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When it comes to COVID, nurture trumps nature – so far

In the early weeks of the pandemic, as patients overwhelmed New York City hospitals, the clinical characteristics of the most vulnerable quickly became apparent: many of the sickest people were older or had “co-morbidities” like diabetes, hypertension, or respiratory conditions.

As weeks became months and the symptom spectrum widened and worsened, researchers began to focus on “host risk factors” to explain the increasingly apparent variability in the COVID-19 experience. According to Jack Kosmicki, PhD, of Regeneron Genetics Center, at the recent American Society of Human Genetics virtual annual meeting:

Genetics is one avenue to better understand why outcomes of COVID are so different. Some patients have so few symptoms that they don’t realize they’re infected, yet the other end of the extreme is requiring hospitalization, or death. Genetic risk factors might influence the likelihood of becoming infected or requiring hospitalization.

So far, very few genes have been linked to COVID-19. Other factors like socioeconomic status, exposure to the virus in the workplace or in crowded housing conditions, being of Black or Asian ancestry and non-genetic pre-existing conditions are more important.

But genetic differences may provide more subtle information, such as accounting for the wildly different and nuanced ways that the new infectious disease unfolds. Perhaps genetic distinctions may explain why some people recover quickly and others become long-haulers, or why some succumb to overwhelming immune responses and others effectively fight off the virus without overdoing it.

Several presentations at the genetics conference converged on a few genome regions that harbor gene variants that affect susceptibility to infection and severity of the illness. They echo reports going back months.

Teasing out genetic associations with a particular COVID outcome requires comparing several types of information about many people. Bioinformaticians seek the needles in the haystacks of human genomes, the sequences of A, T, C, and G that people with similar courses of illness and outcomes uniquely share.

Presenters described a variety of “big data” resources, including consumer DNA testing companies, government biobanks and biopharmaceutical companies. These storehouses provide family trees, health histories, and demographic information. They also include DNA data from cells in cheek scrapings, spit, and blood. The samples hold clues to why one person becomes infected and never knows it, while another progresses rapidly through a horror show of symptoms and complications. Hospital and electronic health records propel many studies too.

Zeroing in on COVID-influencing genes

Determining the DNA sequence of an entire genome, or just the protein-encoding part (the exome), is one way to match genetic information to infectious disease characteristics. But it may also be overkill. Instead many studies use a shortcut called a “GWAS,” for genome-wide association study. A GWAS – less clumsily called an association study – is a little like skimming a book rather than reading every word. The gist is still clear.

An association study catalogs sites in a genome where the DNA base varies in a population. At such a site, called a “single nucleotide polymorphism” or SNP, 97% of a population might have an “A” DNA base, but 2% have a “G” and 1% have a “T,” for example.

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Credit: Medium

The power of an association study comes from considering thousands of SNPs along a chromosome, which tend to be inherited together, like people in a boat used for crew. Linked SNPs form signatures that distinguish people. The technique is based on the classic genetic concept of ”linkage” of genes on a chromosome.

Here’s the logic. A SNP pattern that is significantly more common among people who share a characteristic, like COVID-19 severe enough to require a ventilator, points to part of a chromosome that might harbor a gene that influences the characteristic. It’s like narrowing down the location of a fleeing burglar to a specific alleyway.

A groundbreaking COVID paper published in June compared SNP patterns among 1,980 patients hospitalized with COVID pneumonia in Italy and Spain during the first wave of the pandemic. The investigators collected data from intensive care units and general wards at seven hospitals in four cities that were pandemic epicenters.

The study tracked 8.5 million SNPs, zeroing in on a set of 13 representing a “gene cluster” in part of chromosome 3. The SNPs are overrepresented among COVID-19 patients who needed hospitalization.

Several other investigations have since replicated the results implicating the chromosome 3 locale. One study that made headlines identified the genetic signature among Neanderthals, which may partly explain why COVID-19 is less prevalent in Africa. The severe-COVID gene variants among Europeans must have arisen, by mutation, after the ancestors of the Neanderthals left Africa 40,000 to 60,000 years ago.

Genetic clues in spit samples and cheek scrapings sent to companies

Consumer DNA testing giants 23andMe and Ancestry DNA conducted association studies in search of COVID commonalities. They tracked infection, respiratory symptoms, hospitalization, demographic factors (age, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status) and pre-existing conditions. I gave both companies permission to use my data.

In April and May, AncestryDNA used the data of half a million customers in an association study probing COVID-19 severity. Which patterns of gene variants were more common among the 2,407 people who’d tested positive, or among the 250 who required hospitalization?

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The already-identified chromosome 3 gene cluster popped up, plus a region of chromosome 9 near the gene that determines ABO blood type. A possible protective effect of having type O blood had been found in some investigations, but not in others.

In addition, the AncestryDNA researchers found a trio of genetic associations not seen before, in genes that are involved in viral replication (SRRM1), encode an antibody part (immunoglobulin lambda) and control replication of influenza virus (IVNS1ABP).

The variant of IVNS1ABP is particularly interesting because it is associated with COVID-19 susceptibility, but only in males. That might be one reason why evidence is growing that males are more severely affected. But how this happens isn’t known.

The AncestryDNA work provided “new evidence that host genetic variation likely contributes to COVID-19 outcomes and demonstrates the value of large- scale, self-reported data as a mechanism that rapidly address a health crisis,” concluded staff scientist Genevieve Roberts, PhD in a poster presentation.

23andMe’s study also led to the chromosome 3 region and ABO blood type. Slightly more than a million customers signed on for the study, which spanned April 6 through July 25. Of the participants, 15,434 reported a positive COVID-19 test and 1,131 of them were hospitalized.

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Perhaps 23andMe’s most compelling finding was that the genetic associations don’t explain the observation that African Americans have a greater risk of hospitalization for COVID-19, after adjusting for education, income, age, sex, obesity, and pre-existing conditions. The results suggest that if there’s a strong genetic explanation for why infection prevalence among people of African ancestry is so much higher than among other population groups, we don’t yet know what it is.

Jack Kosmicki, from Regeneron, and colleagues, reported findings that went beyond an association study, determining the exome sequences of nearly 900,000 individuals. Their data came from the UK Biobank and other resources.

Of the 900,000 people, 13,000 tested positive for COVID. The study also found the chromosome 3 hotspot, and linked the ABO gene to susceptibility but not to severity. The team identified a few other genes, including one that encodes a receptor for type 1 interferon, confirming other studies connecting mutation in this gene to severe COVID-19.

Some investigations reach high numbers by combining other studies, an approach called a meta-analysis. A data-pooling resource for the scientific community, the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, enabled Andrea Ganna, PhD, of the Institute for Molecular Medicine at the University of Helsinki and Kenneth Baillie, PhD, of the University of Edinburgh, Roslin Institute, and their team to evaluate almost 31,000 cases among 1.7 million people from 36 studies done in 16 countries.

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Their findings, published in Science and reported at the meeting, also associated types A, B, and AB blood with greater susceptibility to infection, but not necessarily with greater severity. The work revealed a variant in a gene on chromosome 19 associated with interstitial lung disease that may raise risk of developing pneumonia, and another on chromosome 21 associated with the inflammatory response, which can spiral out of control in COVID.

Putting genetic risk into perspective

Many of the abstracts for the recent human genetics conference began with acknowledging the weakness of the evidence for genetic risk factors in COVID-19 susceptibility and severity. Given that the investigations are based on such huge samples, the overall picture points to a larger role for environmental influences than genetic ones, at least in the studied populations, mostly in North America and Europe. There were almost no data from Africa, where some research suggests genetics might play a  larger role (see Despite poor healthcare, Africa leads the world in controlling COVID-19. Here are some reasons why). And that’s been what we’ve seen from the beginning.

Let’s look back.

Perhaps the most alarming point in the pandemic was when epidemiologists, public health experts, and physicians and nurses realized that community spread, in King County and Snohomish County, Washington state, stemmed from people who were infected but didn’t have symptoms.

“A series of unfortunate events” reads the abstract for the paper in Science tracing these cases, identified between February 20 and 15 March 15, 2020. The CDC reported the details on March 27 here.

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Healthcare workers, particularly those who’d treated patients from the Life Care Center, a skilled nursing facility in Kirkland, tried to warn the rest of the country to pay attention. But the new infectious disease was already spreading throughout the country.

Since then, many studies have documented transmission from asymptomatic people. Estimates of the percentage of infected individuals who don’t have or notice symptoms range from 20% to up to 90%, depending on who’s asked.

One explanation for asymptomatic spread, with building evidence, is that some people have protection from T cells against a past infection with a related coronavirus that causes the common cold. When they encounter SARS-CoV-2, those T cells rapidly rev up an antibody response before symptoms even begin – but the person can still spread the disease.

Another environmental driver of COVID-19 is degree and duration of exposure. A healthy, fit female health care worker with type O blood might have demographics and the meager genetic evidence in her favor, but she isn’t immune from sustained exposure to patients with high viral loads, even with PPE. More than 1,700 healthcare workers have died from the infection.

The emerging picture of a greater contribution of nurture over nature in COVID-19 susceptibility and severity is good news, because we can control some environmental factors, at least to some extent. Until vaccines become widely available, it’s best to continue to follow public health measures to directly limit transmission of the virus.

Ricki Lewis has a PhD in genetics and is a science writer and author of several human genetics books. She is an adjunct professor for the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College. Follow her at her website or Twitter @rickilewis
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Viewpoint: Italy’s GMO restrictions cripple efforts to expand sustainable farming

GMO and GE technologies are complementary and indispensable for the release of new plants able to solve new emergencies that can affect global food security and safety. In several countries, the lack of acceptance of these technologies are limiting  research and access to the results and benefits that can be achieved. Taking Italy as a case study, we report on the important issue of the acceptance of plant biotechnology research and the need to support scientists in performing open field trials. Several new GM plants are available and cannot be transferred to the field for appropriate risk assessment and benefits demonstration to stakeholders and consumers.  

GMO field trials banned

In January 2020, a signed petition was sent to several Ministers and Italian representatives in Bruxelles by a group of Italian Researchers who had developed genetically modified (GMO) plants and were requesting the removal of the ban on field trials, that has been enforced on such plants in Italy for nearly 20 years. 

The ban applies to both plants that were developed through genetic transfer (GMO) and plants developed with the more recent Genome Editing (GE) technology. It is expected that the latter kind will go through a simplified commercialization approval process, but the road is still long and very uncertain, so much so that Europe has postponed discussions on the topic until April 2021 [1]. It must be noted that controlled field trials remain indispensable for the evaluation of these plants’ virtues and of environmental safety factors, following the EU directive 2001/18 [2]. 

The European Union continues approving import notices of new GMO products from overseas, this following another directive 2003/1829 [3]; all the while Member States persist with dishonorable hypocrisy of not approving cultivation [4], resulting in enormous economic losses for farmers. Unable to withstand the competition posed by GMO corn with higher yield and better quality, corn growers in the Northern Italian region known as Padania are forced to reduce the size of their own corn fields. 

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Land for sale in Padania, Italy. Credit: Filippo Minelli

GMO and GE technologies are complementary and indispensable for the rapid constitution of new plant varieties and, thus, must be safeguarded and protected [5]. As certain patents begin to expire, the US continues to develop new plant GMO varieties, some of which are approved for cultivation with a simple notice to be sent to the appropriate authorities, inasmuch as they are already considered GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) [6]. 

The request to remove the ban

We have requested the removal of the field trials ban on a number of state-funded GMO plants of traditional Italian agriculture varieties, totaling more than 40 individual types, all developed in Italian laboratories. Many of these have been awaiting approval for over 20 years now and no multinationals hold patent rights over them, rendering them available for use by our farmers. These crops were modified to improve their resistance to biotic (fungi, bacteria, viruses) and abiotic stresses; to improve yield and quality. Several Italian institutions have developed new transgenic, cisgenic and RNAi plants that are ready to be transferred to the field, which are important crops for Italian agriculture—in particular wheat, olive, grape, peach and strawberry.

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We, therefore, explicitly request that the Italian government put an end to the cunning and rather hypocritical deception enacted thus far, which prevents the Ministry of Environment from authorizing field trials, inasmuch as both the Ministries of Agriculture and the Environment have still not approved trial protocols, and the regions have still not identified trial sites. Such duties were supposed to be performed as far back as in 2007. As a consequence of this, the Italian farming community was deprived of knowledge about the potential risks and benefits of this technology and new products it could produce. 

This is the reason why, in the meantime, we also invite business associations to express their positions in a clear and direct manner. Their verbal approval has been expressed on multiple occasions, but in practice, they have provided no support, manifesting instead an anti-scientific attitude and fear of being exposed on the approval of this technology. Alongside politicians, they have constantly abused the phrase “technological innovation,” without ever considering that innovation is achieved through research, through researchers’ dedication, and through adequate human resource and financial investments. 

Tackling new emergencies 

Nature and human activity perpetually generate new phenomena: the coronavirus, unfolding climate change, and indiscriminate demographic growth are some of the most recent and evident of such phenomena, and which should not have caught us unprepared to provide remedies to the risks they generate. To the contrary, instead of intensifying research to prevent or swiftly combat such risks with new technologies, in some sectors, we are witnessing a rather slow and chaotic scientific progression, burdened by ideological and ethical motivations, and often baseless fears. 

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Credit: Shutterstock

The rapid development of disease-resistant plants, such as those that could be obtained through modern biotechnology, is no longer a luxury, but rather an urgent necessity, caused in large part by globalization. The ease and extreme speed with which parasites spread undisturbed increases the necessity for efficient sanitary defenses, which meanwhile grow scarcer. 

Biotechnologies are adjunct instruments, often times quicker in responding to farmers’ pressing calls for the development of more sustainable and consumer-friendly production chains, including organic ones. At the same time, their use makes it possible to rescue those typical local varieties, which are at risk of extinction, and which it is our duty to protect to preserve traditions. In fact, Italy in particular has not only delegated the manufacture of biotech products to private institutions — while simultaneously importing them in massive quantities from abroad — but it has also outsourced research, with consequential great losses of know-how and funding from EU programs. 

With the arrival of technologies such as Genome Editing and Gene Silencing [[7], [8]], research has timidly picked up again in the biotech sector with the modest enthusiasm of young researchers’, who are, however, forced to pay the cost of almost 20 years of semi-activity, on top of the difficulties and disappointments they are bound to face shortly as they attempt to overcome the insurmountable obstacles of performing banned field trials of their products, especially woody plants [[9], [10]], which are difficult to adapt to artificially confined spaces. 

Public should know the benefits of technology 

Citizens have the right to know about and observe with their own eyes the real benefits of technology as they are realized in appropriate field trials designed to improve our agricultural production chains. 

Confusion reigns among citizens today, because they are not provided with sincere and competent explanations of why these technologies are so important and indispensable [11]. This historic moment is defined by an erroneous conviction that everything natural is good; that biotech is the opposite of organic, and that it threatens the biodiversity of plant species. Such false proclamations are predominantly rooted in commercial interests, and they provoke a sense of aversion among consumers to improved production methods and both private and public biotech research. It’s possible that only a food shortage, regrettable as that would be, could communicate the importance of research to the consumer.

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Citizens should know that GMO technology has not been a failure in agriculture, as critics would have them believe, based on a small number of commercialized products embodying inferior expectations compared to those once projected. If anything, this is the result of years of anti-GMO activism that has blocked public research — which is by definition accessible and open to all. While the anti-GMO objective may have been to block multinationals, the result has been their strengthening and their increased control over the production of various basic foods consumed globally (corn, soy, rice). 

On the other side, policymakers must ensure compliance with the time frames dictated by the regulations and make the final approval decision based on the results of risk-benefit assessments obtained on a scientific basis, instead of public consent, now shaped by anti-GMO movements and by the organic agriculture lobby. 

Although it is a matter of fact that genetic innovations obtained through biotechnology are not the only solution in the fight against misery, hunger, malnutrition, and environmental degradation, they can still make a considerable contribution. It is reckless and irresponsible to block them for ideological reasons. This is even more true in regards to Italian researchers, who are denied their right to announce the results of their research; true in regard to farmers, who do not have access to innovations that can ensure greater sustainability for their production systems; as well as to consumers, who are not being correctly informed about the potential food security impact of these technologies. 

Italian and EU scientists need strong support to carry their research programs from the laboratory to the field and show growers and consumers the benefits that plant biotechnology can bring to agriculture.

The European Union is launching a new program based on the agriculture ‘green deal,’ but with an unclear position on the important role of plant biotechnologies in improving the sustainability, security and safety of European agriculture. This behavior is no longer bearable for the future of agriculture and the well-being of EU citizens.   

References

  1. EC Study on new genomic techniques (2019). https://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/gmo/modern_biotech/new-genomic-techniques_en 
  2. EC (2001): https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32001L0018
  3. EC (2003): https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32003R1829
  4. Giovanni T., 2016. European incoherence on GMO cultivation versus importation. Nature Biotechnology, correspondence, 34.
  5. Limera C., Sabbadini S., Sweet J.B., Mezzetti B. (2017). New biotechnological tools for the genetic improvement of major woody fruit species. Frontiers in Plant Science, 8:1418. DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2017.01418
  6. Federation of American Scientists (2011). U.S. Regulation of Genetically Modified Crops. In case Srudies in Agriculture Biosecurity: https://fas.org/biosecurity/education/dualuse-agriculture/2.-agricultural-biotechnology/us-regulation-of-genetically-engineered-crops.html 
  7. Arpaia, S., Christiaens O., Giddings K., Jones H., Mezzetti B., Moronta-Barrios F., Perry J.N., Sweet J.B., Taning C.N.T., Smagghe G., Dietz-Pfeilstetter A. (2020). Biosafety of GM Crop Plants Expressing dsRNA: Data Requirements and EU Regulatory Considerations. Frontiers in Plant Sciences, 24 June 2020: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2020.00940 
  8. Mezzetti B., Smagghe G., Arpaia, S., Christiaens O., Dietz-Pfeilstetter A., Jones HKostov K., Sabbadini S., Opsahl-Sorteberg H.-G., Ventura V., Taning C.N.T., Sweet J. (2020). RNAi: What is its position in agriculture? Journal of Pest Science, in Press. DOI: 10.1007/s10340-020-01238-2
  9. Rugini E., Cristofori V., Silvestri C. (2016). Genetic improvement of olive (Olea europaea L.) by conventional and in vitro biotechnology methods. Biotechnology Advances, 34, 5:687-696. DOI: 10.1016/j.biotechadv.2016.03.004
  10. Rugini E., Bashir M.A., Cristofori V., Ruggiero B., Silvestri C. (2019). Genetic engineering in fruit trees: A review of results, applications and regulations. Pak J Agri Sci, 57:1. DOI: 10.21162/PAKJAS/20.8361
  11. Frewer L.J. (2017). Consumer acceptance and rejection of emerging agrifood technologies and their applications. Eur. Rev. Agric. Econ. 44:683–704. URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10.1093/erae/jbx007

Eddo Rugini is the Vice President of the National Academy of Olive and Oil and a former university professor.

