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Politics holds back animal engineers - Nature News (2012)

Politics holds back animal engineers - Nature News (2012) | Ag Biotech News |

When she saw the trailer for the documentary Genetic Roulette, Alison Van Eenennaam wanted to laugh, then cry. The film touts the risks of genetically engineered (GE) organisms, calling them “the most dangerous thing facing human beings in our generation”. For Van Eenennaam, a geneticist at the University of California, Davis, the scientifically unfounded assertions — that transgenic foods are responsible for increased incidence of autism, Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes in the United States — cannot be taken seriously. But the film reflects attitudes that have thwarted Van Eenennaam’s research into the genetic modification of animals to reduce food costs and improve quality. “Twenty years ago, the technology was our hurdle,” says Mark Westhusin, who works on GE animals at Texas A&M University in College Station. “Now the technology is great and the sky is the limit,” he says, “but good luck getting money for GE animals.”

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

[updated May 1, 2017]  


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


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


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


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

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

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A Plea for the Renewal of the ISBR - Trends Biotechnol (2017) 

A Plea for the Renewal of the ISBR - Trends Biotechnol (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

The recent meeting of the International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR) focused on so-called genetically modified organisms. For decades, in most regulatory frameworks, recombinant DNA-modified organisms have been the wrong focus of unbalanced agri-food regulations. The ISBR should instead adopt a scientifically defensible and truly risk-based perspective, abandoning a misleading pseudo-category... 

ISBR aims to encourage research which supports the safe and effective use of biotechnology in agriculture and food production and assists the development of the relevant policy and regulation’... 

Any reasonable person should agree with this goal, with ‘agricultural biotechnology’ defined appropriately, that is, a broad and comprehensive approach, encompassing the whole ‘green’ biotech arena, older and newer techniques and methods, and centering on a scientifically defensible and risk-based consideration of the safety and environmental issues of each new product (crops, animals, microorganisms, and their by-products). 

Such an approach should focus on the phenotypic traits of an organism, irrespective of the processes that breeders have used to obtain it. However, the ISBR’s main mission statement appears to conflict with the organization’s actual practice, in that all the ISBR documents make reference to ‘genetically modified organisms (GMOs)’, as though they were the only group of agri-food products derived from ‘agricultural biotechnology’. 

That misconception feeds the popular myth that GMOs are in some way a meaningful category, ignoring, for example, the 3000+ crop varieties obtained via physical/chemical mutagenesis as well as untold numbers of plants obtained via wide crosses with embryo rescue, which are ‘transgenic’ in fact, if not in name. 

The biotechnology research and community (R&D) community is well aware that the traditional methods (e.g., chemical and irradiation mutagenesis and wide crosses with embryo rescue) have been excluded from regulation for purely political reasons. Furthermore, it is well known that even – one might argue, especially – the most traditional techniques can result in unsafe outputs:... 

We hope that in future more weight will be given by ISBR to the reality that genetic modification is a long-standing, seamless continuum of methods and technologies and that risk analysis and regulation must take that into account, and we hope that they and others will abandon the unscientific notion of ‘GMOs’ as a category.

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Glyphosate Use and Cancer Incidence in the Agricultural Health Study - JNCI (2017) 

Glyphosate Use and Cancer Incidence in the Agricultural Health Study - JNCI (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide worldwide, with both residential and agricultural uses. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” noting strong mechanistic evidence and positive associations for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in some epidemiologic studies. 

A previous evaluation in the Agricultural Health Study (AHS) with follow-up through 2001 found no statistically significant associations with glyphosate use and cancer at any site. 

The AHS is a prospective cohort of licensed pesticide applicators from North Carolina and Iowa. Here, we updated the previous evaluation of glyphosate with cancer incidence from registry linkages through 2012 (North Carolina)/2013 (Iowa). Lifetime days and intensity-weighted lifetime days of glyphosate use were based on self-reported information... 

Among 54 251 applicators, 44 932 (82.8%) used glyphosate, including 5779 incident cancer cases (79.3% of all cases). In unlagged analyses, glyphosate was not statistically significantly associated with cancer at any site... 

In this large, prospective cohort study, no association was apparent between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including NHL and its subtypes. There was some evidence... that requires confirmation.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
"among applicators in the highest exposure quartile, there was an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia compared with never users, though this association was not statistically significant" >> If it's not significant, it should be counted as random noise, not as "some evidence", shouldn't it? 
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Public views on gene editing and its uses - Nature Biotechnol (2017) 

Public views on gene editing and its uses - Nature Biotechnol (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Rapid advances in genome editing and its potential application in medicine and enhancement have been hotly debated by scientists and ethicists. Although it has been proposed that germline gene editing be discouraged for the time being, the use of gene editing in somatic human cells in the clinical context remains controversial, particularly for interventions aimed at enhancement... We report here our research that opens a window onto what the public thinks about these issues.

We conducted online quota sample surveys of more than 1,000 respondents in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, UK and the United States (n = 11,716) to elicit judgments about gene editing... The contexts were therapy (curing a disease) and enhancement (improving memory and learning capacity). The recipient categories were adult and prenatal... 

A multiple regression analysis shows that the therapy vignettes have, on average, higher scores than the enhancement vignettes on moral acceptability and on agreement that the respondent would make the same choice... The prenatal compared with the adult recipient elicits a lower assessment of moral acceptability, and lower agreement that the respondent would make the same choice... Across the 11 countries in the study, support is consistently greater for treatment than enhancement... Similarly, there is greater support across all countries for intervention on adults than prenatals... 

For adult therapy, 75% of the comments were positive evaluations of gene editing technology. In order of frequency, these comments related to the following: it led to “improvements to quality of life”; it would enable “curing dementia”; and the “benefits outweighing the risks”... Only 11% of comments on prenatal enhancement are positive. In order of frequency, the negative remarks say gene editing is “unnatural and messing with nature”; that “there is no need” for this type of intervention; there are “risks of unknown consequences”; and it is just “wrong.”

Might previous debates around modern biotech carry over into people's thinking about gene editing? For example, do respondents view gene editing through a critical lens because of associations with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? The answer is no; fewer than 3% mentioned GMOs. Other issues that did not feature beyond 1% or 2% included 'designer babies' and some of the ethical questions around human enhancement – increasing social disparities, obtaining an unfair advantage and undermining character...  

As with many other technologies, the public's attention is on the applications or uses; these drive moral judgments. Yet scientific experts tend to focus on the technology itself. This harks back to the old struggle between regulating the process (the technology) or the applications (uses of the technology) that has caused so many problems for agricultural biotech in Europe. 

