Viewpoint: ‘Dump Dimorphism’ — Challenging orthodoxy, neuroscientists claim 30 years of studies show ‘no meaningful male-female brain differences’

Everyone knows the difference between male and female brains. One is chatty and a little nervous, but never forgets and takes good care of others. The other is calmer, albeit more impulsive, but can tune out gossip to get the job done.

These are stereotypes, of course, but they hold surprising sway over the way actual brain science is designed and interpreted. Since the dawn of MRI, neuroscientists have worked ceaselessly to find differences between men’s and women’s brains. This research attracts lots of attention because it’s just so easy to try to link any particular brain finding to some gender difference in behavior.

But as a neuroscientist long experienced in the field, I recently completed a painstaking analysis of 30 years of research on human brain sex differences. And what I found, with the help of excellent collaborators, is that virtually none of these claims has proven reliable.

Except for the simple difference in size, there are no meaningful differences between men’s and women’s brain structure or activity that hold up across diverse populations. Nor do any of the alleged brain differences actually explain the familiar but modest differences in personality and abilities between men and women.

More alike than not

My colleagues and I titled our study “Dump the Dimorphism” to debunk the idea that human brains are “sexually dimorphic.” That’s a very science-y term biologists use to describe a structure that comes in two distinct forms in males and females, such as antlers on deer or the genitalia of men and women.

When it comes to the brain, some animals do indeed exhibit sexual dimorphism, such as certain birds whose brains contain a song-control nucleus that is six times larger in males and is responsible for male-only courtship singing. But as we demonstrate in our exhaustive survey, nothing in human brains comes remotely close to this.

A pair of wild zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) perch in South Australia. The male is in the foreground, the female behind. Credit: Whitworth Images/Moment/Getty Images

Yes, men’s overall brain size is about 11% bigger than women’s, but unlike some songbirds, no specific brain areas are disproportionately larger in men or women. Brain size is proportional to body size, and the brain difference between sexes is actually smaller than other internal organs, such as the heart, lungs and kidneys, which range from 17% to 25% larger in men.

When overall size is properly controlled, no individual brain region varies by more than about 1% between men and women, and even these tiny differences are not found consistently across geographically or ethnically diverse populations.

Other highly touted brain sex differences are also a product of size, not sex. These include the ratio of gray matter to white matter and the ratio of connections between, versus within, the two hemispheres of the brain. Both of these ratios are larger in people with smaller brains, whether male or female.

What’s more, recent research has utterly rejected the idea that the tiny difference in connectivity between left and right hemispheres actually explains any behavioral difference between men and women.

A zombie concept

Still, “sexual dimorphism” won’t die. It’s a zombie concept, with the latest revival using artificial intelligence to predict whether a given brain scan comes from a man or woman.

Computers can do this with 80% to 90% accuracy except, once again, this accuracy falls to 60% (or not much better than a coin flip) when you properly control for head size. More troublesome is that these algorithms don’t translate across populations, such as European versus Chinese. Such inconsistency shows there are no universal features that discriminate male and female brains in humans – unlike those deer antlers.

Human brain structure is the same in males and females. Credit: Movus/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Neuroscientists have long held out hope that bigger studies and better methods would finally uncover the “real” or species-wide sex differences in the brain. But the truth is, as studies have gotten bigger, the sex effects have gotten smaller.

This collapse is a telltale sign of a problem known as publication bias. Small, early studies which found a significant sex difference were likelier to get published than research finding no male-female brain difference.

Software versus hardware

We must be doing something right, because our challenge to the dogma of brain sex has received pushback from both ends of the academic spectrum. Some have labeled us as science “deniers” and deride us for political correctness. On the other extreme, we are dismissed by women’s health advocates, who believe research has overlooked women’s brains – and that neuroscientists should intensify our search for sex differences to better treat female-dominant disorders, such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

But there’s no denying the decades of actual data, which show that brain sex differences are tiny and swamped by the much greater variance in individuals’ brain measures across the population. And the same is true for most behavioral measures.

About a decade ago, teachers were urged to separate boys and girls for math and English classes based on the sexes’ alleged learning differences. Fortunately, many refused, arguing the range of ability is always much greater among boys or among girls than between each gender as a group.

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In other words, sex is a very imprecise indicator of what kind of brain a person will have. Another way to think about it is every individual brain is a mosaic of circuits that control the many dimensions of masculinity and femininity, such as emotional expressiveness, interpersonal style, verbal and analytic reasoning, sexuality and gender identity itself.

Or, to use a computer analogy, gendered behavior comes from running different software on the same basic hardware.

The absence of binary brain sex features also resonates with the increasing numbers of people who identify as nonbinary, queer, nonconforming or transgender. Whatever influence biological sex exerts directly on human brain circuitry is clearly not sufficient to explain the multidimensional behaviors we lump under the complex phenomenon of gender.

Rather than “dimorphic,” the human brain is a sexually monomorphic organ – much more like the heart, kidneys and lungs. As you may have noticed, these can be transplanted between women and men with great success.

Dr. Lise Eliot is Professor of Neuroscience and Executive Chair of Foundational Sciences and Humanities at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Science & Medicine. Find Lise on Twitter @lise_eliot

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

offit vax cov

Science Facts and Fallacies podcast: Dr. Paul Offit takes on anti-vaccine activism as COVID shots stem new infections

Early in the pandemic, Children’s Health Defense—the anti-vaccine group headed by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—alleged that SARS-COV-2 was being used by “the elite” to facilitate a “global immunization agenda.” The campaign had been prepared years in advance, the activists warned last spring. All our political overlords needed was the right infectious disease to instill viral terror in the world’s population:

For those who follow the global immunization agenda … the announcement of a new pandemic didn’t come as a surprise. ‘Pandemic preparedness’ has been well-funded and a buzz word for a long time …. What better than viral terror to influence public opinion and health policies on vaccine battles raging on both sides of the Atlantic?

Now, with effective vaccines beginning to bring down COVID-19 cases and help us return to normalcy, the same activists are warning people to skip their shots based on scientifically dubious claims. How can scientists and educators effectively combat vaccine skepticism at this vital point in the pandemic?

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP contributor Cameron English as they break down the latest COVID-19 vaccine news with Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Offit is the author of 13 books, including Overkill: When Modern Medicine Goes too Far, and the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine RotaTeq. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @DrPaulOffit

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

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

Cameron J. English is the director of bio-sciences at the American Council on Science and Health. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

From lab bench to dinner table — How do you create cell-based prime rib eye?

In March of 2021, researchers at the University of Tokyo announced that they had successfully grown steak in a lab. The cultured meat mimics real muscle and contracts when stimulated with electricity. The team wasere only able to generate small pieces of meat and have yet to gain ethical approval to “taste-test” the samples. However, this finding still represents a major breakthrough in the mission to harness the latest scientific technologies and produce more sustainable meat. 

The idea of growing consumable meat in a lab has been around since 2013, when researchers in London showcased the world’s first lab-grown burger. Produced from billions of cow cells and costing over $330,000 o make, the first “slaughter-free” beef burger certainly turned heads and left many wondering if it was a viable concept at all. Those who tasted it claimed it was pretty close to the real thing but, at such a high cost, was it really worth the effort? 

World’s first lab-grown burger. Credit: BBC

Fast-forward eight years and we now find ourselves in a position where companies in 16 countries are developing lab-grown meat products. One such company made headlines recently by gaining approval to start selling their “chicken bites” in Singapore; presumably for less than $330,000 each. So how do you go from a collection of cells in a lab dish to a quarter pounder burger? Will it taste the same? And how long before we start to see such products in our local store? 

Making the (lab) meat

Let’s start with the process. If we take beef as an example, scientists start by taking a small sample of muscle from a cow. Stem cells are then extracted from the tissue and grown in a lab dish, where they rapidly expand into millions of muscle cells. The cells then organize into fiber which subsequently arrange into a structure akin to the muscle tissue found in meat. It is, however, not as simple as just growing lots of cells in a dish. You need a third element.

Every tissue in the body is comprised of a mixture of cells and materials (sugars, proteins, etc.). This is true for every species on the planet. If you want to grow muscle tissue in a lab, you need to have something that represents the 3D network of materials that the cells use as a “scaffolding” around which to build new tissue. Without it, you are doing the equivalent of trying to assemble a car with just wheels and an engine. 

Lab-grown meat is no exception to this rule. If you simply extract cells from muscle tissue and grow them in a dish you will not be able to create a piece of meat no matter how long you wait. The 3D scaffold provides the means to build the muscle tissue. In the case of the Japanese study mentioned earlier, the researchers developed an intricate scaffold comprised of many materials commonly found in tissue. When embedded in the scaffold, cells that were extracted from cow muscle aligned and formed muscle fiber. The result was a structure that, according to lead author Mai Furuhashi, could “mimic the texture and mouthfeel of steak”. 

Scaffold. Credit: Mai Furuhashi/Nature

This technique is, therefore, a promising option but it is heavily reliant on using materials that are expensive and still require some form of animal slaughter. Collagen was one such material used in the study; commonly obtained post mortem from rats, pigs or calves. The idea of lab-grown meat is to remove the slaughter to address the ethical and environmental issues with factory farming. Reducing the reliance on animal products (aside from cells and growth media) as much as possible is inevitably the goal here.

Pivoting from slaughter, thanks to plants

Fortunately, researchers at Boston College may have a solution. Instead of growing the extracted cells in a scaffold of animal proteins, they have turned to plants. Complex organisms are not the only lifeforms made up of proteins, fats and sugars. Plants are too, and the materials play the same roles in allowing plant cells to form 3D structures. The team harnessed this by using de-cellularised spinach leaves as the scaffold for cow muscle cells. Cells are removed from the spinach, leaving behind a network of tubules similar to the blood vessels found in meat. When grown on the spinach “skeleton,” cow cells started to differentiate into muscle mass. The work is still early in development but Glenn Gaudette, the lead author on the study, believes we have a lot to gain in looking towards plants as a way of cultivating animal products.

“We need to scale this up by growing more cells on the leaves to create a thicker steak,” he said.  “In addition, we are looking at other vegetables and other animal and fish cells.”

The Boston team isn’t the only ones looking towards plants for a suitable scaffold to generate meat in the lab. Researchers in Israel are utilising textured soy protein to grow muscle cells. The technique, originally designed for medical applications such as human tissue transplants, allows the generation of cultured meat tissue in 3-4 weeks. It carries the advantage of utilizing a product that is inexpensive and a readily available by-product of soy oil production. Shulamit Levenberg, a member of the Israeli team, had the following to say:

“The current research using soy protein is important in proving the feasibility of producing meat from several types of cells on plant-based platforms, which increases its similarity to conventional bovine meat.”

But, will people eat it?

So it seems the technology may be already in late-stage development to take lab grown meat to the next level. It is, however, all a bit moot if the product doesn’t taste or feel right. One of the biggest revolutions in food over the last decade has been the development of plant based meat alternatives. While they can replicate some of the flavours of meat, the texture and overall palate is usually distinguishable from the real thing. 

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Do we risk having the same issues with lab-grown meat? It is hard to say at the moment. Very few have had the opportunity to taste lab-grown meat. Those that have comment on its “meaty flavour” but note differences to the real thing. Ultimately, we may have to accept a change in flavour. It is increasingly clear that our reliance on factory livestock farming is becoming further removed from the current ethical climate. Moreover, meat farms are listed as a significant contributor to our global greenhouse gas emissions, leading to increased pressure on the meat industry to find more sustainable ways of producing food. Lab grown meat has the potential to solve some of these issues by removing the need for the acres of land and thousands of livestock that many farms currently require in order to supply the demand for meat.  

So finally, perhaps the biggest question. When will we see lab grown meat in our local stores? We need to scale up production enough to match our immense demand. Some experts predict we could start seeing products on sale within the next five years. It is, however, a little difficult to see that at the moment. We might start seeing lab-grown chicken nuggets but creating un-processed, prime rib eye steak will be a lot more challenging. Current studies are only reporting production of pieces weighing a few grams (~0.1 oz.). The big challenge is scaling it up to producing a 10 oz steak, without it costing as much as a house in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Production on such a wide scale in a cost-effective manner will take some time. The biggest question is, when we get there, will you be choosing lab grown over grass fed?

Sam Moxon has a PhD in tissue engineering and is currently a research fellow in the field of regenerative medicine. He is a freelance writer with an interest in the development of new technologies to enhance medical therapies. Follow him on Twitter @DrSamMoxon

Good and bad news: What we know about vaccines and containing COVID variants

Glimmers of hope are beginning to shine through the gloom of the past year. That was evident in a recent webinar that the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR) held to “demystify” the new viral variants. Each consists of several mutations.

Will the variants fuel “a novel stage of contagion, COVID 2.0?” opened George Daley, MD, PhD, dean of Harvard Medical School. “What has been unsettling is how many times mutations have cropped up independently in infected patients across the globe and in petri dishes. This is a consequence of Darwinian evolution by natural selection in real time,” he added. The fact that the virus, SARS-CoV-2, has mutated in the same ways at different times and places suggests that the changes benefit the virus.

