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Gene editing could revolutionize the food industry

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In his greenhouse at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y., plant geneticist Zach Lippman is growing cherry tomatoes.

But they don’t look like the ones that most people grow in their gardens and greenhouses.

Lippman’s tomatoes have shorter stems and the fruit is more tightly clustered, looking more like grapes.

“With gene editing, we now have the ability to fine-tune at will,” he said. “So instead of having black or white, small fruit [or] big fruit, you can have everything in between.”

Lippman used CRISPR — a revolutionary gene-editing tool that can quickly and precisely edit DNA — to tweak three of the plant’s genes, and make them suitable for large-scale urban agriculture for the first time.

 

Lippman’s cherry tomatoes have shorter stems, and the fruit is more tightly clustered, looking more like grapes. (David Malosh)

 

With CRISPR, researchers can precisely target and cut any kind of genetic material. Don’t want your mushrooms to turn brown after a few days? Remove the gene that causes that and problem solved.

There’s a lot of excitement about the introduction of gene-edited products into the Canadian food system over the next few years, but a lot of trepidation as well.

The food industry’s last foray into genetic engineering — genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — in the 1990s was a financial success. But the practice is an ongoing public relations nightmare, as many Canadians remain wary of products critics have labelled “Frankenfoods.”

Public perception of modified foods

Currently, the only gene-edited product commercially available is a soybean oil being used by a restaurant chain in the American Midwest for cooking and salad dressings. It has a longer shelf life than other cooking oils and produces less saturated fat and no trans fat.

Ian Affleck, vice-president of plant biotechnology at CropLife Canada, a trade association that represents Canadian manufacturers of pesticides and plant-breeding products, estimates the soybean oil might be in Canada in a year or two, followed by some altered fruits and vegetables.

Even then, he said, supplies will likely be limited while farmers and food companies determine if consumers will embrace genetically edited food.

 

Ian Affleck is vice-president of plant biotechnology at CropLife Canada, a trade association that represents Canadian manufacturers of pesticides and plant breeding products. (CropLife Canada)

 

All the major health organizations in the world, including Health Canada, have concluded that eating GMO foods does not pose either short or long-term health risks.

According to the World Health Organization, GMO goods currently approved for the market “have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”

But Canadians remain stubbornly unconvinced — even though about 90 per cent of the corn, soybeans and canola grown in Canada is genetically modified, as is almost all of the processed food we consume.

A 2018 poll by market research company Statista found only 37 per cent of people surveyed strongly or somewhat strongly agreed that GMOs were safe to eat, while 34 per cent strongly or somewhat strongly disagreed.

Industry representatives now say they spent too much time marketing their GMO products to farmers — and not enough time communicating the benefits to consumers.

“We spoke to two per cent of the population, who are those who farm,” said Affleck. “And those who opposed the technology spoke to the other 98 per cent of the population.”

“We thought it was just another transition in plant breeding,” recalled Stuart Smyth, who holds the University of Saskatchewan’s industry-funded research chair in agri-food innovation. “Nobody expected the environmental groups to develop into a political opposition.”

With gene-edited foods, Smyth believes the industry needs to focus on public education to counteract what he calls the “propaganda” that will be coming from the other side.

CRISPR vs. GMO

Gene-edited foods will differ from GMOs in one important respect.

When foods are genetically modified, foreign genes are often added to an existing genome. If you want a vegetable to grow better in cold weather, you could add a gene from a fish that lives in icy water. That’s what earned GMO products the “Frankenfoods” moniker.

With gene-editing tools like CRISPR, genes can be cut out, or “turned off,” but nothing new is added to the genome.

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, isn’t convinced there’s a significant difference.

“The new techniques of gene editing are clearly techniques of genetic engineering,” she said. “They are all invasive methods of changing a genome directly at the molecular level.

“While we can produce organisms with new traits, that doesn’t mean we know exactly all of what we’ve done to that organism. There can be many unintended effects,” Sharratt further argued.

