Helping farmers put real health on our plates

Farm animals antibiotics data raises post-Brexit trade fears

Source: The Guardian

Use of antibiotics on farms in US and Canada about five times the UK level, says report…

The overuse of antibiotics on farm animals is rife in some of the key countries with which the UK is hoping to strike a post-Brexit trade deal, a new report shows, raising fears that future deals will jeopardise public health and British farming.

The US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada all allow farmers to feed antibiotics routinely to livestock to make them grow faster, and in the US and Canada farm antibiotic use is about five times the level in the UK, data compiled by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics shows.

Meat produced in this way is cheaper, because the animals grow faster and can be kept in overcrowded conditions. But the meat is soon to be banned in the EU, for safety and public health reasons.

Read full article: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/01/farm-animals-antibiotics-data-raises-post-brexit-trade-fears

Landmark Agriculture Bill becomes law

Legislation that will unleash the potential of agriculture has passed into UK law as of 11 November.

The Agriculture Bill sets out how farmers and land managers in England will be rewarded in the future with public money for “public goods” – such as better air and water quality, thriving wildlife, soil health, or measures to reduce flooding and tackle the effects of climate change, under the Environmental Land Management scheme. These incentives will provide a powerful vehicle for achieving the goals of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and our commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Read full article: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-agriculture-bill-becomes-law

Genome editing (hopefully) simplified

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

In a recent article we outlined concerns about genome editing. Since then we have been asked to give a simple guide to what it actually is. Well…deep breath and fingers crossed, and referring to far more knowledgeable people than I am, here is a shot it.

First of all, should it be called genome editing or gene editing? Are they the same thing?

Yes, to most intents and purposes, they refer to the same things. The term “genome editing” is scientifically more correct but “gene editing” is more popularly used. Colleagues at Beyond GM use “genome editing” to describe the method or technology and “gene edited” (as in plants, animals etc) to describe the product or outcome but let’s not get too pedantic.

Ok, so what is it?

Whichever of these terms you use is a catch-all, umbrella name for is a suite of new genetic engineering techniques that can be, or might be or can potentially be, used in plant and animal breeding, in human medical and animal veterinary treatments. It can be used to create heritable traits or non-heritable changes.

Catch-all? What’s included?

The term covers an array of geeky sounding names which hide behind funny sounding acronyms and initials. These include ODM (oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis), ZFN (zinc finger nucleases), TALEN (transcription activator-like effector nucleases and, the one becoming the most widely used, CRISPR (clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats).

Other technological developments are being included in the “catch-all” – or possibly hidden under the umbrella – the whole time but for the sake of brevity, simplicity and sanity, the one I’ll focus on now, and the one you will have come across most often, is known as CRISPR-Cas.

Is it a GMO?

No and yes. No, because it is a technological process and a GMO (a genetically modified organism) is the end product of a technological process known as genetic engineering. But, yes, because genome editing (whichever method used) is a genetic engineering process and any resulting product is a GMO.

You’ve heard that it’s not genetic engineering

“Gene editing is not genetic engineering” has become a favoured line of its protagonists. I nearly wrote “lie” there because that line is tantamount to one, or is the result of misinformation and/or ignorance. All honest and transparent genetic engineers and researchers in the field, will own up to the fact that genome editing is a process of genetic engineering. In 2016, in a major ruling, the European Court of Justice concluded that it is and that it is within the scope of EU laws on genetic engineering and GMOs.

The technical stuff - can’t avoid the technical stuff any longer

Here’s bit of background which may be useful, thanks to colleague, Janet Cotter, for this. If you feel you are losing the will to live, scroll down and see if things are more digestible later.

  • Genetic material is a fundamental part of every organism and is made up of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid).

  • In plants, animals and humans, genetic material is stored mainly in the genome, which occurs in the nucleus of almost all cells.

  • The genome is made up of DNA. Part of this DNA makes up our genes, which produce proteins.

  • It’s these proteins that perform many of the functions of a cell. Other DNA in the genome regulates the genes, telling them when and where to switch on and off.

  • RNA is a different type of genetic material. It used to be thought of as just an intermediary between DNA and proteins, but recent discoveries have found it can perform a large number of functions, such as (alongside DNA) regulating genes, silencing genes and repairing DNA.

