Feb 07 2017

New GM Wheat Trials Set

Wheat-field-against-blue-sky-1200x600Right now there are no genetically modified (GM) cultivars of wheat that are approved and on the market, so essentially there is no GM wheat. Wheat is an important staple crop responsible for about 21% of total calories consumed by humans in the world. Improving net yields of wheat could therefore have important impacts on our food production.

GM Wheat

Over the last century agricultural experts have used conventional breeding, including hybrids, to increase yields of major crops. Apparently conventional breeding is running up against diminishing returns, and some believe we are at or approaching the limit of wheat yield with conventional techniques.

However, improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn sunlight into biomass, is an unexploited strategy. Researchers are now applying for field trials of a GM variety of wheat that incorporates genes from  a closely related grass, the stiff brome.

Professor Christine Raines, Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex and principal investigator for this research project, described the current modification:

 “In this project we have genetically modified wheat plants to increase the efficiency of the conversion of energy from sunlight into biomass. We have shown that these plants carry out photosynthesis more efficiently in glasshouse conditions. One of the steps in photosynthesis shown to limit this process is carried out by the enzyme. sedoheptulose-1,7-biphosphatase (SBPase). We have engineered GM wheat plants to produce increased levels of SBPase by introducing an SPBase gene from Brachypodium distachyon (common name stiff brome), a plant species related to wheat and used as a model in laboratory experiments.”

The team engineered two varieties of wheat, one with two extra copies of the SBPase gene, and one with six extra copies. According to the BBC, in greenhouse experiments these cultivars increased grain yield by 20-40%, which is a huge increase. The New Scientist reports that the increase was 15-20%, which is also highly significant. Neither report cited a reference, and I looked on the Rothamsted site but could not find a specific number. (I will keep digging as time allows.) Even taking the lowest number of 15%, that would be a massive increase in wheat yields. If breeders develop a wheat cultivar with a 1% increase in yields, that is considered significant.

The scientists report that in order to meet the needs of a growing population we will need to increase our food production by 40% in the next 20 years, and by 70% by 2050. Unless populations start leveling off, we will need to continue to increase food production from there.

We are already close to full use of available arable land. There is no unused farmland out there for humans to expand into. We could continue to cut down forests and transform natural ecosystems into farmland, but that would have a significant negative impact on remaining ecosystems.

The best option is to increase yield from existing land. If we could increase yields enough we could even theoretically reduce our need for land. There are other inputs as well, such as water and fertilizer, and developing crops that need fewer inputs would also be a huge boon to the environment.

We also have to keep in mind that if we are going to increase our food production by 40% in 20 years we have to start developing those cultivars today.

With all this in mind, developing a GM wheat with increased yields and decreased inputs would be highly beneficial, both to food security and to the environment. This particular GM wheat is being developed by a consortium of universities and Rothamsted Research. The research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of the International Wheat Yield Partnership Consortium.

The source gene for the GM wheat is a closely related grass, so this gene is already out there in the wild.

Response of the Anti-GM Activists

I reviewed the nature, funding, and utility of this particular GM cultivar to make a point – all the usual objections of the anti-GMO crowd are not relevant. There is no “frankenfood”, no evil corporations, and no pesticide issues. Any reasonable assessment indicates that this GM wheat would be a benefit to the environment.

But anti-GMO activists do not make rational assessments on a case-by-base basis. They are against the very concept of genetic modification and will therefore find some reason to oppose any GM product, no matter how tenuous or ridiculous their argument.

The BBC summarized opposition:

Around 30 green organisations lodged objections to the plan, pointing to concerns about the potential for the GM wheat to escape into the wild, as has repeatedly happened in the US. Campaigners say they are “disappointed” that the trial is now going ahead.
“People aren’t starving because photosynthesis isn’t efficient enough; people are starving because they are poor,” said Liz O’Neill from GM Freeze.
“Techno-fixes like GM wheat suck up public funding that could make a real difference if it was spent on systemic solutions like waste reduction and poverty eradication. Then we could all enjoy food that is produced responsibly, fairly and sustainably.”

GM Watch stated:

“According to agrimoney.com, “The forecast world wheat surplus just keeps getting bigger and bigger” and “Wheat prices are set to fall to 15-year lows in 2016-17”. It is therefore mind-boggling as to why the genetic engineers at Rothamsted Research think it’s a good idea to genetically engineer wheat to use sunlight more efficiently and give higher yields. The last thing the world and farmers need is yet more wheat.

The idea that this GM wheat might get out into the wild is pure fearmongering. First, the gene is already out there in wild grasses. Wheat has a heavy grain and short duration where it is fertile, and so being spread beyond the field is easy to control.

But even if the GM wheat did get out “into the wild,” so what? This is wheat. It’s just another grass. What do they think is going to happen? Also, crops are inherently frail. They could never compete against wild weeds. This is a complete non-issue.