 

‘The new techniques of gene editing are clearly techniques of genetic engineering,’ says Lucy Sharratt, a co-ordinator with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network)

 

Unlike GMOs, which require extensive regulatory approval before going to market, gene-edited foods will likely appear without undergoing a risk assessment by Canadian regulators.

Health Canada doesn’t require safety testing for new products if it determines those products aren’t introducing “novel traits” into the food system. Since it considers gene editing to be an extension of traditional plant breeding, no stamp of approval will be necessary.

That concerns Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, who thinks gene-edited products should be tracked and monitored “for those low-level health effects that some products might be contributing to.”

Sharratt is also skeptical that gene editing will produce the benefits its supporters claim, pointing to “a biotech industry that has oversold technology and made all kinds of broad promises for the use of genetic engineering that didn’t come to pass.” Things like reduced pesticide use and greater drought resistance, for example.

 

Jennifer Kuzma is co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Centre at North Carolina State University. (Marc Hall/Submitted by Jennifer Kuzma)

 

Kuzma agrees that GMO researchers have sometimes been guilty of “perhaps overstating the promise of the technology and understating potential risk.” But she believes those involved in developing gene-editing techniques want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

“They have a really sincere desire to be more open and transparent in the ways that they communicate and in the sharing of information,” she said. “They do realize that the first generation of genetic engineering did not go so well from a public confidence perspective.”

No labels

The GMO food industry has fiercely opposed one of the most obvious methods to boost public confidence: mandatory labelling, even as a 2018 survey from Dalhousie University showed an overwhelming majority of Canadians support it.

Sixty-four countries require mandatory labelling for GMO products. Canada is not one of them.

There are no plans to require mandatory labelling of gene-edited foods, either.

Jonathan Latham, executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, a New York-based non-profit organization that researches genetic engineering, thinks that’s a mistake.

“If you want people to make informed decisions and you want them to make that in a democratic fashion, then the more information you give them, the better,” he said. “And so to deny people information about the content of their food is to violate a very basic democratic right.”

Latham also believes that not labelling genetically engineered products increases consumer skepticism.

“[Consumers] don’t really understand why, if a company wants to produce a product and advertise it and tell everybody how good it is, why they shouldn’t also want to label it,” he said.

Sharratt would like to see Canada adopt the approach taken by the European Court of Justice, which ruled in 2018 that gene-edited foods must undergo the same testing as GMOs before being allowed on grocery store shelves.

 

Lippman believes the benefits of gene-edited foods will spur a growth in demand from the public. (David Malosh)

 

Lippman doesn’t believe that will happen. In fact, he thinks the potential of gene-edited foods is so great that the public will demand even greater access to such products.

“People will start to be educated and see that there’s nothing harmful about it. It’s completely fine. And then the only issue sticking out there will be whether we’re over-promising. That’ll be it.”

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Ontario passes new rules aimed at work-life balance for employees – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News

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The Ontario government has passed new laws it says will help employees disconnect from the office and create a better work-life balance.

On Tuesday, the government said it passed the “Working for Workers Act,” which requires Ontario businesses with 25 people or more to have a written policy about employees’ rights when it comes to disconnecting from their job at the end of the day.

These workplace policies could include, for example, expectations about response time for emails and encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they aren’t working, the government says.

According to the act, between January 1 and March 1 of each year an employer must ensure it has a written policy in place for all employees with respect to disconnecting from work.

“We are determined to rebalance the scales and put workers in the driver’s seat of Ontario’s economic growth while attracting the best workers to our great province,” Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, said in a statement Tuesday.

The act also bans the use of non-compete clauses, which prevent people from exploring other work opportunities and higher salaries at other jobs.

According to the government, Ontario is the first jurisdiction in Canada, and one of the first in North America, to ban non-compete agreements in employment.

McNaughton says the new laws not only protects workers’ rights, but also will help to attract top talent and investments to the province.

The act also removes “unfair” work experience requirements for foreign-trained immigrants trying to work in their professions. 

It also introduces a mandatory licencing framework for temporary help agencies and recruiters to help prevent labour trafficking.

“This legislation is another step towards building back a better province and cementing Ontario’s position as a global leader, for others to follow, as the best place in the world to live, work and raise a family,” McNaughton said.

