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Organic Farming With Gene Editing: An Oxymoron or a Tool for Sustainable Agriculture?
By Rebecca Mackelprang
A University of California, Berkeley professor stands at the front of the room, delivering her invited talk about the potential of genetic engineering. Her audience, full of organic farming advocates, listens uneasily. She notices a man get up from his seat and move toward the front of the room. Confused, the speaker pauses mid-sentence as she watches him bend over, reach for the power cord, and unplug the projector. The room darkens and silence falls. So much for listening to the ideas of others.
Many organic advocates claim that genetically engineered crops are harmful to human health, the environment and the farmers who work with them. Biotechnology advocates fire back that genetically engineered crops are safe, reduce insecticide use, and allow farmers in developing countries to produce enough food to feed themselves and their families.
Now, sides are being chosen about whether the new gene editing technology, CRISPR, is really just "GMO 2.0" or a helpful new tool to speed up the plant breeding process. In July, the European Union's Court of Justice ruled that crops made with CRISPR will be classified as genetically engineered. In the U.S., meanwhile, the regulatory system is drawing distinctions between genetic engineering and specific uses of genome editing.
I am a plant molecular biologist and appreciate the awesome potential of both CRISPR and genetic engineering technologies. But I don't believe that pits me against the goals of organic agriculture. In fact, biotechnology can help meet these goals. And while rehashing the arguments about genetic engineering seems counterproductive, genome editing may draw both sides to the table for a healthy conversation. To understand why, it's worth digging into the differences between genome editing with CRISPR and genetic engineering.
What's the Difference Between Genetic Engineering, CRISPR and Mutation Breeding?
Opponents argue that CRISPR is a sneaky way to trick the public into eating genetically engineered foods. It is tempting to toss CRISPR and genetic engineering into the same bucket. But even "genetic engineering" and "CRISPR" are too broad to convey what is happening on the genetic level, so let's look closer.
In one type of genetic engineering, a gene from an unrelated organism can be introduced into a plant's genome. For example, much of the eggplant grown in Bangladesh incorporates a gene from a common bacterium. This gene makes a protein called Bt that is harmful to insects. By putting that gene inside the eggplant's DNA, the plant itself becomes lethal to eggplant-eating insects and decreases the need for insecticides. Bt is safe for humans. It's like how chocolate makes dogs sick, but doesn't affect us.
Another type of genetic engineering can move a gene from one variety of a plant species into another variety of that same species. For example, researchers identified a gene in wild apple trees that makes them resistant to fire blight. They moved that gene into the "Gala Galaxy" apple to make it resistant to disease. However, this new apple variety has not been commercialized.
Scientists are unable to direct where in the genome a gene is inserted with traditional genetic engineering, although they use DNA sequencing to identify the location after the fact.
In contrast, CRISPR is a tool of precision.
Just like using the "find" function in a word processor to quickly jump to a word or phrase, the CRISPR molecular machinery finds a specific spot in the genome. It cuts both strands of DNA at that location. Because cut DNA is problematic for the cell, it quickly deploys a repair team to mend the break. There are two pathways for repairing the DNA. In one, which I call "CRISPR for modification," a new gene can be inserted to link the cut ends together, like pasting a new sentence into a word processor.
In "CRISPR for mutation," the cell's repair team tries to glue the cut DNA strands back together again. Scientists can direct this repair team to change a few DNA units, or base pairs (A's, T's, C's and G's), at the site that was cut, creating a small DNA change called a mutation. This technique can be used to tweak the gene's behavior inside the plant. It can also be used to silence genes inside the plant that, for example, are detrimental to plant survival, like a gene that increases susceptibility to fungal infections.
In genetic engineering, a new gene is added to a random location in a plant's genome. CRISPR for modification also allows a new gene to be added to a plant, but targets the new gene to a specific location.Rebecca Mackelprang, CC BY-SA
Mutation breeding, which in my opinion is also a type of biotechnology, is already used in organic food production. In mutation breeding, radiation or chemicals are used to randomly make mutations in the DNA of hundreds or thousands of seeds which are then grown in the field. Breeders scan fields for plants with a desired trait such as disease resistance or increased yield. Thousands of new crop varieties have been created and commercialized through this process, including everything from varieties of quinoa to varieties of grapefruit. Mutation breeding is considered a traditional breeding technique, and thus is not an "excluded method" for organic farming in the U.S.
CRISPR for mutation is more similar to mutation breeding than it is to genetic engineering. It creates similar end products as mutation breeding, but removes the randomness. It does not introduce new DNA. It is a controlled and predictable technique for generating helpful new plant varieties capable of resisting disease or weathering adverse environmental conditions.