Also disturbing is that once variants appear, they proliferate. “That suggests the virus is more contagious, or replicates faster, so that it takes over the outbreak,” said Jeremy Luban, MD, from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Most mutations are neutral; we need to worry when they combine into “variants of concern,” aka VOC. “They could permit the virus to escape immune control that’s been established in a person from prior infection or from a vaccine,” Luban added.

Jeremy Luban. Credit: UMass

The “big three” variants of most concern now have hard-to-remember numerical names, which avoid stigmatizing a place: B.1.3.5.1 variant (South Africa), B.1.1.7 (UK), and P.1 (Brazil). The last one may be the worst to arise, so far. It first came to attention in Manaus, Amazonia. “Up to 70% of the population had been infected and they had developed what we’d consider herd immunity that would prevent new infection,” Luban explained. The explosion of hospitalizations and deaths in December, a second wave, coincided with the appearance of the P.1 variant. “Many mutations in it raise concerns about whether the virus is resistant to the immune response against the first virus,” he added.

Tackling variants requires asking three questions, Luban said:
• Do they enhance transmission?
• Do they permit reinfection?
• Do they decrease vaccine efficacy?

Fortunately, the vaccines so far are doing their job. Here are 6 pieces of good news.

1. Vaccines boost T cells

T cells. Credit: Getty Images

“T cells recognize infected cells and eliminate them rapidly, clearing the body of evidence of infection. Variants don’t seem to affect T cell immunity that much,” said Galit Alter, PhD, an immunologist at the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital. And at least two of the vaccines seem to supercharge the T cell response: The Oxford/Astrazeneca candidate and the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine that just received FDA emergency use authorization. Both are “vector vaccines,” using adenovirus to deliver spike DNA.

Dan Baruch, MD, PhD, who is the director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the “father” of the Janssen/J&J vaccine, put the facets of the immune responses into perspective. “Just like you wouldn’t want to fight with one hand tied behind your back for this virus, we want all aspects of immune responses triggered by vaccines. It’s important for viral variants that could knock out one type of immune response to have other parts kick in.” And that means not only neutralizing antibodies, but antibodies that hit the virus at multiple points, not just the spike’s receptor binding domain (RBD), as well as T cells. (See my articles on antibodies and T cells).

Boosting the T cell response, said Bruce Walker, MD, founding director of the consortium, is what will “turn this family of coronaviruses into more like the common cold.” Alter went a step farther: “The current vaccine portfolio can turn COVID into a common cold.”

But we may not be out of the woods yet. So far in vitro experiments show that antibodies from recovered patients and from people who’ve been vaccinated do not neutralize some of the newest new variants, just reported in Nature. T cell studies and clinical evidence are needed for perspective.

2. Vaccines may block transmission by preventing severe disease

People who become very sick are more likely to spread COVID, and we still can’t predict who that will be. The ability of vaccines to slash severity will ultimately squelch transmission, said Alter. “Data from the UK and Israel show that some vaccines may prevent transmission by blocking the development of severe disease.”

Another finding is that people who’ve been vaccinated tend to have fewer viruses in their noses and throats, said Lindsay Baden, MD, infectious disease specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and first author of the report in The New England Journal of Medicine on the phase 3 safety and efficacy results for the Moderna vaccine. But we need more data, he added. “Nasal carriage doesn’t necessarily mean transmissibility.”

3. Next generation vaccines are already in the works

Credit: John Maniaci/UW Health/Reuters

All vaccine manufacturers are updating and revising their vaccines, said Baruch. Now. “They may drive immunity to potentially critical variants, or to potential combinations of variants, to elicit highly flexible responses that can get us out of this pandemic and prevent others,” added Alter.

Next generation “VOC-targeting vaccines” would cover known variants and “Pan-CoV vaccines” would address those plus possible variants that artificial intelligence algorithms predict.

Clinical trials that enroll tens of thousands of individuals – like the 30,420 in the Moderna phase 3 trial – aren’t necessary to revamp vaccines. Years of experience with flu and other vaccines paved the way for short cuts. Instead, regulators look to “correlates of protection,” which are signs of an immune response, such as neutralizing antibodies. Skipping the trials and relying on the correlates is called immunobridging.

4. Optimizing treatments

Credit: UC Davis

Not enough data have accrued to accurately assess the value of treatments such as the antiviral drug remdesivir and the monoclonal antibody drug from Eli Lilly and the dual antibody cocktail from Regeneron, although hydroxychloroquine and drinking bleach have been discredited.

For drugs to work against SARS-CoV-2, we have to figure out the best time to give them in the course of the illness. “Flu medications, for example, must be taken in the first 48 hours to have an impact. The same time window has not been clearly defined for SARS-CoV-2. How much time do we have to give drugs after people start getting sick?” asked Jonathan Abraham, MD, PhD, an infectious disease specialist and microbiologist who co-leads the therapeutics working group at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Timing is also important for heading off the rise of future variants, Abraham added. Deploying antibodies and other treatments early may slow or prevent further viral evolution. “If people are sick longer, the viruses will accrue more mutations, and as the receptor binding domain further evolves, that can impact spread,” he said.

Eventually COVID drug strategies will echo the drug cocktail approach to treat and control HIV/AIDS. Antibodies, designed based on the neutralizing antibodies in the blood of recovered patients, are used to target the RBD and lock it in place, keeping virus out of our cells. “Most monoclonal antibodies are active against the B.1.1.7 UK variant, but the RBD landscape is rapidly changing. Multiple antibodies targeting different parts of the spike are needed to counter resistance,” Abraham explained.

5. It’s not all about the spike

Credit: Oxford

The famous spike protein latches onto our cells and pushes the rest of the virus through, but other proteins are vital to the virus too.

About two-thirds of the viral genome specifies 16 enzyme “tools” that viruses require to replicate, plus protein factors that continually renew the RNA instructions. Making this toolkit is a little like downloading an installer for new software.

Other proteins shape the virus and surround the delicate RNA innards like bubble wrap, protecting it while also shielding it from our immune response. Tiny fat blobs borrowed from host cell membranes during past infections ease the glomming onto our cells and encase the zillions of baby viruses that burst from an infected cell.

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“These other viral proteins can be drug targets. SARS-CoV-2 requires many other proteins to infect and spread. Some are enzymes it requires to replicate. These can be inactivated by small molecule drugs,” said Abraham. Remdesivir, for example, blocks the viral polymerase, which works like a copying machine.

Mark Namchuk, PhD, executive director of therapeutics translation at Harvard Medical School, evoked a useful analogy: “The spike is like the hood of a car, which can take dents and the car still works fine. But a viral enzyme is like the mechanism in a car that enables it to move, such as the polymerase and the main protease. There’s an advantage to targeting both.” Six small molecule drugs are being developed that target the polymerase (the copier) and 3 that target the main protease (which functions like a hedge trimmer on the virus’s other proteins).

6. Planning ahead: Drugs to vanquish all coronaviruses

Credit: Dowell/Getty Images

“Pan-coronavirus drugs” would target enzymes universal to all the coronaviruses in SARS-CoV-2’s subgroup. The genes behind these enzymes “mutate less frequently than the spike. Small molecules targeting them are most likely to be active against multiple coronaviruses. Small molecule drugs, however, typically take longer to make,” said Abraham. A prime candidate for such a pan-COVID drug would tackle the main protease.

The webinar ended on a note of optimism. Summed up Daley, “Even though there’s lots of scary news reporting that the new variants may be increasing transmission and may be more virulent, the vaccines seem to be protecting. So despite the variants, I believe the current vaccines will prove effective – and if not, we will cross that bridge and confront whatever comes our way.”

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

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

The case for public investment in alternative proteins

The United States currently consumes more meat per capita than any other country.

In the past decade, however, the US has seen a burgeoning alternative meat industry, including cultivated products from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, Mosa Meat, Memphis Meats, BlueNalu, and Future Meat Technologies.

Despite the industry’s growth, these products — still more expensive than conventional meat and lacking diversity — have yet to meaningfully reduce US meat consumption.

With sufficient research and development (R&D) for better products and production, the benefits for the environment, public health, and animal welfare could be enormous. Replacing 45% of beef with plant-based alternatives could, for example, reduce US GHG emissions from agriculture by almost 20 percent.

To realize these benefits, the US government should make sizable investments in alternative meat research and development.

Read the full Breakthrough Institute report: “The Case for Public Investment in Alternative Proteins” here.

Alternative meats can mitigate externalities related to animal agriculture

The externalities from animal agriculture cost the American public at least $388 billion per year and include the following:

  • Animal agriculture produces almost half of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture globally and at least 42 percent of US agricultural emissions.
  • Animal agriculture uses nearly 80 percent of agricultural land worldwide.
  • Globally, animal agriculture is one of the top five sources of air pollution deaths, and manure-related pollution from livestock operations is a major cause of eutrophication and dead zones in waterways and bodies of water around the world.
  • The consumption of red and processed meat has been linked to increased rates of colorectal cancer, heart disease, and other diet-related issues.
  • Overuse of antibiotics by livestock producers has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, increasing the risk of highly virulent bacterial infections. And as a major driver of deforestation and habitat loss, animal agriculture increases the risk of zoonotic pandemics.

Public investment in alternative meats

With the help of the federal government, the US alternative meat industry can be a driving force for domestic economic growth by becoming an international leader in the fast-growing market for alternative meats. According to Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR), projections of future market share put alternative proteins — including milk and egg alternatives — between 16 and 62 percent of the global protein market by 2050.

A $50 million federal investment would create more than 2,000 jobs and add nearly $1.5 billion to the US economy over 10 years. If the alternative meat market grows ten-fold by 2030, as some posit it can, the industry could create nearly 200,000 jobs in the US.

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The federal government is uniquely suited to fund necessary research

High-risk, pre-competitive, and multidisciplinary R&D is key to the alternative meat sector overcoming its barriers to growth and widespread adoption. Such research often necessitates public support.

For long-term growth, the cultivated meat industries must answer basic scientific questions about cell biology, genomic sequencing of potential inputs, and techniques to improve production processes.

Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the needed scientific research, alternative meat producers and researchers are hard-pressed to find capable collaborators and partners. This is an issue the US government has a proven track record of solving — a notable success story being the Advanced Manufacturing Institutes created by the Obama administration.

How the federal government should invest

We recommend that the federal government:

  • Fund and develop collaborative and multidisciplinary public-private partnerships aimed at alternative meat R&D.
  • Expand existing R&D funding for alternative meat at agencies such as the Agricultural Research Service, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation.
  • Apply a mission-oriented approach that targets innovations that could lead to price reductions, cell-line identification, and the development of whole-cut meat alternatives.

Saloni is a Food and Agriculture Analyst at Breakthrough. Previously, she completed her dual Bachelor’s and Master’s in environmental science and environmental analysis and policy with honors at Boston University. Find Saloni on Twitter @SaloniShah101

Alex Smith joined Breakthrough as a Food and Agriculture Analyst in 2019 after completing a dual MA/MSc in International and World History from Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow him on Twitter @alexjmssmith

Dan Blaustein-Rejto is the Associate Director of the Food and Agriculture program at Breakthrough. Follow him on Twitter @danrejto

A version of this article was originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute and has been reposted here with permission. Read the full report, “The Case for Public Investment in Alternative Proteins” here. The Breakthrough Institute can be found on Twitter @TheBTI

Podcast: ‘GMOs’ are more natural than you think; CRISPR mosquitoes fight malaria; Dating apps and syphilis

A growing body of research shows that dozens of naturally transgenic plants have existed for millions of years, undermining a key claim of the anti-GMO movement. Mosquitoes edited to produce an anti-malaria protein could help save thousands of lives a year. Syphilis was nearly eradicated in 2000; thanks to the hookup culture facilitated by dating apps, the infection has come roaring back.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP contributor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

The claim that GMOs are “unnatural” endlessly circulates online. But despite its popularity as a talking point among activist groups, growing evidence indicates that naturally transgenic plants have existed for millions of years. No food or chemical is inherently safer or better for you if it’s natural. Nonetheless, the new research undermines the anti-GMO movement’s organizing principle: that it’s trying to protect farming from “untested, unnatural creations.”

CRISPR gene editing is shaking up food production and medicine in all sorts of important ways. In the coming years, this genetic engineering technique may help us prevent some of the more than 400,000 deaths caused by malaria every year. Researchers from Imperial College London have edited malaria-vectoring mosquitoes to produce a protein that prevents them from infecting people with the parasite that causes the disease.

The engineered mosquitoes also pass this trait on to most of their offspring, gradually reducing the number of insects that can spread malaria. Much more research has to be done to confirm the safety and efficacy of this technology. Nonetheless, the results offer a promising example of how gene editing may help us combat deadly diseases.

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As we entered the 21st century, syphilis infections had so drastically collapsed that public health experts were poised to declare it eradicated. Then came dating apps. Spurred on by applications like Tinder and effective treatments and pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, casual, condom-free hookups became much more commonplace—and so did syphilis. Unfortunately, the problem is compounded by drug addiction, homelessness and limited health care access. Solving it will likely require tackling these related problems, too.

