Hello, Again! (Again!)

I know it’s been quiet all these past few weeks, across my blog, the podcast, and Discord. I promise it’s because I’ve been very, very productive. I seriously have about 10 posts that I’ve drafted about a raft of topics from student democracy and hackathons, to corporate storytelling and New Year’s resolutions.

It’s exams time here at Warwick, so I’ve been incredibly busy completing exercises and reading up in preparation for them. That being said, I’ve also been working on a few side projects (when do I not?) that I’m really excited about.

Firstly, another exciting episode of YASP is coming out today, featuring Yijun, where we talk Chinese traditional arts, origami and his unhealthy obsession with luxury paper.

Speaking of, you may have noticed that I’ve removed all the YASP content from my blog. All my old episodes of Yet Another Side Project are now on a dedicated site, at yasp.show. Catch all the new episodes at yasp.show/episodes!

Secondly. I’m also rebuilding a Chrome extension I made a few months ago in TypeScript, switching over some APIs documenting every step of the process. That’ll be up soon. (And I mean it this time!)

I’m also working on an npm package related to work stuff, so if anyone’s interested, I may post about how I forked that project and added TypeScript compatibility.

Finally, I’ve also picked up work on a manuscript for a book I started writing over a year ago. I can’t talk too much about it yet, but I’m really excited for it. I’ll definitely share more when I can!

To everyone who’s read this, I wish you well in your exams. I promise I’ll be back to regularly posting during the summer, documenting every escapade and Leo moment there is.

YASP: Episode 6

In the first episode of YASP recorded in-person, I ask Brendan to talk about how he would improve politics. We talk about local politics and a bit about socialism and discuss his less controversial interests, including art, music and video games.

Genetically Modified Food: An Opportunity or Risk?

This week’s blog post is my EPQ from college, reproduced verbatim (excluding any charts). Therefore, it isn’t the most academically rigorous or comprehensive content. Admittedly, it was my first foray into producing a piece which involved research, discussion and defending my ideas. If you notice any mistakes, please shoot me an email at leo@thiswebsiteisnotaffiliatedwith.warwick.university and I’ll attempt to correct them as quickly as possible.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature Review
  3. An Overview of DNA
  4. Feeding the World
  5. Boosting Yield at What Cost?
  6. People or Profit
  7. Safety First!
  8. Coping With a Changing Climate
  9. Opportunity or Risk?
  10. Bibliography

Introduction

Significant advances in genome editing have been made within the last few decades. Some believe the technology will address a myriad of seemingly unsolvable social issues, while others hold the view that editing genetic material should be avoided at all costs, due to the unknown, and potentially detrimental, ramifications.

Genetic editing is slated to have the biggest impact on the field of agriculture. This essay will examine the advantages, disadvantages and implications of genetic engineering in crop production to determine whether the technology should be viewed as an opportunity to alleviate food poverty, or a risk to be avoided.

To achieve this, the essay will first undertake a literature review, to examine the sources used for this project. The next section will provide an overview of DNA, considering the concept of genetic editing. After this, the use and value of genetic editing in agriculture will be discussed. Finally, a conclusion will evaluate the evidence and answer the question set out in the topic.

Literature Review

The debate surrounding the safety and efficacy of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is complex and heated. This essay presents some of the main arguments related to the use of the technology in crop production. The opinions in this essay were derived from a diverse range of sources which accurately reflected the viewpoints of both proponents and opponents of genetic editing. These sources included

  • Scholarly publications, including scientific journals, research articles and books,
  • Reports from government bodies, activist organisations and NGOs, including the UN and its agencies, Greenpeace and Food and Water Watch,
  • News articles and press releases written for the general public,
  • Articles from think tanks, such as the Cornell Alliance for Science,
  • Educational videos and reference websites about genetics and genetic editing

Most sources, such as those from government statistics organisations, could be viewed as trustworthy. However, it was important to understand that information presented by other sources could be subject to editorial bias. For example, the Cornell Alliance for Science is partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also invests heavily in corporations that develop genetically modified crops. This could mean the content they produce could have a pro-GMO slant.

The variety of sources which informed this essay enabled a robust debate on the opportunities presented by and risks associated with agricultural gene manipulation and will allow for a logical and evidence-based conclusion on the subject.

An Overview of DNA

All known living organisms are made up of microscopic cells. A cell’s activities are guided by instructions in stored their DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. Rather fittingly, the DNA in an organism’s cells can be compared to an instruction manual.

In cells, DNA is a spiralling, ladder- like double helix. The sides of the ladder are the backbone of the DNA, made up of a sugar called deoxyribose and a chemical known as phosphate. These can be likened to the spine and covers of the manual, which hold the all pages together. (What is DNA?, Facts, yourgenome.org, n.d.)

Attached to this backbone are a series of four chemical bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. These bases, represented by the letters A, C, G and T, function as the alphabet DNA uses to encode genetic information. Two bases pair across the two strands of the DNA ladder, forming a rung known as a base pair.

DNA is an extremely complex molecule, meaning it is organised into strands called chromosomes. These chromosomes can be likened to the sections in an instruction manual.

DNA works to code for an organism’s traits and to pass on genetic information. This is done through transcription and replication, discussed in the next section.

How is DNA Translated?

Collections of bases form genes. In DNA, genes are the basic unit of inheritance. All the genes in an organism are known as its genotype, while the physical traits of an organism are known as its phenotype. Through a process called DNA transcription, an organism’s cells translate its genotype into proteins that develop the organism’s phenotype. (What is a cell?, Facts, yourgenome.org, n.d.)

As a multicellular organism is made up of more than one type of cell, it needs different types of cells that express produce different proteins. This is achieved through a process called cell differentiation, where a cell is converted into a specific type that expresses specific genes. Most cells in any organism are differentiated, causing them to transcribe and translate a small portion of the genome. (What is a genome?, Facts, yourgenome.org, n.d.)

