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Bee experts shred ‘Harvard’ neonics-Colony Collapse Disorder study, upbraid journalists for ‘activist science’

Chensheng Lu was in his element last month, delivering an impassioned speech before a green group at Harvard Law School. The School of Public Health professor was lecturing on his favorite topic–his only subject these days, as it has become his obsession: why he believes bees around the world are in crisis.

[Editor’s note: This report originally appeared in the Huffington Post]

Lu is convinced, unequivocally, that a popular pesticide hailed by many scientists as a less toxic replacement for farm chemicals proven to be far more dangerous to humans and the environment is actually a killer in its own right.

“We demonstrated that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering Colony Collapse Disorder in bee hives,” claimed Lu. The future of our food system and public health, he said, hangs in the balance.

Lu is the Dr. Doom of bees. According to the nutritionist — but not clear to most other experts in the field — colony collapse disorder (CCD), which first emerged in 2006, can be directly linked to “neonics,” as the now controversial class of pesticides is often called, and also to genetically modified crops. Phased in during the 1990s, neonics are most often used by farmers to control unwanted crop pests. They are coated on seeds, which then produce plants that systemically fight pests.

To many environmental activists, the pesticide does more harm than good, and they’ve found their champion in Chensheng Lu. It’s been a busy fall for the professor, jetting back and forth between Boston and Washington, with forays around the United States to talk to adoring audiences. He presents himself as the defender of bees, and this fiery message has transformed a once obscure academic into a global “green” rock star, feted at events like last month’s lunch talk at Harvard.

The sudden abandoning of hives by honey bees known as Colony Collapse Disorder has emerged as one of the hottest science mysteries in recent years. Lu has authored two extremely controversial papers on CCD: one in 2012 and a second published this past spring. He and his two beekeeper colleagues – there were no entomologists on his tiny research team – contend that neonicotinoids present a mortal threat to bees. Not only that, Lu claims, neonics endanger humans as well, accelerating Parkinson’s Disease.

Lu reached folk hero status among environmentalists last May when the Harvard School of Public Health launched a promotional campaign touting his latest, controversial research: “Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies,” the press release claimed. Before the study was even circulated, stories in some mainstream publications including Forbes ran the release with only a pretense of a rewrite.

The story exploded on the Internet. Many environmental and tabloid journalists painted an alarmist picture based on Lu’s research: “New Harvard Study Proves Why The Bees Are All Disappearing,” “Harvard University scientists have proved that two widely used neonicotinoids harm honeybee colonies,” and “Neonicotinoid Insecticide Impairs Winterization Leading to Bee Colony Collapse: Harvard Study” are three of hundreds of blog posts and articles.

Behind the headlines

Although public opinion has coalesced around the belief that the bee death mystery is settled, the vast majority of scientists who study bees for a living disagree–vehemently.

How could a “Harvard study” and a sizable slice of the nation’s press get this story so wrong?.

The buzz that followed the publication of Lu’s latest study is a classic example of how dicey science can combine with sloppy reporting to create a ‘false narrative’–a storyline with a strong bias that is compelling, but wrong. It’s how simplistic ideas get rooted in the public consciousness. And it’s how ideology-driven science threatens to wreak public policy havoc.

Bees are important to our food supply. They help pollinate roughly one-third of crop species in the US, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts and livestock feed such as alfalfa and clover. That’s why the mystery of CCD is so troubling.

One of the central problems with Lu’s central conclusion–and much of the reporting–is that despite the colony problems that erupted in 2006, the global bee population has remained remarkably stable since the widespread adoption of neonics in the late 1990s. The United Nations reports that the number of hives has actually risen over the past 15 years, to more than 80 million colonies, a record, as neonics usage has soared.

Country by country statistics are even more revealing. Beehives are up over the past two decades in Europe, where advocacy campaigns against neonics prompted the EU to impose a two-year moratorium beginning this year on the use of three neonics. 2014-12-14-european_union_beehive_totals.jpg

Last February, the government of Australia, where neonics are used extensively, reaffirmed that “honeybee populations are not in decline despite the increased use of [neonicotinoids] in agriculture and horticulture since the mid-1990s.” Its central finding was just the opposite of what many in the media have reported: The APVMA (Australian equivalent of the EPA) concluded, “[T]he introduction of the neonicotinoids has led to an overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides.”

According to statistics Canada honey bee colonies have increased from 521,000 in 1995 to 672,000 in 2013, a record. North American managed beehive numbers have held stable over the last two decades. 2014-12-14-NA.pngSources: USDA and Statistics Canada

So how did the narrative that the world faces a beepocalypse become settled wisdom? The media have widely conflated two parallel but different phenomena: Bee deaths related to CCD and bees dying from other causes.

Bee health took a sharp hit in the 1980s and has been struggling during the winter months for decades coinciding with the global spread of the parasitical Varroa destructor mite and the sub-lethal effects of miticides used to control the parasite. But these overwinter losses, while troubling, haven’t translated into declines in the overall bee population because bees reproduce rapidly in warmer months.

The bee health issue erupted into the public consciousness in 2006, when bee die-offs mysteriously spiked–in California to as high as 80%.

GMOs and cell Phones did it?

The event was dubbed CCD by a team of entomologists because of the unique characteristics of the deaths: the unusual abandonment of hives by the oldest bees leaving behind larvae, the queen and food stores.

Advocacy groups originally pointed to cell phones and genetically modified crops as the likely culprits, and some fringe organizations, like the fringe activist group the Organic Consumers Association, still do. But CCD gradually subsided.

Dennis van Engelsdorp, a University of Maryland entomologist who was part of the research team that named CCD, has written to me that there has not been a single field CCD incident in the last three years, except cases linked to the Nosema fungus. Confusing the picture, overwinter bee deaths also increased in the years after the CCD scare, reaching 30% or more in the US and in some European countries. Confounding doomsayers, losses plummeted to 21.9% over the winter of 2011-2012, jumped again during the following year’s frigid weather, then settled back into the low 20s.

In some states, like North Dakota, which is the largest honey producer in the US, the number of bee colonies has hit an all-time high.

The recent trend in Europe is also encouraging. In April, the EU released a report called Epilobee that surveyed bee health in 2012-2013. Seventy-five percent of bees suffered overwinter losses of 15% or less, a level considered well within the acceptable range in the US. Only countries in Europe’s far north, home to 5% of the bee population, and which suffered through a bitter winter, experienced losses of more than 20%.

In short, most entomologists scoff at media references to a beemageddon.

But that’s exactly what Lu claims.

Hyping the “Harvard” studies

Mother Jones, in its coverage led by food reporter Tom Philpott, has been particularly myopic in its promotion of Lu’s controversial views and the scientifically dubious claim that neonics is the prime driver of bee deaths. It’s run more than a dozen articles about the alleged mortal threat posed by neonics. Upon the release of Lu’s most recent study, Philpott titled his article, “Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery?”

There were no “scientists” behind the Lu study, of course–only Lu himself. But rather than seeking out views of established experts in the field, he had Lu and only Lu answer the question he posed.

“[C]oming on the heels of a similar [study] he published in 2012, the CCD mystery has been solved,” he wrote. Philpott now unqualifiedly, and incorrectly say mainstream entomologists, refers to neonics as “bee killer chemicals.”

Who is Chensheng (Alex) Lu, the Dr. Doom of honey bees? He is an environmental researcher with the Harvard School of Public Health with no formal training in entomology. His two bee papers are “Harvard studies” only in the sense that the only scientist who conducted the studies has a Harvard faculty appointment; his co-authors are local beekeepers. Both studies appeared in one of the most obscure science journals in the world, a marginal Italian journal.