Their core claim that we do not need to grow more wheat is just ridiculous. It really showcases how irrationally anti-GMO these “green” organizations are. They entirely miss the point that we need to increase yields now in preparation for increased food needs in the next 20 to 40 years. They just ignore this point.

Further, the notion that all we have to do is eradicate world poverty and eliminate food waste is completely devoid of logic, and even common sense. These are, as we say, non-trivial problems. Do they really think that they could eliminate world poverty with the money being spent on these wheat field trials, or even if we combined all GM research together? Not even close.

Of course we need to address poverty, food distribution, and food waste as serious problems, but these problems are not going away anytime soon.

This argument also completely ignores the point that improved yield reduces pressure on land use and farming inputs.

Anti-GMO activists have vandalized field trials in the UK before. Failing to put forward a persuasive argument, they may resort to violence and destruction again. In case there was any doubt that they were anti-science, destroying scientific trials makes that pretty clear.

Conclusion

Of course I hope the field trials go forward so that we can see how these cultivars perform in real-world conditions. Hopefully they will work well and dramatically improve yields. Improving the efficiency of photosynthesis is an excellent strategy for using GM technology to improve crop yields, and may apply to many different crops.

These are the kinds of advances we will need to keep increasing our food production in an environmentally sustainable way. It is supremely ironic that “green” organizations oppose this environmentally friendly technology, but such is the way of irrational ideology.

39 responses so far

39 Responses to “New GM Wheat Trials Set”

  1. SteveAon 07 Feb 2017 at 8:44 am

    Top ten reasons why Hardnose is a credulous, scientifically illiterate fantasist (reason two will SHOCK you!)

    Over to you HN…

  2. Lane Simonianon 07 Feb 2017 at 11:16 am

    “But anti-GMO activists do not make rational assessments on a case-by-base basis. They are against the very concept of genetic modification and will therefore find some reason to oppose any GM product, no matter how tenuous or ridiculous their argument.”

    This is a bit of a hyperbole. I am probably not alone in arguing that every genetic modification must be judged on a case by case basis. If there is no harm to human health and the environment and there is some proven benefit, I am not against genetic modification just on the basis of genetic modification.

    But the reverse assertion can be made in the direction of GMO advocates; they feel any modification is beneficial and without harm whether this has been proven or not.

    This California court decision allowing the state of California to label Roundup as a cancer threat seems to have fallen below some people’s radar (what is with these “so-called judges”?).

    ttps://www.washingtonpost.com/business/california-fights-monsanto-on-labels-for-popular-weed-killer/2017/01/26/9e55ff9a-e427-11e6-a419-eefe8ef

    Glyphosate may have been tested multiple times as a possible carcinogen but various adjuvants in Roundup have not. Any GMO that increases the use of Roundup is a potential danger both to the environment and to human health.

  3. Steven Novellaon 07 Feb 2017 at 11:42 am

    Lane – There is no hyperbole on my end. Thirty green organizations officially opposed even doing research on this GM wheat. Their reasons are absurd. It is reasonable to conclude from this that they are reflexively anti-GMO. There are numerous anti-GMO organizations and websites that oppose all GMOs all the time.

    On the other hand, the pro-science side (including me) has been very consistent in saying that every GMO needs to be evaluated on its own basis. I have never heard anyone take the position that all GMOs are safe and helpful. So really, you are just making that up.

    Glyphosate, which has nothing to do with this story but anyway, is an extremely safe herbicide. There is preliminary evidence that it may be linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma in farm workers exposed to large amounts of it. That is what earned it a “probable carcinogen” label (along with caffeine and hundreds of other similar compounds you probably don’t worry about). The research otherwise finds absolutely no correlation between glyphosate use and any cancer.

    This was not below the radar, as you suggest. In fact I did a deep dive into the literature. You are simply being fed misleading propaganda, and you didn’t look at the research, or even at balanced reporting. Here is a good primer for you: https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/07/24/why-do-regulators-conclude-glyphosate-safe-while-iarc-almost-alone-claims-it-could-cause-cancer/

  4. BBBlueon 07 Feb 2017 at 11:54 am

    Techno-fixes like GM wheat suck up public funding that could make a real difference if it was spent on systemic solutions like waste reduction and poverty eradication.

    Considering Greenie arguments against monoculture, you would think they would see the wisdom in a multifaceted approach to world hunger and consider all rational options…if they were rational.

    Wheat stem rust has reared its ugly head again, and GE could be a much more efficient and economical way producing resistant varieties than the old-school, expensive Borlaug-era approach. Greenie opposition is making GE far more expensive than it needs to be and therefore, it is their ideology that is sucking up public funds in irresponsible, unfair and unsustainable ways.

  5. SteveAon 07 Feb 2017 at 12:02 pm

    In the article Steve links to there’s a broken link to a ‘Sense About Science’ piece on glyphosate.