A portion of DNA called coding DNA determines the proteins a cell makes, meaning it dictates the traits organism expresses. The entire field of genetic editing is based on the premise that changing an organism’s coding genes changes the traits it expresses. The ways DNA can be changed are addressed in the following section.

How Can Humans Edit DNA?

Before gene editing technology came about, editing genomes involved using chemicals or radiation to induce mutations. However, scientists were unable to control which genes would mutate. This made it very difficult to develop useful traits.

Scientists later developed methods to more precisely edit genes, including transcription activator-like effector nucleases, or TALENs, and zinc-finger nucleases, or ZFNs. However, these methods are expensive, time consuming and often do not produce the intended changes. CRISPR-Cas9 changed this, revolutionising the way scientists edit genes. (Mushtaq et al., 2018)

Initially discovered in 1993 by Francisco Mojica, the CRISPR-Cas9 system is part of a bacteria’s immune system. Scientists in the United States successfully adapted the CRISPR-Cas9 system in 2013 to edit DNA. (CRISPR Timeline, Broad Institute, n.d.) This was achieved by training CRISPR arrays to bind with a part of an organism’s genome, with Cas9 then cutting the DNA in the right place. The cell, recognising its DNA was damaged, would then repair itself, while introducing or removing the genes specified by the researchers.

As CRISPR arrays are easy and cheap to design when compared to older methods of genetic editing, the practice has become more widespread and more accessible. (CRISPR Basics – Genetic Resources Core Facility, Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, n.d.) Although some concerns have been raised about its safety, CRISPR induces faster, more accurate gene edits. (Kosicki et al., 2018) It can reduce the time to introduce mutations in plants and bacteria from months, to a few weeks, giving scientists more time to study the changes made by gene edits and enabling mass production.

Feeding the World

Agriculture serves as the bedrock of modern civilization, with ancient farmers first sowing and harvesting crops and livestock between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. Over time, the domestication of plants made plant-based food more readily available. This led to humans eventually transitioning from nomadic hunter-gatherers to a more organised, agronomic species.

Humans have altered the genetic material of their crops since agriculture began, albeit unknowingly. For example, to improve their yields and increase the size of their harvests, farmers would breed together plants with larger, more plentiful fruit. This process, known as selective breeding, would produce offspring with traits from both parents. All the crops we cultivate today have been enhanced in some way or another by selective breeding. (Plant Breeding Impacts and Current Challenges Ancient Agriculture, n.d.)

Over the last century, global food output has grown significantly faster than the population. Half of this productivity can be attributed to better crop management, while half can be attributed to plant breeding techniques. (Plant Breeding Impacts and Current Challenges Ancient Agriculture, n.d.)

An ever-growing population threatens to undermine the food security the world has enjoyed for the last few decades. According to a 2009 report by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, “…projections show that feeding the world’s population of 9.1 billion… would require raising overall food production by some 70 percent between 2005 and 2050.” The report goes on to state that food production in developing countries would need to grow almost two-fold to cope with the increased population. (Global Agriculture Towards 2050, 2009)

In addition to this, climate change will limit the world’s capacity to produce food as plants will struggle to adapt to drought and less productive soil. This will lead to decreased crop yields and loss of productivity. (FAO et al., 2019)

A review conducted in November 2018 concluded that the effects of climate change could spiral.

“Without substantial gains in productivity, the rising global demand for food could lead to higher food prices thereby incentivizing conversion of rainforests, wetlands, and grasslands to farmland.” (Ortiz-Bobea & Tack, 2018)

This, in turn, could speed up climate change and further decrease the productivity of arable land. Without a significant shift in agricultural technology, it will be impossible to provide for the planet’s growing population.

To achieve food security, people need to have “adequate access to food in both quality and quantity”. Any solution to address this issue must provide a way to adequately and nutritiously feed the world’s 821.6 million undernourished people. (FAO et al., 2019)

Boosting Yield at What Cost?

The first way genetic editing can combat the issue of food insecurity of decreased food production by boosting yield. Using the technology to increase productivity may come with unforeseen ramifications, though. Both viewpoints are addressed in this section of the essay.

More Food for More People

When utilised in combination with more effective resource management, genetically modified crops can increase the yield obtained from each hectare of land and each gallon of water. This helps to feed more people.

A 2018 meta-analysis of 76 publications revealed that genetically modified corn overall increased yield by 0.7 tonnes per hectare, or by 10.6 percent, when compared to non- modified corn. In addition, the size of the increase varied by the type of hybrid. A corn crop edited with two genes yielded 5.6 percent more, while hybrids with four genes increased yield by 24.5 percent.

These increases could be attributed to better pest protection provided by more insect and disease resistance traits. As pests are a serious issue in corn production, causing an estimated loss of 31.2 percent of yield, genetically modified crops which provide better protection against them could increase food quantity and help feed more people.

In addition to an increase in quantity, the study noted an improvement in the quality of food. Results clearly recorded decreased amounts of carcinogenic fungal toxins, without any notable decrease in the crop’s nutritional content. This makes modified crops safer for people to eat, especially for those in developing countries where the risk of exposure to such toxins is higher.

As fungal toxins also result in farmers being unable to sell their crops, GM crops increase profitability. This, when combined with the economic incentive to continue growing crops, it thought to stabilise the food supply. (Pellegrino et al., 2018)

Companies are working to replicate this success in other crops, with firms in the US attempting to improve the yields and oil content of crops like Camelina, canola and soybeans. One company’s initial field test on Camelina crops reveal that certain gene edits can increase the amount of oil per seed by 11.8 percent on average. (Yield10 Bioscience Announces Results of 2019 Field Test Program, n.d.)

Research into other crops is ongoing, and those who support the increased use of genetic modification cite these results as proof edited crops will contribute significantly to the global effort to increase the food supply and alleviate food poverty and food insecurity.