Focusing on the technology will lead to inconsistent regulation, always lagging behind scientific progress. Focusing on uses will also present challenges: if countries opt for different regulations on the uses and target recipients of gene editing, some people may take to medical tourism. Should policy prioritize national interests or be transnational to reduce the risks associated with diverging policies? Perhaps it is time to set up a multinational institutional structure to guide innovative technological applications that are societally contentious... 

This survey is a contribution to understanding the practical and contextual dimensions of the ethical question; how can gene-editing technology contribute to human flourishing?

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
So it seems people accept gene editing in a situation that averts a loss and that they could also be faced with themselves (needing a cure), but not in a situation that brings news benefits to others but does not affect them personally (improvements for the next generation). This is similar to GM crops -- people are more likely to accept GMOs if there's something tangible in for themselves, but they are more likely to reject them if these crops "only" benefit farmers... 
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Breeding highly productive corn has reduced its ability to adapt - Wisconsin (2017) 

Breeding highly productive corn has reduced its ability to adapt - Wisconsin (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Stuck where they are, plants have to adapt to their environments, responding to stresses like drought or pests by changing how they grow. On a broader scale, crop breeders need to be able to develop new varieties that are adapted to a new location or changing growing conditions in the same area.

Both types of adaptation rely on a pool of possibilities, the combinations from which one can choose. For the individual plant, those possibilities depend on the genome it was born with. For breeders, that pool of possibilities is the whole range of genomes of cultivated crops, which they can blend together to create new varieties.

Researchers... wanted to know whether the last 100 years of selecting for corn that is acclimated to particular locations has changed its ability to adapt to new or stressful environments. By measuring populations of corn plants planted across North America, they could test how the corn genomes responded to different growing conditions... 

Artificial selection by crop breeders has constricted the pool of possibilities for North American corn varieties... Existing corn varieties are strong and stable, but are less flexible in their ability to respond to various stresses. At the same time, these corn populations might have a reduced ability to contribute to breeding programs that seek to create new varieties adapted to novel environments.

“Over the last 100 years, people have definitely improved cultivars... What we were trying to do in this study is to measure whether by doing that we have also limited the ability of the genotypes to respond to environments when they change.” By intensively breeding for high yield, say, in Wisconsin, those plants might lose the flexibility to respond to environments that are very different from Wisconsin growing conditions... 

Regions of the corn genome that have undergone a high degree of selection – for example, gene regions that contribute to high yield in a particular location – were associated with a reduced capacity of corn to respond to variable environments than genomic regions that weren’t directly acted on by breeders. The upshot is that the modern corn varieties are very productive in the environments they are grown in, but might have a harder time handling changes in those environments... 

“By selecting genotypes that are better suited to be more productive, we are eroding variability that might be important as we move into a world where climate might be more erratic and where we might need to move cultivars into places where they haven’t been grown before”... Yet this loss of flexibility is an inherent tradeoff for highly productive cultivars of corn... “When you try to adapt cultivars to many different environments, you end up with plants that are not great anywhere... The cost of maintaining this plasticity is at the detriment of maximum productivity. So we have to strike the right balance in the long term”...

Underlying study:

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Reducing manure and fertilizers decreases atmospheric fine particles - MPIC (2017) 

Reducing manure and fertilizers decreases atmospheric fine particles - MPIC (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

A decrease of agricultural ammonia emissions avoids mortality attributable to air pollution. 

Fine particulates have numerous sources – not only traffic, which is currently under particular scrutiny. Reducing agricultural emissions could also considerably reduce the particulate levels that are hazardous to health... scientists calculated that especially in Europe and North America, the atmospheric fine particle concentration would decrease substantially by reducing ammonia (NH3) emissions by fertilizer use and animal husbandry. If agricultural emissions were 50 percent lower, more than 250,000 deaths per year, caused by air pollution, could be avoided globally... 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), fine particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) is particularly harmful to health, because the particles penetrate deep into the lungs and can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. This significantly reduces life expectancy in many regions of the world. According to the “Global Burden of Disease”... outdoor air pollution is the fifth-ranked risk factor of global total mortality.

'Currently, the public debate primarily focusses on the particulate load from traffic, while other sources such as agriculture are neglected'... Particulate emissions from motor vehicles can make a critical contribution to local air pollution in urban areas, especially near roads with heavy traffic. However, most fine particulates (PM2.5) are the result of chemical processes in the air during transport by the wind. 'The concentration of fine particulates in the atmosphere could be drastically reduced by preventing the release of ammonia from agriculture'... 

The scientists have identified the release of ammonia from animal husbandry and fertilizer use as a leading cause of air pollution, especially in large parts of Europe. Ammonia contains nitrogen which is an important nutrient for plants, but it escapes to the atmosphere from manure and by fertilizing agricultural crops. It reacts with other substances, such as sulphuric and nitric acid, to form ammonium sulphate and nitrate salts that make up the particulates... 

The scientists... show that a 50 percent reduction of agricultural emissions would lead to a global decrease in deaths attributable to air pollution of around eight percent. This figure corresponds to a mortality rate of 250,000 people per year. If ammonia emissions could be fully excluded, about 800,000 deaths from air pollution related diseases would be avoided globally.

'The effect of ammonia reduction on particulate formation is non-linear. Air quality improvement is most efficient after certain reductions have been realized. 'From this point on, however, the effect is exponential'... A reduction in ammonia emissions of more than 50 percent would, therefore, be highly effective and desirable...

Based on an additional model, which describes the public health impacts that occur for a given particulate exposure, the researchers calculated the influence on mortality by lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. In particular Europe would profit from a reduction in ammonia emissions and the consequent decrease of fine particulates: for example, a Europe-wide NH3 reduction of 50 percent would decrease mortality from PM2.5 by almost 20 percent, meaning that about 50,000 deaths per year could be avoided... 

'Emission policies, in particular in North America and Europe, should impose more stringent ammonia controls to effectively reduce fine particulate concentrations.' Sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) reduction measures are critically important for clean air, but should be complemented by a reduction of ammonia from agriculture, which can be implemented relatively efficiently and economically.

Underlying study:

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
One way to make do with less manure and other fertilizer could be to engineer more efficient crops or to reduce losses and waste... 
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Hydroponic Veggies Are Taking Over Organic, And A Move To Ban Them Fails - NPR (2017) 

Hydroponic Veggies Are Taking Over Organic, And A Move To Ban Them Fails - NPR (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Dave Chapman and dozens of other longtime organic farmers packed a meeting of the National Organic Standards Board... It was their last-ditch effort to strip the organic label from a tide of fluid-fed, "hydroponic" greenhouse-grown vegetables that they think represent a betrayal of true organic principles.