Opportunity Lost: Learning From Genetic Engineering
Most commercialized genetically engineered traits confer herbicide tolerance or insect resistance in corn, soybean or cotton. Yet many other engineered crops exist. While a few are grown in the field, most sit all but forgotten in dark corners of research labs because of the prohibitive expense of passing regulatory hurdles. If the regulatory climate and public perception allow it, crops with valuable traits like these could be produced by CRISPR and become common in our soils and on our tables.
Dr. Peggy Lemaux, holding seeds from the hypoallergenic wheat she helped develop with genetic engineeringJames Block, CC BY-SA
For example, my adviser at UC Berkeley developed, with colleagues, a hypoallergenic variety of wheat. Seeds for this wheat are held captive in envelopes in the basement of our building, untouched for years. A tomato that uses a sweet pepper gene to defend against a bacterial disease, eliminating the need for copper-based pesticide application, has struggled to secure funding to move forward. Carrot, cassava, lettuce, potato and more have been engineered for increased nutritional value. These varieties demonstrate the creativity and expertise of researchers in bringing beneficial new traits to life. Why, then, can't I buy bread made with hypoallergenic wheat at the grocery store?
Loosening the Grip of Big Agriculture
Research and development of a new genetically engineered crop costs around $100 million at large seed companies. Clearing the regulatory hurdles laid out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, EPA and/or FDA (depending on the engineered trait) takes between five and seven years and an additional $35 million. Regulation is important and genetically engineered products should be carefully evaluated. But the expense allows only large corporations with extensive capital to compete in this arena. The price shuts small companies, academic researchers and NGOs out of the equation. To recoup their $135 million investment in crop commercialization, companies develop products to satisfy the biggest markets of seed buyers—growers of corn, soybean, sugar beet and cotton.
The costs of research and development are far lower with CRISPR due to its precision and predictability. And early indications suggest that using CRISPR for mutation will not be subject to the same regulatory hurdles and costs in the U.S. A press release on March 28, 2018 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that "under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques" if they are developed with approved laboratory procedures.
If the EPA and FDA follow suit with reasonable, less costly regulations, CRISPR may escape the dominant financial grasp of large seed companies. Academics, small companies and NGO researchers may see hard work and intellectual capital yield beneficial genome-edited products that are not forever relegated to the basements of research buildings.
Common Ground: CRISPR for Sustainability
In the six years since the genome editing capabilities of CRISPR were unlocked, academics, startups and established corporations have announced new agricultural products in the pipeline that use this technology. Some of these focus on traits for consumer health, such as low-gluten or gluten-free wheat for people with celiac disease. Others, such as non-browning mushrooms, can decrease food waste.
The lingering California drought demonstrated the importance of crop varieties that use water efficiently. Corn with greater yield under drought stress has already been made using CRISPR, and it is only a matter of time before CRISPR is used to increase drought tolerance in other crops. Powdery mildew-resistant tomatoes could save billions of dollars and eliminate spraying of fungicides. A tomato plant that flowers and makes fruit early could be used in northern latitudes with long days and shorter growing seasons, which will become more important as climate changes.
The Rules Are Made, But Is the Decision Final?
But in my view, they should reconsider.
Some organic growers I interviewed agree. "I see circumstances under which it could be useful for short-cutting a process that for traditional breeding might take many plant generations," said Tom Willey, an organic farmer emeritus from California. The disruption of natural ecosystems is a major challenge to agriculture, Willey told me, and while the problem cannot be wholly addressed by genome editing, it could lend an opportunity to "reach back into genomes of the wild ancestors of crop species to recapture genetic material" that has been lost through millennia of breeding for high yields.
Breeders have successfully used traditional breeding to reintroduce such diversity, but "in the light of the urgency posed by climate change, we might wisely employ CRISPR to accelerate such work," Willey concludes.
Bill Tracy, an organic corn breeder and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, said, "Many CRISPR-induced changes that could happen in nature could have benefits to all kinds of farmers." But the NOSB has already voted on the issue and the rules are unlikely to change without significant pressure. "It's a question of what social activity could move the needle on that," Tracy concludes.
People on all sides of biotechnology debates want to maximize human and environmental outcomes. Collaborative problem-solving by organic (and conventional) growers, specialists in sustainable agriculture, biotechnologists and policymakers will yield greater progress than individual groups acting alone and dismissing each other. The barriers to this may seem large, but they are of our own making. Hopefully, more people will gain the courage to plug the projector back in and let the conversation continue.