Unforeseen Consequences

Genetic editing could work to provide more food for more people, but its critics do not view it as the highly effective solution it is often purported to be. Concerns have been raised by those who see the rapid adoption of genetic editing in agriculture as dangerous and advocate for a more cautious approach. The primary disadvantages presented by widespread GM adoption include unforeseen consequences on the environment and the population.

Although scientists may know the function of a gene in one organism, they may be unable to fully understand the outcome of transferring that gene into another organism. Inserting and deleting genes could result in unintended consequences that change other traits of the target organism. It is impossible to predict how genetically altered plants will adapt to their environment, and once they are released from the lab it may be difficult to completely eradicate them if any problems arise. (Prakash et al., 2011)

GM crops also present a clear ecological risk, as farmers become more dependent on herbicides to control weeds. (SUPERWEEDS: HOW BIOTECH CROPS BOLSTER THE PESTICIDE INDUSTRY, 2013) Some GM crops have been engineered with a resistance to certain herbicides. The most popular of these are Roundup Ready corn, cotton and soybeans, modified by a chemical company called Monsanto, to resist glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide. (Neuman & Pollack, 2010; Popularity of Roundup Ready Maize Soars, Says Garst, n.d.)

Roundup Ready crops, the first of which was introduced in 1996, were initially advertised as requiring a reduced quantity of chemical to kill weeds, meaning they were eco- friendlier and would cost less than the alternative. (Gillam, 2012) Fewer weeds would also mean less soil tilling, resulting in better soil quality and even lower costs.

As the graph below shows, the lower cost of herbicide-resistant crops resulted in widespread adoption in the two decades following 1996. By 2019, over 90 percent of all the land dedicated to corn, cotton and soybeans was used by genetically modified crops. (USDA ERS - Recent Trends in GE Adoption, 2019)

This fast adoption, however, later resulted in detrimental consequences for the environment. Although pesticide usage initially decreased, falling by 15 percent between 1998 and 2001, there is evidence to support the conclusion that GM crops have negatively changed the way herbicides have been used in agriculture. (Hsaio, 2015; SUPERWEEDS: HOW BIOTECH CROPS BOLSTER THE PESTICIDE INDUSTRY, 2013)

Farmers who adopted GM crops resistant to glyphosate mainly railed on glyphosate-based weed killers, and this overuse encouraged weeds to develop resistance to the chemical over time. This resulted in increased herbicide usage, which was confirmed by a research article released in 2016.

“We find clear evidence of increasing herbicide use by [genetically modified] variety adopters over time for both soybeans and maize, a finding that we attribute in part to the emergence of glyphosate weed resistance.” (Perry et al., 2016)

To mitigate this, farmers often resort to using more powerful chemicals with greater risks to ecological and human health. (Benbrook, 2016)

These impacts on the environment could not have been predicted when GM crops were first commercialised in 1996. Those who oppose the use of greater genetic modification fear there could be other further unanticipated implications in future.

People or Profit?

The proponents of GMOs claim that genetically modified organisms can also address the crisis of food insecurity by providing not only more food, but more nutritious food. Some are concerned that the corporations which pedal GMOs are only seeking to control the world’s food supply. The debate of people versus profit is considered in this section.

Golden Rice — A Golden Hope?

Biofortification of plants increases the nutrients found in crop yields. Before the age of biotechnology, biofortification would be achieved through selective breeding, where plants with high levels of certain minerals were bred with one another to produce nutritionally fortified offspring. (Gearing, 2015) Despite the amount of time and resources traditional biofortification requires, the process can take years and may not even work.

Gene editing, however, has sped this process up, so that biofortified food can been utilised to tackle malnutrition in developing countries. An example of this is golden rice, a crop which has been engineered with increased levels of vitamin A.

Vitamin A, found in carrots and sweet potatoes, supports the development and maintenance of the skin, the immune system and the eyes. In developing countries, where malnutrition is prevalent children who suffer from vitamin A deficiency, or VAD, are more likely to contract common viruses and are more likely to die from respiratory illnesses. A lack of vitamin A in the diet also causes blindness in between 250,000 and 500,000 children every year, with half of them dying within 12 months of losing their vison. (Barry, 2005; “WHO, Micronutrient deficiencies,” 2013)

Golden rice solves this problem by producing beta carotene, which is then converted to vitamin A in the body. Using rice as a nutrient delivery mechanism has several benefits. Firstly, as rice is readily consumed in developing countries, improving the nutritional content of rice allows VAD to be targeted more effectively. (Gearing, 2015) In addition, as rice has a simple and easy to digest structure, the beta-carotene in the food is readily absorbed by the body and converted into vitamin A. (Swamy et al., 2019)

A study entitled Compositional Analysis of Genetically Engineered Golden Rice in Comparison to That of Conventional Rice clearly states the benefits of golden rice, concluding “…a 100 g (uncooked weight) portion of GR2E rice could supply 30–40% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin A for children.” (Swamy et al., 2019)

Golden rice, with its improved nutritional content, has the potential to help hundreds of thousands of children at a lower cost. While, vitamin supplementation programmes, such as those undertaken by the World Health Organisation, require constant investment, biofortification is significantly cheaper and often free for farmers, with programmes to distribute modified seeds subsidised by biotech companies.

Who Controls Our Food Supply?

However, some environmental and political advocacy groups, such as Greenpeace, view utilising GMOs to solve world hunger or malnutrition as only supporting the failing, unsustainable system of modern industrial agriculture.

Their view is the damage done to the environment by industrialised agriculture – the polluted rivers and streams, the cleared forests, the disgusting and repulsive treatment of livestock and the tonnes of greenhouse gasses pumped into the atmosphere – cannot be solved by altering the genes of the food we eat. (GMOs & Toxic Pesticides - Greenpeace USA, n.d.)

In addition, the companies behind genetically modified seeds are viewed as selfish, slowly undertaking a corporate takeover of the planet’s food supply to profit at the expense of the world’s poorest.