"It really goes to the foundation of what organic farming means," says Chapman, who grows vegetables on his farm... "we're seeing... a lot of support for the founding principles of organic, which are really about soil health, regenerating the soil," rather than simply feeding plants the nutrients that they need.

Their protests, however, failed to convince a majority of the board, which voted, 8-7, against a ban on hydroponic methods in organic farming.

Members of the government-appointed board, which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on rules for the organic industry, were persuaded instead by the arguments of companies like Wholesum Harvest, which grows tomatoes and other vegetables in high-tech greenhouses.

According to the company... there are big environmental benefits to growing vegetables indoors, with their roots in small containers. "We can grow our tomatoes organically with 3 to 5 gallons of water, per pound of production, as opposed to growing tomatoes in open fields, which can use anywhere from 26 to 37 gallons of water"... Growing crops in open fields... "uses more water, more land, destroys more natural habitat. I mean, what is the true essence of organic?"

That is, in fact, the central question, and it has provoked a bitter divide in the organic industry. On one side are organic traditionalists who are committed to the ideas of... the organic farming movement... "the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible." For farmers like Chapman, nurturing the soil is the essence of organic farming, and a vegetable grown without its roots in the soil simply cannot be called organic.

On the other side are companies like Wholesum Harvest or the berry giant Driscoll's, who say that they are delivering what consumers expect from that organic label: Vegetables grown without synthetic pesticides, year-round, and affordably. "Don't tell me that people... don't want strawberries in the middle of January, because I know it's not true. And they want them grown organically"... 

The battle is over more than philosophy. It's about market share. Hydroponic methods, deployed on an industrial scale, are taking over an increasing share of sales to supermarkets. Chapman says that most organic tomatoes sold in supermarkets today already are grown without touching the soil.

"What will happen, very quickly, is that virtually all of the certified organic tomatoes in supermarkets will be hydroponic... Virtually all of the peppers and cucumbers [will be hydroponically grown]. A great deal of the lettuce. And most of the berries"...

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
"Growing crops in open fields... uses more water, more land, destroys more natural habitat. I mean, what is the true essence of organic?" >> If the essence of organic was indeed efficiency and more sustainable agriculture, and if this was consistently pursued, it would indeed be great. Alas, it is not, as the rejection of other technologies (such as GMOs) that could also help use water and land more efficiently and protect natural habitats shows. Rather, as also this article indicates, it's about market shares and whatever spin the organic industry can give to their products to convince consumers that organic is somehow better... 
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Consumer Willingness to Pay for Genetically Modified Vegetable Oil and Salmon in the United States and Norway - AgBioForum (2017) 

We conducted an internet survey in the United States and Norway with more than 1,000 respondents in each country to estimate consumers’ willingness to pay (WTP) for GM soybean oil, farmed salmon fed with GM soy, and GM salmon. 

The differences in WTP for the conventional as compared with the GM alternatives are relatively small. Only between 7 and 13% of the respondents indicated that they were willing to pay more than a 20% premium for each of the conventional alternatives as compared to the corresponding GM alternatives. 

The average WTP premiums range from 8 to 9%. This suggests a large similarity in WTP in Norway and the United States and across the three products.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
So as long as GM brings cost savings of at least 9-10% that can then be handed down to consumers, if the survey is correct, the average respondent would choose GM over the (more expensive) conventional product... 
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Diverse concepts of breeding for nitrogen use efficiency. A review - Agronomy Sust Dev (2017) 

Diverse concepts of breeding for nitrogen use efficiency. A review - Agronomy Sust Dev (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Cropping systems require careful nitrogen (N) management to increase the sustainability of agricultural production. One important route towards enhanced sustainability is to increase nitrogen use efficiency. Improving nitrogen use efficiency encompasses increasing N uptake, N utilization efficiency, and N harvest index, each involving many crop physiological mechanisms and agronomic traits. 

Here, we review recent developments in cultural practices, cultivar choice, and breeding regarding nitrogen use efficiency. We add a comparative analysis of our own research... We highlight traits that are generic across species, demonstrate how traits contributing to nitrogen use efficiency differ among crops, and show how cultural practice affects the relevance of these traits. 

Our review indicates that crops harvested in their early or late vegetative phase or reproductive phase differ in traits relevant to improve nitrogen use efficiency. Head-forming crops (lettuce, cabbage) depend on the prolonged photosynthesis of outer leaves to provide the carbon sources for continued N supply and growth of the photosynthetically less active, younger inner leaves. Grain crops largely depend on prolonged N availability for uptake and on availability of N in stover for remobilization to the grains. Improving root performance is relevant for all crop types, but especially short-cycle vegetable crops benefit from early below-ground vigor. 

We conclude that there is sufficient genetic variation available among modern cultivars to further improve nitrogen use efficiency but that it requires integration of agronomy, crop physiology, and efficient selection strategies to make rapid progress in breeding... Traits related to nitrogen use efficiency better express themselves under low input than under high input. However, testing under both low and high input can yield cultivars that... also respond to high-input conditions. The benefits of increased nitrogen use efficiency through breeding are potentially large but realizing these benefits is challenged by the huge genotype-by-environment interaction and the complex behavior of nitrogen in the cropping system.

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Breakthrough in efforts to 'supercharge' rice and reduce world hunger - U Oxford (2017) 

Breakthrough in efforts to 'supercharge' rice and reduce world hunger - U Oxford (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Scientists have taken an important step in a long-term project aimed at improving photosynthesis in rice to increase crop yields and help meet the food needs of billions of people around the world... By introducing a single maize gene to the plant [researchers] moved towards 'supercharging' rice to the level of more efficient crops. 

Rice uses the C3 photosynthetic pathway, which in hot dry environments is much less efficient than the C4 pathway used in other plants such as maize and sorghum. If rice could be 'switched' to use C4 photosynthesis, it could theoretically increase productivity by 50%. The new study... recreates the first step of the likely three-step evolutionary process that transitioned C3 plants to the C4 pathway... 

'Over 3 billion people depend on rice for survival, and, owing to predicted population increases and a general trend towards urbanisation, land that provided enough rice to feed 27 people in 2010 will need to support 43 by 2050. In this context, rice yields need to increase substantially over the next 35 years. Given that traditional breeding programmes currently achieve around a 1% increase in yield per annum, this is not a trivial endeavour.'