Lu emerged out of academic obscurity two years ago with the publication of his first study on bee deaths. He promoted a simple explanation, the kind that energizes activists: A new class of pesticides, promoted by large chemical companies as a safer alternative to older chemicals, was a hidden killer.

“I kind of ask myself,” Lu told Wired in 2012. “Is this the repeat of Silent Spring? What else do we need to prove that it’s the pesticides causing Colony Collapse Disorder?”

The second coming of Silent Spring? Almost from the day his first study was published, Lu was making grandiose claims. By his own admission, he is the definition of an activist scientist. He is on the board of The Organic Center, an arm of the multi-million dollar Organic Trade Association, a lobby group with strong financial interest in disparaging conventional agriculture, synthetic pesticides and neonics in particular–a conflict of interest that Lu never acknowledges and to my knowledge no other journalist has reported.

Earlier this month, OTA announced it is partnering with Lu to tout the benefits of organics, including promoting the dangers of neonics.

Many of the world’s top scientists have challenged his research. Dennis vanEngelsdorp called Lu’s first study “an embarrassment” while Scott Black, executive director of the bee-hugging Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, characterized it as fatally flawed, both in its design and conclusions.

University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences 2007 National Research council study on the Status of Pollinators in North America called it “effectively worthless” to serious researchers. “The experimental design and statistical analysis are just not reliable,” she said.

Beekeepers have been skeptical as well. Lu’s findings contradicted what they witnessed in the fields. If neonics were a mystery killer, then not using them should translate into healthier bee stocks; but that’s not what has happened.

“In places where neonicotinoid pesticides have been banned, such as France and Italy, there’s no evidence that honeybee populations have rebounded,” noted Hannah Nordhaus, beekeeper and author of the bestseller The Beekeepers’ Lament.

Lu has been defiant since the stinging expert rejection of his first paper. He sees the fingerprints of a Big Ag conspiracy of chemical companies, USDA and entomologists who he believes are ignoring the dangers to bees. Those are damning charges if true, but Lu had yet to present any evidence to back them up–until the publication of his newest paper last May.

Lu monitored 18 hives, a small number for such a complex study, comparing two different pesticides in different locations. He fed bees high fructose corn syrup laced with two neonics, imidacloprid and clothianidin, for 13 weeks. It was an odd choice because bees in fields usually only feed for as few as two weeks. Six of the 12 colonies fed neonics eventually ended up showing substantial deaths over the winter, as did one of the six control colonies.

According to Lu and his beekeeper co-authors, this proved that neonics cause CCD.

To seasoned observers of the bee controversy, the “new” study looked like more of the same. “Lu’s sample sizes are astonishingly small,” May Berenbaum told me, ticking off a litany of problems. “He never tested for the presence of pathogens, so his conclusions dismissing other likely causes don’t follow from his data. The whole study just doesn’t hold together. And I’m not being a fusspot here. It’s unfortunate this was presented as a Harvard paper because it gives this credibility that it doesn’t deserve.”

Twitter lit up with critical comments, starting with Nordhaus: 2014-12-14-Nordhaus.png

Many other critical posts followed, including by Brian Ames, a prominent apple grower, artisanal honeymaker and beekeeper: 2014-12-14-Ames.png

Even rudimentary digging by reporters would have turned up the revealing fact, unreported by the adulatory environmental press, that first study was rejected by Nature, as Lu himself has acknowledged, before ending up in the Bulletin of Insectology, a marginal “pay for play” publication that is known to publish research often rejected by mainstream peer-reviewed journals.

(The Bulletin of Insectology has an “impact factor” (IF) of 0.375, which means that the average paper from that journal is cited by another journal approximately once every three years; in contrast, Nature, which rejected Lu’s first paper, has an IF of 51).

The second study faced the same fate. Unable to get his work published by credible journals, Lu returned to the same publication that put out his first piece–perhaps the only journal in the world that would publish it.

“Anyone at this point in time who wishes to make a contribution to the study of potential effects of neonicotinoids on honey bees–or any other aspect of honey bee health–and publishes this data in the extremely obscure journal Bulletin of Insectology is very hard to take seriously,” Colorado State University entomologist Whitney Cranshaw emailed me.

A week does not go by without one advocacy group or government official or activist scientist making sensational claims about the supposed catastrophic dangers that neonics supposedly present.

In November, for example, advertisements began appearing across Ontario in Canada warning, “neonic pesticides hurt our bees and us,” one of them accompanied by a young boy gazing sadly at a dead bee. 2014-12-14-ontario_2.jpg

They were placed by a fringe advocacy group, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment; its primary funder is David Suzuki, a once prominent but now long retired geneticist who more recently has become known for rants against GMO foods.

That kind of hyperbole, scientists say, obscures the complex story of what’s really happening to bees and why–and the risks of advocacy groups and activist journalists driving science and agricultural regulations into a policy ditch.

Which brings us back to the curious case of Alex Lu.

Although Lu’s most recent paper, published last spring, was not clear on this point, the nutritionist has publicly maintained that neonic seed treatments are the driving cause of CCD. Let’s be clear. Neonics are an appropriate subject for serious research. They are neurotoxic pesticides. Because they rely on a complex set of behaviors, bees exposed to high volumes could conceivably become drunk and ill. Scientists are and should continue to examine this chemical and all agricultural chemicals.

But the emphasis of many popular articles, and Lu’s study, is way out of whack with the potential dangers that scientists believe are presented by neonics. The pesticide is applied to seeds sparingly — only about 1-3 ppb is commonly found in pollen or nectar after application, levels way below safety concerns. Plants grown from a treated seed often need no further insecticidal treatment, unlike many competing chemicals. And in contrast to earlier generation insecticides that required multiple applications, when infestations are severe a single additional spraying generally suffices.

Lu steadfastly claims that bees that died in his studies were fed field realistic levels doses–statements echoed uncritically by reporters without, it turns out, cross checking with beekeepers or entomologists. “Chensheng Lu and his team treated 12 colonies with tiny levels of neonics,” Mother Jones maintained.

Tiny?

As Randy Oliver, a well known beekeeper, wrote on his Scientific Beekeeping blog, Lu fed his test colonies a pesticide brew of about 135 parts per billion (ppb). That’s 100 times higher then the 1-3 ppb commonly found in pollen or nectar, a level far below safety concerns. Rather than citing the chemicals’ ppb, some reporters touted the physical size of the dose, a worthless measurement. Lu also fed bees every week for 13 straight weeks when the real world application is just a few weeks at most.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone even reviewed this paper,” Oliver concluded.

What’s remarkable, numerous scientists and beekeepers told me, is that Lu’s bees didn’t just keel over in the first few weeks after sucking down what amounted to a lethal cocktail every day.

“It’s surprising those colonies lasted so long given the stratospheric quantities of insecticide [Lu] pumped into them for 13 weeks,” wrote Jonathan Getty on Bee-L Chat, a discussion forum for bee experts. “Lu has convincingly demonstrated, again, as in his previous study … that a high dose of an insecticide will kill an insect. Has anyone learned anything from all this? Looks like junk science at its worst.”

There was also scant evidence to back up Lu’s central claim that he had solved the mystery of CCD. “His description of the hives just didn’t show that,” University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp told me. Bee die offs, he said, have occurred mysteriously and periodically since at least the mid-19th century but became the focus of widespread public concern only in 2006. It’s clear that what Lu observed–bee deaths–“was not CCD. Looks like a typical bee colony death over the winter–which often includes bees abandoning the hive–but it’s a slow dwindle not a sudden collapse.”

Joe Ballenger, an entomologist writing for the independent sustainability site Biology Fortified, outlined how little Lu appears to know about CCD. “There are very important differences between the colonies Lu poisoned with insecticide and those which have been affected by CCD,” Ballenger wrote. “Despite these differences, Lu claims he has replicated CCD. However, his data demonstrates that he did not replicate CCD.”