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

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

Cameron J. English is the director of bio-sciences at the American Council on Science and Health. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

The Green Revolution was built on manipulating genes to breed higher-yielding, disease resistant crops. Here’s an ode to one of its pioneers, Sanjaya Rajaram

Few people are aware of the heroes behind the surge in yields of wheat and other crops that began in the 1950s and ’60s, literally rescuing the world from mass starvation. Many of us know the name Norman Borlaug, the American agronomist known of the ‘Father of the Green Revolution, who eventually won a slew of honors including the Nobel Peace Prize. Few are aware of his most influential partners.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), where Borlaug began his research in 1942, recently renamed one of its most historic and successful wheat experimental stations to commemorate the legendary wheat breeder and World Food Prize laureate Sanjaya Rajaram, a former director of their Wheat Program. Rajaram passed away in February 2021. He is one of Borlaug’s most impactful collaborators.

Sanjaya Rajaram at the Centro de Investigaciones Agrícolas del Noroeste (CIANO) in Ciudad Obregón, in Mexico’s Sonora state. Credit: Gil Olmos/CIMMYT

Located in El Batán, southern central Mexico, CIMMYT is a storied wheat and maize breeding station operated by CGIAR, the global agricultural development consortium. CIMMYT began in 1943 as the Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program, a joint venture by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, a pilot program to ensure food security in Mexico and abroad through selective plant breeding and crop improvement, giving support to Mexican and international breeders. The initial goal was to breed rust-resistant, higher-yielding wheat.

The nascent program was headed by Borlaug, who would go on to innovate not only new and revolutionary varieties of wheat, but revolutionary approaches to plant breeding. The most consequential of those was ‘shuttle breeding,’ which began when he set up another station for cultivation 700 miles away in a part of Mexico that allowed a second planting per year, doubling the rate of iteration. Borlaug led breeding efforts in India as well. His efforts resulted in a dwarf wheat that was rust-resistant and greatly increased yields. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, known as the father of the Green Revolution, and credited for saving hundreds of millions from starvation.

Rajaram’s career

But Borlaug didn’t work alone. Rajaram was born on a small farm in India in 1943. He studied genetics and plant breeding at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Sydney, he joined CIMMYT in 1969. Rajaram quickly distinguished himself and Borlaug appointed him as head of CIMMYT’s wheat breeding program at just 29 years of age in 1972.

According to CIMMYT:

His leadership and commitment to wheat improvement resulted in the release of more than 480 varieties of bread wheat with increased yield potential and stability, along with wide adaptation and resistance to important diseases and stresses.

These varieties include the spring and winter wheat cross Veery, which was released in 36 countries; new approaches to disease resistance, for instance ‘slow-rusting’ wheat varieties; and largely reduced foliar blight susceptibility in semi-dwarf wheat. Rajaram’s wheats are grown on some 58 million hectares worldwide and approximately 30 million hectares in South Asia. One of his wheats, PBW 343, is India’s most popular wheat variety. His varieties have increased the yield potential of wheat by 20 to 25 percent.

Among Rajaram’s broader innovation was his work in applying the concept of durable resistance to rust in wheat and triticale. Durable resistance was a concept introduced in 1971 by the Australian plant pathologist Dr. Roy Johnson.

From his Johnson’s obituary [PDF]:

[Johnson] was the one who talked to his friend David Bowyer, a medical pathologist, about the elusive concept of a desirable quality of disease resistance that had been variously characterized as horizontal, multigene, field, partial, adult-plant, and other things that were meant to describe the good quality but did not always add clarity to the concept.

The issue was substantially resolved after Roy described the way he saw the quality: the resistance he sought was resistance that was effective for a number of years before it broke down. David innocently suggested that the desirable quality of resistance was that it should endure. Thus in 1971 Roy coined the term ‘durable resistance’ ( Johnson & Law, 1973) which was to pass into the vocabulary of plant pathology. After the event it seems too obvious to be important, but like many good ideas it took a keen insight to be the first to perceive the obvious.

Manipulating genes the old fashioned way

Rajaram’s work involved systematizing for CIMMYT how they would go about pursuing and achieving durable resistance. They developed processes of mapping available genes for resistance, programs of epidemiology for rust pathogens. This involved identifying the appearance of resistance breakdown and mapping the spread of rust, varying the genetics of cultivars to introduce gene combinations that conferred resistance to keep ahead of the pathogen, and widening out the genetic base for resistance using European triticales, rye, and wheat.

Durable resistance as a strategy uses multiple ‘minor’ genes with cumulative effects so that resistance doesn’t break down with the loss of one gene when the disease population adapts as a result of selection pressure. CIMMYT coordinated research around the globe, in Mexico, Australia, the Netherlands, the US, Canada, Scotland, and England.

Drone view of CIMMYT’s experimental station in Toluca, State of Mexico. Credit: Alfonso Cortés/CIMMYT

The innovation that won him the World Food Prize in 2014 was the “crossing of winter and spring wheat varieties, which were distinct gene pools that had been isolated from one another for hundreds of years, [which] led to his development of plants that have higher yields and dependability under a wide range of environments around the world.”

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As with Borlaug, Rajaram was also active in wheat breeding in his home country of India (he became a citizen of Mexico). In 2014, he was encouraging new investments in breeding beyond wheat, strong agronomic practices, greater care and precision in the use of fertilizers and pesticides,  and encouraging greater adoption of genetic engineering. In an interview with the Financial Express in India, he had this to say:

Advances in wheat alone will not solve our problem. We need to give more attention to monsoon dependent crops such as millets, sorghums, maize and legumes and oilseeds. Progress in these crops will enhance our capacity to meet food security.

… [Wh]eat and rice have been sustained for 50 years. We have maintained small genetic gains. However, the potential to maximise these gains lies in good agronomic practices, especially timely planting. Chemical fertilisers and water played a great role. The response in increased output wouldn’t have been possible without dwarf varieties. For this, a lot of credit goes to Borlaug and IRRI short rices. We have scope to maximize production by bringing mechanisation, water use efficiency through modern irrigation systems, micronutrients’ application and growth hormones and in certain situations conservation agriculture. We need to give good seeds to all farmers. We need to reach out to the difficult regions with these technologies.

Chemical fertilisers and pesticides were a big part of the Green Revolution but the adverse impact of indiscriminate use is being felt on the soil as well as people’s health. How does India deal with the conflicting needs of feeding a billion-plus population without compromising health of the soil or the people

We cannot apply chemicals indiscriminately. This has polluted our precious water systems and environment. We need precision agriculture to avoid these problems. In certain situations, GM crops in control of insects and diseases will help, as in cotton.

We need the best technology to enhance productivity of our agriculture. It would be shameful if we let GM technology pass. But it must meet the requirement of not damaging environment. We must invest in this technology to remain an independent player. We are today very dependent. Investment in GM crops will help enhance the capacities of crops against drought, heat, flooding and salinity.

CIMMYT is renaming their experimental station in Toluca, State of Mexico, Mexico. Located in a valley 2,630 meters (8,628 feet) above sea level with a cool and humid climate, it is the ideal location for wheat breeding and has been a crucial part of their shuttle breeding system. A virtual event to remember Rajaram and officially dedicate the Toluca station in his honor is tentatively planned for May.

Marc Brazeau is the GLP’s senior contributing writer focusing on agricultural biotechnology. He also is the editor of Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Follow him on Twitter @eatcookwrite

Viewpoint: Advocacy disguised as journalism? Meet Carey Gillam, the prolific purveyor of crop biotechnology and agri-chemical disinformation

When it comes to science, how much do media narratives influence public opinion and policy?

The answer is, a lot. That can be good, for example, in encouraging vaccination against COVID-19. But in other murkier waters, entrenched narratives can actually turn people away from science and endanger both themselves and the environment.

Let’s take the case of Carey Gillam, the activist journalist, who has been a decade-long critic of technology in agriculture. For years she was a Midwest reporter for Reuters. She left in 2015 under hazy circumstances after her reports on crop biotechnology, often laced with opinions, came under criticism from colleagues and scientists.

She then joined the anti-GMO, anti-pesticide, pro-organic lobbying group U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) in prosecuting the tort case against the weedkiller Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate.

Gillam is in the news because she has come out with a new book, The Monsanto Papers. Recently, the website Civil Eats published an interview with her about the book and the legal cases involving glyphosate. Civil Eats, which has no standing in the science community and is consistently anti-biotechnology and pro-organic, describes itself as a “news source devoted to critical thought about the American food system, sustainable agriculture, and efforts to build economically and socially just communities.” The website has posted more than 100 articles on glyphosate and the controversy around it but not once did it review the scientific literature on glyphosate’s effectiveness and safety, which is easily accessible — and contradicts the thrust of many of Civil Eat’s articles.

Gillam’s case against Monsanto/Bayer

In view of the prominence of Gillam’s writings on glyphosate and the Monsanto/Bayer trials her name comes up first in a Google search on “Roundup journalism” and the influence her writings appear to have had on the trials and on the wider discussion surrounding glyphosate, it is revealing to examine the case she makes and the evidence she cites, as well as what she leaves out.

Before proceeding, it’s helpful for context to highlight the way Gillam frames her articles and books. Rather than make her case based on science, she focuses on anecdotes specifically chosen because there is no way to scientifically verify her claims. She cites the terrible suffering of plaintiffs against Monsanto, who have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) as tangible proof that glyphosate has caused their disease. In this way, Gillam creates a strong emotional association between glyphosate and NHL. However, it is axiomatic that one cant infer causality based on individual cases. But Gillam is aware that this cognitive shortcut appeals emotionally to the general public.

In articles in The Guardian and her two books (Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science and The Monsanto Papers), Gillam repeatedly makes the following claims:

  • Monsanto marketed a product which it knew is unsafe and carcinogenic
  • Monsanto failed to warn users of the dangers
  • The company hired scientists to ghostwrite articles defending glyphosate
  • The company conducted a campaign to undermine the credibility of journalists who criticized Monsanto

screen shot at pmFirst, let’s review how Gillam’s claims stand up; then the important facts she fails to acknowledge; and, finally, the role her writings have played in the controversy surrounding the safety and appropriate use of glyphosate — a controversy at the heart of one of the largest tort cases in U.S. history, but which also has implications for farming practices worldwide and the availability of affordable produce.

Regarding Gillam’s first point, after comprehensive and, in some cases, repeated reviews of thousands of studies, 17 national and international regulatory and scientific agencies have found glyphosate to be safe and non-carcinogenic. There is only one exception to this consensus, which we will come to shortly. [To view the graphic in full with links to the studies, click here]

The consensus among regulatory and scientific agencies undermines Gillam’s claim that Monsanto failed to warn users that glyphosate can cause cancer and is unsafe, since the evidence resoundingly speaks against this. Needless to say, glyphosate has long carried a label cautioning users to avoid contact with the skin and to use the compound the way one would use any chemical.

Gillam’s third and fourth claims charge Monsanto with engaging in various unsavory practices including sponsoring the ghostwriting of scientific articles and targeting journalists, including Gillam herself, who portrayed Monsanto in an unflattering light. While some of these practices seem reprehensible, others appear to be simply standard tactics employed by companies to defend their brand. Few organizations or companies engaged in the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace are vying for awards for ethical behavior.

When Gillam’s points are presented baldly, without any context, they appear damning. However, once one is aware of the context, they turn out to be either misleading (claims 1 and 2) or considerably less scandalous (claims 3 and 4). Her strategy appears to be to divert attention from what scientists have learned about the health effects of glyphosate from four decades of study.

What Gillam leaves out

The Civil Eats interviewer, Anna Lappé, who calls herself a “food justice” advocate, introduced Gillam as a “veteran journalist.” Lappé then tells us that Gillampored over 80,000 pages of exhibits and documents and a 50,000-page trial transcript to reveal a chilling story of decades of doubt, denialism,  and deflection that allowed glyphosate to become the most widely used herbicide in the world.

Throughout the interview, Gillam presents herself simply as a researcher “trying to hold the company [Monsanto/Bayer] accountable.” At no point did Lappé inquire about the many aspects of the glyphosate issue that Gillam conveniently ignores or about Gillam’s own conflicts-of-interest.

The most striking feature of the interview is that Gillam avoids adducing a single piece of scientific evidence. Her whole position rests on a single report from a single agencythe International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is loosely affiliated with the World Health Organization.

These were independent scientists at the top of their field, brought in from around the world, with no ties to any company or any activist group, and they determined glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen, with an association of non-Hodgkin lymphoma,” she tells us.

Because the IARC report is the key document Gillam relies on to support her position, we need to take a closer look at it. As mentioned earlier, 17 other international and national regulatory agencies, including three divisions of the World Health Organization, have evaluated glyphosate exhaustively and found it to be safe and not carcinogenic.

Rather than accepting IARC’s assessment based on the agency’s self-proclaimed authority and transparency, we have to look at specific aspects of its review.

Disturbing questions about IARC’s glyphosate assessment

In recent years, the IARC Monographs program responsible for evaluating carcinogens has become increasingly politicized as the agency has adopted a precautionary approach and excluded qualified industry scientists from its deliberations. As a result, IARC has issued a number of confusing and poorly-supported assessments regarding such different risks as red meat, cell phones, coffee, glyphosate, and other agents.

As shown in deposition transcripts that are public, American scientist, Christopher Portier, who chaired the advisory group that originally proposed that glyphosate be evaluated by IARC and served as invited specialist on the working group that evaluated glyphosate, became a litigation consultant for two law firms suing Monsanto within days of the publication of the IARC glyphosate assessment in 2015.

Christopher Portier. Credit: Benoit Bourgeois

In a series of investigative reports, Kate Kelland reporting for Reuters found multiple instances of IARC’s putting its hand on the scale in evaluating the evidence (here and here). In addition, cancer epidemiologist Robert Tarone has published two articles demonstrating that IARC selected evidence of a positive association of glyphosate with tumors in animals but ignored results suggestive an inverse association (here and here). (IARC’s case against glyphosate was based on the false claim that there was sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in animals).

In a large prospective cohort investigation (the Agricultural Health Study) carried out by the National Cancer Institute, 54,000 pesticide applicators were followed for twenty years. Over 80 percent of the workers were exposed to glyphosate. The results showed convincingly that exposure was not associated with any type of cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In the authors’ words, In this large, prospective cohort study, no association was apparent between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including NHL and its subtypes.” 

The results of the AHS were not published until 2018, after the IARC report. However, Aaron Blair, the scientist who chaired the IARC Working Group on glyphosate in 2015, was aware of the results. Reuters reported in 2017 that Blair withheld information showing no link between glyphosate and cancer. In sworn testimony, Blair acknowledged the data would have altered IARC’s conclusion, i.e., would have made it less likely that glyphosate would meet the criteria for being classified as “probably carcinogenic.”

IARC’s anomalous and widely-questioned determination that glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen” provided the needed justification for litigation against Monsanto, as is clear from the trial transcripts.

The tort machine

Shortly after IARC’s 2015 assessment, the first toxic tort cases were filed against Monsanto, the original producer of Roundup, and its successor company Bayer, in 2016 in the San Francisco Bay area. It is not a coincidence that the cases were brought in California, where IARC’s determinations carry great sway, and the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) invariably follows IARC’s lead in classifying carcinogens. In July 2017 OEHHA had listed glyphosate as “known to cause cancer” under the state’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65.

As explained by David Zaruk, professor of risk communication at Odisee University College in Belgium, two conditions are necessary for a law firm to mount a successful toxic tort campaign against a large corporation. First, one needs to link an industrial product, no matter how tenuously, to cancer. Second, one needs to focus public outrage against the company and continue to maintain that outrage throughout the prolonged legal process.

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IARC’s glyphosate judgment satisfied the first condition. All the plaintiff’s attorneys had to do was to cite the IARC report as revealed truth. Activist lobbyistsGillam first and foremost satisfied the second condition.

These cases are decided by a jury; all that is necessary is to convince a jury that the defendant (the corporation) acted negligently and that its product could have caused the plaintiffs’ illness. Rather than assessing the complicated science, which expert witnesses for the plaintiffs and the defense parse very differently, juries are influenced by the powerful emotional drama pitting a reckless corporation against its unfortunate victims: David v. Goliath.

In the first three cases, staggering dollar amounts (ranging from $80M to $2B) were awarded to the plaintiffs, although the awards were reduced on appeal (ranging from $2.5M to $87M). Spurred by these settlements, a steady stream of new cases was brought. The intent of this strategy was to force Bayer (which acquired Monsanto in 2018) to agree to settle out of court. As of today, there are more than 100,000 cases pending. Bayer has now proposed a $11B settlement.

Gillam’s central role in the anti-biotech and anti-agricultural chemical lobby

Carey Gillam’s “journalism” has played a crucial role in keeping outrage focused on Monsanto/Bayer. It is significant that the organization she works for, USRTK [GLP profile], was founded with seed money from the Organic Consumers Association, an organic industry-funded group [GLP profile] started by the anti-technology activist Jeremy Rifkin, that promotes natural health, supplements, and homeopathy, and warns of the “dangers” of vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines.

Gillam would have us believe that she is just one little gal in Kansas who writes a book or two.” But, in fact, she is a master at disseminating disinformation. She has perfected the game of using the sensational drama of plaintiffs with a poorly understood disease in order to demonize what has been a spectacularly useful and effective product with low toxicity (here and here).

That’s cynical on her part. She must be aware of what the independent science concludes about crop biotechnology but realizes that discussing complex scientific studies cannot compete with her narrative of a ruthless corporation sacrificing human lives for profit’.

Note: Since Gillam cannot rely on the science to support her claims, she and US Right to Know instead vilify scientists who publicly address the subject of pesticides, glyphosate, GMOs, and modern agriculture generally. Therefore, it’s important to make clear that my interest in this issue stems from my career as an epidemiologist focused on what we know about the actual causes of cancer and how to prevent cancer. I have never received funds from, or communicated with, Monsanto/Bayer or any other company that manufactures pesticides. Additionally, the editor of Significance magazine, published by the Royal Statistical Society, has investigated in depth USRTK’s claims that two organizations that I have been affiliated with work with Monsanto to discredit its critics and have taken funds from Monsanto, and found no corroborating evidence.

Geoffrey Kabat is cancer epidemiologist and the author, most recently, of Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks. Find Geoffrey on Twitter @GeoKabat

Viewpoint: Can European Commission reverse 20 years of backward, precautionary regulation of crop biotechnology? CRISPR presents an opportunity

The expected report of the European Commission on “new genomic techniques” was published as announced before the end of April 2021. It represents an attempt for an “at the same time”, approach, which was predictable and opens a new cycle of debates, without settling anything on the issues.

Back a few years ago

In July 2014, the North American biotechnology company Cibus approached the BVL, the German Federal Agency for Food Safety and Consumer Protection, about the regulatory status of an herbicide-tolerant rapeseed (canola) obtained during a variety selection program based on “gene editing”. This genetic modification, in the scientific sense of the term, did not use transgenesis (transfer of genes in the laboratory) which in Europe falls under the definition – a legal one this time – of a “genetic modification” (“GMOs”); which implies a heavy and costly burden of regulatory obligations. In the relevant European Directives (first in 1990, then 2001), mutagenesis is exempted from these obligations which are essentially aimed at transgenesis, because it was the new technique at the time these Directives on “GMOs” were written. Apparently logically, the BVL decided that this Cibus rapeseed should not be considered a “GMO” (in its legal sense), because it results from a form of mutation (occasional modifications of letters in DNA), certainly induced by humans, but which could also have occurred naturally.

Herbicide-tolerant canola. Credit: Farm Weekly

This did not please the powerful anti-GMO organizations which challenged the BVL’s advice. This rapeseed, as well as all the products obtained by gene editing thus found themselves literally in the limbo of European regulation (see M. Fladung, 2016 ).

An intense debate

Many discussions, forums and scientific articles followed, debating the question whether, according to the European Directive on GMOs, new plant varieties generated by gene editing should or should not be subject to the obligations laid down for “genetically modified organisms” (in the legal sense of the term). The semantic analysis of the key phrases of the said Directive left jurists divided… A consensus was established among scientists first of all to say that the mutations which could also have occurred naturally should not be concerned, and therefore not either gene editing. Secondly, that the European Directive is now meaningless, because it targets techniques for producing, for example, varieties of plants, whereas it would be more reasonable to focus on the properties of these plants, because the latter determine the benefits and risks.

The judgement by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU)

On July 25, 2018, the CJEU, asked by the French Conseil d’Etat, itself responding to a request of anti-GMO organizations, issued a disappointing opinion for scientists and seed companies: “Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive”. “However, organisms obtained by mutagenesis techniques which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record are exempt from those obligations, on the understanding that the Member States are free to subject them, in compliance with EU law, to the[se] obligations”.  Gene editing is therefore affected, although the judgement did not specifically target it.

Credit: P. Scheiber/Imago Images

The judgment was criticized by the United States government, widely commented and also subject to semantic interpretations (see for example Vives-Vallés and Collonnier). The judgment appears consistent with the legal basis of the GMO Directive and the interpretation of the Precautionary Principle prevailing in Europe. Rather, it is the legislation that is absurd from a rational point of view…

After the CJEU judgement, the idea of ​​a revision of the EU legal framework on GMOs gained momentum and even more even after the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded in 2020 to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for their work on the CRISPR-Cas system, which paved the way for the most promising gene editing technique (see A. Ricroch ).

The European Commission taking over

At the request of the Council of the EU, the Commission promised to deliver a report before the end of April 2021, which it did. Following the Euro-Brussels tradition, the preparation of this report gave rise to intense lobbying from “stakeholders”. Unsurprisingly, political ecology organizations have pushed for maximum constraints, with the aim to prevent the deployment of applications of these new biotechnologies. Scientific initiatives have drawn attention to the importance of these innovations. The initiative “European Sustainable Agriculture through Genome Editing” (EU-SAGE) worked “to provide information about genome editing and promote the development of European and EU member state policies that enable the use of genome editing for sustainable agriculture and food production”. These ideas were also taken up by the “Re-Imagine Europe” think-tank  which highlighted their compatibility with the objectives of the European Green Deal and its “From farm to fork” strategy. 

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A report that tries to reconcile divergent points of view

“The study identified limitations to the capacity of the legislation to keep pace with scientific developments; these cause implementation challenges and legal uncertainties”. The legislation must therefore be adapted… because “it may not be justified to apply different levels of regulatory oversight to similar products with similar levels of risk, as is the case for plants conventionally bred and obtained from certain new genomic techniques”. 

Taking an ‘at the same time’ approach, the report confirms that these techniques “have the potential to contribute to sustainable agri-food systems in line with the objectives of the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy, and also states that their “applications in the agricultural sector should not undermine other aspects of sustainable food production, e.g. as regards organic agriculture”.

The report also identified “knowledge gaps and limitations” and recommendations to address them and that “more effort should be made to inform and engage with the public and assess their views”.

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

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

Blocking innovation: How Canada’s novel plant-breeding rules hinder progress in food production

You’ve heard it before on SAIFood: Canada’s plant breeding sector is facing regulatory barriers to innovation. Today’s blog provides further evidence.

Why are plant breeding and crop regulations important for Canadians?

Canada is a large nation with its agricultural land comprised of different eco-zones based on soil, terrain and climate. We have hundreds of crop varieties that are capable of being grown across the country,  and others that are regionally specific. Wheat and barley are grown from coast to coast, but our orchard crops are most commonly found in specific climates, like those in the Okanagan, Niagara and Maritime regions. Ontario and Quebec have historically been leading corn and soy producers, yet new varieties of both crops have witnessed production increases in the prairie provinces in the past few decades.

Niagara vineyard. Credit: Elenathewise/Fotolia

So what does this have to do with you? As Canadian’s, we benefit from crop production. As the climate changes, Canada needs to ensure that production levels remain high and innovative new crop varieties will be required to achieve this. To ensure this occurs, Canada’s regulatory system needs to reflect current scientific techniques. In 2016, the agriculture and food system accounted for 6.7% of Canada’s GDP, with one in eight jobs being in the agriculture sector. This is partially possible due to plant breeders, who provide excellent crop, fruit and vegetable varieties so that farm production provides the inputs for Canada’s food and agricultural processing. Canadian plant breeders work hard to offer gains for yield increases, environmental sustainability, improved nutrition, and industrial demands. All of this benefits the Canadian economy. However, after having a regulatory system that has changed little since first implemented 25 years ago, are regulations creating barriers to capturing the full benefit potentially from plant breeding programs?

Canadian plant breeders familiarity with the regulations

In 2018, CropLife Canada commissioned research from Dr. Stuart Smyth & the team (me included) to survey Canada’s plant breeders on the technologies used to develop new varieties, familiarity with regulation, and views on commercialization processes. In total, 430 plant breeders were identified in Canada and invited to participate of which, 93 completed our survey (22% response rate). Of the responses, 42% identified as private sector breeders and 58% from the public sector, with three-quarters having more than 10 years of experience. In a 2020 Frontiers in Genome Editing article our team assessed whether Canadian plant breeders viewed the regulatory framework for plants with novel traits (PNTs) as a barrier to innovation. The first thing needed was to ensure that the plant breeders were familiar with current regulations. We found 84% were familiar with the regulations, and we were confident in the breeders’ perceptions of possible barriers to innovation.

Gauging the current regulations

Plant breeders have to comply with regulations that fall under the mandates of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada. Respondents to our survey indicated that 28% believe the regulations are clear and 26% felt they were somewhat unclear. To better gauge breeders’ perceptions of how regulations affect their research or act as a barrier to innovation, we asked a series of agree/disagree statements. Twenty-seven percent reported either conducting or have considered conducting, field research outside of Canada to avoid PNT regulation. Thirty-two percent agree that Canada’s science-based regulations provide a competitive advantage. Most significantly, 77% felt the regulatory framework needs to be updated to reflect current scientific plant breeding techniques.

The impacts of PNT regulation shown in the table below identify that research proposals have been turned down due to uncertainty about the novelty of the variety being developed. Twenty-two percent identify research proposals were rejected due to the uncertainty the product would be novel (Table 1). While 29% saw a project turned down due to the uncertainty of costs to market the novelty, and 30% due to the public acceptance of GM products.

