make informed opinions or decisions by visiting universities, research centres and regulatory institutions to familiarise themselves with progress that the country is making in the field of modern biotechnology.
Trends in Global Approvals of Biotech Crops (1992–2014): With the increasing number of genetically modified (GM) crops, approval of these technologies may vary depending on the needs, demand, and trade inter...
Gilles-Éric Séralini is a French scientist who has been a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen since 1991. Known for his research concluding that genetically modified food is unsafe for human consumption, his latest publication, released in PLOS ONE on July 2, 2015–“Laboratory Rodent Diets Contain Toxic Levels of Environmental Contaminants: Implications for Regulatory Tests”–maintains that all safety studies of pesticides and genetically modified foods are ‘invalid’ because, the researchers claim, the dried feeds used as control diets for lab animals are “contaminated” by GMOs, pesticides, heavy metals and other substances.
Funding for PLOS ONE Study and other Séralini Research
Funding for this study and much of Séralini’s previous research comes directly from one of the US organic industry’s leading figures, Anthony Rodale–chairman emeritus of Rodale’s Organic and founder of theRodale Institute, a 501c3 that bills itself as “advocating for policies that support farmers, and educating consumers about how going organic is the healthiest option for people and the planet.” Rodale works closely with former Patrick Holden, former director of the UK Soil Association, which calls itself a “charity campaigning for planet-friendly organic practices” and “healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use.”
They two provide money via a U.S. NGO known as the Sustainable Food Alliance (SFA) to overseas organic and anti-GMO groups, including scientists such as Séralini, without having to make the grants public. About US$2 million appears to have gone from this NGO to research for “herbicide” and “toxic evaluations” between 2011-2013. Seralini’s research group acknowledged support from SFA in the PLOS ONE article. Séralini has previously received funding from Greenpeace, which financed a 2007 study that claimed that GM corn caused health problems in rats. The study was reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority, which concluded that all of the statistical anomalies cited by the study group were attributable to “normal biological variation.”
Sources of funding listed for his current study:
CRIIGENJMG Foundation (formerly the Goldsmith Foundation, led by ecology environmental activist Ben Goldsmith)Lea Nature, an organic and natural products companyFoundations Charles Léopold Mayer for the Progress of HumankindNature Vivante, an ecological trade associationMalongo, a fair trade, organic coffee companyDenis Gouchard, a natural living foundationThe Sustainable Food Alliance,a non-profit organization run by Rodale Organic’s Anthony Rodale whose mission is “To educate the public about the positive health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming.” Board members include: Patrick Holden, Owsley Brown, Clair Peters and Ed Baldrige.
Bt rice (mfb-MH86) produces cry1Ab protein to reduce feeding damage of pests including Asiatic pink stem borer (Sesamia inferens), Asiatic rice borer (Chilo suppressalis), yellow stem borer (Tryporyza incertulas) and rice leafroller (Cnaphalocrocis medinalis). Huan Song of China Agricultural University and colleagues used rice flour from Bt rice and its non-biotech counterpart (MH86) for 90-days feeding test of Sprague-Dawley rats. The researchers separately formulated rodent diets at concentrations of 17.5, 35 and 70 % (w/w).
Overall health, body weight and food consumption were comparable between groups fed diets containing mfb-MH86 and MH86. Differences in haematological and biochemical parameters of the blood samples were noted, but still within the normal range of values for the size and gender of the rats, thus not considered as effect of the treatment. Macroscopic and tissue examinations were conducted, but no significant differences were found.
Based on the results, Bt rice mfb-MH86 is as safe and nutritious as non-GM rice.
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.) ...
Should GMO drugs be perceived differently than transgenic food? Some anti-GMO activists say, ‘no,’ that anything derived from genetic modification should be rejected.
It’s abundantly clear that there is widespread support of transgenic healthcare therapies but far less so for genetic engineering in agriculture. As I’ve noted previously, public perception is divided on issues when emotion crowds the discussion. In cases where there is little patience for science to help the public decide, there tends to be almost no ambivalence in choosing a side. We have the so-called ‘bimodal distribution of public opinion’ where there are two sides, and not many in the middle. We see this not only in headlines but in pictures.