Ballenger drew up a chart of Lu’s mistakes: 2014-12-14-neonics_donts_cause_ccd.jpg

Are there any prominent entomologists who endorse Lu’s findings? I couldn’t find any. Mother Jones quoted Jeffrey Pettis, an entomologist and research leader at USDA’s Beltsville’s Bee Laboratory, as appearing to be supportive. “Pettis told me that he thought Lu’s study ‘adds to the list’ of studies showing that pesticides pose a significant threat to honeybees,” Tom Philpott wrote.

I emailed Pettis about that quote:

I was trying to be diplomatic when I talked to Philpott but the Lu study should not have been published. It is not good science. I was trying to say that it adds to the list that pesticides and bees don’t mix but it is not a paper that shows that neonics cause problems simply because it was poorly replicated with high dosages used.

So what was going on in the hives that Lu monitored? The bee deaths that Lu found suggest a quite different cause, said vanEngelsdorp; the bees appear to have been killed by Lu himself–entirely expected if hives are overdosed during a frigid winter.

Are there potential advantages to using neonics to control pest infestations?

A telling fact emerges when you view the landscape of studies on neonics: on the whole, those done in a laboratory or that use unrealistic high doses (e.g. Lu’s studies) raise precautionary concerns. In contrast, field observations show few if any serious problems.

The latest example? Four Canadian scientists led by Cynthia D. Scott Dupree, an environmental biologist at the University of Guelph, undertook a large-scale study of honey bee exposure to one neonic, clothianidin, which is applied as a seed treatment. The study was centered in southern Ontario, which advocacy groups have contended has been particularly hard hit by neonic-related bee deaths.

Designed in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada, it was industry funded, but executed under Good Laboratory Practice Standards.

The scientists observed bees foraging heavily on the canola. As numerous other studies have suggested, they found, “Although various laboratory studies have reported sublethal effects in individual honey bees exposed to low doses of neonicotinoid insecticides, the results of the present study suggest that foraging on clothianidin seed-treated crops, under realistic conditions, poses low risk to honey bee colonies.”

Assertions by entomologists that neonics play a limited role in bee health infuriates some environmentalists convinced this mystery is solved: Let’s just ban neonics, they say, and move on.

“For its part, the pesticide industry is doing its best to shroud the phenomenon in uncertainty,” Mother Jones wrote in its article hyping the Lu study, “promoting a ‘multifactorial’ explanation that points the finger at mites, viruses, and ‘many other factors, but not…the use of insecticides,’ as neonic producer Bayer puts it in its ‘Honey Bee Health’ pamphlet.”

But it’s not Bayer making those claims, as Philpott seemed to suggest; it’s independent and government scientists. Noting the complexity of the phenomenon, the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency took a cautious, science-based approach to the emerging controversy three years ago, commissioning a broad-based assessment of the evidence. This panel, reflecting views by most beekeepers and academic expertsconcluded that neonics were unlikely to be the major driver of bee deaths.

Rather, the experts identified a complex set of causes likely linked to a surge in pathogens, such as Varroa mites that feed on the bodily fluids of bees and which first surfaced in the U.S. in the 1980s and began infesting beehives in California in 1993; and Nosema, a common parasite that invades their intestinal tracts; and the use and perhaps misuse of miticides to control them. Other issues include the stress put on bees by large commercial beekeepers, particularly to service the agri-business demand for bees needed for the California almond crop in late winter before bees normally repopulate, as well as climate change and breeding issues.

Few experts or practitioners believe banning neonics or GMOs would improve bee health and could in fact result in farmers going back to spraying insecticides known to harm pollinators and humans.

“If we took pesticides out of the equation tomorrow, I think there’s no doubt we would have reduced colony losses,” vanEngelsdorp told me. “But even without pesticides, we’d still be seeing significant losses–losses that are unsustainable.”

Neonics present in corn dust at planting have been shown definitively to contribute to bee mortality, but that’s a result of faulty formulation, scientists have concluded. When used properly, there is intriguing evidence that neonics may actually improved bee health in some circumstances. Hints can be found, ironically, in Alex Lu’s own data, of all places.

Lu’s 2012 paper raises red flags because he used two separate dosing regimens as the experiment progressed, noted Richard Cowles, a prominent entomologist with the state of Connecticut, in an email to me. During the first four weeks of his study, the bees were fed concentrations of imidacloprid that, as it turns out, were in fact field realistic. At three weeks into testing using these concentrations, the health of the bee colonies was positively correlated with exposure to imidacloprid, as measured by the number of capped brood cells. In other words, the bees appeared healthier.

“Rather than continue the experiment with these concentrations, Dr. Lu inexplicably increased the dosages for the last nine weeks of feeding-by 40 times,” Cowles told me.

Why?

Cowles couldn’t get an answer from Lu and neither could I. This is one of the many questions that I had hoped to put to Lu in an interview. He at first agreed by email but then stopped communicating. I contacted him again and also reached out to the Harvard School of Public Health, but got no reply. Entomologists have volunteered as to what they thought might have been going on when Lu changed feeding tactics.

“Dr. Lu probably was trying to hide the fact that he observed an unexpected result contrary to his expectations, which led to him increase the dosages to poison the bees,” Cowles, emailed me. “Whether this sub-lethal effect is actually therapeutic to honey bees is a very interesting question, and one that I’d like to investigate.”

In other words, Lu’s data suggests the opposite of his stated conclusion–bees appear to do fine when exposed to field realistic doses and even increasingly higher amounts of neonics, but ultimately succumb to astronomical levels.

This is not the first time a neonic study has shown that bee health might improve when crops are treated with new generation insecticides. In a 2013 PLOS ONE study, a team led by vanEngelsdorp and Jeffrey Pettis studied the real world impact of 35 pesticides including three neonics–acetamiprid, imidacloprid and thiacloprid–by examining hives from seven major crops. Intriguingly, bee health improved although the results would need to be confirmed with follow up research. This study remains the only lab research to date that has evaluated how real world pollen-pesticide blends affect honey bee health.

The researchers found a striking reduction in the risk from Nosema infection when neonics were used, bee health improved. Why would that be? It seems neonics may suppress the parasite associated with the disease. vanEngelsdorp and Pettis are not yet sure this is a real effect; good science requires that results be confirmed in multiple studies. That said, the intriguing but startling finding directly challenges the belief that neonics pose an unusually unique danger to bees.

What is the future for bees, neonics and agriculture?

Are there replacement insecticides if neonics should be banned? Sure. Those based on pyrethroids and organophosphates some of which are more toxic to bees and humans, are not as effective as neonics for many uses–and are not in the political crosshairs.

That’s not slowed demands for an immediate ban. Advocacy groups recently widened the scope of their concerns, claiming neonics could have an unknown environmental impact, and waterways are being polluted. But evidence for that is scant. A US Geological Society study published in July found the highest levels detected were at least 40 times lower than benchmarks established by EPA to be protective of aquatic life, and most were up to 1,000 times below that level.

What would happen if U.S. officials do institute sharp restrictions, as the White House may be contemplating?

Neonics are not only important to major row crops such as corn, soy and canola, they also remain the most effective weapon against Asian psyllid, an insect that spreads the deadly virus that threatens America’s citrus crop. They are the key pesticide keeping in check whitefly infestations, which could otherwise devastate winter vegetables. They are the primary insecticide used to counter leafhoppers in the grape-growing Northwest as well as thrips in cotton and water weevil in rice. They’ve been hugely successful in combating aphids and beetles in potatoes.

