This is why you shouldn’t believe that exciting new medical study 

By Julia Belluz on Vox // March 23, 2015 

A highly regarded service that vets new studies for clinicians finds — on average — only 3,000 of 50,000 new journal articles published each year are well-designed and relevant enough to inform patient care. That’s 6 percent.

More often than not, single studies contradict one another — such as the research on foods that cause or prevent cancer. The truth can be found somewhere in the totality of the research, but we report on every study in isolation underneath flip-flopping headlines. (Red wine will add years to your life one week, and kill you quicker the next.)

For a study on whether everything we eat is associated with cancer, academics randomly selected 50 ingredients from recipes in The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. Most foods had studies behind them claiming both positive and negative results. Researchers cannot always replicate the findings of other researchers, and for various reasons many don’t even try. All told, an estimated 85 percent — or $200 billion [USD] — of annual global spending on research is wasted on badly designed or redundant studies.

This means early  medical research will mostly be wrong until maybe eventually, if we’re lucky, it’s right. More tangibly, only a tiny fraction of new science will lead to anything that’s useful to humans.

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*Think about this is you ever come across a study that tells you GMOs and glyphosate directly cause cancer, autism, alzheimers, and gluten intolerance.  

Fast-casual food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has announced it has removed all ingredients made with genetically modified organisms from its menu, making good on a two-year-old promise. It’s the latest example of the food industry stripping away ingredients, some more questionable than others, as consumers demand a say in what’s in their dinner.

There is no scientific evidence that GMOs pose a risk to health, as Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells readily acknowledges. “I don’t think this is about GMOs being harmful or not being harmful to your health,” Ells tells The Salt. “It’s a bigger picture. It’s really part of our food with integrity journey.”

Chipotle Says Adios To GMOs, As Food Industry Strips Away Ingredients

Photos: Meredith Rizzo/NPR; iStockphoto; PepsiCo; iStockphoto; iStockphoto


Papaya Ringspot Virus, and the “SunUp” and “Rainbow” Papayas

The genetically modified trees that saved a species

Whenever I see photos of the symptoms of Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV) up close, I actually think that if it weren’t so destructive, if would be beautiful.

One of the two strains of this Potyvirus, called PRSV-P, infects both Papayas (Carica papaya) and cucurbits (Cucurbitaceae); the plants suffer mosaic (interference with photosynthesis), leaf distortions, patches of necrotic tissue (which invites fungal infection), deformities in the fruit, and greatly-reduced yields. The virus is highly infectious, moving rapidly from plant-to-plant, primarily through aphid predation. 

Papaya Ringspot Virus Symptoms

After being introduced to Hawaii in the 1930s, the virus mutated, and by the 1950s had halted 94% of Papaya plantations on Oahu. Production moved to other islands, but the pathogen followed, and also began infecting home gardens in the 1970s. Even with aggressive horticultural and insecticidal management, by the 1990s, the virus infected commercial plantations, and over 50%-80% of the industry was decimated in various global sites of production.

Carica papaya is a rather genetically homogenous tree, so there were few reservoirs of resistance to the virus to be found in feral or wild populations of the plant. As a result, something else needed to be done to save the production of this fruit: in 1998, the answer came in the form of genetic engineering.

The Transgenic Papaya

At Cornell University, Dennis Gonsalves from Kohala, Hawai’i, created the “SunUp” and “Rainbow” Papayas (the latter is an F1 hybrid of the former and the red-fleshed “Kapoho”). [x]

Using a tool called a gene gun, the embryogenic tissues of this plant were injected with a benign protein coat of PRSV-P (the virus that plagued them), which basically operates on the same principles as a vaccination: plants with this protein coat are immune to the virus, and also provide a sort of herd immunity to non-GM plants, by breaking up corridors of transmission (the virus is spread during pruning, or by sucking pests like aphids).

This is called Pathogen-derived resistance (PDR), and is not unprecedented in nature: for example, fragments of endogynous retrovirus proviruses make up 8% of the human genome.

Today, over 80% of papayas sold globally are genetically modified to be immune to this virus. When these transgenic varieties were introduced, seeds were given away to farmers for free, and though there has been gene flow into conventional papaya populations (about 1%, as most commercial papayas are hermaphroditic and self-pollinating), there are no patent restrictions on private individuals re-planting seed from GM papayas.

