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Genetic engineering, CRISPR and food: What the ‘revolution’ will bring in the near future

On 24, Jan 2018 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, Future of Agriculture | By admin

January 24, 2018

Humankind is on the verge of a genetic revolution that holds great promise and potential. It will change the ways food is grown, medicine is produced, animals are altered and will give rise to new ways of producing plastics, biofuels and chemicals.

Many object to the genetic revolution, insisting we should not be ‘playing God’ by tinkering with the building blocks of life; we should leave the genie in the bottle. This is the view held by many opponents of GMO foods.  But few transformative scientific advances are widely embraced at first. Once a discovery has been made and its impact widely felt it is impossible to stop despite the pleas of doubters and critics concerned about potential unintended consequences. Otherwise, science would not have experienced great leaps throughout history­­—and we would still be living a primitive existence.

Gene editing of humans and plants—a revolutionary technique developed just a few years ago that makes genetic tinkering dramatically easier, safer and less expensive—has begun to accelerate this revolution. University of California-Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, one of the co-inventors of the CRISPR technique::

Within the next few years, this new biotechnology will give us higher-yielding crops, healthier livestock, and more nutritious foods. Within a few decades, we might well have genetically engineered pigs that can serve as human organ donors…we are on the cusp of a new era in the history of life on earth—an age in which humans exercise an unprecedented level of control over the genetic composition of the species that co-inhabit our planet. It won’t be long before CRISPR allows us to bend nature to our will in the way that humans have dreamed of since prehistory.

The four articles in this series will examine the dramatic changes that gene editing and other forms of genetic engineering will usher in.

Great advances likely for GE foods

Despite the best efforts of opponents, GE crops have become so embedded and pervasive in the food systems—even in Europe which has bans in place on growing GMOs in most countries—that it is impossible to dislodge them without doing serious damage to the agricultural sector and boosting food costs for consumers.

Even countries which ban the growing of GMOs or who have such strict labeling laws that few foods with GE ingredients are sold in supermarkets are huge consumers of GE products.

revolution 1 5 18 2Europe is one of the largest importers of GMO feed in the world. Most of the meat we consume from cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, pigs and fish farms are fed genetically modified corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

And the overwhelming majority of cheesesare made with an enzyme produced by GM microbes and some beers and wines are made with genetically engineered yeast.

North America, much of South America and Australia are major consumers of foods grown from GE seeds. Much of the corn oil, cotton seed oil, soybean oil and canola oil used for frying and cooking, and in salad dressings and mayonnaise is genetically modified. GM soybeans are used to make tofu, miso, soybean meal, soy ice cream, soy flour and soy milk. GM corn is processed into corn starch and corn syrup and is used to make whiskey.  Much of our sugar is derived from GM sugar beets and GE sugarcane is on the horizon. Over 90 percent of the papaya grown in Hawaii has been genetically modified to make it resistant to the ringspot virus.  Some of the squash eaten in the US is made from GM disease-resistant seeds and developing countries are field testing GM disease-resistant cassava.

Many critics of GE in agriculture focus on the fact that by volume most crops are used in commodity food manufacturing, specifically corn and soybeans. One reason for that is the high cost of getting new traits approved. Indeed, research continues on commodity crops, although many of the scientists work for academia and independent research institutes.

For example, in November 2016, researchers in the UK were granted the authority to begin trials of a genetically engineered wheat that has the potential to increase yields by 40 percent. The wheat, altered to produce a higher level of an enzyme critical for turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into plant fuel, was developed in part by Christine Raines, the Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex.

Genetic engineering and nutrition enhancement

 A new generation of foods are now on the horizon, some as the result of new breeding techniques (NBTs), such as gene editing.  Many of these foods will be nutritionally fortified, which will be critical to boosting the health of many of the poorest people in developing nations and increase yields.

Golden rice is a prime example of such a nutrition-enhanced crop.  It is genetically engineered to have high levels of beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. This is particularly important as many people in developing countries suffer from Vitamin A deficiency which leads to blindness and even death. Bangladesh is expected to begin cultivation of golden rice in 2018. The Philippines may also be close to growing it.

revolution 1 5 18 3strain of golden rice that includes not only high levels of beta carotene but also high levels of zinc and iron could be commercialized within 5 years. “Our results demonstrate that it is possible to combine several essential micronutrients – iron, zinc and beta carotene – in a single rice plant for healthy nutrition,” said Navreet Bhullar, senior scientist at ETH Zurich, which developed the rice.