Rebecca Mackelprang is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.
Disclosure statement: The funding for Rebecca Mackelprang's postdoctoral position comes from the Winkler Family Foundation.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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The depths of the oceans are heating up more slowly than the surface and the air, but that will undergo a dramatic shift in the second half of the century, according to a new study. Researchers expect the rate of climate change in the deep parts of the oceans could accelerate to seven times their current rate after 2050, as The Guardian reported.
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By Joni Sweet
Should you skip your annual checkup? The answer would have been a resounding "no" if you asked most doctors before the pandemic.
But with the risk of COVID-19, the answer isn't so clear anymore.
Are States Allowing Preventive Care Visits?<p>First things first: If you're experiencing a medical emergency, don't delay treatment.</p><p>While there's the potential that you could be <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/hai/data/portal/index.html" target="_blank">exposed to infections at the emergency room</a>, the health risks of avoiding urgent medical care could be far more severe.</p><p>Hospitals have also implemented precautionary measures, like distributing masks to patients, that help cut down the risk of viral exposure.</p><p>Now that that's out of the way, is it possible to start catching up on routine healthcare appointments, like physicals and dental cleanings?</p><p>"Different places are in different stages of opening up," said <a href="https://www.methodisthealth.org/doctors/arvind-ankireddypalli/" target="_blank">Dr. Arvind Ankireddypalli</a>, primary care physician and geriatrician at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. "Preventative services might not even be available in some communities, [and in others] medical appointments may be on a case-by-case basis."</p>
Is it Safe to Go to the Doctor?<p>If your state is open (or will end its lockdown soon), you may be able to start booking preventive care appointments, like Pap smears, cancer screenings, checkups, and dental cleanings.</p><p>But is it worth the risk of possible exposure to the new coronavirus?</p><p>Opinions vary among healthcare providers and the conditions of their patients, as well as the infection rate in their communities and availability of personal protective equipment.</p><p><a href="https://www.lenhorovitz.com/" target="_blank">Dr. Len Horovitz</a>, internist, pulmonary specialist, and director of Carnegie Medical, recommends that patients avoid delaying their annual physical or other types of preventive care.</p><p>"You will encounter problems that are best seen earlier rather than later," he said. "It is possible to provide a safe environment for a patient in the doctor's office. There's no reason for people to put off an annual exam; these are important appointments that help keep problems from getting out of control."</p><p>In an effort to curb the spread of infection, Horovitz has been following a strict set of procedures at his office, including allowing just one patient in at a time, requiring patients to wear masks and gloves, and disinfecting the examination room between every patient.</p><p>Other physicians, like Ankireddypalli, conduct a risk-benefit analysis for every patient before agreeing to see them in person.</p><p>"It is probably not appropriate to keep delaying visits for high-risk patients, like older adults or people with chronic conditions," he explained.</p>
Role of Telehealth Visits<p>Telemedicine visits, where doctors connect with patients via phone or video chat, can be an option if in-person appointments are risky or prohibited.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/benefits/downloads/medicaid-chip-telehealth-toolkit.pdf" target="_blank">Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services</a> and some private insurance companies have expanded coverage for telehealth services during the pandemic. As a result, some practices have seen the <a href="https://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/during-pandemic-telehealth-visits-soar-10-week-300-group-practice" target="_blank">use of telemedicine services soar</a> over the last few months.</p><p>"Telemedicine is a way that patients can be seen, evaluated, counseled, and informed about their healthcare without being exposed to the dangers of going into lobbies and offices," said <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/biographies/ommen-steve-r-m-d/bio-20053861" target="_blank">Dr. Steve Ommen</a>, cardiologist and associate dean of the Mayo Clinic Center for Connected Care, which offers telemedicine services.</p><p>"It is particularly relevant for patients who already have a relationship with a provider, the appointment is for an ongoing care episode, and the patient doesn't need to be touched," he said.</p><p>A virtual doctor's visit can't be a substitute for all routine care, though. Cancer screenings, blood draws, evaluations of lumps, Pap smears, and other services still need to be done in person.</p><p>But even if you do have to go to the doctor's office, telehealth services can help cut down on the amount of time you spend there, thus potentially reducing your exposure to the new coronavirus and other germs.</p>
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By Jeannette Cwienk
When it comes to recycling and recyclability, very little, it seems is straightforward — even something as seemingly simple as orange juice can present a conundrum. In Germany, many smaller shops sell drinks in cartons or plastic bottles, both of which will end up in the yellow recycling bin. But how do their recycling credentials stack up?