    You can read it here: http://archive.senseaboutscience.org/pages/glyphosate-whats-the-lowdown.html

  6. Rogue Medicon 07 Feb 2017 at 12:07 pm

    Lane Simonian,

    But the reverse assertion can be made in the direction of GMO advocates; they feel any modification is beneficial and without harm whether this has been proven or not.

    I missed the part where Dr. Novella claimed that research is unnecessary and we should just start producing this GMO wheat.

    There were plenty of appropriate caveats in the article.

    The article is about studying wheat in the hope that it will lead to improved ability to feed the expected increase in population.

    Malthus was right about population increasing to the point of starvation, but he did not anticipate the influence of technology/science to improve our ability to feed far more people than could be fed with organic food grown without the assistance of science or technology. This would have limited the world population to lower numbers than we currently support.

    Your assertions are the only bits of hyperbole I see here.

    .

  7. Lane Simonianon 07 Feb 2017 at 12:10 pm

    Dear Steven Novella,

    Maybe I am alone in advocating a case by case evaluation of every GMO. I know many people who oppose GMO’s solely on philosophical grounds (i.e don’t tamper with nature), but I would be surprised if that represented a totality. All I can say for certain is that it is at least a totality minus one (me).

    Could you indicate which genetic modifications you feel may be unsafe and why? I have never seen any advocate of GMO indicate that any GMO is potentially harmful.

    Glyphosate may not be dangerous alone; various adjuvants (especially polyethoxylated tallow amines) may be carcinogens (non-Hodkins lyphoma and multiple myeloma). The preliminary evidence that you provided regarding farm workers was helpful.

  8. Steven Novellaon 07 Feb 2017 at 12:39 pm

    Lane – if a GMO is approved for use then by definition it has already passed studies to show that it is safe. I am not aware of any approved GMOs that were later found to be unsafe. If you know of any, do tell.

    I am aware of some GMOs that were found to not be effective, like the wheat with aphid repellent -didn’t work.

    Most failed GMOs we don’t hear about because they die in the lab and are never widely publicized. So unless you follow the literature you won’t hear about them.

  9. Lane Simonianon 07 Feb 2017 at 12:49 pm

    All that I would say for now, is that GMOs that have allowed for increased use of Roundup on certain crops will have to be followed closely. In particular are there any increases in inflammatory intestinal diseases, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and multiple myeloma due to increased use of Roundup on soy and corn crops. I cannot eat wheat at all and I can marginally tolerate corn and soy–maybe it is just coincidental; maybe it is not.

  10. BBBlueon 07 Feb 2017 at 3:39 pm

    Lane- Let’s keep the focus on GE, shall we? One notable instance where GE led to potentially adverse consequeneces was Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. However, that never became an issue because the consequences were easily anticipated and the product was never released, unlike what happens with conventional breeding where consequences are not easily anticipated. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199603143341103#t=article

    This is why the NAS Science-Based Look at GE Crops said that all new varieties should be screened and that GE methods produced no greater risk than conventional plant breeding methods. In fact, one could argue that GE methods are more safe than conventional because outcomes are more predictable, and will become even more so as the precision of GE techniques continue to improve.

  11. bendon 07 Feb 2017 at 5:11 pm

    I read that some scientists were working to transfer the ricin gene from castor beans to navy beans. Monsatan is going to market them to everyone. Because they get more money from dead customers. Look it up. It’s an alternative fact. GM NO!

  12. hardnoseon 07 Feb 2017 at 6:19 pm

    “Unless populations start leveling off, we will need to continue to increase food production from there.”

    The same person who is so concerned about global warming has no worries about over-population.

  13. hardnoseon 07 Feb 2017 at 6:42 pm

    “Glyphosate may have been tested multiple times as a possible carcinogen but various adjuvants in Roundup have not.”

    Roundup was tested by Seralini and he found it is NOT safe. SN will tell you his research was found to be garbage, but that is NOT true.

  14. hardnoseon 07 Feb 2017 at 6:44 pm

    And if this GMO wheat gets approved (and it will be, as long as Monsanto scientists find that rats can survive at least 3 days while eating it), you know it will be in everything, and of course it won’t be labeled.

  15. Willyon 07 Feb 2017 at 6:44 pm

    “The same person who is so concerned about global warming has no worries about over-population.”

    Jesus, hardnose, just plain JESUS!! From just what orifice did you pull out the idea that Dr. Novella does care about overpopulation????????????? Do you ever pause to think or are you so young that you’ve not learned much yet? Open mouth–engage brain later. You could do the world some good as regards overpopulation–and the spread of bad genes–by not engaging in any breeding yourself.

  16. hardnoseon 07 Feb 2017 at 7:49 pm

    He never expresses any concern about over-population. The excuse for why we absolutely must have GMOs is to feed the infinitely out of control growing population.

    SN worries about global warming because the mainstream scientific consensus tells us we should. He thinks GMOs are safe because the mainstream scientific consensus (often funded by Monsanto) assures us they are.

    But we don’t see mainstream science warning about over-population, so SN never mentions it.

