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Viewpoint: 300 scientists say FDA’s plan to regulate CRISPR-edited animals as drugs will effectively shut down innovation

I have been fairly consistent about my concern that the 2017 FDA draft guidance to regulate “intentional genomic alterations” in food animals as new animal drugs will preclude the use of this technology in livestock breeding programs in the United States. The webinar that was held [April 26] by the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) did little to assuage my concern. For two hours, various speakers from the FDA CVM explained how they were going to regulate IGA (intentional genomic alterations). That is a lot of 3-letter acronyms (the scariest of all acronyms!).

There was lots of discussion of frightening sounding off-target effects, small to large-scale alterations, unintended biological consequences, unknown long term effects not apparent in early generations, deletions, insertions, inversions, lesions, translocations, mutations being deleterious regardless of whether they occur in a coding region, and challenges to addressing unintended on and off target effects. What there was not much discussion of is biology and context. And the fact that there are literally millions of “insertions, inversions, lesions, translocations, and mutations” in every plant and animal on Earth.

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As we argue in this open access 2019 paper entitled “Proposed U.S. regulation of gene-edited food animals is not fit for purpose”:

To put this in perspective, one study of whole genome sequence data from over 2,700 individual cattle in the 1000 Bull Genomes Project revealed more than 86.5 million differences (variants) between different breeds of cattle. These variants included 2.5 million insertions and deletions of one, or more, base pairs of DNA, and 84 million single nucleotide variants, where one of the four nucleotides making up DNA (A, C, G, T) had been changed to a different one.

None of these naturally-occurring variants are known to produce ill effects on the consumers of milk or beef products. In fact, every meal we have ever consumed is genetically distinct from every other meal in terms of genomic DNA sequences. Genetic variation per se does not pose a unique hazard as it relates to food safety. All non-processed foods harbor DNA as a natural component and that DNA is different in every individual of every food species (both plants and animals).

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Visual representation of the magnitude of DNA sequence variation (i.e. naturally-occurring mutations) that exists between different individuals within a species. Image: Van Eenennaam et al. (2019)

A number of other countries have come out with their regulatory approaches to genome editing in food species, including the USDA opinion regarding genome edited plants, and the FDA is alone in considering a genetic alteration in a food animal to be a drug. And while under proposed U.S. law it is technically not the animal but the IGA (not the grocery store but the “intentional genomic alteration”) that is the drug, short of a centrifuge it is pretty hard to disassociate an animal from its genomic DNA!

Animals carrying IGA effectively become unapproved animal drugs that are not allowed to enter commerce in the absence of a multigenerational safety and efficacy evaluation and FDA approval, analogous to the types of studies that are required for the approval of actual new animal drugs.

All of this comes about because 10 years ago the FDA announced its intent to regulate all genetically engineered animals modified by rDNA techniques, including the entire lineage of animals that contain the modification, under the new animal drug provisions of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (decades before the discovery of the structure of DNA).  In that act, a new animal drug is defined as “an article (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of … animals.”

[Editor’s note: Listen to Podcast: US researchers moving abroad to avoid FDA’s CRISPR-edited animal regulations.]

The 2017 FDA draft guidance on gene edited animals doubles down on this approach by proposing to regulate all genomic alterations introduced into animals by gene editing as new animal drugs. This includes many of the same nucleotide insertions, substitutions, or deletions that could be obtained using conventional breeding. No longer is it the presence of a transgenic rDNA construct that triggers mandatory premarket FDA regulatory oversight prior to commercial release, but rather it is the presence of any “intentionally altered genomic DNA” in an animal that initiates oversight.

What concerns me, after listening to the webinar, is that it was really not stated what unique risks are feared to be associated with IGA, that are not also associated with UGA (unintentional genomic alterations), aka de novo mutations that are the very basis of evolution. We do not regulate the millions of spontaneous genetic variations that are in our food because DNA is generally regarded as safe to consume, and it is a routine ingredient of food obtained from any species, irrespective of its sequence. Referring to a DNA sequence variant as a “drug” is likely to confuse or frighten consumers who might infer that there are biologically active substances in their food.

I am of the opinion that this proposed regulatory approach for genome editing in animals will effectively make it cost prohibitive for both U.S. researchers and livestock producers to use and potentially benefit from genome editing in food animal breeding programs.

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I am not alone in this concern. Over 300 scientists supported a petition calling for  the Harmonization of US gene-edited food regulations which was launched in January at the 2019 Plant and Animal Genome meeting. Signatories include over 260 US scientists from more than 40 academic institutions throughout the nation including members of the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), and a Nobel prize laureate. When scientists are riled up enough to emerge from their laboratories and express an opinion about something as arcane as a regulatory guidance, perhaps it is worth listening.  The petition concluded with the following ask:

We call for a harmonization of the U.S. regulatory approach to gene editing in food species so that both plant and animal breeders have access to gene editing innovations to introduce useful sustainability traits like disease resistance, climate adaptability, and food quality attributes into U.S. agricultural breeding programs.

Alison Van Eenennaam is an Extension Specialist in Animal Biotechnology and Genomics, Department of Animal Science, University of California, Davis. Follow her on Twitter @biobeef 

This article originally ran at the BioBeef Blog as Harmonize US gene-edited food regulations and has been republished here with permission.

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‘The broken promise of anonymity’? Bioethicist’s call to guard identity of sperm and egg donors is misguided

An academic bioethicist has published a controversial paper supporting the rights of sperm and egg donors to remain anonymous over the rights of their offspring to learn donor identities.

“Genetic databases and the future of donor anonymity” appears in the journal Human Reproduction. The author is Guido Pennings, from the department of philosophy and moral science at the Bioethics Institute Ghent. My opinion is that Dr. Pennings’ opinion fails to capture the complexity of donation.

“Not Parent Expected”

From 1950 until 1958, a man whom I do not know donated his sperm to help infertile couples in Brooklyn. As a result, my sister and I have, at last count, six half-siblings.

air pollution seems to be shrinking human spermLike many thousands of others, we’ve discovered that we were donor-conceived (DC), some of us learning so from consumer DNA ancestry testing. Contrary to the cheery ads, the companies’ services aren’t just for entertainment or idle curiosity.

I learned that the tests I’ve had to spot early glaucoma based on my supposed paternal history weren’t necessary. And when a half-sister told me her cancer history, it instantly compounded what I already knew, and I recently had surgery to prevent a third cancer. She may have saved my life.

The thousands of us chat at online support communities for NPE (“not parent expected”) individuals. We help others to navigate the initial shock, denial and confusion, then the rage, despair and sadness as we rerun the tapes of our pasts. Some are lucky enough to confirm donor conception from elderly relatives, or already knew. Others can triangulate back from newly-identified distant cousins to reveal donors, if we want to know. For now, I don’t.

Unleashed feelings can reverberate beyond donor and offspring. Being the spouse or “social child” of a parent outed as having other children from a long-ago donation brings its own special hell. Families can detonate.

Our stories are finally trickling into the media.

In the book Inheritance, Dani Shapiro writes of finding her sperm donor, remarkably quickly. Fictional takes like the 2013 film Delivery Man and the quasi-true Netflix series Sisters joke too much. Being an instadad to 100 18-year-olds or bedding your half-sibling aren’t funny situations. They happen.

dna testDr. Pennings legitimatizes and prioritizes secrecy, concluding that “privacy by both donors and recipients, and, even if not enforceable, should be respected by all parties in good faith.” It’s great that he addresses both sides – sperm and eggs, donors and recipients – but such sweeping advice seems oblivious to the emotional landslide of these situations.

