SMC Heads-Up: court rules on climate data, AgBiotech and plain packaging
Issue 197 7-13 September
New from the SMC
NIWA climate record stands - High Court
The High Court of New Zealand has backed the science behind NIWA's temperature data, rejecting claims in a legal challenge brought against them. In 2010 the New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust applied to the high court for a judicial review of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)'s actions in publishing its national temperature record, claiming that adjustments in the data used led to an artificial increase of 1 deg C warming between 1909 and 2008.
Justice Geoffrey Venning, in a High Court ruling released today, rejected the Coalition's challenge of the official NIWA temperature record:
"The plaintiff alleges that by departing from recognised scientific opinion NIWA breached its statutory obligations, including its obligation to pursue excellence. I am satisfied on the evidence that NIWA applied credible scientific methodology and, as such, did not breach any obligation it may have had to pursue excellence."
"The plaintiff does not succeed on any of its challenges to the three decisions of NIWA in issue. The application for judicial review is dismissed and judgment entered for the defendant."
In a media statement responding to the ruling - endorsed by a number of leading climate scientists - Prof James Renwick of Victoria University said:
"Scientific analysis and discussion is carried out through the peer-reviewed literature. The basic science of climate change (global warming) has been established for well over a century, and almost all scientists active in climate research agree that human activity is causing the climate to change. For a small group of scientists to appeal to a court of law to find otherwise is bizarre."
Justice Venning also awarded legal costs to NIWA - which Prof Renwick said were estimated at at well over $100,000.
Read more on the SMC
On the science radar...
Spinach power, dream engineers, sports time warps, tracking 'zombees' and plants that call in the cavalry.
Ag-biotech future in spotlight
Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC 2012) wrapped up in Rotorua this week, with headline appearances by scientists from some of the biggest global players in the industry.
The conference brought together international visiting speakers and local experts to provide insight into the latest advances in agbiotech and discuss how technologies can be applied to global issues such as climate change, sustainability, food production, energy, health and nutrition.
The Science Media Centre hosted a briefing with a panel of ABIC speakers on the topic of food security. You can play back a full recording of the media briefing on our website.
Prof Robert Reiter, a molecular biologist and VP Biotechnology at Monsanto, whose presence attracted substantial reaction from protesters and garnered significant attention in media coverage of the conference, led off his plenary session with images of blasted corn from the severe drought currently hammering US farmers, making a direct link to climate change impacts and the challenges of planning now for more extreme conditions in future.
Conventional crop breeding requires a 7 - 8 year cycle, compared to 10 - 15 years from inception to development for genetically modified crops. Both require an ability to accurately anticipate future needs, and incorporating climate change impacts is now a key part of that for the big industrial players.
In response to this, Monsanto is preparing to launch a drought-resistant hybrid corn, which will be the first of a new class of biotech products. To date, Dr Reiter said, GM crops from the company have targeted single traits -- like insect or herbicide resistance - an approach that only requires the plant to express a single new protein to be effective. By contrast, engineering for drought tolerance involves a complex interaction of genes - over 30,000 genes in corn - which makes the process enormously more difficult and time consuming.
Pesticide resistance is a growing problem, one that Monsanto acknowledges, with more weeds every year developing a tolerance for formerly unsurvivable herbicides like glyphosate (a.k.a. RoundUp). New technologies in the pipeline highlighted the increasingly intensive escalations underway in the inexorable arms race between farmers' crops and resistant weeds.
One response from Monsanto involves stacking resistance to multiple herbicides in the next rollout of GM crops, enabling these crops to survive when farmers dose resistant weeds with a new cocktail of chemicals -- an approach that seems a stop-gap measure at best.
A second, more experimental approach -- still in early stages of development -- Reiter termed "agbiologicals", a new class of topical sprays that contain RNA targeted to specific resistant weed varieties and other pests. Intriguingly, the RNA sprays will also be able to fight off viral infections in crops, something outside the scope of conventional agricultural sprays. Sprayed plants will absorb the RNA and with it the ability to express new proteins, without altering their own genes. According to Reiter, the sprays will have a temporary effect, lasting as long as it takes for the RNA molecules to degrade.
In a shift away from the focus on big industry players, Professor James Dale from Queensland University of Technology honed in on the issue of using genetic engineering to combat malnutrition and poverty -- a selling point heavily emphasised by boosters of the technology. Prof Dale called attention to the scarcity of essential nutrients like iron and vitamin A in the world's staple crops, and highlighted global efforts to change this through fortification of the plants themselves. The most famous example is Golden Rice, a rice variety genetically modified to be rich in beta carotene, widely touted for its potential to save lives and prevent blindness in SE Asia, but mired in prolonged regulatory battles that have prevented its release since its development nearly 15 years ago.
Much of the world's poor survive on less well-known staple crops, like millet, cassava and sorghum. Dale's group have won funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work on bananas, which provide the main source of dietary starch for large populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike the dessert varieties sold in the West, these are cooking bananas, selected from wild-growing varieties and never targeted by breeding programmes for improvement. Although they are often the only food source for people who rely on them, with an average consumption of over half a kilo of bananas a day, they are relatively deficient in key vitamins and minerals.
Dale's team, working in parallel with
scientists in Uganda, are developing an orange-fleshed
cooking banana rich in vitamin A, by inserting a gene
derived from a Papua New Guinea wild banana variety that is
high in beta carotene. Queensland regulators fast-tracked
the project to allow it to go straight from the lab to field
trials, and the most promising genes are already being
reproduced by local scientists in field trials of Ugandan
Plain branding stubs out appeal
A new international study has added weight to literature showing plain packaging of cigarettes reduces appeal - and highlighted the contentious policy discussions currently underway in New Zealand.
