Today in AgBioView, from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org, May 13, 2007
* So much for growing GM crops
* Collapse Colony Disorder: a solution?
* Book's theories of GE food short on science
* Creating a canon for science
* Sensory Analysis of Organically and Conventionally Grown Vegetables
So much for growing GM crops
- Stephen Cauchi, The Age, May 13, 2007
IN AUSTRALIA, as far as genetically modified crops and food are concerned, there is a finely tuned list as to what is allowed and what isn't.
Non-food GM crops are fine. Cotton and blue, violet, mauve, and purple carnations have been grown commercially for many years.
Not so with food GM crops. These have been grown for more than a decade in Australia, but only on a trial basis. Canola, sugarcane, barley, wheat, grapevine and Indian mustard are some of these GM crops.
Even though the Federal Government's Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has approved some commercial GM food crops such as canola, the states have vetoed this by imposing moratoriums.
So much for growing GM crops. How about eating them? Some countries produce GM food crops, notably the US, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China and South Africa.
The US is the biggest producer of GM crops. Three-quarters of processed foods in the US have a GM ingredient. Nearly 90 per cent of soybeans, 83 per cent of cotton, and 61 per cent of maize is genetically modified.
GM soybeans, corn products, potatoes, sugar beet, canola oil and cottonseed oil are used in processed foods imported to Australia. No other vegetables, fruit, meat, fish or agricultural products sold in Australia are GM.
Cottonseed oil can be produced from Australian GM cotton, and can be found in vegetable oils and margarines.
Collapse Colony Disorder phenomenon in America and Europe: could the solution be found in Africa?
- African Insect Science for Food and Health (press release via SeedQuest), May 11, 2007
The solution to the Collapse Colony Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon that has baffled beekeepers and researchers in America and Europe, may just be found in Africa.
Characterised by the sudden mass exodus of bees from their hives, CCD was first reported in America in November 2006, and has rapidly spread to over 20 American States. Some CCD cases have also been reported in Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain. CCD is increasingly becoming a crisis, causing beekeepers losses of between 30 - 90% and posing a potential threat in European agriculture, where honeybees are of great economic importance.
A study by scientists from the Nairobi-headquartered icipe - African Insect Science for Food and Health, conducted jointly with colleagues from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), suggests that there could be a link between microganisms from invasive species, such as the small hive beetle, recently introduced into the US from Africa. In their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS, 4th May 2007), the researchers observe that, though of no consequence to African honeybees, the small hive beetle decimates European honeybee colonies with impunity through a fungus that it carries.
"Beetles are scavengers and their job is to clean up. In the case of the small hive beetle, it uses a fungus to digest left-over pollen, from which it gets its nutrients. This fungus causes fermentation, in effect causing a change in the chemistry in the hives. Since bees are very sensitive to such variations, they eventually abandon the hives," explains icipe scientist, Dr Baldwyn Torto.
He adds that African honeybees are generally highly hygienic; they don't allow debris to accumulate in their hives, so there is little for the small hive beetles to scavenge and to support growth and establishment of other microorganisms. In addition, because of having to constantly deal with a wide diversity of tropical microorganisms while foraging, the African honeybees have evolved ways to fight diseases more effectively, and respond more quickly to any new challenges. On the other hand, says Dr Torto, European honeybees unlike their African cousins are unable to effectively inhibit infestations by this beetle.
"Knowing what allows African honeybees to survive attacks under the tough tropical conditions, and introducing these components into European honeybees, might be a step towards resolving the CCD," says Dr Torto.
Ecology Multitrophic interaction facilitates parasite-host relationship between an invasive beetle and the honey bee
- Baldwyn Torto, Drion G. Boucias, Richard T. Arbogast, James H. Tumlinson, and Peter E. A. Teal, Published online before print May 4, 2007 (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0702813104)
Colony defense by honey bees, Apis mellifera, is associated with stinging and mass attack, fueled by the release of alarm pheromones. Thus, alarm pheromones are critically important to survival of honey bee colonies. Here we report that in the parasitic relationship between the European honey bee and the small hive beetle, Aethina tumida, the honey bee's alarm pheromones serve a negative function because they are potent attractants for the beetle. Furthermore, we discovered that the beetles from both Africa and the United States vector a strain of Kodamaea ohmeri yeast, which produces these same honey bee alarm pheromones when grown on pollen in hives. The beetle is not a pest of African honey bees because African bees have evolved effective methods to mitigate beetle infestation. However, European honey bees, faced with disease and pest management stresses different from those experienced by African bees, are unable to effectively inhibit beetle infestation. Therefore, the environment of the European honey bee colony provides optimal conditions to promote the unique bee-beetle-yeast-pollen multitrophic interaction that facilitates effective infestation of hives at the expense of the European honey bee.
Book's theories about genetically engineered food short on science
- Paul Christensen, Des Moines Register, May 13, 2007
In "Genetic Roulette," Jeffrey Smith asserts there is a sort of conspiracy between industry and government biotech regulatory agencies to hide scientific concerns about the safety of genetically engineered food.