Academic tunnel vision

I nearly didn’t read beyond the first paragraph of the paper, which unveils a stunning ignorance of the science and the psychology. The cluelessness begins with the first sentence:

“The debate on the effects of ancestry databases on donor anonymity is based on a number of cases mentioned in the media.” Has he not considered the online communities, just an occasional People magazine or newspaper?

Dr. Pennings does not know what he does not know. He minimizes without accurately accessing magnitude, just listing bioethics papers. Check out the stats at the Donor Sibling Registry, which has been around since 2000.

Another comment in the intro:

One may be lucky but good matches guaranteeing a close genetic relationship are at the moment relatively rare.

Um, no. And the matches are based on sound science, not luck, nor are they rare, unless perhaps compared to the entire global population. What is Dr. Pennings training in genetics, or experience in genetic genealogy? We learn soon that it is sparse:

It suffices to read a few articles in which the methodology is described to realize that identification is a highly complex process demanding expert skills and knowledge.

His dismissive tone indicates that this bioethicist hasn’t read the crystal-clear white papers from AncestryDNA, the explanations from other companies, nor the excellent materials from the International Society of Genetic Genealogy or CeCe Moore’s DNA Detectives.

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AncestryDNA matched Sara and I. Photos nailed it. Here she is 13 and I’m 10.

I summarized the logic behind DNA ancestry testing here at Genetic Literacy Project (“I’m a geneticist. A DNA test uncovered a half-sister and sparked painful questions”), just two weeks before I discovered the others. Here’s a recap of the science:

Consumer DNA is tested for 700,000 or so sites spanning the genome that vary in a population – each site can be adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), or thymine (T), the DNA bases. These markers are single nucleotide polymorphisms – aka SNPs. It’s easy to see that this approach generates enough variation to distinguish people. Imagine subsets of 700,000 items of clothing and adornments.

Superimposed on the number of shared SNPs is how many of them are contiguous, inherited together like long sentences copied and pasted into new documents. The longer the shared chunks, the closer the genetic relationship, for the stretches separate at each generation. The unit of measurement is the centimorgan, which I explained here and here.

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Ricki and Sara, February 2019

I offer my own data to illustrate the “high complexity”:

My full sister and I share 2,794 cM across 57 segments

Half-sis #1 and I share 2,084 cM across 60 segments

Half-sis #2 and I share 1,950 cM across 63 segments

Half-sis #3 and I share 1,687 cM across 51 segments

We share 58-60 percent of our SNPs, according to AncestryDNA. That’s on the high side because we are Ashkenazi, with a shallow gene pool (see The Genomic Scars of Anti-Semitism). The company offers perspective: for those who share more than 60 percent of the SNPs, the “likelihood of a single recent common ancestor” (aka a parent) is virtually 100 percent. For 45-60 percent, it’s about 99 percent.

23andMe’s algorithm accounts for endogamy (unintentional inbreeding) and pairs us at 24-30 percent, close to the theoretical 25 percent of the genome that half-sibs should share.

The number of shared centimorgans falls with more distant relationships, so that second cousins, for example, share 200-620 and third cousins just 90-180. Most peoples’ results are distant cousins.

For those who dislike numbers, DNA Painter color-codes the shared chromosome hunks. I could easily tell that my half-siblings were indeed half-siblings.

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The yellow regions are the parts of chromosome 21 that I share with half-sister #1.

As for anonymity, use a fake name! 23andMe doesn’t care if your name is Taylor Swift or Elmer Fudd. SNP patterns can’t be cross-referenced to genealogical records without knowing the spitter’s true surname, despite Dr. Pennings claiming that this happens.

Understanding ancestry results is “a highly complex process demanding expert skills and knowledge?” I don’t think so.

The cat’s out of the bag

The bioethicist’s opinion is accurate in assessing history: “… before the genetic databases, clinics and doctors were the only gateway to the donor’s identity.” Also true is the statement that “clinics and doctors can only promise not to reveal the donor’s identity but can no longer guarantee anonymity.”

But was that extreme paternalism and misogyny more ethical than divulging a secret?

Dani Shapiro’s book details the way things were done in the 1950s, when women accepted whatever their male physicians told them without question. Sperm often came from medical students or the doctors themselves, the couples told to have sex before and after the insemination to intentionally obscure parentage. Clearly they were instructed not to discuss what went on.

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I applaud Dr. Pennings for tackling the crux of the problem: the broken promise of anonymity. He points out the absurdity of gamete banks making such promises while providing catalogs of info about the donors, clues to offspring armed with DNA data and social media savvy. It’s common on the NPE Facebook pages for participants who’ve narrowed things down to post photos so that we can guess “who’s the daddy?” Sometimes it is startlingly obvious. Phenotype reflects genotype. Half-sibs who’ve found each other have their own private pages.

dna illus@ xDr. Pennings pinpoints situations that he deems wrong, which I suppose is what moral scientists do: tracking down a donor who hasn’t participated in DNA testing (possible through relatives and Facebook); submitting DNA from a young child; capturing criminals like the Golden State Killer through cousins who uploaded DNA data to GEDmatch.

OK, that’s his opinion. But Dr. Pennings condescends to those who take the tests, deeming us too dumb to know what we’re doing, when he is the one who is out of touch:

People may be looking for health related genetic information and may find out that they are donor conceived, or that their parents are.

Well, no. When you send in your sample to 23andMe, you choose the tests – you’d know if your results include both health and ancestry info. And AncestryDNA, which maintains the largest database, doesn’t yet provide health info.

Then Dr. Pennings helpfully suggests that the companies warn people about unexpected findings, apparently having not read the companies’ recently-extended privacy statements or even the old ones. It’s as if he wrote his paper a decade ago. Were the reviewers equally ignorant?

I ask my “Genethics” students to analyze a consumer DNA ancestry testing website – not read academic papers that echo other  academic papers.

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Dr. Pennings outlines 3 scenarios: offspring looking for donors, offspring looking for donor siblings, and donors looking for offspring.

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Credit: SmarterHobby.com at //www.smarterhobby.com/genealogy/best-dna-test/

For “offspring looking for donors,” he states: “Very little is known about the effects of offspring (or parents) contacting donors who have donated anonymously.”

Actually, quite a lot is known, albeit anecdotal, on closed Facebook groups, at the Donor Sibling Registry, and, perhaps skewed to happy endings, on the company websites.

Dr. Pennings’ opinion paper cites an abstract from a meeting that ironically seems to support outing donors. It’s from Victoria, Australia, where legislation passed in March 2017 removes anonymity for pre-1998 donors (it doesn’t say sperm or egg) from a national registry if someone applies to learn an identity.

The 101 applications submitted from March to December 2017 seeking info were from 71 offspring, 6 parents, and 24 donors. Of 15 donors located so far, 11 agreed to contact with offspring. And of three donors seeking offspring, only one child agreed. Hardly a huge sample, but the researchers conclude, “Outcomes to date of the retrospective removal of donor anonymity are mixed but indicate that some donors who expected to remain anonymous are willing to be contacted by their donor-conceived offspring if approached.”

Dr. Pennings seems particularly perturbed at people contacting their donor siblings. Like me. “Some people searching for genetic relatives demonstrate a complete disregard for the possible impact of their search on other people. They know that they may disturb other people’s life (sic) and may cause serious social and psychological problems but they believe their personal interests prevail.” He knows what we know and believe? If moral science deals with belief, then it isn’t a science.

That happens, but my half-sibs and I have been careful about initial contacts, and back off when asked to.