Bruno Mezzetti is a full professor of Arboriculture at the Department of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences at Marche Polytechnic University.

A version of this article was originally posted at the European Scientist website and has been reposted here with permission. The European Scientist can be found on Twitter @EuropeScientist

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Debating the prickly notion of identity: It’s different depending on your ideology

In 2020, much of the public discussion of social issues revolves around notions of identity. Ideas about race, reformulations of gender, and considerations of class or religious confession. But it is not often stated that these identity categories are qualitatively different, and these differences have different implications for the real world. Some reflection on the real-world consequences of identity ought to make this apparent.

Why is a party based on working-class solidarity far less sinister than a party based on a racial or ethnic group? Perhaps because being working-class is not a fixed identity, and solidarity is open to all. One’s race or ethnicity is viewed as more static. Most of us can imagine struggling to pay bills and keep a roof over our heads, but few can imagine being another race. Race-thinking is anti-empathetic by its nature.

Obviously, most humans have a variety of identities that they balance, synthesize, and are enriched by. Before World War I, socialists expressed their opposition to a conflict that they believed, correctly, would only bring suffering to the workers of the world. But once the Great War commenced socialist parties in the main fell into line, expressing national patriotism. This shattered the illusion of radicals that socialism would supersede nationalism, and that class solidarity trumped patriotic feeling.

The rise and success of the Soviet Union as a socialist state proved that identities and emotions beyond class are necessary. A cult of personality around Stalin flourished, while to defeat Nazi Germany the Soviet Union promoted the “Great Patriotic War” rooted in a traditionalist Russian nationalism.

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Russian WWII propaganda

Just as individuals have complex identities, so do societies. Historian David Cannadine argued that the British Empire may have been grounded in the racial and ethnic nationalism that was ascendant in the late 19th century, but there was also an element of conservative class hierarchy that cut across race and ethnicity. The British aristocracy did not view the nobility of non-European societies as simply non-white, nor did they view their own British social inferiors as simply other white people.

In modern identitarian Left politics, the multidimensional texture of identities is often collapsed, with a spectrum of “marginality” being the primary organizing principle. Social justice liberation aims to free, empower, and “center” marginalized sexual, racial, religious, and social identities. But this paradigm ignores the fact that not all identity categories are interchangeable or operate with the same currency, and some identities are much more powerful, and dangerous than others. Race and ethnicity in particular have the potential to ignite conflicts within societies in a manner without parallel. Any conflict rooted around fixed identities can only end in zero-sum games. Someone wins. Someone loses. Always.

The other fixed identity is sex. But, despite rhetoric about a “battle of the sexes,” men and women need each other. Even in patriarchal societies where men are held to be superior to women, men have mothers and often sisters. The tensions between the sexes emerge from intimacy, not alienation and ignorance, and that necessary intimacy imposes a limit on the conflicts and social discord that might emerge due to activism.

Men and women cannot abolish each other because men and women need each other to exist. There is no sexist equivalent in patriarchal societies to the sort of exterminationism which flourished in Nazi Germany or in Rwanda in the 1990s. Women in a nation such as Saudi Arabia are unfree and held in a level of extreme subordination and control which offends all those with liberal sensibilities, but there would be no Saudi nation without women.

Saudi Arabia in many ways is a perfect laboratory to illustrate the anatomy of oppression and the dimensions it may take. The House of Saud built a state on the foundation of religious supremacy, class hierarchy, and the abject subjugation of women to men. The monarchy began in the 18th century as an alliance between the rulers of Diriyah in central Arabia and the Wahhabi movement. The Saudi ruling family allows the Wahhabi sect to dictate the religious life of the nation through the ubiquitous morality police, and the Wahhabi establishment confers divine legitimacy upon the monarchy.

But the Wahhabis are only a minority of Saudi Arabia’s population. There are Shia Muslims in the Persian Gulf region of Saudi Arabia who suffer explicit discrimination. Sunni Muslims from the west of the country, where Mecca and Medina are located, are also marginalized, outsiders to the Nejdi Wahhabi ascendancy. And though Saudi Arabia has large non-Muslim communities of guest workers, no non-Islamic religion can be present and visible in public spaces in the kingdom.

But religion, by its nature, has within it the capacity for assimilation and fluidity. If you are a Shia Muslim oppressed by the Wahhabi domination of Saudi society, conversion is always an option. One’s religion is not seen as fixed by birth. Oppression is balanced against the possibility of assimilation, even if such transformations of identity offend our views of the liberty that human conscience is due.

Similarly, though the Saudi state is run for and by the numerous princes of the royal family, who exist as a leisured class, poorer Saudis do have a chance, small as it is, to join the economic and social elite through luck and hard work. Osama bin Laden’s father is a famous example of this. Born in coastal Yemen, he immigrated to Jeddah and worked as a porter, before parlaying a relationship with the House of Saud into wealth and prosperity. In all societies, there are those who are born poor who become rich, and those born to wealth who lose their wealth, status, and power.

Then there is sexual orientation. The Saudi state has executed people due to “homosexual acts.” But the reality of being gay in Saudi Arabia is more complex. In many repressive patriarchal societies where gender segregation is the norm, homosexuality is tacitly accepted so long as discretion and outward conformity to heterosexuality is maintained. Though sexuality has a biological basis, historically the way it plays out in terms of particular identities has been complex, and subject to cultural norms.

Whereas the Saudi treatment of religious and sexual minorities and women as second-class citizens is explicit, and the privileged social and economic position of the ruling family understood by all, attitudes toward race in the kingdom are much more shadowy. Very few outsiders are aware that about 10 percent of the population of the kingdom are native Saudi blacks. The reason for this is straightforward: black Saudis are marginalized and excluded from visible elite positions in society. This is implicit, and there are exceptions.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a member of the  royal family, is well known in the West as a diplomat and ambassador. He is also the son of an Ethiopian slave woman. Despite his African appearance his status as a grandson of Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, guaranteed his social promotion due to his competence and skills. Prince Sultan as a black man has raised eyebrows, but Prince Sultan as a member of the House of Saud is due deference.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Credit: AP

Whereas religious bigotry and sexism are enshrined in the de jure laws of many states, explicit racism is far more taboo. The pariah status of South Africa in the late 20th century highlights this fact. After the 1990 earthquake that devastated Iran, the authorities made an appeal for aid, but explicitly rejected any from South Africa. Iran is a nation where women have fewer rights than men, religious minorities have fewer rights than Muslims, with the Bahá’í Faith being subject to explicit persecution.

Iranians also harbor a great deal of ethnic prejudice against their neighbors, and as highlighted in the Iranian film Bashu, the Little Stranger, take a dim view of their own dark-skinned fellow citizens. But this is not legally enshrined. Sexism and religious supremacism is a feature, not a bug, of Iranian society. Racism in contrast is missing the mark of their aspirations toward Islamic universalism.

Despite their differences, all civilized traditions over the past several thousand years have converged upon a common set of ideas and impulses which balance local particularism with human universalism. This is almost certainly an outcome of the fact that as our species settled down into villages, and produced agglomerations of habitation that we know as cities, something beyond our native social instincts was needed to smooth human affairs.

Christianity universalized the ethical monotheism pioneered by the early Jews. In China, Confucian scholars argued that the ways of the sages were accessible even to barbarians. The Indian concept of Dharma is universal, and through the vector of Buddhism a universalist rendering of Indian thought is now espoused by members of all nations in various quantities.

But these insights are not purely religious, as they echo down to the modern world as self-evident truths. The French in 1789 promulgated a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which applied not just to their fellow citizens, but humans the world over. The revolutionary government abolished slavery in the colonies on these grounds. The early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman predicated on the unfilled human universalism of the French declaration.

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Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft (c. 1787) attributed to the Irish painter John Keenan. Credit: Bridgeman Library

And yet there was another face to human nature which emphasizes the local and particular as more precious. Confucianism explicitly acknowledges this, admitting that the primary loyalty of humans is to their family, and so builds social and political institutions on the rock of familialism. The spread of universal religions did not lead to universal government, as proto-national identities retained their coherence in a global world order.

Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities argues for the late development of national feeling with the rise of early modern vernacular language media. In this telling, nationalism is often seen to be a modern invention. In contrast, Azar Gat in Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism argues that nationalism is a primal force, derived from natural human tribalism. As such, it is at once powerful, pervasive, and dangerous.

I believe that Gat’s thesis is closer to the truth. Though it is fashionable to say that race and ethnicity are social constructions, it is hard to deny that operationally they tend to follow certain lineaments of human relatedness and genealogy. To be someone’s parent is a social construction. Adoptive parents are parents. But the truth is that in most cases parenthood is strongly associated with a close biological relationship to one’s children. Similarly, the people whom we call Swedes or Japanese exhibit, on the whole, certain features due to predominant shared relatedness.

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The association between biology and race and ethnicity is the fundamental reason that identities rooted in these categories are more dangerous than those rooted in religion or class. Biology is often defined by zero-sum Malthusian dynamics. The Victorians viewed nature as “red in tooth and claw.”

This is entirely too reductive, as complex human societies or eusocial insects falsify this generalization, but it gets at some element of the dynamics which define the world around us. Biological species compete with each other, and compete within species as groups or individuals. It is a world where resources are finite, and to the victors go the spoils.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Lord God has given the land of Canaan to the children of Israel. As a consequence, the Hebrews under Joshua and his successors enter into a program of conquest and genocide. These portions of the Hebrew Bible reflect primal human biological existence in a state of competition. The Hebrews were a nation. A collection of tribes. Their God, the Lord God, was a tribal god. An angry, jealous, and vengeful God.

Over 1,000 years later, the Jewish revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks was also characterized by violence. The revolt began with the priest Matthias disemboweling a Jew who began to offer sacrifice to an idol. The Maccabees did not win their independence through persuasion, but through violence. But Jews of the first century BC were not the Hebrews of the Bible. The Maccabees forcibly converted peoples they conquered to their religion. Though this action is objectionable to the modern mentality conditioned to no compulsion in religion, it was a humanitarian step forward, as gentiles could become Jews through affirmation of the God of the Jews and adherence to Jewish law. Herod the Great, who was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate, descended from a people forcibly converted after the Maccabean revolt.

The developments of Christianity, Islam, and eastern religions, after 0 AD take this process even further. The core insight of these faiths is that the truths of the world—to live a better life and devote oneself to transcendent truth—are accessible to all humans. Many of the moral and ethical teachings from these religions run counter to our baser instincts, whether it be to turn the other cheek, or unconditionally love a parent who is without merit.

And religion can also unleash brutality and repression, as evidenced by the Saudi theocracy, the Thirty Years War in 17th century Europe, or communal slaughter between Hindus and Muslims during partition. Religion, like most human institutions, can be turned to purposes good, and purposes bad. It is a collective human enterprise, and as such reflects our imperfections. But, unlike racialism, ethical religion has within it an element of utopianism, of striving for improvement.

The same can be said of political religions, such as Marxism. The ultimate aim of these movements is to expand the circle of dignity outward, to encompass the whole of humanity. Failure is inevitable, and sometimes the consequences are horrific, but the egalitarian impulse also has salubrious consequences, as chronicled in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Racial and ethnic identity do not hold the possibility for such capaciousness of spirit. Taken to its logical conclusion this style of thinking leans upon biology, and therefore takes us down the path of eliminationism. In 1901, the brilliant futurist HG Wells wrote, “And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people… it is their portion to die out and disappear.”

Though we are all conscious of the Nazi regime, the reality is that, in the first decades of the 20th century, this spirit of race was widespread in the Western world. A strong sense of racial purpose and solidarity amongst whites imbued the cultural elites with the sense of a zero-sum world of racial competition. It was either to eliminate the non-white peoples, or be swamped by what racial thinker Lothrop Stoddard termed “the rising tide of color.”

It has been three generations since the fall of the Nazi regime and the end of crude racialism. The racist laws of the American South were repealed in the decades after World War II, and race-based regimes such as Rhodesia and South Africa became pariahs. This is not to say that racism does not exist, and that racial feeling and nationalism is not pervasive in many societies.

To a great extent, to be Chinese and to be of the Han ethnicity are implicitly coterminous. In much of Europe, non-white descendants of immigrants are still viewed as outsiders in societies which evolved organically out of local tribes over thousands of years. It would be folly to deny that ethnicity and nationality are not connected; I myself was born in Bangladesh, which was founded as a nation by and for speakers of the Bangla language.

But when the subtext becomes the text, furies can be unleashed, and atavistic reflexes can re-emerge. Much of the antiracist discourse in the West today seeks to make race more salient, more explicit, as an organizing principle of society. To remove racism one must acknowledge that one is racist. For white people to repair their injuries to the world, they must acknowledge their own racial identity.

The road to hell was paved with good intentions, and no one can deny that the intentions here are good. But history teaches us that the choices we make in the present can have unforeseen consequences in the future. Some white nationalists are quite pleased that we are in a moment where “race matters.” They see an opportunity in the awakening racial awareness of white people, and the explicit re-racialization of public life. Perhaps white people are a race of saints, and the darkness shall not fall over them. But more likely some will fall prey to the temptations of racial pride as the world is soaked in racial thinking.

In the Malthusian world, where there is a loser and a winner in every game, you will always eventually lose at some point. The revival of racial identity to tackle social injustice reawakens an ancient beast. One may think that one can ride the beast to victory, but more likely the beast breaks free, and unleashes the rages of the ancient world upon the modern.

Razib Khan is a geneticist and director of science at the Insitome Institute. He has written for the New York Times, India Today, National Review Online, and runs two weblogs, Gene Expression and Brown Pundits. Find Razib at his website or follow him on Twitter @razibkhan 

A version of this article was originally posted at Quillette and has been reposted here with permission. Quillette can be found on Twitter @Quillette

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What did a teenage girl look like 9,000 years ago? Here is her face, reconstructed from bone fragments found in a cave in Greece

Swedish sculptor Oscar Nilsson reconstructed the face of an 18-year-old young woman, dubbed Avgi, whose 9,000-year-old bones were found in a cave in central Greece. Read more about the facial reconstruction.

Step 1

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A plastic 3D-printed skull was made based on scans of the original bones found in Greece. Nilsson used this replica as the base for his sculpture.

Layers of clay

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Plastic pegs guided Nilsson as he added clay muscle to the face.

Molding muscle

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He faithfully recreated each individual muscle between the bone and the skin. Because of this meticulous process, each sculpture takes about 220 hours from start to finish.

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Scientific sculpture

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For his reconstructions, Nilsson bases the thickness of the muscle and fat on scientists’ determination of the age, sex, weight, and ethnicity of the person he’s trying to recreate.

Avgi opens her eyes

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Half of the skull is finally covered with clay “skin.”

Avgi complete

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A much more lifelike silicone “skin” is finally added over the face, complete with pores and wrinkles. Not much is known about Avgi’s life, but Nilsson hopes viewers could feel a connection with her by seeing her face.

Megan Gannon has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor’s degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow Megan on Twitter @meganigannon

A version of this article was originally posted at Live Science and has been reposted here with permission. Live Science can be found on Twitter @LiveScience

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Monsanto wrongly sued farmers for patent infringement? Federal courts put down David v Goliath myth for good

Does greedy Monsanto sue small-time farmers for patent infringement because their fields are accidentally contaminated with the company’s GM seeds? Anti-GMO activists and gullible reporters have said so for two decades, but after examining four high-profile suits in this series, we’ve discovered that this narrative is clearly false. The defendants in these cases, without exception, utilized Monsanto’s GM seeds without paying for them, or tried to help others do so. One grower, Vernon Bowman, actually planted the company’s patented soybeans and told them about it.

[Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series. Read part one and two.]

In none of these cases, as court records confirm, did Monsanto target a farmer because of accidental pollination, nor did the biotech giant force anyone into costly settlements; the company either declined the compensation awarded by the court or asked the defendant to contribute the funds to scholarship programs for agriculture education. These key details undermine the allegation of legal mischief on Monsanto’s part, but there is one last case in which Monsanto was the defendant we should briefly analyze to put the issue to rest for good, because it was designed to do exactly that—but ended by blowing up in the plaintiff’s face.

Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) et al. v. Monsanto

In March 2011, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) sued Monsanto specifically to stop the company from suing farmers whose farms were ‘contaminated’ by genetically engineered seeds. OSGATA wanted a declaratory judgment that would ensure Monsanto was not entitled to sue the plaintiffs for patent infringement. In court, Monsanto argued that it “never has and has committed it never will sue if our patented seed or traits are found in a farmer’s field as a result of inadvertent means.”

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OSGATA lost at the district court level and the dismissal was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Why did this case go nowhere? OSGATA was asked to produce evidence that a “justiciable controversy is present,” that is, evidence that Monsanto sues farmers due to inadvertent contamination. They were not able to do so. They sued the company to prevent Monsanto from doing something it hadn’t done and had committed not to do.

While OSGATA held up “Monsanto’s evident history of aggressive assertion of its transgenic seed patents against other growers and sellers (144 suits and 700 settlements)” as a reason for a declarative judgment, Monsanto pointed out that none of those cases involved the sort of accidental contamination that the plaintiffs wished to be held harmless, thus they “are therefore not similarly situated to those who have been sued.” So, the previous cases could not be used as the basis for a declaratory judgment going forward on accidental contamination cases.

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Further, the court clarified that Monsanto’s assurances in this case that they would not sue on the basis of accidental contamination would have the force of law going forward. Under the concept of judicial estoppel, “It is well established that a party who successfully argues one position is estopped from later adopting a contrary position in a case involving the same patent.”