  17. Rogue Medicon 07 Feb 2017 at 8:11 pm

    hardnose,

    He thinks GMOs are safe because the mainstream scientific consensus (often funded by Monsanto) assures us they are.

    Praise Monsanto for giving us NASA.

    Maybe not that often funded by Monsanto?

    I was just rereading The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter. It is amazing how little has changed.

    Those anti-smallpox vaccine people had to find a new shtick, but so much stays the same in paranoia. Only the goalposts seem to move.

    .

  18. bachfiendon 07 Feb 2017 at 8:19 pm

    Hardnose,

    But we don’t see mainstream science warning about over-population, so SN (Steve Novella) never mentions it’.

    A quick Google search revealed a skeptic blog thread by Steve Novella titled ‘the Overpopulation Hubbub’ dated September 28, 2009.

    ‘Roundup was tested by Seralini and he found it NOT safe’. If you’re an inbred rat with a genetic propensity to developing cancer, and you’re deliberately fed Roundup in your diet.

    The precautionary principle, regardless of whether Seralini’s study is valid or not, would be to ban food for sale if they contain residues of Roundup, preventing preharvest applications for the farmers’ convenience – to dry crops in wetter areas for example.

  19. Haggardon 07 Feb 2017 at 10:39 pm

    A part of the article I am curious about is the percentages of increased yields.

    I think that I am missing something, or it wasn’t published. What are the increased yields in relation to? I’m especially interested in growing conditions for their control.

    Those yields are impressive. There is no doubt. However, it’s critical to keep in mind the conditions that these crops are grown in, which are likely as optimal as you can possibly get.

    When this is grown in real world conditions, I think they will observe a dramatic decline in the rates. Averaging 15% in real world conditions? I guess we’ll see, but I think it’s prudent to be highly skeptical of that. There are so many factors to consider. Soil conditions, sunlight conditions, water conditions, farmer education, and many, many other geographic and social conditions. They all have enormous impact on things like yield. Of course, field trials will shed some light on this, but even then, they are often grown in near ideal conditions at that stage as well. The proof of this one is a long, long way off. So I’ll restrain my excitement.

    But, one bone I do have to pick is comments like this: “The scientists report that in order to meet the needs of a growing population we will need to increase our food production by 40% in the next 20 years, and by 70% by 2050.” Just let those numbers sink in for awhile. Really appreciate them, especially in relation to this article about increasing yields and what we might reasonably expect from the best case scenario.

    Other researches say that in order to meet the needs of a growing population, we will need to reduce our food waste (probably by 40% or whatever number gets us there), for example. And this is where people get frustrated. Right now, it’s hard work mainly due to a lack of interest. Food waste is a solvable problem. Sadly, we already have much of what needs to be in place, but we choose to use it in a highly inefficient manner for reasons that are very shortsighted. Despite it being such an obvious problem, it gets shockingly little attention. Talk to some researchers in the field and it is really an eye opener to realize how little things like food waste, or any waste, are appreciated. Or even funded. Despite there even being interesting science behind it, I guess waste is still seen as “waste” and is not very sexy. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it is far easier to tackle this issue than it is to somehow manage to increase yields by the numbers we’re projected to need. GMO is not going to be the fix. I think at best, it will be a minor contribution.

    And “The best option is to increase yield from existing land. If we could increase yields enough we could even theoretically reduce our need for land.” is mainly an extension on the previous statement. It’s not even close to the best option, if you want to use logic as a guide. The best option, as unsexy as it is, really is the simple things like reducing food waste and increasing education among farmers.

    I know the knee jerk reaction is something like, well dumb-ass, if it’s so fucking easy, why isn’t it being done? If you talk to the experts who research waste, you will quickly see that there is very little government support for tackling these types of issues. Perhaps it is not as exciting to you because your focus is so firmly on “hard science”. I just think that maybe you don’t have a great appreciation for “social science”, which arguably, will have a much greater impact. And mobilizing populations to support initiatives like this is not that hard, if the need and will is there. Right now, we still don’t (in the western world) have to worry much about in food supply. It is still bountiful and relatively cheap. But, when people in the western world start seeing the pinch, that is when they will clue in and mobilize around things like food waste. It’s sad that it always seems to come to that, but I guess that’s how it is. Pinch people’s wallets and suddenly they’re buying eco-light bulbs and switching to electric cars and solar panels. When food prices start to dramatically rise because of shortage, guess what will happen?

    Anyway, there is a reason why you keep hearing the critique of food waste. It’s real, highly relevant to our times, and will absolutely see the biggest gain in food yield when it is managed appropriately. I don’t agree with the connection of food waste and being anti-GMO. That is stupid. But I can see why it will come out in an article like this where scientists say things like “we have to increase our food production by X amount or we’re gonna fucking starve!” Yeah… sure. Actually, we don’t have to do that. We just have to be more responsible.

    You give a caveat to food waste, but I think you don’t give it much respect. You appear to think that a GMO crop will solve the problem of food shortage, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense given the current evidence.

