Welcome to Review 547, which covers fake meat, GM insects, human cellular engineering, synthetic biology, seed rights, corporate crimes and corporate control, non-GM successes, and feeding the world (check out a couple of important books in that section).
According to a new life cycle assessment, meat produced from cultured cells could be 25 times worse for the climate than regular beef. Lab-grown or “cultivated” meat is made by growing animal stem cells around a scaffold in a nutrient-rich broth. It has been proposed as a kinder and greener alternative to traditional meat because it uses less land, feed, water and antibiotics than animal farming and removes the need to farm and slaughter livestock, which are a source of greenhouse gases. However, Derrick Risner at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues conducted a life-cycle assessment of cultivated meat that estimated the energy used in each step in current production methods. They found that the nutrient broth used to culture the animal cells has a large carbon footprint because it contains components like sugars, growth factors, salts, amino acids and vitamins that each come with energy costs. GMWatch warned about these issues with lab grown meat back in January 2020.
Impossible Foods has stopped using GMO soy protein as the main ingredient in its Impossible Burgers in New Zealand. But it still contains GMO-manufactured soy leghemoglobin, the “fake meat” ingredient that makes the burger look as if it is bleeding. And GMO soy protein remains the main ingredient in the US and Canada.
After releasing GMO mosquitoes, Oxitec is disseminating GMO larvae of Spodoptera frugiperda (fall armyworm) on several thousand hectares of GM Bt maize in Brazil. This agricultural pest has become resistant to several chemical insecticides and to many GMO Bt plants. Oxitec hopes that the release of GM males can circumvent this resistance. The new “solution” is to “sterilise” the insects themselves in an attempt to eradicate their population. The male sterile insect technique is not new. It has been used in Brazil on populations of mosquitoes carrying the dengue virus. This new Oxitec dissemination project is carried out in partnership with Bayer. The CTNBio, the body in charge of GMO evaluation in Brazil, had already given its approval for a commercial use of Spodoptera frugiperdra in 2021.
Efficacy and health issues stop release of genetically engineered mosquitoes in California; Florida continues
British biotech company Oxitec has withdrawn its application to release billions of GM mosquitoes in California. The withdrawal is a victory for environmental and health campaigners concerned about the release of a novel mosquito that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had previously authorised under an “experimental use” permit. “Genetically engineered mosquitoes are an environmental justice issue for Tulare County residents who should not be human experiments,” said Angel Garcia, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. Concerns over health impacts were combined with an overall lack of proven efficacy with results to date. While Oxitec has made claims that it is able to reduce populations of disease-carrying mosquito Aedes aegypti by 98%, this claim has not been publicly verified, as US regulators permit companies to maintain their internal data as confidential business information. Although these mosquitoes will no longer be released in California, approval in Florida does not appear to have changed.
HUMAN CELLULAR ENGINEERING
The Guardian reports that “a small number of babies” with DNA from three people have been born in the UK. The exact number has not been disclosed; it is less than five but more than one. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the government agency that regulates the process, revealed this in response to a freedom of information request, and noted in a terse statement that “32 patients have been given approval for mitochondrial donation treatment”. This technology is controversial not only because of its significant safety issues but also because it is a cellular engineering process that is heritable through the maternal line. These techniques do not treat any existing person for a disease, illness, or condition, and safer options for creating families are available. The secretive way in which this controversial research has been conducted raises disturbing issues. There is also emerging evidence that this technique may not work reliably and could create babies at risk of severe disease.
In recent months ChatGPT and other AI chatbots with abilities to respond to prompts with human-like writing have unleashed angst from different quarters of society: Chatbots could help students cheat, encroach on jobs, or mass produce disinformation. Researchers in the life sciences have also been rolling out artificial intelligence-driven technology, but to less fanfare. That’s concerning, because new algorithms for protein design, while potentially advancing the ability to fight disease, may also create significant opportunities for misuse. As biotech production processes are evolving to make it easier for creators to make the synthetic DNA and other products they’ve designed, new AI models will allow researchers to conceive of a far greater range of molecules and proteins than ever. Nature took millions of years to design proteins, but AI can generate meaningful protein sequences in seconds. While there are good reasons to develop AI technology for biological design, there are also risks to such efforts that scientists in the field don’t appear to have weighed. AI could be used to design new bioweapons or toxins that can’t be detected. Protein toxin-based weapons have long been a concern. These are poisons created by organisms, like plants or fungi. Ricin, for example, a toxin made from castor beans, was likely used by Bulgarian agents in London in 1978 in the umbrella assassination of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident.
