Tuesday, 27 August 2013

What We Can't See is What Matters

Excellent article on something we'll be hearing a lot about over the next few years, where the real breakthroughs will come from in food sustainability.


Healthy Soil Microbes, Healthy People

The microbial community in the ground is as important as the one in our guts.

PICT0065_2inset.jpg We have been hearing a lot recently about a revolution in the way we think about human health -- how it is inextricably linked to the health of microbes in our gut, mouth, nasal passages, and other "habitats" in and on us. With the release last summer of the results of the five-year National Institutes of Health's Human Microbiome Project, we are told we should think of ourselves as a "superorganism," a residence for microbes with whom we have coevolved, who perform critical functions and provide services to us, and who outnumber our own human cells ten to one. For the first time, thanks to our ability to conduct highly efficient and low cost genetic sequencing, we now have a map of the normal microbial make-up of a healthy human, a collection of bacteria, fungi, one-celled archaea, and viruses. Collectively they weigh about three pounds -- the same as our brain.
Now that we have this map of what microorganisms are vital to our health, many believe that the future of healthcare will focus less on traditional illnesses and more on treating disorders of the human microbiome by introducing targeted microbial species (a "probiotic") and therapeutic foods (a "prebiotic" -- food for microbes) into the gut "community." Scientists in the Human Microbiome Project set as a core outcome the development of "a twenty-first century pharmacopoeia that includes members of the human microbiota and the chemical messengers they produce." In short, the drugs of the future that we ingest will be full of friendly germs and the food they like to eat.
The single greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future for the seven billion people on the planet is arguably immediately underfoot: the living soil, where we grow our food.
But there is another major revolution in human health also just beginning based on an understanding of tiny organisms. It is driven by the same technological advances and allows us to understand and restore our collaborative relationship with microbiota not in the human gut but in another dark place: the soil.
Just as we have unwittingly destroyed vital microbes in the human gut through overuse of antibiotics and highly processed foods, we have recklessly devastated soil microbiota essential to plant health through overuse of certain chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, failure to add sufficient organic matter (upon which they feed), and heavy tillage. These soil microorganisms -- particularly bacteria and fungi -- cycle nutrients and water to plants, to our crops, the source of our food, and ultimately our health. Soil bacteria and fungi serve as the "stomachs" of plants. They form symbiotic relationships with plant roots and "digest" nutrients, providing nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients in a form that plant cells can assimilate. Reintroducing the right bacteria and fungi to facilitate the dark fermentation process in depleted and sterile soils is analogous to eating yogurt (or taking those targeted probiotic "drugs of the future") to restore the right microbiota deep in your digestive tract.
The good news is that the same technological advances that allow us to map the human microbiome now enable us to understand, isolate, and reintroduce microbial species into the soil to repair the damage and restore healthy microbial communities that sustain our crops and provide nutritious food. It is now much easier for us to map genetic sequences of soil microorganisms, understand what they actually do and how to grow them, and reintroduce them back to the soil.
Since the 1970s, there have been soil microbes for sale in garden shops, but most products were hit-or-miss in terms of actual effectiveness, were expensive, and were largely limited to horticulture and hydroponics. Due to new genetic sequencing and production technologies, we have now come to a point where we can effectively and at low cost identify and grow key bacteria and the right species of fungi and apply them in large-scale agriculture. We can produce these "bio fertilizers" and add them to soybean, corn, vegetables, or other crop seeds to grow with and nourish the plant. We can sow the "seeds" of microorganisms with our crop seeds and, as hundreds of independent studies confirm, increase our crop yields and reduce the need for irrigation and chemical fertilizers.
PICT0050inset.jpgA mycorrhiza or fungus root in cross section. The stained-blue tissue is fungal.
These soil microorganisms do much more than nourish plants. Just as the microbes in the human body both aid digestion and maintain our immune system, soil microorganisms both digest nutrients and protect plants against pathogens and other threats. For over four hundred million years, plants have been forming a symbiotic association with fungi that colonize their roots, creating mycorrhizae (my-cor-rhi-zee), literally "fungus roots," which extend the reach of plant roots a hundred-fold. These fungal filaments not only channel nutrients and water back to the plant cells, they connect plants and actually enable them to communicate with one another and set up defense systems. A recent experiment in the U.K. showed that mycorrhizal filaments act as a conduit for signaling between plants, strengthening their natural defenses against pests. When attacked by aphids, a broad bean plant transmitted a signal through the mycorrhizal filaments to other bean plants nearby, acting as an early warning system, enabling those plants to begin to produce their defensive chemical that repels aphids and attracts wasps, a natural aphid predator. Another study showed that diseased tomato plants also use the underground network of mycorrhizal filaments to warn healthy tomato plants, which then activate their defenses before being attacked themselves.
Thus the microbial community in the soil, like in the human biome, provides "invasion resistance" services to its symbiotic partner. We disturb this association at our peril. As Michael Pollan recently noted, "Some researchers believe that the alarming increase in autoimmune diseases in the West may owe to a disruption in the ancient relationship between our bodies and their 'old friends' -- the microbial symbionts with whom we coevolved."
Not only do soil microorganisms nourish and protect plants, they play a crucial role in providing many "ecosystem services" that are absolutely critical to human survival. By many calculations, the living soil is the Earth's most valuable ecosystem, providing ecological services such as climate regulation, mitigation of drought and floods, soil erosion prevention, and water filtration, worth trillions of dollars each year. Those who study the human microbiome have now begun to borrow the term "ecosystem services" to describe critical functions played by microorganisms in human health.
Important species of microorganisms may have already gone extinct, some which might play a key role in our health.