Instead of using GM crops, which encourage dependence on chemical companies for pesticides, these groups believe the answer to food insecurity and malnutrition is to empower local communities. This would involve education about more sustainable farming practices, diet diversification through planting different crops and replacing commercial agriculture with more sustainable ecological agriculture. (Understanding the continued opposition to GMOs, Devex, n.d.)

Although there are a variety of approaches which can be classed as ecological agriculture, the practice is fundamentally based on developing a new model to feed the world’s population.

In ecological agriculture, farmers transition from a short-term focus on profits and yield towards longer term thinking, considering the ecological and social benefits of the crops they plant. It aims to liberate food production from corporations and return the benefits of local food production to smallholder farmers and rural communities. Ecological farming also involves using resources more wisely and adjusting consumers’ diets, to reduce food waste and decrease meat consumption.

Encouraging biodiversity through more diverse crop varieties can help the ecosystem thrive, while using locally produced compost and manures can improve the environment without utilising GMO technology. Ecological agriculture also places a focus on pest control by promoting healthy soils and healthy plants and working with nature to ensure climate resilient food production at a lower cost than purchased pesticides. (FROM UNIFORMITY TO DIVERSITY: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY, 2016; Tirado et al., 2015)

Replacing the broken system of industrialised agriculture with an ecological approach to agriculture can provide supply the advantages of GMOs, while placing control of food production back in the hands of local communities.

Safety First!

Those who support genetic editing say stringent testing and extensive regulation ensure that no major problems can arise from crops that are genetically engineered. However, this may not be the case. This section considers the safety record of GM foods, as well as its potential negative effects on environmental and public health.

Is Genetically Edited Food Safe?

Thousands of studies have been conducted on the safety and efficacy of foods which have been genetically modified by people. (Tagliabue, n.d.)

GENERA, a searchable database of 402 studies on genetically modified crops, shows that there is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence deeming such food safe to eat. As the pie chart below shows, over three quarters of the studies catalogued by the database conclude GMOs have no measurable effect on human health. (Haro von Mogel & Bodnar, n.d.)

Advocates for GMOs insist that this scientific consensus firmly supports the assertion GMOs present no risk to human food consumption.

Considering GMO Regulation

Although testing for all genetically modified foods exists in the European Union, the United States and other developed countries, this is not true for most developing countries. African countries, where the need for genetically modified crops appears most dire, lack functioning biosafety committees, presenting a serious challenge to the adoption of the technology. (Makinde et al., 2009)

Even countries with systems for regulating GMOs often have systems that advocates view as highly ineffective. Steven Druker, the founder of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity and author of the book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public, has been a vocal critic of food safety regulation in the United States.

In 1998, he took the Food and Drug Administration to task on their policy on genetically edited food. Foods recognised as safe by a consensus of experts, supported by technical evidence of safety, can be granted generally recognised as safe, or GRAS, status and bypass safety testing. The lawsuit challenged the classification of genetically modified foods as GRAS.

Initially, a judge presiding over the case determined that at the time, general recognition of safety did not exist and that genetic foods did not qualify for GRAS status. However, the case was later thrown out. He claims this means the FDA did not need to undertake any safety testing on GMOs, which poses dangers as each GMO is a different organism, with different possible risks.

In an interview with the Hunter College New York City Policy Center, Druker further explained his opposition to genetically modified foods, specifically pointing out the potential for long term risks to human health.

“While GMO proponents overhype their benefits, they routinely understate their risks, even though the risks are substantial… In GE foods, [the genetic modification technology could create toxins that] that do not induce acute, readily noticeable damage but rather incremental long-term harm that’s difficult to detect, harm that could have been accumulating in millions of people over many years.” (Cather, 2020)

This concern has been shared by others, including David Schubert, a cell biologist and professor at the Salk Institute. (Schubert, 2002)

“Given that GM plants will sometimes produce different amounts of proteins, and perhaps totally new proteins, as compared with the parental species, what are the possible results? A worst-case scenario would be that an introduced bacterial toxin is modified to make it toxic to humans… However, cancer or other common diseases with delayed onset would take decades to detect, and might never be traced to their cause.

“The problem is, of course, that unless we know exactly what to look for, we are likely to miss the relevant changes. To me, the only reasonable solution is to require that all GM plant products destined for human consumption be tested for long-term toxicity and carcinogenicity before being brought to market.” (Pellegrino et al., 2018)

In addition to this, there are concerns that data about GMO safety is not widely available, or available in an accessible format, impacting the ability of independent scientists to verify safety claims made by other studies. (Pellegrino et al., 2018)

The safety of GMOs is not only related to the safety of the food produced, however. The safety of chemical pesticides used alongside them are also of concern.

In 2015, the UN International Agency for Research on Cancer, classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This was based on data about humans who were diagnosed with cancer following real-world exposures, as well as evidence of cancer in experimental animals exposed to pure glyphosate. (IARC, 2016)

Reports from the CDC also conclude that any link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma cannot be ruled out and preliminary studies suggest that exposure to glyphosate interferes with the endocrine system in rats. (Atsdr, 2019)

This evidence, in the minds of those opposed to GMOs, completely outweighs the purported benefits of sowing genetically modified crops and places human health at unnecessary risk. Opting for ecological agriculture, though, would avoid the use GMO crops and their associated chemical pesticides, and, in turn, the health effects associated with them.

Coping with a Changing Climate

The disastrous effects of climate change, which include changes in global temperature, a decrease in water availability, degraded soil and an increase in diseases and pests, present a credible threat to food production. This section addresses the impact GM crops will have in addressing the climate crisis.

Improving Yield Despite Drought

Some crops could also be engineered to perform better in less favourable conditions. This boost in productivity could counterbalance the disastrous effects of climate change and prevent further damage to the environment. (James, 2014)

Crops that provide effective drought resistance have been available for farmers to cultivate for some time. An example of this is drought resistant GM corn, deployed in South Africa.

