In lean times, biotech grains are less taboo

A farmer harvests soy beans on the outskirts of Gualeguaychu, north of Buenos Aires.(Andres Stapff/Reuters)

Soaring food prices and global grain shortages are bringing new pressures on governments, food companies and consumers to relax their longstanding resistance to genetically engineered crops.

In Japan and South Korea, some manufacturers for the first time have begun buying genetically engineered corn for use in soft drinks, snacks and other foods. Until now, to avoid consumer backlash, the companies have paid extra to buy conventionally grown corn. But with prices having tripled in two years, it has become too expensive to be so finicky.

“We cannot afford it,” said a corn buyer at Kato Kagaku, a Japanese maker of corn starch and corn syrup.

In the United States, wheat growers and marketers, once hesitant about adopting biotechnology because they feared losing export sales, are now warming to it as a way to bolster supplies. Genetically modified crops contain genes from other organisms to make the plants resistance to insects, herbicides or disease. Opponents continue to worry that such crops have not been studied enough and that they might pose risks to health and the environment.

(Genetically modified crops have been studied long enough to know that GM food weakens the immune system within days, increases the cancer risk dramatically etc. – The Infinite Unknown)

Read moreIn lean times, biotech grains are less taboo

Colony Collapse Disorder – a Moment for Reflection?

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Our previous posts on the mysterious bee disappearances (here, here, and here) have been a very interesting exercise. We’ve had great feedback from farmers, amateur and professional beekeepers, scientists, and dozens of other interested/concerned observers. In the meantime, accumulating reports tell us that the problem is not constrained to the U.S. alone – but that, to one degree or another, empty hives are becoming common in Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Poland, and now possibly the UK. Canada, so far, seems unsure if they have the problem, or not. We’ve now also had unconfirmed reports from Brazil.

Personally, I believe situations like this are an opportune moment for reflection – a time to humbly consider a few realities, and perhaps learn a few lessons. Of significance to me is the fact that scientists haven’t got this figured out as yet. It begs the question – which is easier, when dealing with the infinitely complex interactions of nature: 1) predicting specific consequences to our ‘tinkering’ before they occur, or 2) understanding how something happened after-the-fact? I would have thought the latter was the easiest – you know the old saying, “hindsight is a wonderful thing”. Looking back at the results, following the trail of clues, is a lot less challenging than postulating over what could happen. Or, to put it into a framework that might be better understood – if Sherlock Holmes, expert in crime scene deductions, were to turn his attention to predicting crimes rather than solving them, how would he have fared? Short of the kind of psychic predictive skills seen in Minority Report-type science fiction movies, I don’t expect he’d fare so well.

What am I on about, you ask? Simply this – too many people hand scientists the keys to the car, as it were, and bid them take it wherever their employer wishes. Our governments do this, and too many either encourage it, or stand by and let it happen. When the PR departments that front these scientists portray a glorious new world where man manages to, with perfect and meticulous coordination, juggle all the intricacies of the natural world in one hand, whilst cashing in on it and providing world peace and equality with the other – we believe it. Yet, how can we have so much confidence in their ability to read the future, when they are unable to decipher the past and present – a task that should be a damned sight simpler, no?

As Australians are benefiting from an export boom in bees to the U.S., and while the best recommendations from the groups that have been tasked with finding solutions to these problems are to advise which chemicals to use and which not to (PDF), I will list some of the possible causes for the present pollination crisis below (I call it a pollination crisis here, rather than a honeybee crisis, because there are other pollinators that would be lending us a hand – if we hadn’t driven them into exile):

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GM Seeds Still Active in Soil 10 Years Later

Scientists discovered seeds from certain genetically modified crops can endure soil for at least 10 years in some cases.

A field planted with experimental oilseed rape a decade ago found transgenic specimens were still growing there despite intensive efforts over the years to remove the seeds, according to researchers in Sweden.

This is the first time a genetically modified crop has endured so long and critics say it shows that genetically modified organisms cannot be contained once released.

Tina D’Hertefeldt and a team of researchers from Lund University searched a small field that hosted the GM trial 10 years ago looking for “volunteers” – plants that have sprung up spontaneously from seed in the soil.

“We were surprised, very surprised,” said D’Hertefeldt. “We knew that volunteers had been detected earlier, but we thought they’d all have gone by now.”

Read moreGM Seeds Still Active in Soil 10 Years Later

Your Burger on Biotech

Scientists serve up leaner beef, tastier cheddar and healthier ketchup

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The Annotated Hamburger: Photo by Colin Smale; Schnare & Stief/Getty Images; illustration: Mitch Romanowski Design

If the biotech industry has its way, ordering a hamburger might soon sound something like this: “one charbroiled cloned-beef patty, with genetically modified cheese, lab-grown bacon and vitamin-C-fortified lettuce, on a protein-spiked bun.” The burger of the future is delicious, nutritious and contains more engineering than a stealth bomber.

With the Food and Drug Administration ruling in January that meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs, goats and their offspring is safe to eat, the only thing keeping the superburger off your dinner plate is time. It will be a few years yet before cloned meat hits store shelves. Cloning the perfect (and tastiest) cow can cost upward of $15,000, which makes clones themselves too expensive to eat, so we’ll have to wait until they spawn enough offspring (the old-fashioned way) to feed the masses. Meanwhile, researchers are busy formulating all the fixings. Take a look at what science is doing for the burger, from bun to beef and everything in between.

Recipe for Burger 2.0

Vitamin Bun
After isolating a gene in wild wheat that controls protein, zinc and iron content, scientists at the University of California at Davis spliced the gene into domestic wheat, boosting nutrient content by 12 percent.

Cruelty-Free Bacon
Scientists in the Netherlands have grown minced pork in a dish by adding water, glucose and amino acids to pig stem cells. Expect artificial ground meat by 2012 and bacon within the decade.

Better Cheddar
Food engineers are boosting cheddar flavor by adding a bacterial gene that produces an enzyme that eliminates the bitter taste created during ripening.

Leaner Beef
Several companies are cloning the country’s most prized cows to produce leaner, tastier cuts of meat. Ranchers will start breeding the clones this spring, and in five years, the offspring will be ready to grill.

Healthier Ketchup
The ethanol boom is driving up the price of corn syrup, so Heinz is breeding a tomato that is 10 percent sweeter than those grown today. Look for naturally sweeter ketchup by 2010.

High-C Lettuce
By splicing rat genes into lettuce, Virginia Tech scientists figured out how to turn on the vegetable’s latent vitamin-C-producing abilities (rats are natural C-makers). Since rodent-altered lettuce is somewhat unappetizing, the team used the data to identify plant DNA that can do the same thing.

By Rena Marie Pacella Posted 03.17.2008 at 2:55 pm

Source: popsci.com