More and More Multilayer Packaging<p>How easy is it to recognize multilayer packaging? With drink cartons, it's usually obvious that they're made from a combination of different materials, but with other products, such as candy wrappers, it's a different story.</p><p>Such packaging can be made from a complex mix of up to 10 different films of plastic, which as Joachim Christiani, managing director of German recycling institute cyclos-HTP, explains, is <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/germany-produces-record-amount-of-packaging-waste/a-51293541" target="_blank">invisible to consumers</a>.</p><p>"In recent years there's been a trend toward so-called multilayer packaging, which is extremely light and thin. It saves material as well as CO2 emissions during transport, but can't be recycled," Christiani says.</p><p>Because it is not possible to melt the different plastics together, or — at least for now — to separate the individual films from one another at recycling plants.</p>
Lack of Recycled Plastic<p>A 2017 cyclos-HTP study into the recyclability of conventional packaging waste concluded that a third of it was not recyclable, and only 40% of the remaining two-thirds was made into plastic recyclate. The rest was used as fuel <em>—</em> in other words it was incinerated.</p><p>"There was no economic or political pressure to recycle more than this amount," Christiani says. "The prescribed recycling quotas were met, and there were not nearly enough recycling plants."</p>
Room for Greenwashing<p>According to a 2018 survey by Germany's vzbv consumer protection association, most consumers would like to see more plastic recycling, especially when it comes to packaging.</p><p>Although some products come in packaging that is advertised as being "made from recycled material," Elke Salzmann, a resource protection officer with vzbv, says that can be misleading.</p><p>"It says nothing about how much recycled material the packaging actually contains," according to Salzmann. "And it also doesn't mean that the recycled plastic comes from collected plastic waste. It could just as well come from plastic leftovers created during the production of primary plastic."</p><p>The term "ocean plastic," which some textile and shoe manufacturers use to advertise the recycled plastic in their product lines, can also be misleading, Salzmann says.</p><p><span></span>"Plastic waste from the ocean is in much too bad a state to be recycled. Instead, they use plastic waste from beaches or riverbanks."</p>
Laws Against Plastic<p>Images of garbage choking our waters and <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/eurythenes-plasticus-a-deep-sea-crustacean-full-of-plastic/a-52663559" target="_blank">killing marine wildlife</a> have played a key role in giving plastic a negative reputation among the public, and politicians have started to act.</p><p>Many countries worldwide have introduced bans on single-use items, and in Germany, a 2019 packaging law stipulates a plastics recycling quota of 90% from 2022, up from 36%. That said, the quota only refers to how much material has to be fed into the recycling system, not how much ultimately needs to be recycled.</p>
Rethinking the Whole System<p>Although plastic is a very useful material, at the end of its life it causes many problems, EASAC environmental program director Michael Norton tells DW, adding that we have to rethink the whole system and completely change the way we use plastic.</p><p>Joachim Christiani says the packaging industry is starting to catch on. Around 70% of recycled mass can currently be generated from packaging, but that figure is expected to rise in the future.</p><p>"95% is quite feasible," says the engineer, adding that sorting facilities are currently undergoing improvements, while packaging design is also changing.</p>
Clear Plastics Are Easiest to Recycle<p>As things stand, PET bottles are easiest to recycle because they're not mixed with other materials. New bottles can therefore easily be made from the old ones and the recycling rate is high. But the color of the bottle can pose a problem.</p><p>Because plastic is sorted by type rather than color, if different colors of plastic are mixed, the resulting recyclate cannot be used for light-colored packaging, which many manufacturers want. The upshot is the introduction of new plastic instead.</p><p>Consumer and environmental associations have long called for recyclability, greater sorting purity and better sorting facilities, but their most important demand remains waste avoidance through reusable systems.</p><p>"Why melt down disposable bottles to make new disposable bottles when you can refill them up to 20 times?" Buschmann asks.</p>
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When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the future of the Cannard Family Farm—whose organic vegetables supplied a single Berkeley restaurant—was looking stark.