Table 1 PNT regulation impacts on research proposals (N = 93)
Credit: Front. Genome Ed., 20 October 2020

Although plant breeder uncertainty is not a majority, the number is still high and is resulting in innovation being stifled. To determine if these uncertainties become barriers to innovation, we asked plant breeders whether they altered their research so the variety wouldn’t be considered novel. One-third indicated they decided not to undertake a research proposal or develop an innovation because they self-determined the innovation would be considered novel. Also, 21% stated they conducted extra research (Table 2) to provide regulators with evidence of not being novel, 19% altered the breeding objective to avoid being reviewed as novel, and 18% experienced delays due to novelty. All of which drive up the cost of commercialization.

Table 2 Respondents’ decisions to alter or extend research due to Canadian regulation barriers (N = 93). Credit: Front. Genome Ed., 20 October 2020

A system that is a barrier to future gains

As a developed nation, Canada is taking action to support science, innovation, and sustainable practices. We are seeing this with policies, taxation, and support of innovative solutions to reduce our carbon impact. Canada’s federal and provincial governments are also working tirelessly to support medical research for COVID and provide regulations that protect our well-being. Yet, when it comes to the PNT systems, it seems like our policymakers are failing to see the urgency or the gains that can be made by supporting and updating regulations. If we consider how vulnerable our crops are to climate, pest and environmental issues, we need to protect our crops, environment, food supply, and commerce.

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While we couldn’t see COVID coming, we can see the future risks of our crops, and so why wouldn’t our PNT system be designed to protect and prevent a similar impact on our crops? The current regulations are not helping to accelerate the adoption of novelty traits in research labs. As a result, various crops across the nation may not be meeting the possible potentials they could reach under different regulations. If this continues unchanged, that means we are leaving profits, nutritional gains, environmental benefits, and economic growth back in the research labs of plant breeders who are constrained by outdated regulation which itself is no longer novel.

Savannah Gleim has been an active member managing, editing, and writing for SAIFood since 2014. Prior to joining the SAIFood team, she completed her M.Sc. in Agricultural Economics and B.Sc. Agribusiness from the University of Saskatchewan. Find Savannah on Twitter @savannahgleim

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

Debating the possible origins of COVID-19: A lab-escaped bioweapon? Animal poop? Random mutations of an existing virus?

“Virus outbreak: research says COVID-19 likely synthetic,” shouted the headline in the Taipei Times on February 23, 2020. The idea that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 arose in a virology lab in China – by accident or as a bioweapon – has sparked an undulation of accusation and explanation ever since.

The latest chapter: An “open letter” in the April 7, 2021 New York Times, calling for “a full investigation into the origins of COVID-19.” The two dozen scientists who signed the letter cite the continuing absence of a “robust process” to examine critical records and biological samples. Their argument responds to the WHO’s March 20 press event that barely considered an origin other than from a natural spillover.

But two types of new information may counter the lab escapee hypothesis: filling-in-the-blanks of mammals that may have served as “missing links” in the evolution of disease transmission, and the rapid rise of viral variants reflecting a tendency to mutate that may underlie SARS-CoV-2 seemingly bursting from out of nowhere.

So here is my view, as a geneticist, of three possible origins of SARS-CoV-2:

  1. Bioweapon – an engineered pathogen or escape of a natural candidate
  2. Gradual evolutionary change through intermediate animal hosts, mutating along the way and becoming more virulent
  3. “Mutator” genes that trigger mutations in other genes, speeding evolution

Bioweapon beginnings

Until recently, the idea that SARS-CoV-2 was groomed as a weapon relied on a predecessor, a coronavirus dubbed RaTG13, found in the horseshoe bat Rhinolophus affinis.

Researchers discovered RaTG13 in bat droppings in an abandoned mineshaft near a cave in Yunnan, China, in 2013, shortly after six miners fell ill and three of them died of an unspecified pneumonia. (Bats harbor many viruses without becoming sick, which I explain here.)

Visitors look inside the abandoned Wanling cave near Manhaguo village in southern China’s Yunnan province. Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

RaTG13 shares about 96.1% of its genome sequence with that of SARS-CoV-2. For perspective, SARS-CoV-2’s genome is only about 80% similar to that of the original SARS coronavirus from 2003.

A key difference between RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2 is in part of the receptor binding domain where the spike protein latches onto human cells. This differing part matches the RNA sequence from viruses in the Malayan pangolin, a spiny anteater-like creature that may be an intermediate host between bats and people in the infection chain. The transfer from bat to pangolin might have happened near the mine, or at a wet market rife with raw flesh, or in many other places where humans encroach on the territories of other animals and we simply haven’t looked.

Clues to the transition from bat virus RaTG13 to human virus SARS-CoV-2 may lie within the 4% of the genome sequences that diverge. Evolutionary biologists estimate it would have taken at least 50 years for the bat virus to have mutated itself into SARS-CoV-2, considering known, natural mutation rates of viral genomes. A bioweapon, presumably, could have been created much faster, just as it’s faster to buy a new car than to fix an old one part by part. But as we’ve learned, we can’t rely on what we know about past viruses. That is, the mutation rate of the newbie could be much faster than what we’ve seen before.

A document dubbed the “Yan report” (which I wrote about here) maintains that RaTG13 never existed. Instead, Li-Meng Yan and colleagues argue that the supposed SARS-CoV-2 predecessor is an imaginary RNA sequence uploaded to the GenBank database to provide a plausible natural explanation for the origin, to deflect attention from the idea of a bioweapon. The paper (there’s an initial and updated version) questions why, if RaTG13 was discovered in 2013, it wasn’t reported until February 3, 2020, in Nature. The Yan report never made it beyond preprint (non-reviewed) status, I suspect partly because of the pervasive tone of paranoia and the funding source, an organization connected to Steve Bannon. Researchers have eviscerated it, and Wikipedia reviews the details.

Chinese virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan. Credit: Free Press Journal

A brief report that I keep going back to appeared in Nature on March 17, 2020, when the global death toll from COVID stood at just 4,373: “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2.”

The “proximal origin” authors (Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes and Robert F. Garry) compare key parts of the new pathogen to corresponding parts of other coronaviruses, concluding “(o)ur analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” Part of their reasoning is common sense: the virus doesn’t bind to our cells strongly enough to have been invented. It’s an imperfect weapon. Why would a new iPhone work worse than its predecessors? It’s more likely, they argue, that the new virus, with its distinctions (like a dozen extra RNA bases inserted into the area corresponding to where the two parts of the spike protein attach), arose from natural selection. The virus had a natural advantage, so it was perpetuated – not invented.

Whatever happened, the prescient “proximal origin” researchers concluded, back in March 2020,

Although no animal coronavirus has been identified that is sufficiently similar to have served as the direct progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, the diversity of coronaviruses in bats and other species is massively undersampled.

That’s changing. Slowly.

Evolution in a poop soup

A leap from the RaTG13 virus found in the bat muck of the abandoned mine in 2013 to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in 2019 is like reading the first and last chapters of a novel: there’s not enough of a plot to reconstruct a story. But as more chapters are being revealed, it’s looking like SARS-CoV-2 arose from a poop soup of viruses – and continues to evolve.

It turns out that RaTG13 wasn’t the only stop on the evolutionary road to SARS-CoV-2. Nor was China the only home of novel coronaviruses, although they continue to be identified there. Consider recent reports:

Cambodia, January 26, 2021: Excrement and saliva from two horseshoe bats sampled in Cambodia in 2010 yielded coronaviruses that share 92.6% of their genome sequences with SARS-CoV-2, differing at one end of the gene encoding the spike protein. Concludes a preprint in bioRxiv,

The discovery of these viruses in a bat species not found in China indicates that SARS-CoV-2 related viruses have a much wider geographic distribution than previously understood, and suggests that Southeast Asia represents a key area to consider in the ongoing search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and in future surveillance for coronaviruses.

Thailand, February 9, 2021: Blood from five bats in a cave in Thailand yielded coronaviruses similar to a type found in Yunnan, China, as well as antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. The antibodies were also detected in a pangolin, according to a report in Nature. Although this study didn’t reveal the progenitor, it too extends the realm of SARS-CoV-2-like viruses beyond China.

China, March 8, 2021: Another bioRxiv preprint describes genome sequences of 411 coronavirus samples from 23 bat species collected from May 2019 to November 2020, over 2700 acres in Yunnan province. The closest relative to SARS-CoV-2, dubbed RpYN06, shares 94.5% of the genome sequence. But overall genome similarity is not as important as correspondence between individual genes, which can better predict the effect of a novel virus on a human body.

RpYN06 is actually the closest relative to SARS-CoV-2 identified so far, based on key genes that provide the tools to replicate (ORF1ab), melt into our cells and latch onto our protein synthetic machinery (ORF7a and ORF8), and encode the nucleocapsid (N) proteins that protect the viral genetic material. The study found 3 other coronaviruses whose genomes are very similar and resemble those found in pangolins.

Horseshoe bat getting a sample taken. Credit: Sakchai Lalit/AP

Did SARS-CoV-2 chug along happily, in various types of bats for who knows how many years, mixing with other coronaviruses and unchanging because it’s genome served it well? Only after the jump to a new host – us – did the mutations that underlie adaptation happen, spontaneously, and then persist if they conferred an advantage. Then mutations in individual genes began to accrue into the viral variants that are now sweeping the planet. The title of a recent article in PLoS Biology sums up the forces that have molded the novel coronavirus:

Natural selection in the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in bats created a generalist virus and highly capable human pathogen.

The mutator hypothesis

A third way that SARS-CoV-2 could have come into being quickly is if a gene or genes has functioned as a “mutator,” provoking other genes to mutate.

I remember this phenomenon from my training as a Drosophila geneticist. Fruit flies that have a mutant yellow eye color can have offspring that revert to the normal red color, not from a mutation in an eye color gene, but from a mutation in a gene called mutator. It wreaks havoc on other genes. And the types of mutations it brings are like those in the new variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Female (left) and male fruit flies with yellow eye mutation. Credit: Microscope Imaging Station

Half of the mutations that the fruit fly mutator gene causes are deletions – missing bits of genes. A telltale sign of the viral variant B.1.1.7, first detected in the UK, is “S gene target failure.” That’s when a PCR COVID test doesn’t replicate the RNA that encodes the spike protein because two amino acids are missing, while it does replicate the other viral genes.

In fruit flies, mutator also quintuples the rate of single-base changes, called point mutations. Those happen in the new viral variants too.

I’m not suggesting that a fly gene has run amok in viruses, but might a mutator-like gene be driving the rapid diversification of SARS-CoV-2 into a suite of variants? If so, rapid mutation might explain how the virus came into being and then became a shape-shifter, without having to invoke a mad-scientist-creating-a-bioweapon scenario or a string of hapless mammals passing along a pathogen that would kill millions of people in a year.

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Identifying a mutator would require unraveling gene-gene interactions, something that hasn’t been a huge priority even in analyzing human genomes. Perhaps a well-studied gene of SARS-CoV-2 has a second function, inducing mutation of another? Although more than a million SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences have been uploaded to the database GISAID, I don’t know to what extent researchers are probing how the genes interact, rather than investigating them in conceptual silos.

Coda

When people talk about the race between variants and vaccines, they aren’t being flip. For now, the vaccines stimulate a diverse enough antibody response to handle circulating viruses. But evolution never stops. If variants arise that slip into vaccinated bodies and take hold, then spread, will those vaccines weed out the older variants while creating niches for the new? That’s what is currently unsettling the experts. And me.

And so we must anticipate and stay ahead of evolution, which the vaccine manufacturers have already been doing for months. For if there’s one constant during these crazy times, it’s that SARS-CoV-2 continually surprises us. But for now, I’m relieved to ponder alternatives to the unthinkable idea that the virus was created to destroy us.

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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Podcast: NatGeo promotes pesticide fears; How weed affects your brain; Real-life Jurassic Park?

Despite its long history as a reputable science magazine, National Geographic has recently embraced simplistic narratives about the environmental impact of pesticides. How does weed affect your brain? The science is more nuanced than our ongoing culture war over drug use would suggest. We might already have the technology to create some version of the legendary Jurassic Park.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP contributor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

Everybody agrees that reducing pesticide use is an important target on our way to sustainable farming. But protecting our food from insects, weeds and other pests is still necessary if we want to eat, and for now that means carefully using relatively small quantities of chemical crop protection tools. Sadly, such nuance has been lost on NatGeo. Despite its vaunted reputation, the legendary science magazine has decided to promote exaggerated narratives about the dangers of pesticides.

As weed becomes legal in more jurisdictions and its recreational use increases, new research is expanding our understanding of the drug’s impacts, both good and bad, on our health. Smoking marijuana, it turns out, isn’t the life-destroying habit those government-funded PSAs from the 1990s suggested, but neither is it the wonder drug some legalization advocates have promoted.

“We could probably build jurassic park if we wanted to. wouldn’t be genetically authentic dinosaurs but [shrug],” Neuralink co-founder Max Hodak tweeted recently. “Maybe 15 years of breeding + engineering to get super exotic novel species.” Hodak’s comments raise the perennial questions that pops up every time new genetic technologies become the subject of conversation: Does the fact that we can do something mean we should do something?