Smith provides a useful list of the health concerns with observations to support them. Based on the identified concerns, he provides arguments that government regulation is inadequate and regulators are unduly influenced by the agricultural biotechnology industry. He rejects the competence of industry scientists to do the safety studies in the approval of biotech products. He then provides a refutation of the arguments supporting biotech safety and concludes that customers, without even considering the usefulness of genetically engineered foods, reject them and force regulators to address the inadequacies in the evaluation of biotech safety.
Scientific activity consists of a body of knowledge that has been confirmed by experiment, and the search for patterns in observations that are not explained. "Genetic Roulette" offers observations suggesting possible patterns and theories that might explain some of those observations.
But the diversity of the observations and explanations undermine the assertion of science-based concern. Science is looking for a pattern that consistently repeats. He instead gives us new patterns in the data that erode rather than reinforce the notion that one of them might be something more than just anecdote, coincidence and the expected 5 percent outliers that pop up in experiments with many variables.
Regulators use proven science. Smith refers to this as "assumption-based safety assessment," because it "assumes" current scientific consensus is right. "Genetic Roulette" asserts they should act on notions of possible harm that are not yet established and that our basic assumption should be that existing scientific consensus is wrong and government regulators should actively seek to attack the conventional science. This is not what regulators normally do.
Existing scientific understanding is incomplete, but regulators do not decide on what to test based on the notion that any remote possibility must be tested and rejected. They compare possible phenomena and test the ones that seem to present the highest risk based on current consensus science and some assessment of where scientific consensus might be going.
"Genetic Roulette" contributes little because it does not sort out the patterns and how they are linked to plausible causes. Smith is trying to convince the public to support an across-the-board rejection of all genetically engineered products, based as much on the original assumption of conspiracy between the regulators and industry as on the science.
There is a large body of thought asserting the West has gone wrong and the modern analytical world is inherently plagued with the unintended consequences of our technological choices. From this perspective, government and business share a faulty world-view based on technological analysis that must inevitably produce bad decisions. Analysis-based errors are possible, but rejecting the analytical approach leads to interminable arguments about unconfirmed patterns in data that will keep us from addressing larger safety concerns.
Paul Christensen is Seed Technology and Business Curriculum Manager at Iowa State University.
Creating a canon for science
Stop being so afraid, says Pulitzer Prize winner Natalie Angier
- Leslie Scrivener, Toronto Star, May 13, 2007
In Grade 11 chemistry class, I sat beside a certain Greg Gibson, quarterback on our high school football team, who had recently arrived from Georgia and walked in a way - languidly, I suppose - that Canadian boys did not.
He also carried his books on his hips in a manner I had not seen before. I can remember each of these details, vividly, but I can't recall a single thing about the far less mysterious molecular bonds our chemistry teacher, whose name even eludes me, tried to teach us.
This does not surprise Natalie Angier, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for The New York Times, who has heard this tedious recital of our failure to grasp science too often.
"Chemistry is the subject that at least 6 out of every 6.0225 Americans insist they "flunked in high school," she writes.
Angier has worked with editors who questioned if a whale is a mammal, and heard that some people think DNA is localized somewhere low in the body, near the reproductive organs.
"This is the kind of thing I always keep in mind," she says. "People know almost nothing about science."
Observing this widespread ignorance, Angier was compelled to raise the science literacy bar herself - she wrote a book on the basic science that each of us should know.
"Understanding the basis of science is not as hard as people think," Angier says during a recent visit to Toronto.
"You can do more than you realize. You have to get rid of the automatic dismissal. But you do have to make a bit of an effort. It's not out of reach for anybody above the level ... " - she pauses, leaving the interviewer wondering whether her benchmark will be Grade 8 or a Bachelor's degree - "... of a domestic animal."
She interviewed hundreds of the world's geniuses, leading scientists, and Nobel laureates, as well as the researchers who consistently won the equivalent of teacher-of-the-year awards, asking them, "what do you wish people knew about science?"
Their answers have been distilled into The Canon - A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (Houghton Mifflin), 264 pages of playful prose, riddled with puns and written with the energy of a million whirling electrons.
As in: "... scientists view the second law of thermodynamics as a firearm of sorts, spraying a scattershot of slugs through the house, knocking pictures from the walls, blowing out the flat-screen television, and making chintzmeat of the furniture."
About half the scientists she interviewed thought the sciences were a harder study than the humanities. And there is, in conversation, usually the moment when the word "lazy" comes up, as in sometimes people are just too lazy to make the effort to study science.
In Canada (as in the United States), adults are struggling to grasp the core principles of science, the Canadian Council on Learning reports, citing a study that showed less than 20 per cent of Canadian adults are scientifically literate.