I found scant support among entomologists for the two-year precautionary moratorium adopted by European politicians in the wake of near hysterical media reports in 2012 and 2013, many generated by coverage of Lu’s research. That ban looks like a textbook case of “shooting before you aim,” resulting in unintended but predictable consequences. As Matt Ridley reported in November in The Times of London:

All across southeast Britain this autumn, crops of oilseed rape are dying because of infestation by flea beetles. The direct cause of the problem is the two-year ban on pesticides called neonicotinoids brought in by the EU over British objections at the tail end of last year. … Farmers in Germany, the EU’s largest producer of rape, are also reporting widespread damage. Since rape is one of the main flower crops, providing huge amounts of pollen and nectar for bees, this will hurt wild bee numbers as well as farmers’ livelihoods.

There are now growing concerns that Lu’s studies will carry weight with politicians facing pressure to “do something”. That’s what happened in late November in Ontario, where the government has proposed to restrict the sale of corn and soybean seeds treated with neonics to farmers by 80 percent over the next two years.

The very same week, Health Canada issued a report after a long investigation that found bee mortality, which was not an issue until 2012, dropped 70 percent over last winter.

Activists are trying to jack up political pressure in the United States, perhaps concerned as signs that a temporary global surge in bee deaths appears over, undercutting their campaign. In September, a coalition of environmental groups co-wrote a letter signed by 60 Congressional Democrats urging the EPA to restrict neonicotinoid use citing Lu’s work in arguing that “native pollinators” have “suffered alarming declines.”

Those calls send chills down the back of entomologists concerned that Lu’s claims that he has solved the mystery of the beemageddon that doesn’t actually exist will have a bullying impact on public policy.

“Lu’s work is clearly biased, sensational,” said Richard Cowles. “It is horrendously incompetent. This is just hogwash. We will all pay a price for bad research.”

May Berenbaum was appointed this past summer to chair a National Academy of Sciences study on the health of pollinators ordered by the White House. I asked her if there is anything of value in Lu’s study to guide scientists and regulators? Do neonicotinoids threaten the health of this beleaguered arthropod?

Berenbaum paused. A dedicated environmentalist, she is known for her understated fairness.

“I’m no fan of pesticides and they are overused in agriculture, but you won’t find any confirmation of that in this study.”

Science is not a set of results; it is a method. If the method is wrong, the results are useless. The uncomfortably high number of bee deaths eludes the kind of definitive but potentially reckless conclusion that could result in precipitous regulations.

“This is a really complex issue with no quick and easy solutions,” Berenbaum said. “I can’t imagine a situation in which I would cite the findings of this paper as rigorous and reliable. This is just not good science.”

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis and at the Center for Health and Risk Communication, George Mason University. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter.

g human dna sequence spl

What’s the genetic ancestry of average Americans?

In the United States, almost no one can trace their ancestry back to just one place. And for many, the past may hold some surprises, according to a new study. Researchers have found that a significant percentage of African-Americans, European Americans, and Latinos carry ancestry from outside their self-identified ethnicity. The average African-American genome, for example, is nearly a quarter European, and almost 4 percent of European Americans carry African ancestry.

Until recently, “human population geneticists have tended to ignore the U.S.,” says Joanna Mountain, a geneticist and senior director of research at 23andMe, a company in Mountain View, California, that offers genetic testing. With its long history of migrations from around the world, she says, the country was “considered to be kind of messy in terms of genetics.” But Mountain and her colleagues thought they might have a fighting chance of deciphering Americans’ complex genetic ancestry. Their secret weapon? 23andMe’s huge database of genetic information.

The team started by looking at the average genetic ancestry of the three largest groups in the United States: European Americans, African-Americans, and Latinos. Those categories are based on how 23andMe customers defined themselves. But as you might expect in a country where different groups of people have been meeting and mixing for hundreds of years, the genetic lines between the groups are quite blurred.

Read full, original article: Genetic study reveals surprising ancestry of many Americans

GMO large

Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield’s and Just Label It, on why GMO labeling is not anti-science

Stonyfield Farm’s co-founder and chairman Gary Hirshberg has shifted his attention from building one of the country’s most influential organic food companies to building awareness about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Hirshberg created Just Label It, a national campaign to label GE foods.

He’s encouraged more than 1.4 million consumers to petition the FDA for mandatory labeling, and joined forces with 600 partner organizations to demand the U.S. government label foods made with genetically modified ingredients.

I pulled together friends to start Just Label It because of a belief that we’ve got to get straightened out about chemicals in this country. GMO is herbicide use. Period. There’s no debate about that.

The fight for labeling transparency is not about stopping GMOs. To say you’re against genetic engineering is to say you’re against science. Real drought resistance, real yield improvements, could be a good thing. Unfortunately, 95 percent of the way the technology has been applied is to produce and use more chemicals.

Last year, the six leading biotech companies sold $2.47 billion worth of seed, and $4.16 billion worth of herbicides [what the chemical companies call “crop protection”]. And nobody knows that. They’ve told Congress, they’ve told us all that it’s about feeding the world. They’ve told everybody that people like me are Luddites and we don’t believe in science. And they’ve done a brilliant job with tens of millions of dollars of lobbying to seduce the public into thinking that this is feed-the-world, feed-the-future stuff when it’s a simple profit model to sell more chemicals.

Read full, original interviewStonyfield’s Gary Hirshberg Talks GMO Labeling

Embryonic stem cells

Court overturns EU ban on stem cell patents

Today the European Court of Justice (CJEU) ruled that human embryonic stem cell patents could be allowed if organisms can’t develop into human being. The decision overturns a 2011 European Union ruling that outlawed patents on hESC research, affirming that pluripotent human stem cells derived from parthenogenetically activated oocytes can be patented in Europe.

Parthenogenesis refers to the initiation of embryogenesis without fertilization by oocyte activation in the absence of sperm though a variety of chemical and electrical techniques. The activated oocyte contains a single or double set of maternally derived chromosomes but does not contain paternal DNA.

While patents on hESC have been upheld in the United States, the European Patent Office (EPO) has refused to grant many of the same patents on ethical grounds if the commercial exploitation of those patents goes against public order or morality. Combined with a principle of noncommercialization of the human embryo, human body, and its products led Europe to deny the patentability of hESC.

Today’s judgment was precipitated though an appeal brought by International Stem Cell Corporation (ISC), a California-based biotechnology company developing novel stem cell based therapies and biomedical products seeking European patent protection. The company had initially applied to the U.K. Intellectual Property Office for two national patents covering production of stem cell lines and corneal tissue from parthenogenetically activated oocytes.

The Office rejected both applications on the grounds that the inventions in question entail use and/or the destruction of human embryos. They are therefore not patentable under the Court of Justice’s Brüstle v. Greenpeace ruling, in which the Court stated that any nonfertilized human ovum whose development has been stimulated by parthenogenesis and which is capable of commencing the process of development of a human being constitutes a “human embryo”.

Scientists have argued that the 2011 decision was based on a misinterpretation of scientific fact and should not extend to parthenotes, which the judgment said required the same protections of personhood, and lumped parthenotes made with and without nuclear transfer together. This classification was made on the grounds that these eggs are “capable of commencing the process of development of a human being just as an embryo created by fertilization of an ovum can.”

Read full, original article: European Court Opens Door for Stem Cell Patenting

Only two percent of genome codes for genes, so what’s the rest for?

The so-called “streetlight effect” has often fettered scientists who study complex hereditary diseases. The term refers to an old joke about a drunk searching for his lost keys under a streetlight. A cop asks, “Are you sure this is where you lost them?” The drunk says, “No, I lost them in the park, but the light is better here.”