With regard to stabilizing our increasingly unruly climate, soil microorganisms have been sequestering carbon for hundreds of millions of years through the mycorrizal filaments, which are coated in a sticky protein called "glomalin." Microbiologists are now working to gain a fuller understanding of its chemical nature and mapping its gene sequence. As much as 30 to 40 percent of the glomalin molecule is carbon. Glomalin may account for as much as one-third of the world's soil carbon -- and the soil contains more carbon than all plants and the atmosphere combined.
We are now at a point where microbes that thrive in healthy soil have been largely rendered inactive or eliminated in most commercial agricultural lands; they are unable to do what they have done for hundreds of millions of years, to access, conserve, and cycle nutrients and water for plants and regulate the climate. Half of the earth's habitable lands are farmed and we are losing soil and organic matter at an alarming rate. Studies show steady global soil depletion over time, and a serious stagnation in crop yields.
So, not only have we hindered natural processes that nourish crops and sequester carbon in cultivated land, but modern agriculture has become one of the biggest causes of climate instability. Our current global food system, from clearing forests to growing food, to fertilizer manufacturing, to food storage and packaging, is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. This is more than all the cars and trucks in the transportation sector, which accounts for about one-fifth of all green house gases globally.
The single greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future for the seven billion people on the planet is thus arguably immediately underfoot: the living soil, where we grow our food. Overall soil ecology still holds many mysteries. What Leonardo Da Vinci said five hundred years ago is probably still true today: "We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot." Though you never see them, ninety percent of all organisms on the seven continents live underground. In addition to bacteria and fungi, the soil is also filled with protozoa, nematodes, mites, and microarthropods. There can be 10,000 to 50,000 species in less than a teaspoon of soil. In that same teaspoon of soil, there are more microbes than there are people on the earth. In a handful of healthy soil, there is more biodiversity in just the bacterial community than you will find in all the animals of the Amazon basin.
mycorr2-R1-E007inset.jpg We hear about many endangered animals in the Amazon and now all around the world. We all know about the chainsaw-wielding workers cutting trees in the rainforest. But we hear relatively little about the destruction of the habitat of kingdoms of life beyond plant and animal -- that of bacteria and fungi. Some microbiologists are now warning us that we must stop the destruction of the human microbiome, and that important species of microorganisms may have already gone extinct, some which might possibly play a key role in our health.
We are making good progress in mapping the soil microbiome, hopefully in time to identify those species vital to soil and plant health, so they can be reintroduced as necessary. There is now an Earth Microbiome Project dedicated to analyzing and mapping microbial communities in soils and waters across the globe. We do not want to find ourselves in the position we have been with regard to many animal species that have gone extinct. We have already decimated or eliminated known vital soil microorganisms in certain soils and now need to reintroduce them. But it is very different from an effort, let us say, to reintroduce the once massive herds of buffalo to the American plains. We need these tiny partners to help build a sustainable agricultural system, to stabilize our climate in an era of increasing drought and severe weather, and to maintain our very health and well-being.
The mass destruction of soil microorganisms began with technological advances in the early twentieth century. The number of tractors in the U.S. went from zero to three million by 1950. Farmers increased the size of their fields and made cropping more specialized. Advances in the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizers made them abundant and affordable. Ammonium nitrate produced in WWII for munitions was then used for agriculture (we recently saw the explosive power contained in one such fertilizer factory in the town of West Texas). The "Green Revolution" was driven by a fear of how to feed massive population growth. It did produce more food, but it was at the cost of the long-term health of the soil. And many would argue that the food it did produce was progressively less nutritious as the soil became depleted of organic matter, minerals, and microorganisms. Arden Andersen, a soil scientist and agricultural consultant turned physician, has long argued that human health is directly correlated to soil health.
During this same period, we saw the rise of the "biological agriculture" movement, largely in reaction to these technological developments and the mechanization of agriculture. In the first part of the twentieth century, the British botanist Sir Albert Howard and his wife Gabrielle documented traditional Indian farming practices, the beginning of the biological farming movement in the West. Austrian writer, educator, and activist Rudolf Steiner advanced a concept of "biodynamic" agriculture. In 1930, the Soil Society was established in London. Shortly thereafter, Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese microbiologist working in soil science and plant pathology, developed a radical no-till organic method for growing grain and other crops that has been practiced effectively on a small scale.
Fortunately, there is now a strong business case for the reintroduction of soil microorganisms in both small farms and large-scale agribusiness. Scientific advances have now allowed us to take soil organisms from an eco-farming niche to mainstream agribusiness. We can replenish the soil and save billions of dollars. Many field tests, including a recent one at the University of North Dakota, show that application of a commercial mycorrhizal fungi product to the soybean root or seeds increased soybean yields from 5 to 15 percent. The U.S. market for soybeans is currently worth about $43 billion annually, so adding healthy microbes to the crop will save billions (the value of increased yields is three to five times greater than the cost of application at current prices). Studies show that there will also be major savings from reduced need for chemical fertilizers and irrigation due to more efficient up-take of minerals and water. This also means fewer toxins and pollutants, particularly nitrogen fertilizers, leaching from agricultural lands into our pubic water system and rivers, which has contributed to massive "dead zones" like that in the Mississippi Delta. For all these reasons, bio fertility products are now a $500 million industry and growing fast. The major agricultural chemical companies, like Bayer, BASF, Novozymes, Pioneer, and Syngenta are now actively selling, acquiring or developing these products.
Reintroducing microorganisms into the soil, together with the organic matter they feed upon, has the potential to be a key part of the next big revolution in human health -- the development of sustainable agriculture and food security based on restored soil health. Just as in the case of the human microbiome, the soil drugs of the future are ones full of friendly germs, and the foods they like to eat.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

