In another sign of Europe’s resistance to the genetically modified crops that have been widely accepted in the United States, Germany outlawed the cultivation of a genetically modified strain of corn produced by the U.S. company Monsanto. Germany joins five other countries — France, Austria, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg — that have banned the pest-resistant maize despite its approval under a legally-binding EU directive [Nature News].
The strain of corn, known as Mon810, is the only transgenic crop approved in the European Union. Kari Matalone, a spokeswoman for Monsanto, said the corn — which is engineered to resist pests — had been approved for cultivation in Europe more than a decade ago and that no ill effects had been detected since then. “We don’t really understand where this decision is coming from,” Ms. Matalone said [The New York Times]. Monsanto also said it’s considering legal action against Germany.
If life gives you saltwater, grow salt-loving plants. That’s the cheerful prescription two ecologists have offered to cope with the salinization of coastal fresh water supplies that would likely occur if global warming causes sea levels to rise, bringing saltwater sloshing further inland. The scientists say that convincing farmers to grow edible salt-tolerant plants would prepare them for changing conditions, and would also allow them to utilize previously barren coastal deserts and degraded agricultural land.
Governments should begin to invest in “saltwater agriculture,” says coauthor Jelte Rozema. “We have limited amounts of freshwater – most of it is used for drinking water. Gradually it will be profitable to think of brackish water and sea water as a resource.” … The scientists suggest the best way forward is to domesticate wild plants, crossbreeding them to produce higher yields [BBC News]. Researchers points to edible plants like sea kale and samphire (sometimes called sea asparagus) as likely candidates for domestication, as both grow happily amid the sea spray. In the Netherlands, researchers have experimented with growing sea kale as a crop in coastal areas, and their results have been a hit at one island restaurant. “It has a stronger flavor than most vegetables but brings out very nice accents in food,” [restaurateur Jef] Schuur said. “Growing sea kale here shows that there are a lot more opportunities for local produce on low-lying islands affected by salt” [Bloomberg].
Using a gene from a snapdragon flower, researchers have created a purple tomato rich in antioxidants, and a new study has shown that cancer-prone mice that were fed the altered tomatoes had significantly longer lifespans than those that dined on regular tomatoes. The tomatoes’ purple hue was a side effect of the type of antioxidants produced, called anthocyanins.
The tomatoes produce levels of anthocyanins about on par with blackberries, blueberries and currants, which recent research has touted as miracle fruits. But because of the high cost and infrequent availability of such berries, tomatoes might be a better source, says [lead researcher Cathie] Martin [USA Today].
The introduction of genetically engineered cotton plants has had an unexpectedly broad effect on Chinese agriculture, according to a new study. The so-called Bt cotton plants that produce a chemical that kills the cotton bollworm have not only reduced the incidence of the pest in cotton fields, but also in neighboring fields of corn, soybeans, and other crops. The study, published in the journal Science [subscription required], found that the altered cotton plants kill the bollworm larvae before they can mature and move on to other crops.
The cotton bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera, is one of the most serious insect pests in Asia, attacking wheat, corn, soya beans, peanuts and vegetables as well as cotton. In the early 1990s, repeated bollworm outbreaks in China were barely contained. The heavy pesticide use that controlled them killed thousands of people each year, according to [biotechnology researcher] Huang Dafang [Nature News], as many farmers didn’t wear protective gear while they drenched their crops with chemicals.
The Food and Drug Administration proposed rules today to regulate genetically engineered animals that are raised for food or to produce medications. The agency would use its existing authority over animal drugs to regulate genetic engineering, the addition of genes to animals to improve food quality, build disease resistance or produce medicines for humans, the FDA said in a statement. Producers would have to demonstrate that altered animals, if intended for use as food, are safe to eat [Bloomberg].
The step is being viewed as yet another official vote of confidence in the safety of genetically engineered food products. Genetic engineering is already widely used in plants in the United States, where several government agencies oversee its use in agriculture. Crops like corn, cotton, and soybeans have been altered to be more resistant to pests or to endure high doses of weed-killers (like Monsanto’s blockbuster Roundup Ready crops). The FDA has previously said that cloned animals and their offspring are safe to eat and don’t require regulation, although squeamish consumers may put a damper on that market. It remains to be seen if consumers will accept genetically engineered steak and eggs.
Meat and milk from the offspring of cloned animals may already be part of the U.S. food supply, the Food and Drug Administration announced this week. While the cloning process is too expensive (about $20,000 per animal) to justify creating clones that will be turned into hamburgers, some ranchers have cloned animals with desirable traits, which they then breed the old-fashioned way to create offspring. Officials said it is impossible to differentiate between cloned animals, their offspring and conventionally bred animals, making it difficult to know if offspring are in the food supply [Reuters].
The use of cloned livestock–particularly cows, swine, and sheep–has been fiercely debated in the United States and Europe. In January, the FDA declared that cloned animals and their offspring were as safe to eat as conventionally bred animals; regulators still ask that food companies follow a voluntary moratorium on using cloned animals for food production, but no such moratorium exists for the clones’ natural offspring. Those offspring may have made it into the food supply, a U.S. Agriculture Department spokesman said, but “they would be a very limited number because of the very few number of clones that are out there and relatively few of those clones are at an age where they would be parenting” [Reuters].
A report from an European Union agency says that while meat and milk from cloned animals appears to be safe for human consumption, more studies are needed to prove the point. While the document from the European Food Safety Authority is not the final word on the matter, it seems to indicate that European consumers won’t be chowing down on steaks from cloned cows anytime soon.
“For cattle and pigs, food safety concerns are considered unlikely. But we must acknowledge that the evidence base is still small. We would like to have a broader data base and we need further clarification” [Reuters], said an agency official. The report also said that cloning has a negative impact on the health and welfare of the animals, as clones are more likely to be born with birth defects and often die younger.
Thus far, Europe has never had a friendly attitude towards genetically modified (GM) foods. In contrast to the United States, most European governments have adopted the “precautionary principle” in dealing with this new technology, arguing that GM crops should be proven safe to both human health and the environment before farmers plant their fields with them. But as concerns about the world food supply grow, at least one nation is reconsidering that stance.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to attend a European Union summit today, where he will urge the assembly to consider the potential benefits of genetically engineered crops. Britain’s environment minister says, “There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food price crisis. It is a question that we as a nation need to ask ourselves… Many people concerned about poverty in the developing world and the environment are wrestling with this issue,” he said [BBC News].