One example supporting this hypothesis can be found in the news explosion around the Ebola treatment, ZMapp, and its place in public perception compared with transgenic food. There was a global outcry to rush treatments (ZMapp in particular) to the market. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) gave support to fast-track it without the usual safety or efficacy tests having been completed, for example, as reflected in this headline:
Yet, while picketers in Africa were demanding treatments, picketers in the US were demanding that GM products be banned. They are determined to slow or even stop genetically-modified food from being further refined and developed. The venom against genetic modification is so strong that some supposedly mainstream anti-GMO activists–the Organic Consumers Association–even campaigned against the GMO Ebola drug on the grounds that the outbreak should have been addressed with “natural” treatments. Why this disconnect from science?
It seems the critical attribute is how far on the emotional see-saw one wants to be on the side of drug therapies versus food sources. In fact, to help clarify the situation for any reader, it should be noted that this is a bivariate problem (meaning there are opinions on both factors–GM foods and GM health therapies, and they don’t necessarily match–even from the same person), and so I have developed the matrix below to cover the possibilities in opinions:
On the x-axis is, moving from left to right, disfavor or favor of genetically-modified crops and food supplies; On the y-axis, moving from bottom to top, disfavor or favor of genetically-modified organisms (plants, bacterial, mammalian cells, etc.) for use in drug therapies for diseases. The bottom left quadrant represents disfavor of GM crops and GM drug therapies, and the top right represents favor of GM crops and GM drug therapies. In this two-way table, both polar decisions (no/no and yes/yes), and everything in-between (yes/no, no/yes) can be looked at to ask the following question:
What separates the decision to favor or disfavor?
Principally, there must be some distinction in the opinion-holders’ minds about why they are making the choices that they are. In consumer research, we call this anchoring, because it establishes the baseline stance from which all decisions about the topic use as a point of reference. For example, if it’s ok to be in the ‘top-left’ quadrant (favor GM therapies, disfavor GM food), why? It must be about how we decide.
We make decisions all the time about where to eat, what to eat, whether or not to take vitamins, how much to sleep, how often to drive, and what to do about our healthcare. Each of these is a decision founded in our individual assessments of risk and risk-based decision-making. For example, in his bookDo You Believe in Magic, Paul Offit, M.D. references the research underpinning echinacea; $130 million is spent on this herb in the United States every year for consumers hoping to bolster their health with it. But it is all a game of perception – After all was said and done studying echinacea, John Taylor and his team at the University of Washington in Seattle studied over 400 children with colds and gave half the group echinacea and half the group placebo. There was no difference in any measures of health or cold duration; The only difference was that the children in the echinacea group were more likely to develop a rash.
Another phenomenon to mention here is the ‘hot-hand fallacy,’ another place where human decision-making is (very) fallible: A majority of the population believes in winning ‘streaks’ and the ‘hot-hand’ when it comes to games of chance and sporting events (for example, that a casino table is ‘hot’ for a short time, or that a particular favorite player is more likely to score if he or she has just scored). However, the research tells a different tale – one of the population’s inability to accurately appraise random chance without finding patterns which don’t really exist (which Michael Shermer has called ‘patternicity’).
So not only do we often make decisions not based in grounded science or logic, but we’ll often choose one alternative over another for emotional reasons. The salient point here, though, is that a majority of the public favors transgenic technology to be used for therapies such as ZMapp to stem the Ebola crisis, and it seems that this includes a portion of overlap from those who otherwise reject the idea of GM foods. It seems then that this is an example of a risk-based decision, where the therapy for the emergent disease (acute treatment for Ebola) seems to present much greater benefit-to-risk than crops and foods which are modified to better meet certain demands (where maybe the benefit-to-risk profile seems less clear).
Let’s be clear: This is no ‘secret serum’—it’s an experimental therapy and its effects are similar to other antibodies already on the market.
If we look at some of the principal technologies used for transgenic plants for antibody therapies, we would see that they are the same technologies used in agriculture to modify food-based crops or animal products.
There are two major methods of inserting DNA into plants to have them produce disease treatment therapies. The first is by ballistic introduction of DNA into the plant: Metal particles are coated with the requisite DNA for transgenesis, then the plants are bombarded by these particles. The particles are halted mid-stream and the DNA is carried by its inertia into the plant cells, where it is incorporated by the plant cells and then replicated.
