A beer-like beverage

May 2018

Craft beer brewing is an art form whose products are fast gaining in popularity. Typically, a craft brew is tastier than industrial versions because it uses far more hop flowers whose complex essential oils impart the characteristic beer flavour and aroma.

The variability of hop flowers make them an irritation to big brewers because their market demands uniformity, their factories demand recipes, and art is beyond them. Hops are also expensive. But the other vital beer-ingredient, yeast, is cheap.

Food lesson for the future

May 2018

What's going to happen when the long-term consumption of GM foods takes its toll on our health?

If we're lucky, medics will notice a spike in some chronic disease, and toxicologists will manage to link the problem to GM elements in our diet. And then what? Will the novel culprit be withdrawn from sale?

Real-life infant harm from Glyphosate

May 2018
Glyphosate is the most heavily used herbicide worldwide. Where high-tech monoculture is the agricultural norm, GM glyphosate-tolerant crops account for huge and widespread use of this one herbicide.

In Argentina, for example, 65% of pesticides used are glyphosate-based. In the American mid-west, over 90% of the millions of acres of corn, soya and canola, are GM and glyphosate-tolerant.

After starting its commercial life with a 'safe as salt' ticket [1], long before modern sub-cellular and molecular safety tests had been developed, glyphosate has certainly become "one of the world's most studied chemicals" (President of The Agribusiness Council of Indiana). However, its real-life complexity is only now being recognised by scientists.

Glyphosate and AMPA in the air

May 2018

GM crops are still hanging on to their 'environmentally-friendly' image.

Resistance to glyphosate-based herbicides is a feature of most GM crops. This GM trait enables soil-preserving no-till farming, and provides easy weed control with a single chemical reputed to be toxic only to weeds and to disappear readily from the environment. All this, plus glyphosate's early 'safe-as-salt' tag for humans [1] provided little incentive for scientific study of side-effects of the herbicide during the past decades of increasing use.

However, things are changing since the International Agency for Research on Cancer came to the conclusion that glyphosate is 'probably carcinogenic to humans' [2]. Questions are gradually surfacing about where glyphosate actually goes when it 'disappears' from the environment.

The emerging answers don't paint a comforting picture.

Who's stirring the GMO pot?

May 2018

Would you believe that, after decades of blaming the pesky Greens for stirring up consumer resistance to GM foods, US scientists have worked out that it's really the pesky Reds!

With state funding, the researchers tried to get a better understanding of the GM food controversy, the hope being that they could "put information out there to make people better understand GMOs ... then that fear (of GMOs) might go away". To this end, professors of sociology and agronomy in Iowa State University joined forces to look at how the media portrayed biotechnology to the public.

If this smells like a grand plan to counter the increasing US public scepticism about GM and all things connected to it, read on and decide for yourself.

Court opinion on NBTs

April 2018

Just to add fuel to the fire of how to define 'new breeding techniques' in a way useful to their regulation or non-regulation [1], the European Court of Justice published a preliminary Opinion at the beginning of the year.

The Court was asked to clarify the scope of GMO Directive 2001 which was put in place before the plethora of new breeding techniques had emerged, plus the validity of the Directive's 'mutagensis exemption'. This exemption was designed to exclude from GM regulation the old fashioned random mutagenic techniques such as the use of radiation and toxins to induce DNA damage, probably because it would be a regulatory nightmare to treat the outcomes of old-fashioned random mutagenesis as GMOs after decades of use. Thus, at the time the Directive was drawn up, only those plant and animal breeding methods considered to have a long safety record were exempted. However, now that we have targeted mutagensis (gene editing techniques), the 2001 Directive has become blurry on the subject.

CRISPR has in-built imprecision

April 2018

It seems the 'CRISPR' gene editing tool, hyped as so precise in its action that all previous concerns about GM side-effects could be swept aside, is not all it's cracked up to be [1].

In reality, man-made CRISPR constructs can roam around the genome snipping sections of DNA you really don't want to damage. Such so-called 'off-target' effects can disable a vital gene completely or impair its functioning, and the outcome can be dire.

Wishful biotech industry thinkers built CRISPR constructs with nucleic acid sequences* designed to bind to, and cut, specific bits of DNA. But in reality they can recognise, bind to, and cut bits of DNA which are simply similar. Scientists are beginning to realise that the nucleic acid sequence is only a part of CRISPR's ability to recognise its target.

It turns out that, besides homing in on perfectly matching target DNA, CRISPR can take stock of the nature, number and position of any nucleic acid mis-matches, and conformational changes in the CRISPR molecule are also involved.