More GMO Surprises

A couple of interesting stories on possible upsides to GMO's, including a surprising story by Tom Philpott of Mother Jones who's been an intelligent and constant critic of the technology. In the right hands, in the right circumstances, for the right reasons,  maybe it can do some good???


A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA

CLEWISTON, Fla. — The call Ricke Kress and every other citrus grower in Florida dreaded came while he was driving.
“It’s here” was all his grove manager needed to say to force him over to the side of the road.
The disease that sours oranges and leaves them half green, already ravaging citrus crops across the world, had reached the state’s storied groves. Mr. Kress, the president of Southern Gardens Citrus, in charge of two and a half million orange trees and a factory that squeezes juice for Tropicana and Florida’s Natural, sat in silence for several long moments.
“O.K.,” he said finally on that fall day in 2005, “let’s make a plan.”
In the years that followed, he and the 8,000 other Florida growers who supply most of the nation’s orange juice poured everything they had into fighting the disease they call citrus greening.
To slow the spread of the bacterium that causes the scourge, they chopped down hundreds of thousands of infected trees and sprayed an expanding array of pesticides on the winged insect that carries it. But the contagion could not be contained.
They scoured Central Florida’s half-million acres of emerald groves and sent search parties around the world to find a naturally immune tree that could serve as a new progenitor for a crop that has thrived in the state since its arrival, it is said, with Ponce de León. But such a tree did not exist.
“In all of cultivated citrus, there is no evidence of immunity,” the plant pathologist heading a National Research Council task force on the disease said.
In all of citrus, but perhaps not in all of nature. With a precipitous decline in Florida’s harvest predicted within the decade, the only chance left to save it, Mr. Kress believed, was one that his industry and others had long avoided for fear of consumer rejection. They would have to alter the orange’s DNA — with a gene from a different species.
Oranges are not the only crop that might benefit from genetically engineered resistance to diseases for which standard treatments have proven elusive. And advocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests. Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment, and that such alterations can be reliably tested.
But the idea of eating plants and animals whose DNA has been manipulated in a laboratory — called genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.’s — still spooks many people. Critics worry that such crops carry risks not yet detected, and distrust the big agrochemical companies that have produced the few in wide use. And hostility toward the technology, long ingrained in Europe, has deepened recently among Americans as organic food advocates, environmentalists and others have made opposition to it a pillar of a growing movement for healthier and ethical food choices.
Mr. Kress’s boss worried about damaging the image of juice long promoted as “100 percent natural.”
“Do we really want to do this?” he demanded in a 2008 meeting at the company’s headquarters on the northern rim of the Everglades.
Mr. Kress, now 61, had no particular predilection for biotechnology. Known for working long hours, he rose through the ranks at fruit and juice companies like Welch’s and Seneca Foods. On moving here for the Southern Gardens job, just a few weeks before citrus greening was detected, he had assumed his biggest headache would be competition from flavored waters, or persuading his wife to tolerate Florida’s humidity.
But the dwindling harvest that could mean the idling of his juice processing plant would also have consequences beyond any one company’s bottom line. Florida is the second-largest producer of orange juice in the world, behind Brazil. Its $9 billion citrus industry contributes 76,000 jobs to the state that hosts the Orange Bowl. Southern Gardens, a subsidiary of U.S. Sugar, was one of the few companies in the industry with the wherewithal to finance the development of a “transgenic” tree, which could take a decade and cost as much as $20 million.
An emerging scientific consensus held that genetic engineering would be required to defeat citrus greening. “People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice,” one University of Florida scientist told Mr. Kress.
And if the presence of a new gene in citrus trees prevented juice from becoming scarcer and more expensive, Mr. Kress believed, the American public would embrace it. “The consumer will support us if it’s the only way,” Mr. Kress assured his boss.
His quest to save the orange offers a close look at the daunting process of genetically modifying one well-loved organism — on a deadline. In the past several years, out of public view, he has considered DNA donors from all over the tree of life, including two vegetables, a virus and, briefly, a pig. A synthetic gene, manufactured in the laboratory, also emerged as a contender.
Trial trees that withstood the disease in his greenhouse later succumbed in the field. Concerns about public perception and potential delays in regulatory scrutiny put a damper on some promising leads. But intent on his mission, Mr. Kress shrugged off signs that national campaigns against genetically modified food were gaining traction.
Only in recent months has he begun to face the full magnitude of the gap between what science can achieve and what society might accept.
Millenniums of Intervention
Even in the heyday of frozen concentrate, the popularity of orange juice rested largely on its image as the ultimate natural beverage, fresh-squeezed from a primordial fruit. But the reality is that human intervention has modified the orange for millenniums, as it has almost everything people eat.
Before humans were involved, corn was a wild grass, tomatoes were tiny, carrots were only rarely orange and dairy cows produced little milk. The orange, for its part, might never have existed had human migration not brought together the grapefruit-size pomelo from the tropics and the diminutive mandarin from a temperate zone thousands of years ago in China. And it would not have become the most widely planted fruit tree had human traders not carried it across the globe.
The varieties that have survived, among the many that have since arisen through natural mutation, are the product of human selection, with nearly all of Florida’s juice a blend of just two: the Hamlin, whose unremarkable taste and pale color are offset by its prolific yield in the early season, and the dark, flavorful, late-season Valencia.
Because oranges themselves are hybrids and most seeds are clones of the mother, new varieties cannot easily be produced by crossbreeding — unlike, say, apples, which breeders have remixed into favorites like Fuji and Gala. But the vast majority of oranges in commercial groves are the product of a type of genetic merging that predates the Romans, in which a slender shoot of a favored fruit variety is grafted onto the sturdier roots of other species: lemon, for instance, or sour orange. And a seedless midseason orange recently adopted by Florida growers emerged after breeders bombarded a seedy variety with radiation to disrupt its DNA, a technique for accelerating evolution that has yielded new varieties in dozens of crops, including barley and rice.
Its proponents argue that genetic engineering is one in a continuum of ways humans shape food crops, each of which carries risks: even conventional crossbreeding has occasionally produced toxic varieties of some vegetables. Because making a G.M.O. typically involves adding one or a few genes, each containing instructions for a protein whose function is known, they argue, it is more predictable than traditional methods that involve randomly mixing or mutating many genes of unknown function.