Between 2014 and 2016, South Africa experienced a drought which severely affected corn production. The Agricultural Biotechnology Industry said that despite this, the adoption of GM crops had increased the yield by 2.87 tonnes per hectare when compared to the previous drought in 1991 and 1992. Supporters of genetic modification believe this has demonstrated these crops have added value to the agricultural market. (Without GMOs, South African maize yields would be lower -industry group - Reuters, 2016)

In the future, farmers may be able to order bespoke varieties of seeds that are tailored to their soil, making the crops more resilient. Genetic modification would make this possible by eliminating the need to breed traits into plants over several generations and shortening the time necessary to develop crop varieties.

Are GM Crops Really that Effective?

However, the not all available evidence is in favour of GM plants.

Firstly, traits like drought resistance and salt tolerance are governed by several genes, and gene editing technology can only change a handful of targeted genes at a time. This means that changes made in the lab may not be as efficient as conventionally bred varieties. This is supported by smaller studies suggesting local varieties of bred plants could outperform their genetically modified counterparts. (Gilbert, 2014)

In addition to this, the biodiversity encouraged by ecological agriculture can help prevent climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while sustainably increasing yields in the long term. (“Ecological intensification farming benefits wildlife and increases yield,” 2016; Li Ching, n.d.)

A report produced by Greenpeace China, entitled Climate Change and Food Security in China, highlights the impact that the approach could have on greenhouse gas emissions in the long term.

“[An integrated system which involves farming rice and fish] is shown to be able to improve the oxidation-reduction condition of soil and significantly decrease methane emissions. [An system integrating rice and ducks] is also capable of improving the microclimate in the field and reducing methane emissions.

“The construction of biogas generators in rural areas can control methane emissions during the processing of organic fertiliser. The utilising of biogas instead of coal is expected to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 3,077,700 to 45,928,000 tons and sulphur dioxide emissions by 130,000 to 988,700 tons annually between 2010 and 2050.”

Integrating agriculture and nature may be the solution to improving food security, while adjusting to the Earth’s changing climate more effectively than GMOs.

Opportunity or Risk

Those who support genetic editing view it as just another modern technique to adapt crops to human needs. It is an immensely powerful tool that can be used to bring about a revolution in food production. Increased yield will allow more people to be fed on less land. Plants can grow in more unfavourable conditions, including drought, ensuring productivity, and in turn, food supply. This, when combined with the fact biofortification can produce higher quality food, makes genetic editing seem like the ‘silver bullet’ which can address worldwide food insecurity.

Sceptics of the technology, on the other hand, highlight risks of unforeseen consequences and of other ecological side effects as reason to delay, or at least undertake additional research on, the widespread deployment of GMOs in agriculture. The risk of unforeseen consequences in the long term presents a tangible risk which must be addressed. Over time, the perceived advantage may diminish as the disadvantages become more apparent.

Although genetic editing in agriculture presents a massive opportunity, it should be approached with cautious optimism. Most of the issues which arise from taking advantage of the technology can be addressed through effective risk management strategies developed by the scientific community. Although the European Union has introduced a stringent legal framework, which aims to balance public safety and innovation, other countries may lack such regulation.

Therefore, to ensure safety and minimise risk to the public and the environment, an independent, international working group comprised of scientists and regulators should come together to examine and exchange evidence on the safety and efficacy of GM plants. Transparency would be one of the guiding principles of this panel, as crucial decision- making information would be made public and easily accessible, to encourage public trust and ensure reproducibility of the results. This could be achieved through a database of standardised research, which would only accept studies that meet rigorous scientific criteria, including the need to be included in raw data with at least three trials to allow the calculation of variance. (Pellegrino et al., 2018)

This international group of experts would work alongside national biosafety boards established in every country to review any credible safety concerns. Biosafety committees at the national level would function to decentralise the approval of new plant breeds. This would further encourage reproducibility of supporting evidence, as each country has a different appetite to risk and will therefore require different amounts of testing to be carried out before certification.

Extensive safety testing should also take place on all proposed GMOs, with no mechanism to fast track applications. This is because every GMO hybrid is a different organism, and every gene edit can introduce possible safety problems which should be addressed before widespread distribution.

Despite the plethora of potential positives, gene editing should not be the primary tool in our arsenal to alleviate food insecurity and support agriculture. The technology is still in its infancy and any mistakes made early on will be difficult to recover from, meaning it should be utilised with great caution. Focus should be placed on better distribution and storage systems, and on decreasing food waste, to make sure the food that gets produced reaches the people who need it.

In the developing world, genetic modification can help eradicate malnourishment, when used in conjunction with poverty reduction and food security programmes and investment in rural infrastructure. Therefore, improved farming practices and sustainable technology should also be used alongside modified plants to boost yields and increase the quantity and quality of food available.

Greater emphasis should be placed on using genetic editing to research traditional breeding, so scientists can better understand how genes are recombined when two plants are crossed. This will, in turn, refine plant breeds produced with gene editing.

Any major advances in feeding the world’s population will have a significant impact on our daily lives and everyone needs to play their part. Humanity is up for the challenge of feeding the world over the next 20 years, achieving this through science, technology, education and cooperation.

Bibliography

Atsdr. (2019). Toxicological Profile for Glyphosate - Draft for Public Comment. www.regulations.gov.

