Science serving politics

March 2014
A poster with the slogan stop gmo
Photo Creative Commons (by Stephen Melkisethian on Flickr)
The UK Environment Minister, Owen Paterson, was in Brussels recently apparently enacting the latest instalment of the Paterson/Westminster GM soap opera [1,2].

Paterson's mission was to take back GM regulatory powers from Europe in order that the UK can unilaterally approve GM crops, grow them and make us eat them.  He was armed with a report specially commissioned by the Council for Science and Technology (CST), the Government's own science advisers. 

How to create unhealthy apples

March 2014

Picture of different colours and varieties of apples
Image Creative Commons
Ever thought of the humble apple as a staple health-food?  Not in the USA it seems. 

Exports of American apples (and pears) to Europe have dropped 73% over the last five years.  The culprit lies in the high levels of two pesticides added to wax coatings to prevent 'scald'.

 

'Scald' is a post-harvest storage disorder of apples resulting in discoloured patches on the fruits' skin due to damage and death within the surface layer of cells. The cause seems to be long-term storage, especially under unsuitably humid conditions. Similar-looking post-harvest blemishes may arise due to pesticide treatments, sun, or friction damage in the case of very ripe fruit.
Now, there's another problem looming on the other side of the Atlantic.  Two varieties of GM 'Arctic' apples which don't turn brown when damaged looks set to be approved by the USDA. 

Defining GM regulation

March 2014


Picture of cornmaize
Photo Creative Commons
Biotech giant, Syngenta, sounded miffed when the US National Grain and Feed Association and the North American Export Grain Association asked the Company to suspend the commercial supply of two of its GM maize crops. 

Both of the crops are Bt-insecticide generating crops to combat major corn insect pests:
  • 'Agrisure Viptera' has been around since 2010 and comes in various forms stacked with genes offering “the broadest available spectrum of above-and below-ground insect control ... with a choice of either glyphosate or glufosinate (herbicides) applications” (Syngenta)
  • ''Agrisure Duracade' which will be available for the first time in 2014 and also comes in various forms stacked with genes which feature “a novel mode of action (a Bt look-alike protein never used before) against corn rootworm” This latest GM offering is part of a package designed to combat pest-resistance: “It will only be available stacked with a second corn rootworm trait, and offered as a 5 percent integrated, single-bag refuge product” (Syngenta). 
Neither of these crops has been approved for import into China or the EU, both major buyers of US crops. 

Syngenta's reply to the plea was that it commercialises corn traits in line with industry practices, once it has approval from countries with “functioning regulatory systems”. 

The true cost of GM food exports

March 2014

Picture of grain elevators behind a bean field
Grain elevators behind bean field, Iowa, US. CC Photo by Carl Wycoff on Flickr
America has achieved quite a reputation for breaking down trade barriers to its exports overseas: subsidies to its farmers to make US crops 'cheap' on the world market and to keep the competition at bay, deals brokered with hard-pressed foreign governments and 'aid' packages both of which promote dependence on US imports and ensure a long-term market, and if all else fails, the World Trade Organisation can usually be relied on to pull unco-operative parties into line. 

The outcome is that big chunk of America's 'fence-row to fence-row' monocultures, which produce huge quantities of food and feed, is sold overseas.  Such exports bolster the US economy and stabilise rural America, and have succeeded in becoming “a central component of global food security”.  GM crops, of course, now feature very largely in these exports. 

Fish oil from a plant

March 2014

picture of camilina sativa plant
Camilina sativa. Picture from Creative Commons
A major English GM research facility, the John Innes Centre (JIC), has applied to DEFRA to field test a new GM crop, 'false flax' (Camilina sativa) which has been genetically transformed to accumulate omega-3 long-chain fatty acids in its seed. 

Since Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, will ultimately be responsible for approving the trial, permission is unlikely to be denied [1]. 

Omega-3 long-chain fatty acids in the form of 'EPA' and 'DHA' (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexanenoic acid), are only synthesized by primitive plants, such as algae, and are a vital part of the diet of fish.  They are also credited with important health effects in the humans who eat the fish, especially oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines.  In particular, the JIC cites “strong evidence” that these fatty acids are linked to a lowered risk of death from coronary heart disease.  For this reason, official health advice is to eat two portions of oily fish a week.  All fish are, of course, a valuable source of protein.

In the wild, EPA and DHA in algae are passed up the food-chain from algae-feeders to the fish which eat them.  Farmed fish are fed on fish oil and meal from species of fish not suitable for food.  This production process is now reaching its limit and is unsustainable. 

The GM answer is an oilseed crop which generates 'fish oil' substitute to feed fish to feed us. 

What use is purple GM juice?

March 2014

Commentary 

Anthocyanins are anti-oxidant plant pigments credited with wide-ranging therapeutic effects. 

Support for the well-accepted role of anthocyanins in folk medicine the world over has since been confirmed by epidemiology and, more recently, by an increasing body of science. 

Many research trials have demonstrated anthocyanins' marked ability to inhibit tumour formation and cancer-cell proliferation.  Protection from cardio-vascular disease and age-related neuro-degenerative disorders have been clearly shown in scientific studies. 

Enter 'genetically-improved' tomatoes, turned purple by their newly acquired ability to generate anthocyanins and thereby re-jigged to make everyone healthy. 

Red not purple

March 2014
Close up of a red tomato
Red vine tomato. CC image by Mrs Gemstone on Flickr
Although tomatoes have naturally high levels of many nutrients with health benefits, adding in a further class of anti-oxidants not naturally present has been a holy grail of genetic engineers since the 1990s. 

Such genetically-improved tomatoes would, it is hoped, conveniently piggy-back the already high consumption of tomatoes in the modern diet, and make up for the failure of the official '5-a-day for health' message. 

The anti-oxidants of interest are 'anthocyanins', which are the dark pigment in the skin of many fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries and aubergines.   

Science has indicated that:

“intake (of anthocyanins) in the human diet is associated with protection against coronary heart disease and an improvement in sight.  They might also prevent cholesterol-induced atherosclerosis, could have anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic activities and could aid the the prevention of obesity and diabetes” (Gonzali).  

The health benefits described above have emerged from studies using black-currants, blueberries, tart cherries, elderberries, grape juice and seed, purple corn, purple sweet potato, red soyabeans, red beans and red wine.