In another section, the court addressed OSGATA’s claims to be potentially harmed by the health risks of genetically engineered seeds and glyphosate. The opinion concluded:

The appellants also complain that they are harmed by, inter alia, exposure to the allegedly adverse health effects of genetically modified seeds and glyphosate; long term environmental impacts of genetically modified seeds; economic costs following from contamination of conventional crops by transgenic seeds and glyphosate; and the costs of anti-contamination precautions taken for purposes other than avoiding suit (i.e., to maintain organic certification). But as the appellants concede, “a declaratory judgment here would do nothing to eliminate the risk of transgenic seed contamination.”

Aside from the risk of suit by Monsanto, none of the alleged harms caused by contamination is traceable to Monsanto’s enforcement of its patents, they could not be remedied by a declaratory judgment, and they cannot serve as a basis for jurisdiction in this case.

In sum, Monsanto’s binding representations remove any risk of suit against the appellants as users or sellers of trace amounts (less than one percent) of modified seed. The appellants have alleged no concrete plans or activities to use or sell greater than trace amounts of modified seed, and accordingly fail to show any risk of suit on that basis. The appellants therefore lack an essential element of standing. The district court correctly concluded that it lacks Declaratory Judgment Act jurisdiction.

 

After a careful reading of the decision, and looking past the necessary niceties of legalese, one gets the very clear sense of a plaintiff being laughed out of court.

Marc Brazeau is the GLP’s senior contributing writer focusing on agricultural biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @eatcookwrite

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Viewpoint: How postmodernism birthed Europe’s anti-GMO movement

Tounderstand why Europe is restricting the use of some technologies, while the United States are not following the same path for the same technologies, plant biotechnology is a useful example. Obviously, Europe is center of origin of the GMO backlash. A short-term reason can be sought in its Directive from 1990, which has created a judicial object called a “genetically modified organism.” It was replaced by a new Directive in 2001 but kept its meaningless definition of a GMO (Tagliabue, 2016a). This regulatory approach focuses on an “organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally,” giving the impression that GMOs are intrinsically different and risky, and consequently created the possibility of rejection of transgenesis, a promising technology, by distrustful consumers in the wake of the “mad cow” crisis.

The July 2018 judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) (“Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive”1) was a new blow for biotechnologists. However, the question that emerges is: Why did all these events happen in Europe? To understand we need to characterize the ideological context, and to do so to look at a broader historical perspective.

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European Court of Justice. Credit: Geoff Pugh/Telegraph

During the last century, Europe suffered from two devastating World Wars, the mass crimes of two totalitarian states and the inhumane nature of their concentration camps, and several genocides. In a legitimate attempt to avoid repetition of such tragic events, European integration was postulated.

However, it was not only based on “sharing of its common inheritance” as originally thought. Since Nation-States were considered to be warmongers, a new way of thinking considered that what is needed is to go beyond traditional allegiance to Nation-States, at the benefit of supra-national structures (such as an increasingly federalist and expanding EU) or infra-national ones (such as what was later called “non-governmental organizations,” NGOs).

Furthermore, Europe started to look critically at other aspects of its history (its colonial enterprises, the status of minorities, etc.). What progressively developed was a new ideology which can be termed “postmodernism” (this term is useful since it highlights a shift from “modernism,” as explained below). It is based on the assumption that questioning the inheritance (rather than sharing it) is necessary to avoid the tragedies of the past. This view gained a strong moral influence, especially in conjunction with social and political upheavals in the Western world from the 1960s onwards. It also found philosophical support: postmodern philosophy considers that Western intellectual and cultural values (the heritage of the Enlightenment) have to be “deconstructed” (for more details see footnote 2 and also the Kuntz, 2020).

There is another important shift to be taken into account. It can be illustrated by, for example, the fact that Churchill spoke about an “act of oblivion against all the crimes and follies of the past” (Churchill, 1946). However, here also, this is not what actually occurred. Instead of oblivion, what developed can be called the “Western Guilt” (Bruckner, 2010). It slowly but surely permeated the values and powers that rule the EU, and to quote the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner:

Having scaled unprecedented peaks of barbarity, the Europe of Brussels has decided to redeem itself by privileging moral values over realpolitik. […] It [modern Europe] has convinced itself that, since all the evils of the twentieth century arose from its feverish bellicosity, it’s about time it redeemed itself and sought something like a reawakened sense of the sacred in its guilty conscience (Bruckner, 2019).

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Credit: Population Connection

Although science and technologies have made a huge contribution to mankind, accidents (such as the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal), careless use of chemicals (such as pesticides), failure in risk assessments (such as the thalidomide case) and morally reprehensible events also occurred. Many consider that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has led to a major change in the way we look at science and has fueled critical views of technology in the postmodern era. The dawn of this era can be set in 1962, when Rachel Carson published her anti-pesticide book Silent Spring, although the same decade was still characterized by a peak of admiration of technology during NASA’s Apollo program.

Here also, to avoid repetition of deleterious events caused by technology, more “Big Principles” were invented: the Precautionary Principle in Europe (see Supplementary Material) and participation of “civil society” in the whole Western world. The latter actually contains two postmodern concepts in a single principle. One is the re-invention of “civil society” (Powell, 2013; Ehrenberg, 2017), also called “stakeholders.” Cicero already spoke about a “societas civilis,” but here it is a different concept, developed from the 1980s: i.e., the rising importance of a supposed direct (participative) democracy, as opposed to representative democracy especially at the level of Nation-States, which as mentioned above, were considered as potential warmongers or at the service of the industrial and financial oligarchy. In the postmodern sense, direct democracy is not limited to local democracy (the latter is often useful).

Transposed to science, it gave rise to the concept of the “democratization of science.” In conjunction with the second concept, “participation,” it has profound implications for science, since it means that scientific processes (such as risk assessment) cannot rely solely on experts, but will benefit from the involvement of “stakeholders” (Kuntz, 2016). Collaboration between medics and patients is often put forward as a successful example of “participatory science.” Although it may be true, this represents a case where no political forces are at work and where all parties want “more science” rather than one party promoting “another science” [see discussion in Kuntz (2012, 2016)].

The report in 2016 by the National Academies of Sciences (United States) entitled “Gene Drive on the Horizon,” although scientifically excellent, illustrates such an ideological shift (led by postmodern sociologists and ethicists on the Committee): it is no longer the society, in its own interest, which should listen to science, but science which should align with “public values” (Kuntz, 2016). Significantly, the subtitle of this report is “Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values.” The term “research” is ambiguous here. It can mean research funding, which is a legitimate political choice and of course will be influenced by “values” (but the ambiguity of the latter term has still to be recognized). It can also be understood as the way science is performed (i.e., the scientific method) and this is problematic: “public values” drastically change according to civilizations and even over time in a given location, which is incompatible with the universalist scientific method.

These views ignore that science is not a matter of democracy, and that this “democracy” is at risk of being captured by the most organized political activists. Of course, scientists can participate in the democratic debate by explaining to a larger public what they know and what they do not know. Here also, these new “Big Principles” went too far: the Precautionary Principle (see Supplementary Material) or, rather, its misuses (Tagliabue, 2016b), encouraged non-science-based regulations and even bans, such as those on GMOs; the participation of “civil society” led to a “soft power” of NGOs.

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The latter concept has been discussed by many authors and can concern many issues and have positive effects [e.g., diplomacy, human rights, promoting responsible business practice and of course environmental matters; see Katsuji and Kaori (2008); Chambers (2012)]. However, it can also have negative effects such as African governments importing dysfunctional biosafety regulations under the influence of European NGOs amongst others [see Paarlberg (2009) and also below the Golden Rice case]. In addition, in contradiction with the proclaimed goals, these NGOs have no democratic legitimacy.

As the GMO case has shown in many countries, this context has favored the radicalization of activists, rather than the opposite, and has contributed to the dilution of established scientific facts. Both have negatively influenced political actions on GMOs. The famous Séralini affair has illustrated how an activist “science” has attracted huge media attention and political over-reaction (Kuntz, 2019).

Postmodernism has also contributed to transforming another pillar of Modernism, namely Judicial Independence, into an increasing “Government of Judges” or “Government by Judiciary” (i.e., a shift in power from politicians to judges). This became possible since, to avoid past abuse of power by dictatorial governments, it was considered necessary to reinforce the concept of Rule of Law (or State of Law), that is to increase the Judicial Discretion concept into a preeminence of, for example, High Courts of Justice over governments (i.e., over democratically elected ones, since authoritarian governments will impose a complete subjection of judges anyway…). The judge, usually ignorant of scientific complexities, will listen to experts from all sides, judging their expressions equivalently and will rule accordingly through “Big Principles” such as the Precautionary Principle.

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Image Credit: Engineering and Technology

In summary, regarding the issue of technological risks, the consequences of both postmodern democratism and the weakening of elected governments means that politicians will decide in confusion (often catering to NGO lobbying or what they think is the general opinion of their citizens through polls) or may simply obey judges.

What Differentiates Europe From the United States?

Postmodernism is also rampant in the United States and is expressed for example as “political-correctness,” which has even been described as “The Closing of the American Mind” by the philosopher Allan Bloom (1987). The power of judges also exists. Fears about GMOs have also been propagated by activists in the United States, eventually leading to Public Law 114–216 on GMO labeling, but only in 2016 (i.e., 15 years later than in the EU) and with only minimal labeling requirements. In addition, the Federal government established a formal biotech policy in 1986, the “Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology,” which has been since updated.

However, it remains a set of principles based on existing laws, not a law in itself. Although the regulations enacted under the Coordinated Framework have limited the deployment of biotech crops to some extent, particularly disease-resistant crops, obviously the United States has not enacted inhibiting laws as did the EU.

So why did we observe a “closing of the mind” in relation to plant biotechnology by European political authorities and not by those in the United States? One of the downstream explanatory factors is that the US regulatory system favors the use of expertise, not popular opinion. In other words, its postmodernism differs from the European one. Obviously, the US authorities consider their national interest and hence those of their industries.

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As a comparison, European countries lost this ambition and the EU was not created on might (actually as explained above, it was consciously aimed at basing its policies on values). Actually, the EU itself has none of the classical markers of power (army, permanent seat at the UN Security Council, etc.), not even symbolic ones, which were always inseparable from might since the Ancient World. “Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws,” as Confucius said. Since might appears to be the universal ambition of large political entities since the Ancient World, it is even more striking that Europe has lost such an ambition.

Conclusion and Perspectives

For decades, using rational arguments, scientists tried to convince European politicians of the importance of biotechnology including, more recently, gene editing. Despite the fact that many observers and even politicians are aware that Europe is trailing far behind the United States and now also behind China on plant biotechnology, the trend cannot easily be reverted. Europe’s position is enshrined in an ideology that, like all ideologies, draws an outside line between good and evil: decked out with its “Big Principles,” Europe is convinced it is on the side of great virtue.

In this context, it is difficult to change this ideology, and it was illusory to hope that gene editing products would not be considered as GMOs. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the EU will react appropriately to the risk of becoming a vassal of China and the United States on these new biotechnologies (Martin-Laffon et al., 2019). Unless EU scientists can invoke other “Big Principles” of superior virtue…

Interestingly, the reliance on scientists (virologists, epidemiologists and other specialists) to steer the COVID-19 pandemic marks the return of scientific reality and knowledge with respect to postmodern constructivism, cognitive relativism and stakeholder engagement, etc. However, it is premature to conclude from this observation that the postmodern ideology will decline.

Marcel Kuntz is a research director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Grenoble, France. This article is adapted from an essay published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. Find Marcel on Twitter @marcel_kuntz

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Viewpoint: 3 biotech foods you can’t buy at Costco thanks to anti-GMO activism

I enjoy shopping at Costco. I’ve been a member since the days when it was called Price Club. I like the diverse and yet selective range of products they offer, and of course their reasonable prices. I find the staff friendly and helpful and I appreciate the fact that the employees must be treated fairly since so many are the same folks I’ve seen working there for years. The food court is an awesome deal and I almost always get my gas at Costco because it is the lowest price option in the area.  The free sample thing is fun and sometimes educational. The store is well lighted, and its aisles are uncluttered. Their wine selection is great, and Costco is where I always get my eye exams and glasses.

I particularly appreciate the way that they keep much of their fresh produce in a walk-in cold room. Yes, it’s a bit uncomfortable, but by keeping these foods cold until sale, they are extending the shelf-life for the consumer and thus reducing food waste. Yes, the packages of produce they sell are large, but I can share them with friends and neighbors in cases where I can’t get through the whole amount in time. I think it is really cool that Costco uses the empty boxes from their produce shipments to package up a customer’s purchases to take home. It is also my understanding that Costco negotiates reasonable, long-term supply contracts with the grower/shippers who supply their fruits and vegetables. Treating farmers well is a big plus on my list.

So, you can see that there is a lot that I like about Costco. But there are three specific food items I would really like to be able to buy there, but it seems unlikely that they will become available. This is because, like many retailers, Costco does not want to wade into the controversy surrounding genetically engineered foods, commonly called “GMOs.” As a scientist who has been watching the advances in molecular genetics since 1976, I find it tragic that the opponents of this method of plant improvement have been so successful in suppressing even the most logical applications for food. In many cases, the losers here are that small minority in our society that still feeds us. The even greater tragedy is the extent to which those groups have blocked even free, improved crops for farmers in the developing world.

But there are three specific foods I’d like to talk about which have been specifically modified for the benefit of consumers and which have actually made it through the tortuous regulatory process that the crop biotech industry self-imposed well before the first commercial plantings of biotech crops of the mid 1990s. Overall, I think of Costco as a rationally, ethically run business that values its customers and respects their intelligence. Carrying these three foods would be a great way to demonstrate that respect.

Product 1: Arctic® Apples

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Non-browning genetically engineered ‘Arctic apples’ now on sale—but not at Costco

A seven employee, farmer-founded business in British Columbia called Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF) developed apples that don’t turn brown when cut or bruised. They did this by simply turning off the gene for the enzyme called Polyphenol Oxidase which is what causes the browning and also degrades things like vitamins in the process. The patent they needed to license to do this was from CSIRO, a government sponsored research organization in Australia. Some plants, especially those in the nightshade family, have that same enzyme as part of their pest defense, but it isn’t really needed for the human-tended and already quite “genetically modified” versions of those species.

OSF was acquired by the brave, diversified biotech company, Intrexon in 2015 and they began commercial production of the apples in 2015, launching in test markets in the Midwest in 2017. It takes several years for new orchards to come into production, but as of today there are around 1,235 acres of several varieties being grown in the US and in Canada (Arctic® Grannys, Arctic® Goldens, and Arctic®Fujis). These apples are being sold in some grocery chains in the U.S.

I once met all 7 of those employees (the company has now grown to 27) during their research phase and they mailed me a box of the apples back in 2014. They were really cool! You can cut them even as much as several hours before you eat them, and they still taste and smell like a freshly cut apple. You can keep apples from browning with something like citric acid, but that changes the taste and smell. Imagine slicing these for the kid’s lunch, bringing sliced apples to a potluck or getting them at a salad bar. These apples can also be dried without the need for sulfites so that the taste is not compromised and they are not problematic for people with an allergic response to that preservative.

Costco – would you please start offering these apple products among your apple options? At least at my Carlsbad, CA Costco, you only offer 2 or 3 non-organic choices of apple cultivars not including my favorites. I reluctantly deal with that limitation, but don’t your customers that care a lot about food waste and flavor also deserve the choices they would prefer?

Product 2: Innate® White Russet™ Potatoes

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An agricultural supply and potato processing company called Simplot has a relatively small biotech subsidiary called Simplot Plant Sciences. They developed non-browning potatoes by turning off the same gene as is in the Arctic® Apples – PPO. In addition, using all genetic material from potatoes (“cisgenic”), they reduced the amount of the amino acid asparagine which can be converted to acrylamide – a possible carcinogen – during frying.

They also worked with the Sainsbury Laboratory in the UK and the 2Blades Foundation to move some disease resistance genes from inedible, wild potatoes into commercially relevant cultivars. This is a really good thing for the potato growers because they have to spend far less time, fuel and money on fungicide sprays to control “Late Blight”, the disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine. This would have been extremely difficult to do with conventional breeding because potatoes very rarely reproduce through seeds.

Back in 2016, I was gifted a bag of these potatoes by Simplot. I put up a video of making hash browns with these and with regular potatoes. With the White Russets™ I was able to grate them and take my time forming them into nice shapes and to fry them without any of the browning that is normally unavoidable. They came out nicer looking and crispier. My conclusion was that these potatoes could “make America grate again.”

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So, these non-browning produce options are much better in terms of the sensory experience, but they also help to reduce food waste throughout the supply chain and at the consumer level.

 innate

Today making a non-browning crop is even easier using something like CRISPR technology, and the USDA has concluded that it isn’t even something that needs to be regulated. People have been working on non-browning mushrooms, and they should totally work on non-browning versions of bananas, lettuce and avocados! A way to reduce food waste and give customers a better sensory experience sounds like a good thing for a Costco to offer. Costco: could we please get these options at your stores?

Product 3: AquaAdvantage® Salmon

Costco is a major marketer of salmon in the US and they do a great job of that. Salmon is a delicious fish and a healthy option for consumers. But there is an even healthier and more environmentally desirable kind of salmon Costco could be selling in the near future. A small company in Canada licensed a technology from the University of Toronto and the Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1996 (That’s a very innovative country, eh?). It was a genetically engineered line of Atlantic Salmon with a growth-related gene from chinook salmon and a promoter from Ocean Pout, which allows these fish to grow far faster and with less need for food. These improved fish can gain a pound of weight from a pound fish feed making them 10 times as efficient as some wild-caught fish.

 

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These AquAdvantage® Salmon are raised in inland aquaculture tanks and only sterile female fish are in the tanks. So in the extremely unlikely case that they escaped to the ocean, they would not have any effect on wild fish populations.

This multi-layered safety protocol has been scrutinized by regulators in the US and Canada over many years, resulting in FDA approval in November of 2015 and the final approval for commercial sale in Canada in 2016. 4.5 tons were sold in the second quarter of 2018. The first US production site opened in 2019 in Indiana. Ideally more sites can be placed near other population centers to minimize energy use for shipping. The terrestrial production eliminates issues of water pollution sometimes associated with ocean “farmed” salmon, “wild-caught salmon” or true oceanic fishing sources.

