Are Farmers Being Manipulated Into Buying GMO Soybean Seeds?

In the past 3 years, Monsanto’s (now Bayer) genetically modified soybean seeds have dominated 60% to 70% of the market. The Xtend soybeans bring in about $1 billion a year for Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in June 2018. But sales of the seeds are being driven by fear, and that fear has birthed an anti-trust lawsuit against the agrochemical giant.

Xtend soybeans have been genetically altered to withstand an herbicide called dicamba. The weed-killer has been around for decades, but it poses a problem for farmers because it typically kills non-gmo soybeans. Farmers who plant Xtend seeds, however, can spray dicamba all over their crops without worrying that their soybeans will be killed in the process.

Dennis Wentworth, a farmer in central Illinois, said:

“One hundred percent of the soybeans that we plant are Xtend soybeans. It controls the weeds. Kills the weeds. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t affect the crop.”

Many farmers say dicamba has become their go-to herbicide because it kills weeds that other herbicides can’t. They also claim the new seeds produce a bigger yield.

Read: Monsanto is Being Sued by Missouri’s Largest Peach Grower

However, many of these same farmers claim they started planting Xtend soybeans because they had no other option. Take Randy Brazel, for example. Brazel grows soybeans in southeastern Missouri and western Tennessee. In early December 2018, the farmer had already ordered non-GMO soybean seeds, but a phone call from a neighbor made him realize it was Xtend soybeans or nothing.

Brazel said:

“I have a neighbor, a friend. He calls me and says, ‘I am going to have to go dicamba.’”

Dicamba is known to drift far and wide, including to other farmers’ fields, where it can harm non-targeted plants. Brazel knew that if his neighbor decided to spray dicamba, his own crops were at risk.

Last year, as of July 15, 2018, about 1.1 million acres of soybeans had been destroyed by dicamba.

Dicamba drift, as it’s called, has been such a problem that in 2017, officials in Arkansas and Missouri enacted a 120-day ban on the use of the herbicide. A few months later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entered into an agreement with Monsanto and other makers of dicamba products dictating that dicamba would be classified as “restricted use” for the 2018 growing season.

Under the agreement, dicamba could only be sprayed by certified applicators with specific training; spraying would only be permitted when winds were less than 16 kilometers, or just under 10 mph, and spraying would be restricted to certain times of the day. Furthermore, farmers were required to keep detailed records of dicamba use.

Brazel knew the risks and wasn’t willing to lose his soybean crop, so he canceled the non-GMO seeds he had ordered and instead ordered Xtend soybeans.

He said:

“Then I have to get on the phone and call every other neighbor and say, ‘Listen, I did not want to do this. But I am going to be forced to go dicamba.’ Well, then that forces all those neighbors to call their neighbors. And eventually what you have is a monopoly.”

Read: Major Seed Companies Call for Limits on Dicamba

That’s exactly what Bayer and other dicamba manufacturers are banking on, said Rob Robinson, CEO of Rob-See-Co. He has lost a lot of customers who decided to “go dicamba” out of fear that if they didn’t, their soybean crop would be damaged.

Robinson said:

“At least on a local basis, they’re being sold with this idea. It’s actively part of the sales process.”

Seed companies remind farmers that if they plant Xtend seeds, they won’t see any dicamba damage, and they won’t have any uncomfortable discussions with their neighbors, according to Robinson.

He went on:

“Now, how far that goes up the management chain with Monsanto, now Bayer, I can’t tell you, but I know that locally, that’s the message.”

The anti-trust lawsuit, filed by several law firms on behalf of farmers, alleges that Bayer violated anti-trust law by selling dicamba-resistant seeds. The lawsuit claims that the company knew that the risk of dicamba drift could drive competitors out of the market.

Read: Monsanto Offering Cash to Farmers who Use Dicamba Herbicide

Bayer maintains that dicamba is safe when used properly and points out that dicamba drift damage was less severe in 2018. It further claims that farmers are buying Xtend seeds because they offer better weed control and higher yields.

Bayer’s critics say the only reason there was less damage from drifting dicamba last year is because so many farmers have been strong-armed into buying Xtend soybeans.

Whatever the reasons, Bayer is making bank on the fears of American farmers.

Source:

NPR

Chinese Scientist Behind Gene-Edited Babies Could Face Death Penalty

The Chinese scientist who announced to the world in November 2018 that he had created a pair of gene-edited twin girls could face the death penalty for corruption and bribery charges, a British geneticist fears.

News of the birth of twin baby girls whose DNA had been edited using CRISPR technology to resist HIV broke on November 26. He Jiankui, the scientist who purported to have created the gene-edited babies, said at the time that a possible 3rd pregnancy was underway. The announcements sparked outrage among the scientific community.

In December, Jiankui went missing, providing the first indication that his work amounted to a monumental and costly blunder. And, it seems, the decision could cost the man his life.

Jiankui is now thought to be living under armed guard at a state-owned apartment in Shenzhen, China, geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, says.

In November 2018, Lovell-Badge organized the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong. When rumors started to spread about Jiankui’s work, Lovell-Badge decided to invite the 34-year-old scientist to attend the summit. The goal was not to give Jiankui a platform or to encourage his work, but to try and make him shy away from it. Or, as Lovell-Badge puts it, “to control his urges.”

It was during the summit that Jiankui admitted to using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to modify human embryos.

Though Jiankui expressed pride in his work, the scientific community was horrified that the scientist had chosen to conduct his work in secret and failed to go through the proper channels.

In fact, it didn’t take long for the Chinese government to order a halt to Jiankui’s experiments.

Lovell-Badge said: [2]

“He really thought that he was doing good, that what we has doing was the next big thing, and really important for the good of mankind.

Pretty much everyone he talked to had said ‘don’t do it.’ We’d heard he had ethical approval, so we were getting scared. But clearly it was all too late.”

Now, Lovell-Badge and other scientists in the UK say Jiankui could very well face bribery and corruption charges, both of which carry the death penalty in China. When he implanted the genetically modified embryos into the mother instead of destroying them, as per convention, he violated established research guidelines. Those guidelines carry the same legal weight as established laws in China. [1]

Lovell-Badge said:

“There is an official investigation led by the ministries of science and health. Lots of people are probably going to lose their jobs, he wasn’t the only one involved in this, obviously. So how has he got them to do all this work? He could be had up on all sorts of charges of corruption and being guilty of corruption in China these days is not something you want to be. Quite a few people have lost their heads for corruption.”

Read: World Health Organization to Study Gene Editing Amid Controversial Developments

China doesn’t take corruption lightly these days. Early last year, new reforms were introduced by the government, including a list of offenders. As a result of their misdeeds, scientists who step outside the boundaries of research guidelines could be barred from receiving grants or research positions. Then, in December 2018, the government announced it would use its controversial social credit system to target scientists who break from convention.

Jiankui was in the unique position of being flush with his own cash, which allowed him to personally fund the research and hire lab technicians and IVF doctors to conduct the experiments.

Lovell-Badge said:

“Here you have a physicist who knows very little biology, is very rich, has a huge ego, wants to be the first at doing something that will change the world.”

Chinese investigators will have to decide how much of a role Jiankui’s collaborators played in the research, and whether they were fully aware of the illegality of the work.

As the process plays out, researchers associated with Jiankui are trying to distance themselves from the shamed scientist. Professor Michael Deem from Rice University was Jiankui’s PhD advisor in 2010 when he received his doctorate in biophysics. [2]

Deem has said through lawyers that he and Jiankui have kept in touch over the years, with initial reports showing the 2 worked closely together on the CRISPR-baby project. Deem was reportedly present for the consent meetings with the parents, which scientists worldwide have called “insufficient.”

Study: CRISPR Gene-Editing Ignites Tons of Unintentional Genetic Mutations

In a statement issued through is lawyers, Deem said that “Michael does not do human research and he did not do human research on this project.”

