February 08, 2015

08/02/2015: GMO technology review suggests it's the future of farming

- by Adam Rutherford of the Guardian.com website, who has written a feature on GM technology that may change many readers view on the future of this technology in agriculture

Farming, by definition, is the opposite of natural.

Nothing we eat could be described as “natural”, regardless of the marketing or labelling, whether it’s organic, or from Waitrose, Aldi or Abel & Cole. Breeding any organism for food, fuel, sport or for pets is effectively genetic modification – and we have been doing that for thousands of years.

For example, a Granny Smith is a genetic hybrid of two other apples and even a blackberry plucked from a bramble is the product of a deeply ancient, seemingly natural but actually very human design – the hedgerow.

The crunchy flesh of an apple, or the grotesquely swollen udders – and even the black and white hide – of Holstein-Friesian cows are the result of carefully selecting genes and forcing them into subsequent generations.


Since the 1970s we’ve been ushering in the next era of breeding by physically lifting individual genes from one species and inserting them into another. The first crop was an antibiotic-resistant tobacco in 1982 and now around one 10th of the world’s planted crops are GM (a figure distorted by the vigorous embrace of the US – around 90% of corn and soy is GM, balancing the fact that EU has an outright ban).

Change is afoot: the EU has slightly relaxed its laws to allow the growth of GM and we may see the first commercial crops in the UK by 2017.

And another, not insignificant, step forward was taken last week when two teams published new ways to exert control of bacteria by tweaking their DNA in unnatural ways.

Genes encode proteins, which enact a lifeform’s vital functions, and proteins are made of strings of amino acids. Life only uses 20, but amino acids can come in millions of permutations. The studies have recoded DNA to adopt a new amino acid, one unavailable in nature’s larder, so that the cell can only live if given this extra synthetic ingredient. It’s like adding a new word to the English language that can only be understood if you own the right orðabók*.

Genetic engineering has not been without controversy, especially when it comes to commercial crops. The standard objection is that GM foods might be harmful to us. There is no evidence to support this – as the gold standard of scientific evidence, the systematic review of multiple studies, showed in 2013.

Other objections are over the effect of GM on biodiversity – which is equivocal and more research is needed– and over fears that the new genes will leak out into the wild with unforeseen consequences. This is something to consider, as plants do this naturally, and genetic jailbreak is precisely what the studies are trying to contain. The technical achievement here is quite something – as we would expect from the Harvard lab of one of the lead scientists, George Church, among the best in the world at redesigning nature.

What is unusual is their incentive. I suggested to Church (for Inside Science on BBC Radio 4) that they might be mollifying campaigners. I was surprised by his answer. He said: 

“That is certainly one of our goals and if they don’t like this, we’ll ask what they would prefer, and keep going. We want to get this right.” 

I was bewildered. We don’t do science in response to public opinion, especially to placate opponents. But, on reflection, this inclusive way might avoid the historical ideological deadlock and placate the general fuzzy sense that messing with nature just doesn’t feel right. It might not be the quickest route but science is part of society and, as long as the science is well understood, all voices are welcome. Society decides.

Read more HERE.

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