[Editor’s note: Read AquaBounty ‘on track’ to sell GM salmon by year’s end (2020), despite court ruling calling for more environmental impact data to learn more.]

The entire salmon industry has been shifting away from fish meal and fish oil for feed and these AquAdvantage salmon will be at the cutting edge of that trend. The industry is beginning to source feed from the crop Camelina or yeast, both of which have been modified to produce health-promoting omega-3 fats, and even the astaxanthin pigment that gives salmon its red color. There are also some efforts to raise insects to feed to the fish.  These land-based sources can allow many more people to improve their diet without putting more stress on ocean resources. The other upside is that by using these feeds it is possible to avoid the mercury and microplastics issues that are unavoidable in ocean water. These pollutants can “bioaccumulate” in the ocean food chain, having gotten there because of littering and from coal-powered electricity generation.

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AquaBounty salmon raised in land-based tanks. Image: AquaBounty

These are all great examples of Ecomodernism – the philosophy that technology can be a means of achieving environmental goals. Doesn’t this seem like the sort of “green,” healthy option that a company like Costco ought to be offering their customers? If Costco would rise above the threats from anti-GMO groups and offer these options alongside “conventional” or “organic,” I believe there would be lots of scientists like me: experts who would happily volunteer to answer customer questions during a launch program at one of those sample carts we so often enjoy at the stores.

(Disclaimer: Although I know scientists and business people from all these companies, writing this article was  something I wanted to do and not anything they asked me to do or for which I was compensated. This article was also not written on behalf of the non-profit CropLife Foundation, for which I work part time recording a podcast.)

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist and consultant whose previous employers include Colorado State University and DuPont. He is a senior contributor to the GLP. Follow him on his blog, Applied Mythology, or Twitter @grapedoc

A version of this article was originally posted at Forbes and has been reposted here with permission. Forbes can be found on Twitter @Forbes

This article originally appeared on the GLP on August 26, 2019.

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Viewpoint: Social science dogma claims gender roles shape human sex differences but most theories as to why fall short

Scholarly debate over the magnitude and origin of human sex differences is seemingly interminable. As one might imagine, the arguments are often quite acrimonious, and the associated positions differ sharply in terms of the relative focus on social or biological contributions to sex differences. The prevailing view in the social and behavioral sciences is that human sex differences are typically small in magnitude, largely social in origin, and driven by gender roles (below).[1], [2]  The proponents of this view will give ground to biology for traits that are all but impossible to refute, such as the sex difference in height, but quickly dismiss these as being of trivial importance in the modern world. The gender roles explanation of sex differences enjoys wide popularity inside and outside of academia, a level of acceptance that qualifies—given abundant contradictory evidence—as one of Mackay’s extraordinary popular delusions.[3]

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Women are traditionally shorter than men.

Here, I describe how gender roles are thought to shape human sex differences and why these theories fall short. I illustrate the latter using the social development and play patterns of boys and girls, because these are thought to result from the sex-typed beliefs and behaviors of parents, advertisers (e.g., of toys), and other people (e.g., teachers). More critically, these early sex differences, and any social influences on them, are thought to place children on a trajectory that will perpetuate stereotyped sex differences in adulthood, such as more men than women becoming engineers. One associated and rather hubristic belief is that social and psychological sex differences can be eliminated by changing young children’s beliefs about stereotypical gender roles and by encouraging them to, among other things, engage in gender neutral play and play that is more common in the opposite sex.

Gender roles

People have many stereotypes about boys and men and girls and women and most of them are accurate and, if anything, underestimate the magnitude of actual sex differences.[4], [5], [6] The key question is whether these stereotyped beliefs create a self-fulfilling prophecy or are largely a description of sex differences that children and adults have observed in their day-to-day life.

For many theorists, these stereotypes are a self-fulfilling prophecy that operate through a system of beliefs called gender roles. These encompass the behaviors, attitudes, social expectations, and social position of men and women in most societies.[7] In a very influential theory, Eagly and her colleagues proposed that gender-role beliefs include descriptive and injunctive norms.[2], [7]  The former are descriptions of stereotypical sex differences and the latter are expectations about how boys and girls and men and women ought to behave. Both types of norms are organized, in part, by sex differences in communion and agency. Women have, on average, more communal traits than do men, as “manifested by selflessness, concern with others, and a desire to be at one with others,” whereas men have, on average, more agentic traits than do women, as manifested by “self-assertion, self-expansion, and the urge to master.”[7] (p. 16)

The argument is that sex differences in communion and agency are influenced by the different social and economic roles that women and men occupy in most if not all societies to varying degrees. Of particular importance is women’s greater involvement in domestic activities, such as childcare, and men’s greater involvement in paid employment or physically-demanding resource acquisition (e.g., hunting). These roles in turn are influenced by a combination of physical sex differences, contextual factors, and modes of economic activity (e.g., agriculture). One result of the sex difference in agency is that more men than women come to occupy high-status occupations and key political positions.

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A core argument is that the greater social status of men than women (on average) not only reinforces the communal and agentic roles of women and men, respectively, but influences the emergence of associated sex differences—through injunctive norms—in social behaviors.[8] Granted, gender-role theorists acknowledge that many factors contribute to these sex differences, but the gist is that most of them are caused by adherence to injunctive norms.[7]

In theory, women and men use these norms to evaluate their own social behavior and to keep it in line with social expectations, as well as to evaluate the behavior of other people. It is not simply that boys and girls internalize injunctive norms and apply them to their own behavior, but that, in addition, other people mete out rewards and punishments for adherence to and violations of them. One problem with this argument is that sex-typed stereotypical behaviors are found across cultures, including those without any explicit descriptive or injunctive norms.[9] Gender role theories can be contorted to account for these universal human sex differences, but no amount of contortion can wrap itself around these same sex differences in other species.

As with humans, males are more agentic in the vast majority of species due to the demands of competition with other males to obtain the status or resources needed to attract mates or to meet the mating demands of females.[10], [11] When offspring need parenting, females are typically the ones to provide it. This inherently communal suite of behaviors is perforce different in female and male mammals and is well documented in primates.[12], [13]

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The argument that sex differences are largely the result of injunctive norms has wide appeal because such theories create an illusion of control and are more politically palatable than a substantive biological contribution to them. If gender-role theories were largely correct, then all sex differences in social status, social behavior, and so on can be potentially eliminated by modifying the social expectations for boys and girls and thus eventually men and women.[14], [15] Sex differences in children’s social development and early play patterns nicely illustrate both the attempt to socially impose this vision on other people and why doing so is akin to walking upstream. Some progress can be made with continual effort, but once these are relaxed human nature washes it away.

Children’s play

In some European countries, such as Norway and Sweden, the laudable goal of gender equality is at the forefront of national policy,[16] but the devil is in the details. The focus is typically on equality of opportunity, but this often morphs into equality of outcomes, such as equal numbers of men and women as college professors (an agentic occupation) and women and men devoting equal time to communal activities (e.g., childcare).

One way to achieve this vision, according to the gender egalitarians, is to disrupt the development of sex-typed behaviors and beliefs when children are young, often as soon as they begin some type of formal schooling; kindergarten teachers “must continually [analyze] their own actions so that stereotypical gender roles can be counteracted in order to break ongoing gender role practices and thereby facilitate change within education.”[17] (p. 101) In effect, the goal is to change descriptive and injunctive norms such that boys and girls and men and women will eventually become psychologically, socially, and behaviorally indistinguishable.

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Gender neutral preschool in Stockholm. Credit: Egelia

Ironically, these same policy documents promote children’s agency or their ability to pursue their own interests. Yet, when children express their agency in ways that conform to stereotypical beliefs and behaviors, such as boys engaging in more intense physical activity than girls, adults need to intervene to eliminate the associated sex differences. The most consistent result of such interventions, I suspect, is frustrated children who are asked to engage in activities that they do not find particularly interesting. It is probably just as frustrating for teachers who are tasked with ensuring equality of interests and activities of the girls and boys in their care.

A brief foray into sex differences in social development illustrates that children themselves are the primary impediment to the achievement of this utopian vision. They segregate themselves and create boy and girl cultures. The segregation occurs independently of adult interventions and is one of the most consistently found features of children’s behavior.[18], [19], [20] Children begin to form these same-sex groups before they are three years old and do so with increasing frequency during childhood. In the context of these cultures, children learn to cope with same-sex social dynamics and engage in the sex-typical activities of the adults in their culture. Children are not simply imitating sex-typical behavior or responding to injunctive norms, as they form the same types of segregated cultures in societies in which women’s and men’s social and economic worlds overlap.

In the context of these cultures and even before they consistently emerge, there is very little overlap in boys’ and girls’ suites of associated play preferences and activities,[21], [22], [23] including differences in the frequency of engagement in rough-and-tumble play, team sports, and doll and family play, among others. Gender scholars acknowledge some biological influences (e.g., prenatal exposure to sex hormones) on the developmental emergence of these sex differences, but at the same time argue that social influences are of overriding importance. The basic argument is illustrated by Dinella and Weisgram’s summary of a series of articles on the relation between parents’ gender schemas (e.g., stereotyped beliefs) and their children’s toy preferences and play behavior:

we gather together cutting-edge research on the factors that affect gender differences in children’s toy interests, how subtle gender-related messages affect children’s performance and behaviors, and how adults create these gender-related messages and affect children’s interests.[24] (p. 253; italics added)

The irrational exuberance of these types of causal claims must, however, be tempered by reality. To be sure, there is a relation between parental stereotypes and prejudices and those of their children, but this is primarily for attitudes (e.g., beliefs about men’s and women’s behavior) and does not extend to sex-typed interests and behaviors.[25], [26] The sex-typed toy preferences, for instance, are very large and here there is little relation between parents’ sex-typed beliefs and their children’s play interests.[26]

In fact, children’s explicit knowledge of descriptive and injunctive sex-typed norms is only weakly related to their actual play behavior and social activities.[27] Children raised by egalitarian parents who actively discourage sex typing have children with less stereotyped beliefs than children raised in other types of families. However, the toy and play preferences of these children are sex-typical and do not differ from those of children raised by parents with stereotyped beliefs.[28] Weak social influences on many developmental sex differences are also illustrated by studies of biological males who had pelvic birth defects and reconstructive surgery that resulted in female genitalia.[29] All of these children were raised as girls, but they all reported male-typical play and interests (e.g., wrestling, ice hockey) and none of them reported much engagement in female-typical play (e.g., with dolls). Eight of 14 children who were raised as girls eventually changed to a male identify; five retained a female identity and the other refused to discuss it.

These same basic sex differences are found in most species that engage in play. One of the most consistent of these is play fighting, which is clearly an agentic activity; differences are also common for play parenting, a communal activity. The sex differences in play fighting track sex differences in the form and intensity of same-sex competition—largely male-male competition for social dominance—and other aggressive behaviors in adulthood.[30], [31] In a review of this literature, Power found that young males of species with intense physical male-male competition in adulthood nearly always engage in more play fighting than do young females.[30] This pattern is found across species of marsupials (e.g., red kangaroos, Macropus rufus), pinnipeds (e.g., northern elephant seal; M. angustirostris), ungulates (e.g., sheep; S. ibex), rodents (Norway rat, Rattus norvegicus) and primates (e.g., chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes), and is not found in their monogamous cousins with less intense same-sex competition.[31], [32], [33]

As far as I know, there are no gender role beliefs in any of these species and yet their young engage in sex-typical behaviors that presage reproductive activities in adulthood. Early engagement in these behaviors helps the young to prepare for the sex-specific rigors of adulthood, including more agentic activities for males and more communal ones for females.

As with these myriad species, children create their own worlds based in part on the sex-typed demands faced by our ancestors. These demands included a higher frequency of agentic activities of our male ancestors—including male-on-male violence to achieve social influence and resource control—and a higher frequency of communal activities of our female ancestors.[34] As in other species, the influence of prenatal and early postnatal exposure to sex hormones results in biases in children’s agentic (e.g., play fighting) and communal (e.g., play parenting) play and the associated behaviors and skills are refined as children develop in same-sex communities with their peers.

As any parent knows, these sex differences are not the consequence of a parental imposition of stereotyped expectations on children. Nor can these differences be immutably altered by the edicts of gender role theorists or policy scolds working in central governments.

References

[1] Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist60, 581-592.

[2] Wood, W., & Eagly, A.H. (2002). A cross-cultural analysis of the behavior of women and men: Implications for the origins of sex differences. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 699-727.

[3] Mackay, C. (1841). Extraordinal popular delusions and the madness of the crowds. London: Richard Bentley.

[4] Halpern, D. F., Straight, C. A., & Stephenson, C. L. (2011). Beliefs about cognitive gender differences: Accurate for direction, underestimated for size. Sex Roles64, 336-347.

[5] Jussim, L. (2017). Précis of Social Perception and Social Reality: Why accuracy dominates bias and self-fulfilling prophecy. Behavioral and Brain Sciences40, e1.

[6] Löckenhoff, C. E., Chan, W., McCrae, R. R., De Fruyt, F., Jussim, L., De Bolle, M., … & Nakazato, K. (2014). Gender stereotypes of personality: Universal and accurate? Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology45, 675-694.

[7] Eagly, A. H. (1987). Sex differences in social behavior: A social-role interpretation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

[8] Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109, 573-598.

[9] Best, D. L., & Williams, J. E. (1983). A cross-cultural viewpoint. In A. E. Beall & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), The psychology of gender (pp. 215-248). New York: Guilford Press.

[10] Andersson, M. (1994). Sexual selection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[11] Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray.

[12] Christov-Moore, L., Simpson, E. A., Coudé, G., Grigaityte, K., Iacoboni, M., & Ferrari, P. F. (2014). Empathy: Gender effects in brain and behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews46, 604-627.

[13] Clutton-Brock, T. H. (1991). The evolution of parental care. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[14] American Psychological Association (2018). Guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. Washington, D.C.: Author.

[15] Hall, G. C. H., & Barongan, C. (1997). Prevention of sexual aggression: Sociocultural risk and protective factors. American Psychologist, 52, 5-14.

[16]  https://www.european-agency.org/sites/default/files/Gen_Education_in_Norway.pdfhttps://www.government.se/4adb29/contentassets/efcc5a15ef154522a872d8e46ad69148/gender-equality-policy-in-sweden

[17] Meland, A. T., & Kaltvedt, E. H. (2019). Tracking gender in kindergarten. Early Child Development and Care189, 94-103.

[18] Maccoby, E. E. (1990). Gender and relationships: A developmental account. American Psychologist, 45, 513-520.

[19] Maccoby, E. E. (1998). The two sexes: Growing up apart, coming together. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[20] Whiting, B. B., & Edwards, C. P. (1988). Children of different worlds: The formation of social behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[21] Golombok, S., & Rust, J. (1993). The Pre-School Activities Inventory: A standardized assessment of gender role in children. Psychological Assessment5, 131-136.

[22] Golombok, S., Rust, J., Zervoulis, K., Croudace, T., Golding, J., & Hines, M. (2008). Developmental trajectories of sex-typed behavior in boys and girls: A longitudinal general population study of children aged 2.5–8 years. Child development79, 1583-1593.

[23] Todd, B. K., Fischer, R. A., Di Costa, S., Roestorf, A., Harbour, K., Hardiman, P., & Barry, J. A. (2018). Sex differences in children’s toy preferences: A systematic review, meta‐regression, and meta‐analysis. Infant and Child Development27, e2064.

[24] Dinella, L. M., & Weisgram, E. S. (2018). Gender-typing of children’s toys: Causes, consequences, and correlates. Sex Roles79, 253-259.

[25] Degner, J., & Dalege, J. (2013). The apple does not fall far from the tree, or does it? A meta-analysis of parent–child similarity in intergroup attitudes. Psychological Bulletin139, 1270-1304.

[26] Tenenbaum, H. R., & Leaper, C. (2002). Are parents’ gender schemas related to their children’s gender-related cognitions? A meta-analysis. Developmental Psychology38, 615-630.

[27] Turner, P. J., & Gervai, J. (1995). A multidimensional study of gender typing in preschool children and their parents: Personality, attitudes, preferences, behavior, and cultural differences. Developmental Psychology, 31, 759-772.

[28] Weisner, T. S. & Wilson-Mitchell, J. E. (1990). Nonconventional family lifestyles and sex typing in six-year-olds. Child Development, 61, 1915-1933.

[29] Reiner, W. G., & Gearhart, J. P. (2004). Discordant sexual identity in some genetic males with cloacal exstrophy assigned to female sex at birth. New England Journal of Medicine350, 333-341.

[30] Power, T. G. (2000). Play and exploration in children and animals. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

[31] Smith, P. K. (1982). Does play matter? Functional and evolutionary aspects of animal and human play. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5, 139-184.

[32] Aldis, O. (1975). Play fighting. New York: Academic Press.

[33] Chau, M. J., Stone, A. I., Mendoza, S. P., & Bales, K. L. (2008). Is play behavior sexually dimorphic in monogamous species? Ethology, 114, 989-998.

[34] Geary, D. C. (2021). Male, female: The evolution of human sex differences (third ed.). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

David C. Geary is a Curators’ Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Missouri. His work spans a broad range of topics from children’s mathematical cognition and development to the evolution of sex differences. He’s written four sole authored books, Children’s Mathematical Development (1994), Male, Female (1998, 2nd edition, 2010), Origin of Mind (2005), and Evolution of Vulnerability (2015). The essay here is adapted from the recently released third edition of Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences.

A version of this article was originally posted at Quillette and has been reposted here with permission. Quillette can be found on Twitter @Quillette

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Viewpoint: This is no time to cut corners on regulation of COVID-19 vaccines

With COVID-19 cases, the percentage of positive test results, and hospitalizations reaching record levels in much of the nation, the Trump administration narrowed its focus for ways to blunt the effects of the pandemic. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said on October 25 that “We are not going to control the coronavirus pandemic”; rather, “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines [and] therapeutics.”

And there was stunning news on that front on November 9th from partners Pfizer and BioNTech that their candidate COVID-19 vaccine is greater than 90 percent effective in a clinical trial involving more than 43,000 subjects. They hope to request Emergency Use Authorization by the end of this month.  That success notwithstanding, the White House’s “control” has often been misdirected, taking the form of undue pressure on regulators to cut corners. FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn resisted intense, pre-election pressure on the FDA from a White House desperate for a premature “October Surprise” vaccine approval. FDA previously had set the minimal level of protection in its June 30th “Development and Licensure of Vaccines to Prevent COVID-19: Guidance for Industry,” published on June 30th, which specified in great detail the stringent criteria for FDA approval of coronavirus vaccines.