  • It’s largely these recent discoveries about the roles of RNA that have demonstrated the many reactions and interactions between elements that occur in cells to make them function, all of which are controlled by complex regulatory networks.

So, where is genome editing in all of this?

Genome editing is where a small cut is made in the DNA.

You may have heard the metaphor likening it to the “cut and paste” function on a computer/word processor. Well, it’s not really like that. That’s part of the pro-narrative that bedevils this issue.

You may have also heard the term “molecular scissors”, which is supposed to elicit images of home dress making, a sort of 21st century cut and sew pattern book. It’s not really like that either.

“Cut and paste”, “cut and edit” – what does it all mean?

Right, to quit the imagery; first of all, the “molecular scissors” are enzymes (which are small proteins also called nucleases). These enzymes create a cut in the DNA after they have been guided to the targeted point by an artificial protein or artificial stretch of RNA.

The mythical “paste” part of the edit then occurs either by organism’s own system repairing the cut or by inserting a template of artificial DNA or RNA which directs the repair.  

At this point transgenic i.e. “foreign” DNA, bacteria or virus’ can also be inserted.

In all three instances, changes occur to the gene during the repair process.

It is important to note, that this is entirely an “in vitro” (“within glass”) procedure – taking place in a test tube, culture dish, or elsewhere outside a living organism.

An important bit more about the edit repair

There is more information about this process and a nice diagram here.

Unfortunately, I have to introduce a new term here in order to explain what is becoming a policy and political issue in the debate to deregulate genome editing.

The term is site directed nucleases or SDN, and there are three of them called (relatively considerately) SDN 1,2 and 3. This term refers, firstly, to the process of directing the process (the enzyme cut) to a targeting point in the DNA and then to the type of repair mechanism mentioned above.

SDN1, is where the organism repairs itself; SDN2 is where an artificial DNA or RNA template is inserted; and SDN3 is where significant foreign genetic material is inserted with the template to create a transgenic organism.

Unintended and “off-target effects”

All genetic engineering causes disruption to the genome of the targeted organism, that’s the point of it after all. The claim for genome editing is that it is more precise and therefore less disruptive and damaging than earlier genetic engineering, and even than some types of traditional breeding.

However, the evidence is mounting of far more significant unintended and off-target effects than initially thought. Much of this evidence has come to light in medical research but has implications for food safety.

It is notable that genetic engineers and researchers working in the medical field are much less gung-ho, more cautious and more open to regulation of the technology than those in agriculture where the significance of these unintended and off-target effects is regarded as less important.

The GMO or like nature controversy

As I mentioned earlier the European Court of Justice ruled the genome editing is genetic engineering and falls within the scope of the GMO laws.

The essential points about the legal definition of GMOs and the process of producing them is that they and it would not occur (or normally occur) in nature. As we have seen, genome editing takes place entirely outside of natural, living organisms “in glass”. So how can anyone argue that genome editing is anything other than genetic engineering and outside of nature?

It is widely accepted that SDN3’s are GMOs and fall under the GMO regulation. But it is argued, that SDN1 does not involve any insertion of foreign genetic material, relies on the organism’s (plant or animal) own living repair process and results in something that might be found in natural or traditional breeding processes – or it is claimed, is “akin to nature” or “like nature”.

It is further argued, that some applications of SDN2 might also considered in the same way.

You might have a simple response to that claim.

Simplified but not simple

I have tried and I hope made a passable job of explaining this. The links in the article give far more information, as do the websites of Beyond GM and GMWatch. They are on the sceptical side of the debate but there are plenty of information sources on the pro-side. Regrettably, many of them are organisations and bodies who ought to be giving impartial information are amongst them.

We are clear that we believe this is a technology incompatible with a wholistic approach to health. But it might have a role in what some might perceive as “sustainable” farming and food. In which case, a more open, honest, transparent discussion of the technology would be helpful. I hope this attempt at explaining terminology has helped a bit.

Lawrence Woodward

Lawrence Woodward OBE

About the Author:  I’m the chairman of WHAg, founder and director of the Organic Research Centre (ORC), and regularly advise & speak about the principles and methods of organic agriculture. 

Trade and Agriculture Commission membership announced

Credit: Gov.uk

The Commission represents farmers, retailers and consumers in the UK, advising Government on trade policies to adopt to secure opportunities for UK farmers

Gov.uk Press release – 10 July 2020

Retailers, farming unions, consumer, hospitality and environmental bodies from across the UK have been named as members of the Government’s new Trade and Agriculture Commission.