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Some conservationists have argued that putting our resources into resurrecting extinct species (or creating new ones) may incentivize more of the behavior that drove so many animals to extinction. The better strategy is to focus on protecting the species that are still alive and can be saved. But other researchers say using genetic engineering to bring animals back to life could yield important scientific insights; rejecting this opportunity out of an abundance of caution makes little sense, they say.

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

Cameron J. English is the director of bio-sciences at the American Council on Science and Health. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

Viewpoint: ‘The Dirty 8’ — Which are the most notorious advocacy groups spreading disinformation about food, farming, biotechnology and agricultural sustainability

When it comes to food safety, there’s no shortage of well-funded advocacy groups stirring up public concern. Under the guise of promoting industry transparency or protecting the environment, these organizations continually spread falsehoods about pesticides, biotech crops and related technologies, often with substantial financial support from the organic food industry. They file endless streams of lawsuits, run scare campaigns against safe, sustainable technologies and lobby for regulations that hinder the progress of agricultural science.

Some of these organizations have even attempted to bolster their anti-biotech agendas in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting conspiracy theories about the origins of SARS-COV-2 or the vaccines developed to fight it, or both. The Genetic Literacy Project monitors the work of these advocacy organizations in our GLP Biotech Profiles — Analyzing the Critics Shaping the Debate to help the public and policymakers separate good science from nonsense. Here are eight of the worst offenders to watch out for.

1. Organic Consumers Association (OCA)

The Organic Consumers Association’s (OCA) goal is to achieve 100% organic agriculture within the next 50 years. OCA was founded by anti-technology activists Jeremy Rifkin and originally bore the name “Pure Food Campaign.” Since changing its name in 1998, the group has been headed by experienced activist Ronnie Cummins.

Cummins has stated his goal is to “make organic farming the dominant form of American agriculture” through whatever means possible. The group regularly disparages conventional pesticides and genetically engineered crops, calling for a “global moratorium on all crops developed using genetic modifications, and on the widespread use of pesticides in food production.”

OCA claims federal regulatory agencies like the USDA have been captured by big agribusiness. The Biden Administration’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is “Mr. Monsanto,” OCA claims, who during his tenure under President Obama “pushed through a corporate agribusiness agenda that began with his approval of more new genetically modified crops than any other Secretary.”

The group amplifies the work of well-known alternative health advocates such as Mike “the health ranger” Adams and osteopath Joe Mercola, who has donated over $2 million to OCA since 2012. OCA collaborates with other pro-organic voices such as Indian anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva. In April 2020, Shiva suggested that the novel coronavirus was transmitted from livestock that had been fed genetically engineered soybeans. In the wake of COVID-19, Mercola and OCA founder Ronnie Cummins co-authored a book alleging that the novel coronavirus was engineered in a Chinese bioweapons lab, a hypothesis that remains speculative.

OCA has contributed just over $900,000 to the anti-GMO group U.S. Right to Know, which wrongly alleges that Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) buried evidence showing its weedkiller Roundup causes cancer.

2. Environmental Working Group (EWG)

The Environmental Working Group was founded in 1992 as a ‘think tank’ promoting original research and pushing back against corporations engaged in everything from sunscreens to cosmetics to drinking water to plastics to food production. It is well-known as a promoter of organic products (specifically “pesticide-free” and “GMO-free.” Its annual budget exceeds $8 million. EWG also oversees Organic Voices Action Fund, which is a political lobbying (c)(4) organization that is 100% funded by the organic industry.

EWG has been called the “Environmental Worrying Group” by watchdog group the Center for Organization Research & Education. Seventy-nine percent of members of theewg verified Society of Toxicology who rated the group say that the EWG overstates the health risk of chemicals. Quackwatch describes EWG as one of “[t]he key groups that have wrong things to say about cosmetic products”.

EWG reviews chemicals, judging many of them to be harmful, but does not assess critical factors such as length of exposure or dosage. Its list of ‘scary’ chemicals include: arsenic, asbestos, BPA, chromium-6. dioxin, fire retardants, lead, mercury, nanoparticles, nonstick materials, perchlorate, pesticides (especially glyphosate, dicamba and neonicotinoids), phthalates, triclosan, and 2,4-D. Its style is confrontational marked by a liberal use of scare tactics.

It has become best known for its signature annual “Dirty Dozen” report criticizing what it calls “hidden” pesticides in foods; it is well publicized by the media and many non-experts embrace its findings as credible. Its bottom-line advice is that consumers should buy organic products, which it claims do not use pesticides (which is not accurate, as organic crops are frequently treated with natural and some synthetic chemicals, some of which are toxic to beneficial insects and animals). Critics of the Dirty Dozen list have suggested that it significantly overstates the risk to consumers of the listed items, and that the methodology employed in constructing the list “lacks scientific credibility.” EWG does not mention that what it describes as “dirty” pesticide residue levels are actually safe, based on all available science, because they’re well below “tolerance” levels set by the EPA.” 

3. Center for Food Safety (CFS)screen shot at pmNot to be confused with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Center for Food Safety (CFS) shares roots with the Organic Consumers Association. Both were birthed by anti-technology activist Jeremy Rifkin. Its executive director, Andrew Kimbrell, served as a lawyer for Rifkin in the 1980s when Rifkin opposed the NASA shuttle missions among other ventures. Kimbrell is now one of the most influential players in the U.S. anti-biotechnology and anti-pesticide movement. He has offices in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, California.

The stated mission of CFS is to “empower people, support farmers, and protect the earth from the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture.” It claims to want to protect human health and the environment, focusing on the use of harmful food production technologies, and by promoting organic-only agriculture practices. CFS is a harsh of agricultural biotechnology. In the early 200s, CFS articulated four goals, which promote organic farming by attracting traditional farming methods:

  1. Ensuring the testing, labeling and regulation of genetically engineered (GE) foods
  2. Preserving strict national organic food standards
  3. Preventing potential animal and human health crises caused by food borne illness — including ‘mad cow’ disease
  4. Educating the public on the hazards of industrial agriculture

CFS distinguishging tactic is to block technological applications in agriculture through relentless litigation, regulatory petitions and legal support for organic agriculture advocates. Its recent litigation targets include AquaBounty’s GM salmon, the plant-based Impossible Burger, and dozens of pesticides independent scientists and regulators have said pose minimal risk to human health and the environment.

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4. US Right to Know (USRTK)

US Right to Know (USRTK) claims to “expose what the food industry doesn’t want you to know.” The organization rose to prominence during an intense debate in the late 2010s over GMO labeling, by using Freedom of Information Act demands to harass dozens of agricultural scientists and their universities; these academics had been paid by “Big Ag,” USRTK alleged, to defend the safety of GM crops and pesticides. The group’s director of research Carey Gillam alleges that Monsanto attempted influence the EPA and cover up evidence linking the company’s herbicide Roundup to cancer. She has worked closely with law firms that have sued Monsanto for failing to warn its customers that the pesticide could cause cancer, though there is no evidence it does.

URSTK continues to agitate against crop biotechnology, which it calls “unsustainable industrial agriculture.” In February 2021, the organic industry-funded outfit launched a campaign against the Gates Foundation, calling its $5 billion investment in African agriculture a neocolonialist ploy. The foundation’s efforts, while ostensibly designed to promote food security and sustainable farming, are really meant to encourage “African countries to pass business-friendly policies and scale up markets for patented seeds, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and other industrial inputs they say are necessary to boost food production.”

In recent months, USRTK has also turned its attention to the origins of the coronavirus. Though stopping short of OCA’s conspiratorial claims, USRTK says it’s investigating “leaks and other mishaps at biosafety labs and the risks of gain-of-function research, which aims to increase the lethality or infectivity of potential pandemic pathogens.”

5. Non-GMO Project

Although the Non-GMO Project claims they want to increase transparency and enable customers to make informed choices at the grocery store, their underlying goal has been to remove GMOs from the marketplace entirely — and they see the “Non-GMO” label as a tool to make that happen. Organic industry marketer Peter M. Ligotti pitched GMO labeling to Whole Foods by saying: “When we do achieve a ban, we will need to know which products to leave on the shelves and which to throw away. Labeling the GE and NON-GE food will give us clarity when that day finally arrives.”

The Non-GMO Project has been on the forefront of efforts to mislabel gene-edited crops as genetically modified products, although the two technologies are not the same. The project has also called synthetic biology “a major threat to the North American supply of food and supplements at grocery stores,” warning that products like lab-made proteins are “slipping into the food supply without regulation.” This is false. “Food ingredients are subject to the same strict safety standards,” the FDA has noted, “regardless of whether they are naturally or artificially derived.

6. La Via Campesina

La Via Campesina, (directly translated, “The Peasant’s Way,”) is an international group of small- and medium-size farmers and agricultural workers. Unlike many of its partners in the anti-GMO movement, the group is explicitly socialist and views its opposition to “corporate driven agriculture” as part of a larger struggle against “neo-liberalism and patriarchy,” which oppress women around the world.

In 2020, La Via Campesina blamed capitalism for the initially slow response of many governments to COVID 19, declaring that “countries with centralized public services, public healthcare system, planned economy, and better public policies …. are dealing [sic] it more effectively than the capitalist countries like the USA, the UK, France, Spain and Italy. Therefore, whether it is an economic crisis or the health crisis, even the capitalist empire has no options than copying socialist models.”

The organization is most famous for coining the term “food sovereignty.” In advocating for farmers, La Via Campesina rejects “corporate” crop biotechnology solutions. They see the Green Revolution, major developments in plant breeding from the 1960s-1980s that saved over a billion people from starvation, as an attempt to push Western principles on developing countries. The group has taken a firm stance against new breeding techniques (NBTs) such a CRISPR gene editing, arguing that the represent “high risks for the environment and human health.

La Via Campesina’s outlook is by no means universally endorsed by farmers around the world. The group’s oddly reductionist definition of “food sovereignty,” which prohibits the use of biotech crops, synthetic pesticides and other modern farming tools, has been attacked as Green neo-colonialism that increases the risk of starvation in developing countries.

7. Consumer Reports

The Consumer Reports (CR)magazine is published by Consumers Union, a US-based nonprofit organization that campaigns for consumer protection laws. This small but influential division has emerged as one of the leading anti-GMO proponents, issuing warnings about biotech food and calling for strict GM labeling. Their tactics include aggressive online advertising, spending almost $10 million a year on Google ads alone.

CR endorses the Non-GMO Project’s label as an “excellent” tool for helping consumers avoid genetically engineered crops, noting that “clear and enforceable rules are behind this seal.” The endorsement makes no mention of the fact that many products carrying the Non-GMO Project label—including eggs, green beans, walnuts and salt (which doesn’t contain any DNA)—don’t have genetically engineered equivalents, meaning consumers couldn’t buy the “GMO” version even if they wanted to. For this and other reasons, independent scientists have petitioned the FDA to ban the Non-GMO Project label, arguing it “deliberately deceives and misleads consumers in violation of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”

In 2020, CR collaborated with organic industry-funded economist Charles Benbrook to publish an “exclusive” fruit and vegetable ratings system to help shoppers minimize their “risk from toxic chemicals.” Besides recommending that consumers buy organic produce when possible, CR’s relied on a handful of studies to argue that commonly used pesticides may pose a greater risk than most scientists believe, concluding that “the government hasn’t upheld its responsibility to protect consumers.” The conclusion downplays the EPA’s rigorous pesticide safety standards and stands in contrast to regularly published reports from the USDA confirming that pesticides on food pose little risk to consumers.

8. Rodale Institute

The Rodale Institute is backed by the Rodale publishing empire, enabling the organization to produce poorly-cited books such as “Organic Manifesto: How Organic Food Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World and Keep Us Safe.” The Rodale Institute has sponsored dozens more anti-GMO commentaries and “research” on GMO safety. Rodale also holds the patent for the Institute for Blended Medicine, an alternative health approach pushing “holistic” therapies and considered quack medicine by Quackwatch.

Rodale has close ties to both the Center for Food Safety and Organic consumers Association, and promotes many popular falsehoods about crop biotechnology. The institute says that GM crops facilitate the “intense use of toxic chemicals,” without noting that many pesticides in use today, notably the herbicide glyphosate, are far less toxic than their predecessors, both to humans and the environment. Recent research has also shown that widespread adoption of GM crops two decades cut pesticide use by 776 million kilograms, an 8.6 percent drop since 1996 that cut farming’s environmental impact by 20%.

Rodale defends the use of natural pesticides in organic farming, though without acknowledging that some of these substances are less effective and more toxic than their synthetic counterparts. The group also endorses the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,” an annual list of fruits and vegetables that allegedly contain potentially dangerous levels of synthetic pesticides.

The evolutionary history of human tolerance

Environmental pressures may have led humans to become more tolerant and friendly towards each other as the need to share food and raw materials became mutually beneficial, a new study suggests.

This behaviour was not an inevitable natural progression, but subject to ecological pressures, the University of York study concludes.

Humans have a remarkable capacity to care about people well outside their own kin or local group. Whilst most other animals tend to be defensive towards those in other groups our natural tolerance allows us to collaborate today on a global scale, as seen with trade or international relief efforts to provide aid for natural disasters.

