Views from the Marketplace are paid for by advertisers and select partners of MIT Technology Review. What’s Italy’s biggest export right now? If you answered food, fashion, wine, or sports cars, you’ve guessed wrong. There’s no question that Italy remains famous for its great cuisine, world-class wines, and incomparable automobiles. But the country’s strongest export industry today is high technology. In fact, about 60 percent of Italy’s exports are in machinery, technology, and related industries, according to the Italian Trade Agency (ITA). While Italy’s leaders appreciate their country’s rich history, they believe its future depends on technology, automation, and manufacturing. “The past is gorgeous. The past is incredible. The past is fantastic,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said at the ITA’s recent i3 Forum in Chicago. “We love our past. But we also love our tomorrow.” The event—whose three “i’s” stand for “impact,” “innovate,” and “integrate”—brought together American and Italian entrepreneurs and government leaders for an intensive day of networking, presentations by two groups of Italian innovators, and two panel discussions: one on manufacturing and social innovation, the other on robotics and additive manufacturing. Attendees also toured Chicago’s Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), a new research facility that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called “the epicenter for the United States in the digital advanced manufacturing area.” Renzi, who received a standing ovation when he entered the conference hall, said that Europeans in general tend to be somewhat fearful about the future. “A lot of the time, we consider the future a great threat, not a great opportunity,” he said. But Renzi—who is, at 41, Italy’s youngest prime minister in more than 150 years—takes a more optimistic view. “From Fiat Chrysler down to the last little company, I consider the only solution today to be innovation,” he told the audience, adding later: “I consider it a priority for us to invest in the future with more determination,” drawing on the “strong presence of entrepreneurs, our researchers, our professors, and our people who believe it is possible to build a different idea of the future.” Italy’s relationship with the United States is a leading indicator of that future, several speakers noted. “If you look at figures of the Italian trade with the United States, we see constant growth,” said Armando Varricchio, the recently installed Italian ambassador to the United States. “The United States is a very, very important partner for us,” agreed Ivan Scalfarotto, undersecretary of state at Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development. In the past year, trade between the two countries grew by more than 18 percent, he said: “The total amount of the exchange between the two countries went well above 50 billion euros.” Interviewed during the event, a former ITA president predicted that the relationship would continue to grow. “Looking ahead, I see a very strong expansion of partnerships with the United States,” he said. “Many joint ventures are already attracting investors.” Perhaps nowhere is the current U.S.–Italian relationship stronger than in Chicago. “Today, the city of Chicago and Italy have $2.1 billion worth of trade,” Emanuel said. Marc Allen, president of Boeing International, noted that Boeing moved its corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in 2001. “We found here a very welcoming, diverse, skilled workforce, and Chicago’s been a great home,” Allen said. “I’m really delighted to see the integration between the city of Chicago and the leadership of Italy, because these are two great places that are working together in pretty intentional ways.” In addition, Boeing itself has partnered with Italian companies for nearly 70 years—and expects to keep doing so. “We have a global production system,” Allen noted. “Despite the fact that we do final assembly of our airplanes, for example, in either Puget Sound in Washington State, or Charleston in South Carolina, the planes themselves are truly manufactured through our constantly moving, 24/7 global production systems, which include our partners, many of whom are in Italy. Continuing to build out those partnerships, continuing to make them more effective, is really where we see a great deal of necessary innovation.” Among the areas where Italy sees the most promise are robotics and automation. “This is a fantastic industry,” with more than 400 companies employing 32,000 people in Italy, Scalfarotto said. Those companies generate more than 6 billion euros, with two-thirds of that amount exported abroad—much of it to the United States. One panel discussion offered a multi-faceted look into that industry. Moderated by Kathleen D. Kennedy, president of the MIT Enterprise Forum, the panel featured an academic, a journalist, and two industry representatives—an entrepreneur and an executive from a global enterprise. Their message: robotics and automation are already transforming the manufacturing world. “Acceptance of robots has reached a critical point in North America,” said Sarah Webster, then-editor in chief of Manufacturing Engineering magazine, published by SME, a professional association for manufacturing engineers. “We’ve had several consecutive years of record robotic sales in the United States.” She predicted that sales will continue to grow as prices decline, programming becomes easier, and demand increases. “Even the smaller shops now are having so much trouble finding workers that they need robots,” Webster said. In fact, she added: “They can’t build them fast enough.” Panelists wanted to put to rest the myth that robots will steal human jobs. Webster cited an SME survey that asked participants whether they