Barry, G. (2005). Golden Rice Fact Sheet. In Nature Biotechnology (Vol. 23). http://www.economia.uniroma2.it/conferenze/icabr2003/papers/Developing_Coutries/Dubock.zip

Benbrook, C. M. (2016). Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally. Environmental Sciences Europe, 28(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-016-0070-0

Cather, A. (2020, March 18). Interview with Steven Druker, Founder and Executive Director, Alliance for Bio-IntegrityNYC Food Policy Center. Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center. https://www.nycfoodpolicy.org/food-advocates-interview-steven-druker/

CRISPR Basics – Genetic Resources Core Facility, Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2020, from https://grcf.jhmi.edu/products/crisprs/crispr-basics/

CRISPR Timeline, Broad Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2020, from https://www.broadinstitute.org/what-broad/areas-focus/project-spotlight/crispr-timelin

Ecological intensification farming benefits wildlife and increases yield. (2016, January 28). European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, 444. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.1740

FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, & WHO. (2019). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019. Safeguarding against economic slowdowns and downturns. WHO. www.fao.org/publications

FROM UNIFORMITY TO DIVERSITY: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. (2016).

Gearing, M. (2015, August 10). Good as Gold: Can Golden Rice and Other Biofortified Crops Prevent Malnutrition? - Science in the News. http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/good-as-gold-can-golden-rice-and-other-biofortified-crops-prevent-malnutrition/

Gilbert, N. (2014). Cross-bred crops get fit faster. In Nature (Vol. 513, Issue 7518, p. 292). Nature Publishing Group. https://doi.org/10.1038/513292a

Gillam, C. (2012, October 2). Pesticide use ramping up as GMO crop technology backfires: study - Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-study-pesticides/pesticide-use-ramping-up-as-gmo-crop-technology-backfires-study-idUSBRE89100X20121002

Global Agriculture Towards 2050. (2009).
GMOs & Toxic Pesticides - Greenpeace USA. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2020, from https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-agriculture/issues/gmos/

Haro von Mogel, K., & Bodnar, A. (n.d.). GENERA: the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas. Retrieved April 5, 2020, from https://genera.biofortified.org/wp/

Hsaio, J. (2015, August 10). GMOs and Pesticides: Helpful or Harmful? - Science in the News. http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/gmos-and-pesticides/

IARC. (2016). Q&A on Glyphosate.

James, C. (2014). GloBal area of BioteCh CropS Million hectares. In Source (Issue 49).

Kosicki, M., Tomberg, K., & Bradley, A. (2018). Repair of double-strand breaks induced by CRISPR–Cas9 leads to large deletions and complex rearrangements. In Nature Biotechnology (Vol. 36, Issue 8, pp. 765–771). Nature Publishing Group. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4192

Li Ching, L. (n.d.). Ecological agriculture a solution to food security, climate challenges in China. Retrieved April 6, 2020, from https://www.twn.my/title2/susagri/susagri059.htm

Makinde, D., Mumba, L., & Ambali, A. (2009). RIS Research and Information System for Developing Countries Status of Biotechnology in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities 2 Asian Biotechnology and Development Review. In Asian Biotechnology and Development Review (Vol. 11, Issue 3).

Mushtaq, M., Bhat, J. A., Mir, Z. A., Sakina, A., Ali, S., Singh, A. K., Tyagi, A., Salgotra, R. K., Dar, A. A., & Bhat, R. (2018). CRISPR/Cas approach: A new way of looking at plant-abiotic interactions. In Journal of Plant Physiology (Vols. 224–225, pp. 156–162). Elsevier GmbH. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jplph.2018.04.001

Neuman, Wi., & Pollack, A. (2010, May 3). U.S. Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds - The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/business/energy-environment/04weed.html

Ortiz-Bobea, A., & Tack, J. (2018). Environmental Research Letters Is another genetic revolution needed to offset climate change impacts for US maize yields? Is another genetic revolution needed to offset climate change impacts for US maize yields? Environ. Res. Lett, 13, 124009. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aae9b8

Pellegrino, E., Bedini, S., Nuti, M., & Ercoli, L. (2018). Impact of genetically engineered maize on agronomic, environmental and toxicological traits: A meta-analysis of 21 years of field data. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-21284-2

Perry, E. D., Ciliberto, F., Hennessy, D. A., & Moschini, G. C. (2016). Genetically engineered crops and pesticide use in U.S. maize and soybeans. Science Advances, 2(8), e1600850. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1600850

Plant Breeding Impacts and Current Challenges Ancient Agriculture. (n.d.). Retrieved April 7, 2020, from http://km.fao.org/gipb/

Popularity of Roundup Ready Maize Soars, Says Garst. (n.d.). Retrieved April 2, 2020, from https://www.cabi.org/agbiotechnet/news/1942

Prakash, D., Verma, S., Bhatia, R., & Tiwary, B. N. (2011). Risks and Precautions of Genetically Modified Organisms. International Scholarly Research Network ISRN Ecology, 2011, 13. https://doi.org/10.5402/2011/369573

Schubert, D. (2002). A different perspective on GM food. Nature Biotechnology, 20. SUPERWEEDS: HOW BIOTECH CROPS BOLSTER THE PESTICIDE INDUSTRY. (2013). www.foodandwaterwatch.org

Swamy, B. P. M., Samia, M., Boncodin, R., Marundan, S., Rebong, D. B., Ordonio, R. L., Miranda, R. T., Rebong, A. T. O., Alibuyog, A. Y., Adeva, C. C., Reinke, R., & Mackenzie, D. J. (2019). Compositional Analysis of Genetically Engineered GR2E “golden Rice” in Comparison to That of Conventional Rice. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 67(28), 7986–7994. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jafc.9b01524

Tagliabue, G. (n.d.). The necessary “GMO” denialism and scientific consensus. Retrieved April 11, 2020, from www.isaaa.org

Tirado, R., Baker, M., & Kramb, D. (2015). The seven principles of a food system that has people at its heart Ecological Farming 2. www.atomodesign.nl

Understanding the continued opposition to GMOs, Devex. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2020, from https://www.devex.com/news/understanding-the-continued-opposition-to-gmos-9188

USDA ERS - Recent Trends in GE Adoption. (2019, September 18). https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption.aspx

What is a cell?, Facts, yourgenome.org. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2020, from https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-a-cell

What is a genome?, Facts, yourgenome.org. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-a-genome

What is DNA?, Facts, yourgenome.org. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2020, from https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-dna

WHO, Micronutrient deficiencies. (2013). WHO.

Without GMOs, South African maize yields would be lower -industry group - Reuters. (2016, May 3). https://www.reuters.com/article/safrica-drought-gmo/without-gmos-south-african-maize-yields-would-be-lower-industry-group-idUSL5N180298

Yield10 Bioscience Announces Results of 2019 Field Test Program. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2020, from https://apnews.com/Globe%20Newswire/504409bb4d78c17102f7e636e4981953

Building the Fact API

This is an incredibly long, boring, technical (and probably inaccurate) post. If the words Node, TypeScript or DigitalOcean bore you to death, just know I made something pretty and I’m incredibly proud of it. You can take a look at thefact.space.

Does anyone remember all the way back in November I mentioned I’d walk through building an open source project? I’m sure Adam remembers.

Well, I’m happy to let you know that time is now.

On Monday night, after a sudden burst of enthusiasm that I’m sure will not crash anytime soon (hah), I decided to build a Fact API that would dispense random nuggets of knowledge through a beautifully designed webpage (because graphic design is my passion) and a RESTful API. Here’s the end product.

Fact #1765 from Facts Nobody Asked For, running on localhost

Isn’t The Fact Space an absolute beauty? The front-end and back-end are served by an ExpressJS server hosted on a DigitalOcean droplet, which was incredibly simple and quick to put together.

Let’s dive into how it works. This post will consider several design decisions made while putting together the site.

Step 1: Serving It

I used a Node server, rather than something written in Python or Haskell.

I’m more familiar with Node, as I already use it for work. Most of my job involves running OVH and GCP Node servers for my clients, and writing serverless infrastructure using Firebase Functions. If everything could be Node-based, as inefficient and painfully slow as it would be, I wouldn’t complain.

I love serverless architectures as they’re often cheaper to run (you only pay for what you use, versus server overhead), simpler to get started with and maintain in the long-term (you only need to write a few lines of code to have your first deploy) and allow easier onboarding of new team members (if everything’s documented properly, it’s simple to see how all the functions come together to make the app work).

In my experience, distilling the business logic of an app into independent ‘black boxes’ with clearly defined inputs and outputs allows faster development and deployment. Optimising one piece of an app only involves redeploying a single function, versus the whole app. Also, it’s good for start-ups who are trying to move quickly (several of which I have been part of!) as it eliminates the time, cost and expertise necessary to securely administer a server. All that’s offloaded onto someone else. An excellent article about server versus serverless from the Freetrade Engineering team is here.

Despite my love of serverless applications, doing that for a project as small as this would be overkill. As the content would be a random selection from an array full of facts served through a JSON endpoint or a webpage, a simple ExpressJS server would work.

Step 2: Speak the Language

I coupled the ExpressJS backend with TypeScript rather than JavaScript, simply because TypeScript is superior.

I’m incredibly fond of TypeScript and use it for all my Node web projects. It provides me with the flexibility to define interfaces as I develop them, so I can iterate incredibly quickly. This is especially useful when I’m working on small projects, where I’ll code first and plan later. I often find myself constantly rethinking and reworking my ideas, and a language which is statically typed can help me understand the ‘shape’ of the data I’m consuming.

On top of that, TypeScript allows me to build on top of other people’s code without worrying too much. Once types are properly defined, I’m able to easily import and build my app using other packages. I find typings much more accurate than documentation in some cases, as they’re embedded directly in the code and used by people who work with the library. If there’s an issue, it’ll be caught.

With TypeScript, there’s no way I can make a mistake and pass a value of the wrong type. This has saved me on several occasions, where my mind’s wandered off, I’ve typed in the wrong variable and TypeScript highlights my mistake with an angry, red line under it. It’s definitely made more a more confident programmer, allowing me to focus more on semantics rather than syntax.

I don’t want to gush over TypeScript too much, but it does take self-documenting code to another level. (Even though, yes, self-documenting code doesn’t exist and all code should come with clearly written comments.)

Step 3: Fast Facts from the Internet

After identifying my infrastructure, it was time to gather some facts! This step was the simplest. It involved scraping a bunch of sites for some random facts, and then converting that to an object I could stick in an array. Opening up the console, the snippet I used to scrape a site was something like this.

copy(
    [...document.getElementsByTagName("p")].map(e => {
        return {
            text: e.innerText,
            source: window.location.href
        }
    })
);

This would look at the page and get all the tags containing facts, in this case all the <p> tags. Then, it would add the innerTexts and the current page’s URL to an object, and stick it in an array. Once that’s done, I can automatically copy the array of objects to my clipboard using the copy() function and collate them in a facts array in a file called facts.ts.

After all my work, fact.ts then looked like an array of facts filled with objects like this.

const facts = [
    {
        text: "The name Jeep came from the abbreviation used in the army. G.P. for 'General Purpose' vehicle.",
        source: 'https://www.djtech.net/humor/useless_facts.htm',
    }
]

export default facts;

The facts were in facts.ts and the code was in index.ts to make my code cleaner. This meant I had to imported the facts array into my index.ts file.

Although my editor can infer the shape of a TypeScript object, it could also be explicitly defined using an interface, like this.

interface IFactObject {
    text: string;
    source: string;
}

Pretty simple!

Step 4: Endpoints Are Only the Start

For this projects, I’d have two endpoints: /fact/:index, which would get a fact at its index in the facts array, and /random, which would fetch a random fact. Both endpoints would return JSON when called with the right parameters.

The first step would be to define how to get a fact at an index, and then a random fact.