Using computer simulations of many thousands of individuals gathering resources for their group and interacting with individuals from other groups, the research team attempted to establish what key evolutionary pressures may have prompted human intergroup tolerance.

The study suggests this may have begun when humans began to leave Africa and during a period of increasingly harsh and variable environments.

“Gather around the Fire,” a bronze statue depicting a male Homo heidelbergensis sharing food. Credit: Smithsonian

The study was concerned with the period 300,000 to 30,000 years ago where archaeological evidence indicated greater mobility and more frequent interactions between different groups. In particular, this is a time in which there is a movement of raw materials over much longer distances and between groups.

The researchers found that populations which shared resources were more likely to be more successful and more likely to survive harsh environments, where extinctions occur, than those populations which do not share across borders.

However, in resource rich environments sharing was less advantageous and in extremely harsh environments populations are too low for sharing to be feasible.

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Penny Spikins, Professor in the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of York, said: “That our study demonstrates the importance of tolerance to human success is perhaps surprising, especially when we often think of prehistory as a time of competition, however we have seen that in situations where people with surplus share across borders with those in need everyone benefits in the long term.”

Dr Jennifer C. French, lecturer in Palaeolithic Archaeology at the University of Liverpool added: “Our study’s findings also have important implications for wider debates about the increases in examples of innovation and greater rates of cultural evolution that occurred during this period.

“They help to explain previously enigmatic changes in the archaeological record between 300,000 and 30,000 years ago.”

A version of this article was originally posted by the University of York at EurekAlert! and has been reposted here with permission. EurekAlert! can be found on Twitter @EurekAlert and The University of York can be found @UniOfYork

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How Freddie Mercury got his voice: It wasn’t his teeth

Without a formal host, the 91st annual Oscars broke precedent by opening the award’s evening with an appearance by Queen, with Adam Lambert channeling the late Freddie Mercury behind the mic on a pair of the British band’s signature songs, “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.”

It was wonderfully entertaining, but it wasn’t quite Freddie himself. Which raises the question that many are asking: Was his magnificent voice aided somehow by a genetic defect, four extra incisors: Do extra teeth equal extra range?

Adam Lambert (left) and Freddie Mercury. Credit: Mike Coppola/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

That’s one of the more fascinating side stories that emerged out of this year’s Academy Award extravaganza.

Genetics?

This is what we do know: His dental endowment (or affliction as he undoubtedly thought growing up) gradually had pushed his front teeth forward as he moved into adolescence, causing a great deal of teasing (“Bucky”) when Freddie was a boy and teen, when he was then known as Farrokh Bulsara. He hid them behind his hand and, later on, a mustache. But it never squelched his singing.

The Internet is overflowing with accounts of how the transplendent Rami Malek prepared for his role as the four-octave frontman by slipping on a pair of customized prosthetic upper teeth to practice speaking and singing.

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. Credit: Fox

While Freddie’s extra teeth were unlikely due to a specific genetic disorder, at least one group of researchers has suggested an alternate biological explanation.

Nearly all single-gene conditions that have a dental component have unusually-shaped or absent teeth, not extra ones. The rare disorders that can produce an extra tooth or two are almost always a syndrome, with other symptoms.  Cleidocranial dyplasia, for example, also causes short stature, missing shoulder blades, and scoliosis. And Gardner syndrome is better known for its abundant colon polyps, but a few people with it have extra teeth.

A number of case reports in the medical literature describe people with extra teeth, but none of them are rock stars. One person had 17 extras! A paper in an oral pathology journal from 2005 described a multi-toothed parent and child, suggesting that extra teeth can be inherited.

Wherever extra teeth come from, errant genes or accidents of development, descriptions in technical papers tend to list associated problems, not stupendous singing ability, particularly if the upper front teeth are affected. According to a 2010 literature review, extra teeth usually result in “oral problems such as malocclusion, food impaction, poor aesthetics, and cyst formation.”

Extra teeth are rare

Freddie’s awareness of his extra incisors was unusual, although they could hardly have gone unnoticed. More typically, extra teeth turn up as a surprise on a dental-x-ray, or when they complicate getting braces or dental implants.

teethsupernumerary“Mesiodentes” is the term for Freddie’s oral condition, referring to more than one extra tooth, more common in the upper jaw between the two normal incisors. Males are more often affected than females. And Freddie’s extras were “conical,” the most common shape. They likely popped up before or at the same time as his normal incisors.

The overall prevalence of extra teeth is 0.09% to 3.4%, depending upon the population. One small study found a prevalence of 0.72% in Iran. Freddie was born in Zanzibar, but his parents were Parsi and Zoroastrians, who immigrated from Iran to India to escape religious persecution.

And he was rare among the rare – only 1% of people with extra teeth have more than two.

The earliest reported evidence of extra teeth was in remains of a 5-year-old from the lower Pleistocene, dating to about 2 million years ago. Remains of an Australian Aborigine from 13,000 years ago also had extra teeth.

A dentist weighs in

In the film, Freddie attributes his pipes to a cavernous oral chamber needed to house his extra incisors. That’s just speculation, although no one can say whether his refusal to have the extra teeth removed – an oft-suggested treatment – gave us We Are the Champions and Another One Bites the Dust.

Maybe Freddie just had a big mouth.

“Many people have supernumerary teeth, and this doesn’t cause the anterior teeth to necessarily be pushed forward. It has a lot to do with anatomical jaw size,” said Fred Levine, a recently-retired dentist in the Albany area of New York. “In most people I have seen with supernumerary teeth, the jaw size doesn’t correspond to the space needed for the extra teeth and the extra teeth are malpositioned, protruding either toward the palate or the cheeks. Freddie Mercury’s jaw size had to be larger than normal to begin with to allow his extra teeth to fit into a normal arch form,” he added.

It turns out that Freddie’s voice didn’t arise from extra teeth or a big mouth, but from his use of a body part that’s usually not accessed – the so-called “false” vocal cords.

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Tapping into an unused biological part

Freddie Mercury achieved an astounding vibrato by using, in addition to his regular vocal cords, a pair of mucous membranes that we all have protruding as folds just above the vocal cords. They’re called “false” vocal cords because they haven’t been thought to be part of the normal sounds we make, but some people can indeed use them.

Here’s a video of a singer, Anna-Maria Hefele, demonstrating how she uses both sets of vocal cords. A few minutes in the eerie duality begins, sounding a little like Jethro Tull’s flute suddenly appearing against the bass in a song – but from one mouth.

Queen’s lead singer apparently did something similar. The result was a unique “growl,” according to “What Made Freddie Mercury’s Voice So Magical? His Teeth,” a terrific article in Scroll.in.” Anvar Alikhan writes that Freddie produced and nurtured a rare sound called a “subharmonic vibration.” But the headline doesn’t have it quite right. It wasn’t his teeth.vocal cords

The Scroll.in article is based on a highly technical report in The British Voice Association journal that presents an acoustical analysis of Freddie Mercury’s voice based on interviews, a lot of listening to recordings, and even recreating the sound in a stand-in rock singer who mastered Mercury’s technique and was somehow enticed to swallow a tiny camera so the researchers could get a gander at both pairs of vocal cords in action. (I’m assuming it was swallowed. I can’t imagine the man’s throat was cut. The article is behind a paywall and the abstract is short on details. But endoscopes that I’ve known go into a hole.)

Scrutiny of the interview tapes quickly revealed Freddie to have been a natural baritone when he spoke. Yet his singing voice showed much more. “Analysis of 240 sustained notes from 21 a-cappella recordings revealed a surprisingly high mean fundamental frequency modulation rate (vibrato) of 7.0 Hz, reaching the range of vocal tremor,” the researchers write.

The endoscope video from the Freddie clone, Daniel Zangger-Borchs, an authority on rock star voices, sent back 4,132 frames per second that revealed use of the true versus false vocal cords in an approximate 3:1 ratio.

Thanks to the swallowed camera, we know that Freddie Mercury used something extra, but it wasn’t his teeth. It was likely his false vocal cords. But even that analysis couldn’t explain the four-octave range.

Sometimes it’s best not to overanalyze things, just sing along or headbang in a car, and appreciate an astonishing talent that science just can’t explain.

Ricki Lewis is the GLP’s senior contributing writer focusing on gene therapy and gene editing. She has a PhD in genetics and is a genetic counselor, science writer and author of The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It, the only popular book about gene therapy. BIO. Follow her at her website or Twitter @rickilewis

This article originally ran on the GLP on November 18, 2018. It was updated on February 24, 2019.

Book review: Jennifer Thompson’s ‘GM Crops and the Global Divide’ addresses Europe’s neo-colonialist attempt to intimidate Africa into rejecting crop biotechnology

Jennifer Thomson’s excellent new book, “GM Crops and the Global Divide” (CSIRO Publishing, 2020), is a highly informed, lucid, and gracious narrative. Able to maintain equanimity in the face of one of the most polemical debates of our time, Thomson, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology at the University of Cape Town, provides a succinct yet detailed overview of the history of genetically modified crops, guiding the reader through the history of molecular genetic engineering, from its beginnings in the 1970s, and concluding with the birth of genome editing.

A veteran in the field, she discusses the science and economics of GM crops from the viewpoint of many of the usual-suspect countries, including the United States, Brazil, India, and China, as well as an assortment of African nations. Thomson also manages to cover fairly and clearly many controversial topics such as Seralini’s infamous fraudulent rat study, the continuing glyphosate sagaconundrums regarding food labelling, the myth of GM-caused farmer suicides in India, and misinformation in general, in a way that is informative but not inflammatory.

What distinguishes “GM Crops and the Global Divide” from other books on the topic is Thomson’s South African perspective, which is both refreshing and unique. Thomson has been a direct participant in the history of African biotechnology from its inception. In her chapter, ‘Countries that got it right, and why,’ she explains how genetically engineered crops came so easily to South Africa: From as early as 1978, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) created the South African Committee for Genetic Experimentation (SAGENE) which followed guidelines that were earlier promulgated by the United States’ National Institutes of Health.

As such, the Council required that universities implement adequate laboratory safety standards before research funding would be awarded to academic faculty, and offered training programs to provide academics with the expertise necessary. Eventually, these efforts paid off: By 1990, an assortment of biotech companies began to apply for approval to conduct field trials and the subsequent field testing of a variety of GM crops, ranging from maize and cotton to eucalyptus and apple. SAGENE drew up procedures, and by the time the South African government had obliged with the development of a GMO Act in 1999, the task of regulating biotech crops was already routine. It was straightforward, then, for South Africa to mobilize a strategy that could bring innovations such as GM crops forward to commercialization.

Jennifer Thompson. Credit: Alison Bert/AAAS

We need to interject here some relevant commentary about what, in this context, constitutes “getting it right.” Everything is relative, and the recombinant DNA guidelines from the U.S. National Institutes of Health alluded to above were far from “right.”  Because they were excessively, unnecessarily risk-averse, the guidance they provided was misguided. Those technique-based guidelines, which were focused on the use of a single technique–recombinant DNA modification–instead of on the actual risks of experiments, have slowed plant genetic engineering research and development ever since.

By assuming (incorrectly) from the beginning that recombinant DNA-modified organisms—which have come to be commonly known as “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs—were a high-risk category that needed to have sui generis regulation, the NIH guidelines created excessive or even redundant oversight for many products that were already sufficiently regulated if they posed unreasonable risk.

Worst of all, they reinforced the misconception that recombinant, or “genetically modified,” organisms are a meaningful “category.” Although the NIH gradually pared back the scope and stringency of its guidelines, stultifying, process-based, technique-focused approaches to regulation of this pseudo-category (defined in different ways, using various terms) have remained intact there and at other U.S. federal agencies, as well as in numerous foreign countries. Many countries have even banned the cultivation of genetically engineered plants entirely. Such excessive government regulation perpetuates the misapprehension on the part of many non-experts that products or activities that are stringently regulated must, ipso facto, be high-risk.

Even when genetically engineered crop plants move successfully through regulatory review, R&D is far slower and more expensive than necessary. In certain countries, such as the U.S., Canada, and South Africa, at least products do progress, albeit slowly. In conjunction with the movement of products through South Africa’s R&D pipeline was the creation of AfricaBio, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the safe, ethical and responsible use of the products of biotechnology. AfricaBio acts as a science communicator to smallholder and commercial farmers of South Africa regarding the use and management of GM crops.

Dr. Nompumelelo Obokoh of Africa Bio asks policy makers to give farmers the choice of growing GM crops. Credit: Daniel Otunge

As a result of entities such as SAGENE and AfricaBio, the South African public is currently far more positively disposed than Europeans toward GM crop safety, possibly because they have already been eating GM maize for over 20 years, without any harmful effects.

The story of South Africa and GM crops continues in Thomson’s next chapter, ‘To label or not to label–that is the question.’  The contradictions of labelling GM foods takes an interesting twist when considering that 80-90% of South Africa’s maize is GM, and it doesn’t make sense to make consumers pay for labeling costs, which could raise the price of maize by around 10%.