Rice University is currently investigating Deem’s involvement with Jiankui.

Sources:

[1] Gizmodo

[2] Popular Mechanics

Court in India Clears Path for Monsanto (Bayer) to Claim GM Cotton Patent

On January 8, 2019, following a protracted legal battle, India’s top court ruled that Monsanto can own patents on genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds. The decision overturns a Delhi High Court ruling which said the country’s laws barred plant varieties and seeds from being patented.

Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds were introduced to India in 2002. Today, more than 90% of the country’s cotton crop is genetically modified. The seeds are referred to as Bt cotton because they have been inserted with a pest-resistant toxin called Bacillus thuringiensis.

The court decision could encourage biotechnology to increase investment in India. In the past, DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta were concerned about losing patents on GM crops in that country.

Read: Monsanto has Been Overcharging and Swindling Indian Farmers for Far too Long

The Delhi High Court ruled in April 2018 that Monsanto could not claim patents on Bollgard and Bollgard II cotton seeds in India under the country’s Patents Act of 1970. The act dictates that plant varieties and seeds cannot be patented, thereby allowing the court to reject Monsanto’s attempt to block its Indian licensee, Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd., from selling the seeds. The ruling also meant that Monsanto could not sue Nuziveedu for unpaid royalties, as its patents had become invalidated under Indian law.

But a spokesman for Bayer, which bought out Monsanto in 2016, said that the Jan. 8 judgment “essentially means that the patent is in force.”

The Supreme Court said it will investigate Monsanto’s allegations that Nuziveedu infringed its intellectual property on Bt cotton seeds.

Frustrated with the ruling, Greenpeace India said:

One can’t patent life. Seed ownership by farmers has traditionally been an important agricultural practice, but profit-driven giant Monsanto is making our farmers disempowered and dependent!”

The ruling is a big win for Monsanto (now Bayer) and comes at a time when the company needs all the good news it can get. The aggrotech giant stood to lose revenue without a claim over exclusive rights in India, and the company is currently facing thousands of lawsuits alleging that its glyphosate-containing herbicide, RoundUp, causes cancer. [2]

Read: Jury Orders Monsanto to Pay $289 Million in World’s 1st Roundup Trial

Ashok Gulati, a professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in New Delhi, said:

“Pirates cannot be innovators. If we are to respect intellectual property only then can we expect to access the best technologies in the world.”

Sources:

[1] EcoWatch

[2] Bloomberg

Not Good: Scientists in China Losing Track of Gene-Edited Patients

Gene editing has the potential to save lives and prevent devastating diseases, but the technology is still new and the ramifications of such experiments remain largely unknown. So, when a patient’s DNA has been edited using CRISPR-Cas9, researchers keep a close eye on them to track their progress and any problems that may arise.  Or, at least, they’re supposed to. That has not been happening in China.

An undisclosed number of cancer patients in China who underwent experimental gene therapies have managed to escape the watchful eye of scientists. In at least one trial where patients’ genes were modified using CRISPR to treat cancer, the scientists tasked with tracking their progress and conducting follow-up examinations haven’t been doing their job.

Editing DNA can lead to autoimmune disorders and other problems later on. It’s important to know how patients are doing so important tweaks can be made.

Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-inventor of CRISPR, said:

“Since we do not fully understand the human genome and are still developing knowledge of [CRISPR-Cas9 and related technologies], we need to monitor the intended and unintended consequences over the lifespan of patients.”

Study: CRISPR Gene-Editing Ignites Tons of Unintentional Genetic Mutations

Recent History: Creating the First Gene-Edited Babies

Controversial scientific experiments are not new to China. In November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies – twin girls born with immunity to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Jiankui said that a third pregnancy involving gene-edited embryos may be in the process.

