Science could be in for shake-up – Sciblogs examines policy implications of change in govt

The Science Media Centre provides a rundown on how science funding and research priorities may change under the new government.

Science didn’t feature significantly in its own right as an election issue, centre director Peter Griffin says. But numerous science-related issues have been prioritised by Labour, its coalition partner New Zealand First and confidence and supply partner the Green Party.

The most significant change on the cards could be the way in which the Government tries to stimulate private sector research and development efforts, he says.

A 12.5% R&D tax credit is set to replace an extensive programme of R&D grants to businesses.

In the run-up to the election, the Science Media Centre collated policy positions on major science related issues ranging from the country’s Predator Free 2050 strategy to healthy housing.

In a post-election wrap-up on Sciblogs, Peter Griffin explores the potential policy changes on the table in five key science-related areas – freshwater quality, climate change, science funding and genetic modification.

Read the full coverage HERE.

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Shaping the future of what we eat and grow through daring innovation

The future of food and the alternative ways to feed a growing global population will be the focus of a plant-based innovation hackathon in Christchurch on December 2 and 3.

The Feed the World 2030: Power of Plants Hackathon will provide a platform for agritech food innovators, scientists, industry experts and entrepreneurs to engage and start to shape New Zealand’s agricultural platforms.

Lincoln Hub is teaming up with the Foundation for Arable Research (FAR), AGMARDT, Callaghan Innovation, Lincoln University and Creative HQ to create this event to enable new connections to broaden innovation in New Zealand’s agrifood system.

Toni Laming, Lincoln Hub Chief Executive, says, “Lincoln Hub is excited to be teaming up with key agrifood innovation leaders to create new kinds of collaborations and innovation in the Agrifood tech field which is expanding globally. Many innovations and advancements are happening at a rapid pace to create the foods we eat and is fundamentally reshaping how we farm and cultivate crops to reduce the impact we have on our ecosystem.

The hackathon format will allow teams to form around new ideas and develop customer-centric solutions.

For more information on the event and how to participate in the Feed the World 2030: Power of Plants Hackathon, visit HERE.

Lincoln Hub will also host a ‘What the heck is a hackathon, anyway?’ seminar on 26 October for those wanting to find out more about the event. The event is free but people are asked to register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.nz/e/what-the-heck-is-a-hackathon-anyway-a-breakfast-seminar-with-creative-hq-tickets-38853450717

Science writer regards synthetic milk as Fonterra’s blindspot

Science writer Peter Griffin recalls sitting on a plane beside a Fonterra executive who was bound for Chicago, where the dairy giant’s US operation is based.

Griffin asked him what he considered to be the biggest issues the company faced.

The immediate answer was “trace-ability” and giving Fonterra’s customers confidence in the safety of its products.

The logistical headaches of shifting large amounts of milk powder to offshore markets like China in a cost-effective manner was mentioned, too, as one of the most practical problems Fonterra faces every day.

Griffin then asked about the threat of synthetic milk.

He was told this wasn’t considered a big deal by Fonterra’s senior management.

This view has been reiterated by Fonterra in response to Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman’s comments at the NZBIO conference in Wellington that synthetic food is one of the “big existential risks to New Zealand” and that the “risk is real”.

Griffin describes Fonterra’s confidence that synthetic milk poses no threat as Fonterra’s Kodak moment – mirroring the US camera company’s failure to recognise and respond to the disruptive threat posed by digital photography.

How far away is synthetic food from becoming mass market? Consider the following three data points:

1: This University of West England research paper that compares the energy use between conventional and “yeast-derived” synthetic dairy products.

“In comparison to conventionally produced milk, YDM involves approximately 24-84% lower energy use, 98% lower water use, 77-91% lower land use, and 35-65% lower GHG emissions.”

2: A number of start-ups, most prominently Perfect Day which plans to launch by the end of this year, have pioneered ways of using genetically-modified yeast to produce milk without input from cows. Where are our start-ups in this space?

3: The global market for milk alternatives reached US$5.8 billion in 2014 and is expected to be $10.9 billion by 2019, according to analyst group BCC Research. Most of that market (US$4.4 billion in 2014) was made up of soy products. A lot of people don’t like the taste of soy. But if the new wave of start-ups can mass produce alternative milk products that, as they currently claim, taste as good as milk products from cows, and are cheaper, this market could grow much faster.

Griffin hoped Sir Peter was right when he said at NZBIO that our primary industry companies are indeed working behind the scenes on this.

Experts comment on global study findings of neonicotinoid traces in honey

A global study of honey found 75 per cent of samples had traces of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been implicated in the global decline of pollinators, particularly bees.

Published in Science, the research found concentrations of the pesticide were below the amount authorised by the European Union for human consumption. Concentrations were highest in European, North American and Asian samples and 34 per cent of samples were found to have levels of neonicotinoids known to be detrimental to bees.

