GM Cassava to help Africa's poor.

Discussion in 'Biology & Genetics' started by Skeptical, Feb 20, 2011.

  1. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    There is much more than one gene from a sweet potato added. And "cassava" is not one thing - there are lots of varieties, local adaptations, etc.
    That is almost certainly at least somewhat false. The conditions for growth, for example, now involve the nutritional requirements of the extra chemistry of the added genetics. Plus, the exact variety of cassava chosen by the engineers enforces genetic uniformity, including whatever idiosyncratic growth factors are characteristic of it.
    Maybe, maybe not. Gene expression is complicated stuff - are you sure no pest or blight or infestation of sweet potatoes has adapted to some feature of the whole plant expression of the inserted genetics? Because if one has, there is the likelihood that the cassava has no co-evolved defenses, except by chance. How about the possibility that the inserted genetics interfere with existing defenses against cassava disease of some kind? These things take years to show up, sometimes.
    That's not established. How are they paying for whatever new or different methods and resources these superior cassava plants require?
    So far, you have dealt with none of the short and partial list of issues raised in just this little thread. I understand a preference for dealing with imaginary people and imaginary arguments, especially if mere insult suffices, but here things are a bit different.

    You have mentioned the importance of having a large and diverse stock of crop varieties on hand - that's what saved the day when the fungus hit the US corn crop back in the 70s, the lack of that killed a million Irish in the 1840s, etc. What steps are being taken to ensure that cassava is protected in that respect?
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  3. Skeptical Registered Senior Member


    Just a clarification on the terminator gene. It was originally designed by the US Dept. of Forestry - not any corporation - and was designed to alleviate fears of 'contamination' of foreign genes by cross pollination into non GM stocks. It is kinda weird. It was designed to placate the anti-GM mob who then used it as a metaphorical monster of corporate America. The corporates did not want to use it, but got blamed for it.

    This is not the first GM crop to assist poor farmers. Bt cotton is a GM crop that is now used by over a million poor cotton growers in places like India and China. It makes them more money, since they have lower insecticide costs, and higher yields. It reduces harm to the health of those poor farmers by permitting them to spray toxic chemicals a lot less. Since they tend to use back-pack sprayers and no protective suits, due to their poverty, this means a lot fewer poisoned by pesticides.


    I am sorry, but you appear to have a very poor idea of how a genetic modification affects a crop. A single genetic change has limited impact on the crop. It has the effect that is designed, and unintended effects are very limited. Even then, those unintended effects, if any, are pretty much always picked up by the research teams.

    Only one point you have made makes any sense, and that is the harm caused by limited genetic variation. However, there is absolutely no reason why this modification cannot be spread through any number of cassava variants. Most of the time, this can be done by cross fertilisation and selection. I suspect that is the researchers' intention. After all, these guys are paid by a charitable organisation and profit is not a motive. Human welfare is the motive.
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  5. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    I am sorry, but that's ridiculous.

    In the first place, we aren't talking about the direct lab effects on the manipulated plant - we are talking about the rest of the world, the people, diseases, insects, etc.

    In the second place, even if that were true by some miracle (and we all know it isn't), you couldn't possibly know it. We don't have the experience with this stuff that is necessary to come to such determinations. No one can possibly know that stuff about genetic manipulations, at this stage of the game.
    A common one, for a main branch of the road to hell.

    I don't believe they have carried out any of those intentions, yet. But we agree they should. Then let's see them hold off on spreading the stuff around, until after they have made the necessary safeguard crosses and provisions for genetic diversity - including the provision of large acreages of unmodified plants. In fact, let's make illegal the failure to safeguard the standard agricultural practices and arrangements, prior to swamping local farming with stuff like this, by international law.
    Is that what actually happens, in real life, or is it more like this: cotton has failed admits
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  7. ULTRA Realistically Surreal Registered Senior Member

    I'm gonna take a different tack from my usual opposition, with one proviso. In this case, it's only a spud gene that's been added. I see this differently than putting transphylum genes in. The scope for something going wrong in the future is less because it's a plant to plant transposition rather than a fungi to animal one for example.

    My proviso is that there are safeguards against creating an artificially high population. If something goes wrong in future years like a harvest failiure, what guarantee is there to ease the increased suffering? This is always going to have to be a consideration in such cases.

    When playing with the natural sustainability of a region, you have to consider the possibility that for one reason or another they may have to revert back to the natural varieties. This is as yet an unproven science, and it would be negligent to boost the population without due regard.
  8. Skeptical Registered Senior Member

    To iceaura

    Re GM cotton.

    The development of resistance was predicted well in advance, and will reduce the benefit of Bt cotton. However, so far, the benefits still way exceed the loss of benefit.

    And in most parts of the world, there is still no resistance, meaning that a million poor cotton farmers are still reaping those benefits.

    Resistance to Bt has been seen before. Including in the USA. Bt sprays have been used by organic farmers against insect attack for at least 3 decades. The first incident of developed resistance was from organic sprays against the diamondback moth in America. That was at least 15 years ago.

    I agree this will eventually mean that this form of GM cotton will gradually lose its benefit. However, for now, and for some time to come, it is a major boon to those who desperately need it.
  9. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Good point. Very closely related plant, close imitation of "normal" breeding possiblities, reduces the range of potential problems.

    But the rest of the considerations - especially the potential for genetic uniformity across a major part of a population's food supply - remains.

    And in point of practice, they didn't just insert a gene, it's more complicated than that - there are the little transport and insertion and activation code chains, the scattering of placement of the thing, etc.
    It will also reduce the benefit of Bt as a pest control, in the entire area. And the mechanism of resistance will - if the past is a guide - prove adaptable to resisting other pesticides. More of them, and more toxic ones, at greater expense, lie in the future.

    The local farmer's dependence on Monsanto will not be reduced, however.
    And you recognize no difference between spot spraying of Bt, with its many flexible management options and ability to react to such circumstances, and genetic engineering of entire crops?

    Compare the timeline, affected species, and affected region of resistance in India vs US, say. We can still use Bt on a wide variety of crops and against a wide variety of pests, as needed, in the US - after generations of use of the stuff.

    Genetic engineering of pesticide expression is a textbook setup for breeding resistance in pests as quickly and universally as possible. It's how you would breed resistance in the field as rapidly and widely as possible, if you wanted to.
  10. Skeptical Registered Senior Member

    iceaura said

    "And you recognize no difference between spot spraying of Bt, with its many flexible management options and ability to react to such circumstances, and genetic engineering of entire crops? "

    I do indeed. Spraying is far worse in terms of its potential to induce resistance. The reason is that when you spray, you cannot manage a lethal dose on all target insects. With Bt cotton, any boll weavil that eats the cotton will get a lethal dose, and resistance can only occur in rare and unusual circumstances. With spraying, every time you do it, there will be a fringe effect, with significant numbers of target insects receiving less than lethal doses, thus accelerating resistance.

    This has been demonstrated time and time again, with many insect populations developing resistance to many insecticides when they are applied by spraying.
  11. chimpkin C'mon, get happy! Registered Senior Member

    Thanks for the correction-I was under the impression the terminator gene was being used to prevent farmers from reusing saved seeds I mistaken?

    Bt Cotton does appear to be a good thing.
    Similarly, golden rice.
    This cross between two root crops may be a good thing (incidentally, sweet potatoes are morning-glory relatives, and have that sort of flower and heart-shaped leaf. Quite pretty.)

    Again, genetic splicing is a powerful tech, I want to see it used cautiously...not rejected outright, OR used willy-nilly.

    (Scary thing I heard mention in a talk: Some pharma manufacturer was shut down by the FDA in CA...for growing transgenic corn out of doors, in a field...the corn was designed to produce SPERMICIDE

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    My suspicion is, with this cassava, since it still has some cyanide in it, that it will still kill off the root crop pests-doubtlessly what the cyanide's there for.

    The root may get gnawed on a bit, but will still poison the bugs.

    If I'm remembering correctly, the issue with sweet potato is the root pests, it's not a really needy plant; in fact, absent the root pests, it tends to go all over the place, from what I've read.
    I would suspect companion planting it with beans and/or groundnuts would help-it does most things...
  12. ULTRA Realistically Surreal Registered Senior Member

    What about interplanting methods? I used to plant marigolds to stave off whitefly etc inbetween rows of onions etc. It's not 100% effective, but then what is? Practically zero cost for a huge benefit. Maybe a more holistic approach would enefit people more and lessen the speed of resistence..
  13. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Your presumption that any weevil on a genetically engineered plant receives a lethal dose is in error. The plants vary, the weevils vary.

    Meanwhile, the selection pressure is severe - the reward for resistance is universal, dramatic, and applied to entire populations over wide regions.

    Note, for instance, that the actual pattern observed is the opposite of your prediction - that generations of spraying across two continents have created only rare and sporadic and localized resistance to Bt, while merely a couple of years of GM exposure has created regional scale resistance in major pests.
    The only part of that fable with the slightest connection to reality is the fact that the terminator gene was invented in a government lab. Most of this stuff is from government paid research, in various universities and agencies. The patents and profits go to the corporations, of course.
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2011
  14. Skeptical Registered Senior Member


    Bt cotton is not just a couple years old. It has been in full commercial use for over a decade. And in most of its area of use, no resistance has arisen. Pretty good record.

