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May 3, 2000


Speeding up the approval of biotech crops; Is Organic the Answer? What about pesticides? Online Activism



• US Lawmaker Attempts to Speed Up Approval of Biotech Crops

• Is Organic Food the Answer?

• Manure, farmer’s markets: solution for a growing world’s food needs?

• How Can Research on Plants Contribute to Promoting Human Health?

• When Bad Science gets Good Legs: online activism and impacts for food security science

• Are We Missing Something in the Debate on Bt Eggplant in India?

• Grow your own designer genes

• Evolution Rap, Like This!

• GMOs in Horticulture - Conference


US Lawmaker Attempts to Speed Up Approval of Biotech Crops

- Jackson Sun, May 27, 2011

U.S. Representative Stephen Fincher introduced legislation to speed up the approval process for biotech crops, according to a Fincher news update released from Washington, D.C. this morning.

More from the news update: The Expediting Agriculture Through Science (EATS) Act supports family farmers and the American agriculture industry to help supply food needs around the world by providing a defined timetable for the approval process of agriculture biotechnology products.

“In order for tomorrow’s agriculture community to meet the need of an ever growing population, we must have a clearly defined timetable for agriculture’s biotechnology approval process while ensuring the safety of our environment,” Rep. Fincher said. “As a farmer myself, I understand that a more efficient approval process will result in increased investment and jobs,” Fincher continued. “Family farmers in the United States have the ability to remain the global leaders in the biotech field, so long as Congress acts quickly to ensure future innovation.”

The EATS act would clearly define the amount of time to approve or deny a petition for biotech crops, regulated under the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The Act would give APHIS 180 Days to approve or deny a petition for non-regulated status with an additional 60 days if needed to ensure the safety of the environment and compliance is met before deeming the petition approved.


Is Organic Food the Answer?

- Pamela Ronald, Tomorrow’s Table, May 27, 2011


The journalist Marc Gunther recently posted a thoughtful article discussing public perceptions of the role of organic agriculture in a future sustainable food system.

He found that many consumers believe that there are only two ways to produce food:

"The first can be described, depending upon who's talking, as big, fast, modern, conventional, industrial, intensive, chemical, genetically-modified, processed and global. It's the system that delivers most of the food that most Americans eat."

"The second is described as organic, sustainable, local, small-scale, family-owned, natural, agro-ecological and slow. It's driving the growth of farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture, as well as Whole Foods, and it's increasingly being taken seriously by big companies like Walmart, Safeway and Kroger's."

But farming practices are not so black and white in the U. S. and around the world.

The USDA's National Organic Program Standards do not require that a farm be family- owned, local or small-scale. Take Earthbound farm for example. This 30,000 acre certified organic mega-farm sells boxes of processed, packaged greens to distant locales. Earthbound is big, fast, modern, industrial, intensive...and certified organic. Is that necessarily negative? I don't think so. They have an impressive operation and produce wonderful greens. However one drawback to their operation is that the convenient packaging, which reduces time spent on washing and spinning, also generates millions of plastic containers each year.

Not only are some of the most successful organic farms gigantic and global, but so are some of the enormous corporations that buy organic food (Whole Foods, Walmart, Safeway and Kroger's).

Actually, while you can still find ample debate on the blogs, the scientific evidence is clear: organically produced food is nutritionally equivalent to conventionally produced food.

When it comes to nutrition there are limits to what conventional plant breeding can offer. Because organic farming prohibits the use of genetically engineered seed, potential nutritional benefits provided by modern seed varieties will not be available to organic consumers. For example, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, daily consumption of a very modest amount of genetically engineered, Golden Rice - about a cup (or around 150 g uncooked weight) - could supply 50 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A for an adult.

"Because a large proportion of vitamin A-deficient children and their mothers reside in rice-consuming populations, particularly in Asia, Golden Rice should substantially reduce the prevalence and severity of vitamin A deficiency, and prevent at least hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and cases of blindness every year," says Alfred Sommer, professor and dean emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Golden Rice is expected to cost farmers about the same as other rice, and they will be able to save seeds for replanting.