The announcement sparked fear and outrage among the global scientific community, and shortly after the news broke, the Chinese government expanded its social credit system to include infractions made by researchers in an effort to crack down on scientific misconduct in that country. The Chinese government also ordered Jiankui’s medical team to shut down the trial. [1] [2]

Jiankui doesn’t even have the support of scientists in his own country, despite the lax laws governing gene-editing. China’s Vice Minister of Science and Technology called the experiment “unacceptable” and said the ministry is strongly opposed to such research. [2]

What Jiankui claims to have accomplished is not legal in China, nor is it legal anywhere else in the world. In both China and the U.S., it is legal to edit human embryos, but they must be destroyed after a few days and may not lead to pregnancy. [1]

Read: First Human Injected with Controversial Genetically Modified Genes

It is also legal in both countries to alter a living person’s DNA (called “somatic gene-editing”) to treat diseases like cancer and the blood disease hemophilia. That is because, unlike embryonic gene-editing, somatic gene-editing does not lead to heritable genetic changes.

Yet, these treatments are still in their infancy, too, which is why responsible oversight and an abundance of caution is so important.

While China and the U.S. share similar laws regarding gene-editing, they do not share the same governmental oversight. There is no equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in China, and doctors can proceed with a clinical trial based on approval from their hospital’s ethics board alone.

As of January 2018, at least 86 patients in China have had their DNA edited with CRISPR, and the private startup Anhui Kedgene Biotechnology Co. is behind most of them.

The Wall Street Journal notes:

“One of Kedgene’s projects has lost touch with patients whose DNA was altered, according to a person familiar with the matter. Kedgene founder Mandy Zhou said one trial didn’t complete the research as planned, and as a result lost touch with patients. No patients died during treatment in that trial, she added.

Another Kedgene trial, at the Anhui Provincial Hospital, treated 18 patients, according to Wang Yong, who ran it. Many participants died as their cancer grew, Dr. Wang said, without giving a specific number. Dr. Wang said he was asked by the science ministry this month to send a report on the trial, the first time authorities in Beijing sought information about it since it began more than a year ago.”

According to the South China Morning Post, China is requesting that hospitals and universities submit detailed reports on all human gene-editing trials conducted since 2013. [3]

Such irresponsibility not only endangers lives, but puts humanity at the cusp of realizing frightening possibilities, including so-called “designer babies,” in which embryos are edited to make the resulting human superior to others in various ways, including intelligence, looks, and talent.

Sources:

[1] Gizmodo

[2] Daily Mail

[3] Futurism

Canada Launches New Risk Assessment for GMO Salmon

The Canadian federal government has launched a new risk assessment for AquaBounty’s new genetically modified (GM) salmon, following the company’s July 2018 announcement that it planned to build a new egg production and grow-out facility in Rollo Bay West, Prince Edward Island (PEI), according to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC).

The company has been producing a limited number of eggs at its Bay Fortune, PEI, facility. But now AquaBounty Technologies now plans to produce 250 metric tons of its AquAdvantage salmon for commercial sale both in Canada and abroad.

In May 2017, ECCC said that the project could be completed without an additional federal environment assessment. However, by July 2017, the company had changed its position on the matter.

Minister Catherine McKenna wrote:

“Should AquaBounty wish to manufacture or grow out the AquAdvantage salmon at this site, a new notification will be required.”

AquaBounty provided that notification on July 28, 2018.

The new review will look at the latest information to determine if the GM salmon presents any risks to human health or the environment. Both Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved the AquAdvantage salmon for sale as food in Canada in 2016.

Several environmental and wild salmon conservationist groups pushed for the new safety assessment after AquaBounty announced the new facility.

Lucy Sharratt, the coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, is pleased that the new assessment is moving forward.

“It is a relief … We didn’t know what the assessment was going to look like, and we won’t know until it is concluded, until the decision is made. But certainly, this is what we need. We need all of the scientific expertise available to really look at this issue of the GM salmon. Is it a risk to wild Atlantic salmon?”

The groups expressed concern over the lack of mandatory GMO food labeling in Canada, – also a concern in the United States – earlier this week. The groups and suppliers said in a letter to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change (ECC) that better regulation of fish and mandatory food labeling is necessary. [2]

Franz Perrot, quality control manager at Lachine, Quebec-based seafood importer and processor Lagoon Seafood, in a statement from the groups:

“Without mandatory labeling of GM salmon, we risk undermining consumer confidence in Canadian seafood. We are listening to our consumers and they tell us they don’t want them [GM foods].”

A number of restaurants and retailers in Canada have previously pledged not to sell AquAdvantage salmon at their establishments. The same is true of some retailers in the U.S., including Costco, as well as Kroger, and Safeway.

Sharratt said:

“Consumers are asking restaurants and retailers if they are selling the GM salmon. We are increasingly needing to ask restaurants, retailers, catering companies, and importers what they intend to do with the GM salmon because Canadians are asking for this information. Mandatory labeling would eliminate much of the consumer concern and confusion in the market.”

More than 2 million Americans voiced their opposition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of AquAdvantage salmon, but the agency approved the transgenic fish for sale and consumption anyway. The salmon was also approved despite concern by the Canadian government that the salmon is “prone to disease”.

Sources:

[1] Canadian Broadcasting Company

[2] SeafoodSource

Genetic Literacy Project – Featured image source

World Health Organization to Study Gene Editing Amid Controversial Developments

Following the news that a set of gene-edited twin girls had been born in China in November, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it was creating a working group to study gene-editing and the many ethical, social, and safety issues surrounding the process.

The panel’s job will be to develop “agreed norms and standards for the governance of human gene-editing,” the WHO said.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, warned of the potential for “unintended consequences” of gene-editing during a conference on December 4th.

“This is uncharted water and it has to be taken seriously.

WHO is putting together experts. We will work with member states to do everything we can to make sure of all issues – be it ethical, social, safety – before any manipulation is done.”

Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced November 26 that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies, twin girls, by altering their DNA to resist HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The announcement immediately sparked outrage and concern among the scientific community.

Two days later, the researcher said that a second pregnancy had possibly occurred.

Following the announcement, the Chinese government ordered an “immediate investigation,” and halted the work of the researchers involved in the experiment.

Leading geneticists around the world also called for an independent inquiry into Jiankui.

It is legal to genetically modify embryos in the United States, but only for research in the lab.

While acknowledging that gene-editing holds the potential to rid humanity of horrific maladies, the WHO warned that the technique – which is conducted using CRISPR-Cas9 – also comes with many issues that need to be addressed before the technology can be deployed to potentially benefit people.

“The use of these technologies must be regulated through ethics oversight and human rights standards.

WHO is committed to working with member states to and the wider global health and research community to establish the mechanisms and dialogue needed to effectively govern these technologies.”

Jiankui’s claims have yet to be verified by a scientific journal or any other independent source. The scientist, an associate professor at Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology in China, made his claims to an organizer of an international gene-editing conference in Hong Kong. [2]

Gene-editing is controversial for a number of reasons. There is concern that the technique could ignite unintended consequences that could be passed down from generation to generation. In fact, last year, researchers at Columbia University said that when they used CRISPR-Cas9 to correct blindness in mice, they inadvertently caused mutations to more than 1,000 other genes.

Two studies published earlier this year found that CRISPR-Cas9 may be tied to an increased risk of cancer as well.

One of the scariest possibilities associated with gene-editing is that it could be used to create “designer babies” – children genetically modified to be superior to children created traditionally. Imagine a world in which wealthy parents have the option of making babies that are better-looking, more intelligent, and more resistant to diseases than other children and you may understand why the idea could be so terrifying.

It seems that this science will continue to move forward; let’s just hope that minimal issues unfold in the future.

Sources:

[1] CNN

[2] USA Today

Crossing the Line: China Orders Halt to Controversial Work on Gene-Edited Babies

Just days after a Chinese scientist announced the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies and a possible 2nd pregnancy, the Chinese government ordered a halt to the highly controversial experiments.