The overarching principle is simple: “the goal of development programs should be to pursue traditional approval via direct evidence of vaccine efficacy” in protecting humans from COVID-19—through clinical trials—and a vaccine must be at least 50% more effective than a placebo in preventing the disease. The clinical trials would also need to demonstrate that the vaccine is safe, of course. In an August 7 article in JAMA, Dr. Hahn and two senior colleagues, promised “unequivocally” that “candidate COVID-19 vaccines will be reviewed according to the established legal and regulatory standards for medical products.”

Dr. Peter Marks, the senior civil servant who heads the FDA unit that evaluates vaccines, has also made his feelings on the subject known. In August, he told Reuters that the FDA’s evaluations would be guided by science alone and that if he were subjected to political pressure for a premature approval, “I could not stand by and see something that was unsafe or ineffective that was being put through.” He added, “You have to decide where your red line is, and that’s my red line. I would feel obligated [to resign] because in doing so, I would indicate to the American public that there’s something wrong.”

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Peter Marks heads FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, responsible for reviewing coronavirus vaccines. Credit: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Washington Post

In sum, the message from Drs. Hahn and Marks to several audiences — their bosses at the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House, the public, and the vaccine industry — seemed to be clear: Although regulators will streamline regulation and facilitate the development of COVID-19 vaccines, they won’t be stampeded into exposing Americans to inadequately tested, potentially dangerous products.

One might expect that that would put the matter to rest, and that the American public need not worry about undue political influence on what are essentially scientific and medical decisions. However, other actions by the FDA have raised widespread concerns.  One example was the FDA’s issuance of an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for convalescent plasma, an antibody-rich blood product obtained from patients who have recovered from COVID-19. In theory, infusing a sick patient with the antibodies would neutralize the virus that’s present and spur recovery, but many in the medical community – including senior NIH and FDA scientists — felt the EUA was predicated on insufficient evidence (and which has made the completion of rigorous clinical trials difficult or impossible).

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A second, more recent example is the FDA’s reported decision to waive inspections of manufacturing facilities for COVID-19 vaccines that are approved via Emergency Use Authorizations, in spite of the fact that control over the intricacies of manufacturing is especially important for vaccines that potentially will be administered to hundreds of millions of healthy people. The facilities that produce some of these vaccines at large-scale and via complex, high-tech, multi-step processes are brand new and may use innovative technologies.  Some production will occur abroad.

Thus, the critical questions related to inspections include: Can batch after batch of the vaccine reproducibly meet standards of purity, potency, and sterility?  Are appropriate records kept, documenting the process?  Are there Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for personnel, and are they adhered to?  Historically, there have been notorious examples of bad outcomes from safety problems – extremely rare, fortunately, in part because of government requirements for inspections that ensure safe manufacture and prevent the distribution of contaminated or otherwise substandard vaccines.

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Factory producing vials for a COVID vaccine. Credit: CBS News

However, the June 30th guidance says only that the “FDA recommends that vaccine manufacturers engage in early communication with CBER’s Office of Compliance and Biologics Quality, Division of Manufacturing and Product Quality to discuss facility preparation and inspection timing” (emphasis added) for products marketed under FDA’s Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA), the lower standards applicable to products for a situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic. And Jerry Weir, director of the Division of Viral Products in FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, recently confirmed that FDA regulations do not require pre-approval inspections. Instead of recommends, we wonder whether FDA meant that they expect manufacturers to request inspection, which, in the real world of regulation, would have the force of a mandate.

During the course of the pandemic, some Emergency Use Authorizations have been problematic, including the examples of convalescent plasma, mentioned above, and the drug hydroxychloroquine, whose EUA was withdrawn when it was found to be ineffective but to have serious side effects. The nation’s experiences with flawed tests and neglect of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) likewise have contributed to the erosion of public trust.

When it comes to the safety of products that could be administered to hundreds of millions of healthy Americans, urgency cannot preempt vigilance. Whether or not FDA regulations require pre-approval inspections of facilities producing vaccines distributed under an EUA, the FDA should stick to its June 30th guidance and require them in most cases.  Only thereby will they retain the highest level of public trust – and safety – so that people will be confident in taking the shot.

John J. Cohrssen is an attorney who served in senior positions for White House agencies including the Office of Vice President Dan Quayle.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a Research Associate at the NIH and the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Find Henry on Twitter @henryimiller

Monsanto Money Crops

David v Goliath? What reporters and activists got wrong about 3 high-profile Monsanto patent suits

Anti-GMO folk hero and canola farmer Percy Schmeiser was the best-known avatar of the idea that Monsanto, now part of Bayer, went on a lawsuit spree against small farmers for patent infringement in the mid 1990s, allegedly because their farms were accidentally contaminated by the biotech giant’s GM seeds.

In part one of this series, we demonstrated that Schmeiser, recently deceased and the subject of a feature film starring Christopher Walken, was not sued for accidental contamination of his fields, but rather for saving herbicide-tolerant (Roundup Ready) canola seed he found on his property and planting 1,000 commercially viable acres of the crop. Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto, finding that Schmeiser benefited from a technology he didn’t pay for. Contra the popular underdog story, David wronged Goliath, as far as the Court was concerned.

[Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one and three.]

But if the popular version of Schmeiser’s story is wrong, what about the other narratives that prop up this popular David vs. Goliath meme?

Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto filed 144 patent infringement lawsuits against farmers, and settled 700 more cases out of court, according to the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA). There are three high-profile stories that I’m aware of that planted the seeds (ahem) of this persistent narrative: suits against Moe Parr, a seed cleaner; Vernon Bowman, a soybean farmer; and Pilot Grove Co-op. There is a final lawsuit, brought by OSGATA, that we’ll examine in part three of this series. Properly considered, these cases should disabuse everyone of the notion that Big Ag wrongly targeted farmers in court.

Moe Parr

In 2008, Monsanto sued Maurice Parr, a seed cleaner, for “aiding and abetting farmers” illegally saving their seeds. “Mr. Parr made clear to his clients that he was not responsible for enforcing seed patent agreements to which he was not a party,” according to a report by the anti-biotech Center for Food Safety (CFS). “Monsanto sued him …. claiming his statements encouraged flouting of their patents.” This narrative was amplified by other anti-biotech voices, including GM Watch and Greenpeace:

According to Parr, the lawsuit cost him over $25,000 in legal fees and 90 percent of his former customers, who feared that doing business with him could lead to their being sued. But it is clear from the injunction issued against Parr that he did not clearly inform his clients that he was not responsible for enforcing seed patent agreements; in fact, he misled them about the permissibly of saving patented seed covered by technology agreements. He made this decision after Monsanto gave him the opportunity to mend his ways.

In 2002, Monsanto sent a letter by certified mail to Parr, explaining that it was the owner of the patent covering  Roundup Ready soybean seed and that a limited-use license was required to use the crop seed. Saving a crop grown from the licensed seed for planting or selling for replanting was an infringement. The letter stated that Monsanto had confirmed Parr’s seed-cleaning business facilitated seed replanting, and further that Parr encouraged growers to clean and replant soybeans which he knew contained Monsanto’s patented technology. 

Finally, the notice requested that Parr cease any actions that induced patent infringement and specifically asked him to stop cleaning any seed containing Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready biotechnology; and to stop advising growers that they were entitled to save and replant seed containing Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready biotechnology.

Parr wrote back, expressly stating that he would give all his customers a copy of the Monsanto notice, and ask them to sign a statement confirming that they were not asking Parr to clean seed containing Roundup Ready technology. Subsequent to this exchange, a number of soybean growers used Moe Parr’s seed-cleaning services to clean and condition their Roundup Ready seed for replanting. Monsanto negotiated settlements for the infringement with eleven farmers that used Parr’s seed cleaning services.

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Parr testifies at Monsanto Hearings held in Carbondale, IL January 28, 2012.

According to the injunction, Parr advised Gary Williams, one of his seed-cleaning customers, that it was OK to save Roundup Ready soybeans and replant them on his farm. Prior to 2004, Williams had used Parr’s seed-cleaning services on non-Roundup Ready soybeans. At some point in 2003 or 2004, Williams testified that he asked Parr about cleaning Roundup Ready soybeans, and was told that it was permissible for a farmer to save Roundup Ready soybeans for his own use. After this discussion, Williams felt that it would be safe to save, clean and replant Roundup Ready soybeans. This is understandable. We expect people engaged in a business to be more familiar with the law than their customers and give dependable advice. Williams therefore saved some of his 2005 Roundup Ready soybean crop, had it cleaned, then planted that saved seed in the 2006 growing season.

Fred and Jim Inskeep testified that Parr convinced them it was permissible to save Roundup Ready soybeans and replant them on their farm. Parr told the Inskeeps that it was legal for a farmer to save, clean, and replant Roundup Ready soybeans. Parr went so far as to cite legal chapter and verse, explaining that the Supreme Court’s opinion in Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer indicated that replanting patented seed was permissible, even giving the Inskeeps a copy of the opinion. That would have been a compelling argument, but Asgrow v. Winterboer was relevant to conventional seed covered under a standard patent rather than a patent and technology license. Unaware of these crucial details, the Inskeeps subsequently saved some of their 2005 Roundup Ready soybean crop, had it cleaned by Parr, and planted that saved seed in the 2006 growing season.

The court found that Moe Parr was indeed actively aiding and abetting his customers in illegal seed saving, and in some cases inducing farmers to illegally save seed, even after Monsanto had tried to reach an understanding in 2002.  Mr. Parr was thus barred from cleaning or conditioning crop seed that contains the Roundup Ready trait, or making statements or distributing information suggesting that it is legal or otherwise permissible to save, clean, and replant Roundup Ready soybeans. He was required to inform his customers that it is illegal to save, clean, and replant Roundup Ready soybeans. He was required to post a notice on his seed cleaning equipment:


Do Not Ask to Clean Roundup Ready Soybeans. All Brands of Roundup Ready Soybeans Are Patented. Replanting Is Prohibited.

Parr also had to have his customers certify in writing that the soybeans they were cleaning did not contain the Roundup Ready trait, then give Monsanto the written certifications, along with a sample of the seed cleaned, within thirty days of each load of seed. The judge awarded Monsanto $40,000 in compensation for past infringement. The company agreed not collect as long as Parr honored the terms of this order.

Pilot Grove Co-op

The case of Pilot Grove Co-op became well-known when a Pulitzer Prize-winning pair of journalists, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, did a story on Monsanto’s hardball tactics for Vanity Fair in 2008. They are considered among the finest investigative journalists in America in the last half-century, but in their expose on Monsanto they were a bit out of their depth in rural America, led around a bit too credulously by The Center for Food Safety, a notorious anti-GMO group whose fingerprints were all over the piece.

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Pilot Grove Co-Op. Credit: Kim Schuster

The reporting hopscotched through a few incidents that CFS had been trying to promote and betrayed an all-too-typical urban set of biases about whether farming should be treated like any other business, or given some pastoral insulation from the realities of the marketplace. It was sentimental about the role of technology and law in agriculture and a bit lazy in letting the David and Goliath allegory shape the narrative.

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After setting the stage with the unfortunate story of Gary Rhinehart, a store owner who Monsanto pursued aggressively and unfairly because they had mistaken him for someone else, Bartlett and Steele turned to the story of Pilot Grove, which was ongoing at the time. Monsanto approached Pilot Grove Cooperative Elevator (of Pilot Grove, Missouri) in the fall of 2006. The co-op was doing around $15 million in annual sales, with seven employees and four computers, buying corn and soybeans from local farmers and selling them into the commodity markets.

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Gary Rinehart. Credit: Kurt Markus.

According to Bartlett and Steele, Monsanto suspected the co-op was helping its customers commit patent infringement and hired a private investigation firm to take surveillance video of Pilot Grove’s customers and employees as they went about their business:

Not long after investigators showed up in Pilot Grove, Monsanto subpoenaed the co-op’s records concerning seed and herbicide purchases and seed-cleaning operations. The co-op provided more than 800 pages of documents pertaining to dozens of farmers. Monsanto sued two farmers and negotiated settlements with more than 25 others it accused of seed piracy.

But Monsanto’s legal assault had only begun. Although the co-op had provided voluminous records, Monsanto then sued it in federal court for patent infringement. Monsanto contended that by cleaning seeds—a service which it had provided for decades—the co-op was inducing farmers to violate Monsanto’s patents. In effect, Monsanto wanted the co-op to police its own customers.

The case was still pending during Bartlett and Steele’s reporting, but the outcome of the litigation was well documented. While Monsanto certainly employed hardball tactics and leveraged their power and resources relative to the co-op, it turned out that Pilot Grove had violated the law. Then Reuters reporter Carey Gilliam, now employed by anti-GMO group US Right to Know (and thus no friend of Monsanto), noted that the co-op acknowledged its patent infringement and agreed to better train its employees, fund college scholarships and adopt a policy that avoided future violations. Monsanto provided further detail: Under the terms of the settlement, Pilot Grove Cooperative deposited $275,000 in an account—and the income from that account funded scholarships for the Cooper County, Missouri, FFA and 4-H programs. Hardly a rapacious Goliath-crushes-David settlement.

Vernon Bowman

Vernon Bowman’s case is interesting because he decided the law was on his side (or should have been) and planted soybeans that he wasn’t licensed to plant—then went and told Monsanto. He ended up testing the concept of patent exhaustion as it relates to seeds in the courts and lost.

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Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman mounted an unsuccessful challenge of seed patents that protect Monsanto and other crop developers. Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein for the New York Times

In 1999, Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman bought soybeans from a local grain elevator for his second crop of the season. He saved seeds from his second crop to replant additional crops in later years. Bowman had purchased these seeds from the same elevator to which he and neighbors sold their soybean crops, many of which were Roundup Ready. The elevator sold these soybeans as commodities, mostly for livestock feed, not as seeds for planting.

Bowman tested the new seeds and found that, as he had expected, some were transgenic (GMO) and thus were Roundup Ready. He replanted seeds from the original second harvest in subsequent years for his second seasonal planting, supplementing them with more soybeans he bought at the elevator. Bowman then informed Monsanto of his activities

Monsanto took the position that Bowman was infringing its patents, because the soybeans he bought from the elevator were products that he purchased for use as seeds without a license from Monsanto. Bowman’s position was that he had not infringed due to patent exhaustion. He felt that Monsanto’s patent was ‘exhausted’ on the first sale of seed to the grain elevator and that his purchase from the grain elevator did not carry the use restrictions that farmers who had sold the soybeans to the elevator agreed to.

In 2007, Monsanto sued Bowman for patent infringement in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. In court, Bowman argued that if Monsanto was allowed to continue its license past exhaustion, it would be able to dominate the market. The district court found Bowman’s arguments compelling, however, it found that it was bound by previous appellate court decisions in Monsanto Co. v. Scruggs and Monsanto Co. v. McFarling. The district court ruled in favor of Monsanto. The court entered judgment for Monsanto in the amount of $84,456.30 and enjoined Bowman from making, using, selling, or offering to sell any of the seeds from Monsanto’s patent.

Bowman then appealed to the US Court of Appeals Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit upheld the lower court’s finding. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Bowman’s lawyers argued that the lower court’s ruling was inconsistent with various case law that had found that secondary resale of products did indeed exhaust the rights of the patent holder. This turned out to be a strong enough argument for the Court to choose to hear the case, but not to prevail. The Supreme Court ruled against Bowman unanimously.

In her opinion for the majority, Justice Elena Kaga, an Obama appointee, held that while an authorized sale of a patented item terminates all patent rights to that item, that exhaustion does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission. When a farmer plants a harvested and saved seed, thereby growing a further soybean crop, that action constitutes an unauthorized “making” of the patented product. Justice Kagan concluded that Bowman could resell the patented seeds he obtained from the elevator, or use them as feed, but that he could not produce additional seeds.

Did Monsanto play hardball? Yes. Were the targets of their litigation often outmatched? Certainly. Being put under surveillance by private investigators and having a team of high-priced lawyers going over all the details of your business is no picnic. Nevertheless, two facts emerge when you dig into the details of these highest-profile cases held up by anti-GMO groups. First, in none of these cases was the issue accidental pollination. These were intentional violations of Monsanto’s patents and technology licenses. Second, the law was on Monsanto’s side in every case.

That doesn’t mean the law is necessarily just or correct — though I personally think that, on balance, it’s about right — but to argue that you don’t like the legal environment that farmers and Monsanto/Bayer operate in significantly moves the goalposts from blaming Monsanto for bullying farmers for accidental contamination.

Marc Brazeau is the GLP’s senior contributing writer focusing on agricultural biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @eatcookwrite

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Viewpoint: Europe’s ‘nonsensical regulatory system’ blocks GMO seeds but circumvents biotech ban to exempt gene-edited COVID vaccines

As consumers, we all want to be reassured that the products we purchase are safe for us to use and this is nowhere more important than in terms of the food products we buy. Consumers typically have a high level of trust in their food safety systems, but often fail to appreciate the costs that regulatory burdens bring to innovation and the supply of new and improved products. Recent research has shown that consumers that have low levels of trust in food safety systems also have low trust in innovative food products. Between 1992 and 2019, over 4,300 science-based risk assessments had been conducted on genetically modified food products, none of which have identified a risk level that differs from that of conventional food products. These risk assessments have been conducted by 70 different countries, 26 that grow GM crops and 44 that import them as feed/food. The nations of the EU have exhibited just that, having adopted an uber-precautious approach to the development of new food products, which is driving their brightest and best scientists and grad students to leave Europe for countries that support innovation.

In a recent article of mine published in the journal, Global Food Security, I highlight the EU’s reluctance to move away from its precaution-based regulatory system. Their reluctance to accept science is affecting not only in terms of the development of innovative crop varieties that will be better equipped to adapt to changing climates but also their ability to develop Covid-19 vaccines and have them approved.