A government spokesperson told CTV News Toronto that while the act has not yet received royal assent, it is expected to later this week.

Timelines for when each law under the Working For Workers Act will come into effect have not been announced yet and the government said it there will be a initial grace period for businesses.

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Asian factories shake off supply headaches but Omicron presents new risks

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Asian factory activity grew in November as crippling supply bottlenecks eased, but rising input costs and renewed weakness in China dampened the region’s prospects for an early, sustained recovery from pandemic paralysis.

The newly detected Omicron coronavirus variant has also emerged as a fresh worry for the region’s policymakers, who are already grappling with the challenge of steering their economies out of the doldrums while trying to tame inflation amid rising commodity costs and parts shortages.

China’s factory activity fell back into contraction in November, the private Caixin/Markit Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) showed on Wednesday, as soft demand and elevated prices hurt manufacturers.

The findings from the private-sector survey, which focuses more on small firms in coastal regions, stood in contrast with those in China’s official PMI on Tuesday that showed manufacturing activity unexpectedly rose in November, albeit at a very modest pace.

“Relaxing constraints on the supply side, especially the easing of the power crunch, quickened the pace of production recovery,” said Wang Zhe, senior economist at Caixin Insight Group, in a statement accompanying the data release.

“But demand was relatively weak, suppressed by the COVID-19 epidemic and rising product prices.”

Beyond China, however, factory activity seemed to be on the mend with PMIs showing expansion in countries ranging from Japan, South Korea, India, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Japan’s PMI rose to 54.5 in November, up from 53.2 in October, the fastest pace of expansion in nearly four years.

South Korea’s PMI edged up to 50.9 from 50.2 in October, holding above the 50-mark threshold that indicates expansion in activity for a 14th straight month.

But output shrank in South Korea for a second straight month as Asia’s fourth-largest economy struggles to fully regain momentum in the face of persistent supply chain disruptions.

“Overall, with new export orders flooding back to countries previously hamstrung by Delta outbreaks and the disruption further down the supply chain still working through, there is plenty of scope for a continued rebound in regional industry,” said Alex Holmes, emerging Asia economist at Capital Economics.

India’s manufacturing activity grew at the fastest pace in 10 months in November, buoyed by a strong pick-up in demand.

Vietnam’s PMI rose to 52.2 in November from 52.1 in October, while that of the Philippines increased to 51.7 from 51.0.

Taiwan’s manufacturing activity continued to expand in November but at a slower pace, with the index hitting 54.9 compared with 55.2 in October. The picture was similar for Indonesia, which saw PMI ease to 53.9 from 57.2 in October.

The November surveys likely did not reflect the spread of the Omicron variant that could add further pressure on pandemic-disrupted supply chains, with many countries imposing fresh border controls to seal themselves off.

(Reporting by Leika Kihara; Editing by Sam Holmes)

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ANZ faces class action for “unfair” interest charged from credit card customers

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Australia and New Zealand Banking Group has been sued by a law firm for charging interest on some purchases by credit card holders which were repaid on time for nearly a decade, the parties said on Wednesday.

The law firm, Phi Finney McDonald, filed a class-action suit in the federal court against Australia’s No. 4 lender for charging interest between July 2010 and January 2019 on purchases that should have been interest-free.

“The terms of ANZ’s contract made it impossible for a typical consumer to understand that they would be charged retrospective interest, even on purchases which they repaid on time,” the law firm said in a statement.

Australia outlawed charging retrospective interest in January 2019.

The lawsuit alleged “unfair contract terms and unconscionable conduct” by the bank, but did not specify the damages it was seeking against ANZ in the federal court.

ANZ said in a statement it would review the claim that its contract contravened the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act.

The lawsuit is the latest in a string of legal actions faced by Australia‘s top banks, ranging from breach of consumer protection credit laws to charging financial advice fees to dead customers.

Scrutiny of Australian lenders and financial institutions has ramped up significantly since a Royal Commission inquiry in 2018 found widespread shortcomings in the sector, forcing companies and regulators to take swift action.

 

(Reporting by Savyata Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur)

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