The research, published in BMC Public Health this week found that removal of all description from the packs, leaving only the brand, led to a sample of 640 Brazilian females rating the packs significantly less appealing. When offered a (hypothetical) free gift participants were three times more likely to choose a branded pack then plain packaging.
The results from this study, the first to look at the effect of plain cigarette packaging on smoking in Latin America, backs up a wealth of similar research carried out in other countries (including New Zealand), which has found that plain packaging makes cigarettes less appealing to young people.
Professor Alistair Woodward, Head of School of Population Health, University of Auckland, commented:
"The findings from the Brazil study fit with what has been observed elsewhere. Tobacco packaging affects the opinions and behaviours of smokers. Many controlled studies of the kind carried out in Brazil have demonstrated this. The tobacco industry knows very well the value of brand packaging. This is why they have invested so heavily in design and illustration in the past, and why the industry now opposes plain packaging so vehemently."
Also commenting on the research was Canterbury economist and SciBlogger Dr Eric Crampton. He pointed out that as plain packaging has not been implemented anywhere, we have no robust evidence of its effects. He suggests a controlled trial of policy,
"If we cared about knowing whether tobacco plain packaging has any effect, we could find out pretty easily. Set the whole thing up as a randomized policy trial. Some parts of the country get plain packs, some parts don't, and watch what happens over the subsequent few years."
You can read more expert commentary on the SMC website.
Quoted: New Zealand Herald
"The gene modification industry does its case no favours with apocalyptic predictions of population growth and food shortages. It is enough that genetics can increase crop yields, reduce the need for insecticides and make farming more profitable.
"A nation that depends crucially on farm exports and needs to keep up with all advances in the field, cannot close its mind on this subject forever. It is time for a rethink".
Editorial on the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference
New from the SMC
Plain packaging: As New Zealand deliberates over the introduction of 'plain packaging' for cigarettes, a new study confirms that such measures reduce the appeal of tobacco products.
Abortion risks: UK experts comment on new research showing that women who have had three or more abortions have a higher risk of some adverse birth outcomes, cautioning interpretation.
Organic nutrition: New research, based on an analysis of several hundred studies, has cast doubt on arguments that organically grown foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.
Agricultural biotech: Hear from world biotech leaders discussing future food challenges in an SMC media briefing held at the ABIC 2012 conference in Rotorua.
Reflections on Science:
Bent spoon: NZ Skeptics have bestowed the yearly 'Bent Spoon Award' for un-skeptical behaviour upon Consumer magazine, on account of the magazine's coverage of homeopathic remedies.
Some of the highlights from this week's posts:
Hungry Monkeys Don't Stick Around -
Restricting calorie intake might not stretch out your life
as once claimed, reports SM Morgan.
Immortal cells - Alison Campbell examines new research into why the cancer cells that cause facial tumors in Tasmanian Devils are so good at what they do.
Cross-section of Wellington's High-Tech
Businesses - Elf Eldrige highlights a "sumptuous" chart
of the capital's science and engineering
Just So Science
How low can you go? Gareth Renowden
gives a quick round-up on the Arctic sea ice
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Bottom trawling 'ploughing' the
sea floor: The practice of bottom trawling in the
fishing industry is drastically changing the shape of the
sea floor, according to new research. US scientists have
documented the remarkable 'smoothing' impact of trawling on
the submarine landscape, noting the changes could impact
ecosystems adapted to live in the rough and ragged submarine
terrain. While drawing data from a US example, the authors
point out that that New Zealand is among the world's bottom
biohybrid cells: Researchers have taken a page from
Popeye's book and harnessed the power of spinach. They have
developed a 'biohybrid' solar cell which uses photosystem-1,
a photosynthetic protein extracted from spinach, and doesn't
require rare and expensive materials like platinum or
indium. The researchers believe that, with further
development, the cells could be an effective competitors in
solar energy generation within three years.
Slowing down time: Professional
ball game players report the feeling of the ball
'slowing-down' just before they hit it. Confirming these
anecdotal comments, a new study shows that time is perceived
to slow down during the period of action preparation. The
authors suggests that the slowing down of subjective flow of
time during action preparation is due to the increased
intake of sensory information just before executing an
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
War changes the
brain: A before and after brain scanning study of
soldiers serving in Afghanistan revealed that exposure to
combat stress, such as armed combat, enemy fire, combat
patrols, asymmetric warfare, and improvised explosive device
blasts, affected the structural integrity of the midbrain,
negatively influenced its activity, and interfered with the
soldiers' ability for sustained attention during cognitively
Some of the policy highlights from this week:
stats: Provisional suicide statistics released by
Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean for the year ending 30 June
2012 show an overall fall in the number of deaths,hilight the need to
focus on Māori and youth suicide prevention.
No mandatory folate: The fortification of bread with folic acid will remain voluntary, Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson announced this week. The decision came after an eight-week public consultation process by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).
Upcoming sci-tech events
• Australasian Viral Hepatitis conference
- 10-12 September, Auckland.
• New Zealand Applied Neurosciences Conference - 14-16 September, Auckland.
• Wellington Rocks! Earthquake briefings for Wellington residents - a joint project from GNS Science and the Wellington City Council - At various locations throughout Wellington, September - October.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.