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November, 2009:

It never rains but it pours (more analysis of The Organic Center report)

Just this morning I was talking about how I’d hope to see more analysis of The Organic Center’s report on genetic engineering’s effect on pesticides. Just a little while ago I was able to point to a discussion of problems with some of the numbers behind the report. Here’s more perspective (this time from Steve Savage on sustainablog), which brings up another key point I didn’t consider. Much of the increase in pesticide use attributed to herbicide tolerant crops actually came in 2007-2008, the same year that food prices spiked around the world:

There is an old saying – “the best cure for high food commodity prices is high food commodity prices.”  When grain prices are high, growers respond by planting more acres (=more chemical use) and by applying more crop protection chemicals to the crop they grow so that less of this more valuable yield is lost to pests.  Its really simple, rational economics.  Also, remember that the irritating, but not large, food price increases American consumers saw in 2007/8 corresponded to a huge swing in the percent of the family budget spent on food in poor countries.  There were even food riots and export restrictions.  The fact that American farmers ramped up production was a good thing for poor people and the chemicals were part of that.

Why should you be excited about the corn genome?

Virginia Walbot has ten reasons in the latest issue of PLOS genetics. PLOS journals are all open access so anyone can read it without a subscription.

The two reasons I think will be the most interesting to non-biologists are #1 and #10:

Corn was domesticated a short 10,000 years ago and domestication is normally a huge genetic bottleneck that results in the loss of much of the gene diversity found in the wild ancestor. (Modern tomatoes are more diverse than heirlooms because breeders are intentionally working to bring some of that diversity back over.) Yet two lines of corn, which certainly shared many common ancestors in the last 10,000 years, contain more genetic differences than humans and chimpanzees which have been evolving separately for 3.5 MILLION years. That’s 10,000 years vs 3,500,000 years!

Number ten drives home how essential corn is to the world today with statistics like American farmers growing so much corn last year than it works out to a metric ton for every man, woman, and child in this country. Or that corn and cornfeed animals feed a billion people around the globe (those aren’t rice numbers, but hopefully it drives home why corn has definitely earned it’s place as one of the big three grains that support civilization around the world).

h/t to the beekeeper (who I haven’t see around the blog in months) for pointing me at this PLOS genetics coverage of the maize genome papers coming out both there and in Science.

Actual Evaluation of the Pesticide Use Report

I published this morning about putting the numbers being reported by the organic center about increased use of pesticides in herbicide tolerant crops into the proper perspective. In the introduction I mentioned:

I’m neither a statistician nor an agronomist, so I’m not qualified to confirm or refute the numbers they put forward. Hopefully we’ll see more detailed analysis on that end from someplace like biofortified or sustainablog.

And here, fresh from the biofortified forums, is a link to a report [pdf again I’m afraid] that goes into details with problems with the actually methodology used in The Organic Center’s report. (h/t to gntis for posting it)

From a quick skim (I’m too excited about the maize genome to be detail oriented):

  • The remaining acres grown with non-BT crops are grown that way for reasons (stricter pesticide regulation, more pest pressure, intentionally being grown as a low input crop, where the farmer accepts lower yields and puts a lot less money into fertilizer, seeds, and herbicides, possibly even acres in transition to organic certification (which requires three years)). They aren’t a random subset of all the acreage on which that crop is grown, and as a result using their herbicide numbers to extrapolate to what the total usage would be in the absence of biotech crops is wildly inaccurate.
  • There actually is a statistic, called the environmental impact quotient, (developed by Cornell!) which takes into account issues like differences in persistence, toxicity, and dispersal between different herbicides!
  • There are other more complete datasets on pesticide usage available (which paint a different picture from the one presented), which the author choose not to take advantage of, preferring to extrapolate from the incomplete data he selected.

Corn Genome

So I was mixed up and didn’t think this could be publically mentioned until tomorrow, but the finalized corn genome has come out. Edited this link to point to the ISU coverage which seems to be more detailed than the release from Wash U. If Wash U can mention it, so can I. Expect tomorrow to be a day of corn here at Jamesandthegiantcorn (though it would have been more fun if I could had started the day of corn before this news was publically announced.)

Lots of corn … and maybe some genomics. Consider yourselves forwarned!

Not Genetically Engineered: Grapes

New York Grapes. Concords I believe, though it's been several years so I may be remembering wrong.

New York Grapes. Concords I believe, though it's been several years so I may be remembering wrong.

Scientific Name: Vitis vinifera

Supposed Genetically Engineered Trait: Large size/seedlessness

The Real Story:

Seedless grapes are descended from several different mutations that all result in the developing embryos of grape seeds to abort prematurely*. You can still find the tiny dead remnants of seeds in seedless grapes. Of course being seedless raises a new question: How do plant breeders work with seedless grapes? (more…)

This is Why It’s Important to Know What bt Stands For

We’ve been hearing more about India in the news lately. Along with the decision about whether or not to approve bt eggplants (brinjal), India is also debating a set of new biotechnology intellectual property laws. As I’ve said in the past India currently doesn’t recognize genetic patents, so anybody can breed transgenes into their own seeds and sell them. Of course the only legalized GE crop in India right now is cotton but as others are legalized, the same situation would apply.