The other method is by taking advantage of highly-effective pathways Nature herself has already perfected for incorporating genetic material into plants: By specific viral targeting. In this way, viruses are used which are natural pathogens of the target plant, and insert copies of the requisite genome into the plant either directly, or often by infecting an intermediary microbe which then uses its DNA-splicing expertise to insert the genetic material into the plant. This occurs naturally in countless situations, including the tobacco mosaic virus (which is commonly used for the DNA splicing), agrobacterium—which is well-known for transferring DNA between itself and plants (causing crown gall disease), and so forth.
In fact, much of what we know about gene transfer and certain modes of viral function are due to studying the palette which Nature has provided us. Tobacco plants are commonly used for these research therapies because their biology is well-known, they’re well-characterized, and they grow quickly.
Effects of tobacco virus
Developing therapies from plants
Since I’ve addressed the ZMapp therapy and public perception to some degree, I’ll mention also how that therapy is refined for use: Three ‘humanized’ mouse antibodies are used (in the Ebola treatment specifically); Because mice are mammals, they can produce antibodies similar to what we humans produce. However, because it’s still a ‘non-human’ immune system producing them, there can be some rare adverse reactions to these, especially if used long-term for chronic therapy. In these cases, they ‘humanize’ the antibody by modifying the structure to even more closely match what we would make. This makes it more suitable for longer-term administration. These antibodies are targeted specifically to match only the target disease (in this case, the Ebola virus); they are so specific, that each antibody fits its target like a key to a specific lock. Antibody therapies such as this have had a tremendous track record of success treating very difficult diseases and those unresponsive to other therapies.
So far, the only drug treatment generated by genetically-modified plants (as opposed to bacteria or mammalian cells) which has been approved for use by the FDA is Elelyso (using a novel vector with carrot cells), used to treatGaucher’s disease – a rare disorder where lipids accumulate in cells and body organs, leading to failure and systemic disease.
Despite the claims by extremists on the anti-GMO fringe, there is little difference in the technologies or principles between GM foods and GM drugs. Handled wisely, genetic engineering can yield powerful advances for society. It seems that the measure of agreeableness of a paradigm is related to how well it suits current or emergent needs. And we can always check ourselves to see where we fit on the opinion matrix.
Ben Locwin, PhD, MBA is a contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project and is an author of a wide variety of scientific articles for books and magazines. He is also a researcher and consultant for a variety of industries including behavioral and psychological, food and nutrition, pharmaceutical, and academic. Follow him at @BenLocwin.
For agriculture to make its rightful contribution to the development of Kenya, transforming smallholder farming from subsistence to an innovative, commercially oriented and modern sector is critical.
But this is only possible if farmers, producers, processors and marketers employ the most contemporary methods.
Drought and pests have adversely affected the productivity of maize, the staple food for more than 80 per cent of the population.
The problem of pest attack is further compounded by the high cost of, and occasional adulteration, of pesticides found in the market making them ineffective.
In Kenya, stem borers alone are known to reduce maize production by an average of 13 per cent or 400,000 tonnes, equivalent to the normal yearly quantity the country imports to meet recurrent deficits.
The good news is that it is possible to reverse the trend. Indeed, tripling national average yields of major crop and livestock production systems is easily achievable as demonstrated by the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. WEMA brings together seven partners including national agricultural research systems of Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda; the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Monsanto.
For the last five years, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), together with national and international research organisations through the WEMA project, has been conducting trials on a genetically-modified maize that is resistant to stem borers. This Bt maize has the ability to protect itself from insect pests because it contains a gene derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria that is naturally present in soil and widely used as a biological pesticide by organic crop producers.
The Bt gene protects the plant from stem borers because it produces a protein that cannot be digested by the insects, but is harmless to humans.
In addition, the maize reduces the need for frequent spraying with expensive insecticide chemicals that are harmful to humans and the environment.
Results from tests carried out in Kenya show that the WEMA Bt maize effectively controls stem borers without the need for insecticides.
