Millions more for science (but let’s examine it closely before we applaud too warmly)

“Joyce flags extra $410.5 mln for science”, BusinessDesk said in its headline on a report about Budget 2016.

Peter Griffin, writing on SciBlogs, was keeping his powder dry. The headline on his report was: “On the face of it, science did well”.

Here at AgScience we have yet to put the new spending under a microscope to see how much of it will benefit agricultural and horticultural scientists.

The relevant press statement from Science and Innovation Minister Minister Steven Joyce (one of four he issued this afternoon) said:

The Government will significantly increase its investment in science and innovation through Budget 2016’s Innovative New Zealand package, providing a further $410.5 million in operating funding over the next four years.

The increased funding would increase investment in the sector by a further 15 per cent by 2019/20, taking cross-government investment in science and innovation then to $1.6 billion annually.

The main features of the new spending  are:

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Feds call for review of Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act

Federated Farmers is calling on the Government to urgently set up an expert panel to review the regulation of genetic modification (GM).

A press statement from the federation says this has been prompted by the recently published study carried out by US-based National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The study  examined the literature,  listened to speakers and heard comments from the public to determine the negative effects and benefits of commercial GM crops.

Federated Farmers President Dr William Rolleston says the report found there was no substantiated evidence of a difference in risk to human health between current commercial GE crops and conventional crops.

“There was no conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from GE crops. In fact, the report concludes that GM crops may even be better for the environment,” he says.

Looking to the future of GM crops, the report notes that new genetic technologies are blurring the line between conventional and GM crops, and that regulatory systems need to assess crop varieties based on their individual characteristics, not the way they are produced.

“This is the very message Federated Farmers and other science and industry organisations gave to the New Zealand government in October 2014, calling for a change in legislation from outdated technology based to risk based assessment to enable effective management and regulation of all GM technologies.

“Since then the rules around genetic modification have become even more distorted and anachronistic by classifying all techniques developed since 1998 as GM. Imagine if we applied similar logic to cell- phones or motor cars.”

Dr Rolleston says any review should develop the principles which would underpin new legislation taking into account credible scientific evidence of risks and benefits, coexistence and a fair balance or rights between those wanting to use GM products and those wanting to avoid them.

He says farmers should be given the choice to use safe and effective technologies if they are to continue to be world leaders in agriculture.

British report presses for reduced use of antibiotics in agriculture

Reducing antibiotic use in agriculture is among the key strategies for tackling the growing threat of drug resistance, according to a report into antimicrobial resistance.

An account of the report’s findings on the agricultural use of antibiotics has been posted on horsetalk.co.nz.

“The quantity of antibiotics used in livestock is vast,” said the report, entitled Tackling Drug-Resistant Infections Globally: Final Report and Recommendations – The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

“In the US, for example, of the antibiotics defined as medically important for humans by the US Food and Drug Administration, over 70 percent (by weight) are sold for use in animals,” it said.

The authors said there were circumstances where antibiotics were required in agriculture and aquaculture to maintain animal welfare and food security.

“However, much of their global use is not for treating sick animals, but rather to prevent infections or simply to promote growth.

“Many countries are also likely to use more antibiotics in agriculture than in humans but they do not even hold or publish the information.

“The majority of scientists see this as a threat to human health, given that wide-scale use of antibiotics encourages the development of resistance, which can spread to affect humans and animals alike.”

The panel, whose report was commissioned by the British Government and the Wellcome Trust, proposed three steps to improve antibiotic use in animals.

First, they call for a 10-year target to reduce unnecessary use of the drugs in agriculture.

Second, certain types of highly critical antibiotics should be restricted.

“Too many antibiotics that are now last-line drugs for humans are being used in agriculture; action should be taken on this urgently.”

Third, there must be greater transparency among food producers on the antibiotics used to raise meat. This would enable consumers to make more informed purchase decisions.

Beyond agriculture, the panel proposed a raft of measures, including a massive public awareness campaign to raise awareness of antimicrobial resistance; improved hygiene to prevent the spread of infection; improved global surveillance of drug resistance and antimicrobial consumption in humans and animals; better diagnostics to cut unnecessary antibiotic use; promoting the development and use of vaccines and other alternatives; providing greater recognition and reward for those working in the field of infectious diseases; and better incentives for investment in developing new drugs or improving existing ones.

The full report can be read here.

Professor Hendy raises questions for scientists about the disservice done by their silence

Professor’s Shaun Hendy’s just-published “Silencing Science” (Bridget Williams Books, $15) has been widely discussed in the science community in the past week. According to the Spinoff Review of Books, which describes it as “a slim book of essays on the social and moral responsibilities of scientists, it was the sixth-best seller at Wellington’s Unity Books.