I’ll admit I disagree with this quote:

Clinton said she favoured a strong intellectual property or patent regime (IPR) to safeguard the ownership of agricultural research, as that would be in ‘everyone’s interest’.

India is faced with the question of how best to balance protection for creators, to encourage biotech research, and the rights of farmers, to make sure they get the most possible benefit from that research. It is important to strike the right balance between the two, not just cater to the desires of one side of the other. It’s the same issue faced by every country when it comes to regulating everything from pharmaceutical research to the music industry.

And I have faith India will find the right balance. After all we’re talking about a country where cheap pirate copies of movies are available cheaply and easily on every street corner sometimes before movies even make it into theaters, yet Bollywood (the Indian film industry based in Mumbai) is quite profitable, turns out twice as many films as Hollywood, and is probably the only other national film industry, other than America’s, recognized around the world.*

So given all that could the people who write about the issue please PLEASE bother to look up what bt stands for? Case in point:

First, the Indian government has yet to greenlight the commercialisation of Bt brinjal — crucial for the future of these ‘Bt brand’ companies — even after a thumbs up from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). … the MNCs who produce ‘Bt’ seeds, as genetically modified or GM crops have come to be popularly known (patents would ensure that no one else would be allowed to produce or sell these seeds).

*Off the top of my head I’d recommend Krrish and Salaam/Namaste as examples of entertaining movies Bollywood has put out recently, and Gol Maal as a hilarious one from several decades ago.

About the herbicide application report that’s floating around

I’m sure everyone who follows the genetic engineering debate has heard about the report from The Organic Center which lays a net increase in pesticide usage at the feet of genetically engineered crops. So I finally found a link to the report itself [warning pdf, also 69 pages]. I’m neither a statistician nor an agronomist (despite my awesome ISU hat which has exactly that slogan), so I’m not qualified to confirm or refute the numbers they put forward. Hopefully we’ll see more detailed analysis on that end from someplace like Biofortified or Sustainablog. I now have some analysis of the methodology of the report itself, tracked down by gntis on the biofortified forums. What I can do is given a bit of the broader context about the context of their numbers and what they don’t mean. This post will be in the following format:

  • The 318 million pounds in context
  • Chemicals are different
  • –Different Toxicity
  • –Different Persistance in the Environment
  • Herbicide resistant weeds
  • One trait vs a technology

318 Million Pounds in Context

Example tweet:

Pesticide use has skyrocketed by 318 million lbs (in last 13 years) with use of #GMO seeds!

Let’s put that number in perspective. (more…)

Biotech Wheat

Nature Biotechnology has an article well worth checking out (if you have journal access anyway) about the story of biotech wheat. No genetically engineered wheat is commercially grown today, nor has it been in the past.  Monsanto came close to releasing an herbicide tolerant variety several years ago, but didn’t because of fear that American farmers would lose valuable markets for our wheat exports. I speculated that genetically engineered wheat runs into more consumer opposition because we eat more wheat in recognizable forms (mostly bread and pasta) than we do crops like corn, soybeans, and canola.

Anyway, two new developments seem to have prompted this article. (more…)

So what do you all enjoy reading about?

I’ve got a couple of indirect ways of estimating changes in the number of subscribers to my RSS feed, and from my, very, VERY rough, estimates, it looks like it’s been increasing a lot faster than actual click-throughs to articles. Even if you read only one post and actually find a bit of science that excites you, I’ve done something completely worthwhile.

However, I did want to give everyone a chance, both new subscribers and regulars (has this site been around long enough to have regulars?) to let me know what kind of information drew you to this site, and/or what you’re interested in reading about.

There are so many things I’d love to write about but realistically I’ve only got time to write a couple of posts a day (being a grad student is actually a lot of work, and until recently I’ve always been the sort of person who needs to spend a couple of hours a day relaxing/decompressing/.) So if there’s anything in particular you’ve enjoyed reading about on this site, speak up!

That’s not a demand, it’s not even a request, just an open invitation.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta on Investing in Agriculture

I mentioned Doctor Gebisa Ejeta before when he won the world food prize for his work developing striga resistant sorghum breeds. This is a man who began life… well his own words can say it better than I can paraphrase:

I was born of illiterate parents with little means and raised in a small village without schools in west-central Ethiopia. An only child, I was nurtured with with lots of love, but on a diet less than adequate even for body maintenance, let alone for growth and intellectual development. … I was rescued by a godsend from the United State of America…

I took that quote from his testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign relations this past spring. It was a moving call to renew the international investments in agricultural research, and the training of plant scientists around the world, something the United State and the international community as a whole have let slide for the past two decades. The whole testimony is an excellent read (h/t to mary for pointing it out on the biofortified forums). If you have a few minutes, please take the time to read the whole thing here [pdf]. If you don’t, you surely have the time to read this single paragraph: (more…)