AncestryDNA Surpasses Million Customers Find more genealogy blogs at FamilyTree comHe continues to mindread: “In general, recipients choose an anonymous donor because they want the donor to stay out of their life and family. Likewise, by donating anonymously, donors indicate that they do not want to be involved in any way in the family they helped to create. With the new technological developments, these wishes are no longer enforceable but they should still be respected in good faith.”

Anyone violating these wishes “shows a lack of respect for the other party,” he continues, specifically criticizing the law in Victoria outing donors and DNA Detectives.

That’s one point of view, but a rather uninformed one. From my own case, I know that discovering one’s biological parent can cut health care costs and even save lives. The paper doesn’t at all address the benefits of unmasking a donor; it’s just judgment and name-calling.

Perhaps the most offensive statement in the paper, according to the chatter on the NPE-DC Facebook groups, is “People … who use ancestry databases to find a donor show disrespect and lack of gratitude.”

I think that is a gross oversimplification of a highly complex and convoluted situation.

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

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Podcast: Environmental Working Group’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list is an unscientific scam

Scammers are having a moment. On this episode of Biotech Facts and Fallacies, plant scientist Steve Savage tackles scams within the agriculture and food realm, including a pesky scam that occurs each year around this time—Environmental Working Group’s ‘Dirt Dozen’ list.

It seems like the world has an ongoing fascination with scammers. Whether it’s tuning into the dueling documentaries about Fyre Festival, the luxury music festival that never was, or the podcast called The Dropout about Elizabeth Holmes’ fraudulent claims about her blood-testing technology and doomed company Theranos, people are captivated by a scheme and con men (and women). Perhaps it’s reveling in the “takedown” of the grifter and vindication of the scammed, or perhaps we enjoy marveling at the sheer audacity of a doomed, and oftentimes, misguided effort. It’s going to take longer than this podcast to get to the root of love of a scam and frankly we don’t have the time, because an annual con called the ‘Dirty Dozen’ has come out once again.

Yes, its that time of year when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes its infamous “dirty dozen” list. They claim they are “guiding” consumers about which foods are most important and to buy organic to avoid pesticide residues, referring to mostly fruits and vegetables. The Group comes up with their rankings based on the published results of the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program.

The USDA data actually shows that consumers don’t need to worry about pesticide residues because they are only present at extremely low levels that are of no concern for our health. Indeed, health and dietary experts agree that one of the best things we can all do for our health is to confidently enjoy healthful foods, and the last thing we should do is avoid fruits and vegetables because of propaganda from EWG.  There is a great website called “Safe Fruits and Veggies” that provides lots of good links on this topic and has a calculator you can use to visualize the absurd amounts of produce you would have to eat to ever see any health effects of residues.

In another episode called “Dirty Marketing,” I explained why the “analysis” by EWG is so flawed and why none of our food deserves to be called “dirty” in this regard. In the whole scheme of things, the only thing that is “dirty” is the EWG’s fear-based campaigning on behalf of their “big organic” sources of funding.

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Figure 1: The web page for USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (//www.ams.usda.gov/datasets/pdp)

So, let’s talk about the good news, starting with this thing called the Pesticide Data Program or PDP. Each year, scientists from the USDA make visits to commercial food channels and collect more than 10,000 samples of food. They focus on 20 or so crops each year, but they periodically cover most major commodities, particularly fruits and vegetables. The latest data from 2017 analyzed apple sauce, asparagus, fresh and frozen cranberries, cabbage, cucumbers, grapefruit, kale greens, honey, lettuce, mangoes, milk, canned olives, prunes, snap peas, sweet potatoes and garbanzo beans.

The scientists take the foods back to the lab, wash, peel or otherwise handle as normal, and then test for chemical residues. The results are then published in several forms including a high-level “fact sheet”  and a detailed, 200+page report. They also include the raw data so that others can also analyze it. Each year, I like to take advantage of that transparency, although it’s quite a challenge to read through the 2 million-rows of main data table.

So, what the USDA provides each year are three key pieces of information about what they find in chemical pesticide residues: The first concerns which specific chemicals are detected. The second part is what concentrations of the chemicals were found. The third and very important bit of information is how the detections compare to something called a “tolerance.”

For every crop and for every pesticide approved for use on that crop, the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA identifies an allowable level of chemical residual for which it can confidently confirm there are no health risks. It is a conservative threshold based on an elaborate “risk assessment” reflecting everything that is known about that chemical from many toxicological evaluations. If a chemical residue is present at or below the tolerance, it is safe by a factor of around 100.  That means that a residue equal to the tolerance is still 100 times smaller than the smallest amount that would have a negative health effect.

Now, what the EWG does with this data is to treat any residue detected as a problem, essentially ignoring how it compares to the relevant tolerance. Ignoring that critical part of the story is what makes the “dirty dozen list” so misleading.

So, getting back to what the data really says, one thing that can make this a little challenging to understand is that the numbers we are talking about here are extremely small. There are some tiny things that we can sort of understand because we can see them thanks to the power of microscopes. For example, the Pinterest page for “microscopic and tiny things” has a solid following and a pretty cool collection of images. However, small numbers are harder to visualize. You probably remember from school learning about scientific notation as a way to do the math with either really big or really small numbers. It did help get the right answers for the tests, but I’m not sure it helps us really understand the large or small extremes of numbers. Brilliant.org has a whole web page about that issue.

When it comes to chemical concentrations, we are often talking about values in the parts per billion range. But what does that look like? Here is one way to try to imagine such tiny numbers. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a really long, but popular, book. It has 257,045 words! Now, imagine that you have a stack of 3,890 copies of that book so that all told you can look at a billion words. The stack of books would be about 324 feet tall. So, if you read just 10 words in one of those books that would represent 10 parts out of a billion words, which is parallel to the kind of chemical residues found on food.

Last December, the USDA-PDP posted its analysis of more than 10,000 food samples collected during 2017. For 53 percent of those samples there were no detectable residues at all.  Only five samples had any residue concentrations over the tolerance (that is 0.04 percent of all the residues that were found). Even those five were only marginally higher and thus of little concern because the tolerance already has that 100-fold safety margin built in. Two percent of the samples had minute detections of chemicals for which there is not a specific residue for the crop in question, but they were not of concern according to the regulators. Essentially, there’s nothing here to worry about.

But not only were the residues officially below tolerance, most were far below it.  1.7% were 1 to 20 times lower than the tolerance, 9% were 20 to 100 times lower, and 32% were 100 to 1,000 times lower. The biggest category of detections, 44%, were 1,000 to 10,000 times lower than the tolerance! And 8% of detected residues were more than 10,000 times lower than the tolerance! So, what the data really says is that the crops tested in 2017 were remarkably “clean.”

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When the EWG does its own interpretation of the data, it essentially treats all these “detections” the same, ignoring how incredibly low-level those detections are and disregarding and EPA’s science. The very fact that these tiny amounts can be identified says much more about the remarkable skills of chemists than anything else.

Now, you might still be thinking, “OK, but wouldn’t it still be better to just have no exposure to residues at all?” Well, realistically, that isn’t an option.

EWG cons many consumers to believe that by buying organic you can simply avoid residues. That isn’t true.

Organic farmers can and do use pesticides while growing their crops.  They generally use “natural” pesticides, but those are still chemicals that must be regulated by the EPA and their toxicity overlaps with that of various “synthetic” chemicals. Keep in mind, organic does not mean “no pesticides.” But what is a bit surprising is that it also does not mean “no synthetic pesticide residues.”

