All wheat and wheat by-products have mysteriously vanished from Night Vale, and the City Council promises that they will be gone forever. This scourge, this siege upon us, this salvo of food-based warfare is finally over. Nevermore will be we threatened in our homes by this enemy or its by-products.
We also will never eat bread again, and that’s a pretty big bummer.
But this is the balance that must be made between what we desire and what we fear, between pain and pleasure, between wheat, dear listeners, and its by-products.
Can Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Save an American Icon?
It keeps smoldering at the roots / And sending up new shoots / Till another parasite / Shall come to end the blight
So wrote Robert Frost, in 1936, speaking hopefully of the American Chestnut tree and its fight against a fungal plague. The mighty trees were falling ill to toxic invaders, but naturalists hoped they would rise above the challenge on their own, fighting nature with nature.
This woody behemoth used to make up a quarter of American timber in Eastern forests. The might of these trees, evident in the photo above from ca. 1910, reminds me of towering redwoods, dwarfing the lumberjacks flanking their mighty trunks.
Unfortunately, Frost was wrong. The chestnut-killing tree fungus threatening the American Chestnut was accidentally imported by farmers along with a Japanese species of chestnut preferred by farmers at the time. Within half a century of hitting our shores, that blight had wiped out a quarter continent’s worth of old-growth American Chestnuts (a very sad Wikipedia entry catalogues the remaining few specimens).
But thanks to biotechnology and genetic engineering, William Powell and his lab at SUNY think they can engineer chestnuts resistant to the fungus. Traditional crosses with resistant species (like the Japanese species that started it all) haven’t worked, and forest management has proven equally fruitless (or nutless, to be precise). Powell and his lab have successfully inserted a gene into the tree’s genome that can break down the fungal toxin, and are spending a tense few years waiting for their saplings to mature in order to know if they may have created a way to save the species.
Becca Rosen takes a look at biotech’s fight to save the American Chestnut in a must-read at The Atlantic, check it out.
What I find so interesting is that the techniques being used to save this tree, and one day reintroduce it to the wild, are not that different from those that are used to create genetically modified crops. How does saving a dying species by inserting a gene differ from creating an herbicide-resistant soybean, or rice that produces extra vitamins? I have my opinions, but I want to know: What do you think?
Source: The Atlantic
A rap exploring the pros and cons of GMOs when it comes to feeding a growing planet! This comes from David Holmes, a grad of NYU’s Studio 20 digital journalism program, the same folks behind “My Water’s On Fire: The Fracking Song”.
We’ve got legal concerns, and some unknown effects, but we gotta weigh the impacts so we can come correct.
That little flow was mine. I’m a natural.
(via NY Times)
Source: The New York Times
The Atlantic Got a Bit Sloppy on Science, and Science Won
The Atlantic published an alarmist story yesterday morning trying to link a Chinese study from last year about small RNA molecules passing from plants to humans to the “need” to ring the alarm bells when it comes to GMO food toxicity (if the food in question is even “toxic”).
Thankfully, Emily Willingham and others were paying attention, and she called The Atlantic and the author on their errors (I highly suggest reading her original comments and her full response here). Thanks to her criticism, the author is correcting and re-writing the story.
The author, Ari Levaux, clearly doesn’t understand what miRNAs are, what they do, where they come from, or really any of the basic science involved in the study he mentioned. So why was he allowed to misappropriate that to attack Monsanto? There’s plenty of reasons to attack Monsanto, and most are good. But when you just completely whiff on the science, you are going to get called out.
Good on Emily for doing so, and good to hear that because of her calm, careful criticism the piece will get re-written. Hopefully with more attachment to reality. It’s not about defending GMOs or nitpicking on the science. It’s about knowing what you are talking about before you publish an alarmist story.
I could make a comment here about our need for actual scientists doing the science writing, but you know how that goes.
A 30-year study by the Rodale Institute (disclaimer: It’s an organic research institute) found that the return per acre of organic farms was almost three times that of conventional farms, and yields were higher for organic crops in drought years.
Part of the gain comes from the premium prices paid for organic goods, but there’s still very meaningful advantages to farming organic:
- Organic farms used 45% less energy than conventional
- Production efficiency was 28% higher for organics
- Soil health increased over time in organic farming systems, as opposed to worsening or remaining constant for conventional
- Organic farms had less water run-off and recharged groundwater reservoirs
- Organic farms were shown to create more rural jobs than conventional
If these organic methods can be expanded to developing nations, the UN thinks that food production worldwide could double in 10 years.
Ah, the humble canola field. Picturesque, and a source of valuable vegetable oil. This special breed of rapeseed (Canadian oil low acid = Canola) has been cultivated for decades across North America and, like most cash-crops, is most widely available as herbicide-resistant seeds from companies like Monsanto and Bayer CropScience.
We have known for many years that these weed-killer resistant plants can escape from the fields and become “weeds” themselves. Farmers thought they could solve that problem by rotating crops and varying the herbicides they put on the plants - you know, keep the plants guessing by using many different combinations of chemicals to avoid resistance.
This leads us to bad news from this week’s Ecological Society of America meeting here in Austin. Canola plants in North Dakota (and probably elsewhere) have cross-bred to be resistant to both RoundUp and LibertyLink, two common herbicides sold by large crop companies Monsanto and Bayer. Farmers on neighboring fields could easily inter-pollenate each others’ crops to create a plant like this.
What does it mean? It’s not serious yet, but it speaks to a certain arrogance in agribusiness that you can completely control nature in a way that allows you to squeeze every penny out of unsustainable monoculture. You can’t, and this is proof. We now have a doubly resistant weed, and the pieces are out there to make this a common occurrence, and even spread the resistance to wild plants and weeds.
At the very least, Monsanto and Bayer are shooting their own market in the proverbial foot, and at the worst making a very bad name for the benefits of GM crops.
(via Short Sharp Science, image via CanolaCouncil.org)
Answer Bag: Scientific denialism in the GMOs vs. organic debate
An answer to this question sent in. Click through the break to read the full post.
“GMO”. That’s what you call a buzz word. Just like “stem cells” or “abortion”, it brings up some pretty strong feelings in people, for better or worse. I am not sure that people’s feelings about GMOs fall into “denialism”, though. I think it’s more a crisis of generalization and misunderstanding than it is ignorance of the facts.
Genetically modified organisms are particularly tough, because the term is really too broad. You can’t just address “bad” GMOs, as if we knew what that meant. The line where genetically modifying foods becomes “too far” is a fuzzy one, and we all put that line in a different place. The term “organic” is just as confusing. As great as it is for describing some forms of sustainable and natural agriculture, it also just looks really cool on a carton of yogurt. So how do you get to the bottom of which might be better - GMOs or organics? And are we practicing denialism when we argue one over the other?