Building Food Communities<p>Family farms in California and across the country have been hit hard by the impact of the coronavirus on their markets. But in the health-conscious Bay Area, where celery was already one of the first groceries to disappear from the produce rack, demand for fresh local produce has shot up. The challenge is in redirecting food from farms to new customers.</p><p>Sonoma County has historically been an agricultural region. When the organic food movement sprang up in the 1970s, this area was one of its early proponents. The first farmers markets and CSAs appeared in the 1980s and flourished, but the burgeoning network was later eclipsed by an inflated wine industry, much of it owned by distant corporations.</p><p>According to a 2018 crop report, 60,000 acres have gone to grapes, with only 500 acres in food crops. Land prices have skyrocketed, the cost of labor has gone up, and increased regulations have all made it harder to run a viable business here. Many farmers had turned to "boutique" specialty crops for restaurants.</p><p>"Farmers are always in an uphill battle, especially ecological farmers," says Wiig of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. "I often hear them say, 'I'm working my butt off and hoping for the best.'" That's even more true now, as the pandemic strangles economies the world over.</p>
Scaling Up Support<p>F.E.E.D. Sonoma, a food hub that aggregates produce from dozens of local farms, was another quick responder. When the pandemic hit, it went from serving Bay Area restaurants to building a cooperative of farmers, filling food boxes for distribution at F.E.E.D.'s Petaluma warehouse and other drop spots in the county.</p><p>"Our local food system is extremely diverse," says co-founder Tim Page, who has the energy of a visionary combined with the skills of a businessman. "We have a ton of small farms but we don't have the infrastructure to support them. That is what F.E.E.D. is trying to establish." Since converting the restaurant supply business to a CSA, it has gone from 90 boxes to 450. Ultimately, the goal is 1,800 or more.</p><p>"I grew up in L.A.," Page says. "Every single farm is gone. The same thing will happen here if the general public does not understand the importance of it.</p><p>"That understanding was on display at the Sonoma Farmers Market, which now operates with strict restrictions and safety precautions because of the virus. "We think F.E.E.D. is going to save us," said Candy Wirtz, co-director of Paul's Produce, a well-established farm in Sonoma, as she weighed out my purchases. The CSA model could be transformative for Paul's and other farms across the country.</p><p>Subscribing to a CSA is a lifestyle change for consumers, to be sure. It means eating what's in season and learning to cook unfamiliar vegetables. But it's a change that many people are making now because of the stay-at-home orders. "People just have to learn to cook again instead of eating out," says Judith Redmond, part-owner of Full Belly Farm near Sacramento.</p><p>In light of this newfound commitment to CSAs, Perrotti, of Coyote Family Farm, says: "My hope is that this solidifies instead of going back to the way things were. I hope the importance of local farming stays at the forefront."</p>
Farms With Futures<p>To help small farmers stay in business during the crisis, Community Alliance is also advocating for stimulus dollars. "Most often subsidies go to a small number of the largest farms, or to buy food that goes to food banks from far away, while local farmers can't sell their food," Wiig says. "We want food banks to buy from local farms."</p><p>This seems like a win-win. Millions of tons of food is being plowed under as 60 million people are now going hungry, 17 million of them since the pandemic began, according to Feeding America, the national network of food banks.</p><p>But it's complicated. David Goodman of the Redwood Empire Food Bank puts it plainly: Local food is too expensive. "We distribute nine and a half million pounds of produce annually," he says. "It costs about 9 cents a pound, 3 cents to transport. With 82,000 people to feed, it would be a luxury to think of tending to local needs by buying locally."</p><p>That reticence is partly because the food bank system is tangled in bureaucracy. The USDA decides what to purchase and from where. Because of the distances between sites, the federal agency has tended to favor foods with long shelf lives, such as canned and processed foods, and long-lasting produce like apples and potatoes. "If local food is what we need, there has to be a plan," Goodman says.</p><p>Such a plan might be where short-term disaster relief meets long-term resilience. Michael Dimock is president of Roots of Change, a nonprofit organization that advocates for transforming California's food system. To get serious about preparing the food system for future disasters, Dimock says, the government needs to be involved. Roots of Change is now advocating for a tax on sugary beverages to help foot the bill.</p><p>Dimock says the state needs a paradigm shift for farms to remain viable in the face of multiplying disasters to come—not only pandemics, but fires, floods, and other symptoms of climate change. "How bold will people get in the months ahead to demand real change? My hope is they will get more radical."</p><p>Food is fundamental. While farmers have yet to face the full economic impact of this pandemic, their collaborative efforts, along with local grassroots networks, could mark the beginning of a new economy laboring to be born.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Nearly 200 Canadian organizations on Monday rolled out their demands for a "just recovery," saying that continuing business-as-usual after the pandemic would prevent the kind of far-reaching transformation needed to put "the health and well-being of ALL peoples and ecosystems first."
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Alberta Energy Minister Calls Pandemic ‘a Great Time’ to Build Pipelines Due to Protest Restrictions
Anti-pipeline protests work.
That's the implication behind comments made by Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage Friday on how coronavirus social distancing requirements could ease the construction of Canada's controversial Trans Mountain Expansion project.