    Re terminator gene.
    The name was applied, of course, by the anti-GM movement. Nice horror and misleading stuff. It was designed, as I said, by the US government, and the intention was actually to remove one of the objections of the anti-GM movement by making it impossible for cross fertilisation to outside crops. Ironically, the activists forced its removal, and thus kept their objection alive.
  15. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    It bred resistance less than three years from its commercial introduction - by 2006, four years after introduction, the problem was famous:

    The economic and related problems were also becoming well known - lots of suicides by those poor farmers supposedly the beneficiaries, problems with black market seeds, and the like.
    That was never Monsanto's intention. When they withdrew it, they negotiated an agreement not to closely monitor and guard against gene spread, but to closely monitor and guard against farmers saving seeds.
  16. Skeptical Registered Senior Member


    Indian cotton farmer suicides go way back well before the introduction of GM cotton, and are due to financial woes, which the GM cotton helps to fix. The suicide rate was actually higher before GM cotton.

    I have seen the claim before that suicides were related to GM cotton - fallaceously - and by crackpot organisations. If you want to be credible in your claims, use references from universities, reputable research and government institutions, rather than nutters.

    Talking about Monsanto policy is a bit of a red herring. For a start, neither you or I actually know what Monsanto is doing, and secondly, it has nothing to do with whether specific GM crops are good or bad. That is like saying that if a pharmaceutical company is unethical, their products cannot save lives. Rather a silly claim.
  17. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    If we aren't talking about Monsanto and a couple of other similar outfits, we aren't talking about GM crops.

    That would be like talking about drug safety without considering any actual drugs, their manufacturers and marketers, or the circumstances of their use.

    What exactly would someone mean by saying that a hypothetical GM crop in imaginary circumstances under ideal testing and monitoring policies was safe?
  18. Skeptical Registered Senior Member


    Actually, this thread was about GM cassava which has absolutely nothing to do with Monsanto, or any other corporate, and is directed at a wonderful new technology to be given free to Africa's poor cassava farmers for free.
  19. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Monsanto is a major funder of the GM cassava research at the Danforth Center, and is heavily involved in the African trials.

    Even a casual Google will turn up many connections, like this:
    Monsanto has ulterior motives in all such major investments, and in this case one obvious one is to remove some serious political and economic barriers to its operations in Africa. This bids to overcome the persistent rumors that Monsanto is actually aiming for an ethanol source in African plantation agribusiness, and other such speculations, along with fear of control over African food production transferring to multinational corporations supplying specialized seed, chemicals, etc. Example:

    Meanwhile, there has been much progress with less money in the regular breeding of cassava, which with a little more funding seems to promise better than the GM stuff - which has proven fragile and unreliable so far, with mosaic virus resistance vanishing and other problems.
  20. Skeptical Registered Senior Member

    The original article is now available on the internet.

    So let me quote :

    "We hope to launch it in Africa in four to six years," says Fauquet. He adds that the project, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is purely humanitarian so the cassava would be offered free to poor farmers."

    So, iceaura, in spite of your attempt to sully this aid project with accusations of crass commercialism, it is not related to any corporate attempt to enrich itself.
  21. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Well, that might be true. The fact that it's coming out of one of Monsanto's major-supported research facilities, and a great ice breaker for Monsanto's more serious interests, might be complete coincidence, or one of those side benefits nobody intended.

    Meanwhile, it is five years from actual implementation. The stuff on the ground in the region of interest, furthered thereby, is not charity work even in claim.
  22. ULTRA Realistically Surreal Registered Senior Member

    Presumably the GM strain has been explained to the itinerant farmers to some degree, so they at least know it's a modified strain. The lessening of the cyanide content may not save many lives as the threat is already being dealt with as per tradition, but will undoubtedly result in less being released into the environment - which has got to be a good thing.
  23. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Poor farmers are unlikely to have much say in this. If the threads on this forum are any indication, "explaining" this stuff is fairly difficult anyway.

    The benefit of the cyanide-influencing GM alteration is not the reduction of cyanide so much as its conversion to protein. The reduction of cyanide is only an unmitigated good if no increased vulnerability to pests and disease results - the cyanide was serving a purpose, in the original plant.

    Other GM alterations directly involved in this cassava initiative include resistance to some common and damaging viruses, and a couple more.

    Btw, about cassava: it's not a native plant, in Africa.

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