The Science in the News group at Harvard University discussed some of the next generation foods.

Looking beyond Golden Rice, there are a large number of biofortified staple crops in development.  Many of these crops are designed to supply other micronutrients, notably vitamin E in corn, canola and soybeans…Protein content is also a key focus; protein-energy malnutrition affects 25% of children because many staple crops have low levels of essential amino acids.  Essential amino acids are building blocks of proteins and must be taken in through the diet or supplements. So far, corn, canola, and soybeans have been engineered to contain higher amounts of the essential amino acid lysine. Crops like corn, potatoes and sugar beets have also been modified to contain more dietary fiber, a component with multiple positive health benefits.

Other vitamin-enhanced crops have been developed though they have yet to be commercialized.  Australian scientists created a GE Vitamin A enriched banana, scientists in Kenya developed GE Vitamin A enhanced sorghum and plant scientists in Switzerland developed a GE Vitamin B6 enhanced cassava plant. None is near approval, however.

Scientists genetically engineered canola, a type of rapeseed, to produce additional omega-3 fatty acids. Research is being conducted on developing GM gluten free wheat and vegetables with higher levels of Vitamin E to fight heart disease.

Other more consumer-focused genetically-engineered crops that do not use transgenics, and have sailed through the approval system include:

  • FDA has approved the commercialization of a GE non-browning applethe Arctic Apple, developed by using a gene-silencing technique.
  • Simplot has developed GE potatoes created using gene-silencing techniques.  They are less prone to bruising and blackening, in some cases are resistant to certain diseases and also contain less asparagine which reduces the potential for acrylamide that is created when frying, baking and roasting.

Fighting plant diseases

Other products are in development that fight viruses and disease.  Scientists have used genetic engineering to develop disease-resistant rice.  A new plum variety resists the plum pox virus.  It has not yet been commercialized.  GE solutions may be the only answer to save the orange industry from citrus greeningwhich is devastating orange groves in Florida.  GE might be utilized to curb the damage caused by stem rust fungus in wheat and diseases effecting the coffee crop.

revolution 1 5 18 4In Africa, GE solutions could be used to combat the ravages of banana wilt and cassava brown streak disease and diseases that impact cocoa trees and potatoes. A GE bean has been developed in Brazil that is resistant to the golden mosaic virus.  Researchers at the University of Florida, the University of California-Berkeley and the 2Blades Foundation have developed a disease resistant GM tomato.

Scientists at the John Innes Center in the UK are attempting to create a strain of barley capable of making its own ammonium fertilizer from nitrogen in the soil. This would be particularly beneficial to farmers who grow crops in poor soil conditions or who lack the financial resources to buy artificial fertilizers.

Peggy Ozias-Akins, a horticulture expert at the University of Georgia has developed and tested genetically-engineered peanuts that do not produce two proteins linked to intense allergens.

New Breeding Techniques

New gene editing techniques (NBTs) such as CRISPR offer great potential and face lower approval hurdles, at least for now.

  • Scientists at Penn State have removed the gene that causes white button mushrooms to discolor, and the product was quickly approved.
  • In 2014, scientists in China produced bread wheat resistant to powdery mildew.
  • Calyxt, a biotechnology company, has developed a potato variety that prevents the accumulation of certain sugars, reducing the bitter taste associated with storage. The potato also has a lower amount of acrylamide.
  • DuPont has developed a gene-edited variety of cornwhich can be used to thicken food products and make adhesives.

In June, the EPA approved a new first of its kind GE corn known as SmartStaxPro, in which the plant’s genes are tweaked without transgenics to produce a natural toxin designed to kill western corn rootworm larvae.  It also produces a piece of RNA that shuts down a specific gene in the larvae, thereby killing them. The new GE corn is expected to be commercialized by the end of the decade.

What could slow—or even stop—this revolution? In an opinion piece for Nature Biology, Richard B. Flavell, a British molecular biologist and former director of the John Innes Center in the UK, which conducts research in plant science, genetics and microbiology, warned about the dangers of vilifying and hindering new GE technologies:

The consequences of simply sustaining the chaotic status quo—in which GMOs and other innovative plant products are summarily demonized by activists and the organic lobby—are frightening when one considers mounting challenges to food production, balanced nutrition and poverty alleviation across the world.  Those who seek to fuel the GMO versus the non-GMO debate are perpetuating irresolvable difference of opinion. …Those who seek to perpetuate the GMO controversy and actively prevent use of new technology to crop breeding are not only on the wrong side of the debate, they are on the wrong side of the evidence. If they continue to uphold beliefs against evidence, they will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Steven E. Cerier is a freelance international economist and a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project.



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10 myths about farming to remember on your next grocery run

On 02, Aug 2017 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured | By admin

Most of us don’t spend our days plowing fields or wrangling cattle. We’re part of the 99 percent of Americans who eat food but don’t produce it. Because of our intimate relationship with food and because it’s so crucial to our health and the environment, people should be very concerned about how it’s produced. But we don’t always get it right. Next time you’re at the grocery store, consider these 10 modern myths about the most ancient occupation. Read more…

Building Bee Resilience, One Queen At A Time

On 28, Jun 2017 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, Pollinator Health | By admin

Published on VPR

Originally published on June 27, 2017 11:49 am

Listen to the full recording here. Read more…

For dairy farmers, every day is Earth Day

On 20, Apr 2017 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, GMO’s and The Environment | By admin

Millions of people around the world will soon celebrate Earth Day, but for hundreds of New England’s dairy farmers, every day is Earth Day.

We’re talking about farmers like the Erb family. The Erbs own and operate Springvale Farms and Landaff Creamery in Landaff. This was one of three pilot farms that assisted the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in creating an on-farm sustainability assessment tool, called the Vital Capital Index for Dairy Agriculture. This tool allows farms to measure what matters and establish a baseline of sustainability on farms. Read more…

USDA letter on federal GMO labeling law

On 02, Mar 2017 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, GMO Labeling, Uncategorized | By admin

On July 29, 2016, President Obama signed into law an Act amending the Agricultural Marketing at of 1946 which provides for a national bioengineered food disclosure standard. The FDA sent letters to Governor Malloy explaining that under this new law there is no longer a need for state-specific labeling laws given that the Federal Government had set a uniform standard.

Click on the link below to see the letter.


How People, Water and Agriculture Connect – Food Insight

When you think of water, what comes to mind? Is it a cool swig after a hard workout? Is it your beach vacation from last year? Or is it whether or not enough water will fall from the sky to grow your food?

March 22 is World Water Day, and it’s an opportunity to reflect on the importance of water. This year’s theme is “better water, better jobs.” How does water impact agriculture, which employs nearly 1 billion people around the world? Let’s take a look.

Although nearly 70 percent of the Earth is covered in water, only 2.5 percent of that water is fresh. To complicate things, only 1 percent of that fresh water is easily accessible. To sum it up, only 0.025 percent of the planet’s water is available for human use.

Agriculture uses a lot of water, accounting for almost 70 percent of all withdrawals and up to 95 percent in developing countries where there may be fewer technologies to make water use efficient. While you only need to drink about a gallon of water per day, it takes 528 to 1,320 gallons of water to grow the food you eat in a single day. Think about that.

Water is important in maintaining food security, which is defined as “regular access of people to enough high-quality food to leave active, healthy lives.” Lack of water, or too much water, can contribute to famine and undernourishment, especially where people depend on local agriculture for their livelihood. Using water efficiently is critical.

Irrigation is an important technology to help maximize the efficiency of water use in agriculture. The highest yields that can be obtained from irrigation are more than double the best yields from rain-fed agriculture. For instance, drip irrigation involves distributing water at very low rates from a system of plastic pipes with outlets called emitters or drippers. The water is released so that the only part of the soil that receives moisture is where the root grows.

Read the entire article and learn more about agricultural innovation here.picture-79-1403036319



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No GMO Label Needed

On 21, Feb 2015 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured | By admin

At first blush, it sounds like a good idea: require the labeling of genetically engineered foods so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat. Yet such a law, proposed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and other senators, simply caters to unjustified worries and makes no sense scientifically.