The C4 photosynthetic pathway, which has evolved over 60 times independently, accounts for around a quarter of primary productivity on the planet despite being used by only 3% of species. In most C4 plants, photosynthetic reactions happen in two types of cell arranged in 'wreaths' around closely spaced veins – an arrangement referred to as Kranz anatomy. One of the major challenges of the C4 Rice Project is to convert rice leaf anatomy to this form.

In this study, researchers demonstrate how they took the first step... towards a 'proto-Kranz' anatomy by introducing a single maize gene known as GOLDEN2-LIKE to the rice plant. This had the effect of increasing the volume of functional chloroplasts and mitochondria in the sheath cells surrounding leaf veins, mimicking the traits seen in proto-Kanz species... It's a really encouraging development, and the challenge now is to build on that and find the right genes to tweak to complete the remaining steps in the process... 

'Although engineering the efficient C4 pathway into C3 crops would enable a step-change in agricultural productivity, the large number of changes required to convert a C3 leaf to one that uses C4 photosynthesis has rightly been seen as a major challenge to implementation. This study represents an exciting advance because a number of key phenotypes associated with C4 photosynthesis have been modified in rice simultaneously.'

Underlying study:

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Researchers identify gene to help hybrid wheat breeding - U Adelaide (2017)

Researchers... identified a naturally occurring wheat gene that, when turned off, eliminates self-pollination but still allows cross-pollination – opening the way for breeding high-yielding hybrid wheats...

This discovery and the associated breeding technology have the potential to radically change the way wheat is bred... “Wheat is the world’s most widely grown crop, delivering around 20% of total food calories and protein to the world’s population... But to meet increased food demand from predicted global population growth, its production needs to increase by 60% by 2050. One of the most promising options to meet this demand is for farmers to grow hybrid wheat varieties, which can offer a 10 to 15% yield boost relative to conventionally bred varieties that are currently on the market”...

Hybrid wheats result from crosses between two carefully selected pure wheat lines. The challenge to produce hybrid wheat, however, is in the breeding and commercial multiplication of the hybrid parent seed. Wheat is a self-pollinator while the production of hybrid seed requires large-scale cross-pollination.

“Hybrids are widely used for the cereals maize (or corn) and rice but developing a viable hybrid system for bread wheat has been a challenge because of the complexity of the wheat genome... We have now identified a gene necessary for cross-pollination in wheat which can be used in large-scale, low-cost production of parent breeding lines necessary for hybrid wheat seed production”...

Underlying study:

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Biofortification in cereals: progress and prospects - Neeraja &al (2017) - Curr Sci

Biofortification in cereals: progress and prospects - Neeraja &al (2017) - Curr Sci | Ag Biotech News |
Food security of the country has been improved due to green revolution and enhancement of cereal production. However, recent surveys showed 36% of children suffer from malnutrition in India. 

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research has taken lead for the biofortification of cereal crops based on earlier national and international research efforts, targeting the enhancement of nutrients in staple food crops... 

The significant progress made in rice, wheat, maize and millets for identification of genotypes, development, evaluation and release of the varieties with high nutrient contents and their bioavailability studies is discussed... 

Biofortification refers to the genetic enhancement of key food crops with enhanced nutrients. It differs from fortification (addition of exogenous nutrients as in iodized salt) by increasing the nutrients of crops at source through agricultural interventions, viz. agronomy, breeding and biotechnology... 

Initially research efforts in agriculture were prioritized for achieving self-sufficiency of food grains. Now the scope is also extended to biofortification of major food crops as a strategy to ensure nutritional security to address malnutrition. In India, recently, two varieties with high Zn and high protein in polished rice were developed through conventional breeding without compromising yield, and were released nationally... 

Biofortification can complement existing interventions for malnutrition with its far-reaching implications in achieving the nation’s nutritional security. Various government organizations... along with international organizations... are now converging their research efforts of biofortification for product development, testing and validation. 

With proper planning, execution and implementation, biofortified food crops will help India address the malnutrition problem with minimum investment in research and have a significant impact on the lives and health of millions of needy people of the country.

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Golden Rice: instructions for use - Dubock (2017) - Ag Food Sec

Golden Rice: instructions for use - Dubock (2017) - Ag Food Sec | Ag Biotech News |

Golden Rice is any variety of rice which makes beta-carotene, thus giving the rice a yellow (Golden) colour. It was created as an additional intervention for vitamin A deficiency. This dietary deficiency is the most significant cause of childhood blindness, and also the biggest killer of children under 5 year’s old, globally. 

White rice contains no beta-carotene, and no vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is common in countries where rice is the staple diet. The Golden Rice technology... has been donated by its inventors for use in developing countries as an additional intervention against vitamin A deficiency. 

When Golden Rice is approved for use in a country, that country’s Government will have decided that it is safe for the environment to grow the crop, and safe for humans, and animals, to consume it. 

Regular consumption of Golden Rice by people is expected, with time, to deliver health benefits by reducing cases of partial or complete blindness, and reducing preventable deaths, especially of young children and mothers. Any amount of daily white rice consumption can be replaced by Golden Rice consumption without ill effect. 

This document suggests how people can organise themselves to contribute to Golden Rice’s adoption for growth and consumption by populations in their own country. Without adoption, Golden Rice cannot be an intervention for vitamin A deficiency, which is a major public health problem...

Studies... have clearly demonstrated that a universal source of vitamin A can prevent 23-34% of global under five years’ child mortality, and up to 50% mortality prevention in the case of measles. It has also been known for a long time that vitamin A deficiency is the most important cause of irreversible childhood blindness... 

The payback from Golden Rice adoption, that is its regular consumption by populations, will be more advantageous than almost any other use of the money.

Sophisticated science has already confirmed that the beta-carotene in Golden Rice is very efficiently converted to... vitamin A... Green vegetables are an important source of beta-carotene. But the conversion... is very inefficient. So vitamin A deficiency is common even in populations where green vegetables are easily available and consumed... 

Golden Rice has a huge, low cost and sustainable potential to help combat vitamin A deficiency, and reduce preventable blindness and death in populations where rice is the staple food, and without changing the culture...

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Gene Discovery May Halt Worldwide Wheat Epidemic - UC Davis (2017) 

Gene Discovery May Halt Worldwide Wheat Epidemic - UC Davis (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Researchers have identified a gene that enables resistance to a new devastating strain of stem rust, a fungal disease that is hampering wheat production throughout Africa and Asia and threatening food security worldwide. The discovery... will help breeders more quickly develop varieties that can fend off the deadly pathogens and halt a worldwide wheat epidemic... 