As seen year after year with the PDP and in other testing examples, synthetic pesticide residues are definitely detected on samples that were being sold as organic. For instance, a big study conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2014 found residues on 46 percent of the organic samples they tested.

In the 2017 USDA study, there were 622 organic samples. A total of 302 residues were detected on those foods representing 55 different pesticides. These 2017 detections of chemicals on organic were in the same parts-per-billion range I just described, so again this isn’t a safety concern. All it means that there isn’t the sort of “black and white” difference many people imagine between residues on non-organic and organic foods.

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There is an allowance in the USDA Organic Program rules stating that if a synthetic pesticide residue is detected on an organic product, if the level is 5 percent or less of the EPA tolerance, it is considered “unintentional” and thus not a violation of the organic certification standard. The PDP testing isn’t about organic rule enforcement, but, there is a separate set of tests that are performed to check for compliance with the organic rules and the 5 percent rule would be applied for that.

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Of the organic samples from the U.S., 99.2% would have met the 5% or less standard and only 0.8% either being those “no tolerance for that crop” situation or falling in the range of 1 to 20 times lower than tolerance. For organic imports, 98.4% met the 5% standard. What is interesting is that 96.3% of the “conventional” samples from the U.S. would also qualify if they had been organic samples being tested for compliance. Ninety-four-point one percent of the imported conventional samples would also meet that standard.

For applesauce, fresh and frozen cranberries, honey, lettuce, milk, canned olives, prunes, canned tomatoes and garbanzo beans, and all of the conventional 2017 samples would have qualified by the 5% rule for organic. Since the conventional items are typically less costly, does it really make sense to spend more than needed around this issue?

So, to sum it up: USDA data for 2017 once again shows us that our food supply is safe when it comes to the issue of pesticide residues. Yes, there are tiny amounts of chemicals that can be detected by skilled chemists, but they are mostly hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of times lower than even a conservative “tolerance” level. Pesticide residues are also detected on organic product samples, but all at levels that would not technically disqualify the food as “organic.” The same is true, however, for almost all the conventional samples.

The bottom line is that we should reject the kind of fear-mongering that is associated with the EWG’s yearly dirty dozen list and just make sure that our shopping lists include lots of healthy fruits and vegetables.

Steve Savage is a plant pathologist and senior contributor to the GLP. Follow him on Twitter @grapedoc. The Pop Agriculture podcast is available for listening or subscription on iTunes and Google Podcasts.

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Can genetic engineering save the world’s coral reefs from climate change?

The relentless rise of global temperatures is imperiling coral reefs around the world. Just 75 kilometers offshore from the research center, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef—the world’s largest—has been battered by a string of marine heat waves that have killed half its coral. The threat has transformed [Madeleine] Van Oppen into a leading advocate for something considered radical just a few years ago: creating breeds of coral that can withstand underwater heat waves.

Van Oppen and others are re-engineering corals with techniques as old as the domestication of plants and as new as the latest gene-editing tools. And the researchers are adopting attitudes more common to free-wheeling Silicon Valley startups than the methodical world of conservation science.

Genetically engineering corals to make them better able to withstand heat and resist bleaching is among the possibilities, [coral geneticist Line] Bay says. She concedes that the idea will face resistance, like all proposals to release modified organisms into the environment. But that doesn’t mean it should be shelved, she says. “The worst thing that we could do is ignore the genetic engineering because it’s frightening for some people, and then get 10 or 15 years down the road and realize it’s the only option.”

Read full, original post: Researchers embrace a radical idea: engineering coral to cope with climate change

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Canadian farmers anticipate access to new GMO crops as US-China trade deal nears completion

Canadian farmers may benefit from the trade dispute between the United States and China to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. One of the final sticking points in the talks is China’s lengthy approval process for genetically modified crops, according to a Reuters story.

Ian Affleck, vice-president of biotechnology with CropLife Canada, is keeping his fingers crossed that the U.S. is able to force China into making concessions on its sloth-like approval process. “….I think we do have hope,” he said.

China approved five GM crops for import in January during a visit from a U.S. trade delegation in what one Chinese official said was a goodwill gesture toward resolving the trade dispute. Affleck said that could be a sign that China is willing to streamline the process….

China is the only country in the world that requires new GM traits to be approved in the country of origin before it will entertain an application for approval.

That is followed by a painstakingly long review process that lasts six to eight years….Canada does not commercialize new traits until approvals are in place in all the key export markets.

Read full, original article: U.S.-China GM0-approval breakthrough anticipated

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‘Massive step forward’: Lab-grown mini-brain twitches a muscle

Floating inside a petri dish in a lab at Cambridge University, a single disjointed muscle twitched.

Normally that’s not news. But in this case, the surgically-dissected muscle is controlled by a slice of isolated brain tissue grown entirely inside the lab.

As creepy as that sounds, the system doesn’t represent consciousness in a jar. Rather, it’s a massive step forward for a technology called brain organoids—cultured brain tissue that remarkably resembles the real thing in a developing human fetus.

Their system, dubbed ALI-CO, consists of long-lived slices of cultured, lab-grown brain tissue floating on the surface of a warm, bubbling nutrient bath that helps the slices mature into human mini-brains.

When cultured together with the spinal cord and its supporting muscles isolated from embryonic mice, the mini-brain slices automatically reached out and formed connections called synapses. These human-mice chimeric synapses weren’t just for anatomic show: when stimulated, the highway-like “tracts” of neural connections repeatedly sparked electrical bursts that made the muscles zombie-dance.

Eventually, they may enlighten how neural circuit wiring and information processing gradually emerge in our developing brains, how the process sometimes goes wrong, and how to fix it—long before we’re born.

Read full, original post: A Lab-Grown Brain Twitched an Isolated Muscle. Here’s Why That’s Amazing

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Danish Council of Ethics urges EU to revamp GMO rules—’very new stance’​ for Denmark

The Danish Council of Ethics recommends that legislation regarding the approval of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be changed to help achieve sustainability objectives.

In an opinion published [April 29], Denmark’s Ethics Council called for a new debate on genetically modified plants. ….According to the Council – which provides ongoing advice about ethical problems within the national health service and biomedical fields to parliament, authorities and the public – much has changed since GMOs were developed in the 1990s.

As it stands, EU law regulates GMOs, which use genetic engineering to insert new code, in the same way as genome-edited crops – which do not contain foreign DNA.

“All plants with new properties should be screened regardless of whether they have been developed with gene technology or traditional breeding [techniques],” ​a majority of Council members [wrote].

According to Andreas Christiansen, a postdoc researcher from the University of Copenhagen who contributed background material to the Ethics Council, the opinion is significant.

“Denmark has consistently been against GMOs and voted against [their use] many times,” ​he told FoodNavigator. For Christiansen, this latest opinion therefore represents “a very new stance” for the Nordic country.

Read full, original article: ‘It is time for a new position’: Denmark’s Ethics Council calls for updated GMO law

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‘Encyclopedia’ of cancer mutations could pinpoint new carcinogens

Previously, scientists have had only a limited number of tools for working out the cause of an individual’s tumor. As it is now possible to study the entire human genome very rapidly, scientists have been able to find all the mutations in a patient’s cancer, and see patterns – or ‘mutational signatures’ – in these tumors.

Now, in a study published in the journal Cell, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and King’s College London have developed a comprehensive catalogue of the mutational signatures caused by 41 environmental agents linked to cancer. In future they hope to expand it further, using similar experimental techniques, to produce an encyclopedia of mutation patterns caused by environmental agents.