Genetically modified food isn’t new. Since farming began, humans have been breeding food — in other words, changing the genetics — for beneficial traits and better crops. The practice has moved from the field to the lab, as scientists can now transplant genes from species to species.

The laboratory angle worries some people, and in recent years about 2,000 studies have been done on genetically modified foods to uncover any problem. The result? According to the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the National Academies of Science and several other groups, so-called GMO food — made with genetically modified organisms — is safe.

As the European Commission put it, engineering crops genetically is “no more risky than conventional plant-breeding techniques.”

Despite the failure of research to come up with hazards, what’s wrong with better informing consumers by labeling genetically engineered food? Several things.

Such a move doesn’t inform consumers so much as it caters to misconceptions, and government shouldn’t be about that. Labels may limit consumer choice: Despite the lack of proof that such crops endanger anyone, retailers may choose not to stock certain foods. And mostly, politics shouldn’t trump science.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of the genetically engineered label debate is that the labels already exist, in a sense.

The majority of food found in the supermarket, especially processed food, contains some genetically engineered component. Non-engineered items routinely carry the label “USDA Organic.”

Lack of such a designation almost always indicates some genetic engineering, so those who are worried about a potential hazard need only look for the label. No new law is necessary.

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Connecticut News

On 08, May 2013 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, Portfolio | By admin



Connecticut Retailers Warn Legislature On Bill Requiring Labeling Of Genetically Engineered Food

“Forcing a labeling requirement will put Connecticut merchants on an island in relation to neighboring state competitors and the rest of the country”


May 2013 – The Connecticut Retail Merchants Association (CRMA) today stated their opposition to pending legislation that would mandate the labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients in Connecticut.

“Forcing a labeling requirement will put Connecticut merchants on an island in relation to neighboring state competitors and the rest of the country,” said Timothy Phelan, President of the CRMA.  “If Connecticut becomes the only state in the nation to require labeling our Legislature is putting local retailers at a competitive disadvantage.”Phelan pointed out that labeling requirements place an undue burden on retailers and the customers they serve, making store owners the watchdogs of every label on thousands of products on their store shelves.  “If the Legislature passes these labeling bills it will send a message that Connecticut is unfriendly to business,” said Phelan.  “We’re doing just fine without labeling and those consumers who voluntarily choose to eat only organic products have plenty of options, so why would we mandate this costly measure?”

Phelan said that thousands and thousands of genetically engineered products have been in stores for decades with no health or safety problems, and that scientists and federal food safety officials agree that genetically engineered products are a safe and vital part of the food economy in the United States.

The Connecticut Retail Merchants Association has been representing retailers at the State Capitol and in the marketplace since 1910. It is the only statewide business group that represents retailers and only retailers.





“Agricultural products have been “genetically modified,” in terms of selective breeding, since prehistoric times. But for the past 20 years, scientists have been able to mechanically transplant genes to achieve the results they want.

Since then, there have been no credible scientific studies showing that genetically modified crops pose any more risk than conventional ones. The American Medical Association says there is no evidence that GMOs pose unique health risks.

Supermarket chains claim that adding another labeling requirement will make food cost more, with no apparent benefit. They have a stake in the matter, but they also have a point.”

Read the full editorial here:



Don’t Label Genetically Engineered Food

By RONALD KLEINMAN | OP-ED The Hartford Courant

May 6, 2013

The recent call for labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients — especially on a state-by-state basis as in Connecticut — is unnecessary, unrealistic and uninformed.

As someone who grew up and attended college in Connecticut, I particularly appreciate the state’s farmland preservation program and the thriving local agriculture, which is being encouraged and protected. And as a pediatrician I know the weight new parents place on every decision affecting their children — from infancy to young adult. I have made it my life’s work to help guide parents through these challenges. This work, however, has been made even more complicated by the barrage of messages, information and misinformation that we all encounter daily. What is most important is to help parents separate myth from fact, and recognize when emotion has trumped hard science.

That is exactly what is at the core of a debate currently playing out in Connecticut over foods produced through biotechnology, also known as genetic engineering or genetic modification. A bill before the General Assembly would require labeling of genetically engineered food.