Wheat and stem rust have been in an evolutionary arms race for more than 10,000 years. In the 1950s, a major epidemic of the disease spread through North America and destroyed up to 40 percent of the wheat crop, the world’s second most important grain next to rice.

Since then, scientists have developed rust-resistant varieties to boost wheat’s immunity to stem rust. But the pathogens are making a comeback. A new strain of the stem rust – called Ug99 after it was discovered in Uganda in 1999 – is spreading throughout the region. About 90 percent of the wheat varieties grown worldwide are susceptible to Ug99.

“Ug99 has expanded to most of the wheat-growing regions in Africa and has crossed the Red Sea to Yemen and Iran... Ug99 is now at the door of the Punjab region – the bread basket of Asia – and identification and deployment of effective resistance genes are critical to mitigate this threat”...  

To develop better varieties, breeders cross plants with desired traits and select the best offspring over multiple generations. Once stem-rust resistant genes have been identified, breeders can use molecular markers (specific regions of DNA) to select for the genes at the seed or seedling stage. This accelerates the crop-improvement process.

These molecular markers allow breeders to pyramid multiple stem-rust-resistant genes in the same plant to extend the durability of resistance.

“Wheat provides a substantial amount of calories and proteins consumed by humans... We hope that a better understanding of the wheat-rust pathosystem will speed the development of new strategies to control this devastating pathogen.”

Underlying study:

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Risk perception of genome editing: reservations and a great demand for information - BfR (2017) 

For decades now, humans have been altering the genetic information of plants and animals in order to produce new varieties or strains. Some more recent molecular biological methods known under the generic term "genome editing" enable targeted intervention into the genetic material. The CRISPR/Cas9 method, which could be used in agriculture and medicine, for example, promises to be particularly successful. 

The attitudes of people in Germany towards these newer methods have hardly been examined scientifically up to now. As it is of fundamental importance for appropriate risk communication to have knowledge of the attitudes and level of awareness of the general public, the BfR conducted focus group interviews... 

Modifications to genetic information are a part of life. In conventional plant cultivation and animal breeding, humans use methods to increase the natural mutation rate so that they can select new varieties or strains with useful properties from among the mutants. Certain newer molecular biological methods which have become known under the generic term genome editing do not differ in this regard from conventional cultivation and breeding. 

One decisive difference is though, that with the genome editing method, very specific modifications can be introduced to the genome of the target organism. The CRISPR/Cas9 method, with the help of which the genome can be specifically modified, promises to be particularly successful... It opens up a variety of new application options. Its use in agriculture is being discussed, for example, in the development of disease-resistant plant varieties, as well as in medicine. Lawmakers have not yet decided how genome editing is to be classified from a legal point of view.

The BfR is dealing with the subject of genome editing from a scientific point of view. It is also preparing recommendations and measures for risk communication, but knowledge of consumers’ attitudes towards the subject is essential here. Moderated group discussions, so-called focus group interviews, permit an insight into the concrete points of view, attitudes and potential concerns of the general public.

Against this backdrop, the BfR formed and interviewed focus groups with a total of 39 participants of both genders. The interviews gave an insight into what consumers currently know about genome editing and which factors dominate their risk-benefit deliberations. It was also determined how the participants classify genome editing in relation to conventional genetic engineering and what their needs for information and regulation are.

The essential results are that... the interview participants see genome editing methods as a form of genetic engineering and they have similar reservations about them for this reason. In the food sector... the use of genome editing is rejected by the majority... This looks a bit different in the medical sector, where use is acceptable for many because a necessity and therapeutic benefits are apparent... Younger people were more positive and open to the new methods than older people.

It also became clear that the participants know little about the methods of genome editing. At the same time though, they would like to see public clarification of the methods in order to open up an informed public discourse. It is essential for future risk communication strategies that this consumer demand for information be met.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
The old story, if there's no tangible benefit for the consumers they reject a technology (agriculture), but if they see a clear benefit they embrace that same technology (medicine). So I'm not sure whether informing about the technology and the underlying science will do much; it might be more helpful to explain consumers the benefits of applying the technology in agriculture (land-use, climate change, water savings, pesticide reductions, nutrition profile, etc.) 
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Use of CRISPR systems in plant genome editing: toward new opportunities in agriculture - ETLS (2017) 

Use of CRISPR systems in plant genome editing: toward new opportunities in agriculture - ETLS (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

CRISPR-Cas9 is an adaptive immune system found in prokaryotes. In 2012, scientists found a way to use it as a genome editing tool. In 2013, its application in plants was successfully achieved. This breakthrough has opened up many new opportunities for researchers, including the opportunity to gain a better understanding of plant biological systems more quickly. 

The present study reviews agricultural applications related to the use of CRISPR systems in plants from 52 peer-reviewed articles published since 2014. Based on this literature review, the main use of CRISPR systems is to achieve improved yield performance, biofortification, biotic and abiotic stress tolerance, with rice (Oryza sativa) being the most studied crop.


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“Golden” potato delivers bounty of vitamins A and E - Ohio (2017) 

“Golden” potato delivers bounty of vitamins A and E - Ohio (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

An experimental “golden” potato could hold the power to prevent disease and death in developing countries where residents rely heavily upon the starchy food for sustenance... 

A serving of the yellow-orange... potato has the potential to provide as much as 42 percent of a child’s recommended daily intake of vitamin A and 34 percent of a child’s recommended intake of vitamin E... Women of reproductive age could get 15 percent of their recommended vitamin A and 17 percent of recommended vitamin E from that same 5.3 ounce (150 gram) serving... 

Potato is the fourth most widely consumed plant food by humans after rice, wheat and corn... It is a staple food in some Asian, African and South American countries where there is a high incidence of vitamin A and vitamin E deficiencies.

“More than 800,000 people depend on the potato as their main source of energy and many of these individuals are not consuming adequate amounts of these vital nutrients... These golden tubers have far more vitamin A and vitamin E than white potatoes, and that could make a significant difference in certain populations where deficiencies – and related diseases – are common”... 

Vitamin A is essential for vision, immunity, organ development, growth and reproductive health. And Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Vitamin E protects against oxidative stress and inflammation, conditions associated with damage to nerves, muscles, vision and the immune system... 

Researchers created a simulated digestive system including a virtual mouth, stomach and small intestine to determine how much provitamin A and vitamin E could potentially be absorbed by someone who eats a golden potato. Provitamin A carotenoids are converted by enzymes into vitamin A that the body can use. Carotenoids are fat-soluble pigments that provide yellow, red and orange colors to fruits and vegetables. They are essential nutrients for animals and humans.