Professor Hendy essentially says many scientists in New Zealand are being constrained from sharing their expertise and speaking about many topics of public importance.

Peter Griffin, at Sciblogs, says the book highlights some recent examples of where scientists have been missing in action when the public needed their knowledge and insights the most.

“I can personally relate to this. During the Fonterra botulism scare, the 2014 Yersinia outbreak and for periods in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, we struggled at the Science Media Centre to find experts who were willing to offer commentary to the media about what was going on.”

People with the expertise and the media training to handle media queries were either instructed not to speak to the media or opted out so as not to upset their management or funders.

Emeritus Professor Richard Bedford, President of the Royal Society of New Zealand, is among those to have commented on the book.

Ensuring the public is informed by reliable evidence-based information, especially in times of crisis, is a serious issue and one that deserves our attention, he agrees.

And many of Professor Hendy’s observations about science communication are very relevant for members of the Royal Society of New Zealand, especially as it finalises some guidelines for researchers when engaging with the public.  Professor Hendy contributed to the consultation process associated with these guidelines.

But Professor Bedford challenges some of Professor’s observations about the Society’s independence:

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US study finds new technology is blurring the line on GE crops

Genetically engineered crops are safe, but new regulations are needed as the definition of GE organisms becomes blurred, according to a group of American academies.

An extensive study by the US-based National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has analysed the costs and benefits of genetically modified crops, drawing on almost 30 years of research.

The key findings of the 400-page report published this week include:

  • No substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercial GE crops and conventional crops;
  • No conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from GE crops;
  • Evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.

Looking to the future of GE crops, the report notes that new genetic technologies are blurring the line between conventional and GE crops, and that the U.S. regulatory system needs to assess crop varieties based on their individual characteristics, not the way they are produced.

New Zealand’s Science Media Centre has gathered and published expert commentary on the report:

Prof Barry Scott, Institute of Fundamental Sciences, Massey University: 

“This is an impressive analysis of “past experiences and future prospects” of genetically engineered crops by the US National Academy of Sciences. This lengthy tome provides a rigorous examination of the risks and benefits of previously grown genetically engineered (GE) crops and signals a pathway forward that provides even greater rigour for the assessment of future crops be they derived from either conventional or GE breeding.

“Importantly, the report highlights the flaws in making sweeping statements about GE crops given the multi-dimensional nature of the issues that need to be assessed and the increasingly blurred distinction between crops developed by GE versus those developed by conventional plant breeding. The report also highlights the flaws in regulatory processes that are based solely on the type of genetic process used to develop the new crop.

“This book challenges the current regulatory process that we have in New Zealand, as prescribed by the HSNO Act 1996, that focuses solely on crops developed by GE and overlooks crops developed by conventional breeding. An important conclusion from this report was the finding that there was no “substantiated evidence that foods developed by GE crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.

“This document should trigger a re-examination of how crops developed by new technologies are regulated in New Zealand. There is a wealth of information here that has been peer reviewed for the regulators in government and the general public.”

Prof Peter Dearden, Director, Genetics Otago, University of Otago:

“The US National Academies report indicates that many of the proposed problems with GM crops have either not eventuated, or not been significant. They find no issues for human health, no clear evidence for environmental effects and favourable economic outcomes for producers using GM crops. The biggest issue they indicate is the development of resistance to insecticide-carrying crops, something which is of no surprise.

“In my opinion these finding are not surprising. When large scale studies of the effects of GM crops have been undertaken there has been little evidence of harm, and some evidence of benefit, and this report reflects that. This report indicates that the GM crops currently grown are safe, but has no implications for future products, which must, as these have been, be extensively tested.

“Perhaps the key aspect of the report is the recognition that new genome editing tools have changed the game with GM crops, and that this has huge consequences for New Zealand. Alongside this, the development of novel DNA sequencing technologies have allowed a much better understanding, and screening for, the unintended consequences of genetic manipulation.

“I believe that, with these tools in hand, New Zealand should take the route, as suggested in the report, for regulating novel crops on the basis of their characteristics rather than by the process by which they were developed.”

Prof Jack Heinemann, School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury:

“The summary of the report is not out of line with what I would have expected. The report authors have said that it is not possible to extrapolate the safety of all GMOs based on the track record of currently released GMOs, which are mainly plants, only a few kinds of plants, and predominantly only two traits: herbicide tolerance and insecticides. They advocate ongoing risk assessment. The authors also acknowledge that it is possible to create potentially harmful characteristics in plants by other means. Thus, avoiding a particular process should not automatically exempt a product from a safety assessment just as using a particular process should not indicate that the plant is necessarily harmful in particular ways. Note though that the US regulatory system is not the same as here. ‘Process’ there means such things as the source of the genes, not just the techniques. We need to be cautious about wholesale adoption of report language.