Some of the environmental agents studied are known carcinogens, such as polycyclic hydrocarbons and sunlight. For the first time, the researchers also studied some of the individual chemicals found in tobacco smoke and identified which ones cause signatures similar to those found in smokers’ lung cancer.

They also identified the fingerprints left behind by common chemotherapy drugs, some dietary chemicals and some present in diesel exhaust fumes. This study shows how human DNA is vulnerable to many agents in our surroundings.

Read full, original post: DNA Mutation “Fingerprints” Could Help ID New Cancer Culprits

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From prosthetic limbs to lab-grown meat, technology can drastically improve animal welfare

While it’s easy to think about all the ways technology has benefited humans, major technological advances have improved the lives of animals in many important ways, from simple Pet Tech and animal prosthetics to lab-grown meat which may one day enable us to abandon the slaughtering of animals for food altogether.

To meet our demand for cheap animal protein, so-called factory farms have industrialized meat production in ways that produce large quantities of inexpensive meat for consumers, but there is a growing awareness of the barbaric levels of animal suffering involved….

[Read: ‘Factory farming’ poisons our food and harms animals? to learn more]

Plant-based proteins have been around for ages, but until now, none have ever been able to recreate the taste and texture of animal protein, and it is this quality to meat that makes it so hard for some people to give it up.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger have already started introducing new plant-protein alternatives to food markets that successfully mimics the taste and textures of ground beef and sausage….Meanwhile, Memphis MeatsJust, and others are getting ready to introduce lab-cultured meat products to markets in the next year or two.

Read full, original article: How Technology is Improving the Lives of Animals

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PTSD and other psychological traumas may increase risk of cardiovascular disease

People coping with psychological trauma have a heightened risk of developing cardiovascular disease, a large-scale study finds. Researchers used national health registers to identify 136,637 Swedish patients with no history of cardiovascular disease who were diagnosed with a stress-related disorder — a cluster of mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered by acute trauma — from 1987 to 2013.

In the patients’ first year after being diagnosed, those with a stress-related disorder had a 64 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease than their siblings without a mental health diagnosis, and a 70 percent higher risk than unrelated patients, the scientists report.

How stress and other mental health conditions affect the heart remains a mystery. Previous studies have pointed to physiological mechanisms as well as lifestyle factors. It could be that heightened activity in a brain region called the amygdala, which plays a role in processing emotions, especially fear, triggers inflammation that leads to cardiovascular disease. And people with PTSD are more likely to smoke heavily, which increases their risk of developing heart disease.

Read full, original post: People with stress disorders like PTSD are at higher risk of heart disease

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Soil erosion accelerates climate change, impacting 3.2 billion people, UN report claims

There’s three times more carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere – but that carbon’s being released by deforestation and poor farming. This is fueling climate change – and compromising our attempts to feed a growing world population, the authors will say.

Problems include soils being eroded, compacted by machinery, built over, or harmed by over-watering. Hurting the soil affects the climate in two ways: it compromises the growth of plants taking in carbon from the atmosphere, and it releases soil carbon previously stored by worms taking leaf matter underground.

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The warning will come from the awkwardly-named IPBES – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – a panel studying the benefits of nature to humans. The body….aims to get all the world’s governments singing from the same sheet about the need to protect natural systems. IPBES will formally release its report on Monday 6 May.

About 3.2 billion people worldwide are suffering from degraded soils, said IPBES chairman Prof Sir Bob Watson. “That’s almost half of the world population….We are losing from the soil the organic carbon and this undermines agricultural productivity and contributes to climate change….”

Read full, original article: Climate change being fuelled by soil damage – report

Monsanto in Another Huge Lawsuit for Lying About Roundup Cancer Link

Following two glyphosate-cancer lawsuit defeats, here’s how Bayer may shore up its legal losses

San Francisco federal judge Vince Chhabria’s decision to split up the pivotal bellwether trials over an alleged link between Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup and cancer was controversial. Long perceived by its critics as deceitful and greedy, the agrochemical giant would finally be judged solely on the science.

But some observers questioned how a jury could judge the science many say Monsanto manipulated for decades, and accused Chhabria of bias. Legal experts predicted the defense-friendly ruling would help exonerate Monsanto because jurors would hear the company’s strongest arguments before allegations of malfeasance….

But in March, the federal jury that heard the first bifurcated trial found the Bayer AG subsidiary liable for not warning plaintiff Ed Hardeman of Roundup’s cancer risks and awarded him $80 million in damages.

That’s a blow for Monsanto, which has always argued the science proves glyphosate is safe. The company may now try more cases and appeal adverse verdicts before seriously negotiating a settlement.

“Even if they lose, they get them reversed on appeal and take the wind out of their sails,” said [Alexandra Lahav, a law professor at the University of Connecticut] when asked what Monsanto might do post-Hardeman….

Read full, original article: Verdicts Twist Road Ahead in Monsanto Cancer Litigation

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Viewpoint: AI may boost our diagnostic abilities, but it’s not ready to replace human doctors

I read a recent article in Nature Medicine about new inroads in deploying artificial intelligence (AI) in pediatrics. In the article, researchers report their success in using AI to mine electronic health records as a diagnostic tool. As the authors point out, this is not just a matter of making clinicians’ lives easier: missed diagnoses and misdiagnoses occur with disturbing frequency, leading to increased morbidity and mortality and higher costs.

However, I must sound a note of caution. While AI may be helpful in diagnosis, unless a day comes when machines can fully replicate human thought and emotions, we should be wary of allowing AI to move beyond diagnosis and actually make medical management decisions for us.

Viewing this from the perspective of pediatric palliative care, though incorporating AI seems very tempting, I worry that radical integration could be shortsighted. The key to navigating complex decisions with families involves careful examination of hopes, fears, values and goals.

Should AI be used to augment medical decision making? Absolutely, and we’re just beginning to explore the ways in which that might manifest itself. But replacing human beings is a separate issue altogether.

Read full, original post: Where AI in Medicine Falls Short

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Burkina Faso cotton production plummets after phasing out insect resistant Bt GMO crop

Cotton production in Burkina Faso is continuing its downward slide three years after the nation phased out the use of pest-resistant genetically modified (GM) cotton.

Last April, the Inter-professional Cotton Association of Burkina (AICB), an industry body comprising farmers and other sector players, set a production target of 800,000 tonnes for the 2018-19 cotton season. But the country produced just 436,000 tonnes — despite offering farmers a record US$27.4 million (CFA16 billion) in incentives in the form of subsidies on insecticides, fertilizers and irrigation facilities.

Burkina Faso, previously Africa’s largest cotton producer, is now fourth, trailing Côte d’Ivoire (455,000 tonnes), Mali (653,000 tonnes) and Benin (675,000 tonnes).

The 436,000 tonnes of cotton produced represented a decline of 29 percent from the 2017-18 output of 613,000 tonnes, which was down from the 2016-17 season output of 682,940 tonnes. The decline in production has been consistent over the last three years, much to the worry of industry players.

The figures were disclosed at a media briefing organized by the AICB in the capital city of Ouagadougou to mark the start of the 2019-20 cotton season.  The decline in production has been attributed to a number of factors, including regional farmer boycotts over unfair treatment, insecurity resulting from terrorist attacks and bad weather.

But farmers also blame the situation on increased pest attacks following the government’s decision to phase out GMO cotton and return to conventional seeds.

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Image: Andhra Pradesh. K. Murali Kumar

“Yields per hectare have never been so low,” noted Francois Traore, former president of the Burkina Faso National Union of Cotton Producers. “In my opinion, this decrease is mainly due to the parasitic attacks on cotton farmers and the poor quality of inputs.”