"it strikes me as entirely possible (albeit unproven) that chemical pesticides could do some of us some harm."
A correction for Marc. There is ample scientific evidence that some pesticides (both organic pesticides and conventional) do cause human harm.

Chronic exposure to rotenone, a certified organic pesticide, can cause damage to liver and kidney. Methyl bromide, widely used on strawberries for years, is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer in farm workers. There are many other examples.

For these reasons, reducing the use of agricultural chemicals is one of the important goals of sustainable agriculture. It is clear that organic practices have reduced pesticides on 1% of US cropland. It is also clear that GE crops like BT corn and cotton have reduced insecticide use on hundreds of millions of acres throughout the world [10% of the ~1.5 billion hectares (3.7 billion acres) of global cropland]. In 2010, 90% of the15.4 million growers of these crops were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

As every farmer knows, farming practices span a continuum. Each season, crop and location brings challenges.

Pitting farming practices against each other only prevents the transformative changes needed on our farms. Without good science and good farming, we cannot even begin to dream about establishing an ecologically balanced, biologically based system of farming and ensuring food security.


Manure, farmer’s markets: solution for a growing world’s food needs?

- Hembree Brandon, Farm Press, May 27, 2011

Senator John Tester, D-Mont., told a Georgetown University audience that farm programs have “weakened agricultural diversity and made it harder for family farms to stay afloat.” He says also that the widespread adoption of genetically modified crops and “who controls seeds is particularly disturbing.”

At the same Future of Food Conference where Britain’s Prince Charles advocated for organic agriculture, a U.S. senator inveighed against federal farm programs and genetically modified crops.

John Tester, D-Mont., who told the Georgetown University audience, “I speak to you as a farmer who has made his living off the land, lived my whole life with my hands in the dirt,” says farm programs have weakened agricultural diversity and made it harder for family farms to stay afloat.”

Tester, who with his wife grows grow organic wheat, barley, and other crops on a farm that has been in their family more than 100 years, says also that “the rise in GMOs and who controls seeds is particularly disturbing.”
Nobody quarrels with the senator’s or Prince Charles’ right to farm however they wish. But however much they urge it so, the food needs of a burgeoning world population can’t be met with manure and local farmer’s markets.


How Can Research on Plants Contribute to Promoting Human Health?

- Cathie Martina et al. The Plant Cell Online May 201

One of the most pressing challenges for the next 50 years is to reduce the impact of chronic disease. Unhealthy eating is an increasing problem and underlies much of the increase in mortality from chronic diseases that is occurring worldwide. Diets rich in plant-based foods are strongly associated with reduced risks of major chronic diseases, but the constituents in plants that promote health have proved difficult to identify with certainty. This, in turn, has confounded the precision of dietary recommendations.

Plant biochemistry can make significant contributions to human health through the identification and measurement of the many metabolites in plant-based foods, particularly those known to promote health (phytonutrients). Plant genetics and metabolic engineering can be used to make foods that differ only in their content of specific phytonutrients. Such foods offer research tools that can provide significant insight into which metabolites promote health and how they work. Plant science can reduce some of the complexity of the diet-health relationship, and through building multidisciplinary interactions with researchers in nutrition and the pathology of chronic diseases.

Full paper at http://www.plantcell.org/content/early/2011/05/16/tpc.111.083279.abstract


When Bad Science gets Good Legs: online ctivism and impacts for food security science

- Cami Ryan, May 23, 2011
We are dealing with a whole new kind of anti-GM advocacy ‘animal’ these days… made stronger, faster with a wider scope of influence due, in large part, to the internet.

A study conducted by the Pew Institute in 2008 showed, at that point, that some 40% of survey respondents get most of their news from the Internet. This number was up almost 24% from the previous year. This trend in technological uptake is rising as TV and traditional newspapers as sources of news and information are on a steady decline (Pew Research Centre 2008). Between 2000 and 2010, internet usage grew, on average, 400+% worldwide (World Internet Users / Population Stats 2011).