Even better news is that the varieties also recorded a yield increase of 3.7 tonnes per hectare above the best commercial hybrid used in the trials.
Following successful confined field trials carried out by Kalro in Kenya, WEMA Project has gathered sufficient performance and safety data on Bt maize, and proceeded to file an application for consideration for approval for environmental release by the National Biosafety Authority.
If the authority grants approval for environmental release of Bt maize in Kenya, further trials will proceed in accordance with existing national policy, legislation, guidelines and procedures governing variety testing, release and gazettement new plant varieties.
Dr Francis Nang’ayo is Senior Manager for Regulatory Affairs at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation
AgBiome, a leading agricultural research firm, and Genective, a top developer of biotechnology crops, said on Wednesday that the two companies have established a strategic partnership that will speed their development of insect-resistant innovation...
In the economics literature many studies investigate the factors that drive public resistance: ethical concerns, low public trust in regulatory institution, risk misperception, absence of perceived benefits and media bias.
In particular, public attitudes and risk perception about agricultural biotechnology are proved to be influenced by press media communication. This paper aims at gaining insight into the visual communication to which Italian population is exposed about GMOs, in order to investigate if images could have contributed to shape their negative public perception.
A set of 500 images collected through Google search for “GMO” in Italy are classified considering fearful attributes (i.e. alteration of color, shape or size of plants or animals, mention to death or war, presence of DNA double helix or syringe) and an index that accounts for the scary impact of these images is built. Then the relationship between the index and a set of variables that refer to the context in which images appear is estimated.
Preliminary results reveal that the order of appearance of images negatively affect index, namely that the first (and most viewed) Google result pages contain the most frightful images. It suggests that Italian population is subject to overstated negative inputs about GMOs. In addition, it emerges that web contents that show positive or neutral GMO attitudes are barely accompanied with objective and balanced visual communication...
Hornless cattle, described by GLP’s Jon Entine here last year, have lumbered onto the GMO scene once more. This time they appear as an example in Antonio Regalado’s speculations at Technology Review about the future of GMO regulation, especially animal biotechnology.
Because the cattle are made using gene editing techniques and no genes from other species, the hope by some is that regulators will accept them more readily than they have GM animals produced in other ways. The hornless cattle are the brainchild of molecular geneticist Scott Fahrenkrug, who used to be at the University of Minnesota but left to form his animal GMO startup, Recombinetics. He wants to breed GM pigs as model animals for human disease research as well as cattle without horns.
Hornless cattle are desirable because they are less dangerous to people and to each other. Some breeds are hornless naturally, but dairy cattle breeds usually have horns that are burned or sliced off, a horribly painful process. A Recombinetics investor who took part in dehorning in his youth told Regalado that it was a bloody mess. “You wouldn’t want to show that on TV.”
Fahrenkrug, whose company is using a gene editing method called TALENs, is not the only scientist hoping that gene editing will pass muster with regulators. A few weeks ago I wrote here at GLP about a gene deletion, using a different gene editing technique called CRISPR, which helps wheat resist powdery mildew. The hope is that because the work did not involve gene transfer it will not arouse opposition.
The so-called Innate potato, which produces less of a cancer-causing chemical when it is fried, was developed by a major McDonald’s supplier.
Kwame Ogero's insight:
A potato genetically engineered to reduce the amounts of a potentially harmful ingredient in French fries and potato chips has been approved for commercial planting, the Department of Agriculture announced on Friday.
The potato’s DNA has been altered so that less of a chemical called acrylamide, which is suspected of causing cancer in people, is produced when the potato is fried.
The new potato also resists bruising, a characteristic long sought by potato growers and processors for financial reasons. Potatoes bruised during harvesting, shipping or storage can lose value or become unusable.
The biotech tubers were developed by the J. R. Simplot Company, a privately held company based in Boise, Idaho, which was the initial supplier of frozen French fries to McDonald’s in the 1960s and is still a major supplier.
Continue reading the main storyThe potato is one of a new wave of genetically modified crops that aim to provide benefits to consumers, not just to farmers as the widely grown biotech crops like herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn do. The nonbruising aspect of the potato is similar to that of genetically engineered nonbrowning apples, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which are awaiting regulatory approval.
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