But because it also usually involves taking DNA from the species where it evolved and putting it in another to which it may be only distantly related — or turning off genes already present — critics of the technology say it represents a new and potentially more hazardous degree of tinkering whose risks are not yet fully understood.
If he had had more time, Mr. Kress could have waited for the orange to naturally evolve resistance to the bacteria known as C. liberibacter asiaticus. That could happen tomorrow. Or it could take years, or many decades. Or the orange in Florida could disappear first.
Plunging Ahead
Early discussions among other citrus growers about what kind of disease research they should collectively support did little to reassure Mr. Kress about his own genetic engineering project.
“The public will never drink G.M.O. orange juice,” one grower said at a contentious 2008 meeting. “It’s a waste of our money.”
“The public is already eating tons of G.M.O.’s,” countered Peter McClure, a big grower.
“This isn’t like a bag of Doritos,” snapped another. “We’re talking about a raw product, the essence of orange.”
The genetically modified foods Americans have eaten for more than a decade — corn, soybeans, some cottonseed oil, canola oil and sugar — come mostly as invisible ingredients in processed foods like cereal, salad dressing and tortilla chips. And the few G.M.O.’s sold in produce aisles — a Hawaiian papaya, some squash, a fraction of sweet corn — lack the iconic status of a breakfast drink that, Mr. Kress conceded, is “like motherhood” to Americans, who drink more of it per capita than anyone else.
If various polls were to be believed, a third to half of Americans would refuse to eat any transgenic crop. One study’s respondents would accept only certain types: two-thirds said they would eat a fruit modified with another plant gene, but few would accept one with DNA from an animal. Fewer still would knowingly eat produce that contained a gene from a virus.
There also appeared to be an abiding belief that a plant would take on the identity of the species from which its new DNA was drawn, like the scientist in the movie “The Fly” who sprouted insect parts after a DNA-mixing mistake with a house fly.
Asked if tomatoes containing a gene from a fish would “taste fishy” in a question on a 2004 poll conducted by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University that referred to one company’s efforts to forge a frost-resistant tomato with a gene from the winter flounder, fewer than half correctly answered “no.” A fear that the genetic engineering of food would throw the ecosystem out of whack showed in the surveys too.
Mr. Kress’s researchers, in turn, liked to point out that the very reason genetic engineering works is that all living things share a basic biochemistry: if a gene from a cold-water fish can help a tomato resist frost, it is because DNA is a universal code that tomato cells know how to read. Even the most distantly related species — say, humans and bacteria — share many genes whose functions have remained constant across billions of years of evolution.
“It’s not where a gene comes from that matters,” one researcher said. “It’s what it does.”
Mr. Kress set the surveys aside.
He took encouragement from other attempts to genetically modify foods that were in the works. There was even another fruit, the “Arctic apple,” whose genes for browning were switched off, to reduce waste and allow the fruit to be more readily sold sliced.
“The public is going to be more informed about G.M.O.’s by the time we’re ready,” Mr. Kress told his research director, Michael P. Irey, as they lined up the five scientists whom Southern Gardens would underwrite. And to the scientists, growers and juice processors at a meeting convened by Minute Maid in Miami in early 2010, he insisted that just finding a gene that worked had to be his company’s priority.
The foes were formidable. C. liberibacter, the bacterium that kills citrus trees by choking off their flow of nutrients — first detected when it destroyed citrus trees more than a century ago in China — had earned a place, along with anthrax and the Ebola virus, on the Agriculture Department’s list of potential agents of bioterrorism. Asian citrus psyllids, the insects that suck the bacteria out of one tree and inject them into another as they feed on the sap of their leaves, can carry the germ a mile without stopping, and the females can lay up to 800 eggs in their one-month life.
Mr. Kress’s DNA candidate would have to fight off the bacteria or the insect. As for public acceptance, he told his industry colleagues, “We can’t think about that right now.”
The ‘Creep Factor’
Trim, silver-haired and described by colleagues as tightly wound (he prefers “focused”), Mr. Kress arrives at the office by 6:30 each morning and microwaves a bowl of oatmeal. He stocks his office cabinet with cans of peel-top Campbell’s chicken soup that he heats up for lunch. Arriving home each evening, he cuts a rose from his garden for his wife. Weekends, he works in his yard and pores over clippings about G.M.O.’s in the news.
For a man who takes pleasure in routine, the uncertainty that marked his DNA quest was disquieting. It would cost Southern Gardens millions of dollars just to perform the safety tests for a single gene in a single variety of orange. Of his five researchers’ approaches, he had planned to narrow the field to the one that worked best over time.
But in 2010, with the disease spreading faster than anyone anticipated, the factor that came to weigh most was which could be ready first.
To fight C. liberibacter, Dean Gabriel at the University of Florida had chosen a gene from a virus that destroys bacteria as it replicates itself. Though such viruses, called bacteriophages (“phage” means to devour), are harmless to humans, Mr. Irey sometimes urged Mr. Kress to consider the public relations hurdle that might come with such a strange-sounding source of the DNA. “A gene from a virus,” he would ask pointedly, “that infects bacteria?”
But Mr. Kress’s chief concern was that Dr. Gabriel was taking too long to perfect his approach.
A second contender, Erik Mirkov of Texas A&M University, was further along with trees he had endowed with a gene from spinach — a food, he reminded Mr. Kress, that “we give to babies.” The gene, which exists in slightly different forms in hundreds of plants and animals, produces a protein that attacks invading bacteria.
Even so, Dr. Mirkov faced skepticism from growers. “Will my juice taste like spinach?” one asked.
“Will it be green?” wondered another.
“This gene,” he invariably replied, “has nothing to do with the color or taste of spinach. Your body makes very similar kinds of proteins as part of your own defense against bacteria.”
When some of the scientist’s promising trees got sick in their first trial, Mr. Kress agreed that he should try to improve on his results in a new generation of trees, by adjusting the gene’s placement. But transgenic trees, begun as a single cell in a petri dish, can take two years before they are sturdy enough to place in the ground and many more years to bear fruit.
“Isn’t there a gene,” Mr. Kress asked Mr. Irey, “to hurry up Mother Nature?”
For a time, the answer seemed to lie with a third scientist, William O. Dawson at the University of Florida, who had managed to alter fully grown trees by attaching a gene to a virus that could be inserted by way of a small incision in the bark. Genes transmitted that way would eventually stop functioning, but Mr. Kress hoped to use it as a stopgap measure to ward off the disease in the 60 million citrus trees already in Florida’s groves. Dr. Dawson joked that he hoped at least to save the grapefruit, whose juice he enjoyed, “preferably with a little vodka in it.”
But his most promising result that year was doomed from the beginning: of the dozen bacteria-fighting genes he had then tested on his greenhouse trees, the one that appeared effective came from a pig.
One of about 30,000 genes in the animal’s genetic code, it was, he ventured, “a pretty small amount of pig.”
“There’s no safety issue from our standpoint — but there is a certain creep factor,” an Environmental Protection Agency official observed to Mr. Kress, who had included it on an early list of possibilities to run by the agency.
“At least something is working,” Mr. Kress bristled. “It’s a proof of concept.”
A similar caution dimmed his hopes for the timely approval of a synthetic gene, designed in the laboratory of a fourth scientist, Jesse Jaynes of Tuskegee University. In a simulation, Dr. Jaynes’s gene consistently vanquished the greening bacteria. But the burden of proving a synthetic gene’s safety would prolong the process. “You’re going to get more questions,” Mr. Kress was told, “with a gene not found in nature.”
And in the fall of 2010, an onion gene that discouraged psyllids from landing on tomato plants was working in the Cornell laboratory of Mr. Kress’s final hope, Herb Aldwinckle. But it would be some time before the gene could be transferred to orange trees.
Only Dr. Mirkov’s newly fine-tuned trees with the spinach gene, Mr. Kress and Mr. Irey agreed, could be ready in time to stave off what many believed would soon be a steep decline in the harvest. In the fall of 2010, they were put to the test inside a padlocked greenhouse stocked with infected trees and psyllids.
The Monsanto Effect
Mr. Kress’s only direct brush so far with the broader battle raging over genetically modified food came in December 2010, in the reader comments on a Reuters article alluding to Southern Gardens’ genetic engineering efforts.
Some readers vowed not to buy such “frankenfood.” Another attributed a rise in allergies to genetic engineering. And dozens lambasted Monsanto, the St. Louis-based company that dominates the crop biotechnology business, which was not even mentioned in the article.
“If this trend goes on, one day, there will be only Monsanto engineered foods available,” read one letter warning of unintended consequences.
Mr. Kress was unperturbed. Dozens of long-term animal feeding studies had concluded that existing G.M.O.’s were as safe as other crops, and the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization and others had issued statements to the same effect.
But some of his researchers worried that the popular association between G.M.O.’s and Monsanto — and in turn between Monsanto and the criticisms of modern agriculture — could turn consumers against Southern Gardens’ transgenic oranges.
“The article doesn’t say ‘Monsanto’ anywhere, but the comments are all about Monsanto,” Dr. Mirkov said.
It had not helped win hearts and minds for G.M.O.’s, Mr. Kress knew, that the first such crop widely adopted by farmers was the soybean engineered by Monsanto with a bacteria gene — to tolerate a weed killer Monsanto also made.
Starting in the mid-1990s, soybean farmers in the United States overwhelmingly adopted that variety of the crop, which made it easier for them to control weeds. But the subsequent broader use of the chemical — along with a distaste for Monsanto’s aggressive business tactics and a growing suspicion of a food system driven by corporate profits — combined to forge a consumer backlash. Environmental activists vandalized dozens of field trials and protested brands that used Monsanto’s soybeans or corn, introduced soon after, which was engineered to prevent pests from attacking it.
In response, companies including McDonald’s, Frito-Lay and Heinz pledged not to use G.M.O. ingredients in certain products, and some European countries prohibited their cultivation.
Some of Mr. Kress’s scientists were still fuming about what they saw as the lost potential for social good hijacked both by the activists who opposed genetic engineering and the corporations that failed to convince consumers of its benefits. In many developing countries, concerns about safety and ownership of seeds led governments to delay or prohibit cultivation of needed crops: Zambia, for instance, declined shipments of G.M.O. corn even during a 2002 famine.
”It’s easy for someone who can go down to the grocery store and buy anything they need to be against G.M.O.’s,” said Dr. Jaynes, who faced such barriers with a high-protein sweet potato he had engineered with a synthetic gene.
To Mr. Kress in early 2011, any comparison to Monsanto — whose large blocks of patents he had to work around, and whose thousands of employees worldwide dwarfed the 750 he employed in Florida at peak harvest times — seemed far-fetched. If it was successful, Southern Gardens would hope to recoup its investment by charging a royalty for its trees. But its business strategy was aimed at saving the orange crop, whose total acreage was a tiny fraction of the crops the major biotechnology companies had pursued.
He urged his worried researchers to look at the early success of Flavr Savr tomatoes. Introduced in 1994 and engineered to stay fresh longer than traditional varieties, they proved popular enough that some stores rationed them, before business missteps by their developer ended their production.
And he was no longer alone in the pursuit of a genetically modified orange. Citrus growers were collectively financing research into a greening-resistant tree, and the Agriculture Department had also assigned a team of scientists to it. Any solution would have satisfied Mr. Kress. Almost daily, he could smell the burning of infected trees, which mingled with orange-blossom sweetness in the grove just beyond Southern Gardens’ headquarters.
A Growing Urgency
In an infection-filled greenhouse where every nontransgenic tree had showed symptoms of disease, Dr. Mirkov’s trees with the spinach gene had survived unscathed for more than a year. Mr. Kress would soon have 300 of them planted in a field trial. But in the spring of 2012, he asked the Environmental Protection Agency, the first of three federal agencies that would evaluate his trees, for guidance. The next step was safety testing. And he felt that it could not be started fast enough.
Dr. Mirkov assured him that the agency’s requirements for animal tests to assess the safety of the protein produced by his gene, which bore no resemblance to anything on the list of known allergens and toxins, would be minimal.
“It’s spinach,” he insisted. “It’s been eaten for centuries.”
Other concerns weighed on Mr. Kress that spring: growers in Florida did not like to talk about it, but the industry’s tripling of pesticide applications to kill the bacteria-carrying psyllid was, while within legal limits, becoming expensive and worrisome. One widely used pesticide had stopped working as the psyllid evolved resistance, and Florida’s citrus growers’ association was petitioning one company to lift the twice-a-season restrictions on spraying young trees — increasingly its only hope for an uninfected harvest.
Others in the industry who knew of Mr. Kress’s project were turning to him. He agreed to speak at the fall meeting of citrus growers in California, where the greening disease had just been detected. “We need to hear about the transgenic solution,” said Ted Batkin, the association’s director. But Mr. Kress worried that he had nothing to calm their fears.
And an increasingly vocal movement to require any food with genetically engineered ingredients to carry a “G.M.O.” label had made him uneasy.
Supporters of one hotly contested California ballot initiative argued for labeling as a matter of consumer rights and transparency — but their advertisements often implied the crops were a hazard: one pictured a child about to take a joyful bite of a pest-resistant cob of corn, on which was emblazoned a question mark and the caption “Corn, engineered to grow its own pesticide.”
Yet the gene that makes corn insect-resistant, he knew, came from the same soil bacterium long used by organic food growers as a natural insecticide.
Arguing that the Food and Drug Administration should require labels on food containing G.M.O.’s, one leader of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, cited “pink slime, deadly melons, tainted turkeys and BPA in our soup.”