Furthermore, less than one-third of Canadians over 15 have the analytical reasoning skills to reach "the desired threshold for coping with the increasing skill demands of a knowledgeable society," the 2003 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey reported. Knowing more about science makes informed citizens who can engage in the debates of our time - stem-cell research, global warming, genetically modified foods, alternative fuels - with facts and reason, not hearsay.
And although more Canadians are earning advanced degrees, a declining number are earning Ph.D.s in math, engineering, and physical and computer sciences, and we fall well below the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development average. That, Canada's provincial premiers noted in a 2006 discussion paper, is "a significant impediment to the country's future ability to innovate and compete."
You could argue that there are not great incentives for studying science, though one of Angier's arguments is simply that science is fun and gets the synapses snapping.
But can you really blame students who pass up advanced science, when after years of study - a decade is not uncommon - the pay is demoralizing? The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a federal agency, estimates that a post-doctoral fellow in Canada earns between $45,000 and $55,000 annually.
Angier, 49, is fine-boned, wears her hair pulled back, and sports a monster diamond ring. She's married to Rick Weiss, who writes about science for The Washington Post, and they have a 10-year-old daughter who was born loving science.
Angier went to Barnard College in New York, where as a "classic bookworm" she studied English and wrote poetry for pleasure, but also physics and astronomy and thought she would like to start a science magazine for lay readers. Science added a rigor to her thinking, she says.
Her science writing career began in 1980 when she went to work for Discover magazine, where she specialized in biology. She was hired by The New York Times in 1990. The next year - and this is a measure of her talent - she won a Pulitzer for beat reporting.
The problem with understanding science, she says, may be rooted in the shortcomings of science education. "It's the memorization and glossary approach to education. You have to know the terms, and terms becomes the course," she says. She'd like to see an emphasis on how plants reproduce, not the rote memorization of plant names.
As physicist and string theorist Brian Greene says in The Code, "the wonder of science is that with a few very simple ideas, it can reveal incredibly rich phenomena."
Mathematics and science go arm in arm, and math often gets dragged out as an excuse for avoiding science, as in "I'm just no good at math," but Angier says that mastering math is not essential to appreciating or even practising science.
"Some scientists argue that math can get in the way and becomes a crutch. In biology you start doing all these models and get away from life... but people don't have to master math. They can work with a statistician."
In The Canon, Angier begins with a chapter on thinking scientifically, and then takes the skittish reader by the hand though probabilities, calibration, physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology and astronomy.
While attention might wander in the chapter on physics (all those positive and negative charges), it perks right up on molecular biology - which begins with a description of her nightly teeth-flossing regime as a defence against the 6,000 species of mouth bacteria that conspire to corrupt her molars.
Outside there are billions more, she tells us: "When you walk, you walk through and upon a drifting tulle of bacteria, like a Christo confabulation in Central Park, but less saffrony. Rub your index finger across this page, and, poof, a million microbes ruffled or displaced."
And in chemistry, the Achilles heel of high school students across the land, there's a section on molecules and "the bonds that bind and define them. As with the lovable British hit man of twenty-odd films, there is more than one way of being a Bond. You have your suave, supple, catlike bond, your stiff-shanked bond, your uncommitted, barely there bond."
Surely, high school chemistry class would have been considerably more compelling if only my long-forgotten teacher had put it that way.
Consumer Sensory Analysis of Organically and Conventionally Grown Vegetables
- Xin Zhao, Edgar Chambers IV, Ziad Matta, Thomas M. Loughin and Edward E. Carey, Journal of Food Science, March 2007 (Vol. 72 no. 2, p. S87)
ABSTRACT: Consumers of organically grown fruits and vegetables often believe that these products taste better than conventional produce. However, comparison of produce from supermarket shelves does not permit adequate assessment of this consumer perception, given potentially confounding cultivar and environmental effects. We used replicated side-by-side plots to produce organic and conventional vegetables for consumer sensory studies. In one test, red loose leaf lettuce, spinach, arugula, and mustard greens, grown organically and conventionally, were evaluated for overall liking as well as for intensity of flavor and bitterness. Another consumer test was conducted comparing organically and conventionally grown tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. Overall, organically and conventionally grown vegetables did not show significant differences in consumer liking or consumer-perceived sensory quality. The only exception was in tomatoes where the conventionally produced tomato was rated as having significantly stronger flavor than the organically produced tomato. However, overall liking was the same for both organic and conventional samples. As conventional tomatoes also were scored marginally significantly higher in ripeness and a positive correlation was found between ratings of flavor intensity and ripeness, the flavor difference observed could not be simply ascribed to the contrasting growing conditions. Consumer panelists in both tests considered organic produce to be healthier (72%) and more environmentally friendly (51%) than conventional produce, while 28% considered organic produce to have better taste. Covariance analysis indicated that consumer demographics affected sensory comparisons of organic and conventional lettuce and cucumbers. Future study is needed to substantiate the influence of segmentation of consumers on their preference for organic food.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net