According to Chinese Vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping, an investigation has also been ordered into the research that led to the birth of twin girls in November, 2018. Just a week prior, researcher He Jiankui claimed to have altered the DNA of the twins in an attempt to make them resistant to HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.

Nanping said Jiankui’s research “crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable.”

As soon as Jiankui announced the twins’ birth at a conference on gene-editing in Hong Kong, scientists around the world immediately condemned the research.

In a statement, the 14 leaders of the conference called Jiankui’s attempts to genetically alter sperm, eggs, or embryos “irresponsible,” except in the case of lab research, because the gene-editing technology Jiankui used, CRISPR-Cas9, is still new and not much is known about its risks or safety.

Furthermore, the conference leaders called for independent confirmation of Jiankui’s claim.

So far, no one has even seen a photo of the girls, who Jiankui claims are named Lulu and Nana. [2]

Through a spokesperson, Jiankui said that he plans to fully cooperate with the investigation and will make his raw data available for 3rd-party review. However, he claims that the twins’ parents wish to remain anonymous. [1] [2]

Read: Scientists Use CRISPR to Edit Human Embryos in U.S. for First Time

Professor Julian Savulescu, from the University of Oxford, said: [2]

“If true, this experiment is monstrous. These babies are genetic guinea pigs. The experiment exposes healthy, normal children to risks of gene-editing for no real necessary benefit.”

Dr. Sarah Chan, from the University of Edinburgh, called the experiment “despicable.”

And while Jankui says he is proud of his work, the Shenzhen hospital where the experiment supposedly took place denies that the work occurred there.

In the end, the whole thing could be one giant hoax.

Sources:

[1] HealthDay

[2] The Sun

Chinese Scientist Claims to Have Made World’s 1st Gene-Edited Babies

A researcher in China claims to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies, sparking deep discussion, along with some harsh criticisms and outrage among some of the world’s leading scientists.

The highly-controversial news that a set of twin girls was born in November with genetically altered DNA broke on November 26. The girls’ DNA was edited using a powerful new tool with the capacity to rewrite the human genome, known as CRISPR-Cas9.

A U.S. scientist reportedly took part in the research, which had to take place in China because this type of gene-editing is not currently legal in the U.S. The primary concern associated with the technology is that it has the potential to pass genetic changes on to future generations and harm other genes – largely making up what we would call ‘unforeseeable consequences.’

Researcher He Jiankui of Shenzhen said he edited embryos for 7 couples who were being treated for fertility problems. He said he wasn’t trying to cure or prevent any inherited diseases; the goal of the experiments was to give the babies the ability to resist possible infection to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Jiankui revealed his work on November 26 in Hong Kong at an international conference on gene-editing that began November 27. So far, his claims have not been confirmed, nor have they been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Study: CRISPR Gene-Editing Ignites Tons of Unintentional Genetic Mutations

Jiankui said:

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example.”

He added that “society will know what to do next” in terms of whether his work should move forward.

In the U.S., CRISPR-Cas9 may only be used for lab research. The technology cannot be used for editing sperm, eggs, or embryos. China outlaws human cloning, but not gene-editing.

Tinkering With Humanity’s Blueprint

Jiankui said he chose HIV as his focus because China has a serious problem with HIV infections. He worked to disable a gene called CCR5 which forms a protein ‘doorway’ that allows HIV to enter a cell.

All of the men in the project had HIV, while all of the women were free of infection. Jiankui aimed to offer couples affected by HIV the opportunity to have a child that might be protected from suffering the same fate.

The babies’ genes were edited during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment. First, the sperm was separated from the semen, which is where the HIV virus tends to hide out. Then, a single sperm was placed into a single egg to create an embryo. Finally, the gene-editing tool was added.

Jiankui removed a few cells from the embryos once they reached 3 to 5 days old and checked them for editing. Couples had the option of using edited or unedited embryos for implantation. In total, 16 of 22 embryos were used in 6 implant attempts before the twin pregnancy was achieved.