AICB Secretary Ali Compaoré concurred, telling the media briefing: “Pests seriously undermined production efforts” over the course of the season.

As part of an effort to deal with increasing devastation by insect pests, Burkina Faso in 2008 approved the cultivation of GM (Bt) cotton, which offers inherent resistance to the destructive bollworm. These pests have the potential to destroy up to 80 percent of yield on cotton farms. Bt cotton helped farmers cut down on insecticide spray from an average of eight per season to just three. Overall, GM cotton reduced the use of pesticides by up to 70 percent, while increasing productivity by about 22 percent and smallholder farmer profits by an average of 51 percent.

But cotton processers complained fiber from the new varieties was shorter in length and a decision was taken in 2016 to completely phase out GMO varieties and return to conventional seeds. The industry has not recovered since as farmers lament increased pest infestation on fields has resulted in lower yields, leading to the current plummeting of the industry.  Burkina Faso was for a long time Africa’s largest producer of cotton until it lost that position to Mali two years ago, a development linked with the decision to phase out GMO cotton.

FORGING AHEAD

The government, cotton companies and farmer groups have announced fresh measures to revive the cotton industry. The price at which processors buy cotton from farmers has been increased by 15 percent to encourage more farmers to grow cotton this season. The government also has committed US$23.8 million (CFA 14 billion) to subsidize inputs for cotton farmers. Prices of fertilizers and insecticides are thus expected to drop drastically. The industry has set a new target to produce 800,000 tonnes of cotton in the upcoming 2019-20 season.

Scientists, however, are cautioning that the cotton industry will struggle to recover unless GMO varieties are re-introduced in the country. They praised the successes chalked up by the GMO varieties following their introduction about a decade ago.

“During eight years of production of genetically modified cotton, no complaint was made about this technology. The results clearly showed that genetically modified cotton provides better pest control. Producers made a lot of profits and local and even national economies were doing well,” noted Dr. Edgar Traore of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB).

“More and more producers are grumbling and calling for an immediate return of Bt cotton. Farmers’ discontent is often followed by the abandonment of cotton production by villages and even entire regions at the cotton belt level,” he said.

But industry officials expressed confidence that the new measures will help boost production.

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“Our only way to salute the government’s commitment to us will be to flood cotton ginning factories,” said Bambou Bihoun, president of both AICB and the National Union of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso. “If we have good rainfall, the players plan to meet the challenge of 800,000 tonnes of seed cotton for the 2020 campaign to allow the country to leave the fourth place it currently holds to resume the first in Africa.”

Added AICB Secretary Ali Compaore: “Our industry has more need than ever to bounce back and recover its acclaim.”

Yacouba Koura, vice president of the Burkina Faso National Union of Cotton Producers, told the media in an interview that “thanks to the measures taken, the announced pesticide (price) change and with good rains, we hope to reach the production target.”

Harouna Kabore, Burkina Faso’s Minister of Commerce, Industry and Handicrafts, chairs a committee working to help ensure recovery of the cotton sector. He told a workshop in March that he was confident of a turnaround in the situation going into the 2019-20 season. He said ongoing efforts are in line with “medium- and long-term strategies for sustainably improving the agronomic and socio-economic performance of the cotton sector.”

THE NECESSITY OF RETURNING TO GMOS

Traore, however, questioned why the strategies to revive the sector do not include a push for the re-introduction of GMO cotton. He was critical of the final conclusions of the meeting because it did not advocate an immediate return of the GMO technology to cotton farmers.

The scientists warned the decline will continue if GMO cotton seeds are not re-introduced. “Faced with the stubbornness of leaders to maintain only conventional cotton, many cotton producers are threatening to abandon cotton production again for the coming season,” he told the Alliance for Science. “We at OFAB-Burkina remain convinced that no real revival of the cotton sector in Burkina will be possible without the return of Bt technology in the cotton seed. Therefore, Burkina remains a case study for the profitable cultivation of Bt cotton in the world.”

The National Union of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso (UNPCB) has always affirmed its support for the GM technology and has been pushing for its return to help ensure a sustainable cotton industry. In a press statement issued in February 2018, the association noted: “UNPCB is for genetically modified cotton because we are all aware of its benefits… UNPCB is committed to finding a solution quickly for the return of the GM cotton together with the cotton companies and the government.”

Joseph Opoku Gakpo is a broadcast and online journalist with the Multimedia Group Limited in Ghana. Follow him on Twitter @josephopoku1990

This article originally ran at the Cornell Alliance for Science and has been republished here with permission.

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Redefining the Neanderthal: Were they more sophisticated than we thought?

A new body of research has emerged that’s transformed our image of Neanderthals. Through advances in archaeology, dating, genetics, biological anthropology and many related disciplines we now know that Neanderthals not only had bigger brains than sapiens, but also walked upright and had a greater lung capacity. These ice age Eurasians were skilled toolmakers and big-game hunters who lived in large social groups, built shelters, traded jewelry, wore clothing, ate plants and cooked them, and made sticky pitch to secure their spear points by heating birch bark. Evidence is mounting that Neanderthals had a complex language and even, given the care with which they buried their dead, some form of spirituality. And as the cave art in Spain demonstrates, these early settlers had the chutzpah to enter an unwelcoming underground environment, using fire to light the way.

[Archaeologist João] Zilhão says the debate over whether the cave art qualifies as symbolic expression “touches deeply on a concern that goes far beyond academic rivalries. It confronts the issue of how special we, as modern humans, actually are, how distinct we are—or are not—from humans who were not quite ‘us.’”

Read full, original post: What do we really know about Neanderthals? 

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Psychopaths are among us—and why that isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Psychopathy is thought to be present in approximately 1 percent of the general population. However, evidence suggests that these people are over represented in certain professions, many of which are leadership/management-based and can have a profound influence on our society. Should this be a cause for concern, or are people with psychopathic traits simply more capable of performing these roles?

What is a psychopath?

Psychopathy is defined as a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt, and is often associated with repeated antisocial behavior. There are also other characteristics that are associated with psychopathy, such as a narcissistic personality, a manipulative nature and impulsivity. Studies of psychopathy are almost always within criminal populations, and therefore it is not surprising that many preconceived ideas of a psychopath are of a violent criminal. As of January 2019, searching the online database Pubmed for articles with the terms “psychopathy” AND “violent crime” returned 756 articles. In contrast, a search for “psychopathy AND general population” returned 363 articles, and articles specifically studying non-criminal populations by searching for “psychopathy” AND “non-criminal” were just 19. In support of this idea, many of the most publicized and sensational criminal cases reported in the media are perpetrated by psychopaths, since these are usually disturbing, shocking and attract a large interest. Examples of heinous crimes committed by psychopaths that have received large media attention include those committed by Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ian Brady. Together, the fact that studies of psychopathy are mostly concerned with criminality and that many sensational criminal cases reported by the media are perpetrated by psychopaths could influence what people associate with psychopathy.

However, psychopathy is also present in the general population, many of whom will never commit any violent criminal act. Using homicide rates as an approximation for violent crime, the average international homicide rate in 2015 was 5.3 murderers per 100,000 people (<0.01 percent), which is far lower than the estimated 1 percent incidence of psychopathy. Thus, many violent criminals are psychopaths but not all psychopaths are violent criminals. It is difficult to say for certain how prevalent psychopathy is in general society, since most estimates of this are inferred from the criminal population. In addition, most people would never self-identify as a psychopath, due to its understandably negative association, and may not even consider themselves to be psychopathic. It is also difficult to identify psychopathic people as they are not always antisocial or violent. On the contrary, they can be superficially quite charming, possibly as a way to disguise their lack of empathy with others, or perhaps in order to manipulate and deceive.