Seed sharing is part of the culture and tradition of communities across Kenya. It’s key to sustaining local farming communities and livelihoods. However, this practice is now under threat from policies and laws that seek to control the seed sector across the world, such as the Seed and Plant Varieties Act. The 2012 punitive seed law criminalises farmers for selling, sharing and exchanging seeds that are unregistered and uncertified. This legislation punishes offenders with a prison sentence of up to a maximum of 2 years or a fine of up to KES 1,000,000 (around USD 7,350). The law needs to change to allow these practices, writes Hellen Kahaso Dena of Greenpeace International.
A British quarry is every day leaking toxins into the beautiful countryside after Monsanto used the site as a dumping ground for its waste for decades. No one knows just exactly how devastating the seepage from Ty Llwyd quarry, near Caerphilly, south Wales, will be but nature cannot break down the notorious polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Over 50 years since Monsanto toxic PCB waste was last dumped, Ty Llwyd quarry, Wales continues to leak toxins into river, groundwater and soil. Residents are crowdfunding for a legal opinion that could help them get the site cleaned up and contained. Can you help?
Clare Lahey has lived with her husband in the home he grew up in, up the street from the Housatonic River in the town of Lee, Massachusetts, for nearly five decades. Now they’re watching as the chemicals that have ravaged the health of people living along the river for years are being dredged and dumped near their home. Lahey has had bladder cancer twice; her husband is wracked with illnesses including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She believes that proximity to the river is to blame for their health problems. The US EPA warns that the river’s PCBs are likely to cause cancer in humans, and a study on the cancer link is scheduled to be released this year. Lee is known as a place polluted by PCBs, dangerous industrial chemicals manufactured by Monsanto and used by General Electric in the electric transformers the company manufactured. GE ran a plant in the county’s largest city and dumped PCBs into the Housatonic River from 1932 to 1977, when Monsanto ceased production. In 1979, the EPA made PCBs illegal. Now the town has filed a lawsuit against Monsanto.
Chemicals giant BASF has a time-honoured tradition of threatening economic catastrophe every time the industry is faced with regulatory measures to rein in its toxic trade. But the real catastrophe is how the company imposes a huge burden — materially, morally, and financially — across the continent, from its toxic “forever chemicals” and hazardous pesticides to its contribution to climate change, writes Vicky Cann of Corporate Europe Observatory. BASF shareholders recently awarded themselves billions in dividend payments. It is now long overdue for EU politicians to see beyond BASF rhetoric and to get to grips with the toxics and climate crises.
Global seed and pesticide giant Bayer is using carbon farming to increase its control over farmers, reports the NGO GRAIN. As part of this, Bayer gets farmers to commit to engage in 1) reduced tillage or no-till farming and 2) planting cover crops. Bayer profits from both practices. That’s because the kind of reduced tillage or no-till promoted by Bayer requires dousing fields with tonnes of its glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide and planting its GMO Roundup Ready soybeans or maize. Bayer also intends to profit from the promotion of a gene-edited (GMO) cover crop: CoverCress. To be part of Bayer’s Carbon Program, farmers have to enrol in Bayer’s FieldView digital ag platform. Bayer then uses its FieldView app to instruct farmers what to do and what inputs to use. So this gives Bayer increasing control over farmers and creates technology lock-in to its products.
Colin Todhunter writes about how “the likes of Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta are working with Microsoft, Google and the big-tech giants” to facilitate “farms driven by cloud and AI technology. A cartel of data owners and proprietary input suppliers are reinforcing their grip on the global food system while expanding their industrial model of crop cultivation.” One of the first major digital agriculture platforms is Bayer’s (see above), which is already being used on farms in the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Europe.
Bayer has signed an agreement with Cargill, the giant US-based trader in grain and other agricultural commodities, aimed at integrating three million smallholder farmers in India with their digital platforms. Bayer’s head of public affairs tweeted about the way Bayer sees this playing out globally: “We aim to reach 100 million smallholders by 2030. The integration of digital leapfrogs is a crucial element of the strategy and now brought to life in India.”
The weedy distant relations of the plants we grow for food, fuel and fibre have a crucial role to play in global food security. For example, drought resilience is one of agriculture’s most sought-after traits, particularly in light of our warming climate. To meet this need, the Crop Trust’s Wild Relatives Project is turning to the genetic bounty held in wild plants to create new varieties of alfalfa, finger millet, rice, potatoes and more — all able to withstand the effects of climate change. Their first success is Jabal wheat, a drought-tolerant durum wheat that was announced in 2022. Jabal wheat was created by cross-breeding commercial durum wheat (the kind used to make pasta, couscous and bulgur) with wild goatgrass, a distant relative. In contrast, GMO plants come with significant downsides.
