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Politics

The Hair Shirt Fallacy

Kids are told to eat their vegetables because, even though they taste bad, because vegetables are good for them. They are told they can’t have ice cream every night, even though it tastes good, because ice cream is bad for them. The danger arrises when people generalize that rule, that if it’s pleasant it’s bad for you, and if you don’t like it it must be good for you. (more…)

India and Bt Brinjal/Eggplant

India has delayed the introduction of their insect resistant eggplants.

Read about it in:

We got to genetics in class today and the story of the shrunken 2 gene

Arabidopsis that carries broken copies of both the AP1 (apetala1) and CAL (cauliflower) genes. The flower bearing stems have been replaced by these cauliflower-head-like growths. Image from "Genome-Wide Analysis of Gene Expression during Early Arabidopsis Flower Development" by Frank Wellmer et al (in PLOS Genetics a creative commons licensed journal). Article here: http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0020117

Just in time for me to put together my worksheet for Thursday! I’ve managed to work in the CAL gene, which I talked about last week in my discussion of Cruciferous vegetables:

Cauliflower plants (and broccoflower plants) have broken copies of the CAL gene, which (when it isn’t broken) is helps the plant decide to switch from producing stems that were bear flowers to the flowers themselves. Without a functional version of CAL, cauliflowers just keep making denser and denser stems, producing the distinctive heads of cauliflower. If you have journal access, you can read more about the CAL gene at this science paper: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.7824951

I also threw in a question that uses the shrunken2 gene (one of the two most common genes that convert normal starchy corn into sweet corn). From the question in question:

Note the shriveling of the yellow kernels that carry two broken copies of the shrunken2 gene, the purple kernels carry either one broken and one working copy of shrunken2, or two working copies. The change in color is controlled by another gene nearby on the same chromosome, shrunken2 itself has no effect on the color of corn kernels. Photo credit goes to MG Neuffer and MaizeGDB.

Corn kernels without a working copy of the shrunken2 gene can’t convert very much of the sugar provided by photosynthesis in the leaves of the corn plant into starch. Instead, sugar itself accumulates in the kernel making the corn taste quite sweet.

When sugary corn kernels are dried, they shrivel up, while starchy ones remain relatively round and smooth. This has to do with the fact that sugars are water soluble while starch is not. So, as I understand it, corn kernels with more sugar are also a greater percentage water than corn kernels that are made mostly of starch.

The mutant form of shrunken2 was identified by John Laughnan, a maize geneticist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The story of the discovery as told in Maize Genetics and Breeding in the 20th Century by Peter Peterson and Angelo Bianchi: (more…)

School Lunches

In yet another article on the evils of corn syrup, I came across a weird quote:

Because SFUSD has focused on reducing fat and empty calories in cafeteria items, the meals are now very close to the USDA minimums, and are based on a meal which includes either 1-percent white milk or skim chocolate milk. “Replacing skim chocolate milk with skim white milk would cause the calorie count of the meal to drop below the USDA-mandated minimum,” says Woldow [A member of the San Francisco School District Student Nutrition Committee]

I feel weird thinking about this. Cutting sugar (regardless of whether it originates in sugarcase, or corn, or sweet sorghum, or the sugar beet) from school lunches is a laudable goal. But free and reduced price school lunches are also the closest thing some kids will have to a real meal all day. So San Francisco School District, in the push to make school lunches more healthy, if nothing else could you please increase the portions for healthy things as you cut out the foods you don’t approve of?

Cutting calories from a program that has a real impact on childhood hunger and malnutrition in our country isn’t something you should be proud of.

And just to be clear all that happened in the article linked above was to substitute sugar (produced from sugar beets, or sugar cane) for corn syrup on a calorie for calorie basis.

Not 2 + 2 = 5, but close

Among the many things Michael Specter talks about in his new book Denialism, is that fact that numeracy (the mathmatical equivalent of literacy) is no longer prized in todays society.

