Now let’s get a gee-up for GM from Sir Peter, science writer urges

Science writer Bob Brockie today is calling for the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, to do for GE what he did for P.

Two weeks ago, he observes, Sir Peter debunked the idea that traces of methamphetamine are a health hazard.

He says there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea.

Rather surprisingly, the government has taken the scientist’s assertion on board and is keen to right the wrongs of previous policies. Usually, scientific evidence goes in one government ear and out the other, but this time it looks as though three hundred wrongly-evicted tenants might get some sort of compensation and thousands more relieved that they won’t be thrown out of their homes.

Dr Brockie then notes Sir Peter’s persistent urging of the the government and other public agencies

” … to pay more attention to scientific evidence instead of basing policy on gut feelings, fashionable beliefs, needless fear, gossip, conspiracy theories, noisy ill-informed fanatics, and shock/horror media headlines.”

And so….

“We now look forward to the day when the science adviser similarly debunks government and public attitudes towards genetic engineering.”

Dr Brockie references recent substantial reviews of GE by the British Royal Society, the British Medical Association and the American Academy of Science and Medicine which concluded that GE has never harmed anybody or any thing.

Indeed the societies claim that GE only does good. The world’s 28 million GE farmers have increased their crop yields by 22%, their incomes by 66%, and reduced their use of pesticides by 37%. And, for that matter, over 60 000 grateful New Zealand diabetics daily inject themselves with GE insulin with no complaints. Claims that GE is a health hazard to man and beast, or that it degrades the soil or the environment get no support from the top scientific societies

But this is not what we hear incessantly from ‘GE-Free New Zealand’ and Greenpeace. Based purely on gut instinct and misinformation, these paranoid luddites spread fear and loathing about genetic engineering. They suppose that they occupy the high moral ground on these issues but are really shouting in a benighted abyss of ignorance.

And so – Dr Brockie concludes – it is time to step up and debunk the claims of GE-Free-NZ and Greenpeace because “there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these fear-mongers”.

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Soil & Health is pleased that Federated Farmers has dropped legal action around GMOs

The Soil & Health Association says it welcomes Federated Farmers’ decision to drop legal challenges to several local council resource management plans controlling their outdoor use.

Soil & Health reminds us the farmers’ organisation has run a number of cases before the courts challenging the rights of communities in Auckland, the Far North and Whangarei to manage the outdoor use of GMOs within their own districts and regions.

The courts continued to find that territorial authorities have the right under the Resource Management Act (RMA) to set their own policies and rules controlling GMO use, a finding that Federated Farmers repeatedly challenged.

Marion Thomson, Soil & Health National Council Member, congratulated the farm organisation

” … for seeing the sense in dropping further litigation, allowing Councils to get on with making GMO policies and plans that reflect the needs of regions and communities”.

Soil & Health has held strong concerns about the potential impact of GMO land use on regions dependent on an agricultural export sector increasingly reliant on non-GMO requirements of key trading partners.

“This affects both the traditional agricultural sector and New Zealand’s growing organic sector,” Ms Thomson said.

The New Zealand environment and our local communities should not be guinea pigs for GMO land use, she said.

Auckland Council, Far North District Council and Whangarei District Council all prohibit the general outdoor release of GMOs and made field trials a discretionary activity with performance standards in place, whilst Northland Regional Council adopted a precautionary approach in its regional policy statement.

Soil & Health, representing organic and GE-free farmers, primary producers, home gardeners and consumers across New Zealand, has long campaigned against Federated Farmers in each court challenge brought by the feds.

On its website, Federated Farmers sets out their policy stance on GMOs (HERE):

“Federated Farmers’ policy on GMOs is designed to be neutral, recognising that members have a diversity of opinions on the subject.

“Federated Farmers does not advocate unrestricted use of GMOs, especially in relation to allowing foreign DNA into organisms. At the same time, we want to avoid a moratorium on new biotechnologies.

“Fundamentally, the Federation’s policy asserts farmers’ right to use technologies that are approved as safe. We support responsible, flexible farming systems which can respond to changing consumer preferences, market dynamics and advances in technology. We also want to ensure that New Zealand farmers can hold their own with our international competitors, in terms of on-farm productivity.”

 

Regulator seeks advice on how to deal with food editing by new genetic techniques

The food safety regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), is calling for suggestions on  how it should consider applications for foods that have been made using new genetic techniques that aren’t currently covered by the laws which govern it.

The current code only covers food produced by genetic techniques that add DNA into a genome. This excludes newer gene editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9, which knock out genes or proteins, or others that don’t change the DNA of the final food product.

FSANZ is asking for submissions on how these newer techniques should be assessed before they go to market.

