Plant genetically modified corn, help your neighbor? That’s the argument of a study out in Science today—corn modified to keep pests away creates a “halo effect” that also reduces crop damage at neighboring farms that don’t plant the pest-resistant variety.
Bill Hutchison of the University of Minnesota led the study, which surveyed the records going back to 1996 for Minnesota and four other Corn Belt states: Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. 1996 is the key year because that’s when farmers first planed Bt corn, a variety modified to produce a toxin that keeps away the European corn borer. As the name suggests, that insect is an invader from across the pond that likes to devour corn, and Hutchison and colleagues wanted to see how effectively Bt corn kept the pest at bay during the last decade and a half.
In about a week and a half, officials at the Food and Drug Administration must complete their final deliberations over whether or not to approve a genetically modified salmon as the first GM animal in the world sold for human consumption.
It would seem they’re leaning toward “yes.”
Last Friday, while the country was preparing to go on vacation, the FDA released an analysis (pdf) of the transgenic salmon created by AquaBounty Technologies of Waltham, Massachusetts, declaring it safe to eat and safe for the environment.
The AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon contains a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon that is kept active all year round by a genetic on-switch from a different fish, the ocean pout. Normally, salmon produce growth hormone only in warm weather. So with the hormone produced year round, the AquAdvantage salmon grow faster [The New York Times].
“Faster” is an understatement. A normal Atlantic salmon requires about 30 months to grow large enough so that it can be sold at market. But a GM salmon with year-round growth hormone bulks up to market size in barely more than half that time—16 months or so.
Ecologists recently took to the highways of North Dakota on the hunt for genetically modified canola. Along 3,000 miles of interstate, state, and county roads, they found it: 86 percent of the 406 road-side plants they collected showed evidence of modification.
The scientists behind the discovery say this highlights a lack of proper monitoring and control of GM crops in the United States…. “The extent of the escape is unprecedented,” says Cynthia Sagers, an ecologist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, who led the research team that found the canola. [Nature]
Though Sager does not believe that the modified canola will overtake North Dakota, she thinks the study is important for understanding how and to what extent a genetically modified crop can spread.
“We found the highest densities of plants near agricultural fields and along major freeways…. But we were also finding plants in the middle of nowhere–and there’s a lot of nowhere in North Dakota.” [BBC]
Coming soon: Salmon that grow to full size in half the time?
With all sorts of genetically modified crops on the market and in the grocery store in the United States, genetically modified animals have been the next step waiting to happen. The New York Times reports that salmon could be the first up: This year the Food and Drug Administration will weigh approval of a GM salmon created by the company AquaBounty, which could be the first GM animal eaten by Americans.
It is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon as well as a genetic on-switch from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon. Normally, salmon do not make growth hormone in cold weather. But the pout’s on-switch keeps production of the hormone going year round. The result is salmon that can grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of three years, though the company says the modified salmon will not end up any bigger than a conventional fish [The New York Times].
One pest withers; another takes its place.
The Chinese government in 1997 approved Bt cotton. The crop, produced by U.S. agribusiness giant Monsanto, is genetically modified to produce a toxin that kills the bollworm, which has wreaked havoc on cotton crops. For its intended use, Bt cotton worked great: As DISCOVER covered in 2008, bollworms were in steep decline not only in cotton fields, but also in neighboring fields of corn and soybeans. But nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum, and targeting just one pest opens the door for others to come in. According to a decade-long study published in Science this week, it’s happening.
The new pest plaguing the 4 million hectares of Bt cotton in China is the mirid bug, research leader Kongming Wu says.
Numbers of mirid bugs (insects of the Miridae family), previously only minor pests in northern China, have increased 12-fold since 1997, they found. “Mirids are now a main pest in the region,” says Wu. “Their rise in abundance is associated with the scale of Bt cotton cultivation” [Nature].
Is the Roundup Ready revolution coming to a close? In the early 1990s, agribusiness giant Monsanto introduced its line of genetically modified crops that could tolerate the pesticide Roundup, allowing farmers to spray it far and wide without worrying about damaging their product.
Now, reports are bubbling up about the increased resistance some weeds are showing to Roundup, which could be the source of great worry, as 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of corn currently grown in the United States are the Roundup Ready varieties.