Scientists have developed a new variety of alfalfa that can thrive in chilly climates and droughts, offering a promising solution for farmers in colder regions. The new variety is the result of cross-breeding alfalfa with wild relatives and selection for cold tolerance. The scientist who led the research to develop the variety is an active participant in seed sharing schemes with farmers and has already given away 1,000 kg of seed to about 500 farmers, who will in turn produce seed to sell at regional markets.
Improvement of the micronutrient content of rice through a cross-breeding approach has been successful for zinc. High-zinc rice varieties for different rice ecosystems, including irrigated lowland, upland, and swampy areas, have been developed and have the potential to be used for biofortification to reduce stunting prevalence.
FEEDING THE WORLD
Many of our readers will be familiar with development expert Glenn Davis Stone from his witty and incisive article, “The Dubious Virtue of Apostasy”, about how Mark Lynas “saw the GMO light and is being amply rewarded for it”. Now Stone has written a book, The Agricultural Dilemma: How Not to Feed the World, which questions everything we think we know about the current state of agriculture and how to, or perhaps more importantly how not to, feed a world with a growing population. The book provides a thoughtful critical analysis that upends entrenched misconceptions such as that we are running out of land for food production and that our only hope is the development of new agricultural technologies. The book contains engaging and enlightening vignettes and short histories, with case studies drawn from across the globe to bring to life this important debate and dilemma. It concludes by arguing there is a viable alternative to industrial agriculture which will allow us to meet the world’s needs and ponders why such alternatives have been downplayed, obscured, or hidden from view.
Chelsea Green has commissioned a “timely polemic challenging the move to factory-produced food and why we must protect our right to farm”. Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future by Chris Smaje will launch at Groundswell, the UK’s biggest regenerative agriculture festival, and will be published on 29 June in the UK and a month later in the US. Smaje was inspired to respond to George Monbiot’s Regenesis, which advocates for a factory-produced food system as part of a radical move away from farming altogether. Challenging this vision, Smaje writes that we must put the power back into the hands of small-scale farmers, producers and the local communities that support them.
A series of well-known writers on wildlife and farming issues have lined up to praise Chris Smaje’s “lively”, “powerful”, “thought-provoking” response to Monbiot’s Regenesis. Those praising the book include Vandana Shiva, Dan Barber, Joel Salatin, Hunter Lovins, Allan Savory, John Lewis-Stempel, Jake Fiennes, Manda Scott, Paul Kingsnorth, Dougald Hine, Simon Fairlie, and Lynn Cassells. According to Vandana Shiva, this “important book” provides “a timely response to those constructing a dystopia of farms without farmers, food without farms, while promoting more industrialisation of the food system”. And Simon Fairlie calls it a “devastating critique of the farm-free future projected by ecomodernists”. Background on how George Monbiot has teamed up with Mark Lynas and the ecomodernists in the Reboot Food campaign, with its anti-organic, pro-GMO and pro-synthetic food agenda, is here.
In the wake of the coronation of King Charles III, you can buy Bertram Verhaag’s heartwarming and multi-award-winning film about Charles’s commitment to organic farming, The Farmer and His Prince (Der Bauer und Sein Prinz). Made at a time when he was still Prince Charles, the film focuses on the longstanding collaboration between the prince and his farm manager David Wilson. The DVD includes German and English versions of the film. We recommend this film, which cannot be bought in the UK but which is still available for all to buy at the link above. Charles, who in the past has been outspoken about the dangers of GM technology, recently signed into law the appalling Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in the UK, which removes regulatory safeguards from a subclass of GMOs. This has led to some understandable disappointment and concern, though it’s hard to know what else he could have done without precipitating a constitutional crisis that would likely spell the end of the British monarchy – a decision with ramifications beyond his own fate. This film, some might conclude, shows where his heart and mind reside.
Ronnie Cummins (1946-2023), a leading figure in the organic and regenerative movement globally, has passed away from complications related to recently diagnosed bone and lymph cancer. Ronnie was the co-founder and International Director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and its international affiliates Via Organica (Mexico) and Regeneration International. Cummins was active as a writer and activist since the 1960s, with extensive experience in public education, grassroots mobilisation, and marketplace pressure campaigns. Over the past three decades he has served as director of US and international campaigns dealing with a range of agriculture issues. His passing even attracted an obituary in the New York Times.
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