“We ground up boiled golden potato and mimicked the conditions of these digestive organs to determine how much of these fat-soluble nutrients became biologically available”... The main goal of the work was to examine provitamin A availability... 

The golden potato, which is not commercially available, was metabolically engineered in Italy... The additional carotenoids in the tuber make it a more nutritionally dense food with the potential of improving the health of those who rely heavily upon potatoes for nourishment.

While plant scientists have had some success cross-breeding other plants for nutritional gain, the improved nutritional quality of the golden potato is only possible using metabolic engineering – the manipulation of plant genes in the lab... 

While some object to this kind of work, the research team stresses that this potato could eventually help prevent childhood blindness and illnesses and even death of infants, children and mothers in developing nations.

“We have to keep an open mind, remembering that nutritional requirements differ in different countries and that our final goal is to provide safe, nutritious food to billions of people worldwide”... 

Failla said “hidden hunger” – deficiencies in micronutrients – has been a problem for decades in many developing countries because staple food crops were bred for high yield and pest resistance rather than nutritional quality. “This golden potato would be a way to provide a much more nutritious food that people are eating many times a week, or even several times a day”...

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If we only ate organic it would be an environmental disaster - New Scientist (2017) 

If we only ate organic it would be an environmental disaster - New Scientist (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Should the world’s farms go 100 per cent organic to protect the environment? Absolutely not. One huge problem is that organic farming requires far more land than conventional farming to produce the same amount of food. According to a study out today, going all-organic would require up to a third more land to feed the world by 2050 (some studies say more than twice as much land would be needed). 

But the authors say we should do it anyway because, they claim, massive cuts in food waste and meat consumption mean we could make the switch with no increase in land use overall. Spot the logical flaws. This is the equivalent of arguing that it’s OK for everyone to start smoking because yet-to-exist medical advances will prevent any rise in the number of deaths caused by smoking.

Of course we should try to get people to eat less meat and waste less food. But with meat consumption rising relentlessly as the world’s growing population gets wealthier, the idea that it can be hugely reduced seems wildly implausible. As does the idea that food waste can be reduced by half... If any land can be freed up by cutting meat consumption, we shouldn’t waste it by going organic. Land is ever more precious and as our farms, cities and roads grow, we’re seeing the beginning of a mass extinction driven partly by habitat loss.

Then there’s global warming. Without it, feeding the world conventionally by 2050 would require only a 6 per cent increase in land use, the study assumes. But if climate impacts are high, 55 per cent more land will be needed – or 81 per cent if we go all-organic. In addition, limiting warming to under 3°C now requires removing vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. The best way to do this is to capture the carbon from biomass burning – and this will require vast amounts of land.

The lead author of the study, Adrian Muller... His argument, however, is that conventional farming is worse in other ways, such as pesticide use and excess nitrogen, so we should go all-organic if it can be done without increasing land use... But we don’t need to make such trade-offs... Per unit of food produced, organic farming is no better than conventional farming on many environmental measures, and is often worse... 

The latest meta-analysis... broadly agrees with earlier ones. For instance, it finds organic is no better in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more... the best way to reduce the environmental impact of farming, besides eating less meat, is to improve conventional methods rather than switch to organic farming.

There’s another big flaw with Muller’s study: it does not mention that organic farming rejects all organisms produced through modern genetic modification techniques. Zapping plants with radiation is fine, as is breeding a prize bullock to produce offspring with specific traits, but altering genes directly is a big no-no, despite the end results – changes to the genome – being the same.

This matters because we are on the brink of a biotech revolution thanks to methods such as CRISPR. Coming soon are salt-tolerant crops that can grow in saline soils wrecked by irrigation or in coastal regions where sea water is intruding due to sea level rise. There will be crops that need far less fertiliser because they can make their own, crops that need far less land because they are better at photosynthesis, crops that don’t need to be drenched in fungicides because they are resistant to blight... 

All these advances could help make conventional farming far more environmentally friendly by 2050. So yes, let’s change the way we produce our food – but going all-organic isn’t the way forward.

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Genome editing in livestock: Are we ready for a revolution in animal breeding industry? - Transgenic Res (2017) 

Genome editing in livestock: Are we ready for a revolution in animal breeding industry? - Transgenic Res (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Genome editing is a powerful technology that can efficiently alter the genome of organisms to achieve targeted modification of endogenous genes and targeted integration of exogenous genes. Current genome-editing tools mainly include ZFN, TALEN and CRISPR/Cas9, which have been successfully applied to all species tested including zebrafish, humans, mice, rats, monkeys, pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and others. 

The application of genome editing has quickly swept through the entire biomedical field, including livestock breeding. Traditional livestock breeding is associated with rate limiting issues such as long breeding cycle and limitations of genetic resources. Genome editing tools offer solutions to these problems at affordable costs. 

Generation of gene-edited livestock with improved traits has proven feasible and valuable. For example, the CD163 gene-edited pig is resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (“blue ear disease”), and a SP110 gene knock-in cow less susceptible to tuberculosis. 

Given the high efficiency and low cost of genome editing tools... it is foreseeable that a significant number of genome edited livestock animals will be produced in the near future; hence it is imperative to comprehensively evaluate the pros and cons they will bring to the livestock breeding industry. Only with these considerations in mind, we will be able to fully take the advantage of the genome editing era in livestock breeding... 

Gene-edited livestock have demonstrated significant improvements in the lean meat rate, disease resistance and other favorable traits... are easier to manage and contain than crops. Safety assessments can be performed using a case-by-case analysis. The assessment procedure can be simplified for geneedited livestock that do not have exogenous genes introduced or mimic natural mutations. 

Taking advantage of the genome editing revolution, livestock breeding will enter into a new development opportunity and provide humans with higher quality, healthier and lower cost products with richer varieties. Genome editing technology will ignite a revolution in livestock breeding

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Only at one point do the authors mention animal welfare (when discussing hornless dairy cattle). Otherwise their arguments are purely centred on the benefits of editing livestock to suit human purposes (easier management, lower costs, better "quality"). Not sure this is the best way to win over people to genome editing... 
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Scientists Develop Groundnut Resistant to Aflatoxin - Danforth (2017) 

Scientists Develop Groundnut Resistant to Aflatoxin - Danforth (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Scientists... made a significant research breakthrough by suppressing the aflatoxin-producing fungus in groundnut. The discovery has the potential to drastically improve food safety and reduce losses caused by the contamination from the poisonous carcinogen, aflatoxin... 

Aflatoxins pose a major risk to human and animal health worldwide and result in an enormous amount of food waste. The molds, Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, which infect groundnut, maize, cottonseed and chilly, produce these toxins which suppress the immune system, hinder growth in children and even cause liver cancer. 

