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Alert! There’s a dangerous new viral outbreak: Zika conspiracy theories

First published in the Guardian, 4 February 2016

Most conspiracy theories are harmless, but rumours that GM mosquitoes may inadvertently have caused Brazil’s epidemic could potentially cost lives

Conspiracy theories are not unlike viruses. Mostly they circulate harmlessly on the fringes of society, but every now and then a mutation for increased transmissibility can lead to a mainstream outbreak with seriously damaging consequences in the real world.

It’s ironic then that a conspiracy theory about a real virus – the Zika epidemic currently affecting Brazil – is currently exhibiting just such break-out behaviour. The first outing I can find came via an obscure post on Reddit on 25 January. The location should have rung warning bells: it was in a sub-Reddit category titled “conspiracies”, sandwiched between 9/11 truther rants, and was written anonymously under the giveaway pseudonym “redditsucksatbanning”.

It alleged that the UK-based small company Oxitec, which began releasing genetically engineered male-sterile mosquitoes in 2011 in north-eastern Brazil in order to combat dengue disease, may have inadvertently caused the Zika outbreak. Oxitec’s approach involves releasing non-biting males – which have been genetically engineered to carry a gene that is lethal to their offspring – to mate with wild females.

For the full story, please see the Guardian.

Recent

Despite Zika virus emergency, proven control using GE mosquitos held up by Brazilian red tape

Aedes mosquito feeding

As the Zika virus epidemic in the Americas spirals into a full-scale international public health emergency, concerns have emerged that an effective solution to mosquito control using genetically engineered insects is being held up in Brazil due to the government’s failure to address a regulatory technicality about marketing the disease-control product. Only today the Brazilian health minister admitted that Brazil is “badly losing” the battle against Zika, with 220,000 troops drafted in to assist with emergency control measures.

The genetic engineering approach uses specially-bred males that seek out and mate with wild females and pass on an added gene that causes the offspring to die before reaching adulthood. Male mosquitoes do not bite, so there is no chance of increasing the pest population or disease transmission. It is also self-limiting because all the gene-spliced insects die, removing one of the traditional fears expressed about genetic engineering technology.

The technology was developed by the British firm Oxitec, which recently released results from a widespread release of its GE mosquitoes in the Brazilian city of Piracicaba, in Sao Paolo state, which successfully protected 5,000 people by dramatically reducing the population of biting mosquitoes. The mosquitoes targeted, Aedes aegypti, also spread dengue fever and chikungunya disease, neither of which have a vaccine or a cure yet available.

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Campbells is right – it’s time to introduce federal mandatory labeling

By Mark Lynas

Yesterday, in a hugely significant move, the food manufacturer Campbell Soup Company announced that it was supporting labeling of GMOs. Why is this hugely significant? Because Campbell is not just pledging to support the labeling of its own products, it is asking for the introduction of a mandatory federal labeling scheme. Thus the company has broken spectacularly with the long-standing Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) coalition opposing mandatory labeling across the United States.

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New research shows higher yield agriculture could lower UK farming emissions

Those concerned with climate change have for years promoted the benefits of energy efficiency. It makes obvious sense: the more electricity or transportation you can get per unit of energy, the less climate damage that would result. Everyone agrees that energy efficiency is an essential part of tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

But what about agricultural efficiency? Estimates vary, but greenhouse gas emissions from world farming are estimated to be as much as a quarter of the global total. Many of these sources are difficult to reach: how do you stop cattle belching or rice paddies from emitting methane? By comparison, switching coal-fired power to clean energy sources like wind or nuclear looks easy.

Agricultural emissions are also rising rapidly and apparently inexorably, driven by world population growth and changing diets (with higher meat consumption in developing countries), in particular. Increasing agricultural efficiency in terms of crop productivity per unit of land area and animal feed conversion to meat and dairy is a critical—though often overlooked—aspect of the overall picture.

For the full article, see the Cornell Alliance for Science blog.

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Philippines Supreme Court decision on GMOs is a dark day for science

First published in the Inquirer, Philippines, 15 December 2015

THE DECISION by the Philippines’ Supreme Court to uphold the ban on GMO Bt talong (eggplant) field trials is a huge disappointment to the scientific community and others pursuing the dream of sustainable and progressive agriculture in this country.

The Court upheld the Writ of Kalikasan originally demanded by Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups in 2012 and backed by the Court of Appeals in 2013. It also struck down the Department of Agriculture’s Administrative Order No. 8-2002, potentially throwing the Philippines’ GMO assessment and approvals system into unnecessary chaos.

The competence of the Court to adjudicate on matters of law is not in question. However, its judgment that the science on the question of Bt talong and GMOs in general is not settled appears highly skewed and very dependent on biased assessments submitted by Greenpeace and other groups with an overt antiscience agenda.

For the full story, visit the Inquirer website.

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