For more than 15 years, the majority of packaged foods and beverages consumed in the U.S. and dozens of other countries has contained some ingredient that was developed through the use of biotechnology. Biotechnological advances have included improved resistance to plant diseases and reduced reliance on pesticides, resulting in safer, more nutritious food that is able to sustain the growing demands of our world and has helped to protect the environment at the same time. Biotech ingredients are grown by Connecticut farmers, and foods containing biotech ingredients are sold in local stores for local consumption.

Foods enhanced through biotechnology have been extensively studied by scientists in this country and around the globe. The federal Food and Drug Administration has deemed genetically engineered foods safe for infants, children and adults. The FDA recently that all ingredients derived from FDA-approved biotechnology are the same in composition, nutritional value and quality as non-biotechnology derived ingredients. The agency went further by stating that plants with biotech ingredients are no more likely to cause an allergic or harmful reaction than foods from traditionally bred plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture continually work to ensure that there are no ongoing environmental or human health concerns resulting from improving agriculture with the use of biotechnology. Independent expert organizations — including the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization — agree these foods are safe for human consumption – from infants to adults.

Unfortunately, there are some people in Connecticut who prefer to ignore the enormous body of scientific literature in favor of rhetoric and scare tactics in an attempt to force unnecessary and potentially confusing labeling of foods containing biotech ingredients. These individuals seek to play on fear and emotion to convince legislators and the public that biotech foods are harmful, despite overwhelming scientifically derived evidence to the contrary.

Federal agencies such as the FDA, which are experts on issues surrounding labeling, have stated that, because foods derived with biotechnology are no different than any other food, labeling of foods derived by biotech is unwarranted. The FDA does support labeling of some ingredients of foods, such as gluten, for consumers who wish to avoid such foods. This is completely unrelated to whether those foods are produced using modern biotechnology. Consumers can also buy products certified organic, which do not contain biotech ingredients, should they wish to do so.

Foods made with ingredients developed from agricultural biotechnology have been consumed by literally billions of people worldwide for more than 15 years, and there has not been a single documented health problem related to these foods.

Forced labeling would only serve to give false credibility to misinformation, discourage people from eating foods that are perfectly safe and cause havoc in our food supply. Lawmakers in Connecticut need to focus on the facts, stand up against the scare tactics and vote against forced labeling.

Ronald Kleinman, M.D., is chief of the Department of Pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and physician-in-chief at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. He is a consultant for profit and not-for-profit organizations in the food industry.


Our View: GMO labeling is better if voluntary

Posted Apr 05, 2013 

Norwich, Conn. —

The Legislature’s Public Health Committee this week gave favorable approval to a measure that would require labeling of all food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) — products where the genetic makeup has been altered through genetic engineering.

On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer.   Who wouldn’t want to know what we’re eating?

The problem, however, is that the bill, if enacted, would only be effective within the borders of Connecticut. Several other states are considering similar legislation, but those measures would have no impact here, and our legislation would have no impact anywhere else.

Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association, contends that if such labeling were necessary — and he and others contend it isn’t — that such a mandate should be issued by the Federal Food and Drug Administration on a national scale, not piecemeal by individual states.

The FDA, however, has denied requests to mandate GMO labeling, saying there is no evidence of the GMO products being unsafe. If there is no public threat, then clearly there is no need for the mandate. But where also is the harm in labeling it as such?
Sorkin is correct in that Connecticut’s large supermarkets, small groceries and other food-related businesses would be unfairly and unnecessarily harmed with higher costs of doing business if such mandates were applied only to them.

Paul Pescatello, president and CEO of Connecticut United for Research Excellence (CURE), also contends that labeling GMO sends the wrong message to the very bio-science industry that Connecticut is hoping to attract to the state. Labeling, he contends, unfairly implies to the public that there is something to be concerned about when if fact there is overwhelming scientific evidence proving otherwise.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, mistrust of government and corporate America is the bigger threat than any genetically altered product. Such staunch opposition to labeling only feeds into that distrust.

Capitalizing on the scientific evidence, and voluntary labeling, would seem the more appropriate course of action.