The fungus which produces these toxins can stay dormant in soil for years. It infects maize and groundnut during drought and heat stress. Contamination also happens when grain is stored in hot, humid and poorly-ventilated conditions. Since aflatoxins are potent carcinogens, the United States does not allow the sale and export of food with aflatoxin levels exceeding 20 parts per billion (ppb). European Union standards are more stringent; the bar is 2 ppb.

“Plant defensins exhibit potent antifungal activity against several economically important fungal pathogens and it is exciting to see successful application of this technology for reducing the pre-harvest infection by Aspergillus and alleviating the burden of mycotxins in genetically modified groundnut. If deployed commercially, this technology has significant potential to contribute to food safety in the under-developed and developing countries where mycotoxin contamination of groundnut, maize, chili and cottonseed pose a major threat to human and animal health”... 

World peanut production totals about 29 million metric tons per year. The U.S. is the world’s third largest producer, after China and India. Peanuts are the 12th most valuable cash crop grown in the U.S. with a farm value of over one billion U.S. dollars. American consumers eat more than 6 pounds or 2.7 kilograms (kernel basis) of peanut products each year, worth more than $2 billion at the retail level.  Worldwide peanut exports are about 1.25 million metric tons annually.

Two complementary approaches are being deployed to address the issue... [Here scientists] transferred small proteins called defensins from alfalfa and the Mediterranean clover to the DNA of an Aspergillus-susceptible peanut variety widely grown in Africa and India which allowed the groundnut to stop the fungus from infecting the plant... The nuts produced these RNA molecules during fungal attacks and inactivated target genes responsible for aflatoxin synthesis. The technology is also translatable to maize and de-oiled cakes used for animal feed, pistachios and almonds...

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Lower average yields but similar yield variability in organic versus conventional horticulture. A meta-analysis - Agronomy Sust Dev (2017) 

Lower average yields but similar yield variability in organic versus conventional horticulture. A meta-analysis - Agronomy Sust Dev (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Organic agriculture prohibits the use of almost all synthetic inputs and it is expected to have lower impacts on natural resources than conventional agriculture. However, previous meta-analyses have shown that yields in organic systems are in average 8 to 25% lower compared with conventional systems. 

Here, we focus on horticulture (fruits and vegetables) and we refine our knowledge by characterising the distributions of organic and conventional yields both in terms of average yield loss and in terms of variability across experiments and across years. We built a new dataset... covering 37 horticultural species and 17 countries...  

Our results show that yields in organic horticulture are indeed on average 10 to 32% lower than those in conventional horticulture but they exhibit large variation across experiments...

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CRISPR is knocking on barn door - Repro Dom Animals (2017) 

CRISPR is knocking on barn door - Repro Dom Animals (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Genome modification at specific loci in livestock species was only achievable by performing homologous recombination in somatic cells followed by somatic cell nuclear transfer. The difficulty and inefficiency of this method have slowed down the multiple applications of genome modification in farm animals. The discovery of site-specific endonucleases has provided a different and more direct route for targeted mutagenesis, as these enzymes allow the ablation (KO) or insertion (KI) of specific genomic sequences on a single step, directly applied to zygotes. 

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), the last site-specific endonuclease to be developed, is a RNA-guided endonuclease, easy to engineer and direct to a given target site. This technology has been successfully applied to rabbits, swine, goats, sheep and cattle, situating genome editing in livestock species at an attainable distance, thereby empowering scientist to develop a myriad of applications. 

Genetically modified livestock animals can be used as biomodels to study human or livestock physiology and disease, as bioreactors to produce complex proteins, or as organ donors for transplantation. Specifically on livestock production, genome editing in farm animals may serve to improve productive genetic traits, to improve various animal products, to confer resistance to diseases or to minimize the environmental impact on farming. 

In this review, we provide an overview of the current methods for site-specific genome modification in livestock species, discuss potential and already developed applications of genome edition in farm animals and debate about the possibilities for approval of products derived from gene-edited animals for human consumption...  

All things considered, GMAs [genetically modified animals] do not pose an increased risk for the consumer or for wild populations than genetically modified crops that have been approved for human consumption... In this sense, it seems that the non-approval of GMA is not supported by scientific evidences, rather being a reflect of the public backlash towards animal transgenesis. Gaining a positive public perception towards GMA is therefore essential to enjoy the benefits of CRISPR in livestock production. 

In this sense, the welfare of transgenic animals is an important concern that must be addressed during its generation and use. Compared to previous technologies, CRISPR reduces substantially the number of animals required to generate the GMA. The technique also reduces off-target effects and epigenetic alterations, thereby being less prone to generate unintended phenotypic outcomes that may affect animal welfare... consumers may be more likely to accept modified animals aimed to improve disease resistance than those aimed to improve production traits... 

However, these benefits depend on the approval of GMA-derived products for human consumption, a goal that depends mostly on people′s opinion, bedevilled in many cases by prejudices against the term “transgenic.” A good start would be to explain in layman words the differences between transgenic and non-transgenic genome editions.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
"the welfare of transgenic animals is an important concern that must be addressed... consumers may be more likely to accept modified animals aimed to improve disease resistance than those aimed to improve production traits" >> Indeed. Yet, the language used by the authors – "animals can be used as biomodels... as bioreactors... or as organ donors" – does not seem to indicate that they see these beings as anything else than vessels that need to be put to productive use. So their mentioning of animal welfare seems little more than lip service... 
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In glyphosate review, WHO cancer agency edited out 'non-carcinogenic' findings - Reuters (2017) 

In glyphosate review, WHO cancer agency edited out 'non-carcinogenic' findings - Reuters (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

The World Health Organization’s cancer agency dismissed and edited findings from a draft of its review of the weedkiller glyphosate that were at odds with its final conclusion that the chemical probably causes cancer. Documents seen by Reuters show how a draft of a key section of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) assessment of glyphosate... underwent significant changes and deletions before the report was finalised and made public.

IARC, based in Lyon, France, wields huge influence as a semi-autonomous unit of the WHO, the United Nations health agency. It issued a report on its assessment of glyphosate... in March 2015. It ranked glyphosate a Group 2a carcinogen, a substance that probably causes cancer in people. That conclusion was based on its experts’ view that there was “sufficient evidence” glyphosate causes cancer in animals and “limited evidence” it can do so in humans. The Group 2a classification has prompted mass litigation in the United States against Monsanto and could lead to a ban on glyphosate sales across the European Union... 