According to the Science Media Centre (HERE), the options range from treating them like conventional breeding techniques – given a green light once a technique has been proved safe – or to be treated like current genetically modified organisms which would mean that each application requires a rigorous safety assessment.

The consultation report won’t change the current regulations or labelling requirements, but it will inform how they move forward on this issue.

The Science Media Centre asked genetics and food safety experts to comment on the consultation report.

It has received this response –

  • Professor Peter K Dearden, Genomics Aotearoa and University of Otago, comments:

“In the past few years a range of novel technologies, many based on a technology called CRISPR/cas9 gene editing, have been developed. Many of these technologies challenge the only way we have thought about transgenic organisms (GM organisms), because they can change the DNA of an organism, rather than inserting a new piece of DNA.

“This technology mirrors somewhat mutagenesis, a technology that produced all of the plants of the ‘green revolution’, for example. Mutagenesis involves making lots of mutation in an organism’s DNA and then selecting those that have a useful outcome. Gene editing is less scattergun, but a reasonably precise way to make the mutation that you want.

“This falls between the old technologies of mutagenesis, and the newer ones (though now outdated) of transgenesis. These technologies do use a lab manipulation to change the DNA, but they don’t involve the insertion of a piece of DNA from another organism.

“FSANZ are investigating what people think about the outcomes of these new technologies, and a few more specific ones that have similar effects. This is incredibly timely, as products made with gene editing are already being developed overseas, and detecting gene edited organism is much harder than detecting a transgenic one.

“These new technologies have enormous potential but getting their regulation wrong may, on one hand stifle innovation, and on the other cause disquiet about risk. I applaud FSANZ for asking questions about these technologies, and am impressed by the thoughtful, knowledgeable and effective ways they have presented the information.”

Yes, we do have tomatoes – but not GM ones – says riled bio-blogger

We-are-Eating-a-Poison

Dr Alison Campbell, writing on BioBlog, has been alerted to – and challenged – an article purporting to tell consumers how to distinguish between GM and “regular” tomatoes.

An article headed “We’re Eating A Poison! Here’s How To Identify GMO Tomatoes In Two Simple Steps!” was  published at babiesdaily news.com in 2016. This year variations of the article have been reproduced HERE and – the version at Foodatory drawn to Dr Campbell’s attention – HERE.

Dr Campbell, Associate Dean (Teaching & Learning)and Senior Lecturer (Biological Sciences) at Waikato University, thunders the claim is wrong, wrong, wrong.

There aren’t any genetically-engineered tomatoes on the market, she points out.

There used to be one, the “Flavr Savr”, which came out with much fanfare in 1994. It had been modified to enhance its shelf life, but apparently was not a commercial success and was withdrawn in 1997. To date, nothing has replaced it, although there’s apparently quite a bit of research still going on into e.g. delayed ripening and resistance to pests and environmental stressors.

Dr Campbell then notes that the tomatoes we grow (or buy) and eat are themselves the result of centuries of modification by conventional selective breeding – and also techniques such as mutagenesis, which are not exactly “natural”.

Nor are they subject to the same controls and rigorous testing required of any GM organism or product, even though mutagenesis creates much larger genetic changes than today’s precise techniques for genetic engineering (think CRISPR she suggests).

And yet conventional breeding methods can also cause problems: they led to the withdrawal of some potato varieties in the US & Sweden, because the spuds thus produced contained dangerously high levels of the poisonous compound alpha-solanine.

Then there’s the misleading image (above).

They’d obviously like us to think that one – perhaps the lushly rich red one to the left? – is natural/organic, and the other, a GMOA. Especially when they ask, “can you tell the difference between a regular tomato and a genetically modified one?” But, as we know, all commercially-available tomatoes are produced by conventional means. Still, I guess they feel that an image speaks a thousand words. (I wouldn’t want that rich red one in my sandwich though – it looks like a quick route to sogginess.)

Dr Campbell then turns to the supposed “mounting evidence that links [GE foods] to toxic and allergic reactions, sick, sterile and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals”.

There are no links or citations to support such as sweeping statement.

But on the livestock front, there are now 22 years’ worth of data available on stock fed mostly on GMO foods.

Back in 2014 Steven NovellaB wrote about a very extensive review study that looked at the first 19 years of information.

The animals covered by the various studies reviewed in the paper Novella discussed number in the billions (that is not a typo). It did not identify any problems of the sort listed in the OP that I’m discussing here. (The split between industry-funded and independent research projects into GMOs is roughly 50:50.)

On allergies – apparently the great majority of food-related allergic reactions in the US are caused by antigens from 8 foods: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, shellfish, and fish. only GM soybeans are commercially available. There are a number of fairly stringent tests required of those applying to market foods with a GE component, and in New Zealand the results of these tests have to be reviewed by Food Safety Australia NZ.

Dr Campbell spells out the objectives of these tests:

The goal of the safety assessment is not to establish the absolute safety of the GM food but rather to consider whether the GM food is comparable to the conventional counterpart food, i.e., that the GM food has all the benefits and risks normally associated with the conventional food.

So far no food derived from GMOs has been found to cause new allergies.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a revised version of the originally posted story, correcting Dr Campbell’s name and incorporating the link to the article at Foodatory, published on February 2, which is the version drawn to her attention.

 

Soil and Health Assn claims a win for clean, green, GE-free New Zealand

There has been no announcement from Federated Farmers – at least, not that we can find.

But the Soil & Health Association says it is celebrating the decision by Federated Farmers to abandon its appeal against the right of councils to control the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their territories.

Federated Farmers filed its latest appeal earlier this year in the Court of Appeal, after its appeals to the Environment Court and High Court had been dismissed.

“We congratulate Federated Farmers on this pragmatic and sensible decision,” said Soil & Health Chair Graham Clarke.

“Both the High Court and Environment Court have ruled that regional councils have jurisdiction under the Resource Management Act (RMA) to regulate the use of GMOs through regional policy statements or plans. The recent RMA amendments further entrench the legal rights of councils to do so. Challenging these decisions would only have cost both us, the other parties involved and Federated Farmers themselves a lot of unnecessary time and money.”

Federated Farmers had argued the Environmental Protection Authority had sole responsibility for the regulation of GMOs under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO).

The Soil & Health Association says the federation’s decision to withdraw its appeal comes after recent amendments were made to the RMA, which confirmed the High Court ruling, leading Federated Farmers to believe that they “are likely to have materially reduced the prospects of the appeal being prosecuted successfully.”

The RMA changes, which passed in April this year via the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill, included a controversial section which allows the Minister for the Environment to bypass parliament and make fundamental changes to the law if it is deemed that council plans duplicate or deal with the same subject matter as central Government laws.

This would have allowed the Minister to strip councils of their ability to create GE-free food producing zones.

The National Government at the time needed the Maori Party votes to pass the changes. But the Maori Party stated in December last year that it would not support changes to the RMA if they extended to allowing the Minister to overrule planning provisions controlling the use of GMOs.

Before the final reading of the Bill, an exemption was introduced under section 360D specifically for GE crops, effectively preventing the minister from permitting GMO crops in regions that had elected to remain GMO free or impose controls on the use of GMOs.

“We are so grateful to Maori Party for their determination to ensure that appropriate clauses in the RMA were included to protect regions from uncontrolled GMO use. Had they not stood firm against the changes, then we might not have had this decision from Federated Farmers to withdraw their appeal,” says Soil & Health National Council member Marion Thomson.

“The RMA amendment further confirms the ability of all local councils to determine GMO policies in their regions. Local communities can now have confidence that their values and concerns about the use of GMOs in their regions can be considered when drafting policy statements and plans.”

The economic sustainability of a wide range of agricultural export activities reliant on GMO-free status is also protected by this ruling. The global non-GMO food market is currently valued at US$250 billion, and trends show this is only going to grow. New Zealand producers benefit from access to this huge non-GMO market.

Soil & Health maintains it has found no economic, health or environmental case for GMOs. There are huge uncertainties around the adverse effects of GMOs on natural resources and ecosystems. The risks are large and consequences irreversible.

 

Jo Goodhew bows out by calling for GM policy to be based on proven science

Retiring National MP Jo Goodhew began her valedictory speech by addressing “the many peoples, all voices, all mountains, all rivers” whom she thanked for coming to support her.

This injection of animist sentiments belied the tribute she played to science.

She recalled her ministerial involvement in the food safety scare in 2014 sparked by a threat to contaminate infant and other formulas with 1080 and in a scare at Christmas 2015 caused by the contamination of imported frozen berries with hepatitis.

Almost every single one of those frozen products was already labelled with its country of origin. It is not so long ago that New Zealand apples were also contaminated by a worker with hepatitis A.

So the answer is health and food safety officials working closely to identify and trace food-borne illnesses fast. Excellent traceability systems on the part of producers are essential and COOLs are only a marketing tool that works when the origin has a great reputation, which is exactly what New Zealand has.

Ms Goodhew also recalled her work on developing the National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry which she said will significantly reduce the numbers of consents required each year.

And she took pride in the Government’s work in tackling allocation, reliability of supply, measuring quality, cleaning up poor-quality fresh water, requiring stock exclusion from waterways, and mapping a path to restore degraded waterways.

But most significantly, she said

“It is high time New Zealanders woke up to the importance of genetically modified organisms and our future in the fields of health, plant, and animal genetics, and, through that, environmental protection.

“Gene editing can help us cure cancers, eradicate wilding pines as well as four-legged pests, develop grasses that assist us to reduce methane emissions, and so much more.

“The debate has to be less about fear of the unknown, and more about safe and proven science.”

Ms Goodhew was first elected to Parliament as MP for Aoraki in 2005 and was elected as MP for Rangitata in 2008, 2011 and 2014.

New York Times article on genetic modification stirs scientists

A brisk exchange of views aboutr genetic modification has been generated by an article in the New York Times, “Doubts About a Promised Bounty” (“Uncertain Harvest” series, front page, Oct. 30).

The article says:

The controversy over genetically modified crops has long focused on largely unsubstantiated fears that they are unsafe to eat.

But an extensive examination by The New York Times indicates that the debate has missed a more basic problem — genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.

A Monsanto executive, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Robert T.Fraley, is among those who has responded. .

Whether they’re growing crops on thousands of acres in Illinois or on a small plot in India, farmers are smart business people who won’t waste time or money on tools that don’t deliver results.

When nearly 20 million farmers around the world choose to invest in genetically modified seeds for two decades, it is because farmers are seeing better harvests.

Extensive, third-party studies document the significant benefits farmers have seen using G.M. crops that range from more efficient weed and insect control, to reduced use of insecticides, to reduced erosion and improved soil health, to increased crop yields.

In the United States alone, in the 20 years since the introduction of G.M. crops in 1996, soybean yields have increased by a remarkable 28 percent and corn yields by nearly 32 percent. This is the real story of how farmers are meeting the increasing global demand for food using G.M. seeds.

G.M.O. crops are not a silver bullet, but they are a very important and productive tool for modern and sustainable agriculture. With a global population expected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050, farmers need every available tool to produce more food sustainably. G.M.O.s are a vital part of the solution, and the voice of the farmer should be represented.

Peter Scott, a fellow and former president of the International Society for Plant Pathology, is one of three contributors to the debate whose letters can be f0und here. He writes:

In “Doubts About a Promised Bounty” (“Uncertain Harvest” series, front page, Oct. 30), you say “genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.”

We misjudge genetic modification’s potential by considering just yield and pesticide use over 20 years.

“Fooling with nature” is nothing new: Crops are genetic variants of wild plants selected by humans over millenniums. Our latest tools include G.M. — allowing precision and wider choice of useful qualities. Given the challenge of global food security, it is foolish to overlook any new tool in the breeder’s toolbox.

Early G.M. users overplayed their hand if they predicted an imminent “bounty.” Use of G.M. is focused on a handful of genes conferring insect resistance or herbicide tolerance. This gives little indication of G.M.’s potential to deliver new qualities to crops of the future.

Here is one example: Rice-based diets are deficient in a precursor of vitamin A, causing blindness and death in children. G.M. is delivering “golden rice” with novel genes that correct the deficiency.

We should take a broader view, as described in the August issue of Food Security.

Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says:

Your article confirms what the National Academy of Sciences and the Union of Concerned Scientists have found: Genetically modified organisms have neither been “feeding the world” nor reducing pesticide use. The industry has made billions selling farmers (and the taxpayers who subsidize them) flashy tools that have failed to achieve their grandly exaggerated objectives.

If the goal of our agricultural system is what’s best for farmers, eaters and the environment, there’s a better way to achieve it: agroecology. Just one example can be found in an ongoing Iowa State University experiment, which has demonstrated over 15 years that rotational cropping systems that work with nature (rather than against it) enhance yields and profits for farmers while reducing pesticide and fertilizer inputs and environmental impact.

While the agribusiness industry can’t be expected to develop holistic agricultural systems without a clear product to sell, the government owes taxpayers solutions that deliver. So far agroecological strategies are underfunded. The next president must increase investment in these cost-effective farming improvements.

Sudhindra Kulkarni, a member of the Global Farmer Network,says: .

I realized the benefits of genetically modified crops with my own eyes, on my own farm. I grow G.M. cotton near my village, Malli, in the state of Karnataka, India.

As a farmer, I can say that based on my past experience of farming, since the arrival of G.M. cotton, my crops are free of pests and healthier, and my farm has become sustainable.

Farming is a constant struggle, but before the advent of G.M. cotton, it was a losing battle. The bollworm pests attacked our crops relentlessly. We fought them as best we could, but our harvests were meager. I thought I would barely scrape by, as my father and grandfather before me had done.

Then came the commercialization of G.M. cotton. We started to plant it a dozen years ago. It transformed our lives. Finally, we had a way to beat the bollworm pest, increasing our yield from one ton to four tons per hectare. Cultivation of G.M. cotton still demands dedication and discipline, but now I have technology on my side.

Today, most of India’s cotton farmers use G.M. products. It’s the only way to farm sustainably.