Tests showed that 1 twin had both copies of the altered gene, while the other twin had just 1. There was no evidence that the experiment caused harm to any other genes. People with a single copy of the gene can still acquire HIV, but some very limited research suggests the health of those individuals will decline more slowly once they do.

On November 28, Jiankui announced that a 2nd pregnancy may be underway, but it is in its very early stages and needs more time to be monitored to see if it will “take.”

Concern and Outrage Among Leading Scientists

He Jiankui speaks during an interview at a laboratory in Shenzhen. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Leading scientists were quick to condemn the experiments, saying there were more questions than answers following Jiankui’s talk. The leader of the conference himself called the experiments “irresponsible” and said that they were evidence that the scientific community had failed to regulate itself to prevent premature DNA-altering efforts.

Jiankui defended his attempts, saying that the genetically-modified twins “need this protection since a vaccine is not available.”

Read: CRISPR Gene-Editing Tool Linked to Increased Cancer Risk in Studies

But his colleagues dismissed his argument – including the very people behind the technology used to alter the genes.

Following Jiankui’s talk, Jennifer Doudna, a University of California-Berkeley scientist and one of the inventors of the CRISPR gene-editing tool, said:

“This is a truly unacceptable development. I’m grateful that he appeared today, but I don’t think that we heard answers. We still need to understand the motivation for this.”

David Liu of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, and inventor of a variation of the gene-editing tool, added:

“I feel more disturbed now. It’s an appalling example of what not to do about a promising technology that has great potential to benefit society. I hope it never happens again.”

But it probably will happen again.

China has a history of performing controversial scientific experiments. For example, in 2016, scientists in that country became the first to inject humans with genes edited using CRISPR. In that experiment, genetically modified cells were delivered into a patient with aggressive lung cancer. The patient’s own immune cells were modified to make them more efficient at combating cancer cells.

In 2015, researchers in China announced plans to create a genetically modified “micro pig” which would stay forever small in an effort to help scientists study and resolve human health problems. However, the DNA-editing company responsible for the pig decided to sell the Franken-swine as pets for $1,600.

And gene-editing experiments for the purpose of making people immune to HIV – or at least less likely to contract the virus – are nothing new. In 2015, scientists in China said they had successfully added mutations to human embryos which made them HIV-proof. The experiment resulted in the creation of 4 embryos, but none of them were used to induce pregnancy.

Note: The article’s featured image is merely to represent the story and is not one of the actual twins born through CRISPR.

Sources:

[1] The Associated Press

[2] USA Today

‘High Risk’ GMO Potatoes on the Market: What the Public Needs to Know

Many genetic engineers have been vocal in their concern over genetically modified (GM) potatoes, but perhaps the most surprising voice is that of Caius Rommens, the creator of 1 type of engineered spud.

Rommens was director of research at Simplot Plant Sciences from 2000 to 2013, where he led the development of the GM Innate potato. Over time, the scientist began to have doubts about his own work and the health risks of consuming the potatoes, which are now available in more than 4,000 U.S. supermarkets.

In fact, Rommens was so concerned that he wrote a book, Pandora’s Potatoes, which was recently published. In the book, he details how his excitement over GMO technology eventually turned to dread as he began to realize the potential health and environmental hazards his creation could unleash.

EcoWatch recently interviewed Rommens about his role in developing Innate potatoes and the concerns that have since arisen in his mind about the genetically engineered vegetable. [1]

In the interview, Rommens explains that he started out working for Monsanto (now Bayer), but left to join Simplot to “start an independent biotech effort.”

His intentions were good, to be sure.

He believed he could develop a potato that resisted bruise and blight, and that could be used to produce French fries that were less colored and less carcinogenic than regular fries, among other touted benefits.

Infographic from Simplot Plant Sciences outlining touted benefits of the Innate potato. (Click for larger version.)

A Potentially-Harmful Venture

Innate potatoes are created by silencing genes using a process called RNAi, and Rommens’ concern is that “the silencing that takes place inside the GM potatoes affects the genes of animals eating these potatoes.”