Mr. Kress attributed the labeling campaigns to the kind of tactic any industry might use to gain a competitive edge: they were financed largely by companies that sell organic products, which stood to gain if packaging implying a hazard drove customers to their own non-G.M.O. alternatives. He did not aim to hide anything from consumers, but he would want them to understand how and why his oranges were genetically engineered. What bothered him was that a label seemed to lump all G.M.O.’s into one stigmatized category.
And when the E.P.A. informed him in June 2012 that it would need to see test results for how large quantities of spinach protein affected honeybees and mice, he gladly wrote out the $300,000 check to have the protein made.
It was the largest single expense yet in a project that had so far cost more than $5 million. If these tests raised no red flags, he would need to test the protein as it appears in the pollen of transgenic orange blossoms. Then the agency would want to test the juice.
“Seems excessive,” Dr. Mirkov said.
But Mr. Kress and Mr. Irey shared a sense of celebration. The path ahead was starting to clear.
Rather than wait for Dr. Mirkov’s 300 trees to flower, which could take several years, they agreed to try to graft his spinach gene shoots to mature trees to hasten the production of pollen — and, finally, their first fruit, for testing.
Wall of Opposition
Early one morning a year ago, Mr. Kress checked the Agriculture Department’s Web site from home. The agency had opened its 60-day public comment period on the trees modified to produce “Arctic apples” that did not brown.
His own application, he imagined, would take a similar form.
He skimmed through the company’s 163-page petition, showing how the apples are equivalent in nutritional content to normal apples, how remote was the likelihood of cross-pollination with other apple varieties and the potentially bigger market for a healthful fruit.
Then he turned to the comments. There were hundreds. And they were almost universally negative. Some were from parents, voicing concerns that the nonbrowning trait would disguise a rotten apple — though transgenic apples rotten from infection would still turn brown. Many wrote as part of a petition drive by the Center for Food Safety, a group that opposes biotechnology.
“Apples are supposed to be a natural, healthy snack,” it warned. “Genetically engineered apples are neither.”
Others voiced a general distrust of scientists’ guarantees: “Too many things were presented to us as innocuous and years later we discovered it was untrue,” wrote one woman. “After two cancers I don’t feel like taking any more unnecessary risks.”
Many insisted that should the fruit be approved, it ought to be labeled.
That morning, Mr. Kress drove to work late. He should not be surprised by the hostility, he told himself.
Mr. Irey tried to console him with good news: the data on the honeybees and mice had come back. The highest dose of the protein the E.P.A. wanted tested had produced no ill effect.
But the magnitude of the opposition had never hit Mr. Kress so hard. “Will they believe us?” he asked himself for the first time. “Will they believe we’re doing this to eliminate chemicals and we’re making sure it’s safe? Or will they look at us and say, ‘That’s what they all say?’ ”
The major brands were rumored to be looking beyond Florida for their orange juice — perhaps to Brazil, where growers had taken to abandoning infected groves to plant elsewhere. Other experiments that Mr. Kress viewed as similar to his own had foundered. Pigs engineered to produce less-polluting waste had been euthanized after their developer at a Canadian university had failed to find investors. A salmon modified to grow faster was still awaiting F.D.A. approval. A study pointing to health risks from G.M.O.’s had been discredited by scientists, but was contributing to a sense among some consumers that the technology is dangerous.
And while the California labeling measure had been defeated, it had spawned a ballot initiative in Washington State and legislative proposals in Connecticut, Vermont, New Mexico, Missouri and many other states.
In the heat of last summer, Mr. Kress gardened more savagely than his wife had ever seen.
Driving through the Central Valley of California last October to speak at the California Citrus Growers meeting, Mr. Kress considered how to answer critics. Maybe even a blanket “G.M.O.” label would be O.K., he thought, if it would help consumers understand that he had nothing to hide. He could never prove that there were no risks to genetically modifying a crop. But he could try to explain the risks of not doing so.
Southern Gardens had lost 700,000 trees trying to control the disease, more than a quarter of its total. The forecast for the coming spring harvest was dismal. The approval to use more pesticide on young trees had come through that day. At his hotel that night, he slipped a new slide into his standard talk.
On the podium the next morning, he talked about the growing use of pesticides: “We’re using a lot of chemicals, pure and simple,” he said. “We’re using more than we’ve ever used before.”
Then he stopped at the new slide. Unadorned, it read “Consumer Acceptance.” He looked out at the audience.
What these growers wanted most, he knew, was reassurance that he could help them should the disease spread. But he had to warn them: “If we don’t have consumer confidence, it doesn’t matter what we come up with.”
One recent sunny morning, Mr. Kress drove to a fenced field, some distance from his office and far from any other citrus tree. He unlocked the gate and signed in, as required by Agriculture Department regulations for a field trial of a genetically modified crop.
Just in the previous few months, Whole Foods had said that because of customer demand it would avoid stocking most G.M.O. foods and require labels on them by 2018. Hundreds of thousands of protesters around the world had joined in a “March Against Monsanto” — and the Agriculture Department had issued its final report for this year’s orange harvest showing a 9 percent decline from last year, attributable to citrus greening.
But visiting the field gave him some peace. In some rows were the trees with no new gene in them, sick with greening. In others were the 300 juvenile trees with spinach genes, all healthy. In the middle were the trees that carried his immediate hopes: 15 mature Hamlins and Valencias, seven feet tall, onto which had been grafted shoots of Dr. Mirkov’s spinach gene trees.
There was good reason to believe that the trees would pass the E.P.A.’s tests when they bloom next spring. And he was gathering the data the Agriculture Department would need to ensure that the trees posed no risk to other plants. When he had fruit, the Food and Drug Administration would compare its safety and nutritional content to conventional oranges.
In his office is a list of groups to contact when the first G.M.O. fruit in Florida are ready to pick: environmental organizations, consumer advocates and others. Exactly what he would say when he finally contacted them, he did not know. Whether anyone would drink the juice from his genetically modified oranges, he did not know.
But he had decided to move ahead.
Late this summer he will plant several hundred more young trees with the spinach gene, in a new greenhouse. In two years, if he wins regulatory approval, they will be ready to go into the ground. The trees could be the first to produce juice for sale in five years or so.
Whether it is his transgenic tree, or someone else’s, he believed, Florida growers will soon have trees that could produce juice without fear of its being sour, or in short supply.
For a moment, alone in the field, he let his mind wander.
“Maybe we can use the technology to improve orange juice,” he could not help thinking. “Maybe we can find a way to have oranges grow year-round, or get two for every one we get now on a tree.”
Then he reined in those thoughts.
He took the clipboard down, signed out and locked the gate.


In Which I Actually Endorse One Use of GMOs

Citrus greening
In a July 27 feature article that set the interwebs aflame, New York Times reporter Amy Harmon told the tale of a bacterial pathogen that's stalking the globe's citrus trees, a Florida orange-juice company's effort to find a solution to the problem through genetic engineering.
An invasive insect called the Asian citrus psyllids carries the bacteria, known as Candidatus Liberibacter, from tree to tree, and it causes oranges and other citrus fruits to turn green and rot. "Citrus greening," as the condition has become known, has emerged as a pest nearly wherever citrus is grown globally. Harmon reported that an "emerging scientific consensus" holds that only genetic engineering can defeat it.
Meanwhile, Michael Pollan, a prominent food-industry and agribusiness critic, tweeted this:
The "2 many industry talking pts" bit earned him an outpouring of bile from GMO industry defenders (see here and here, as well as responses to Pollans's tweet). But after digging a bit into the citrus-greening problem, I think Pollan's pithy construction essentially nailed it. Harmon's story does contain some unchallenged industry talking points; yet it is also an important contribution, because citrus greening might just be one of the few areas wherein GM technology might be legitimately useful.
As for unexamined industry talking points, Harmon declares that "Dozens of long-term animal feeding studies had concluded that existing G.M.O.s were as safe as other crops, and the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization and others had issued statements to the same effect," echoing an often-repeated industry claim.
But as the Union of Concerned Scientists' Doug Gurian-Sherman, who worked as a scientist assessing biotech risk at the EPA, has shown (see here  and here), the situation is a bit more complicated than that. He writes: "No long-term safety tests in animals are required by any regulatory agency. In some circumstances, 90-day, so-called sub-chronic tests may be required in Europe. But 90 days is far short of the one to two years that usually satisfy long-term safety test requirements."
And the World Health Organization has this to say: "individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods."
Another slightly shaky assertion in Harmon's piece concerns possible non-GMO solutions to the citrus-greening problem. She writes:
They scoured Central Florida’s half-million acres of emerald groves and sent search parties around the world to find a naturally immune tree that could serve as a new progenitor for a crop that has thrived in the state since its arrival, it is said, with Ponce de León. But such a tree did not exist. “In all of cultivated citrus, there is no evidence of immunity,” the plant pathologist heading a National Research Council task force on the disease said.
And that's the last we hear of conventional breeding as a possible solution in the piece. But I talked to Ed Stover, a geneticist at the US Horticultural Research Laboratory, who has been working on the citrus-greening problem since 2008, and got a more nuanced perspective.
"We are seeing what appears to be substantial resistance, or tolerance, [to the greening bacteria] in a handful of genotypes of conventional citrus," he told me. And they're intercrossing these genotypes together to create a pyramid effect—orange plants with the genetic makeup to resist greening in several distinct ways.
But there's a "but": "We're not sure at this point that what we're seeing as tolerance or resistance will be robust in the face of diverse strains of Liberibacter," the bacteria that causes greening, he said.
And that's where we get to the transgenic solutions chronicled by Harmon. Stover told me that while his conventional methods promise to deliver resistance to greening at least for a while, "at this point it appears that transgenics may be our best hope of true immunity."
Then we got into a discussion of "resistance" or "tolerance" on the one hand, and "immunity" on the other. The first category would include plants that would become infected with the greening bacteria, but still be able to function and produce fruit—they way you might be able to, say, shake off a mild cold and still go to work. The second category, immune trees, wouldn't be infected by the bacteria at all. And that is what GM citrus project Harmon describes is promising, Stover said.
However, he wrote in a follow-up email, GM-conferred immunity wouldn’t necessarily be permanent. A scenario wherein the greening bacteria develops resistance to the GM plants "is always possible" he wrote. He added:
Plant breeding for disease resistance is often an ongoing process, with new lines needed as the pathogen evolves. I don’t think any of the folks working on transgenic citrus believe that the lines they produce will never be improved or bested.
I got a similar perspective from Tim Gottwald, a plant pathologist at the US Horticultural Research Laboratory in Florida. Gottwald spent years studying a possible biodiversity-based solution to greening. Farmers in Vietnam discovered that when they inter-planted citrus with guava, a tropical fruit tree, volatile chemicals produced by the guava seemed to inhibit the spread of the greening bug.
When he tested the method in Florida, "it didn’t work," he told me. One reason is that since they evolved to thrive year-round in warm weather, guava trees go dormant in Florida's winters. And that means no volatile chemicals for a swath of the year—and an opportunity for greening to establish itself. Gottwald, like Stover, told me that he thought GMOs offered the most promise for fighting off the scourge of greening.
Of course, the Candidatus Liberibacter bacteria has proven to be a tenacious pathogen; and while the GM trees that Harmon writes about are working in research plots, none are at the stage where they've proven to flourish in the field at large scale.
And as Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook told me, the threat of resistance is real. "There's no reason to believe that a gene that's turned on all the time in the plant is going to last any longer than a typical chemical [pesticide] solution in terms of the evolution of resistance," he said. Bacterial pathogens often develop resistance to pesticides in three to five years, he added.
Benbrook said that systemic, multi-pronged approaches to fighting a tough pathogen like Candidatus Liberibacter are the most stable and resilient. And GM solutions might be a part such a strategy in the case of citrus, but aren't likely to be effective in the long term on their own.
As for the holes in the safety-testing system pointed out by Gurian-Sherman and the related consumer resistance to GM orange juice discussed by Harmon, Benbrook suggested that the solution would be for the broader ag-biotech industry, in conjunction with the Florida orange industry and the USDA, invest in independent, multi-generational safety testing. If no problems come up in such an open, transparent testing regime for GM orange juice—which he added would be quite expensive—"then I think critics will back off," he said.
So in the case of Florida's beleaguered orange industry, GM technology offers promise, but no panacea.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Catching up on GMO's

Many people have made their minds up when it comes to Genetically Modified Organisms, either pro or con,  others are more conflicted. Here's an excellent article bringing all of the issues up to date. If you're on the fence it won't make it any easier, but who said this should be easy.


5 Surprising Genetically Modified Foods

Leaving aside the question of whether they're good or bad for a moment, what exactly are GMOs, and which foods are they in?

