Thursday, February 23, 2017

Comments on Rules for Gene-Editing Technology

From the literature:

“We found that the improvement of a plant variety through the acquisition of a new desired trait, using either mutagenesis or transgenesis, may cause stress and thus lead to an altered expression of untargeted genes. In all of the cases studied, the observed alteration was more extensive in mutagenized than in transgenic plants” - (Batista, et al; 2008)

So what are the implications of this? Currently the FDA is accepting public comments related to genome editing in new plant varieties used for foods.

Gene editing represents an opportunity to move forward with advanced technologies to sustainably feed the planet without the same regulatory hurdles that make development costs for transgenic plant varieties (aka GMO) up to 20x greater than conventionally bred plants(Conko and Miller, 2003). Similar to organically certified crop varieties that use chemical and radiological methods to create in-genome changes, gene edited technologies operate within genome, vs. across species.  (one popular example of gene editing includes the CRISPR-Cas9 system).  Unlike mutagenic approaches used in organically approved plant breeding systems,  these in-genome tweaks are planned, controlled, and designed to bring about very specific outcomes. Gene edited plants are not ‘gmo’ in the manner that the term has traditionally been used (or misused) by regulatory proponents, and in fact are just as natural as their organically approved counterparts in terms of their development. However they stand out in very important and positive ways.

The article above (see also Baudo  et al; 2006) does not specifically address gene edited plants, while it does indicate that genomic disruptions are greater in mutagenic plants vs standard transgenic plants. (one common argument for increased regulation related to transgenic crops has been based on the concern that the introduction of new genes can have unknown consequences and genomic disruptions are one way of characterizing this*) With greater disruptions, one might favor increased regulatory scrutiny similar to the existing framework in place for transgenics. However, we do not have a framework in place for mutagenically improved crop varieties that have been safely used for decades and approved by the organic food industry as well as consumers.  Because both mutagenic and gene edited technologies represent similar in-genome approaches to crop improvement, this in fact argues against additional regulation for both mutagenic and gene edited plants, or it begs for the possibility of a revision of the existing regulatory framework for transgenics.

The benefits of gene editing technology offer far greater option value* than either conventional and organic mutagenically improved or even traditional ‘GMO’ or transgenic crops while the risks to human health and the environment are equally minimal. To impose new costly regulations on gene-edited plants would be to create huge hurdles for the development of next generation green technologies in food and fiber production in the United States and have significant environmental, public, and personal health implications for the rest of the world.


Batista R, Saibo N, Lourenço T, Oliveira MM. Microarray analyses reveal that
plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene
insertion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Mar 4;105(9):3640-5. doi:
10.1073/pnas.0707881105. PubMed PMID: 18303117; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2265136

Baudo MM, Lyons R, Powers S, Pastori GM, Edwards KJ, Holdsworth MJ, Shewry PR. (2006). Transgenesis has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding. Plant Biotechnol J. 2006 Jul;4(4):369-80

Henry Miller and Gregory Conko. Bootleggers and Biotechs. Regulation. Summer 2003

 *this post has been modified to better clarify some posited arguments some have made for regulation of genetically modifed crop plants as well as to express the potential option value that gene editing might provide in addition to previously existing technologies. Special thanks to input via twitter from @CosmicHominid for constructive input

Transforming a Company for a New Kind of Agriculture (WillAg closing market report w/Robb Fraley))

Last week there was an interesting interview on the closing market report with Robb Fraley, Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto. The discussion related to possible future spending on R&D related to the potential merger with Bayer. Some interesting comparisons were made between R&D spending by Monsanto vs other research intensive industries like Samsung and Apple and pharma.  The takeaway is that the combined company would have more resources to invest, and based on what is spent on R&D in other sectors there is a lot of untapped opportunity here that the combined companies could take advantage of.

I would love to know how much is spent on regulatory compliance given the extreme overkill in this area related to biotech making transgenic varieties cost as much as 20X more to develop vs conventional technologies. I'd like to know direct costs and indirect compliance costs in terms of lost revenue due to delays in approvals etc. One would wonder how much better these companies could serve the industry if those resources could be re-allocated to more productive R&D?