Thomson goes on to describe ‘The West versus Africa’ in the next chapter. The sad story of detrimental impacts of foreign influence on Africa is not new.  Thomson notes that the only African countries that are commercializing GM crops besides South Africa are Sudan, Nigeria, and Eswatini (Swaziland).  She states: “Much of Africa’s agricultural produce is destined for Europe,” and reminds us, “Therefore, Europe could influence organizations to adapt EU-style restrictions on GM crops and the EU has been waging war on GMO foods for decades.”

At the same time, Europe’s stringent import standards keep food products produced by smallholder African farmers out of their supply chain, instead favoring products from larger commercial farms.  She points out that Europe tries to protect its farmers from competition with their American counterparts (who farm GM crops prolifically), even to the point of preventing African nations from accepting food aid from the United States, as it might be “contaminated with GM.” Yet, paradoxically, the EU itself is heavily dependent on imported GM crops for animal feed. This is cynical neo-colonialism at its worst. Europe’s wholly unwarranted, decades-old, lose-lose campaign against genetic engineering was brought to mind by this lede in a Wall Street Journal article about the EU’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution:

It’s hard to think of a recent fiasco that can match the European Union’s Covid vaccine rollout. Protectionism, mercantilism, bureaucratic ineptitude, lack of political accountability, crippling safety-ism—it’s all here. The Keystone Kops in Brussels and European capitals would be funny if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The EU’s adamant rejection of GM crops is another, ongoing policy fiasco.

Another issue on which Thomson provides clarity is the claim that if African farmers have access to GM crops provided by multinational corporations, they will cultivate them in preference to and replace their indigenous crops, leading to control of the African seed sector by foreign corporate interests. The fear that African farmers will become reliant on corporate seeds is one of the arguments for “agroecology,” a vaguely defined concept that amounts to reliance on primitive, low-yielding agricultural techniques.

Thomson describes how as a child, science communicator Margaret Karembu (Director for the Director of ISAAA-AfriCenter (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications – Africa region) recalls how her family struggled to put food on the table. “She now realizes that her family was practicing subsistence farming, which European greens call agro-ecology family farming, in which families hardly produce enough food to last until the next harvest.” This results in African farmers being locked into a perpetual cycle of food insecurity and poverty.

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Farmers should be free to choose whichever seeds and other farming methods are best suited to their circumstances. In any case, fear of new crop varieties is unwarranted.  Crops with new, improved traits were provided to African farmers long before GM crops were available, and many of the so-called local varieties are themselves the result of previous scientific research and development performed in their own countries. In Uganda, for example, more than half of the new maize varieties are the products of Ugandan research, not of foreign multinationals. In addition to this, the fear of permitting African farmers to use modern technologies is generally a moot one, as they cannot afford tractors, irrigation systems or fertilizers.

One thing they are far more likely to afford, however, is seed for better-performing GM crops – as illustrated by the fact that more farmers in developing countries plant GM seeds than in industrialized countries. Since 1995, when GM crops were first commercially grown, more than 70 countries have adopted them, either by planting or importing them. In 2019, more than 17 million farmers, 95% of whom come from developing countries, planted 190.4 million hectares of GM crops. These numbers could, and should, be much higher, but shortfalls in the adoption of useful technology are causing a major impact on agricultural productivity and preventing the widespread cultivation of potentially life-saving, income-boosting crops.

Thomson offers many examples of dysfunctional government approaches to GM crops, such as in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, no doubt egged on by anti-GMO sentiment. The culprits include the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health, the anti-GMO entity Inf’GMO of France in the case of Tanzania, or in Uganda, the President of the country himself.

In summary, in “GM Crops and the Global Divide,” Professor Jennifer Thomson capably traces the historical significance and current impacts of European influences on colonial governance, aid, trade, and educational involvement on African leaders and their people. It’s a revealing and sobering read.

Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University. Find Kathleen on Twitter @KHefferon

Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a Research Associate at the NIH and the founding director of the U.S. FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Find Henry on Twitter @henryimiller

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

Podcast: Media’s COVID hypocrisy; Mandatory vaccines; Biodegradable plastic from GM plants

The mainstream press has viciously criticized COVID conspiracy theorists and vaccine rejection. Yet when it comes to other critical science topics, say pesticide safety and animal agriculture, the media uncritically amplifies conspiratorial thinking and bad science. The Supreme Court has ruled that the government can make vaccination mandatory in the interest in public health. Are there any downsides to such a policy? Plastic pollution is a critical environmental problem; GM crops that produce biodegradable plastic might help finally solve the problem.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP contributor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

The same media outlets that tell you to get a COVID vaccine and reject coronavirus conspiracies will also promote organic food as a safer choice, though there is no evidence behind such a recommendation, and spread myths about the dangers of so-called “industrial farming.” How do these double standards impact the public’s trust in scientists?

Does the government have the authority to require Americans to be vaccinated? Yes, says the Supreme Court; protecting public health from an infectious disease supersedes any claim to individual rights. Moreover, many experts say such a policy is necessary to reach herd immunity when too few people refuse to get vaccinated. Is it possible that this heavy-handed approach will backfire, actually decreasing vaccine uptake, or are Americans just hyper-skeptical of their government?

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Plastic pollution caused by single-use items like food containers and consumer products remains a serious environmental problem globally. As far fetched as it sounds, the best solution may be growing eco-friendly plastic in genetically engineered plants. Biotech firm Yield 10 Biosciences has engineered two varieties of camelina that produce polymers called PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates). Produced naturally by bacteria, they’re completely biodegradable and thus could serve as renewable sources of plastic, as well as animal feed and biodiesel. Such an innovation is good news for everybody, except perhaps environmental groups with anti-GMO sympathies. But how would they oppose a technology that could have such a tremendously positive impact on our planet?

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

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

Cameron J. English is the director of bio-sciences at the American Council on Science and Health. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

Would you agree to be infected with COVID for science? Intentional ‘challenge’ studies underway as researchers explore new vaccines and treatments

Lauren Thomas, who just turned 26, is trying to get into a clinical trial at the University of Oxford, where the American is in a master’s program in data science. She’s seeking to be intentionally reinfected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused her bout with COVID-19 back in October.

Lauren Thomas.

Thomas had a mild case – just a fever. So now she’s volunteering to help researchers understand the aftermath of infection, waiting to hear whether she’ll get into the clinical trial. In the meantime, she’s an organizer for for 1daysooner, a non-profit advocacy group for people wishing to participate in research and launched in April 2020. A major focus has been joining clinical trials for COVID vaccines.

Why would anyone sign up for a second encounter with the virus that has shattered the world?

“My #1 reason is the fact that coronavirus has had such a horrible impact and this is a really easy and tangible way to do a lot of good. How often can you say that? Being in the trial to be reinfected would be an honor,” Thomas told Genetic Literacy Project.

Her second reason for seeking entry into the reinfection trial is “wanting to learn as much about the disease as possible so we can avoid ever having to do this again. I’ve been in Europe the whole time, except about a month in the States, and it’s been hard. European countries have responded more strictly to coronavirus and honestly it’s been really difficult for me and my friends, financially, mentally, and emotionally. Lockdown was necessary, but I never want to see it happen again.”

One challenge trial underway, another about to begin

The UK is the only nation currently conducting “challenge studies,” which intentionally infect volunteers and then track them carefully to see what happens. A trial underway is for people who’ve never been infected, and a trial about to start is for those who have already had COVID – none of the participants in either trial have been vaccinated.

The first trial started at Imperial College London, Royal Free Hospital in March, in early March and is funded by the National Health Service. Healthy volunteers aged 18 to 30 had tiny amounts of virus dripped into their noses. The people were then carefully monitored.

On March 25, the media covered the first 3 volunteers released from their two-week quarantine, all healthy. Future groups, 250 people in total, will receive increases in viral dose. Their responses, the investigators hope, will reveal the lowest viral dose associated with symptoms and replication in the nose.

A challenge trial yields more information, faster, than a more traditional trial design in which volunteers are exposed to the pathogen in a natural setting. COVID vaccine trials to date, for example, have compared large groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated people (given placebo) when they return to their communities and encounter SARS-CoV-2.

Challenge studies have been done before, such as to improve a vaccine against cholera, tested in Baltimore. But suggestions of conducting challenge studies for COVID were initially met with much resistance because so much is still unknown about the infectious disease.

If the findings on healthy unvaccinated volunteers intentionally exposed to SARS-CoV-2 prove useful, then a challenge component may be incorporated into future clinical trials for COVID vaccines. Said Andrew Catchpole, Chief Scientific Officer at hVIVO, the organization that is signing up potential participants for the Imperial College study (as well as for the second study that Thomas has applied for) “We expect that this study will greatly assist our understanding of this disease and provide insights into its progression, natural immune response, and transmission. We look forward to publishing the study’s results in due course and moving forward with vaccine challenge studies later this year.”

A study participant infected with a flulike virus took a lung-capacity test so researchers could track its effects. Credit: hVIVO

The second trial will kick off in May, sponsored by Wellcome Trust and conducted at hospitals affiliated with the University of Oxford. Plans are to enroll up to 64 people aged 18 to 30. Phase 1 will examine lowest-dose-to-reinfect and phase 2 will document immune responses. Findings about the timing of reinfection and the immune response can perhaps then be factored into decisions about re-openings and leaving our COVID pods and bubbles for more normal social behavior.

People can register their interest in participating in either trial at ukcovidchallenge.com, the website for hVIVO, which has led similar studies for other infectious diseases.

Thomas finds the common response of horror at the idea of intentionally infecting anyone “infuriating.” “We take risks every day just crossing the street. Getting coronavirus is a risk, sure, but it’s a lot less risky than going to war or donating a kidney, and we let people do that. And I think it would be a very small risk for me, because I got coronavirus and I was alright.”

She adds that had challenge trials been part of the developmental trajectory for the vaccines already available, approvals might have come sooner, blunting some of the pain and suffering of the lockdowns she’s lived through.

A long history

Challenge studies for COVID-19 join a long list of past similar efforts. The strategy has helped to quell epidemics of flu, malaria, cholera, dengue, shigella, typhoid fever, giardia, tuberculosis, rhinovirus, and norovirus. Challenge studies were slated for Zika virus infection but that disease abated on its own. But challenge studies sped approval of an Ebola vaccine in 2019, accomplished in a mere 10 months.

But challenge studies have a dark side to their history too. Doctors in Nazi Germany did it, of course without consent. And an influenza vaccine was tested on prisoners and intellectually disabled children in a state facility in Pennsylvania. Even revered polio vaccine inventor Jonas Salk tested flu vaccine on mental patients and prisoners in Michigan.

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Participants in the two challenge studies for COVID follow a detailed informed consent process. Genetic Literacy Project covered the bioethics, regulatory process for COVID-19 challenge studies, and the World Health Organization’s “roadmap,” as well as the details of the trial protocols in September 2020 here.

What’s next?

Because challenge trials for COVID are just getting underway, to make ultimate analyses more transparent, Josh Morrison, executive director of 1Day Sooner, and Charles Weijer, a bioethicist at Western University in London, Canada, call for publication of full trial protocols, in an opinion piece at the British Medical Journal blog.

Certainly more than a few hundred people in challenge trials will need to be followed to fill in the blanks about reinfection. Once treatments for COVID improve, perhaps challenge studies will find a way to ethically include volunteers who have risk factors – the current two trials are enrolling young, healthy people.

Then public health experts will need to translate what’s been learned from the challenge studies about the timing and sustainability of natural immunity against COVID-19 into policy – and hope for compliance.

It’s jarring to consider the utter selflessness of people who volunteer for challenge studies against the larger and louder backdrop of people burning masks and crowding shorelines in the name of preserving their perceived personal freedoms.

In this second year of the pandemic, as variants battle vaccines, perhaps volunteers who have already been infected, or vaccinated, can guide the days ahead as we recover. I hope Lauren Thomas gets into the trial!

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

Podcast: Should farmers embrace ‘natural’ organic chemicals to replace ‘synthetic’ inputs? Moving beyond the outdated debate

As the benefits of biotechnology come to fruition, people are letting go of the dated view that we should be suspicious of chemicals and afraid of genetic advancements. Unfortunately, there has been an undue emphasis on how a product is made, as opposed to what it actually does for the environment. In a world fraught with viral dangers and a changing climate, we need to stay solution focused. 

In this Innovation Forum podcast, Jon Entine, Founder and Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project and Toby Webb, founder of Innovation Forum, discuss glyphosate, copper sulphate, gene editing, and the impacts of both synthetic and organic chemicals in food and wine. Listen to the podcast below to find out why we need all hands on deck and to use all tools in our toolbox to address 21st century challenges in food and agriculture.

Jon Entine is the founding editor of the Genetic Literacy Project, and winner of 19 major journalism awards. He has written two best-sellers, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, and Abraham’s Children: Race, Genetics, and the DNA of The Chosen People. You can follow him on Twitter @JonEntine

Toby Webb is the founder of Innovation Forum, which focuses on analysis and convening meetings on the most difficult questions facing large companies. Toby also teaches Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability at Birkbeck College, University of London and King’s College London. He is now a visiting lecturer at Kings on corporate sustainability, supply chains and innovation. Find Toby on Twitter @webb_tobias

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