Case in point:

BP, for example, puts $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion a year into alternative energy projects. That’s about 1 percent of the company’s total $20 billion investment this year in future business prospects.*

I was going to beat up on the greenpeace blog where I read this sentence, but on a closer rereading I realized it was actually a direct quote from this article on the New York Times website. Come on people, 1% is easy, all you do is move the decimal place, you don’t even have to divide or multiply. Now there could be some obscure accounting reason that regular math doesn’t apply here, but if so it should have been mentioned and it wasn’t. (more…)

By The Numbers 12/19/09

In no way should any of the following statistics be taken as a dig against the people who study wheat. Wheat breeders have done so much with far few resources than have been invested in maize (corn) breeding. Ya’ll are amazing.
  • Year in with the largest wheat harvest in the US: 1981-1982 (2.8 billion bushels)
  • Year in with the largest wheat corn harvest in the US: 2007-2008(13 billion bushels)
  • The US’s share of global wheat exports in 1973-1974: 50%
  • The US’s share of global wheat exports today: 20%
  • Percentage increase in yield per acre of wheat 1969-present: 45%
  • Percentage increase in yield per acre of corn 1969-present: 90%
  • Estimated earliest year a program to develop genetically engineered wheat, launched today, would be able to win regulatory approval for any variety of GM wheat: 2018
  • Year in which Monsanto’s patent on their first generation Round-up Ready Soybeans expires: 2014
  • Number of lawsuits filed by Monsanto against individual farmers it claims infringed on its seed patents in the past decade: 125 (same source as above)
  • Number people threatened with legal action to force a settlement/sued by the RIAA in the same time period: more than 28,000
  • Amount the RIAA sued the russian website allofmp3.com for in 2006: $1.65 trillion
  • The gross domestic product of India in 2008: $1.2 trillion
  • First time the world knew what the far side of the moon looked like: 1959

Check out the article in The Guardian about wheat farming and the future of genetically engineered wheat.

How A Piece of Misinformation is Born

For an example of how fast information can be distorted as it is transmitted through the web, check out my previous documentation about how a paper on a GM trait not being in danger of escaping into wild populations was twisted into“Another failure of genetic engineering” in only a week.

Refuting every post across the web that makes false claims about agriculture, genetics, or plant biology would be, firstly impossible, and secondly, incredibly tedious. Once a piece of misinformation escapes into the wild it is far harder to call back than the horrible trans-genes of anti-GMO activists nightmares. A false idea will spread far faster among those who want to believe than it can be refuted (at length and in detail) by those who know better.

But this morning (or afternoon, or evening, or dead of night), I came across a wonderful example of what I believe has the potential to be an entirely new false fact that could float around the web, and obscure corners of the public consciousness for years to come (or be forgotten in a week, it’s hard to pick which facts will escape and thrive in the wild until they actually have.)

(more…)

Funding the Good Guys

Some changes are happening for CGAIR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). If you don’t know about CGAIR, they’re definitely the good guys. But don’t take my word for it. How would you classify a non-profit organization that’s been working for close to 40 years to fight hunger and poverty by improving the agricultural productivity of poor and subsistence farmers around the world. Also consider on other key fact: while plenty of people and organizations fight hungry and poverty, the effort of the CGIAR centers works.

But, like any non-profit, the work of the CGIAR centers depends on the funding they can secure. The news today is about a structural reorganization of CGIAR which, at least in theory, will make research more efficient. Previously donors who wanted a say in how their money was spent would give grants to individual researchers. Which had two undesirable consequences: (more…)

BBC Frontiers on Genetically Engineered Crops

Without realizing it I’d begun to fall into the trap of thinking of European positions on genetically engineered plants mostly as they impact countries in the developing world (European donors funding Greenpeace activity in Thailand, or the threat of losing access to European markets being used to discourage the use of genetically engineered crops in Africa), so it was great to stumble across this segment on BBC Frontiers and be forcefully reminded that the position of the EU (and of it’s member nations) is not set in stone and continues to be the subject of strong debate.

The segment is available streaming from the BBC’s website and it’s a fascinating listen. (Budget ~25 minutes, the stream is a little longer, but the end is just bookkeeping and transitioning to the next show.)

If you don’t have the time to listen to the whole thing (and you really should), here are a couple of key quotes: (more…)

To Accomplish the Impossible

Here’s an inspirational quote about science:

“It was believed impossible to create a blue rose, since roses lack the gene to produce the color blue. However, a Japanese company spent 14 years in research and finally succeeded in developing the world’s first blue rose. I explained to President Obama how this blue rose, which holds the meaning ‘to accomplish the impossible,’ was created and said, ‘Let us work together to accomplish the impossible.’”

-Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama as quoted here (and boy will I feel silly if the whole story is a hoax)

“To accomplish the impossible”. When it comes to assigning meanings to flowers (as well as picking life goals), I’d call that a pretty good one.

The blue rose was actually developed by an Australian company called Florigene which has been acquired by a Japanese company called Suntory. I went into more detail about Florigene’s products here.