The Synthetic Bestiary – Synthetic Biology, Genetic Engineering, and The Future

Mark Lynas On Why He Now Supports GM Food

Mark-Lynas

Mark Lyans used to be one of the most steadfast opponents to GM technology. In a striking talk he explains why he has changed his mind, looked into the science behind the issue and decided to come out in support of GM technology.

The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider natural.

Check out the video after the break.

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‘Natural’ Foods vs GMOs

Just what makes a natural food? Anti-GMO advocates consistently bring up the idea that food should be ‘natural’ or ‘organic’. But when it comes to human-induced modification of genes, it turns out that most traditional crops are really far more modified (and far less tested) than feared GMOs.

Kevin Folta writes an informative opinion piece on this issue here. In it he creates a handy table for side by side comparison of traditional modifications – which points out the inconstancies in the arguments of many who advocate compulsory (misleading) labelling of GMOs. (Click the table to enlarge)

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GM Crops Help Organic Crops Grow

In what seems like irony, in the context of the GM vs. Organic food debate, a recent study has shown that genetically modified crops actually help organic crops grow. This paper explains that GMOs provide a king of ‘herd immunity’ which protects the entire ecosystem – in a very similar manner to vaccinations. Unfortunately it would probably be too optimistic to imagine the advocates of organic food deciding to plant GMOs next to their crops any time soon.

Because insecticides kill indiscriminately, they kill many species that are beneficial to farmers – such as spiders and ladybirds. These predator species feast on aphids. Thus, the chain of events goes like this: Bt cotton allows farmers to use less insecticide, which causes predator populations to increase, which then leads to a decrease in the population of aphids.

This is a win not only for farmers, but also for the environment.

Read more at biotech-now.

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Why Science May Be Fundamentally Hard to Believe

A recent study [PDF] by a group led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, has found that humans may fundamentally be opposed to non-intuitive facts. Even though you may learn a fact and willingly accept it as true, your brain resists and will never properly replace its intuitive notions (such as the idea of the world being flat, or the idea that larger objects fall faster). You can suppress your natural beliefs, but this study implies that you may never be able to replace them.

When students learn scientific theories that conflict with earlier, naïve theories, what happens to the earlier theories? Our findings suggest that naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them.

In a recent article on the study John Lehrer of the New Yorker argues a link between these findings and the depressingly low adoption of belief in evolution in America.

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Italian GM Research Under Threat

While anti-GM crop destruction may have been stopped at Rothamsted only a week ago, yet another project has come under threat. Dr. Eddo Rugini has spent the last 30 years working on woody plant propagation in Italy, specifically looking at transgenic olive trees, cherry trees, and kiwifruit vines. He gained permission to grow the plants in 1998 with strict protocols to prevent gene flow from the plants. However in 2002 Italy passed a law banning field research on genetically engineered plants. Dr. Rugini was granted an extension until 2008, but no longer and has now been called to destroy the plants himself. You can find out more information on this issue in a well written article by Anastasia Bodnar of Biofortified.

Thirty years of work will be destroyed tomorrow, by Dr. Rugini himself (under court order), a true tragedy for science. While it may be too late to effectively stop this, a petition has nonetheless been formed to protest the destruction. You can sign the petition here, or see the signatures of others here. I have included some of the moving words of those who have signed the petition after the break.

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