// Get the total number of facts
const factCount = facts.length;

const getFact = (index: number) => {
    // Get fact at index
    const fact = facts[index];

    // Return destructred fact with index
    return {
        index,
        ...fact,
    };
};

// Get a random fact
const getRandomFact = () => {
    // Generate random number between 0 and facts.length - 1
    const index = Math.floor(Math.random() * factCount);

    // Get fact at index
    const fact = getFact(index);

    // Return fact
    return fact;
};

getRandomFact() simply picks a random index in the array, and then uses getFact() to return the fact and its index in an object.

The two endpoints are very simple to implement, once you’ve got an Express instance app set up.

Implementing /random involved simply fetching and returning a fact. res.json() simply makes sure the fact is returned with the right MIME type.

// Fetch a random fact
app.get('/random', (req, res) => {
    // Get a fact
    const fact = getRandomFact();

    // Return the fact object
    res.json(fact);
});

Fetching a fact by index was a little more complicated. This involved parsing the input for an integer. If the supplied index wasn’t a number, the endpoint would redirect to /random to fetch a random fact. If it was a number, but out of the array’s bounds, then the function would return a text error. Otherwise, it’d return the fact with that index.

// When fetching a fact by index...
app.get('/fact/:index?', (req, res) => {
    // Extract index paramater and convert to integer
    const { index } = req.params;
    const indexInt = parseInt(index);

    // If the index is not an integer
    // (so, undefined, or has text)...
    if (isNaN(indexInt)) {
        // Redirect to a random fact instead
        res.redirect('/random');
    } else {
        // Try to get the the fact
        const fact = getFact(indexInt);

        // If the fact is not undefined,
        // (and in the array's bounds)
        if (fact !== undefined) {
            // Send the fact
            res.json(fact);
        } else {
            // Send error
            res.status(404).send(`Fact #${index} not found.`);
        }
    }
});

I’m considering switching to unique IDs versus indexes, as I may want to shift the order of the facts or I may need to delete if they turn out to be incrediblt misleading. Also, I may want to adopt a JSON structure for errors, so applications can parse them more consistently. That being said, it’s a small side project so I won’t put too much effort into making it production-quality.

Step 5: A Puggy Webpage

After this, I used the Pug templating engine to slap together a quick website. I styled it using Bulma and grabbed a good-looking serif font, Shippori Mincho, off Google Fonts.

Using a templating engine allowed me to dynamically generate HTML which included the fact, its index and its source on the server-side whenever a request was made to /.

After defining a view in views/index.pug, and including some CSS in view/css/index.css, the final Pug template looked like this.

doctype html
html(lang='en')
head
  meta(charset='utf-8')
  meta(http-equiv='X-UA-Compatible' content='IE=edge')
  meta(name='viewport' content='width=device-width, initial-scale=1')
  meta(name='description' content='Enjoy a random fact on every refresh. By Leo.')

  link(rel='stylesheet' href='https://fonts.googleapis.com/css2?family=Shippori+Mincho:wght@400;500;600&display=swap')
  link(rel='stylesheet' href='https://unpkg.com/bulma@0.9.0/css/bulma.min.css')

  style
    include ./css/index.css

  title Facts Nobody Asked For

body
  section.hero.is-fullheight.is-black
    div.hero-body
      div.container.has-text-centered
        div.column.is-6.is-offset-3
          h1.has-text-weight-light
            span.is-size-4.is-uppercase
              | Fact ##{index}
            span.is-size-5
              |  from
            span.is-size-5.is-italic
              |  #[a(href=source) here].
          h2.fact.is-size-2.has-text-weight-semibold.mb-4 #{text}
          h4.is-size-6 An #[a(href="https://github.com/leoriviera/facts-api") open source project] by Leo. Call the endpoint #[a(href='./random') /random] to get one of #{factCount} facts.

It took some tinkering to get the theming right. However, as all computer science students, myself included, are sunlight-hating gremlins, I went easy on the eyes with a dark theme on the webpage.

The index, text and factCount variables are passed into the template from Express. This is shown below.

app.set('view engine', 'pug');

// On request to '/'...
app.get('/', (_, res) => {
    // Get a random fact
    const fact = getRandomFact();

    // Render index.pug with fact data and number of facts
    res.render('index', {
        ...fact,
        factCount,
    });
});

I chose Pug because it was the easiest to integrate with Express and appeared to be the fastest to get started with! I found it very easy to convert from some HTML I designed into a Pug template, and then build on that to come to the final my design. Once you get into it, the syntax is incredibly easy to grasp. The only downside is, despite being around for quite some time, there don’t seem to be many forum or support articles on the Internet for it.

Step 6: Hello, World!

Deploying to the Internet was really simple too. Although I prefer GCP and Firebase Functions for work projects, and I use AWS S3 to host my podcast, I had some DigitalOcean credit left over and wanted to use it up.

I spun up a DigitalOcean droplet, cloned my public repo and pulled any changes as I added the finishing touches on my laptop. After installing Node and npm, and then installing all the dependencies using npm i, I kept the app running using pm2, set up nginx as a reverse proxy.

Finally, I added a domain I had lying around (yes, I have those) to DigitalOcean and then used certbot to configure HTTPS certificates and redirects. Easy peasy!

Closing Thoughts

The project was simple to get off the ground, and I’m happy I got it put together. My proudest product is my site, because I didn’t think I’d do the design as well as it came out. I have switched over to a more appropriate domain, and you can take a look at it at thefact.space. Tell me what you think!

A few ideas for improvements include

  • Building in image and text endpoints
  • More consistent error handling Well, that’s done, now! It’s not perfect, but an error now returns a JSON object with the index and some error text.
  • An About Page of some sort
  • IDs for facts
  • An automated fact scraper!
  • An automated pipeline on my droplet on git pull, probably using the update git hook.

Feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions. If you’d like to view the source, it’s here.

YASP: Episode 5

Susie joins me in today’s episode of YASP, where we plan how (legitimately) to establish a new independent nation, unite the UK and kick babies. Oh, there’s also something in there about gaming. Enjoy!