For researchers who study the genetic roots of human diseases, most of the light has shone down on the 2 percent of the human genome that includes protein-coding DNA sequences. “That’s fine. Lots of diseases are caused by mutations there, but those mutations are low-hanging fruit,” says University of Toronto (U.T.) professor Brendan Frey who studies genetic networks. “They’re easy to find because the mutation actually changes one amino acid to another one, and that very much changes the protein.”

The trouble is, many disease-related mutations also happen in noncoding regions of the genome—the parts that do not directly make proteins but that still regulate how genes behave. Scientists have long been aware of how valuable it would be to analyze the other 98 percent but there has not been a practical way to do it.

Now Frey has developed a “deep-learning” machine algorithm that effectively shines a light on the entire genome. A paper appearing December 18 in Science describes how this algorithm can identify patterns of mutation across coding and noncoding DNA alike. The algorithm can also predict how likely each variant is to contribute to a given disease. “Our method works very differently from existing methods,” says Frey, the study’s lead author. “GWAS-, QTL– and ENCODE-type approaches can’t figure out causal relationships. They can only correlate. Our system can predict whether or not a mutation will cause a change in RNA splicing that could lead to a disease phenotype.”

Read full, original article: The Dark Corners of Our DNA Hold Clues about Disease

px Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

Can chemicals evolve? Testing recipes for the origin of life

The origin of life is a fascinating question that has held the interest of our species for many centuries. While early theories pointed mostly to the divine, scientists in the past century have been able to shed a little more light on how and where our common ancestor may have originated. Tracing the roots of the tree of life far enough will take us from multi cellular organisms to single celled organisms and even further to simple molecules that ‘evolved’ in a certain sense to become more and more complex, crossing over the line from being chemical to biological.

Now in a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, scientists at the University of Glasgow have taken a unique approach to this question by looking at ‘chemical evolution’–whether evolution might occur in mixtures of different oil molecules. The researchers chose five oily chemicals and using a robot that they specifically engineered for this experiment,  they developed a system whereby the robot would create individual oil droplets made up of the 5 oils in different proportions and place them on a dish with water. An attached camera was then used to record and analyze various behavioral patterns of the droplets such as velocity, angular velocity, vibration and division into smaller droplets. These behaviors changed based on the individual properties of the chemicals such as solubility, density and surface tension among others.

By using a specific algortihm to select for certain ‘traits’ such as high velocity and the ability to divide, the robot placed additional droplets (progeny) of the fittest droplets in the next cycle while removing the ones that did not exhibit the desired behavior. In a span of 21 generations, scientists were able to show that the robot had selected the compositions that delivered optimally expected behavior without the use of any human intervention. This is an important experimental finding because it suggests that under the right pressures, simple chemical mixtures can ‘evolve’.

Keeping in mind that the selective pressure applied on the droplets was based on a program written by the scientists leaves us with the question of what the force might have been billions of years ago. The authors of the study speculate on this, hoping to answer the question by allowing the system to become more autonomous and less programmed over time.

Not only can the platform be used to explore simple oil-droplet formulations selected for specific functions, we hope this system can be used to explore the concept of oil droplets with the ability to catalyse their own formation. As a result, we hope this work will give a new direction to study how minimal information inputs, coupling chemical assemblies with algorithms, can lead to spontaneously emerging complex evolutionary systems.

The ‘ability to catalyze their own formation’ part is of critical importance as it might offer the first selective advantage that would allow certain oil bound chemical compositions to exist more frequently than others. Should similar evolving chemical compositions have existed in early Earth, they could have combined with other molecules that may have existed during the same period such as self-catalyzing RNA or chains of amino acids and evolved into self-replicating primitive protocells capable of functions such as metabolism and storing energy.

While it is a rather large imaginative leap from this study to the evolution of life forms, it is very useful in testing the evolution of complex systems from simple ones in a laboratory.  The use of a robotic system is noteworthy too, as an experiment would take a lot longer if it were done by humans and is less likely to be as precise.

The search for the origins of life has been going on for a while now. From asteroids and meteorites to chemical soups, there are many theories, and the origin of life may not lie in one or the other, but somewhere in between. There is much work to be done however, before we get to an answer. By combining the best of artificial and human intelligence together with the speed and accuracy afforded by robotics, we might just get to it a little bit quicker.

Arvind Suresh is a science communicator and a former laboratory biologist. Follow him @suresh_arvind

Additional Resources

christmas santas list

Food industry, NaturalNews on Santa’s ‘naughty list’ for bumbling GMO issues

‘Tis the season!

Just in time for holiday merrymaking, Santa has given me a sneak peak of his 2014 Naughty List. As usual, there are quite a few familiar faces on the list (at least they should be familiar if you’re a fan of The Farmer’s Daughter!). No surprise some our least favorite anti-agriculture characters have made the cut in the top 10 of Santa’s List.

Santa also gave me a peak of the Nice List, but that will come later.

This year’s list includes General Mills for its on-again, off-again, maybe-maybe-not-again relationship with biotechnology; Ben & Jerry’s for latching onto the anti-GMO movement to increase sales; and natural products huckster Mike Adams of NaturalNews infamy, for arguing that anti-GMO activists had the moral obligation to murder biotech supporters.

Read full, original blog: Santa’s Naughty List 2014

Biotech can ‘rewild’ crops for resilience

Scientists should “re-wild” food crops by inserting lost genetic properties of ancient, edible plants in order to boost agricultural output for a growing population, a new study said.

Important properties of wild plants, including varieties of wheat and rice, have been unintentionally lost during thousands of years of breeding.

When humans first domesticated wheat around 7500 BC, farmers chose to use seeds based on a few selected traits, particularly their yields.

“We estimate that all crops would benefit from re-wilding,” Michael Broberg Palmgren, a scientist at the University of Copenhagen and one of the study’s authors, wrote in an email.

The scientists suggest using biotechnology to re-insert desired genes from wild varieties of popular crops into widely consumed strains in order to improve food security.

Read full, original article: Back to the future: Scientists want ‘rewilded’ crops to boost agriculture

GMO rejections suggest Europeans becoming more hostile to science and technology

The continent of Galileo and Darwin is not about to cast off its glorious heritage. But the boffins have given cause for concern.

Three years ago Anne Glover, a Scottish molecular biologist, became the EU’s first chief scientific adviser. She could also be its last. Her mandate expired, along with the previous commission’s, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the new president, has not seen fit to renew it. Ms Glover was notably outspoken on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), describing opponents as suffering from “a form of madness”. That was too much for green NGOs, who called for her head in a letter to Mr Juncker.

Even sober-minded observers worry about the signal Ms Glover’s departure sends. Europe’s agonies over GMOs illustrate the problems that arise when science is not well integrated into policymaking. Despite repeated studies finding no risk to human health from the consumption of GMOs, just one such crop (a form of maize) is cultivated in the EU, and in only a handful of countries. Under a new proposal countries will even be able to deny farmers the right to purchase GM seeds that have been approved at pan-European level. It is rare for the EU to return powers to national governments once it has acquired them. But politicians saw no other way to break the impasse.

Read full, original post: Charlemagne: The battle of the scientists

Biotech complements conventional and organic ag in promoting biodiversity

Advocates of biotech crops and those who favor traditional farming practices such as crop diversity often seem worlds apart, but a new study shows that these two approaches can be compatible. The study, published in Nature Biotechnologydiscovered that the diverse patchwork of crops in northern China slowed adaptation to genetically engineered cotton by a wide-ranging insect pest.

Genetically engineered cotton, corn and soybean produce proteins from the widespread soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, that kill certain insect pests but are harmless to most other creatures including people. However, rapid evolution of resistance to Bt toxins by some pests has reduced the benefits of this approach.

To delay resistance, farmers plant refuges of insect host plants that do not make Bt toxins, which allows survival of insects that are susceptible to the toxins. When refuges near Bt crops produce many susceptible insects, it reduces the chances that two resistant insects will mate and produce resistant offspring.

