Gene Drive: Biotech at Warp Speed

In a few short years, the technology that led to the creation of GMO plants — and a worldwide disruption of agricultural systems — may seem as quaint as a pale plastic Macintosh, or as ponderous as a magnetic-tape UNIVAC.

“Gene drive,” a new laboratory technique emerging on biotech’s far frontier, is changing the way scientists understand and engineer inheritance. Its ability to transform life’s code at the cellular level has been compared to a viral infection or nuclear chain reaction. If all works according to theory, the changes to an organism targeted for gene-drive modification would be rapid, permanent and alarmingly unpredictable. Advocates for the technology promise weeds that lower defenses to profitable herbicides, mosquitoes that avoid family picnics like the plague, and even young rodents unwilling to carry on the family business of dispensing a plague. Critics imagine a dystopia of genetic terrorism, virulent pandemics and immense ecological devastation.

“Geneticists have tried using genome-editing tools to build custom gene drives, but the process was laborious and expensive,” Tim De Chant and Eleanor Nelsen explain in PBS’ popular NOVA documentary series. “With the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 as a genome editing tool in 2012, though, that barrier evaporated. CRISPR is an ancient bacterial immune system which identifies the DNA of invading viruses and sends in an endonuclease, like Cas9, to chew it up. Researchers quickly realized that Cas9 could easily be reprogrammed to recognize nearly any sequence of DNA. …

“Gene drives and Cas9 are each powerful on their own, but together they could significantly change biology. CRISRP-Cas9 allows researchers to edit genomes with unprecedented speed, and gene drives allow engineered genes to cheat the system, even if the altered gene weakens the organism. Simply by being coupled to a gene drive, an engineered gene can race throughout a population before it is weeded out.”

Britain’s Independent newspaper notes that gene drive technology will allow laboratory-designed mutations “to be amplified within a breeding population of insects or other animals without any further intervention once the trait has been initially introduced. This is the case even if the trait is non-beneficial to the organism. Laboratory experiments on fruit flies have shown that a modified gene introduced into one individual fly can take just a few generations to ‘infect’ practically every other fly in the breeding population, in defiance of the normal rules of genetics which dictate a far slower spread.”

“Researchers once spent months, even years, attempting to rewrite an organism’s DNA. Now they spend days,” observe the PBS authors. “With gene drives — so named because they drive a gene through a population — researchers just have to slip a new gene into a drive system and let nature take care of the rest. Subsequent generations of whatever species we choose to modify — frogs, weeds, mosquitoes — will have more and more individuals with that gene until, eventually, it’s everywhere.”

One prominent gene drive researcher captured the promise and peril of this brave new world. Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Kevin Esvelt told the Independent: “If we’re right about this, it’s a powerful advance that could make the world a much better place. But only if we use it wisely.”

Discover more here:

Recipe: Blackberry Lemon Sprouted Spelt Muffins

We have been taking advantage of the abundance of delicious, juicy blackberries that are in season and making these muffins on a regular basis. Loaded with blackberries and lemon, these muffins will have you jumping out of bed every morning!



2 1/2 cups One Degree Organics Sprouted Spelt Flour

2 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/3 cup coconut oil, melted

3/4 cup maple syrup

1 cup almond milk

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest

1 lemon, juiced

2 cups organic blackberries



1/3 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons One Degree Organics Sprouted Spelt Flour

1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest

2 tablespoons vegan butter



Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two muffin tins with paper liners or lightly grease.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.

In a separate bowl combine the coconut oil, maple syrup, almond milk, vanilla and lemon zest and juice.

Pour the liquid mixture to the dry and whisk until combined. Gently fold in the blackberries.

Divide the batter evenly in the prepared muffin tins. Sprinkle with the crumble topping and bake for 30-40 minutes, until golden brown, and fully cooked through.

Eat warm, straight from the oven.


Showtime for Transparency

“Sincerity — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made,” an entertainer once quipped between puffs on a cigar. Many businesses have the same view of transparency. If they can generate the right buzzwords, and blow enough smoke, the consumer will end up believing in their candor and accountability.

In today’s technological age, that trick looks more like a vaudevillian relic than a plan for success, argues The Hartman Group in Forbes magazine this month. “Even prior to the influence of scares about melamine and pet food or E. coli contamination of various food and beverage products, mainstream consumers were already becoming much more inquisitive about how and where products are sourced and about the integrity of the company’s business practices and values,” writes the consulting firm.

“What today’s consumers want to know extends well beyond a food or beverage product’s characteristics, and the quantity of information does not make a company transparent. Instead, the relevance, timing, reliability, accuracy and usefulness of the information does. Almost seven in ten consumers (68 percent) are familiar with the term ‘transparency’ as it relates to a company’s business practices. In this digital era, transparency is not only the new norm, it’s expected. …

“The desire for transparency is created in a technological culture where feedback moves fast, access to information is easy and open source is expected. Transparency is accountability (‘don’t hide, don’t trick’) and adaptability (‘make everyone feel welcome’). …

“Today’s consumers … want to know ‘what’s inside’ before they buy. And what they want to know extends well beyond product and packaging characteristics. Quality information, then, lies at the heart of what motivates purchase.”

