No full length post here, just a suggestion that you all go to read Mark Lynas*’ fantastic deconstruction of various anti-GMO arguments. Obviously none of the arguments mean ‘go grow GM across the world immediately!’ but he gives some lovely detailed responses to the inconsistency in various people’s thinking (e.g. how objecting to Monsanto creating a monopoly on corn should not lead to trashing open source disease tolerant papaya in Africa) and explanations of how environmental groups are doing things that simply aren’t good for the environment.
It’s long, but a very good read.
Following a decade and a half of scientific and field research, I think we can now say with very high confidence that the key tenets of the anti-GMO case were not just wrong in points of fact but in large parts the precise opposite of the truth.
This is why I use the term conspiracy theory. Populist ideas about conspiracies do not arise spontaneously in a political and historic vacuum. They result when powerful ideological narratives collide with major world events, rare occasions where even a tiny number of dedicated activists can create a lasting change in public consciousness.
The anti-GMO campaign has also undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths. The best documented example, which is laid out in detail by Robert Paarlberg in his book ‘Starved for Science’, is the refusal of the Zambian government to allow its starving population to eat imported GMO corn during a severe famine in 2002.
Full link is here
*Mark Lynas as in the authors of Six Degrees, a pop science book about how the world would change as average global temperature increased by 1 degree, 2 degrees, 3 degrees etc… It’s basically a huge meta study of primary literature and very enjoyable. Apparently he’s good at writing about GM too – who knew?
Posted in Biology, Genetics, Science
Tagged activists, biology, conspiracy, crops, food security, genetics, GM, Mark Lynas, other blogs, science, science communication, science journalism
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable funds, aim to “help all people lead healthy, productive lives”. This is brought about by astronomic sized donations ($2.6 billion in 2010) to a variety of healthcare interventions, educational initiatives, scientific projects, and help for those in extreme poverty.
One of their latest funding projects is a $9,872,613 research grant, designed to last 5 years and a month, awarded to the John Innes Centre. (That’s about £6.34 million at today’s exchange rate). The JIC is another of the BBSRCs ‘research institutes’, like Rothamsted. This essentially means that they can do all the research that universities do, without any pesky undergrads running around wanting to be taught how to hold a pipette.
The project will research the feasibility of producing cereal crops (probably wheat and barley) that are capable of fixing their own nitrogen. Plants need nitrogen in order to produce amino acids, and therefore protein: including chlorophyll, which is what makes plants green and allows them to photosynthesise. Without nitrogen, plants are yellow and stunted – because they can’t harness the sun’s energy as sugar. They’re essentially a bit useless. During the Green Revolution, when industrial fertilisers (as opposed to cow manure) came into common usage, yields became up to three times what they originally were. But the sort of small scale farmers that the JIC project is designed to help (specifically those in sub-Saharan Africa) are not able to afford the huge quantities of fertiliser that their crops need.
This is where the idea of crop rotations arose. Certain plants such as the legumes (peas and beans) are able to survive without the application of any external nitrogen-rich fertiliser. This is because they have a symbiotic relationhip with a ‘nitrogen-fixing’ bacterium called Rhizobia, which can capture nitrogen from the air and turn it into compounds like ammonia, which are solid and can dissolve in soil water.
If nitrogen-fixing maize could be produced, this would allow maize farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to grow higher yielding crops without needing to spend so much money on external fertiliser, or leave fields to fallow every few years.
It will be a long project. The aim is to get the same bacteria that populate legume plants to form an association with the cereal. Step 1 is in getting the cereal to even recognise the presence of the bacteria! If the maize plant can sense that the bacteria are there, it can begin to produce a simple swelling in which the bacteria can ‘live’. From there, evolution should theoretically do the rest…
At the time of writing, the world population clock shows the total number of people on Earth as 7, 052, 499, 082. A smidge over 7 billion. And according to the FAO around 1 billion of those people are starving. The current prediction is that by 2050 the world population will have increased to around 9 billion people, and in order to feed all of those people we will need to produce at least 70% more food than we currently do. (We’re also eating more meat, which is more energetically expensive, because not all of the energy in a bowl of corn goes into the meat of the chicken who eats it, which is why it’s so much higher than 2/7.)
Posted in Biology, Genetics, Molecular Biology 101, Science
Tagged biology, breeding, chickpea, crops, food security, genetics, genomics, In the news, QTL, science
Somehow I managed to get so caught up in that stupid EU Commission advert this weekend that I completely forgot to mention I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here.
I’m a scientist is a really cool outreach program that allows school kids to talk to real scientists, asking questions and evicting the ones they don’t like for a two week period. It runs twice a year, and this year an extra ‘Zone’ has been added that starts running this week (the normal Zones all finished last week). This time it’s not just for school kids, and instead of a broad theme, they’re talking about GM foods. Anyone can ask any question they like and the five scientists involved will do their best to answer. Pretty cool huh?
I’m a big fan of the I’m a scientist program: it’s engaging and inspiring and does a good job of showing kids what science is really about and just how human scientists really are. (It’s pretty common to get personal questions thrown into the mix as well as questions about science!) Hopefully this time around it can also be a fantastic tool for engaging with the public over GM foods.
As I say it all kicks off today, but you can still submit questions for the next two weeks, so go get involved!
I’ve written a lot in the last couple of weeks about Rothamsted and Take the Flour Back. In my efforts to outline some of the many flaws in the activists logics, I’ve probably come across as extremely pro-GM. Now seems as sensible a time as any to take a step back and explain why, though I am keen that GM research be carried out, I don’t believe that GM alone will save the world from starvation. I’m horrified at the idea of anyone destroying scientific research, but I don’t necessarily see GM as the silver bullet that some people think it is.
It’s been a busy few days, and in the meantime lots of other people (who may be more articulate than I am right now) have done some great coverage of the Take the Flour Back protest, and GM stuff in general. I kinda want to get out of my little Rothamsted loop and talk about something else, so here are some links to articles and blog pieces I enjoyed.
Posted in Biology, Environmentalism, Science
Tagged activists, biology, food security, genetics, GM, other blogs, scepticism, science, science communication, scientists, TtFB, weekly round up
This is me this lunch time:
Faced with a day of experiments that don’t require poking every 15 minutes, an inability to order anything due to some delightful fluke of our ordering system, no teaching commitments because my undergrads had their exam this morning, and no social engagements, you might expect that I would be spending a peaceful half hour sat on a polystyrene box outside my office enjoying the sun. (That’s not actually a joke… photos to follow).
Posted in Biology, Environmentalism, Genetics, Science
Tagged biology, food security, genetics, GM, In the news, scepticism, science, science communication, science journalism, scientists