Yet, the Chinese approach relies on the previously untested idea that refuges of non-Bt cotton are not needed there because the most damaging pest, the cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), feeds on many crops other than cotton that do not make Bt toxins, such as corn, soybean and peanuts.

The results reported in the new study provide the first strong evidence that these “natural refuges” of non-Bt crops other than cotton delay evolution of pest resistance to Bt cotton.

“The most important lesson is that we don’t need to choose between biotechnology and traditional agriculture,” said Bruce Tabashnik at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Instead, we can use the best practices from both approaches to maximize agricultural productivity and sustainability.”

Read full, original article: Ancient wisdom boosts sustainability of biotech cotton

Does neuroscience need to revise how it looks at the brain?

How much of our brain do we actually need? A number of stories have appeared in the news in recent months about people with chunks of their brains missing or damaged. These cases tell a story about the mind that goes deeper than their initial shock factor. It isn’t just that we don’t understand how the brain works, but that we may be thinking about it in the entirely wrong way.

Earlier this year, a case was reported of a woman who is missing her cerebellum, a distinct structure found at the back of the brain. By some estimates the human cerebellum contains half the brain cells you have. This isn’t just brain damage – the whole structure is absent. Yet this woman lives a normal life; she graduated from school, got married and had a kid following an uneventful pregnancy and birth. A pretty standard biography for a 24-year-old.

The woman wasn’t completely unaffected – she had suffered from uncertain, clumsy, movements her whole life. But the surprise is how she moves at all, missing a part of the brain that is so fundamental it evolved with the first vertebrates. The sharks that swam when dinosaurs walked the Earth had cerebellums.

This case points to a sad fact about brain science. We don’t often shout about it, but there are large gaps in even our basic understanding of the brain. We can’t agree on the function of even some of the most important brain regions, such as the cerebellum. Rare cases such as this show up that ignorance. Every so often someone walks into a hospital and their brain scan reveals the startling differences we can have inside our heads. Startling differences which may have only small observable effects on our behaviour.

Read full, original article: Can you live a normal life with half a brain?

Video: Clearing the confusion over GMOs and hormones in milk

My youngest sister Kaley is a senior in high school, and she is taking a few college classes this semester. In her college-level English composition class, she was given the assignment of writing a persuasive essay on a hot topic of her choice. She chose to address genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and consumer concerns about GMOs in food.

In visiting with her professor about her chosen topic, Kaley was told that although her teacher didn’t know much about GMOs, she refused to feed her daughter “GMO-milk” because the “hormones would cause her to reach early onset puberty.” Wait, what?

Here was a college-level professor mixing up one misconception about food with another. Somehow she had convinced herself that milk and meat could be genetically modified and that GMO crops contained hormones. Confused? I sure was when Kaley called me to tell me about it, and her essay ended up being a basic explanation of GMO crops as well as a lesson in the naturally occurring hormones in meat and milk. I encouraged Kaley to share this Meat MythCrushers video addressing concerns about hormone use in beef production.

Read full, original blog: Confusion about GMOs & hormones in milk and meat leads to advocacy moment

What world has learned about limits of science and medicine from Ebola epidemic

People in affected communities were understandably fearful; some were distrustful of health workers and resisted going to treatment centers, where it may have seemed they were only going to die. There is, after all, no cure for Ebola. Experimental treatments helped some, but not enough. Health workers, harried and overworked trying to keep people alive, may not have had the time to assuage patients’ fears. And those who tried to care for their loved ones themselves often got infected, too. The virus forces people into isolation, spread as it is through contact with bodily fluids, and to hug a sick family member is to put oneself at risk.

While some in the Western media criticized West Africans’ fear of health workers and resistance to public-health measures, the United States got a small taste of Ebola panic when Thomas Eric Duncan became the first case diagnosed in the country in September, followed by three other cases this fall. Duncan was the only patient to die in the U.S., and the panic died down quietly.

Poverty isn’t a problem that only affects the people who shoulder its burdens. If we trace a line back to the beginning of the Ebola crisis, it’s clear that the feeling of isolation and neglect that people in West Africa live with had much to do with why the disease spread so fast. Few people were willing to believe the warnings of a world that they saw as, at best, unconcerned with and, at worst, actively exploitative towards them. If this strain of Ebola had been more contagious, we could be looking at a global plague right now. We need to do a better job of ensuring that people in places like West Africa see the outside world as partners so that during moments like last summer there’s shared trust and genuine communication across cultural lines. That starts by actively seeking out the views of community members and civil-society actors in countries like Liberia before problems such as Ebola come up, and then trying to respond to their concerns.

Read full, original article: Lessons From an Outbreak: How Ebola Shaped 2014

Researchers teach computer to interpret genome with video game-based technology

Sequencing of the human genome in 2003 was a monumental achievement. But it left us with more questions than answers: it gave scientists the three-billion-base-pair instruction manual for how a person is created, but not the knowledge of how to read it.

Now a research team led by Brendan Frey at the University of Toronto has created a sophisticated computer tool that uses machine learning — and hardware borrowed from the video-game industry — to peer into parts of the genome that were once “black boxes,” and to rank how likely variants in those regions are to give rise to diseases, including autism.

“We’ve increased by a factor of 10 how much of the genome we can analyze and understand,” says Frey, the Canada Research Chair in Biological Computation and a senior fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, is “a big deal,” says Jeremy Sanford, a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz who specializes in RNA biology. “This is a good step toward interpreting the less obvious features of the genome.”

In order to create the computer tool — recently dubbed “SPANR,” for SPlicing-based ANalysis of vaRiants” — the research team first acquired sophisticated graphics cards developed by video-game companies. Scientists have realized they are perfectly suited for deep learning, the type of high-level machine learning Frey’s lab wanted to undertake.

“We’ve taken these video-game cards that were causing teenagers to not do any work, and solved one of the hardest problems in science,” Frey jokes.

Teaching the computer how to read the genome is like teaching a child how to read words, Frey says. The child sees the word “cow” and a picture of a cow. Eventually, the child learns that those three letters in that order correspond with the picture of the animal. As the child learns to read, it recognizes the word “cow” in new contexts.

Frey’s team showed the computer system strings of DNA, and showed it how much protein those strings of DNA produce. By examining tens of thousands of such examples, the machine is eventually able to predict which proteins will be made for a given DNA sequence, including ones that differ between individuals. What the scientists were really interested in was the regulatory code, parts of genes that provide the instructions for stitching proteins together, a process called splicing.

Read full, original article: Computer taught how to read human genome

Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life

Searching for messages from ET in life’s Genetic Code

When we hear popular media talking about something contained in our “genetic code”, usually it’s from someone who misused the term. They really are talking about one or more genes within our genome, rather than the actual Genetic Code. The code of life as it’s sometimes called is the language that the cellular machinery in all life forms on Earth uses to translate the genes—sequences of DNA and RNA building blocks–into an entirely different class of biological molecules: proteins.

The Genetic Code is contained in our DNA, but, unlike the variations that occur between individuals and between species, the Code is practically the same for every single organism on this planet. But there’s one story involving something contained in our Genetic Code that actually does use the term appropriately. It’s actually been worked out mathematically that the Code could be a message—for us.

Searching for extraterrestrial messages

Run by NASA, the SETI Institute and various other agencies and organizations around the planet search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) based on one major assumption. Namely, we believe it’s possible that some fraction of intelligent species who developed technology on other worlds long before we did on Earth would be trying to “reach out” using some kind of radio or microwave transmission. This doesn’t mean that better ways to communicate over space do not lie ahead as we move forward technologically. In a hundred years, or even tomorrow, we could invent something that makes radio technology as obsolete as the telegraph. But because we learned to send and receive radio signals almost immediately after we harnessed electricity, SETI researchers assume that any civilization that really wants its presence known to emerging civilizations like ours would use the low tech method, the first one that a new civilization would likely master.