  20. Steven Novellaon 08 Feb 2017 at 8:05 am

    Everything HN says is wrong. That is actually a useful heuristic – perhaps not technically true, but a fairly good first approximation of reality.

    I have written about overpopulation. Also, I have outlined in detail how I choose topics, and it is not based solely on how important the topic is to humanity. I discuss topics that I feel I can use to teach and discuss science and critical thinking. There isn’t a lot of pseudoscience or science denial in the news about overpopulation. If you think something would make a good topic of discussion here, there is a topic suggestion thread right there at the top of the page.

    Your strawmanning is epic.

    Further, Monsanto has nothing to do with this GM wheat. Invoking Monsanto on this issue is a sure sign of an ignorant anti-GMO troll. Also, fully half of research on GMOs are independent of the industry.

    Finally, Seralini has not respect in the scientific community because his research is crap. He even demonstrated that homeopathy can prevent Roundup toxicity. There is no more certain sign of a pseudoscientist.

    So, you dismiss thousands of independent studies, and cherry pick the absolutely worst studies out there.

  21. MaryMon 08 Feb 2017 at 10:36 am

    If GMO-ness isn’t the issue for Liz and the other 29 organizations objecting to this–it’s poverty–why don’t they spend their time working on poverty instead? Wouldn’t that be more useful than shouting at scientists?

  22. SteveAon 08 Feb 2017 at 10:43 am

    MaryM: “Why don’t they spend their time working on poverty instead? Wouldn’t that be more useful than shouting at scientists?”

    I think that:

    1) Shouting is easier.

    and

    2) They don’t really care about other people’s problems. Their position is essentially a selfish one.

  23. MaryMon 08 Feb 2017 at 11:47 am

    @SteveA: I wish someone would ask them how much of their fundraising ends up going to poverty vs how much goes to shouting at scientists. Nobody every asks them that, curiously.

  24. ryanodineon 08 Feb 2017 at 6:33 pm

    Instead of GMO wheat, starving people just need to eat cake from organic, non-gluten, locally-sourced ingredients.

  25. Haggardon 08 Feb 2017 at 8:38 pm

    A part of the article I am curious about is the percentages of increased yields.

    I think that I am missing something, or it wasn’t published. What are the increased yields in relation to? I’m especially interested in growing conditions for their control.

    Those yields are impressive. There is no doubt. However, it’s critical to keep in mind the conditions that these crops are grown in, which are likely as optimal as you can possibly get.

    When this is grown in real world conditions, I think they will observe a dramatic decline in the rates. Averaging 15% in real world conditions? I guess we’ll see, but I think it’s prudent to be highly skeptical of that. There are so many factors to consider. Soil conditions, sunlight conditions, water conditions, farmer education, and many, many other geographic and social conditions. They all have enormous impact on things like yield. Of course, field trials will shed some light on this, but even then, they are often grown in near ideal conditions at that stage as well. The proof of this one is a long, long way off. So I’ll restrain my excitement.

    But, one bone I do have to pick is comments like this: “The scientists report that in order to meet the needs of a growing population we will need to increase our food production by 40% in the next 20 years, and by 70% by 2050.” Just let those numbers sink in for awhile. Really appreciate them, especially in relation to this article about increasing yields and what we might reasonably expect from the best case scenario.

    Other researches say that in order to meet the needs of a growing population, we will need to reduce our food waste (probably by 40% or whatever number gets us there), for example. And this is where people get frustrated. Right now, it’s hard work mainly due to a lack of interest. Food waste is a solvable problem. Sadly, we already have much of what needs to be in place, but we choose to use it in a highly inefficient manner for reasons that are very shortsighted. Despite it being such an obvious problem, it gets shockingly little attention. Talk to some researchers in the field and it is really an eye opener to realize how little things like food waste, or any waste, are appreciated. Or even funded. Despite there even being interesting science behind it, I guess waste is still seen as “waste” and is not very sexy. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it is far easier to tackle this issue than it is to somehow manage to increase yields by the numbers we’re projected to need. GMO is not going to be the fix. I think at best, it will be a minor contribution.

    And “The best option is to increase yield from existing land. If we could increase yields enough we could even theoretically reduce our need for land.” is mainly an extension on the previous statement. It’s not even close to the best option, if you want to use logic as a guide. The best option, as unsexy as it is, really is the simple things like reducing food waste and increasing education among farmers.

    I know the knee jerk reaction is something like, well dumb-ass, if it’s so easy, why isn’t it being done? If you talk to the experts who research waste, you will quickly see that there is very little government support for tackling these types of issues.

    Perhaps it is not as exciting to you because your focus is so firmly on “hard science”. I just think that maybe you don’t have a great appreciation for “social science”, which arguably, will have a much greater impact.