The UK SMC gathered expert reaction to the study, which has been published by the New Zealand Science Media Centre.

Among the comments, Dr Chris Connolly, Reader in Neurobiology at the University of Dundee, who wrote a Perspectives article published alongside the research, said:

“This is a very interesting and timely study into how widespread is the exposure of honeybees to neonicotinoids. The findings are alarming, neonicotinoids have become so globally ubiquitous that they are now present in 75% of all honey. The levels of these chemicals detected in honey are unlikely to be a hazard to human health as they are present at very low levels and below the limit authorised for human consumption. At these low levels, they are also not likely to be lethal to bees. However, the levels detected are sufficient to affect bee brain function and may hinder their ability to forage on, and pollinate, our crops and our native plants.

“Clearly, the use of neonicotinoids need to be controlled. Their widespread use on crops is due to their prophylactic use, as insurance against the possibility of future pest attack. The neonicotinoids are highly effective insecticides with low toxicity to humans, but this unnecessary overuse is also driving the development of pest resistance against them. It is time that these chemicals are heavily restricted for use. In this way, their impact on the environment can be limited and their efficacy against pests preserved for when there is no other alternative option.

“An interesting point raised in this study is that honey could be used as a tool to sample environmental contamination. Therefore, this approach could address the effectiveness of the current EU moratorium where the use of some neonicotinoids on bee-visited crops is banned. Is honey within the EU now free of these neonicotinoids? Or does its continued use on other crops reach bee-visited plants and still accumulate in their honey?”

Other comments can be found in the NZ Science Media Centre post HERE.

Fencing of waterways an effective tool to combat pollution

Fencing of waterways has proven very effective where it has been used to combat the risks of contamination from agriculture, AgResearch says.

AgResearch’s Professor Rich McDowell, the chief scientist for the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, was speaking after the publication of a study looking at policies for fencing waterways on contamination loads in New Zealand waterways.

His paper was published in the American Journal of Environmental Quality.

The Ministry for the Environment’s Our Freshwater 2017 report indicates that urban waterways have the worst overall water quality in New Zealand, but much of the public focus in recent years has been on the impact of agriculture – particularly dairy farming – on waterways in rural areas.

“Fencing is very effective at reducing contaminant loads to waterways – by 10 to 90 per cent depending on the nature of the contaminants and local issues,” Prof McDowell says.

“Fencing works especially well for the likes of E. coli or phosphorus contamination that can result from animal wasteor stream bank destabilisation. However, fencing all waterways in New Zealand is impractical and in some places other good management practices may be more cost-effective.”

“A combination of better awareness of the issues and the use of good management practices (including fencing) in the right place is starting to reverse degrading trends in the likes of phosphorus and sediment in the water over the last decade,” Prof McDowell says.

Dairy farmers had invested in a major programme of fencing waterways to the equivalent of nearly 27,000km. They should continue to do so as it is effective at reducing waterway contamination, Prof McDowell says.

“The fact that most of the contaminant load comes from areas not requiring fencing reflects the much greater number and areas occupied by small streams – potentially from steeper country where dairy farming is unlikely to be present. Other work also indicates that a substantial proportion of contaminant concentrations may be from natural sources.”

AgResearch Research Director Greg Murison says there is a big focus by his own organisation and others, including DairyNZ, to support farmers in developing management practices that reduce the risk of water contamination.

“The number of science programmes looking at these issues demonstrates how scientists are being responsive to what is important to New Zealanders.”

You can read the study HERE.

Ministry calls for proposals for research on Myrtle Rust

The Ministry for Primary Industries has posted a Request for Proposals (HERE) for its 2017/18 Myrtle Rust Research Programme.

It advises interested parties that in March this year a response was initiated to a myrtle rust incursion on Raoul Island. This was extended to mainland New Zealand when the rust was discovered in Northland, Taranaki, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty.

Myrtle rust is a fungal disease with the potential to affect multiple ecologically and culturally significant species, as well as species important to industry and the public, on both localised and landscape-scales, across the majority of New Zealand. No country has managed to eradicate myrtle rust from its shores.

Funding has been allocated from August 2017 – June 2018 (Phase 1), for urgent research work focussed on addressing critical knowledge gaps and delivering real-life management tools for myrtle rust.

The funding will be delivered via through a Request for Proposal process. Funded projects will need to ensure there is a focus on high impact research that aligns with, and builds on, research to date in New Zealand and internationally.

The ministry says this is a unique opportunity to be part of a protecting New Zealand’s iconic and culturally significant trees shrubs, and ecosystems.