Although fictional, Carl Sagan’s brilliant novel, Contact, showed us how an interstellar radio signal would be recognized as being intelligent in origin, and how humans might react to it on Earth. Since Sagan’s novel and the movie that came of it, the real life SETI program has scanned thousands of stars that could have Earth-like planets. This has revealed some candidate signals, though nothing has passed enough tests or persisted long enough for researchers to say that they have something.

“Wow! signal”

The search that uses huge equipment like radio telescopes can go on for decades with investigators identifying possible candidate signals once in a while, and painstakingly trying to rule out natural origins. But while that’s been happening, a smaller research team has been looking for extraterrestrial messages right in our DNA, and believes they have found one–right in the sequences of the Genetic Code itself. Published early last year in the prestigious planetary science journal, Icarus, the report by a Kazakhstani team is extremely mathematical. Basically, the team has identified patterns in the relationships, or coding, between the DNA/RNA building blocks and the building blocks, called amino acids, that cells assemble into proteins.

So profound are the patterns, say the researchers, that “the code mapping itself is uniquely deduced from their algebraic representation.” They titled the paper “The ‘Wow! Signal’ of the terrestrial genetic code”, because “the signal displays readily recognizable hallmarks of artificiality.”

Furthermore, “extraction of the signal involves logically straightforward but abstract operations, making the patterns essentially irreducible to any natural origin.” In the ensuing discussion, the Icarus paper makes the case that they apparent design of the Genetic Code implies that life on Earth was seeded from locations across space.

The idea that Earth’s earliest life forms arrived on this planet more than 3.5 billion years ago through natural seeding events, such as transfer within meteoroids, is gaining popularity among astrobiologists, but the Icarus paper suggests that seeding might be artificial. Even more profound, the researchers explain that the Genetic Code can be used to carry non-biological information, even if the carrying capacity is far less than that of radio transmissions.

Science fiction, religious fiction or reality?

Artificial seeding of Earth life billions of years ago, with a message from the seeders in our DNA to boot, is right out of science fiction. In particular, there was a Star Trek episode in which it was discovered that life on Earth–and on all of the planets with intelligent beings that look suspiciously similar to humans, but for a few facial ridges, pointed ears or other details–had evolved from DNA seedlings, spread throughout out galaxy billions of years ago by ancient beings. The ancient beings had the familiar human bipedal form and seeded the planets knowing that similar beings would evolve.

The human form being ancient takes things a little further into the imagination than the Kazakhstan team does; nothing in their research contradicts current ideas about the emergence of humans, and human form, over the last few million years, from four-legged mammals, and before that from fish and other forms. Still the prospect of intentional seeding by an intelligent civilization, with a DNA message that we might be able to decipher, is tantamount to Star Trek coming to life.

It also has opened the door for people whose thinking and methods are never right for a peer-reviewed journal such as Icarus. I’m referring to the creationists, the pseudoscientist groups that reject evolution, build museums showing dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, and these days call themselves researchers in “intelligent design”. While the proposal in the Icarus paper is perfectly consistent with life evolving on this planet for at least the last 3.5 billion years, beginning with only microorganisms, this has not kept intelligent design pseudoscientists from spinning it to promote their beliefs.

Even if the Kazakhstan team turns out to be correct that life was seeded on this planet by intention, as with the natural seeding idea, all it does is set back to the origin of life to an earlier time and distant location. The hypothetical beings that we can imagine doing the seeding, whether biological or robotic, had to come from something that evolved from lower life at some point in time. Such beings would have logical reasons for putting any message in the Genetic Code part of the genome of the microorganisms they deposited. That reason is that it’s the protected part of the genome, the part that cannot evolve, because it’s the part of the genome that makes life possible in the first place. Change the language that’s used to make genes express themselves, and nothing works.

On the other hand, because the Genetic Code does not evolve in any major way, it allows for the rest of the genome to evolve, and to do so in very dramatic, unpredictable ways. We don’t know where this research will go, but even at this early point, we can be sure that once understood it will not support biblical creation.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician, and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.

Behind the Label: ‘Non-GMO verified’

Many food companies are seeking certification that their products don’t have any genetically modified ingredients, and not just the brands popular in the health food aisle. Even plain Cheerios, that iconic cereal from General Mills, no longer contains GMOs.

“We currently are at over $8.5 billion in annual sales of verified products,” said Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, the main supplier of non-GMO labels.

To receive the label, a product has to be certified as containing ingredients with less than 1 percent genetic modification. Westgate says that’s a realistic standard, while totally GMO-free is not.

But how does a company get into the non-GMO game? They might call Food Chain ID, a company in Fairfield, Iowa, that can shepherd them through the process. It’s one of the third-party auditors that certifies products for the Non-GMO Project.

Sales of food labeled as “Non-GMO” ballooned to over $3 billion in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Even with the added interest, non-GMO products remain a small fraction of the marketplace. More than 90 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. contains genetically modified traits.

Read full, original article: What’s Behind the “Non-GMO” Label?

Are Europeans too cautious about science?

At the end of a hard year Europe’s leaders are grappling with familiar problems—how to revive gasping economies, what to do about the Russian menace. But a quieter source of discontent is also bubbling up: Europe’s scientists. The continent of Galileo and Darwin is not about to cast off its glorious heritage. But the boffins have two recent causes for concern.

One is over the role of science in European policymaking. Three years ago Anne Glover, a Scottish molecular biologist, became the EU’s first chief scientific adviser. She could also be its last. Her mandate expired, along with the previous commission’s, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the new president, has not seen fit to renew it. Not in office long enough to absorb the diplomatic habits of Brussels insiders, Glover was notably outspoken on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), describing opponents as suffering from “a form of madness”. That was too much for green NGOs, who called for her head in a letter to Juncker. Some saw in this the seeds of Ms Glover’s downfall.

Europe’s agonies over GMOs illustrate the problems that arise when science is not well integrated into policymaking. Despite repeated studies finding no risk to human health from the consumption of GMOs, just one such crop (a form of maize) is cultivated in the EU, and in only a handful of countries. Under a new proposal countries will even be able to deny farmers the right to purchase GM seeds that have been approved at pan-European level.

Read full, original article: The battle of the scientists

Will synbio foods win over consumers?

Only two out of 10 Americans are willing to give lab meat – animal tissue grown without a living host – a go, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Despite this queasiness over heavily modified food (a recent New York Times poll found more than 90 percent of Americans want GMOs labeled), a new era of so-called “extreme” genetic engineering is already dawning in grocery aisles.

While genetically modified organisms have had their DNA sequences changed, typically by having traits of another species spliced in with their own, synthetic biology, or simply “synbio,” involves the creation of entirely new organisms with DNA sequences created from whole cloth on a computer. These organisms, typically bacteria or algae, are used to produce valuable commodities such as flavorings and oils.

Research and development on these products is currently kept largely under wraps. Companies are closely guarding the technology – and perhaps the fact that they’re using it at all. Orange and vanilla flavors are currently being marketed and sold, but sellers are not identifying the companies using them and the companies are not identifying themselves.

To gain public acceptance, synbio companies must also sell the benefits of their offerings to a public that is still largely ignorant of the industry’s existence. Three out of four Americans know virtually nothing about the technology, a recent survey found.

Whatever direction synbio outfits head in their marketing campaigns, a fight is brewing. It’s one that will be shaped by public discourse on food options in light of the ecological pressures brought by world populations and rising affluence.

Read full, original article: Technology is ready for synthetic foods. Are you?