    And mobilizing populations to support initiatives like this is not that hard, if the need and will is there. Right now, we still don’t (in the western world) have to worry much about in food supply. It is still bountiful and relatively cheap. But, when people in the western world start seeing the pinch, that is when they will clue in and mobilize around things like food waste. It’s sad that it always seems to come to that, but I guess that’s how it is. Pinch people’s wallets and suddenly they’re buying eco-light bulbs and switching to electric cars and solar panels. When food prices start to dramatically rise because of shortage, guess what will happen?

    Anyway, there is a reason why you keep hearing the critique of food waste. It’s real, highly relevant to our times, and will absolutely see the biggest gain in food yield when it is managed appropriately. I don’t agree with the connection of food waste and being anti-GMO. That is stupid. But I can see why it will come out in an article like this where scientists say things like “we have to increase our food production by X amount or we’re gonna starve!” Yeah… sure. Actually, we don’t have to do that. We just have to be more responsible.

    You give a caveat to food waste, but I think you don’t give it much respect. You appear to think that a GMO crop will solve the problem of food shortage, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense given the current evidence.

  26. zorrobanditoon 08 Feb 2017 at 8:58 pm

    There isn’t any new land. All the land on the planet that can be farmed at all productively is being farmed already. So increasing the yield from the land we do have, and reducing waste, is about all we can do to meet increasing demand.

    If the population curve does not bend down fast enough it will be too little, too late. But it is certainly praiseworthy to try. Opposing the introduction of this new grain is senseless, given the circumstances. The alleged dangers are mostly non-existent; the alternative is probably mass famine, which I assume most sensible people would oppose.

    Food might not end up being the limiting factor. Disease might cut our numbers down before we run out of food; there might be any number of environmental catastrophes; or we might blow ourselves up, though I am optimistic that the worst danger of that has passed. And solving the food problem might not be as simple as everyone hopes. Waste could be reduced; new grains may increase production; but the underlying fertility of the soil, under current agricultural practice, is diminishing something like 4% a year on average.

    Many if not most life forms follow a boom-and-bust cycle. One year there are lots of ground squirrels; next year the coyotes or food shortages cut them back. We are no exception. We have seen population booms before (though none this big); we have seen population crashes too. We should do the best we can with the invariably limited resources we can gather, and hope that the increase in population levels off for less catastrophic reasons.

  27. BBBlueon 08 Feb 2017 at 9:56 pm

    Haggard- The stated increase in potential yield is theoretical. This project could turn out to be a dead end or lead to significant real world yield increases; we won’t know until research is allowed to answer those questions.

    I have never heard a pro-GE person say we should not decrease food waste, but I have heard plenty of anti-GE folks argue that no resources should be spent on biotech crop improvement. Why can’t we do both?

    Think of research in biotechnology like NASA. Some people argue that we should not spend a dime of public money on space technology and exploration, but then we would forego a great opportunity to develop some truly revolutionary technologies and information. With biotech crop improvement, revolutionary technologies are not beyond our horizon, they are in sight here and now, and considering the expense and inefficiency of existing conventional crop improvement methods, if allowed to develop without irrational obstacles, it is likely that biotechnology will free up far more resources for other uses than it consumes.

  28. BillyJoe7on 08 Feb 2017 at 10:45 pm

    Haggard,

    If you want to criticise inaction on waste do so, but don’t waste your time criticising an article on a new GM wheat aimed at increasing yield because it was not about decreasing waste.

  29. Haggardon 09 Feb 2017 at 12:09 am

    BillyJoe7- Perhaps you should re-read the original post on this blog. It mentions what I am talking about. Several times.

    It is perfectly reasonable to criticize it. You apparently just don’t like the criticism, which isn’t very logical.

    Statements like “The scientists report that in order to meet the needs of a growing population we will need to increase our food production by 40% in the next 20 years, and by 70% by 2050. Unless populations start leveling off, we will need to continue to increase food production from there.” can be reasonably critiqued with supporting statements that mention reducing waste because we don’t, in fact, have to increase food production by the amounts that the “scientists” cite.

    “We are already close to full use of available arable land.” Again, all the more reason to reduce food waste.

    Also, the original post said “The best option is to increase yield from existing land.” Clearly, this is not the best option when we have glaring issues like food waste to deal with. Again, it is a valid criticism. To simply attack someone with a comment like “don’t waste your time” says quite a lot about how you approach subject matters. It is an extremely narrow minded position that you take, to be blunt.

    It is just that you perhaps did not see the connection. Now you do. Look into it and be critical, if that is how you really approach topics. Food waste might be a very interesting subject for you. It seems that you do not have much of an understanding of the scale.

    The original post also mentioned that food waste is a common critique against GMO crops. While I pointed out that it is not logical or fair to link an anti-GMO stance with food waste, it was originally brought up in the article. Now, for context, you can see why food waste will likely be linked with an article about increasing crop yield while at the same time having a comment from a scientist saying that we need to increase food production by X amounts. It is a misinformed statement to make. To be fair to these scientists, perhaps they are not aware of the scale of food waste. Few people are, because it is not popular, but it is one of our biggest problems in the food supply. There are other, far more effective options than increasing crop yield to address food supply issues. And since food supply is central to this article (we are talking about an edible grain here), then the valid critique is to mention food waste.

    I very much encourage you to look into the issue. It is not a waste of time, and if you cannot see the relevance, then you are not being objective. And that’s something worth paying attention to.

  30. SteveAon 09 Feb 2017 at 5:02 am

    When I read articles about reducing food waste, most of them end up talking about using food waste better (i.e. rather than sending it to landfill).

    In our household I reckon about a third of the fresh produce we buy gets discarded, but what I don’t end up composting myself goes to the council food caddy (many, perhaps most, councils in the UK now have a separate waste food collection). This waste either goes to large-scale composting or is fed to anaerobic digesters to produce fuel. However, these initiatives, though worthwhile do nothing to solve the original problem.

    In the past, a lot of UK food waste was fed to pigs, but this has been linked to disease transmission from imported animal scraps being added to feed without proper processing to kill pathogens. Reliably safe food waste from large-scale industrial food processing can still go to pig feed, but taking it from more random sources such as restaurants and food shops is now banned in the EU. Unfortunately, most of our pigs are now fed on field-grown cereals. Finding a way to sanitise all food waste for use in pig farming would help free up land. Apparently they manage do it in Japan.

    The only other things I can think of are:

    – Increasing food prices to the point where waste is no longer tolerable.

    – Irradiating fresh produce to improve shelf life.

    – The use of GM crops that have an improved shelf life.

    Is there anything else? We can talk about ‘educating’ the public, but while food is so cheap, how much of this will stick?

  31. BillyJoe7on 09 Feb 2017 at 5:13 am

    Haggard,

    “It is not a waste of time [to talk about waste reduction]”

    I didn’t say talking about reducing waste is a waste of time. I said this article is not about reducing waste. It is about increasing yield and, in particular, whether the new GM wheat will help to increase yield. The title of this article is: “New GM Wheat Trials Set”. I am sure Steven Novella is capable of writing an article on reducing waste. But this is not that article.

    “We are already close to full use of available arable land…The best option is to increase yield from existing land”

    There, I have put your quote in context.
    And, of course the article mentions food waste (and other factors), but it brings us back to the actual topic of this article, which is about increasing yield:

    “Of course we need to address poverty, food distribution, and food waste as serious problems, but these problems are not going away anytime soon. This argument also completely ignores the point that improved yield reduces pressure on land use and farming inputs”.

    That is how I read it at least.

  32. Steven Novellaon 09 Feb 2017 at 7:08 am

    Haggard – You are missing the point. Improving yield is an advantage regardless of any other factors. Even if we could eliminate food waste (we can’t) and produced more food that we needed, increasing yield could allow more fields to go fallow, which is a very good thing. There is no downside to improving yields.

    Saying we don’t have to improve yields because we can reduce waste is a logical fallacy. These are not mutually exclusive.

    The numbers for increased food production can include reduced waste as well. Again – not mutually exclusive. The fact that I specifically stated that we should address food waste as a serious issue should have been enough to address your criticism.

    Further – reducing food waste is not easy. It is not as if there is low hanging fruit we are ignoring. Food spoils. We have to balance reducing food waste with not increasing food-borne illness. How much can we realistically expect to gain here? Maybe future technology will be better able to make use of every calorie. The high estimate of food loss is 40%. That means if we magically reduced food waste to 0% that would cover us for about 20 years. It only delays the problem, then we still need to increase production.

    But we are not going to reduce loss to 0%. Much of the loss is during production and post-harvest handling and storage. Farmers already have a huge incentive to reduce their own loss, because that is profit. It’s reasonable to assume they are already close to optimum here.

    Distribution is probably the biggest potential for improvement, in streamlining processes used. Again, big stores already have a financial incentive to reduce their own waste.

    And then consumers waste food because it is difficult to estimate exactly how much food you need to buy and make, and food spoils. It is also difficult to change the behavior of hundreds of millions of people.

    I don’t see the potential to reduce waste significantly. Optimistically maybe we can reduce it to 30% or so. It’s just not going to solve the problem.

  33. RCon 09 Feb 2017 at 10:43 am

    There’s another factor that SN doesn’t mention – which is intentional waste. In the US, we grow and harvest (and subsidize) significantly more than we need so that there will still be enough in case of drought/disease/etc. Part of that 40% is (millions?) of tons of food being immediately composted/turned into silage, because it was never needed in the first place.

    Food waste isn’t a big problem – its hundreds of little problems that need hundreds of solutions. Increasing output is a more productive use of funds.

  34. bendon 09 Feb 2017 at 11:44 am

    Food waste is one area where the “natural food” crowd is most hypocritical. What, if not reducing waste, is mechanically separated chicken. “But don’t you dare feed my precious child that ‘pink slime,’ even if it is a perfectly safe and nutritious source of protein.” Innate potatoes reduce food waste. Why isn’t Greenpeace putting their seal of approval on Simplot products? Really, we should be looking at the issue of food waste like economists look at investment. Any opportunity cost due to inaction or dumb action is a loss. Not taking advantage of technology that improves yield or prevents pest and disease is food waste.

  35. SteveAon 09 Feb 2017 at 12:01 pm

    bend

    I agree. When the Native Americans ‘use every part of the buffalo’, that’s wonderful. When McDonalds do it to a chicken carcass, it’s a crime against nature.

    The trouble with a lot of the wholefood/organic crowd is that they manage to grow a couple of tomatoes in a balcony pot, then assume they’ve learned everything important about farming.

  36. BBBlueon 09 Feb 2017 at 12:55 pm

    It is not uncommon for growers of fresh produce to discard 30-40% of their crop for quality reasons before it ever reaches market, and many of those reasons are purely cosmetic. A few retailers are experimenting with “ugly fruit” programs, but so far, without a lot of success. If they can afford it, people tend to buy what pleases their eye.

    The ability to independently manipulate characteristics like ripening rate, size potential, insect and disease resistance, color, shape, etc., could pay huge dividends in terms improved packouts (marketable yield from same inputs). While there may be a few out there guilty of hyperbole in singing the praises of GE with respect to increased yield as a solution to world hunger, they are probably not biotech research scientists, I suspect they are more likely to be misguided editors or journalists writing click-bait headlines.

    Nevertheless, the quest for greater yield potential has always been a component of crop improvement efforts, only the technologies to achieve it have changed. Should we tell materials scientists, “Enough already, we have enough materials.” Of course not, nor should we allow ideologues to obstruct sound crop improvement science based on irrational claims.

  37. Lukas Xavieron 09 Feb 2017 at 7:53 pm

    He never expresses any concern about over-population.

    I might argue that since the problems Steve mentioned (e.g. damage to ecosystems from the need for more farmland) are directly caused by overpopulation (more people need more food), it sorta counts as expressing concern about it.

    After all, the subject of this post isn’t overpopulation. It’s GMO wheat. As such, it’s only natural that mention of overpopulation would be restricted to ways in which it relates to the actual subject.

    If you have a problem with this, you might explain why you haven’t expressed any concern about nuclear proliferation in your past few posts. Perhaps you’re secretly hoping the world will burn in a fiery holocaust. Or perhaps leaping to that conclusion would be silly and irresponsible. What do you think?

  38. Johnnyon 10 Feb 2017 at 7:32 pm

    “Of course we need to address poverty, food distribution, and food waste as serious problems, but these problems are not going away anytime soon.”

    At least for poverty, that might not be entirely true, depending on how you classify poverty. Global poverty has decreased significantly during the latest decades. Westerners often think that global poverty and the general state of the world is much worse than it actually is.

    You can watch this short video (2 minutes, and with English subtitles) of recently deceased Hans Rosling (who was awarded the annual prize “Enlightener of the Year” by the Swedish Skeptics Association in 2006) discussing this in Danish TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYnpJGaMiXo

  39. Sylakon 10 Feb 2017 at 10:35 pm

    So, hardnose solution is to kill people, or let them die. Yeah good idea. First, if we use all tools ( technology,. Science politics etc) we can to do more and produce more with less, overpopulation won’t be as much a problem, and second, the overpopulation problem is over played by pseudo ecologist and misanthropic people. I know, I used to be one. You should watch the “in a nutshell” video about population growth, they do a good job at explaining the reality behind that ( it might level off not too far in the future) . Let freaking people live, can we do that? And yes Séralini research was crap, Yelling it is not a swindler ( 100% funded by anti GMO group AND the biggest grocery store in France that use fear mongering as marketing tools) won’t change that every real experts in the field roll their eyes. I personally know 3 biologist ( one is my girlfriend friend and some of our best friends, 3 awesome women, and one got her phd and she’s a medical doctor), none is working for Monsanto, all public job, and they debunked easily his study that don’t even respect basic research protocols ( even me I could after learning basic science, that’s how bad a “researcher” he is) . Hardnose, you also know why they test 90 days on rat? Because it roughly equivalent to like 10 years in humans. Guess what, rats have a crazy more faster metabolism than humans. But of course you don’t care about that. it’s real, and all you want os to keep you eyes closed and your head in your bucket, so you don’t have to realize you are wrong. That a uncomfortable thing, yes I know.

    Anyway, normally I wouldn’t feed trolls, but hearing someone wishing ( even subtlety, which HN is not) that some people should die because they can’t accept reality, ir just make me so mad.

    Topic now: If this work and can be combined with fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere, man that would be awesome. Making more with less. It also make me maf that my fellow ecologists are so blinded about biotech ( and nuclear also), when they talk about “greenc technology, they never include anything in agriculture, they want super science in cars, phones, electric grids, but Ag? Aaaah now lets go back to 1880! Excellent article Steve as usual.

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