The researchers at The Hartman Group define transparency as a core value that 1) “Speaks to consumer desire for connectedness, authenticity and control in an increasingly complex and competitive consumer landscape” 2) “Reveals product quality [consumer benefits] and company integrity [how it does business]” 3) “Creates a stickiness that transforms a transactional exchange into a brand relationship” and 4) “Enables consumers to make intentional choices based on easy access to relevant and truthful information about products, ingredients, sourcing and business practices.”

The revolutionary aspect of the transparency movement is suggested in another key finding from The Hartman Group’s marketplace surveys: “We have seen that a great many consumers believe their purchase decisions are at least as important as their votes in effecting social change, and in many instances, they feel their purchasing power has a greater impact on society than their voting.”

Discover more here:

Five Fallacies of GMOs

Is the GMO industry too big to fail? Or when it does fail, will it take us down with it?

So wonder authors Mark Spitznagel and Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a column published this week in The New York Times. The two investment analysts find disturbing parallels between the worldwide financial crisis of 2007 and the blind faith many place in biotech mills that are generating genetically modified organisms at a furious pace, with synthetic products that range from corn and soy to mosquitoes and pigs.

“The financial system nearly collapsed, but it was only money,” argue the authors. “We now find ourselves facing nearly the same five fallacies for our caution against the growth in popularity of GMOs. First, there has been a tendency to label anyone who dislikes GMOs as anti-science — and put them in the anti-antibiotics, antivaccine, even Luddite category. …

“Second, we are told that a modified tomato is not different from a naturally occurring tomato. That is wrong: The statistical mechanism by which a tomato was built by nature is bottom-up, by tinkering in small steps (as with the restaurant business, distinct from contagion-prone banks). In nature, errors stay confined and, critically, isolated.

“Third, the technological salvation argument we faced in finance is also present with GMOs, which are intended to ‘save children by providing them with vitamin-enriched rice.’ The argument’s flaw is obvious: In a complex system, we do not know the causal chain, and it is better to solve a problem by the simplest method, and one that is unlikely to cause a bigger problem.

“Fourth, by leading to monoculture — which is the same in finance, where all risks became systemic — GMOs threaten more than they can potentially help. Ireland’s population was decimated by the effect of monoculture during the potato famine. Just consider that the same can happen at a planetary scale.

“Fifth, and what is most worrisome, is that the risk of GMOs are more severe than those of finance. They can lead to complex chains of unpredictable changes in the ecosystem, while the methods of risk management with GMOs — unlike finance, where some effort was made — are not even primitive.

“The GMO experiment, carried out in real time and with our entire food and ecological system as its laboratory, is perhaps the greatest case of human hubris ever. It creates yet another systemic, ‘too big too fail’ enterprise — but one for which no bailouts will be possible when it fails.”

Read more here:

Science Proves Benefit of Cover Crops

Cover crops are an important resource for many veganic farmers, who use the protective layers to build nutrients in the soil in place of synthetic or animal-based fertilizers. A new study demonstrates that cover crops enrich soil in many ways, including providing a healthier environment for the microbes that are so essential to growing nutritious plant varieties.

Sasha Kravchenko is a professor at Michigan State University who used X-ray technology to examine the effects of cover crops on soil. Her study, as the abstract describes it, focused on “two contrasting agricultural systems, namely a corn–soybean–wheat rotation with conventional chemical inputs and without chemical inputs but with legume cover crops.”

According to Susan Fisk of the Soil Science Society of America, which published the results: “The soil in one system, referred to as conventional in the study, grew crops in summers. Then the soil was barren from the time of main crop harvest through planting the following spring. The soil in the other system, the cover crop system, had live vegetation year-round. …

“Several surprising observations sprang from the study. First, the aggregates of the two agricultural systems developed different pore characteristics. The aggregates from soil in the cover crop system were more complex and varied in their interior pore structures with more large and medium-sized pores. The conventional system had more small pores spread more evenly through the entire aggregate.”

Fisk noted, “Soil is a living, dynamic substance, and the microbial life within it is crucial to providing plant life with the food they need to grow. The microbes can be bacteria or fungi, but both need space — the pores — for a good living environment.”

Dr. Kravchenko told the author: “These systems have been in place since 1989, so there was plenty of time for the differences between the two systems to develop. Most of the changes in soil characteristics do not happen overnight.”

Review the full study here:

Groups Sting BCP for Pollinator Week

A pair of consumer nonprofits celebrated National Pollinator Week this year by delivering a powerful left hook to the pesticide industry.

Floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Biological Diversity announced they would be suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its April approval of bicyclopyrone (BCP), a potent toxin that is likely to endanger a wide range of plants, pollinators and other wildlife.

“The agency’s own risk assessment found BCP alone exceeds levels of concern for mammals and hundreds of plants protected under the Endangered Species Act, potentially affecting nearly half of all threatened and endangered species in the United States,” the groups contend in a news release.

“[Our] lawsuit was launched … just weeks after the White House Pollinator Task Force issued a long-awaited report that included a finding that habitat loss is a leading cause of pollinator declines. Herbicides are a major cause of habitat destruction for pollinators. For example, glyphosate, also known as Roundup, destroys milkweed, the monarch butterfly’s only host plant, and is a leading cause of the recent 90 percent decline in monarch butterflies. The EPA acknowledged that BCP may cause acute and chronic effects to bees, stating in its ecological risk assessment that, ‘[s]ince bicyclopyrone is a systemic herbicide, residues may be transported to pollen and/or nectar and represent a route of exposure for bees through both contact and ingestion.’”

The agency’s failure to consult with stakeholders will be a key element of the legal assault. “For decades the EPA has approved hundreds of pesticides that can harm endangered wildlife without consulting expert wildlife agencies as required by the Endangered Species Act,” the nonprofits argue.

“To help the EPA break through years of gridlock, in 2013 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report outlining a process for the agency to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that pesticide regulation adequately protects imperiled wildlife. In response to those recommendations, the EPA announced several reforms designed to better protect endangered species. EPA failed to consult with the expert agencies on the impacts of BCP or Acuron to endangered species.”

Discover more here:

Recipe: Sprouted Spelt Thin Crust Pizza

With celebrating Canada Day and the 4th of July there are plenty of summer parties to have! We love having make-your-own-pizza parties with an abundance of toppings so everyone gets to make their pizza their way. This 100% whole grain spelt crust is easy to make and perfect for those summer evenings enjoying friends and family.



3 1/4 cups lukewarm water

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon yeast

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons raw cane sugar

7 1/2 cups One Degree Organics Sprouted Spelt Flour

Cornmeal, for dusting



Tomato sauce


Summer squash

Fresh basil

Olive oil


In a large bowl, whisk together the Sprouted Spelt Flour, yeast, salt and sugar. Add in the lukewarm water and gently mix until combined. Lightly cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 2 hours.

The dough can be used right away or stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Take an 8-ounce piece of dough and form it into a ball. Roll out into an 1/8-inch thick round or oblong shape.

Gently transfer the pizza dough to a cornmeal-dusted pizza pan or parchment-lined baking sheet. Spread the pizza with a sauce of your choice and toppings and drizzle with olive oil.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the pizza around if it is browning on one side more than the other.

Let the pizza cool slightly before slicing.


Organic Farmers Do Well by Doing Good

For many organic farmers, adopting safe and sustainable methods of cultivation has long been a choice centered on conscience and principle. Now a new study indicates that doing the right thing has also become financially rewarding for these organic pioneers.

The study, published earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that organic growers who charged a premium for their harvests were 22 to 35 percent more profitable than their conventionally-farming neighbors.

Organic agriculture, writes Chelsea Harvey in the Washington Post, “is often touted by environmentalists as a more sustainable alternative to conventional farming. And now, new research shows that it’s financially sustainable for farmers, too. … These bigger profits are good news for conventional farmers who are thinking of switching to organic agriculture. According to [study co-author David] Crowder, making the transition from conventional to organic is a long and financially risky process. There’s a ‘period of time where you have to document that the land was managed according to these principles of organic farming,’ Crowder said. ‘During that time, you’re not allowed to sell your products as organic, so you don’t get those price premiums.’ …

“A global expansion in organic agriculture could be good news for the environment in many ways. ‘There’s been other meta-analyses on organic agriculture that have shown that it enhances biodiversity of ecosystems and also helps promote the quality of nutrient cycling,’ Crowder says. ‘And it’s also been shown, of course, to have lower pesticide residues.’”

Author Harvey sees the higher profits for organic farmers as an example of market forces dovetailing with the needs of the planet and the interests of political elites: “With a growing body of evidence pointing to the environmental damage inflicted by large-scale agriculture — from rainforest clearing and other forms of habitat destruction, to high carbon outputs and the ecological impacts of pesticides — exploring more eco-friendly farming systems is a high priority for environmentalists and policymakers alike.”

Discover more here:

Escape of the Dreaded, Breaded GMO Salmon

For nature’s salmon, fulfillment, purpose and new life await upstream. For the prototype genetically-modified salmon, a whole new world awaits at the end of a different journey — a trip down the laboratory drain.