[F]armers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said [The New York Times].
And for the environmentally-minded, here’s something else to consider:
That threatens to reverse one of the agricultural advances bolstered by the Roundup revolution: minimum-till farming. By combining Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, farmers did not have to plow under the weeds to control them. That reduced erosion, the runoff of chemicals into waterways and the use of fuel for tractors [The New York Times].
For an in-depth take, and a historical reminder of how weeds have always evolved to thwart our means of killing them, check out DISCOVER blogger Carl Zimmer’s post.
The Loom: How To Make a Superweed
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Image: flickr / Peter Blanchard
Canada has approved for limited production a genetically engineered, environmentally friendly pig.
The “Enviropig” has been genetically modified in such a manner that its urine and feces contain almost 65 percent less phosphorus than usual. That could be good news for lakes, rivers, and ocean deltas, where phosphorous from animal waste can play a role in causing algal blooms. These outbursts of algae rapidly deplete the water’s oxygen, creating vast dead zones for fish and other aquatic life [National Geographic].
All living creatures need phosphorus, as the element plays an important role in many cellular and organ functions. Domesticated pigs get their daily dose from corn or cereal grains, but not without a struggle. These foods contain a type of phosphorus that is indigestible to the pigs, so farmers also feed their pigs an enzyme called phytase to allow the animals to break down and digest the phosphorus. But ingested phytase isn’t as effective at breaking down phosphorus as phytase created inside the pig would be, so a fair amount of the element gets flushed out in pig waste. That waste, in turn, can make its way into the water supply [National Geographic].
After 12 years of refusing to let any new genetically modified food crops take root in the European Union, the EU has finally given the go-ahead to an engineered potato. However, the GM potatoes won’t end up in French pomme frites or German potato dumplings, as they’ve been approved only for industrial or animal feed purposes. Regulators say the high-starch spuds will likely be used by paper and textile companies.
The Amflora potato was created by the German chemical company BASF and will be cultivated this year on a commercial scale of 250 hectares in the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Germany. Before Amflora, only one other GMO had been approved for cultivation in the EU — Monsanto’s MON810 maize, in 1998 — in spite of repeated findings from the European Food Safety Authority that such products did not pose health risks [Financial Times]. And even though that GM maize variety was officially approved by the EU, a number of European countries have banned its cultivation.
After much debate over balancing the need for independent scientific testing and the needs of poor Indian farmers, the Indian government has decided to put on hold the introduction of genetically modified eggplant in the country. The move hampers the expansion of seed makers including Monsanto Co. in the world’s second-most populous nation [BusinessWeek]. The government said there was no overriding food security argument for GM eggplant, and added that more safety studies needed to be done before the ban could be reconsidered.
There is little evidence that GMO eggplant would cause harm to people eating it, but the crop is consumed very often in India, and some scientists and regulators argued that they needed more proof that long-term consumption wouldn’t cause a problem. “It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt Brinjal till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product” [Daily News and Analysis], said the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, who delivered the announcement.
If you were looking to make tomatoes last longer in your kitchen, then researchers in India might have the answer. Scientists at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research (NIPGR) in New Delhi have found that by suppressing two enzymes (alpha-Man and beta-Hex) associated with ripening, they could push tomatoes to last close to 45 days before they turned mushy. Their research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal.
The tomatoes in which the alpha-Man enzyme was suppressed were 2.5 times firmer than conventional tomatoes, while those lacking in beta-Hex were two times firmer [Moneycontrol]. The genetically modified (GM) tomatoes also survived for days without refrigeration, which scientists say is great news for farmers in developing nations; India, for example, loses almost 40 percent of its annual produce of fruits and vegetables to spoilage during transportation.
The genetically-modified tomato would have to pass a series of field trials, including animal safety tests, before it can be considered for commercial cultivation. The NIPGR scientists say the process could take three years, perhaps longer [The Telegraph]. The researchers have also been reported as saying they will consider the same technique to try and make fruits like papayas and bananas last longer. However, GM tomatoes and fruits would likely encounter stiff resistance from consumers who don’t want food they perceive as unnatural in the grocery stores. Also, no word from scientists on how their GM tomatoes taste.
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