Why does this matter? Well, anti-GM groups have changed their ‘modus operandi’. Once, interest groups would lobby or demonstrate or, in some extreme cases, resort to vandalizing field trials (twenty eights acts of vandalism were reported between January 1999 and April 2003 at the John Innes Institute and the Scottish Crop Research Institute (Galbraith 2003)). But now, a whole new generation of activism has evolved. Interest groups are rapidly adopting social media as a way to influence public opinion and to disparage modern plant biotechnology and associated practices. Given the Internet’s capacity to hyperlink across geographic boundaries and the relative low-cost of access to the Web and affiliated tools, it is used as a primary “organizing tool” for many non-government organizations (activists, civil society organizations, etc). As more and more advocacy activities move online, the need for off-line staffing and memberships to support these organizations dwindles. Thus, even the smallest of interest groups can greatly impact public opinion on a subject with a well-executed online campaign strategy. They can quickly build coalitions and mobilize the public around specific issues of interest at relatively low marginal costs (Ryan 2010).

This is the new reality or the ‘new legs’ of activism. Anti-GM sentiments and information - inaccurate and lacking accountability mechanisms - circulate like wildfire, technologically enabled by the interconnected, fast-moving ‘trains’ of Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools. According to Paarlberg and Pray (2008), the claims of these anti-GMO activist organizations “…often gain quick acceptance …and on occasion they do have direct impacts on government policy...”

Complicating all this is the fact that scientists have been slow in terms of taking up social media as communication tools. According to Lackes, et al. (2009), very few scientists use social media tools, significantly lagging the adoption rates for both business and personal use. VALGEN (Value Addition through Genomics http://www.valgen.ca/) conducted a poll of its principal investigators and researchers at the annual VALGEN meetings in Banff in January 2010. Of the 28 scientists in the room, only 58.3% stated that they used social media tools and only 36.9% of THOSE used social media for professional purposes (professional networking, recruitment, sharing/accessing knowledge) (VALGEN 2010). It seems that very few scientists are equipped to respond to the anti-GM movement in the context of the Internet.

The adoption of social media tools and online activism shows no signs of stopping. It makes dealing with the outcomes of ‘bad science’ particularly problematic. Years ago, The Lancet published an article on a study that linked the administration of vaccines with Autism. The results of this study – which stood on incredibly shaky methodological legs – still managed to impact society as it circulated through the media and was endorsed by the power of ‘the celebrity’. The article was eventually retracted but the damage had long-since been done. Immunization rates had declined and incidences of childhood disease had increased (with, often, fatal results).

Another study, standing on similarly shaky methodological legs, also turned into a media frenzy when the lead researcher, Arpad Putsztai, claimed that GM potatoes caused damage to the digestive and immune systems of rats. The study results were only published in letter format in The Lancet but genetic engineering, plant biotechnology and the agriculture industry – overall – took a huge hit. Yet one more feather in the ‘anti-GM movement’ cap.

These are only a couple of several historical examples of how ‘bad science’ (improperly executed and poorly peer-reviewed) can potentially lead to undesirable outcomes and, arguably, social deficits. The difference between then and now is that social media has further empowered the anti-GM agenda to more quickly circulate inaccurate information ‘unchecked’. Take, for example, the recent headlines regarding the results of a study done in Quebec (published in Reproductive Toxicology)… "GM food toxins found in the blood of 93% of unborn babies". This headline, or some version of it, has circulated through Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms. If you Google key search words, pages upon pages are generated that refer to this study. The study’s methodology and its results, again, are questionable at best (see my previous blog for more on this: http://doccami.posterous.com/gmos-toxins-and-unborn-babies-a-deeper-examin). But the average reader or ‘Joe' or 'Jane Public’ doesn’t know that.