GMO salmon are currently being developed in what are described as land-based tanks in Canada and Panama. Faced with the prospect of this man-made fish becoming a pan-seared fillet in the near future, a group of scientists began studying what might happen to the global ecosystem if one of these life forms escaped into the wild. The results of their research suggest that the effects are unlikely to be pleasant.

GMO salmon is a 20-year project of AquaBounty Technologies to transform nature’s imperfect version of a salmon into a more profitable fish that grows faster, hungers for more, shows aggression, and contains an altered balance of nutrients. By splicing genes from the Chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout into the Atlantic salmon’s DNA, the company’s genetic designers ensure that each fish has a growth hormone stuck on high volume.

“According to the FDA’s environmental assessment of AquaBounty’s fish, [a] combination of screens, filters and netting block access to drains and pipes that might provide means of escape,” reports National Public Radio. “What’s more, AquaBounty says its salmon will be all-female and sterile, so if they do escape, they will fail to reproduce.

“But critics remain unswayed by such assurances. Environmentalists question just how dependable the company’s containment methods are. … There are also questions about the process used to render the fish sterile. It carries a very small rate of failure, but if a large number of fish escaped at once, a few fertile fish could introduce the transgenes into the wild population.”

The study of GMO salmon escape risks appears in this month’s issue of the journal BioScience. One of the authors, Fredrik Sundström of the Uppsala University in Sweden, told NPR: “We are expecting very little risk at the moment, because there are very few facilities that actually hold these fish. I think what’s a worry to some people is if it becomes commercialized and you find these kind of fish in millions of hatcheries around the world.”

NPR notes: “If that were to happen, he says, the concern is that growers might become lax about containment methods, and then it would just be a matter of time before a fish — or a few — got out. Sundström says scientists can’t predict with absolute certainty what would happen in the event of an escape. The real world is just too complicated.”

Discover more here:

Food Safety: A Legal Perspective

If you’re a food manufacturer, Bill Marler is someone you don’t want to see at your door. He’s not a consumer watchdog or government inspector, but rather something far more dangerous: a trial lawyer specializing in food safety cases.

Writing in Forbes this month, he reviews some of the deadliest recent examples of food contamination, beginning with the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993:

“Shortly after the Jack in the Box case, we represented most of the seriously affected victims of an outbreak of E. coli traced to Odwalla apple juice. Odwalla was a San Francisco-based processor that marketed ‘fresh’ juice with no preservatives. At least 70 people fell ill, and a 16-month-old Colorado girl died, from drinking unpasteurized juice that was believed to have become contaminated by apples that fell off trees and into cow manure before being harvested. The case had a nationwide impact, demonstrating that foodborne illness can be contracted from fresh produce as well as meats. …

“Vegetables came next. In 2002, more than 50 high school cheerleaders and dancers contracted E. coli from prepackaged lettuce served at a dance camp in Washington. We represented several victims, including a Spokane teenager who had to endure dialysis treatments because her kidneys were severely damaged by the E. coli. … The following year, at least 660 people were sickened, and five died, from hepatitis A contracted from Mexican green onions served at a Chi-Chi’s chain Mexican restaurant near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The FDA attributed the outbreak to poor sanitation, leading to the largest single-source epidemic of hepatitis A in U.S. history. …

“In 2006, a nationwide E. coli epidemic was attributed to prepackaged, fresh-cut spinach packed for Dole Foods by Natural Selection Foods LLC, a California company that specialized in processing specialty lettuces, primarily spinach and spring mix. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and FDA confirmed 205 illnesses in 26 states — including a frightening 31 with [hemolytic uremic syndrome] — 104 hospitalizations, and five deaths associated with the outbreak. Victims of the E. coli outbreak were identified in 26 states. E. coli was isolated on cattle ranches adjacent to the spinach fields.

“It goes on and on. We have handled cases of foodborne illness traced to packaged almonds, homemade apple cider, alfalfa sprouts, fruit salad, packaged breakfast cereal, sushi, orange juice, tomatoes, cantaloupe, gelatin desserts, and most recently, cantaloupe and ice cream. The microorganisms involved in these outbreaks range from Listeria monocytogenes, to E. coli O157:H7, to numerous strains of Salmonella, and include microbial toxins and viruses such as Clostridium botulinum, Cryptosporidium, Vibrio, hepatitis A, and Norwalk virus, to name a few. …

“So why is this happening now? First, it may be true that industrial food production fosters an environment friendlier to these bugs. Enormous feedlots, centralized processing plants, long-distance shipping, and even air conditioning systems may create new opportunities for pathogens to spread. And in any case, big business makes the system less tolerant of error. If a small town processing plant has an outbreak, a few people might be infected — perhaps too few to be detected. But today, with extended and increasingly efficient supply chains, a mistake in a peanut butter plant in Georgia or meat packing plant in Colorado can quickly sicken thousands of people around the country or even on a global scale.”

Read more here: