Life Sciences musings
On Friday, 7 November, the US Department of Agriculture cleared the path to commercialization for a “genetically modified” potato developed by J.R. Simplott.
This is big. This is very big.
It’s big for a host of reasons, but at the top of the list is one: French fries. The United States alone produces some 20 million pounds of potatoes each year, two thirds of which wind up in frozen products. Most of those are French fries. The American consumer eats 120lb of potatoes per year, on average. Global potato production is ~73 billion pounds/year (365 million tons). That’s a lot of spuds.
It’s also big because this is not the first time a biotech improved potato has been developed by innovators. In 1995, Monsanto developed a potato resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, its main pest, and shortly thereafter added resistance to major viral diseases. Though hugely popular with growers, who loved that they didn’t have to spray heavy duty pesticides to kill the notoriously adaptable beetle, organic ideologues intimidated and bullied McDonald’s and their major French fry suppliers into dropping the product, and Monsanto shelved it. But Simplot (a … Read the rest
In 1997, the late Carl Sagan published a book titled “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” It is an eloquent paen to the power of science and critical thinking to free humans from the demons of darkness and superstition. In it, he described one of his greatest fears:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues… when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…
That day may be upon us.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “The Los Angeles City Council voted in late October to draft an ordinance that would prohibit the sale or planting of GM seeds and plants.
One individual in Los Angeles who … Read the rest
GMOs, Neonicotinoids, and Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic: The Fish & Wildlife Service Brings a “Whole Foods” Approach to Wildlife While Shooting Itself in Our Foot
With little fanfare, last summer the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced it would formally ban the use of seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, (a newer, safer generation of seed treatments to protect against pests) and the use of crops improved through biotechnology throughout the fish and wildlife refuge system.
It is worth quoting at some length the announcement, which came via a memo from the Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System:
The Leadership Team agreed that by January 2016, the System will only use an agricultural practice where it specifically contributes to wildlife objectives. This conforms to 601 FW 3, the Service’s Biological Integrity, Diversity and Environmental Health policy (BIDEH). BIDEH directs us to maintain and restore the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of refuges and is based on the underlying principle of wildlife conservation that favors management that restores or mimics natural ecosystem processes or functions to achieve refuge purpose(s).
By January 2016, we will no longer use neonicotinoid pesticides in agricultural practices used in the System. Service policy 569 FW 1 Pest Management directs that we use long-standing integrated pest management principles to guide and … Read the rest
“Original” Paper: “Republished Study: Long-term Toxicity of a Roundup Herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant Genetically Modified Maize,” by Gilles-Eric Séralini, et. al., June 24, 2014, Environmental Science Europe,
This paper recycles claims made in the original paper, specifically:
- Glyphosate (Roundup) tolerant corn (maize) causes cancerous tumors in rats that consume it.
- Glyphosate itself causes cancerous tumors in rats that consume it.
It adds some related claims as well:
- That the retraction of the original paper was imposed even though the publisher admitted that “the data were not incorrect, that there was no misconduct, no fraud or intentional misinterpretation in our complete raw data…Our study was however never attended to be a carcinogenicity study”
- The retraction of the original paper was unjustified, as “Censorship of research into health risks undermines the value and the credibility of science, thus we republish our paper.”
- They also claim that the retraction illustrates “a historic example of conflicts of interest in
Original Sources: Press Release: “Glyphosate Testing Full Report: Findings in American Mothers’ Breast Milk, Urine and Water,” Mom’s Across America; Article: “World’s Number 1 Herbicide Discovered in U.S. Mothers’ Breast Milk” by Zen Honeycutt and Henry Rowlands, Sustainable Pulse
- “In the first ever testing on glyphosate herbicide in the breast milk of American women… found ‘high’ levels in 3 out of the 10 samples tested. The shocking results point to glyphosate levels building up in women’s bodies over a period of time, which has until now been refuted by both global regulatory authorities and the biotech industry.”
- “The levels found in the breast milk testing of 76 ug/l to 166 ug/l are 760 to 1600 times higher than the European Drinking Water Directive allows for individual pesticides (Glyphosate is both a pesticide and herbicide). They are however less than the 700 ug/l maximum contaminant level (MCL) for glyphosate in the U.S., which was decided upon by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) based on the now seemingly false premise that glyphosate was not bio-accumulative.”
Salient Facts and Context:
- This “study” is not a
Ideological opponents of innovations in agriculture are mounting a major campaign to denigrate and discredit crops improved through biotechnology. They face a tough challenge, as the economic and environmental benefits of such crops have, due to their undeniable virtues, been adopted by farmers around the world more rapidly than any other innovation in the history of agriculture. Opponents are often aided in their struggles by journalists who recycle their press releases rather than digging for the truth. We take a closer look at a recent example.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: U.S. GMO Crops Show Mix of Benefits, Concerns – USDA Report, Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/24/usda-gmo-report-idUSL1N0LT16M20140224
PRIMARY CLAIM IN THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE:
- “U.S. farmers are continuing to see an array of benefits, but the impacts on the environmental and on food production are mixed, and high farmer use of a popular herbicide on GMO crops is a cause for ongoing concern.”
SALIENT FACTS & CONTEXT:
- The reporter that wrote this piece, Cary Gilliam, has acquired a well-deserved reputation for finding the most negative way to convey even the most positive information about crops improved through biotechnology. This latest offering continues
Ideological opponents to crops improved through biotechnology work very hard to convince people of their alleged dangers. They are hampered in these efforts by the existence of a robust, worldwide consensus on the safety of these crops and the foods derived from them. They claim, therefore, that this consensus does not exist, and hold up a variety of alleged authorities who deny the consensus to argue that it doesn’t exist. We take a closer look.
ORIGINAL PAPER: European Network of Scientists for Social & Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) Statement: No scientific consensus on GMO safety
PRIMARY CLAIMS OF THE ORIGINAL PAPER:
- There is no consensus among scientists on the safety of crops and foods improved through biotechnology.
- The scientific studies claimed to show the safety of GMOs have been bought and paid for by industry.
SALIENT FACTS & CONTEXT:
- What does “consensus” mean? Per Miriam Webster Dictionary “the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned.”
- There most definitely is a global scientific consensus on the safety of crops and foods derived through biotechnology on the market today. It is wide, deep, and extraordinarily strong.
- This consensus follows from decades of
Points to Consider: Biotech Improved Herbicide Tolerant Crops Have Improved Yields and Sustainability
Professional opponents of agricultural innovations have failed utterly to make their case that seeds improved through biotechnology impose novel risks. Massive data and vast experience have refuted such claims in the eyes of all but the most fervent true believers. Opponents have therefore lately tried to construct dubious linkages with time honored scapegoats of pesticides and herbicides. A popular target is the world’s most widely used herbicide, glyphosate, which has ushered in a new area of improved sustainability for conventional farmers. We take a closer look at one of the recent misfires against glyphosate from a cadre of hard core biotech opponents.
ORIGINAL PAPER: Bøhna, T., M. Cuhraa, T. Traavika, M. Sandenc, J. Fagan, & R. Primiceriob. Compositional differences in soybeans on the market: Glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans. Food Chemistry Volume 153, 15 June 2014, Pages 207– 215. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814613019201
PRIMARY CLAIMS OF THE ORIGINAL PAPER:
- RoundupReady soybeans contain elevated residues of glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid).
- Organic soybeans have a healthier nutritional profile than other soybeans.
SALIENT FACTS & CONTEXT:
- The experimental design, sampling and analytical methods, and literature citations described in this paper
For those of us who are curious, or maybe just in need of an occasional diversion from reality, the Internet is a rich and wondrous toy. With a click or two we can open a window to unexpected marvels or places we’d love to visit but will likely never get to. But the path to unexpected marvels can just as quickly shunt you off into bad neighborhoods and dark places that no one needs to visit. Herewith a tale…
We all love somebody who beats the odds, a self-made success who overcomes a challenge and builds something significant; even better if there’s a “cowboy” angle of bucking current trends or speaking truth to power. On its surface, then, Mike Adams would seem to have a lot going for him.
Calling himself the “Health Ranger” and hosting a widely viewed website Adams offers up a steady stream of health related claims and comments through which he has become one of the Internet’s leading promoters of bogus health schemes, medical conspiracy theories and quack medicine. He often starts from a springboard of fact, but regularly careens off in some conspiratorial … Read the rest
A number of recent reports have attempted to link pesticides improved through biotechnology with negative health impacts. Unfortunately, most of these efforts have been proven to be ideological attacks on technology rather than considered, scientific reviews designed to enhance knowledge. We take a closer look at a recent paper claiming to show a correlation between the widely used herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) and kidney disease.
ORIGINAL PAPER: Glyphosate, Hard Water and Nephrotoxic Metals: Are They the Culprits Behind the Epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology in Sri Lanka? By Channa Jayasumana, Sarath Gunatilake, and Priyantha Senanayake. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2014, 11(2), 2125-2147; doi:10.3390/ijerph110202125
- Some journalists and opposition groups have suggested the paper shows chronic kidney disease is caused by exposure to glyphosate.
- The paper makes no such claims, but only advances a “hypothesis” unsupported by any data, for which there is no plausible causal mechanism, and which is inconsistent with published, peer-reviewed science on the safety of glyphosate, and the findings of regulatory authorities around the world.
SALIENT FACTS & CONTEXT:
- The journal in which this paper was