The edits identified by Reuters occurred in the chapter of IARC’s review focusing on animal studies. This chapter was important in IARC’s assessment of glyphosate, since it was in animal studies that IARC decided there was “sufficient” evidence of carcinogenicity. One effect of the changes to the draft... was the removal of multiple scientists’ conclusions that their studies had found no link between glyphosate and cancer in laboratory animals. 

In one instance, a fresh statistical analysis was inserted – effectively reversing the original finding of a study being reviewed by IARC. In another, a sentence in the draft referenced a pathology report... the report “firmly” and “unanimously” agreed that... glyphosate had not caused abnormal growths in the mice being studied. In the final published IARC monograph, this sentence had been deleted.

Reuters found 10 significant changes that were made between the draft chapter on animal studies and the published version... In each case, a negative conclusion about glyphosate leading to tumors was either deleted or replaced with a neutral or positive one. Reuters was unable to determine who made the changes. IARC did not respond to questions about the alterations... 

Numerous national and international agencies have reviewed glyphosate. IARC is the only one to have declared the substance a probable carcinogen. Compared with other agencies, IARC has divulged little about its review process. Until now, it has been nearly impossible to see details, such as draft documents, of how IARC arrived at its decision.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said that in its assessment of the weedkiller, the scientific decision-making process “can be traced from start to finish... Anyone can go to EFSA’s website and review how the assessment evolved over time. So you can see clearly how experts... appraised each and every study and also how comments from the public consultation were incorporated into the scientific thinking.” In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency published a full 1,261-page transcript of a three-day scientific advisory panel meeting on its ongoing evaluation of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate in December 2016...

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Food security needs more from GM crops - Rothamsted (2017) 

Food security needs more from GM crops - Rothamsted (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Genetic modification of plants will be essential to avert future food shortages, conclude a group of agricultural scientists who have reviewed how biotechnology developments over the past 35 years have shaped the efficiency of crop production.

GM crops able to repel insect pests or to resist herbicides have transformed the farming of soybean, cotton, maize and canola, reducing costs and increasing productivity, but lack of knowledge hinders further improvements in yield, particularly in testing climatic conditions... 

Scientists have identified some genes that affect crop yields, such as those influencing grain size and leaf growth, but have still to fully understand the cellular and developmental processes, and how these processes behave in a field environment... 

“Our knowledge of the genes that limit yield in field conditions needs to be developed... At the moment, results that show promise in the lab don’t always work in the field... We are emphasising the great potential of GM, and of genome editing and emerging chemical technologies as well, but in a sense the potential of the technologies on offer is running ahead of our ability to deploy them because we still don’t know enough about the many processes and genes that determine yields.”

He highlights how GM research at Rothamsted identified a sugar... that controls the volume of starch in cereal grain and, in GM field trials, substantially improved maize yields in the field, from 10% in well-watered crops to 120% under drought conditions.

“But we got there only because field trialling was conducted in parallel with fundamental science of which genes to target and how to target them in the field environment”... 

Such a strategy is necessary... “if GM and future genome editing approaches and chemical technologies are to deliver on their promise of step changes in yield in a range of environments.”

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Genetically Boosting the Nutritional Value of Corn Could Benefit Millions - Rutgers (2017) 

Genetically Boosting the Nutritional Value of Corn Could Benefit Millions - Rutgers (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Rutgers scientists have found an efficient way to enhance the nutritional value of corn – the world’s largest commodity crop – by inserting a bacterial gene that causes it to produce a key nutrient called methionine... The... discovery could benefit millions of people in developing countries, such as in South America and Africa, who depend on corn as a staple. It could also significantly reduce worldwide animal feed costs.

“We improved the nutritional value of corn, the largest commodity crop grown on Earth... Most corn is used for animal feed, but it lacks methionine – a key amino acid – and we found an effective way to add it”...   

Methionine, found in meat, is one of the nine essential amino acids that humans get from food... It is needed for growth and tissue repair, improves the tone and flexibility of skin and hair, and strengthens nails. The sulfur in methionine protects cells from pollutants, slows cell aging and is essential for absorbing selenium and zinc.

Every year, synthetic methionine worth several billion dollars is added to field corn seed, which lacks the substance... “It is a costly, energy-consuming process... Methionine is added because animals won’t grow without it. In many developing countries where corn is a staple, methionine is also important for people, especially children. It’s vital nutrition, like a vitamin.”

Chicken feed is usually prepared as a corn-soybean mixture, and methionine is the sole essential sulfur-containing amino acid that’s missing...  

The Rutgers scientists inserted an E. coli bacterial gene into the corn plant’s genome and grew several generations of corn. The E. coli enzyme... spurred methionine production in just the plant’s leaves instead of the entire plant... As a result, methionine in corn kernels increased by 57 percent...  

Then the scientists conducted a chicken feeding trial... and showed that the genetically engineered corn was nutritious for them... “To our surprise, one important outcome was that corn plant growth was not affected”... 

In the developed world, including the U.S., meat proteins generally have lots of methionine... But in the developing world, subsistence farmers grow corn for their family’s consumption. “Our study shows that they wouldn’t have to purchase methionine supplements or expensive foods that have higher methionine”...

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RNAi as an emerging approach to control Fusarium Head Blight disease and mycotoxin contamination in cereals - Machado &al (2017) - Pest Manage Sci

RNAi as an emerging approach to control Fusarium Head Blight disease and mycotoxin contamination in cereals - Machado &al (2017) - Pest Manage Sci | Ag Biotech News |

Fusarium graminearum is a major fungal pathogen of cereals worldwide, causing seedling, stem base and floral diseases, including Fusarium Head Blight (FHB). In addition to yield and quality losses, FHB contaminates cereal grain with mycotoxins, including deoxynivalenol (DON), which are harmful to human, animal and ecosystem health. Currently FHB control is only partially effective due to several intractable problems. 

RNA interference (RNAi) is a natural mechanism that regulates gene expression. RNAi has been exploited in the development of new genomic tools, which allow the targeted silencing of genes of interest in many eukaryotes. Host-Induced Gene Silencing (HIGS) is a transgenic technology used to silence fungal genes in planta during attempted infection and thereby to reduce disease levels. 

HIGS relies on the host plant's ability to produce mobile small interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules, generated from long double stranded RNA (dsRNA), which are complementary to targeted fungal genes. These molecules are transferred from the plant into invading fungi via an uncharacterised mechanism, to cause gene silencing. 

Here, we describe recent advances in RNAi-mediated control of plant pathogenic fungi, highlighting the key advantages and disadvantages. We then discuss the developments and implications of combining HIGS with other methods of disease control.

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