He is most bothered by the fact that research indicates the gene-silencing constructs in the potatoes are active in pollen. This could have a detrimental effect on bees that use GM potato pollen to feed their larvae.

Furthermore, silencing the genes responsible for browning in potatoes increases toxins that accumulate in GMO potatoes.

Rommens explained:

“Ex-colleagues of mine had shown that PPO-silencing increases the levels of alpha-aminoadipate by about 6-fold. Alpha-aminoadipate is a neurotoxin, and it can also react with sugars to produce advanced glycoxidation products implicated in a variety of diseases.”

EcoWatch notes that a Monsanto GM corn variety was found to have high levels of alpha-aminoadipate, leading the company to rescind an application for its approval in Europe in 2009, after safety regulators raised questions.

While there is no data showing how much alpha-aminoadipate Innate potatoes contain, Rommens said he believes that Simplot should meticulously determine these levels.

The GMO potatoes also contain another potential toxin called chaconine-malonyl. Not much is known about the substance, but Rommen said his ex-colleagues found that it increased by nearly 200% when PPO genes are silenced.

PPO-silencing prevents bruising, Rommens explained … or so he thought. This particular aspect of genetic engineering was unnecessary, as the GMO potatoes can still have invisible bruises that “are entry points for pathogens and exit points for water, which are 2 important issues during storage.”

According to Rommens, genetically engineering the potatoes to avoid plight might have been a useless venture as well. And as for the Simplot potatoes being turned into less-carcinogenic French fries, well, that might just be wishful thinking.

Read: Even McDonald’s Rejects New GMO Potato in French Fries

“The GM potato does contain a resistance gene that provides protection against late blight. The problem is that nobody knows how long the protection will last. Plant breeders have tested many different resistance genes in the past, and these genes are almost always overcome by quickly evolving pathogens.

Another issue is that late blight is usually accompanied by other pathogens. In humid regions of the world where late blight is most active, there are dozens of other pathogens. So, growing GM potatoes with a single resistance gene in, for example, Bangladesh is like getting vaccinated for one tropical disease and then moving to the tropics where there are many other diseases.

Next, the reduced asparagine levels do lower the amount of acrylamide in French fries, but these levels are already very low in normal fries. Simplot argues that the reduced acrylamide levels reduce carcinogenicity, but I could not find any reliable studies demonstrating that normal fries are carcinogenic.”

In the end, Rommens said, he didn’t put enough thought into the possibility that his modifications might have caused “unintended effects.” Upon studying publicly-available literature, however, he realized he had missed the forest for the trees, as the old saying goes.

“My GM potatoes had ‘hidden’ issues – like Pandora’s Box.”

He said he believes the potatoes entering the market should be “evaluated for the incidence of hidden bruise and infections and the range in levels of toxins, such as alpha-aminoadipate and tyramine.”

Innate Potatoes Added to the ‘High-Risk’ Category

Innate potatoes have been added to the High-Risk list of the Non-GMO Project Standard because the variety is now “widely commercially available” in the U.S. [2]

The Project has an established set of criteria that it uses to determine if a crop needs to be moved from the Monitored-Risk list to the High-Risk list. This set of criteria helps tease out whether a crop has the serious potential to spread GMO contamination in the conventional and non-GMO supply chain.

The potatoes’ addition to the High-Risk list means that products made with potatoes will undergo added scrutiny before they can become Non-GMO Project Verified.

Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, said:

“Browning is nature’s most visible way of letting you know a product is rotting. GMOs that use RNAi to mask the signs of bruising could lead consumers to unknowingly ingest an unhealthy, toxic product.”

Food Scientists: New GMO Potatoes “Extremely Worrisome”

Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid GMO potatoes at the supermarket. They are sold under the names White Russet or Simplot Innate. If you see those on the label, keep moving.

Always buy organic or non-GMO produce, whenever possible, as this will spur a greater demand for these types of products.

Sources:

[1] EcoWatch

[2] Naked Food Magazine