It will be chaired by food safety expert Tim Smith, a former Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency and Tesco Group Technical Director.

The English, Scottish and Welsh branches of the National Farmers Union (NFU) are all represented, as are the Ulster Farmers Union and the Farmers’ Union of Wales. Other members include the British Retail Consortium, UK Hospitality, and the Food and Drink Federation.

It will report directly to International Trade Secretary Liz Truss.

Read more…… 

Microplastics distribution: The disease and pollution of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.

A particularly large collembolan (almost 2mm long) found in an oak forest in Ireland. Soil collembolan species are typically much smaller, paler, and might not have eyes. Together with microbes these animals help elements like nitrogen cycle between plants and soil.              Credit: Tancredi Caruso – Author

Microscopic animals are busy distributing microplastics throughout the world’s soil

King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands, lies 120km, about a day’s sail off the northernmost tip of Antarctica. It’s a rugged place – home to seals, penguins, a few scientific bases and not much else. Though the climate is mild compared to the mainland, temperatures still barely reach above freezing in the summer months and the island is almost entirely covered in ice. If microplastics can enter the food web here, they can probably do so almost anywhere on earth.

But this is exactly what colleagues and I discovered, when we searched for microplastics inside tiny creatures found on King George Island. Our results, now published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, show that microplastics are becoming an integral part of the soil food web.

Microplastics are pieces of plastics smaller than a few millimetres, and usually much smaller than that. These bits and pieces break off from the hundreds of millions of tons of plastics that are produced each year, and collectively form a huge amount of waste. And, as plastic degrades only very slowly, it has dramatically accumulated in the environment, everywhere from the deepest ocean floors to the North and South poles.

Read the full article: https://theconversation.com/microscopic-animals-are-busy-distributing-microplastics-throughout-the-worlds-soil-141353

 

Whole farm and organic systems are being ignored in post Brexit farm support plans

Organic farming

WHAg Window – giving a view from our perspective…..

The Agriculture Bill currently moving through Parliament is supposed to lead to a new farm support scheme based on the idea of paying “public money for public goods”.

This approach will replace the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy where farmers’ income is supported by the taxpayer – in some cases up to 60% of farm income.

Health though isn’t included and neither, as thing stand, are whole farm and organic systems – at least not in England.

Scotland and Wales get it but not England

Possibly farming for health is too difficult an idea for policy makers and officials to grasp at the moment, but the fact that organic farms are excellent at delivering “non-market goods and services” such as biodiversity, soil protection, flood protection, habitats and landscape is well established, so why is this not being recognised?

It’s not even a novel idea. Organic farming has benefited from its own distinct arrangements in all the farm support schemes, in all parts of the UK, since the middle of the 1990s. The organic option under the most recent scheme (Countryside Stewardship) is generally recognised as a success.

All the indications are that Scotland and Wales will have organic payment schemes which will encompass a whole farm approach but in England, Defra seems, at the moment, to be perversely set against the idea.

The whole farm system approach optimises public goods delivery

WHAg is a member of the English Organic Forum (EOF) which has been trying to get the government to include an organic and whole farm component in the scheme. To date, the efforts have been made behind the scenes but such is our mounting concern that we “went public” with a press release on the back of a National Trust report on the success of its in-house managed organic farm on the Wimpole Estate.

Commenting on the commercial and environmental success there, EOF chair, Christopher Stopes said that the story of Wimpole highlighted that it is the “whole system approach which brings production, ecology and environment together in a way which optimises food production alongside the delivery of public goods.”

At the present Defra’s Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), the chosen vehicle for the new payment scheme, is built on three tiers with tier 1 focussing on production balanced by “public goods” delivered through a menu of individual techniques which farmers can take up as they choose. These have limited relationships to each other and do not form any coherent whole.

Bypassing whole farm health

As Stopes says, “The whole farm system approach is critical and we are deeply concerned that this is being overlooked by Defra.”

At WHAg we are keenly aware that it is not just organic farmers who follow a whole health approach to farming. Farmers who use conventional inputs do this too. The key thing is to manage the farm as a coherent, whole system. Experience over the years has shown that this is the best way of achieving health.

Unless Defra changes tack, what has been called a “once in a generation chance” to change how we farm is going to bypass supporting whole farm health – at least in England.

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