National management of myrtle rust will be very complex, it says. The disease potentially affects multiple native, iconic, taonga and culturally significant species, as well as species important to industry and the public, on both localised, ecosystem and landscape-scales, across the majority of New Zealand.

There are many unknowns about its long-term impacts under New Zealand environmental conditions, and no effective tools for medium- or large-scale management of the disease.

GM soybean oil causes less obesity and insulin resistance – but harmful to liver function

Researchers have tested a genetically-modified soybean oil used in restaurants and found it induces less obesity and insulin resistance than conventional soybean oil. But its effects on diabetes and fatty liver are similar to those of conventional soybean oil, the major vegetable cooking oil used in the United States, with popularity on the increase worldwide.

Soybean oil is the major vegetable cooking oil used in the United States, and its popularity is on the increase worldwide. Rich in unsaturated fats, especially linoleic acid, soybean oil induces obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, and fatty liver in mice.

University of California Riverside researchers tested Plenish®, a genetically-modified soybean oil released by DuPont in 2014. Plenish is engineered to have low linoleic acid, resulting in an oil similar in composition to olive oil, the basis of the Mediterranean diet and considered to be healthful.

The study, published this week in Nature Scientific Reports, is the first to compare the long-term metabolic effects of conventional soybean oil to those of Plenish.

The study also compares both conventional soybean oil and Plenish to coconut oil, which is rich in saturated fatty acids and causes the least amount of weight gain among all the high-fat diets tested.

“We found all three oils raised the cholesterol levels in the liver and blood, dispelling the popular myth that soybean oil reduces cholesterol levels,” said Frances Sladek, a professor of cell biology, who led the research project.

Next, the researchers compared Plenish to olive oil. Both oils have high oleic acid, a fatty acid believed to reduce blood pressure and help with weight loss.

“In our mouse experiments, olive oil produced essentially identical effects as Plenish — more obesity than coconut oil, although less than conventional soybean oil — and very fatty livers, which was surprising as olive oil is typically considered to be the healthiest of all the vegetable oils,” said Poonamjot Deol, an assistant project scientist working in Sladek’s lab and the co-first author of the research paper.

“Plenish, which has a fatty acid composition similar to olive oil, induced hepatomegaly, or enlarged livers, and liver dysfunction, just like olive oil.”

Sladek explained that some of the negative metabolic effects of animal fat that researchers often see in rodents could actually be due to high levels of linoleic acid, given that most U.S. farm animals are fed soybean meal.

“This could be why our experiments are showing that a high-fat diet enriched in conventional soybean oil has nearly identical effects to a diet based on lard,” she said.

The researchers further speculate that the increased consumption of soybean oil in the US since the 1970s could be a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35 per cent of adults are obese. In some ethnic groups, such as Hispanics and African-Americans, between 42 percent and 48 percent of the population is obese.

Obesity, officially designated by the American Medical Association in 2013 as a disease, is linked to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

“Our findings do not necessarily relate to other soybean products like soy sauce, tofu, or soy milk — products that are largely from the water-soluble compartment of the soybean; oil, on the other hand, is from the fat-soluble compartment,” Sladek said. “More research into the amounts of linoleic acid in these products and others is needed.”

Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid. All humans and animals must obtain it from their diet.

“But just because it is essential does not necessarily mean it is good to have more of it in your diet,” Deol said. “Our bodies need just 1-to-2 percent linoleic acid from our diet, but Americans, on average, have 8-to-10 percent linoleic acid in their diets.”

Deol and Sladek recommend avoiding conventional soybean oil as much as possible.

“This might be difficult as conventional soybean oil is used in most restaurant cooking and found in most processed foods,” Deol said.

One advantage of Plenish is that it generates fewer transfats than conventional soybean oil.

“But with its effects on the liver, Plenish would still not be my first choice of an oil,” Sladek said.

“Indeed, I used to use exclusively olive oil in my home, but now I substitute some of it for coconut oil. Of all the oils we have tested thus far, coconut oil produces the fewest negative metabolic effects, even though it consists nearly entirely of saturated fats. Coconut oil does increase cholesterol levels, but no more than conventional soybean oil or Plenish.”

The researchers have not examined the cardiovascular effects of coconut oil.

“As a result, we do not know if the elevated cholesterol coconut oil induces is detrimental,” Sladek said.

“The take-home message is that it is best not to depend on just one oil source. Different dietary oils have far reaching and complex effects on metabolism that require additional investigation.”

The study builds on an earlier study by the researchers that compared soybean oil to a high fructose diet and found soybean oil causes more obesity and diabetes than coconut oil.

The researchers, who found a positive correlation between oxylipins (oxidised fatty acids) in linoleic acid and obesity, plan to determine whether the oxylipins cause obesity, and, if so, by what mechanism. They will also study the effects of conventional and GM soybean oil on intestinal health.