But to me the interesting question related to what kind of people are they looking to hire going forward? The answer included people working in or studying data science, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians. This is not a surprise to anyone following the industry, but its indicative of the kind of company that Monsanto has transformed and is transforming into. The phrase that stuck with me most was "breeding gene by gene and farming plant by plant".

The future direction, merger or not, is the integration of agronomy, bioechemistry, molecular biology, and data science to develop new products, solutions, and services that serve producers, consumers, and the planet as a whole. This is what I have written about before in terms of the convergence of big ag, genomics, and big data.

And this means more choices and opportunities going forward:

"the disruptions of new technology, big data and genomics (applications like FieldScripts, ACRES, MyJohnDeere or the new concept Kinze planters that switch hybrids on the go etc.) will require the market to continue to offer a range of choices in seeds and genetics to tailor to each producer's circumstances of time and place. There are numerous margins that growers look at when optimizing their seed choices and it will require a number of firms and seed choices to meet these needs as the industry's focus moves from the farm and field level to the data gathered by the row foot with each pass over the field." - From Big Data + Genomics ≠ Your Grandparent's Monoculture


Henry Miller and Gregory Conko. 'Bootleggers and Biotechs.' Regulation. Summer 2003 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Biotech Story: As told in the scientific literature

Has biotechnology lived up to its promises? What were the ‘promises’ of biotechnology? Does genetic engineering present food safety risks greater than conventional plant breeding methods? These are controversial questions. There is one version of the story that indicates that biotechnology has not lived up to so called promises expressed by critics and creates risks to the environment and consumers. However the story that we find in the scientific literature tells us that biotechnology in crop production and applications in the livestock industry is just as safe or safer than traditional technologies, promotes biodiversity, reduces the levels and toxicity of herbicides and pesticides used in row crop production, improves food safety, and reduces our carbon footprint. This annotated review of key scientific papers from sources including The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science, Nature Biotechnology, Crop Science, Ecological Economics, and others tells this story.
Matt Bogard. "The biotech story: as told in the scientific literature" (2017)
Available at: 

See also: Modern Sustainable Agriculture (video)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The progressive way to deny climate change

Julie Kelly makes an interesting point with this question:

"who are the real deniers: those who are reasonably skeptical about climate change or those who give lots of lip service to it while living a lifestyle totally inimical to every tenet of the climate change creed?"

A different but related argument is given by Steve Horwitz:

“It is perfectly possible to accept the science of global warming but reject the policies most often put forward to combat it.  One can think humans are causing the planet to warm but logically and humanely conclude that we should do nothing about it. In fact, those who think they can go directly from science to policy are, as it turns out, engaged in denial” 

This is not that different from what I have argued before. To me this is the fundamental problem of climate change:

Without being able to accurately predict future damages, or discount them to evaluate them in today's dollars, it's hard to value future climate related gains that today's sacrifices (driving less or smaller or hybrid cars, switching from coal fired electricity to natural gas or solar, changing our diet or other lifestyle changes, lost income or returns from capital investment etc.) will buy. In other words it's hard to know to what extent it makes any sense to do anything about climate change.

Bringing these perspectives together, some of the most ardent proponents of doing something about climate change based on 'science' are in denial about real world workable solutions:

Unfortunately, many of the same people so vocal about adopting policies based on the so called science of climate change (taxes, permits, dietary restrictions, regulations etc.) are also many of the same people that would restrict us (via GMO labeling laws, bans, strict limitations on hormone and antibiotic use, demonization of LFTB via derogatory terms like 'pink slime' etc.) from doing the very things that would have the greatest positive impact on our climate and environment. 

So it seems we have some people that want to as Steve says, jump straight from the science to policy and skip over asking the hard questions or making a critical case for it. At the same time they are they are ignoring real world workable solutions, which are in fact based on solid science, if not actually trying to block them. For progressives of this flavor its not about science, its about invoking the name and prestige of science to override other people's choices while being in denial about rigorous evidence to support their position.

See also:
Doing Nothing: A science based policy prescription for climate change
Facts, Alternative Facts, Evidence, and Marching for Science 
Science + Economics = Sound Policy