Golden rice
GE rice may soon be approved for human consumption. Photo illustration/Photos from IRRI, WIkimedia Commons
By now, you've likely heard about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the controversy over whether they're the answer to world hunger or the devil incarnate. But for right now, let's leave aside that debate and turn to a more basic question: When you go to the supermarket, do you know which foods are most likely to be—or contain ingredients that are—genetically engineered? A handy FAQ:
So what exactly are genetically modified organisms?
GMOs are plants or animals that have undergone a process wherein scientists alter their genes with DNA from different species of living organisms, bacteria, or viruses to get desired traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of pesticides.
But haven't farmers been selectively breeding crops to get larger harvests for centuries? How is this any different?
Over at Grist, Nathanael Johnson has a great answer to this question—but in a nutshell: Yes, farmers throughout history have been raising their plants to achieve certain desired traits such as improved taste, yield or disease resistance. But this kind of breeding still relies on the natural reproductive processes of the organisms, where as genetic engineering involves the addition of foreign genes that would not occur in nature.
Am I eating GMOs?
Probably. Since several common ingredients like corn starch and soy protein are predominantly derived from genetically modified crops, it's pretty hard to avoid GE foods altogether. In fact, GMOs are present in 60 to 70 percent of foods on US supermarket shelves, according to Bill Freese at the Center for Food Safety; the vast majority of processed foods contain GMOs. One major exception is fresh fruits and veggies. The only GM produce you're likely to find is the Hawaiian papaya, a small amount of zucchini and squash, and some sweet corn. No meat, fish and poultry products approved for direct human consumption are bioengineered at this point, however most of the feed for livestock and fish is derived from GE corn, alfalfa, and other biotech grains. Only organic varieties of these animal products are guaranteed GMO-free feed.
So what are some examples of food that are genetically modified?
1. Papayas: In the 1990s, Hawaiian papaya trees were plagued by the ringspot virus which decimated nearly half the crop in the state. In 1998, scientists developed a transgenic fruit called Rainbow papaya which is resistant to the virus. Now 77 percent of the crop grown in Hawaii is genetically engineered (GE).
2. Milk: rGBH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone, is a GE variation on a naturally occurring hormone injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. It is banned for milk destined for human consumption in the European Union, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Many milk brands that are rGBH-free label their milk as such, but as much as 40 percent of our dairy products including ice cream and cheese contains the hormone.
3. Corn on the Cob: While 90 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, most of that crop is used for animal feed or ethanol and much of the rest ends up in processed foods. Sweet corn—the stuff that you steam or grill on the barbecue and eat on the cob—was GMO-free until last year when Monsanto rolled out its first GE harvest of sweet corn. While consumers successfully petitioned Whole Foods and Trader Joes to not carry the variety, Walmart has begun stocking the shelves with it without any label.
4. Squash and zucchini: While the market share of squashes are not GE, approximately 25,000 acres of crookneck, straightneck and zucchinis have been bioengineered to be virus resistant.
5. "All Natural" foods: Be wary of this label if you're trying to avoid GE foods. Right now there is no strict definition of what constitutes a natural food. This could be changing soon as federal court judges recently requested the Food and Drug Administration to determine whether the term can be used to describe foods containing GMOs to help resolve pending class action suits against General Mills, Campbell Soup Co., and the tortilla manufacturer Gruma Corp.
Are there any foods I've heard might be genetically modified—but actually aren't?
1. Potatoes: In 1995, Monsanto introduced genetically modified potatoes for human consumption, but after pressure from consumers, McDonald's and several other major fast food chains told their french-fry suppliers to stop growing GE potatoes. The crop has since been removed from the market.
2. Seedless Watermelon: While it would seem plausible that a fruit that produces no seeds has been bioengineered, the seedless watermelon is a hybrid of two separate breeds. It has been nicknamed the "mule of the watermelon world."
3. Salmon: Currently no meat, fish or egg products are genetically engineered, though a company called Aqua Bounty has an application in with the FDA to approve its GE salmon.
4. Soymilk: While 93 percent of soy grown in the United States is genetically engineered, most major brands of soy milk are GMO-free. Silk, the best-selling soymilk brand in the country joined the Non-GMO Project in 2010. Most tofu sold in the United States is also GMO-free.
5. Rice: A staple food for nearly half the world's population, there are currently no varieties of GM rice approved for human consumption. However, that could soon change. A genetically modified variety called golden rice being developed in the Philippines has been altered to include beta-carotene, a source of vitamin A. Backers are lauding it as a way to alleviate nutrient deficiency for the populations in developing countries.
How about organic foods?
Since the late '90s, USDA organic standards have prohibited any genetically modified ingredients. Originally the agency tried to include GE foods under the organic umbrella, but backed down in 2002 after a massive public outcry to save organic standards.
How long have I been eating GE food?
Scientists conducted the first GE food trials the late 1980s, and in 1994, a biotech company called Calgene released the first GMO approved for human consumption: the "Flavr Savr tomato," designed to stay ripe on the vine longer without getting squishy. The product, which Monsanto eventually picked up, flopped, but it paved the way for others: Biotech companies have made billions since with GE corn, soy bean, cotton, and canola.
Aren't food companies required to let me know whether their products contain GMOs?
Not in the United States. Sixty-four developing and developed countries require GMO food labeling, according to Freese at the Center for Food Safety. You may have heard about the recent string of "Right To Know" bills in state assemblies across the country. The bills are aimed to require food companies to label any products that contain genetically modified organisms. Connecticut and Maine recently passed laws that would require food manufacturers to reveal GE ingredients on products' packaging, but those laws won't go into effect until other states adopt similar measures. Americans overwhelmingly support such laws, with poll after poll showing that over 90 percent of respondents support mandatory labeling. Biotech companies and the food industry say that such labeling would be expensive and pointless since genetically engineered foods have been declared safe for human consumption.
So if the food is safe, what's all the fuss about them?
First off, not everyone agrees that GMOs are safe to eat, especially over the long term. The European Union remains decidedly skeptical with very few approved GE crops grown on the continent and mandatory labeling in place for products that contain GMOs. Some scientists fear that GMOs could cause allergies in humans. Others point to the environmental consequences of the farming of GE crops.
How do GMOs affect the environment?
One word: Pesticides. Hundreds of millions of extra pounds of pesticides. The six biggest producers of GE seeds—Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and Pioneer (DuPont)—are also the biggest producers of chemical herbicides and insecticides. Monsanto's Round Up Ready crops, for example, are genetically engineered to be immune to herbicide so that farmers can destroy weeds without killing their cash crops. But the process has spawned Round Up resistant weeds, leading farmers to apply greater and greater doses of the chemical or even resort to more toxic methods to battle back the superweeds.
Where can I learn more about GMOs?
Mother Jones' Tom Philpott writes critically about GMOs often. In this 2011 Scientific American piece, Brendan Borrell lays out the pro-GMO case very well. Grist's Nathanael Johnson has written several posts that clarify the basic science behind GE crops, and a New York Times Room for Debate from 2009 offers a pretty good synopsis of the controversy. Food policy wonks might enjoy perusing the Food and Agriculture Organization's page on biotechnology in agriculture; if you're looking for a more entertaining way to educate yourself, a documentary called GMO OMG opens in select theaters this fall.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Get It in Writing

As someone who still goes to Petro-Canada to fill up when given a choice, I'm not opposed to a West-East pipeline that's supposed to bring Alberta bitumen to Quebec and the Irving refinery in St. John.  As a soft-headed nationalist I thought Pierre Trudeau did the right thing legislating the  National Energy Plan, and buying up Gulf assets to create Petro-Canada.  The Western Canadian oil patch of course hated all of it. Why do we think they'd like it any better now?

One of the most hated parts of the NEP in the West was a "made in Canada" price, lower than the world price. Albertans still talk about the billions they gave up so people and industry in Central Canada could get cheaper petroleum products. Yet that's just what we're hearing again now from the politicians (not the oil industry mind you) in the Energy East announcements.  If they really believe that get it in writing because I don't.

The reason Western Canadian crude prices are lower than the world price now is because of a crude transportation bottleneck in Oklahoma. Oil gets oversupplied, and just like lobster and potato markets,  the price drops. (see: http://www.canadianbusiness.com/business-news/industries/energy/new-oil-pipelines-price-bottlenecks-and-how-cushing-okla-impacts-canadas-economy/ )  It's been that way for years and that's why the industry has been so desperate to get new pipelines (including Keystone-XL, Northern Gateway) built.  One project, the southern section of the Keystone-XL pipeline from Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico refineries is already being constructed, and now the Energy East announcement. Do you think for a second that if and when these projects lessen the oversupply bottleneck and improve access to markets  that tar sands producers won't demand the world price? They detested the energy pricing in the NEP, and they sure as  hell are not going to take lower prices now just because the oil is being refined in Canada.

Even Barack Obama recognizes the spin of pipeline promoters when he talks about Keystone-XL:  “oil is going to be piped down to the Gulf to be sold on the world oil markets, so it does not bring down gas prices here in the United States. In fact, it might actually cause some gas prices in the Midwest to go up where currently they can’t ship some of that oil to world markets.”

So let's at least speak honestly about this project. Announcing it now in the middle of the summer when people read headlines, or glance at the TV,  gets Mike Duffy out of conversations, and sends a threat to the Americans that Alberta will have other markets if XL is refused. Not a bad days work for the PMO, tar sands and pipeline companies.