How do we know who is a psychopath?

There is no black and white way of distinguishing a psychopath from a non-psychopath. Rather, there are people who exhibit certain personality traits that are associated with psychopathy: if somebody displays many of these traits, then they are classed as a psychopath. These are present in the Hare Psychopathy-Checklist Revised (PCL-R). Many of the questions on the checklist deal with personality and lifestyle, such as being manipulative, irresponsible, sexually promiscuous, living a parasitic lifestyle, and only forming shallow relationships with others. Therefore, it is more informative to think of psychopathy as a spectrum that we are all on, where only those individuals with many psychopathic traits are classified as psychopathic. Indeed, most people exhibit one or more of these traits, and no single trait is diagnostic of psychopathy. Specifically, this checklist contains 20 questions concerning personality and lifestyle, each of which is given a score of 0, 1, or 2. Once completed, this would give a score between 0 and 40. Anyone reaching a score >30 would be considered as a psychopath.

Do certain professions favor people with psychopathic traits?

Lack of remorse for immoral decisions can certainly help climb a hierarchy in any profession. In roles that require a great deal of competitiveness, and in which you can benefit by exploiting others, it is clear that those without empathy have an advantage. Analogous to evolution, in which the selective pressure of an environment determines who survives, certain environments may provide a niche where ruthless individuals can prosper. For example, anecdotal evidence suggests that during times of political instability, such as military coups, revolution, and rebellion, it is often a “psychopath” who prospers. Recent examples of this phenomenon in the 20th century include Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, and Pol Pot; people who were willing to inflict unimaginable suffering on millions of others to achieve power, something that would be unthinkable to most people (1,2). This would suggest that in particular circumstances a psychopath would be more likely to succeed than a non-psychopath.

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Are psychopaths really more capable?

Can psychopathic people really perform certain roles better than non-psychopaths? Without empathy it would undoubtedly be much simpler for a psychopath to make decisions involving people in a time of crisis. Decisions involving people’s lives or well being could be taken without any feeling or regret. This could be advantageous as these problems would be approached without compassion and in a purely logical way in order to reach the optimal solution. Personal relationships would be less likely to interfere with these decision-making processes, and in a way, decisions could be made in a more objective manner. Careers in emergency healthcare, rescue services, or frontline military duty would certainly benefit from people who can remain calm and focused in these life or death situations.

Additionally, psychopathic individuals often exhibit fearlessness and an immunity to stress, making them well suited to dealing with high-pressure or chaotic situations. For example, hectic careers that involve making multiple fast decisions, or which involve varied tasks and responsibilities, can be incredibly stressful. These positions are often avoided when the financial benefits of a bigger salary are perceived as not being worth the added pressure. This may in part explain why management/leadership positions contain a higher proportion of people with psychopathic tendencies than the general population.

The personality traits of psychopaths have been recognized as advantageous in certain situations. In fact, there are self-help books on the subject of psychopathy, such as “The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success” in which certain characteristics of psychopaths are identified as being helpful to becoming more assertive, successful, and confident (3). The book suggests that traits of psychopaths can be used in certain situations to help you succeed in your personal and professional life. Of course, your natural tendency will limit how far you can modify your own behavior, and it is highly unlikely that an extremely empathic person would become completely uncaring and remorseless.

According to psychologist Kevin Dutton (one of the authors of the Good Psychopath’s guide), the top 10 professions with the highest rates of psychopathy include CEO, lawyer, media personality, salesperson, and surgeon

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However, many traits associated with psychopathy according to the PCL-R would make a person highly unsuitable for most occupations. One trait that many psychopathic individuals share is impulsivity. In general, people with this characteristic do not think about the future consequences of their actions, but rather about the immediate gains. This impulsive nature would make these individuals much less capable at any role involving long-term planning. Although ruthlessness, ambition, and lack of empathy could make it easier to progress in a given career, it could be that other traits make the person far less suitable for performing the role once they are promoted. All in all, it depends on what “type” of psychopath you are, and which of the psychopathic traits you have in your personality.

Should we be concerned?

While many psychopaths thrive in certain occupations, it is worrying to think that so many people who lack compassion for their fellow humans are in such positions of power and influence. Is this detrimental to our society? Although extremely competent in some areas, the motivation of these people is likely to be entirely self-serving and callous. In an ideal world, people would never be given an opportunity to personally benefit by causing harm to others or society as a whole. In these instances, the wrongdoer would be punished appropriately whenever they made a reckless or self-serving decision that was detrimental to others, thereby incentivizing them not to take this course of action. However, in the real world this type of misbehavior often goes unpunished, especially if the person involved is highly influential and powerful.

Every individual and their needs must be considered in a civilized society, and this should of course also include those who lack empathy for others. Ultimately, there needs to be a thorough and consistently applied set of rules at all levels of society, in order for it to reap the rewards psychopathic individuals can provide without any danger. With their potential to greatly benefit society, they also have the potential to severely damage it. It is therefore important to minimize this risk, allowing people to pursue their own dreams and happiness without impacting negatively on the lives of others.

Robert Ganley is a post-doctoral research assistant at the University of Zurich (UZH). He graduated with a PhD from the University of Glasgow in 2016, and also received a MRes with distinction from the same university. His current research interests include neuronal circuits for pain control and transmission in the central nervous system

This article originally appeared at Culturico as A useful psychopath? and has been republished here with permission.

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African farmers look to genetic engineering in fight against plant diseases and pests

In many ways, you could argue that Africa is not in a position to view agricultural genetic engineering as a luxury. Indeed, it is a necessity in order to expand crop production to feed its growing population, bolster farm income, deal with the ravages of climate change and eliminate the scourge of diseases plaguing its crops.

Yet, this is a continent that finds itself besieged by campaigns that seek to vilify and demonize new technologies that could expand food output in Africa.

Among them:

  • In March of 2018, the West African Peasant Seed Committee, which is part of the network of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, met in Senegal and called for the abandonment “of all activities supporting the introduction of GMO seeds or seeds derived from new biotechnologies (e.g. gene editing, gene silencing).”
  • Greenpeace has suggested there are risks and uncertainties that come with these breeding GM techniques, and that many of them are too new to have been properly evaluated for safety. “Gene-editing, for example, is poorly understood, especially in plants. As little is known about its mode of action it is also difficult to identify potential hazards,” the group argues.
  • In a paper on the new gene-editing techniques, the African Center for Biodiversity said: “Claims that these technologies are safer than classical transgenesis techniques are unproven and are continuing to promote a chemical industrial agricultural model.”

[Editor’s note: This is part four of a series on the potential benefits of genetic engineering technology for Africa. Part one looks at climate change. Part two examines the fight against malnutrition. Part three covers Africa’s growing acceptance of GMOs.]

But failure to adopt new agricultural biotechnology techniques could have grave implications for Africa, where many people rely on farming for their livelihoods and where agricultural products are a major source of export earnings. Many of the major crops in Africa are threatened by disease and pests. As a result, many experts believe genetic engineering holds the key to fending off those threats.

“We believe science and technology creates jobs…poverty gap is also a technology gap and so we want to make the best use of any new scientific procedure to improve our agriculture, health and living standards on the continent,” said Eric Okoree, the chief executive officer of the Ghana Biosafety Authority.

Others argue that new technology must be embraced. Said Chynyere Nzeduru, director of National Biosafety for the National Biosafety Management Agency of Nigeria:

Africa will remain underdeveloped, depending solely on the consumption of imported technologies for survival, if it fails to recognize the fact that the technologies should be encouraged in Africa.

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Image: ISSD Africa

And Dr. Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, West Africa’s regional representative for the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, said the movement to adopt biotechnology to agriculture in Africa is being harmed by people who claim to know more than they do about the technologies in question.

“We find in our midst some people who claim to be scientists who have never studied biology, medicine or agriculture who think they know agriculture more than the professors of agriculture…who are scaring people with the claim that GMOs are bad, saying it causes cancer and any kind of fabricated arguments,” he said.

One of the most important staple African crops that can benefit from new gene-edited technologies is cassava.

The versatile cassava root is part of the starchy element of the diet in Africa, serving in much the same way as potatoes and rice do in other parts of the world. It can be fermented and fried and its leaves can be eaten after they are thoroughly boiled. It can be made into a starch that can be used as an adhesive and can be made into tapioca for use as a food thickener. It can be used to make beer, chips and sugar, while its flour can be used for bread, pasta and biscuits. Cassava also is used to make glue, animal feed, paint and paper.

The plant provides a source of livelihood for about 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Kenton Dashiell, the deputy director general for partnerships and capacity development at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria. In Uganda, one in every four people consume cassava as their main food source, while seven in 10 farmers grow it. Of the world’s 12 largest producers of cassava, seven are African nations.

There are two main problems with consuming and cultivating cassava that can be corrected using new gene editing technologies. First, the root and leaves of the shrub contain cyanide and therefore the crop has to be carefully processed to be used safely.  Using CRISPR, scientists at the Innovative Genomics Institute (a collaboration between UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco), have been able to silence the cassava genes responsible for cyanide production.

Second, cassava is susceptible to brown streak disease and mosaic virus, which cause about $1 billion in losses to African farmers every year.  Both are spread by whiteflies. The Donald Danforth Plant Service Center in St. Louis is working on a CRISPR-edited cassava in the lab that would be immune to brown streak. Meanwhile, researchers in Uganda and Kenya are conducting field trials of cassava developed with RNA interference (RNAi) that would resist both diseases. RNAi was the GM solution that was found to make the Hawaiian papaya immune to ringspot virus. CRISPR technology has also been used to make the starch produced by cassava “waxy” which is highly desirable trait in the food and textile industry for its gelatinization properties.

Research also is underway in the banana industry, which has been plagued by bacterial wilt in central and eastern Africa. This is of particularly importance as bananas are an important source of livelihood and food calories in the regions. In Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, per capita consumption averages 300–400 kg a year.  In those three nations, bananas are responsible for 30-60 percent of caloric intake. In Uganda about 70 percent of farmers grow the crop. Annual losses from the disease in central and eastern Africa is estimated at around $500 million a year. The disease is spread by insects, contaminated food tools, infected planting materials and rain splash.

A potential GM solution has been found that promises to make banana plants immune. It involves adding a gene from a green pepper to the banana. Trials in Uganda have been successful. And with the recent passage of bio-safety legislation to regulate GMOs, it is hoped that a GM bacteria wilt-resistant banana will be commercialized as soon as 2020. If the success demonstrated in field trials is replicated on banana farms in Uganda, it seems likely the new banana would be sanctioned in other African nations. Malawi and Kenya already are field testing the crop, while Ethiopia is conducting research on a genetic engineering solution for combating bacterial wilt disease for ensets, which is a form of banana.

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Another crop that CRISPR could protect is cocoa, which is being decimated by swollen shoot virus. Of the ten largest cocoa producers in the world, four are in Africa.

Swollen shoot virus first appeared in central Ivory Coast in 2006 and 2007.  Production of coca in affected areas declined by as much as 60 percent between 2009 and 2017. In an effort to stop the spread of the disease, the cocoa board announced plans in 2018 to uproot 300,000 hectares of infected trees over three years. In Ghana, about 17 percent of the cocoa trees are affected. A sharp decline in cocoa production resulting from the spread of the disease will have a devastating economic impact in the Ivory Coast and Ghana as cocoa and cocoa preparations accounted for 39.8 percent of all merchandise exports for the Ivory Coast and 17 percent for Ghana in 2017.

Scientists have identified a gene in the cocoa plant that depresses the plant’s disease response. If the gene can be “knocked” out, it could make the plant more resistant to swollen shoot virus.

CRISPR technology also may hold the solution for dealing with the spreading infestation of the Fall Army Worm by altering its genome. The pest has devastated agriculture in Africa and may soon make its way to Europe. The Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International estimated African farmers suffered losses of more than 10 billion British pounds from the start of 2017 to early 2018 in loss production of corn, sorghum, rice and sugar cane.

Regina Eddy, the head of the US government’s global Fall Army Worm task force said the “pest has the potential to…put hundreds of million at risk of hunger.”

By curbing plant diseases and the pests that cause tremendous crop damage, genetic engineering techniques can have a tremendous impact on the agricultural sector of Africa. But such benefits will not come to fruition if the opponents of the technology continue to deny its obvious effectiveness and insist that biotechnology has no role to play in agriculture on the continent.

Steven E. Cerier is a freelance international economist and a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project

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Costly glyphosate-cancer legal battles spark Bayer shareholder ‘revolt’

You can’t blame the Americans at Monsanto any more. Europe’s most politically inflammatory chemical — the ubiquitous weedkiller glyphosate — is now well and truly a German problem.

Shareholders of the German chemical giant Bayer staged a full-blown revolt at a heated 13-hour meeting in Bonn on [April 26], arguing that the management failed to see the company was inheriting a raft of nightmarish litigation associated with glyphosate when it bought U.S. agrichemical giant Monsanto for $66 billion [in 2018].

The investors are furious that a blue-riband European company is now potentially exposed to billions of dollars of claims over the glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup, created by Monsanto. Two U.S. court verdicts over the past year found that the world’s most popular herbicide caused cancer, hauling shares in Bayer down about 40 percent since August. Bayer has appealed those decisions but is now facing an avalanche of some 13,400 claims.

Bayer’s management argues that the furor is unscientific and that glyphosate poses no danger. Chief Executive Baumann sought to forestall the shareholder revolt in Bonn on [April 26] by saying: “We were convinced at the time — and we are today — that glyphosate is a safe product when used as directed….

Read full, original article: Glyphosate revolt rocks Germany Inc.

4-22-2019 may g pain

An Italian family’s curious insensitivity to pain

Shortly after her sixth birthday, while climbing a pole in a neighbor’s yard in the Tuscan city of Siena, [scientist Letizia Marsili] stuck herself in the side on an errant nail; after stanching the flow of blood, while her friends watched in horror, she pronounced herself fine to keep playing. Later, she twisted her ankle while rock climbing, and kept going; she burned her hands with hot oil. In each situation, the experience was the same: She felt a shudder of discomfort that melted away in seconds.

Not only did Letizia Marsili possess an exceptionally high tolerance to pain, [physician Anna Maria] Aloisi explained to [neurobiologist John] Wood, but so did much of her family. She’d done some rudimentary testing on Letizia’s mother, her sister, her sister’s daughter and Letizia’s own sons. All of them shared the same reaction to pain.

[The mutation the family has,] ZFHX2 was crucially involved in pain perception in a way nobody had previously understood.

ZFHX2 appeared to regulate how other genes operated, including several genes already linked to pain processing and active throughout the nervous system, including in the brain—a sort of “master regulator.”

Read full, original post: The family that feels almost no pain

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