Protests, and the Future of Transgenic Papayas

Unfortunately, the very innovation that was supposed to save the livelihoods of Hawaiian farmers has crippled the industry again, but this time, it’s leery export markets, legal battles, and consumer boycotts that have whittled down sales to 1/5th of what they were following the industry’s recovery. Anti-GMO boycots targeted papayas on “do not buy” lists, despite the fact that fruits infected by Papaya Ringspot Virus itself–not just a protein coat–have been safely consumed by humans for decades.

Aubrie Marie of ‘Babes Against Biotech’

Gonsalves himself, the retired plant pathologist who worked to create these fruits, has been subjected to endless abuse and harassment by protestors: groups like “Babes Against Biotech” have formed in Hawaii to protest his work, creating and spreading un-sourced scare graphics linking GMOs and pesticides to conditions like autism.

Celebrities and campaigners are quick to field all manner of conspiracy theories, because of a long-standing (and not unreasonable) distrust of biotech firms; however, this sloganeering reveals that the protestors know very little about the origins of these transgenic papayas. These are crops that were created by an academic institution for the public good, in order to avert a disaster. 

Only time and accurate information will work against the tide of consumer resistance. Until then, it’s the papaya farmers that pay the price.

#GMOs #chemophobia #food politics #GMO labelling #Hawaii #USA

Scientists call for ban on editing human genome

While the technique has many benefits, such as curing genetic diseases, it can also be used to enhance qualities like beauty or intelligence – something ethicists believe should not be done.

The biologists are also concerned that the technique is so easy to use that doctors may push ahead with it before it’s clinically safe to do so, they say in a paper on the subject, which was published in the journal Science.


Today the World Health Organization called Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern.”

Zika, like many other illnesses, is spread by mosquitoes. And a new genetic technology called the CRISPR gene drive, could potentially keep mosquitoes from transmitting a disease, or eradicate a population of mosquitoes altogether.

The question now is: Should we use it?

A Plea for Culinary Modernism

by Rachel Laudan in Jacobin

As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.

The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed. For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad.

Fresh meat was rank and tough; fresh milk warm and unmistakably a bodily excretion; fresh fruits (dates and grapes being rare exceptions outside the tropics) were inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Even today, natural can be a shock when we actually encounter it. When Jacques Pepin offered free-­range chickens to friends, they found “the flesh tough and the flavor too strong,” prompting him to wonder whether they would really like things the way they naturally used to be. Natural was unreliable. Fresh fish began to stink. Fresh milk soured, eggs went rotten.

Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger when the days were short. The weather turned cold, or the rain did not fall. Hens stopped laying eggs, cows went dry, fruits and vegetables were not to be found, fish could not be caught in the stormy seas.

Natural was usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied from fifty to ninety percent of the calories in most societies have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible. Other plants, including the roots and fibers that were the life support of the societies that did not eat grains, are often downright poisonous. Without careful processing green potatoes, stinging taro, and cassava bitter with prussic acid are not just indigestible, but toxic.

Nor did our ancestors’ physiological theories dispose them to the natural. Until about two hundred years ago, from China to Europe, and in Mesoamerica, too, everyone believed that the fires in the belly cooked foodstuffs and turned them into nutrients. That was what digestion was. Cooking foods in effect pre-digested them and made them easier to assimilate. Given a choice, no one would burden the stomach with raw, unprocessed foods.

So to make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission.

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*This was a very good piece! If it had gotten into the ecological side of these historical changes, it would have perhaps been better.

I encounter a lot of this ‘luddism’ in the permaculture movement, and struggle with trying to articulate a permacultural praxis that is modern, technological, and accessible.

Whenever I write about GM crops, science advocates criticise my anti-patent stance (which I actually take from reading the works of a futurist!) and my cautious-about-genetic-drift stance; meanwhile, organic advocates vehemently criticise my refusal to condemn genetic engineering wholesale. There is little room for a cautious optimism in that debate. I think there is a third potential position: one where genetic engineering is decentralised, open-source, and accessible.

I’ve been obsessed with biospheres and space travel for as long as I can remember. When I am writing about things like agroforestry, it’s not about returning to an idyllic past: it’s about engineering a better future on this world and others. I think many of the problems of modern agriculture can be better understood as scientific, not neccessarily moral.


A study published this week in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology finds that exposure to commonly used pesticides — the herbicides Dicamba, 2,4-D, and glyphosate – may affect the way that bacteria reacts to antibiotics, in a way that leads to increased resistance. It’s the first, Civil Eats reports, to make this connection — typically, pesticides are tested for their potential to kill organisms. But it’s pesticides’ sub-lethal effects that, in this case, appear to be causing the problem: exposure to the chemicals wasn’t enough to kill the e. coli and salmonella bacteria used in the study, but it was enough to make them activate proteins, as a defense mechanism — one which could ultimately make them stronger.

Yet another factor contributing to the superbug crisis.


Monsanto Lobbyist Claims Roundup Pesticide Is Safe To Drink, Then Runs Away When Reporter Offers Him Some

While being filmed by French cable channel Canal+, GMO advocate Dr. Patrick Moore claimed that the chemical in the company’s Roundup weed killer is safe for humans to consume and “won’t hurt you.”

He then refused to drink it when offered a glass by the interviewing journalist.

When the food movement was all about addressing serious health and environmental problems, increasing food security for the vulnerable, and rebuilding community through shared cooking and dining, it was something everybody wanted to be a part of it. As the most highly visible exemplars of the food movement have become entitled shoppers and diners finding ways to signal their superior education, taste, and virtue – it’s just become a boor. The setup to the punchline of a Portlandia sketch.

An illustration of a “living thermometer” that tells you the temperature by smell, a project Synbiota says can be built by its DNA Tinker Studio kit. (Image: Indiegogo/Synbiota

The Biohacker Startup that Wants to Take Biotech Back from Corporations

Kari Paul // VICE // March 14, 2015 // 07:00 AM EST

Imagine if assembling DNA for a customized biological organism was as simple as putting together a LEGO kit.

This is the vision of Synbiota, a Canada-based startup that launched an Indiegogo cam​paign this week for its DIY biotech inventor’s kit called the DNA Tinker Studio. The company is asking for $10,000 and has raised close to $2,500 at the time of this writing.

While crowdfunded projects are never guaranteed of success—the cooler the project’s claims, it seems, the more likely it is to fail—Synbiota has some experience with this. This is the latest venture for the company, which has launched three other DIY biotech kits in the past.

One, called Rainbow Factory, allows users to genetically engineer a microorganism to produce various color pigments. Another $395 kit allows users to build and grow microbes that turn simple sugar into Violacein, an anti-cancer agent that sells for $350 million per kilo. Dickie said one student has already produced more than $90,000 worth of Violacein in his own lab.

Items included in the DNA Tinker Studio Kit (Image: YouTube/Synbiota)

With these three successful projects underway, Synbiota has launched the DNA Tinker Studio, its most ambitious and most advanced kit so far.

“This new kit allows whoever buys it to design their own project, so instead of just making what we say, they can have their own ideas and invent it themselves,” Connor Dickie, the company’s CEO, told Motherboard. “It’s the difference between us giving someone a book and having them read it versus someone writing a book for us.” […]

“With this kit, you don’t need a PhD or a big expensive traditional lab to be able to assemble real pieces of DNA and basically design a custom organism that can do cool and useful stuff,” he said. “Right now, biotech is all coming from big corporations that keep secrets. We want to get people working together sharing their ideas, and successes and failures.”

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***I would love to have access to better equipment for micropropagation and plant tissue cultures, but this is next-level.

#technology #economics #the commons #GMOs

More than half (57%) of U.S. adults believe that GM foods are generally unsafe to eat, while 37% say these foods are safe, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Women are more likely than men to view GM foods as unsafe (65% vs. 49%). Opinions also vary by race and ethnicity; blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to say that genetically modified foods are generally unsafe to eat.

Amid debate over labeling GM foods, most Americans believe they’re unsafe


Earlier this month, Swiss seed and agrochemical company Syngenta rejected Monsanto’s second takeover bid in a year. Syngenta’s board said the offer undervalued the company and did not fully address regulatory risks. But the St. Louis-based biotech giant, the world’s biggest seed seller, is not deterred and is planning a new offer to Syngenta, the world’s biggest pesticide and fertilizer seller. If approved, it would be the biggest agribusiness merger in history. But clearing antitrust regulators in the U.S. and the EU is a big if.

The biotech giant is close to the biggest agribusiness merger in history. Our food supply hangs in the balance