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From Lab to Plate—A Primer on GE Food

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From Lab to Plate—A Primer on GE Food

Food & Water Watch

Food & Water Watch released a report Sept. 29 that provides scientific and political background behind the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) food in the U.S., and its potential impact on consumers, the environment and farmers. The report, Genetically Engineered Food: An Overview, outlines how the genetic engineering of crops and animals for human consumption is not the silver bullet approach for feeding a growing population that the agribusiness and biotechnology industries claim it is. Conversely, studies find that GE plants and animals do not perform better than their traditional counterparts and raise a slew of health, environmental and ethical concerns.

“Through glitzy advertising campaigns and scientists whose research is paid for by the industry, agribusiness and biotechnology companies try to persuade consumers that genetic engineering is the only hope for feeding a growing population, which is completely untrue,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Before consumers accept genetically engineered food, they need to consider the risks and potential consequences involved with radically manipulating the genetic makeup of plants and animals.”

The report outlines the potential risks of GE foods including increased food allergies and unknown long-term health effects in humans, the rise of superweeds that have become resistant to GE-affiliated herbicides, the ethical and economic concerns involved with the patenting of life and corporate consolidation of the seed supply, and the contamination of organic and non-GE crops and livestock through cross-pollination and seed dispersal.

It also documents how the lack of coordination, oversight and enforcement from a patchwork of federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency—has put human and environmental health at risk.

“Public opinion surveys show that many people do not want GE food in their diet and the vast majority of those polled are insistent that GE food must be labeled, at minimum, so they can make informed choices,” said Hauter. “Lax enforcement, uncoordinated agency oversight and ambivalent post-approval monitoring have allowed GE plants and animals to slip through the cracks and into our food system without the public’s knowledge.”

Biotech firms’ long-promised high-yielding and drought-resistant GE seeds remain commercially unavailable while the most prevalent GE crops—roundup ready crops—require much more herbicide as resistant superweeds evolve, lowering farm yields and leaving farmers no choice but to use other chemicals with proven health risks like 2,4-D (an Agent Orange component) and Atrazine.

Additionally, the report reveals that biotech companies block independent research on GE foods and press for lighter regulatory oversight. Records show that between 1999 and 2009, $547 million was spent on lobbying and campaign contributions to ease GE regulatory oversight, push GE approvals and prevent GE labeling.

The report concludes with several recommendations including a moratorium on new U.S. approvals of GE plants and animals, a policy that would more rigorously evaluate potentially harmful effects of GE crops before their commercialization, improved agency coordination and increase post-market regulation, and mandatory labeling of GE foods.

To download the report, click here.

For more information, click here.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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