Morocco Center Of The Strategy For The Global Food Security

GMOs and Global Food Security

David Zilberman, PhD, Agricultural and Resource Economics Department, University of California

Click here to download a PDF version of this story.

A PATH FORWARD:

Genetically Modified (GM) foods and crops are a key tool in helping to address the challenge of feeding a growing and more prosperous population, and improving the global standard of living today and for future generations. The high costs and uncertainty about the regulation of GMOs have slowed the rate of innovation of new traits and prevented startups and major companies from developing many second-generation varieties that could improve our well-being, enhance environmental sustainability and make a major contribution to addressing the challenges of climate change.

• The use of GMOs can ease land and water competition issues and limit greenhouse gas emissions.
• Food security and human well-being will be enhanced if the regulatory environment supports development of second-generation technologies.
• Wise public policy and regulations will encourage scientific advancement and innovation to avoid ongoing food insecurity and food crises as the world population grows.
• Agriculture policy should encourage technologies that help farmers produce food more sustainably, using fewer resources.

THE CHALLENGE AHEAD

Humanity’s past indicates that we are up to the challenge. From 1800 to the present, human population has skyrocketed seven fold but agricultural productivity has grown even faster. In the last 200 years, as agriculture increased its reliance on science, the average human effort to produce food declined. These achievements reflected better understanding of the principles of science that allowed for the improvement of crop breeding, fertilization and pest control, innovations in irrigation and cultivation and smarter management practices. This transition was far from perfect; it was associated with negative environmental side effects and did not solve many problems, including persistent poverty. But human societies are able to adapt, identify failures and learn from mistakes to develop improved solutions.

The discovery of the genetic code and DNA in the 1950s is perhaps the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century. While the basic understanding of the atom in the 19th century and early 20th century filled the knowledge gap for the Electronic Age, the discovery of DNA has the potential to lead to a biology-based revolution in the 21st century. Tools based on modern advances in molecular biology that take advantage of our ability to understand the functions of genetic traits have already been used extensively to develop genetically modified products in medicines.

Medical biotechnology has been embraced wholeheartedly for its achievements and potential. Parallel scientific and technological breakthroughs occurred in agriculture, unleashing effective solutions that have increased productivity and improved the environmental performance of agriculture while identifying challenges that loom ahead. But the advancement of agricultural biotechnology has been hampered by controversy and excessive regulation.

GMOs PROVIDE A PATH FORWARD

A major application of agricultural biotechnology is genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in which a gene that contains certain traits is inserted into crops to improve performance. Crop improvements in the past always occurred via changes in genetics but with traditional plant breeding, we did not actually know the changes in the genomic level because the only thing we observed were the outcomes. Genetic engineering allows for more precision, in which only a few genes are altered within a plant that has thousands or even tens of thousands of genes.

Genetic engineering in agriculture is in its infancy, the first-generation commercially utilized traits are mostly used to control pest and plant disease. Scientists have discovered, and tested in the field, multiple second-generation varieties that improve plant nutrition and resilience, and a third-generation of traits that can produce valuable products, including medicine and fine chemicals that are in early stages of development.

Despite heavy restrictions, first-generation GMOs have made an immense difference. Pest control varieties have been adopted in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina and to some extent South Africa, utilizing corn, soybean, rapeseed and papaya. Most of the cotton production in India and China relies on GMOs, and GM cotton is intensively used in other developing countries. All told there are GM applications in 28 countries covering approximately 400 million acres worldwide, or about 1.5 times U.S. farmland.

However, GM seeds are practically banned in Europe and much of Africa, and are not used in growing some major crops such as rice, wheat, potatoes, and most fruits and vegetables. Despite the fact that only 25 percent of corn in the world is grown with GMOs, the use of the technology has led to an increase in the availability of corn estimated at 10 percent; soybean of around 20 percent; and for cotton around 18 percent. These increases have resulted from both higher yields per acre that can reach 40 percent in cotton and 30 percent in corn, as well as allowing for expansion of land and/or seasons for growing for certain crops. For example, the introduction of GM soybean allowed for double-cropping of soybean in Argentina and Brazil, where the same land was used to grow wheat.

These increases in the supply of corn and soybean in particular have allowed developing countries, particularly in Asia and Latin America, to meet the drastic increase in the demand for meats from the rising middle class. The increase in the supply of soybean in Argentina was slightly bigger than the increase in demand for soybean for meat production in China. Because small shortages in food availability lead to drastic increases in prices of food that harm mostly the poor, GMO has already made a significant positive contribution to human well-being. For example, without GMOs the price of soybean would be around 33 percent higher and about 13 percent higher for corn. These increases played a role in preventing the food crises and riots of 2008 and 2011 from becoming a global phenomenon. Without GM, the shortages that occurred during these periods were smaller than the amounts provided by GM; without GM crops, we could experience similar crises in the years ahead.

GM crops have also shown to substantially improve the day to day life of farmers. The adoption of GMO in cotton in China and India increased farmers’ yields and the market share of these countries in the global cotton market. There is evidence that it reduced incidences of disease and death from exposure to pesticides and in some cases doubled the income of subsistence farmers while reducing the workload of mostly women and children who do the weeding. There is also recent evidence that low-income farmers in South Africa who recently embraced GMO corn also have benefitted financially, improving their quality of life.

There are sustainability benefits as well. Because GMO increases the productivity of land, it reduces the amount of land we need to farm and the use of chemicals, water, energy, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture needed to produce a certain volume of food.

CHALLENGE OF POLITICAL AND SOCIAL OBJECTIONS

While there have been expressed concerns about human health and the environmental side effect of GMOs, the National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, the Royal Society of Medicine, among dozens of major independent science organizations, have found no evidence that they are less safe than conventional or organic foods, and in some cases may be safer and more sustainable. There have been more than 2000 studies that have examined the health and environment effects of GMOs and none has documented reliably any significant negative effects.

That said, we need to continuously evaluate our food production systems, both conventional and organic, and support appropriate regulatory systems to assure their quality and independence. Despite overwhelming evidence on the benefits of GMOs, political and commercial interests, especially in Europe, have led to growing and import bans in some places in Europe and stifling regulations in much of the rest of the world. These regulations express concerns about possible risks, not documented problems, but they have real and significant costs.

If the European Union and Africa had adopted GMO corn at the same rate as the U.S. and Canada, large amounts of land would have been saved, reducing GHG emissions and the prices of food to the benefit of the poor. Adoption of GM corn, rice and potatoes would have freed agricultural land for other activities and improved food security globally. The high costs and especially the uncertainty about regulation of GMOs have slowed the rate of innovation of traits and stunted the development of many second-generation varieties that could have improved human well-being, enhanced environmental sustainability and made a major contribution toward addressing the challenges of climate change.

Golden Rice is a striking case of a lost or delayed opportunity. It’s a rice variety enriched with beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. Every year, an estimated quarter million people who rely on rice for their diet go blind due to lack of Vitamin A. Many of them die. A variety of Golden Rice was first available around 2002. Over time it has been improved but regulatory pressure has prevented its introduction. It has been estimated that even a limited adoption of Golden Rice could have saved millions of people from blindness and death due to Vitamin A deficiency.

Most of the foods we now consume are modified. In thousands of years, farmers and societies have developed varieties of corn, rice and potatoes that are totally different from their ancestors. That’s allowed us to utilize our resources much more effectively. Genetic engineering helps us understand how to breed, and how to do it more precisely and in a more sustainable manner. While fears of new technologies are understandable, the exaggerated anxiety of the few should not prevent the many from reaping the proven and safe benefits of science.

 

THE AUTHOR

Zilberman

DAVID ZILBERMAN

David Zilberman is a professor in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at University of California, Berkeley.

 

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