Process-based regulatory systems are so 20th century

In recognition of just how significant an innovation gene editing is, the two women that first discovered CRISPR/cas9, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Gene editing holds tremendous promise in the development of new crop varieties that can be more nutritious, higher yielding and better able to adapt to climatic changes. A recent survey of regulators and plant breeders found that only 6% believed that process-based regulatory systems are effective. In various parts of the world, gene editing is being applied to crops to improve yield, increase disease resistance, provide herbicide tolerance and improved oil and nutrient composition, including soybeans (drought tolerance, salt tolerance, high oleic acid, low trans-fatty acids), corn (increased starch), potatoes (lower acrylamide) and wheat (mildew resistance, higher fiber). Gene editing is a new breeding technique that changes specific genes by a precise level and doesn’t involve inserting DNA from another plant or species. Yet, the EU has decided to regulate gene editing as equivalent to breeding technologies that do insert DNA from other plants and species. Scientists have been frustrated by this decision, resulting in 117 research institutions within the EU signing a petition for modern regulations for gene editing technology. The current EU regulatory system for GM crops has only approved one variety for planting in the past 15 years, which was never commercialized due to the length of time it took to be approved, resulting in scientists being rightly concerned about the inability to get a new crop, fruit and vegetable varieties approved for production and consumption, given the existing failures.

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By determining that gene-edited plants must be regulated as equivalent to GM plants and the broken regulatory system, this has set a precedent that all gene edited products will need to be considered within the GM regulation framework. This is where the EU has a real problem, in April The Economist reported that virtually all of the Covid-19 vaccines being developed in the EU are based on technologies that will make them GM products. It presently takes the EU regulatory system nearly 5 years to make an approval decision just to allow a GM variety to be imported for use as animal feed. The EU systems take far longer to assess risk, due to the precautionary basis, compared to other countries. For example, in Canada, a GM crop can be approved in 1-2 years of risk assessment. Science-based risk assessments assess the risk of a new GM product and if the risk of the GM product is comparable to the risk of an equivalent non-GM product, then it is approved. The EU lacks the ability to use this same equivalence as a rationale for approving GM products as safe. If the EU applies its process-based GMO regulatory framework to the risk assessment of GM-derived vaccines and drugs, it would be expected to have similar time requirements as GM crops to complete the process-based risk assessments. It is very doubtful the EU public would be willing to wait until 2025 to have access to a Covid-19 vaccine. In an admission that the EU regulatory system is a failure, the European Parliament announced it would ‘derogate’ some of the regulatory requirements that would be required of gene-edited developed Covid-19 vaccines to speed their development.

One technology – two regulatory systems

The EU is facing a situation where it may soon have two regulatory systems for gene editing. One that is science-based for the development of drugs and vaccines and one that is politically-based for plants. Should the EU move in this direction, it will demonstrate that if gene editing technology is applied to vaccines and drugs, the science is safe and the products can be approved. Yet if gene editing is applied to plants, the technology is unsafe and products should not be approved. Not only is this inefficient, but it also exposes the EU regulatory system to political manipulation from activist organizations. Scientists, graduate students and investment capital has been fleeing Europe for the past 20 years and the pace has increased in the past 2 years following the decision on the regulation of gene editing as equivalent to GMO regulations. The EU has been provided with a rare and unique opportunity to establish a product-based regulatory system that uses science, not politics, to make approval decisions. If the EU fails to take the appropriate actions and fix their broken regulatory system, the best and brightest of Europe’s scientists will continue to leave, agricultural innovation will be reduced and ultimately, food prices will increase.

Stuart J. Smyth is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and holds the Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan. Follow him on Twitter @stuartsmyth66 

A version of this article was originally posted at the Sustainable Agricultural Innovation & Food website and has been reposted here with permission. SAIFood can be found on Twitter @SAIFood_blog

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Conspiracy promoter Mike ‘Health Ranger’ Adams built online disinformation Natural News online empire that subverts science, report finds

Alternative health guru and conspiracy theorist Mike Adams, founder of the popular website Natural News, has been identified as the mastermind behind “a complex web of social media and website infrastructure used to create, promote, and target health and political disinformation,” according to a just-released investigation conducted by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).

The global think tank, dedicated to combating “polarization, hate and extremism,” focused on a nearly three-month period beginning in January 2020, when the novel coronavirus started its rapid spread across the world, accompanied by a host of conspiracy theories.

screen shot at pmThe report offers a searing analysis of how extremists on the left and right—Adams promotes a bizarre mix of fringe ideas drawn from both ends of the political spectrum—are abusing social media and undermining social cohesion. Natural News, ISD suggests, may be the largest coordinated disinformation network in the world, perhaps outside of Russia, with 21 fake news outlets (down from more than 45 four years ago):

The complex web of infrastructure surrounding NaturalNews is vast. Its activities remain largely unchecked on social media sites, where it finds platforms to proselytize. Despite being banned from Facebook in 2019 and again in 2020, NaturalNews has continued to post on branded Facebook groups and appears linked to a network of over 400+ affiliated domains, including domains promoting extremist and violent material. In May 2020, Facebook banned posts with links to NaturalNews. com, NewsTarget.com, and Brighteon.com, all of which appear to be owned and run by Natural News and its founders.

Disinformation across a range of issues

Over the nearly three-month period, Adams’s online infrastructure generated almost 100,000 likes, over 327,000 shares, and more than 33,000 comments—even after Google News, Apple, YouTube, Pinterest, and Twitter permanently banned him. Facebook only temporarily kicked Adams off its platform in 2019, but made the ban permanent in 2020, blocking all outbound links to known Natural news sites. Adams addresses an array of controversies flaming across the internet, according to publicly available data on the 10 most-shared articles from NaturalNews domains:

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Natural News’s expanding network

Natural News’ oversized presence underscores how difficult it has become for social media companies to moderate their vast and expanding networks, despite increased policing. ISD found much of the disinformation on various Facebook pages, noting that the platform hasn’t been able to keep up with popular purveyors of disinformation, who are skilled at evading efforts to shut off the spigot:

The reactive game of cat and mouse that companies currently rely upon to reduce the potency of such networks has proven inherently limited when dealing with vast networks of interconnected and long-established domains like NaturalNews. While the accounts, pages and groups used to host and promote the NaturalNews network have begun to disappear as researchers and companies have started to understand the scale of the NaturalNews operation online, the policies and actions of companies dealing with outbound links to known disinformation and extremist domains remain.

How does Adams do it? After he was banned by Facebook, Natural News established a private “NaturalNews Supporters” group. With just 390 members, it exists primarily to share content from Adams’s websites and other conspiracy theory outlets. The group coordinated with several Facebook pages including “GMO Dangers,” “Amazing Cures,” Food Freedom” and “No Fluoride”—all of which had the same administrators—to subvert Adams’ ban.

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In all, ISD identified 15 Facebook groups and pages—seven public pages and eight public groups—which shared links to Natural News-affiliated domains more than 50 times in three months. These 15 groups and pages shared a combined total of 9,097 links and accounted for 52% of the links shared during the period of analysis.

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One admin in the private support group boasted about the network’s collective success—particularly an effort to promote foreign-language versions of a heavily criticized COVID-19 documentary called Plandemic, which has become a favorite disinformation vehicle among conspiracy groups.

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Credit: ISD

Four of the pages in Adams’s disinformation “empire” have since been removed, though other affiliated Facebook pages have developed new tactics and so far evaded the company’s censors. “Unlike the other pages, which were detected and banned,” ISD noted, “these pages do not link directly to the NaturalNews domain. Instead, they circumvent bans by linking to many masking domains which promote and repost NaturalNews content.”

These social media pages include Homestead News, Collapse News, Bugout News, Big Government News, National Security News, Cyberwar News and Prophecy News. They link to some 496 domains registered between 1996 and 2015 by Webseed, Healthranger and Truth Publishing International Ltd.—all entities owned by Adams.

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A history of disinformation

Adams has turned disinformation into a career. An ardent critic of mainstream science, he has promoted a host of medical and political conspiracy theories such as HIV/AIDS denialism, 9/11 truth and Barack Obama citizenship “birther” claims. Adams has likewise rejected climate change science, water fluoridation and advanced chemotherapy and cancer gene therapy.

Read GLP’s profile of Mike Adams to learn more.

Adams claims flu vaccines and childhood immunizations are serious health threats, and has emerged as a fierce critic of any potential coronavirus vaccine. But he’s most notorious for his intense opposition to agricultural biotechnology. Calling the entire field “murder by science,” Adams has warned that crops grown from genetically modified seeds threaten all life and will cause “ecocide” across the plant. This rhetoric appears to be part of his standard promotional strategy: stir up safety concerns about common foods and medicines, then sell alternative “remedies.”

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The vast network of Natural News sites are the foundation of an online marketing juggernaut through which Adams advertises an array of organic products, supplements and vitamins—many of them unproven or known to be dangerous—as well as cookbooks, nutrition guides and other publications focusing on alternative health. Adams cross-posts content with other alternative health influencers and organic food proponents, notably Dr. Joe Mercola and anti-GMO conspiracy activists Jeffrey Smith and Ronnie Cummins, head of the Organic Consumers Association, which funds anti-biotech groups such as US Right to Know (USRTK). Both Natural News and USRTK are notorious for parroting Russian talking points on crop biotechnology.

Monsanto’s “biotech genocide”

Adams has even threatened violent retribution against those who challenge his views, including the Genetic Literacy Project, and has asked anti-GMO activists to kill scientists and science journalists. “It is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere,” he wrote in 2014, “to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.” The post, titled “Biotech genocide, Monsanto collaborators and the Nazi legacy of ‘science’ as a justification for murder,” featured this graphic:


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The Daily Beast published an investigation sharply critical of Adams and his Natural News website, echoing research posted on the Genetic Literacy Project since 2014. After Facebook initially banned his main site, Adams issued a vituperative response, claiming he was the victim of a “coordinated, heavily-funded smear campaign” by “techno-facists.” The self-proclaimed Health Ranger posted a Natural News-designed graphic that equated Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, among other dictators, with Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook and other heads of major technology companies.

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What can be done?

Summing up its findings, ISD outlined the threat posed by figures like Adams if allowed to freely promote unsubstantiated scientific claims and outright falsehoods to a mass audience on social media:

ISD’s research demonstrates the significant infrastructure and perseverance of disinformation purveyors who seek to spread harmful and false information. It also shows the as yet unmet challenge that has been placed at the foot of social media companies to stop their platforms from providing these actors with a loudspeaker to reach hundreds of thousands of people …. The breadth and scale of NaturalNews’ network both on social media and the surface web serve as a useful guide to understanding the capabilities of those seeking to misrepresent and mislead.

Jon Entine is executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @JonEntine

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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How needless precaution kept a GMO ‘superfood’ off the market: Q&A with Golden Rice author Ed Regis

For us in the West, the ferocious debate over genetic engineering isn’t a matter of life and death. We argue about the safety of Impossible Burgers and the potential risks associated with new breeding techniques like CRISPR gene editing, but nobody will go hungry or die of malnutrition pending the outcome of these arguments. Sadly, the same isn’t true in the developing world.

The tragic tale of global vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and the life-saving (but still unavailable) solution known as Golden Rice has been told millions of times, 246 million according to Google. But to briefly recap: roughly 250 million people, mostly preschool children in southeast Asia, are vitamin A deficient. Between 250,000 and 500,000 of them go blind every year—and half die within 12 months of losing their sight. Genetically engineered Golden Rice, fortified with the vitamin A precursor beta carotene, could alleviate much of this suffering without otherwise harming human health or the environment, according to a mountain of studies.

[Editor’s note: Final regulatory approval of Golden Rice is pending  in the Philippines and Bangladesh, according to the International Rice Research Institute.]

So why are so many people still dying of a preventable condition?

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Ed Regis. Image: Pepi Khara

That’s the rather frustrating part of the story science writer Ed Regis examines in his new book Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood. In just over 200 pages, Regis gives a crash course on genetic engineering and explains the messy history of Golden Rice, disabusing the reader of many popular myths along the way.  Environmental activist group Greenpeace, for example, is often identified in the press as the primary obstacle to releasing Golden Rice. Despite all its lobbying, however, the NGO has had a relatively minor impact on the crop’s development.

Instead of pointing the finger at Greenpeace, Regis says the blame lies mostly with overly cautious governments, many of which regulate GMOs as if they were biological weapons. Hoping to avoid the unintended (and so far undiscovered) consequences of growing genetically engineered crops, regulators unintentionally rob people of their eyesight and often their lives.

In a Q&A session with Genetic Literacy Project editor Cameron English, Regis offers a bird’s eye view of the ongoing controversy and highlights some lesser-known but still significant aspects of the Golden Rice story.

Cameron English: Golden Rice seems simple conceptually. As you point out, scientists just had to direct the plant’s existing biochemical machinery to synthesize beta carotene in the rice grain, as it does in the rest of the plant. Why did this prove so challenging to achieve in the lab?

For one thing, it had never been done before—rewriting a plant’s genes to make it express a trait that it normally did not have. Nobody was sure that it was even possible. There were different ways of accomplishing that goal, and there were a lot of technical difficulties in doing the actual hands-on lab work, and getting everything lined up correctly at the genetic level so that beta carotene would appear in the rice grain. There were incredible numbers of false starts, dead ends, and unforeseen technical problems to overcome, and it took years of trial and error for the inventors to get it all working properly. It was just a hard problem, both scientifically, in theory, and technologically, in practice.

CE: You write that Golden Rice could make VAD “a thing of the past” in developing Asian countries. Why is this biotech crop a better solution than alternative proposals, like distributing vitamin supplements?

Supplement programs have been tried, and of course they do some good, but the problem is that such programs require a substantial and permanent infrastructure. They require a supply chain, personnel to distribute the stuff, record keeping, and the like, plus sufficient and continuous funding to keep it all going across time. Also, there is no way to guarantee that supplements will reach every last person who needs them.

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Golden Rice, by contrast, requires none of that. The seeds will be given at no cost to small landowner farmers, and the rice will be no more expensive to consumers than plain and ordinary white rice. Plus, there’s the principle that “Plants reproduce, pills don’t.” Once Golden Rice is introduced, it’s a system that just goes of itself. The product replaces what people already eat on a daily basis with something that could save their sight and lives in the process.

CE: Tell us the story about night blindness you recount from Catherine Price’s book. Does that anecdote underscore the problem that Golden Rice could solve?

We in the rich, developed Western countries know practically nothing about [VAD]. We have virtually no experience of it because we get the micronutrients we need from ordinary foods and vitamin supplements. One of the first symptoms of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness, which means pretty much what it says. But to convey this as an actual, lived experience I quote from Catherine Price’s excellent book, Vitamania, in which she describes what happens to vitamin A deficient children in poor, developing countries.

While they lead an active life during the day, they gradually withdraw and stop playing as twilight approaches. With the fall of night, they basically just sit in place and wait for help, because they have lost their sight in darkness, and their life grinds to a halt. In countries such as the Philippines, where people eat rice as a staple, at every meal, Golden Rice could prevent this from happening, and even reverse the symptoms in children already affected by VAD.

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These photos highlight the difference between healthy eyesight and night blindness (nyctalopia). Image: Wikipedia

 

CE: You point out that Greenpeace struggled with a “moral dilemma” before forcefully coming out against Golden Rice. Tells about that situation.

In 2001, the year after the Golden Rice protype was announced in Science, a Greenpeace official by the name of Benedikt Haerlin visited Ingo Potrykus, the co-inventor, at his home in Switzerland. Haerlin discussed whether or not to make the provitamin A rice an exception to Greenpeace’s otherwise absolute and rigid opposition to any and all genetically engineered foods. He had initially acknowledged that there was a moral difference between GMOs that were merely agriculturally superior—in being pesticide- or herbicide-resistant, for example—and a GMO that was so nutritionally beneficial that it actually had the potential to save people’s lives and sight.

But apparently that distinction made no difference because in the end both Haerlin himself and Greenpeace as an organization soon took the view that Golden Rice had to be opposed, even stopped, no matter what its possible health benefits might be.

CE: Greenpeace also claimed that poverty and insufficiently diverse diet were the root causes of vitamin A deficiency. Therefore, they said, developing biofortified crops was misguided. That sounds like a reasonable argument, so what’s wrong with Greenpeace’s analysis here?

This is like arguing that until we find a cure for cancer we should not treat patients by means of surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. This is totally illogical on the face of it. And the same is true of the argument that since poverty is the cause of the problem that therefore the only solution is to eradicate it. Everyone’s in favor of eradicating poverty, but there are things we can do in the interim while advancing that far-off and utopian goal, which arguably will take some time to accomplish. Biofortified Golden Rice, along with supplementation and a more diverse diet, can help prevent vitamin A deficiency. If a solution, or a set of solutions, is available, let’s implement them while also striving to reduce poverty. Both can be done together, you don’t have to choose between one and the other.

CE: Many people believe that Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups are the main roadblock to getting Golden Rice into the hands of farmers. But you write that the activists don’t deserve that much credit. What else has kept Golden Rice off the market?

Greenpeace’s long history of anti-GMO rhetoric, diatribes, street demonstrations, protests, dressing up in “monster crop” costumes, and all the rest of it actually did nothing to halt research and development of Golden Rice. There are two reasons why it took 20 years to bring Golden Rice to the point where it won approval for release in four countries: Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. The first is that it takes a long time to breed increasingly higher concentrations of beta carotene (or any other valuable trait) into new strains of rice (or any other plant). Plant breeding is not like a chemistry experiment that you can repeat immediately as many times as you want. Rather, plant growth is an inherently slow and glacial process that can’t be [sped] up meaningfully except under certain special laboratory conditions that are expensive and hard to foster and sustain.

The second reason is the retarding force of government regulations on GMO crop development. Those regulations, which cover plant breeding, experimentation, and field trials, among other things, are so oppressively burdensome and costly that they make compliance inordinately time-consuming and expensive.

CE: What’s the Cartagena Protocol and how has it affected the development of Golden Rice?

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The Cartagena Protocol was an international agreement, sponsored and developed by the United Nations, which aimed “to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking into account also risks to human health.”

On the face of it, this “precautionary approach” is plausible, even innocuous. In actual practice, the protocol amounts to a sweeping set of guidelines, requirements, and procedures pertaining to GMOs that were legally binding on the nations that were parties to the agreement, coupled with a set of mechanisms to enforce and ensure compliance. These oppressive and stifling rules and regulations soon turned into a nightmare for GMO developers, and did more than anything else to slow down the progress of Golden Rice.

Ingo Potrykus, the co-inventor of Golden Rice, has estimated that adherence to government regulations on GMOs resulting from the Cartagena Protocol and the precautionary principle, caused a delay of up to ten years in the development of the final product. That is a tragedy, caused by the very governments that are supposed to protect our health, but in this case did the opposite.

CE: Once a prototype of Golden Rice was developed, the prestigious science journal Nature refused to publish the study documenting the successful experiment. Why do you think Nature reacted that way, and what does it tell us about the cultural climate during the period when Golden Rice was first developed?

Well, I can’t speak for the Nature editors, so in this case you’re asking the wrong person. In my book, I quote what Ingo Potrykus had to say about the matter, which was:

The Nature editor did not even consider it worth showing the manuscript to a referee, and sent it back immediately. Even supportive letters from famous European scientists did not help. From other publications in Nature at that time we got the impression that Nature was more interested in cases which would rather question instead of support the value of genetic engineering technology.

And I will leave it at that.

CE: The classic objection to GMOs, including Golden Rice, is that they’re unnatural. Would you summarize your response to that claim in the book?

In the book I show that in fact most of the foods that we eat are “unnatural” in the sense that they are products of years of artificial selection, often using techniques other than conventional crossbreeding.

In particular I cite the example of Rio Red grapefruit, which is sold all over America and is not considered a GMO, despite the fact that its genes have been scrambled over the years by artificial means including radiation mutation breeding, in the form of thermal neutron (thN) bombardment, which was done at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. This highly mutant and genetically modified grapefruit variety is on file at the “Joint FAO/IAEA Mutant Variety Database,” at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in Vienna, Austria. You can hardly get more “unnatural” than Rio Red grapefruit.

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Image: The Telegraph

By contrast, there is a plant whose roots in the ground are potatoes, but whose above ground fruit are tomatoes. This is the so-called “TomTato,” and was created by exclusively conventional means, i.e., grafting, which goes back thousands of years. But which of the two is more unnatural—the Rio Red grapefruit or the freakish “TomTato”? And why does it matter?

CE: There are a lot of transgenic crops being developed, so why did Golden Rice become such a lightning rod for controversy in the GMO debate?

Because if it gets approved, works, and ends up saving lives and sight, it will lead to greater acceptance of GMO foods in general, which is the very last thing that GMO opponents want. That cannot be said of any other GMO.

CE: Bangladesh appears poised to release Golden Rice in the near future. Are you hopeful that farmers will soon have access to it, or do you foresee more political and regulatory obstacles getting in the way?

In the words of Jack Reacher (the hero of Lee Child’s crime novels), “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” Seeing what has happened to Golden Rice over the course of 20 years, nothing would surprise me going forward. I would sort of be more surprised if Bangladesh approved it and it was grown and people ate it than if it were banned outright in the countries where it’s needed most. That is the most infuriating part of the whole story.

Ed Regis is a science writer whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Harper’s, Wired, Nature, Discover and the New York Times, among other publications. He is the author of ten books, including What Is Life? Investigating the Nature of Live in the Age of Synthetic Biology. 

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s senior agricultural genetics and special projects editor. He co-hosts the Biotech Facts and Fallacies podcast. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

This story originally appeared on the GLP on November 5, 2019.

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Viewpoint: We’ve got 10 years to prevent ‘irreversible’ climate change damage. Here’s how CRISPR can help

Ten years – that is the timeline scientists have given us to either address climate change or suffer irreversible damages to the environment. A massive adoption of more sustainable practices is an absolute must to meet this challenge.  But in order to make adoption stick, we need to rely on technological innovations to make the shift feel seamless and the changes seem minimal.

Genetic engineering and the introduction of CRISPR are among the solutions that researchers believe can have a drastic impact on the environment, and potentially even on global warming, perhaps without forcing consumers to make drastic lifestyle changes.

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation recently released a report, “Gene Editing for the Climate: Biological Solutions for Curbing Greenhouse Emissions”, which asks governments across the globe to accelerate the development and deployment of gene editing technologies. Within the report, authors Val Giddings, Robert Rozansky and Peter Hart noted just how broad the potential of genome editing is:

Gene editing is already pushing beyond the lab, ushering in dramatic innovations in medicine and manufacturing as well as agriculture. The fight against COVID-19 will accelerate this trajectory, as gene editing is contributing to the development of antiviral therapies and vaccines. It is, in short, a new platform technology that will touch many aspects of 21st century society, including climate and energy.

The report also noted that gene editing technologies like CRISPR could  improve agricultural productivity upwards of 50% by 2050 if the regulatory structure was favorable.

How would this work?

So, what could gene editing and CRISPR do for agricultural productivity and the race against the climate change ‘doomsday‘ clock? The potential is limitless, as these tools allow you to precisely reprogram a plant’s own DNA sequences to create desirable traits, making it possible to eliminate the need for years of traditional plant breeding.

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Without looking too far into the future, there are three key areas that gene editing can support today that are best suited for addressing climate change; the ability to enhance carbon capture, increase yield, and create biomaterials that are more sustainable.

1. Crops feed off of carbon dioxide, pulling it in and transforming it into sugars that fuel the plant and seed growth through photosynthesis. This is nothing new; plants have done this since the dawn of time. But now agriculture is creating a new avenue for CO2 reduction.

Researchers are finding new traits that are capable of improving carbon capture and conversion within the crop. This creates a few different opportunities for supporting a sustainable future; the first being the creation of “super plants” capable of pulling in more CO2, removing it from the environment and therefore helping balance the emission levels. Agriculture generates approximately 10% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. according to the EPA.

2. The ability to take in carbon and more effectively and convert it to sugars often has an added benefit of bolstering plant growth and seed production. In editing the existing DNA of a plant to accelerate these highly sought-after traits, such as enhanced photosynthesis, it’s possible to increase crop and seed yield, enhancing their productivity.

The possibilities don’t end there, however, as other traits can be manipulated to improve other areas of a plant’s system such as the oil biosynthesis pathway, which can help oilseed crops such as canola and camelina produce higher quantities of oil per seed, increased crop, seed and oil production within existing plants can minimize the need for additional resources, ranging from water and pesticides to invaluable and often limited land.

3. Genetic engineering is also taking its place at the table in the creation of sustainable and biodegradable plastic alternatives. For years, manufacturers have known about the potential of polyhydroxyalkanoates, better known as PHA, as a biomaterial capable of mimicking the stable feel of plastic without the same hazardous environmental impact due to its ability to disintegrate in as little as two months. This has tremendous potential for and is already being used by consumer product goods (CPG) producers to create disposable cutlery, straws and even fashion items now.

4. However, in order for them to truly take advantage of this biomaterial it needs to be scalable to be cost effective. Newly identified traits in Camelina plants could make this possible as they show potential in reprogramming crops, through CRISPR genome editing, to producePHA as a third byproduct.

To make the sustainable shift, genetic engineering and CRISPR need to be included as part of the larger solution. These tools are ready and available; now we just need the support of governments across the globe to adopt them in order to make a substantial impact.

Genetic engineering can help us reduce CO2 emissions, increase food production without taking an added toll on the environment and can create biomaterials for plastic alternatives, and that’s just the start of its potential. Without genetic engineering of crops, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to beat the climate change clock.

Dr. Oliver Peoples is the CEO at Yield10 Bioscience, an  agricultural bioscience company focusing on the development of disruptive technologies to produce step-change improvements in crop yield for food and feed crops to enhance global food security. Prior to founding Metabolix, Dr. Peoples was a research scientist with the Department of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Find him on Twitter @Yield10Bio

brain

Evolution’s ‘great leap forward’: When did humans cross the intelligence rubicon?

When did something like us first appear on the planet? It turns out there’s remarkably little agreement on this question. Fossils and DNA suggest people looking like us, anatomically modern Homo sapiens, evolved around 300,000 years ago. Surprisingly, archaeology – tools, artefacts, cave art – suggest that complex technology and cultures, “behavioural modernity”, evolved more recently: 50,000-65,000 years ago.

Some scientists interpret this as suggesting the earliest Homo sapiens weren’t entirely modern. Yet the different data tracks different things. Skulls and genes tell us about brains, artefacts about culture. Our brains probably became modern before our cultures.

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Key physical and cultural milestones in modern human evolution, including genetic divergence of ethnic groups. Credit: Nick Longrich

The “great leap”

For 200,000-300,000 years after Homo sapiens first appeared, tools and artefacts remained surprisingly simple, little better than Neanderthal technology, and simpler than those of modern hunter-gatherers such as certain indigenous Americans. Starting about 65,000 to 50,000 years ago, more advanced technology started appearing: complex projectile weapons such as bows and spear-throwersfishhooksceramicssewing needles.

People made representational art – cave paintings of horsesivory goddesseslion-headed idols, showing artistic flair and imagination. A bird-bone flute hints at music. Meanwhile, arrival of humans in Australia 65,000 years ago shows we’d mastered seafaring.

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The Venus of Brassempouy, 25,000 years old. Credit: Wikipedia

This sudden flourishing of technology is called the “great leap forward”, supposedly reflecting the evolution of a fully modern human brain. But fossils and DNA suggest that human intelligence became modern far earlier.

Anatomical modernity

Bones of primitive Homo sapiens first appear 300,000 years ago in Africa, with brains as large or larger than ours. They’re followed by anatomically modern Homo sapiens at least 200,000 years ago, and brain shape became essentially modern by at least 100,000 years ago. At this point, humans had braincases similar in size and shape to ours.

Assuming the brain was as modern as the box that held it, our African ancestors theoretically could have discovered relativity, built space telescopes, written novels and love songs. Their bones say they were just as human as we are.

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300,000 year old skull, Morocco. Credit: NHM

Because the fossil record is so patchy, fossils provide only minimum dates. Human DNA suggests even earlier origins for modernity. Comparing genetic differences between DNA in modern people and ancient Africans, it’s estimated that our ancestors lived 260,000 to 350,000 years ago. All living humans descend from those people, suggesting that we inherited the fundamental commonalities of our species, our humanity, from them.

All their descendants – Bantu, Berber, Aztec, Aboriginal, Tamil, San, Han, Maori, Inuit, Irish – share certain peculiar behaviours absent in other great apes. All human cultures form long-term pair bonds between men and women to care for children. We sing and dance. We make art. We preen our hair, adorn our bodies with ornaments, tattoos and makeup.

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We craft shelters. We wield fire and complex tools. We form large, multigenerational social groups with dozens to thousands of people. We cooperate to wage war and help each other. We teach, tell stories, trade. We have morals, laws. We contemplate the stars, our place in the cosmos, life’s meaning, what follows death.

The details of our tools, fashions, families, morals and mythologies vary from tribe to tribe and culture to culture, but all living humans show these behaviours. That suggests these behaviours – or at least, the capacity for them – are innate. These shared behaviours unite all people. They’re the human condition, what it means to be human, and they result from shared ancestry.

We inherited our humanity from peoples in southern Africa 300,000 years ago. The alternative – that everyone, everywhere coincidentally became fully human in the same way at the same time, starting 65,000 years ago – isn’t impossible, but a single origin is more likely.

The network effect

Archaeology and biology may seem to disagree, but they actually tell different parts of the human story. Bones and DNA tell us about brain evolution, our hardware. Tools reflect brainpower, but also culture, our hardware and software.

Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did.

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Middle Stone Age technology.

That creates a puzzle. If Pleistocene hunter-gatherers were as smart as us, why did culture remain so primitive for so long? Why did we need hundreds of millennia to invent bows, sewing needles, boats? And what changed? Probably several things.

First, we journeyed out of Africa, occupying more of the planet. There were then simply more humans to invent, increasing the odds of a prehistoric Steve Jobs or Leonardo da Vinci. We also faced new environments in the Middle East, the Arctic, India, Indonesia, with unique climates, foods and dangers, including other human species. Survival demanded innovation.

Many of these new lands were far more habitable than the Kalahari or the Congo. Climates were milder, but Homo sapiens also left behind African diseases and parasites. That let tribes grow larger, and larger tribes meant more heads to innovate and remember ideas, more manpower, and better ability to specialise. Population drove innovation.

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Beijing from space. Credit: NASA

This triggered feedback cycles. As new technologies appeared and spread – better weapons, clothing, shelters – human numbers could increase further, accelerating cultural evolution again.

Numbers drove culture, culture increased numbers, accelerating cultural evolution, on and on, ultimately pushing human populations to outstrip their ecosystems, devastating the megafauna and forcing the evolution of farming. Finally, agriculture caused an explosive population increase, culminating in civilisations of millions of people. Now, cultural evolution kicked into hyperdrive.

Artefacts reflect culture, and cultural complexity is an emergent property. That is, it’s not just individual-level intelligence that makes cultures sophisticated, but interactions between individuals in groups, and between groups. Like networking millions of processors to make a supercomputer, we increased cultural complexity by increasing the number of people and the links between them.

So our societies and world evolved rapidly in the past 300,000 years, while our brains evolved slowly. We expanded our numbers to almost 8 billion, spread across the globe, reshaped the planet. We did it not by adapting our brains but by changing our cultures. And much of the difference between our ancient, simple hunter-gatherer societies and modern societies just reflects the fact that there are lots more of us and more connections between us.

Nick Longrich is a Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology and Paleontology at the University of Bath. Nick is interested in how the world evolved to be the way it is. He studies mass extinction, adaptive radiation, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and mosasaurs, among other things. Find Nick on Twitter @NickLongrich

A version of this article was originally published at the Conversation and has been republished here with permission. The Conversation can be found on Twitter @ConversationUS 

animal

African biotechnology advance: Vaccine breakthrough could prevent ‘catastrophic’ tick-borne diseases that cost farmers $19B annually

Livestock breeding is expected to be one of the engines of economic growth in Africa as it struggles to recover from the devastating impact of COVID-19. As part of this effort to help African countries realize dramatic economic growth, scientists in the agricultural sector are breeding exotic animals.

There are gigantic challenges found in the tiniest of animals: ticks that carry vector-borne diseases such as Theileria parva, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and East Coast fever. Cattle tick parasites affect animal health, production and welfare, particularly in tropical and subtropical countries of the world, and they are vectors for numerous human diseases as well. This slew of diseases can be transmitted by ticks to humans, passed along in much the way people get Lyme disease.

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Cattle ticks. Credit: Farmers Review Africa

The control and prevention of bacterial tick-borne diseases are particularly difficult because of the synergistic relationships between the ticks, cattle hosts and humans.  Traditional methods for the control of tick infestations have been based on use of acaricides, repellents, antibiotics, cattle breeding and extension education about recommended practices.

However, these practices have been only partially successful, and drug resistance and contamination impact on public and environmental health constitute important limitations. Therefore, scientists in a number of African countries including Uganda have resorted to developing vaccines using transgenic (GMO) genetic modification and gene editing technology, which is the more precise of the two.

Global economic impact of tick-borne diseases on animals

Ticks affect 80% of the global cattle population. The most prevalent is the Rhipicephalus microplus species, which is found across the world and has substantial blood-sucking capacity. The annual economic impact of tick-related cattle diseases in Africa is catastrophic, with estimated losses of over $1.1 billion annually and as much as $19 billion globally.

Ticks cause significant losses in the production of meat, milk, leathers and in many cases kill the affected animals. The direct losses are related to the damage done when the ticks feed on the blood of their hosts. Animals infested with ticks reduce their feed intake to 4.37 kg compared to healthy animal intake of 5.66 kg, a loss of 20%, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Indirect losses are related to the infectious agents transmitted by ticks, and the costs associated with treatment and control.

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Credit: Courtesy Baker Bakashaba

According to Dr. Sam Okuthe, head of the Emergency Center for Transboundary Animal Diseases in East Africa, tick infestation and related tick-borne diseases will continue to hamper livestock growth and GDP contribution. Citing a study commissioned by the Food and Agricultural Organization in 2018, he notes that ticks, particularly in East Africa, account for more than 50% of farmers’ costs.

GMO vaccine development in Uganda

The livestock sub-sector contributes about 5% of total national GDP in Uganda. Because of the industry’s relative economic importance, Scientists at the country’s National Livestock Resources Research Institute (NaLRRI) have been conducting research since 2016 to develop a tick vaccine. It is a collaboration with the Spanish Instituto de Investigación en Recursos Cinegéticos (IREC).

The lead project investigator, Dr. Fredrick Kabi, is very encouraged by the results so far. Field trials at the institute indicate that once cattle are injected with the vaccine, they can resist multiple tick attacks, which helps prevent disease spread.

Cattle tick infestations and transmitted pathogens affect animal health, production and welfare with an impact on [the] cattle industry in tropical and subtropical countries. Anti-tick vaccines constitute an effective and sustainable alternative to the traditional methods for the control of tick infestations.

Subolesin-based vaccines have shown efficacy for the control of multiple tick species, but several factors affect the development of new and more effective vaccines for the control of tick infestations. To address this challenge, we used a regional host tick species-driven approach for vaccine design and implementation. The results showed that using antigens for the control of multiple tick species in indigenous and crossbred cattle is effective for the control of cattle ticks.”

Vaccine process development: Gene silencing

Dr. Kabi explained that ticks generally suck host blood and transmit several diseases, resulting in anemia, poor growth and weight gain, diminished productivity, and ultimately death. The diseases they transmit have constrained farmers from improving their local cattle breeds for higher milk yields.

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According Paul Kasaija, a PhD student working alongside Kabi, the vaccine works by preventing ticks from transmitting disease and reproducing. Building on earlier research, scientists first identify the genes that control these functions, then use CRISPR Cas-9 to delete certain segments of the genes, effectively “silencing” them. This edited tick DNA is used to formulate the vaccine, which triggers an immune response in the animals. When blood-sucking ticks come along, they can’t spread infection, and the females can’t lay eggs in their immunized hosts. Over time, this reduces the tick population.

Does the vaccine work?

Researchers tested this experimental vaccine by infesting animals with ticks and then immunizing them to see what would happen. Similar vaccines have been evaluated this way as well.  The researchers explained the process in detail to the GLP.

For the three host tick species, approximately 300 larvae were applied to each animal. The larvae were allowed to attach and expand for two weeks. The ear bags were then removed, and the ticks counted, weighed and incubated for molting at 20 °C and 95% relative humidity.

A 15-day-old batch of 200 nymphs was applied to each ear for two weeks and incubated for molting to adults.

30 starved adult male and female ticks were applied to the calf’s ear in bags at a ratio of one male per three females. The cells were left in position for 28–30 days to allow all the developmental stages to take place in the host.

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A researcher displays blood samples used in vaccine trials at the National Animal Research Institute located in Eastern Uganda. Credit: Lominda Afedraru

The animals were infested with tick-borne diseases, then vaccinated. Blood samples were collected before each vaccination, which was administered three times over 45 days.

This experiment showed that the animal’s antibody response to the vaccine protected against tick infestations. The team is now set to start trials in a variety of locations, where they will test the vaccine on animals in selected farmer kraals, traditional African villages. The researchers are in talks with the National Drug Authority (NDA) to certify the vaccine for release to farmers within two years.

Legal road for animal biotechnology in Africa

What’s the process for moving the vaccine from field tests to the market?

Once successful field trials are concluded, the National Drug Authority inspection team will verify that the vaccine works and give the scientists a certificate of release. It is up to the NDA to identify pharmaceutical companies that can produce enough vaccine doses to meet market demand.

Sunday Akile Igu, the program officer for law and policy on bosafety issues at African Biosafety Networks of Expertise (ABNE), notes that different countries in Africa are handling the release of GMO animal products differently.

Under the Cartagena protocol, countries may decide to use their country drug acts to define the release of animal GMO vaccines or drugs. This is likely to happen in the case of Uganda because the National Drug Act provides for such release, although it may require some new guidelines, as it might in other countries as well.

In Kenya, the National Biosafety Authority is already drafting guidelines on the containment and use of transgenic animals, borrowing examples from existing laws regulating animal vaccine and drug release in the country.

A number of African countries are conducting research in animal breeding using biotechnology. These include breeding GMO animals and the development of GMO vaccines and drugs.

The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), a technical arm of the African Union, has been pushing for the adoption of advanced technologies. In an FAO publication, FARA researcher Adama Traore notes that across the continent, excluding South Africa, there are only two organizations—ILRI based in Kenya and CIRDES in Burkina Faso—that are actively involved in livestock biotechnology research, though it could have a tremendous impact.

Biotechnological options are available for improving rumen fermentation and enhancing the nutritive value and utilization of agro-industrial byproducts and other forages: improving nutritive value of cereals, removing anti- nutritive factors from feeds and improving rumen function. These technologies are far less exploited in Africa.

Other research projects focus on using artificial insemination to increase the rate of genetic improvement and reduce transmission of venereal diseases, while minimizing the cost of introducing improved stock. Countries using this technology for exotic cross breeding include South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan. Though the regulatory environment in Africa is evolving, this research is likely to be blended with biotechnology research in the years ahead.

Lominda Afedraru is a freelance science journalist in Uganda who specializes in agriculture, health, environment, climate change and marine science. Follow her on the Daily Monitor, Facebook or Twitter @lominda25

ingredients label

Don’t eat it if you can’t pronounce it? Avoiding ‘scary-sounding ingredients’ won’t make you healthier

“If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!” We are told that steering clear of scary-sounding ingredients is a simple, healthy way to eat and avoid potentially toxic chemicals. Is this correct? It’s important now more than ever to understand how the food we put in our bodies can affect us. Let’s discuss chemicals in our foods, clean eating, and how perpetuating unsubstantiated proverbs can be misleading and bolster unneeded fear in what is already an anxiety-ridden time.

I don’t know about you, but our family has been trying to avoid the grocery store, and all other public outings for that matter, to maintain our social distance. So now, when I must head to the grocery store, I am thinking about a two-week grocery list to avoid repeated trips. Top of mind are items that will not only provide a bit of stability in my pantry, but are also healthy and affordable. As I enter the canned food aisle, I grab a soup and take a look at the nutrition label. My eyes widen… should I be afraid of all these ingredients I can’t pronounce? The answer is not so black and white.

Let’s take a look at this in a different way. Every morning, I throw some octadecenoic acid and hexadecenoic acid, along with arginine, aspartic acid, and phenylalanine onto the frying pan. When it’s properly cooked, I put it on phosphorus, potassium, and manganese. It is delicious! What am I eating? Eggs over quinoa. A healthy, good-for-you breakfast with plenty of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Is a true measure of health the ability to pronounce a food’s ingredients? The rhetoric, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!” is adopted from a quote made by Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. His intent was to warn consumers against eating highly-processed foods and provide guidelines to identify these products so we could combat growing health epidemics, like obesity, diabetes, and chronic inflammation.

Misrepresentation of “chemical”

Unfortunately, Pollan’s statement was taken quite literally. Consumers began to question every multi-syllabic ingredient on their labels. But isn’t that a little too simplistic? Let’s get serious; most foods contain bad-for-you and good-for-you ingredients that are tongue twisters. Don’t believe me? Try this: read the list of ingredients below. It details the composition of a common breakfast and snack food.banana words noshadow x

Sound appetizing? Well, the truth is, these are simply the chemical ingredients for a banana. James Kennedy, a high school chemistry teacher in Melbourne, Australia created this list to illustrate that even completely natural, wholesome, clean foods can sound potentially unhealthy and unnatural when the mechanism for determining health is solely based on pronouncing a food’s chemicals.

“I want to erode the fear that many people have of chemicals”.

– James Kennedy, Chemistry Teacher

Our goal to eat healthier should include consuming nutrient-dense foods with low sodium, sugar, and trans & saturated fats. This means eating more fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Sounds pretty easy, right? Not always. Most of us tend to lean towards simple mantras to soothe our aversions to uncertainty and help us with quick decision making.

Perpetuating unreasonable food fears

According to Mintel, 70% of consumers don’t know what they need to eat to be healthy, but over 51% of Americans believe that additives in foods they eat pose a serious health risk. What causes this type of confusion and food fear of one of the safest food systems in the world? Misguided food dialogues may be to blame.

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Pollan’s words have fueled an unreasonable fear of chemicals, toxins, and additives – and ultimately a fear of our food systems’ ability to ensure food safety. Unreliable food crusaders like the “Food Babe” have also adopted the phrase, “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it”, and continue to spread similar incorrect generalizations. And they ultimately exacerbate a problem that, for many, is just whether they can afford to put food on their table.

Chemists like Dorea Reeser have spoken out against these misguided stigmas stating what seems to be the obvious:

“We are chemicals. Our friends are chemicals. Our babies are chemicals. The air we breathe is chemicals. The food we consume is chemicals that are digested by chemicals that turn into more chemicals.”

So if you took Pollan’s advice to the extreme, you would literally starve.

Do additives have a purpose?

In addition, reputable food scientist, Professor Robert Gravani of Cornell University, has been a leader in responsible food science to combat this faulty logic, as well.

“We want to enhance the quality and maintain the freshness of foods. We want to reduce waste. We really want to make more foods readily available to consumers. And when feeding 310 million people in the United States, we really need to think about how we can transport this food.”

– Prof. Robert Gravani, Cornell University

In the quote above from a 2012 interview with National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, Gravani details legitimate reasons food manufacturers add chemicals to food. He identifies a myriad of other meaningful ways additives have actually helped our food system.

For instance, our table salt contains iodine, a chemical that may make some consumers wary. However, the addition of this chemical has practically eliminated goiters, a medical condition affecting the thyroid gland. Moreover, niacin, a chemical added to bread, has all but made pellagra, a severe nutritional deficiency causing inflammation throughout the body, nonexistent.

Considering the trade-offs

Dr. Michael Holsapple and Heather Dover of the Center for Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University explain that adding substances to food is a necessary, centuries-old practice. All ingredients serve a purpose, whether to add flavor, enhance appearance or texture, or preserve food against bacteria, mold, and fungi. They encourage consumers to do their research on their labels. Be informed, not scared.

“As toxicologists and food scientists, we believe that, by and large, food ingredients are safe. We encourage consumers to look at food labels, as they are an important source of information on the safety of that food, and they provide evidence to enable informed choices.”

– Dr. Michael Holsapple, Michigan State University

He went on to warn that: “You can choose to avoid foods with synthetic preservatives, like sodium benzoate or benzoic acid, but you may consequently increase the risk of you and your family being exposed to microbial pathogens because so-called ‘natural’ preservatives are not as effective.”

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Foods with “clean labels” and ingredients you can readily pronounce do not necessarily equate foods with healthier nutritional profiles. Should you be concerned about a particular ingredient, do some digging and check into its applications to see if it’s acceptable to you. The reality is that a healthy diet means making the right food choices, processed or not.

The bottom line

Science, chemistry, and nutrition are rarely as cut and dry as a simple mantra. Our suggestion instead is, if you can’t pronounce it, look it up. Trust our extremely safe food system, not some adage you read in the latest health magazine. Next time you encounter an additive or chemical you can’t pronounce, learn more about it and decide if you should avoid it or if you believe it is OK and serves a purpose in your diet.

Hayley N. Philip is a writer and researcher for Dirt to Dinner with a focus in health and nutrition.

A version of this article was originally posted at Dirt To Dinner and has been reposted here with permission. Dirt To Dinner can be found on Twitter @Dirt_To_Dinner

trauma

Childhood trauma: The kids are not alright, and part of the explanation may be linked to epigenetics

Kids are resilient. Kids bounce back.

Tell that to Dave Brethauer, a performance coach in Chicago, who told Genetic Literacy Project that he spent the better part of his adult life “fighting to find” himself following the trauma he experienced as a child. “From the time I was five till 14 I had an abusive stepdad in my life,” he said.

To cope, he found himself turning to alcohol, sex, overeating, and exercise addictions – anything to steer his mind away from the memories and pain that haunted him. He contemplated suicide, spent “time on a locked psych ward,” sought help at an addiction clinic, and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 10 years ago, at the age of 50. Only in the past decade has Brethauer been able to approach what he refers to on his website as an “optimal life.”

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Three Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Illustration: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Statements about kids and resiliency are far from true, if considered in the context in which they are normally uttered: when an adult dismisses the idea that a child might be harmed by a traumatizing situation. The situation is justified or allowed to continue in light of the supposed ability of the child to handle whatever life deals them. The child might seem fine, but the effects of living through trauma are carried in their bodies and minds for a lifetime.

Kathleen Audet, image consultant in Reno, Nevada, also has trouble accepting the myth that kids bounce back. Immediately following the birth of her daughter and while still in the hospital, Audet suffered a debilitating stroke. She was only 33, and both she and her doctors knew the stroke was linked to the adverse experiences she faced as a child. “Bottom line, I was NOT listening to myself or my body,” she told GLP.

“Not listening to myself for years on end made my body shut down and say: ‘If you won’t listen to me, I’ll stop you until you do’,” Audet wrote in a post recounting her stroke and subsequent long road to recovery.

Individuals with histories of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or neglect “are often chronically disconnected from their bodies,” wrote Lisa Ferentz, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, in her Psychology Today blog, entitled Healing Trauma’s Wounds. This chronic disconnection can lead to an inability to respond to normal physical sensations, like hunger and fatigue. It may also manifest as an inability or unwillingness to respond to the body’s signals that something is wrong. Disengaging from the body, Ferentz said, can become “a form of self-punishment and can set clients up for acts of self-harm” and self-destructive behaviors.

The kids are not alright

According to a large and ever-growing body of research, childhood trauma exists in all walks of life and many experts believe it is the most pressing health crisis of our time.

What we must understand is that “adversity in childhood kills you as an adult,” said Robert W. Blum, senior professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a Health Happens Here video. Those who have experienced six or more traumatic events in childhood may die an average of 20 years earlier than those who have not experienced traumatic events in childhood, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With appropriate treatment, however, this disparity in life expectancy could be resolved.

Children may appear unfazed or oblivious in the face of trauma because they tend to respond differently than adults. Their responses may be subtle and hard to detect, or they may be confused with behaviors coinciding with normal stages of childhood – such as increased moodiness or temper tantrums. Some children may develop self-harming or obsessive compulsive behaviors that are mostly kept hidden from parents and caregivers. They may also develop symptoms such as unexplained headaches and stomach pains, and they may get sick more frequently than their peers.

Recent research has linked childhood adversity to the diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Researchers from the Department of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Children’s Hospital at Montefiore wrote in the Academic Pediatrics medical journal that children with ADHD have higher exposure to adverse childhood events “compared with children without ADHD,” and that all efforts “to improve ADHD assessment and management should consider routinely evaluating for ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).” Indeed, several of the states with the highest documented rates of childhood adversity also have the highest prevalence of ADHD diagnosis.

Kelsey Torgerson, a licensed clinical social worker at Compassionate Counseling St. Louis, told GLP that “children who have experienced trauma and traumatic stress have a less developed prefrontal cortex, meaning that the part of the brain in charge of rational thinking is unable to grow.” This can manifest in the classroom, for example, as “trouble following directions, poor impulse control, and poor emotional regulation,” – symptoms and behaviors that are frequently carried into adulthood.

Children are more vulnerable to trauma than adults, according to psychiatrist Bruce Perry. In his book, entitled The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook, Perry writes:

The developing brain is most malleable and most sensitive to experience—both good and bad—early in life. (This is why we so easily and rapidly learn language, social nuance, motor skills and dozens of other things in childhood, and why we speak of ‘formative’ experiences.) … Consequently, we are also rapidly and easily transformed by trauma when we are young.

Ever since the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study from the 1990s shed light on the long-lasting psychological and physical effects of childhood trauma, more work has been done to tease out the specifics of the connections between traumatic early experiences and the development of chronic diseases and disorders later on.

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Illustration: AP Designworks

Individuals with a history of childhood trauma are more likely to develop the most common conditions associated with disability, chronic pain, and early death. These include ischemic heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lung disease (like asthma, recurrent bronchitis, and COPD), diabetes, liver disease, autoimmune diseases, obesity, sleep disturbances, and psychiatric disorders.

The chief mechanism behind the increased incidence of medical and psychological problems in those with high ACE scores could be linked to epigenetic changes.

There are a few theories about how epigenetic changes could ultimately result in poor health outcomes. One leading theory is represented in the following illustration, which highlights the cascade of events – including a weakened immune system and altered behavior/psychological changes – resulting from the epigenetic shift:

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Illustration: “The Effects of Early Life Adversity on the Immune System” in Psychoneuroendocrinology

There is hope: Anyone can heal from childhood trauma

Roughly 65 percent of adults have an ACE score of at least one. Most individuals who have experienced childhood trauma have an awareness of this trauma, but may tend to downplay the extent and severity of their experiences. For this reason, taking the ACE quiz can help get a better grasp of one’s adverse experiences. It may also increase one’s understanding of the need for treatment and prevention of poor health outcomes.

Three out of four of the experts we communicated with for this article said that EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an excellent form of treatment for those with a history of childhood trauma. Vincent Felitti, lead researcher of the ACE Study, also listed EMDR as his top suggestion for those seeking to heal from adverse childhood experiences.

Another recommendation we received was yoga and meditation. “Treatment starts with learning how to regulate the body,” Christine Fuchs, a licensed mental health counselor in New York, told us. This “can include things like yoga and deep breathing.” According to Fuchs, these forms of treatment aid in self-regulation and the ability to relax the body. This adequately sets the stage for addressing traumatic memories. Relaxing the body can also have profoundly beneficial effects on the stress response system over time.

Nancy Brooks of Nancy Brooks Counseling in Lancaster, Pennsylvania told GLP that “treatment of any disorder is best when it addresses the individual’s needs, which always includes understanding their current symptoms, what they have tried in the past, and what has and has not worked.” Since experiences of early adversity are not always accessible to memory, it’s important to remember that treatment can take place even in those who do not recall details of their trauma. Symptoms like anxiety can be treated with medication or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brooks said.

Allison Johanson, a licensed clinical social worker from Supported Change LLC in Centennial, Colorado, added that since a need for control can often cause anxiety, depression, and behavioral difficulties in those with high ACE scores, “acceptance treatments such as Acceptance Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy have been proven to be effective.”

For those who wish to try EMDR but have limited time or financial constraints , virtual EMDR may be a cost-effective alternative.

Kristen Hovet is a journalist and writer who specializes in psychology, health, science and the intersection of sociology and culture. Follow her on her website,  Facebook or Twitter @kristenhovet

This article originally appeared on the GLP on November 14, 2017. 

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Podcast: Can we harness the power of germline editing without inviting disaster?

Gene editing has moved rapidly from the lab to real-world applications in medicine, yielding novel treatments for diseases like sickle cell, leukemia and lymphoma. Important milestones though they are, these somatic therapies are relatively uncontroversial because they involve editing non-reproductive cells and thus only affect the person receiving treatment. Even Europe, known for its hostility to agricultural biotechnology, has cautiously allowed gene-editing research in the biomedical sphere to progress and approved several products. But this is just the beginning of the genetics revolution.

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(NHGRI)

We could potentially cure many more diseases with germline therapies, which involve editing sperm and egg cells. But this stirs controversy, as it  but would result in heritable changes in DNA that patients would pass on to their offspring. This is kind of genetic engineering goes beyond anything we’ve ever done before and “could change the genetic makeup of humans, in possibly unpredictable ways,” STAT News contributor Patrick Skerrett noted several years ago.

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Skerrett’s observation isn’t hyperbole. A study published last summer, for instance, showed that edited embryos sometimes displayed unintended (or “off-target”) mutations that could have led to birth defects and possibly cancer had they been used to start a pregnancy, spurring some experts to conclude that we should  “stay the living daylights away from embryo editing.” It’s also possible that the technology could be used one day to give children increased strength, musical ability, unique athletic skills, physical beauty or innumerable other special qualities—so-called designer babies.

Other scientists aren’t as worried, and point out that germline editing, properly regulated, could advance our understanding of early embryonic development and alleviate much suffering by eliminating debilitating diseases before a birth occurs. The public appears to support this application of germline editing as longs its for therapeutic purposes, according to a July 2020 survey, although approval of the technology was lower among people who knew more about genetics and genome editing.

The ultimate question is: can we safely and ethically harness the capabilities of germline editing, or are we inviting disaster by tinkering with birth as it now happens (recognizing that through contraception and non genetic intervention already change the ‘natural order’ of the birth process?

On the latest episode of the Talking Biotech podcast, host and geneticist Kevin Folta talks with bioethicist  Christopher Gyngell to answer these challenging questions and to discuss how public perception could influence the future of germline editing and humanity itself.

 

Christopher Gyngell heads up the Biomedical Ethics Research Group at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia. Follow them on Twitter @Berg_MCRI

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

The Talking Biotech podcast, produced by Kevin Folta, is available for listening or subscription:

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