What we have here is a ‘perfect storm’ of factors that, in combination, could very well spell disaster for food security: First, an anti-GM agenda gaining traction via the Internet, through social media tools and fuelled by the influence of ‘the celebrity’. Second, the lack of uptake of social media as a communication tool by scientists and science-advocates and; finally, the politics (and failings) of the peer review process.

It is evident that in order to address these failings, we can no longer rest on our laurels. We cannot continue to do what we have always done. Leadership is needed. En masse response from science and science advocates is required.


Are We Missing Something in the Debate on Bt Eggplant in India?

Deepthi Elizabeth Kolady, Asian Biotechnology and Development Monitor, March 2011


Current and long-term impacts of over-use of pesticides among
farmers on human health and the ecosystem as a whole are substantial, given
that farmers spray their eggplant with deadly pesticides 27 times a season,
right up to the time of harvest. The moratorium on commercialization of
Bt eggplant was imposed on the basis of precautionary principles.

However, what is conspicuous by its absence in the consultations leading up to the
moratorium was the issue of short and long term impacts of over-use
of pesticides. By focusing only on precautionary principles of release of
genetically modified eggplant, we seem to be closing our eyes to current


Grow your own designer genes

- Don Gardner, May 26, 2011, Bryan County Publishing. Via Checkbiotech.org


I always have perceived an attitude from opponents to so-called genetically engineered crop plants that this manipulation of genes and inserting bacterial genes into crop plants was unnatural at best and a downright Frankenstein-like affront to nature and nature’s God at worst. Nope. It happens all the time. We call it crown gall.

Our species is so smart that we still are learning from this lowly bacterium. Folks who believe we humans have come up with something truly novel in nature just are not informed on how many ways nature works and how amazing the world around us is.

Whatever we think is new already has been tried and perfected by nature long before the inspiration hit us. Why is it OK for nature to insert genes from a soil bacterium into hundreds of plant species, but it is horrible when we humans do the exact same thing?

Apparently, it is OK for us to backcross to get genes assembled into a new plant variety like the wind or a honeybee does, but it is not OK to do it the way a bacterium does.

The transfer of genes from bacteria to flowering plants is a well-trodden path by nature, so to suggest that this type of plant breeding is unnatural is irrational nonsense. Opponents try to separate out kingdom-to-kingdom gene shifts by calling it “genetic engineering.”

Would someone please tell me what food or fiber crop humans have not genetically engineered or genetically modified through plant selection? Every crop plant has been genetically engineered, whether tomato, pine or cotton. The argument appears to be about technique – or is it the mistaken belief that there is some kind of natural firewall against gene transfer between species?

This is neither the first time nor the last that opponents to human progress have built elaborate and contorted opposition on an absent foundation. Even with this advance, we agriculturists still use the genetic material we find laying around on the planet.

We have not created a new gene. We have not created a new life form. We have not even pushed the envelope beyond what nature already does, but we are learning from nature how to migrate genes from species to species.


Evolution Rap, Like This!

- Posted on: Jeff May 24, 2011

Video at http://scienceblogs.com/deanscorner/2011/05/evolution_rap_like_this.php

The Rap Guide to Evolution Music Videos, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.

I've been exploring the use of rap and pop culture to teach science and mathematics, ranging from Lupe Fiasco to Linkin Park, but that topic is for another day. But anyone interested in evolution, whether student or teacher, could find this "Evolution Rap" a refreshing approach.


GMOs in Horticulture - Conference

- Mpumalanga, South Africa from September 11-15, 2011


The International Society for Horticulture Science in conjunction with the local organizing committee in South Africa is pleased to announce the II International Society for Horticulture Science (ISHS) Genetically Modified Organisms in Horticulture (GMO 2011).

The theme of the symposium is “Paving the Way for a Sustainable Future”. The symposium will be held at the Protea Hotel - The Winkler in White River

This 2011 event will be an update of progress and challenges in plant biotechnology for horticulture crops with an extra focus on developing countries. This will also be an opportunity for plant biotechnologist to share their knowledge on new technologies to the horticultural research community. It will be relevant for research scientists and the industry involved in the developing of biotechnology products in the world.