“On the benefit side of the equation, the report finds some limited evidence of benefit depending on what other farming choices are made. There was no indication that adoption of GMOs is of a uniform net benefit in any or all agroecosystems. For example, if GM cropping is compared to high input monocultures without crop rotation, there can be a benefit, but not necessarily a benefit if it is compared with some other management systems. Importantly, they confirm observations that many of us have made that the adoption of GM cultivars has not so far contributed to increases in yield.

“The last comments I’ll make are on the suggestion by the NAS report that new techniques are blurring the lines between what occurs in ‘conventional breeding’ and what might be achieved in the laboratory. This might in the future make knowing how a GMO is made less important for a risk assessment. The NAS report makes two careful caveats to this view.

“First, their recommendation is coupled with the routine use of the new ‘omics’ techniques in risk assessments. That would require a change in current practice both in the US and here. Previous NAS reports have made very clear that a critical reason for process-based risk assessment is the difficulty in detecting unintended changes in GM plants compared with other ways plants can be developed. The current NAS report authors believe that the problem may be addressed if routine use of omics techniques becomes standard practice. However, such techniques are not routinely used and our regulatory authorities do not require them to be. Guidelines for their use should be developed and required by regulatory authorities.

“Second, the NAS report says that purely scientific issues of effects on the environment and human health are not the only relevant issues of risk, harm or benefit. For example, GMOs are not used in isolation from prevailing and very different intellectual property rights restrictions and farm management techniques. Therefore cultural, economic, legal and social effects (including those with indirect effects on the environment and human health) also are legitimately considered by a society adopting these products.”

Moth and beetle join forces in the fight against tutsan

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has approved a moth and beetle to help stamp out tutsan, or Hypericum androsaemum). which is is considered a serious agricultural and environmental pest in the central North Island.

The yellow-flowering shrub was introduced into New Zealand as a garden plant in the 1800s but had grown out of control by 1924 and has been a growing threat to hill country farming since the 1950s.

It thrives in the central North Island, particularly around stream margins and regenerating scrub. In some areas, such as the Waikato, landowners work with their regional councils to control the weed.

Although it’s not toxic, livestock will not eat it and removing it is time consuming. Even minor infestations require intensive effort and herbicides are usually used to control or reduce larger infestations.

As a result, tutsan cannot be bought, sold, propagated, distributed or included in commercial displays.

The EPA has approved the use of two biocontrol agents, a moth and a leaf-feeding beetle, to help in the fight to combat the weed. The larvae of the moth (Lathronympha strigana) feed on the leaves and stems of the plant in spring and burrow into the fruit, consuming its seeds. The leaf beetle larvae (Chrysolina abchasica), in large enough numbers, are capable of stripping the plant of its leaves.

Ray McMillan, the EPA’s Acting General Manager of Hazardous Substances and New Organisms, says using biological control agents, or nature’s enemies, is a cost-effective way of targeting and reducing the impact of pest plants such as tutsan without resorting to chemicals.

The application to use these agents was made by the farmer-led Tutsan Action Group.

NZ and US scientists collaborate to promote the health capabilities of berries

Developing science and business strategies to promote the health benefits of berry fruits was a key theme at a workshop this month between representatives of Plant & Food Research and the North Carolina Research Campus.

By sharing research capabilities and technology, and aligning research interests, the two organisations aim to enhance scientific outcomes and hasten the delivery of new findings which can be applied as commercial opportunities for the berry fruit industry.

The collaboration specifically aims at developing a robust dossier of scientifically-validated health claims for berry fruit, to help position them as a high-nutrition ‘go to’ food.

The berry fruit industry in New Zealand is valued at over $100 million.

The  workshop identified four existing research programmes and two new research areas where add-value could be gained through collaboration, including work in cellular function and immunity, antioxidants and protein-binding, plant genomics, and skin health.

Targets around grant funding and the publishing of research papers were set, too.

The organisations from the NCRC involved in the research collaboration include North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Appalachian State University and the Dole Nutrition Research Institute.

Representatives from eight New Zealand companies and industry organisations were apprised of developments in research in areas such as berries and exercise, metabolic function, immune function, and the overall impact of berry consumption on human health.

Dr Roger Harker, Plant & Food Research’s Science Group Leader for Consumer and Product Insights, discussed the differences in consumer markets regarding fruit consumption, and perceptions around fruit and health outcomes.

The next workshop is planned for early 2017 and the the parties hope to hold additional meetings at least once a year.

 

 

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