viewed robotics as a job creator or a job killer. “Ninety percent of our audience said it was a job creator,” she said. “That’s because these people work in manufacturing, and they see what’s happening. A robot may technically displace someone who’s doing the same job, but ultimately, that worker is needed somewhere else.” Arturo Baroncelli, business development manager for Comau, the Italian robotics and automation company, agreed. “There is no connection between the increase of robotics and the decrease of employment,” he said. Instead, robots can be used for jobs that are too dangerous or difficult for humans to do. “Even Mike Tyson in his prime wasn’t able to manipulate 200 kilograms [about 440 pounds] 24 hours a day,” Baroncelli said. “No person in the world is able to move 200 pieces per minute, or to handle red-hot pieces.” Combining robotic and human efforts offers new ways to address long-standing problems, said David Corsini, founder of Telerobot Labs, an Italian company that designs and builds automation systems for production processes. “There are operations that humans alone can’t perform and operations that a machine alone cannot perform,” Corsini explained. “The integration of human capability with the capability of robots is the solution.” Panelists acknowledged that the cooperative model is in its infancy. “At this moment, the robots are still small. The payload is low. But the trend is there,” Baroncelli said. “I see more flexible systems using cooperative robots and humans together, each one bringing to the party what it does best.” When Kennedy asked panelists to predict what they might be discussing in five years, Giorgio Metta summed it up in five words: “a robot in every home.” Metta, a professor at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova added: “I think that’s a huge market, in numbers at least.” He acknowledged that, so far, research has focused largely on industrial uses for robots, but he said the technology offers promise for personal applications as well. The panel’s forward-looking approach dovetailed nicely with Renzi’s earlier call to look forward rather than back. “It’s not enough to say that the future is better than the past,” he told the crowd. “The future is wonderful. This is a message for the American people. This must be the message also for the Italian people.” For more about the event, visit the i3 Forum website.
Arriving home after work a few summers ago, agricultural economist Matin Qaim found several disturbing messages on his home phone. A study by Qaim had shown that small-scale farmers in India who grew genetically modified cotton had larger harvests compared with conventional cotton growers. Those better yields resulted in greater profits for the mostly poor farmers and more disposable income to spend on basics like food and education. Several media outlets had covered the results, which had been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But journalists weren’t the only people contacting Qaim about the research. “Don’t support this irresponsible destruction to the environment,” implored one caller on Qaim’s answering machine. “Think of your children, think of the world’s children,” a woman pleaded. Qaim, of the University of Göttingen in Germany, has been studying the social and financial impacts of genetically modified organisms for years. Yet he is not blindly pro-GMO and his interpretation of his own study’s results was nuanced. The GM cotton planted by the farmers was Bt cotton, which contains genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium often used by organic farmers. Adding the Bt genes gives the cotton a built-in pesticide against the cotton bollworm, a scourge that can decimate crops. Among the farmers Qaim studied, those who switched to the Bt cotton lost fewer plants and saw their profits increase by 50 percent. But the adoption of Bt cotton in that part of India was relatively recent and the positive impacts wouldn’t necessarily last. Area bollworms might become resistant to Bt toxins, Qaim noted both in his paper and in interviews. Such caveats didn’t matter to the hostile callers, Qaim says. He has learned to keep quiet about his work in his casual conversations with parents at his daughters’ school. In the heated debate over genetically modified organisms, there’s little room for nuance. “We are in a world that’s painted black and white,” Qaim says. “In Europe in particular, people are deeply convinced that GM crops are bad for the world. If you say anything in favor of GM crops, you are talking in favor of evil.” That designation of evil is one of the two prevailing narratives concerning genetically engineered foods. GMO opponents tell the story that “Franken” organisms are a new technology that poses known and unknowable dangers to human health, the environment and society at large. On the other side, proponents argue that GMOs are a harmless and necessary tool for saving a world threatened by over-population and a changing climate. The loudest voices on the proponent side are typically cast as shills for Big Agriculture (some of them are), while the loudest on the anti-GMO side are typically cast as fear-mongering luddites (some of them are). This broad brush is problematic for several reasons, Qaim and others argue. The term GMO itself is a catchall that encompasses a wide range of products developed through a variety of means, each with its own risks and benefits. There are GMOs that have led to large reductions in the use of pesticides, for example, and there are GMOs that have made herbicide use skyrocket. The broad brush also fails when labeling the developers of GM technology: Commercial giants of the agrochemical pesticide industry have developed GMOs, but so have academic scientists funded by nonprofits or the public sector. “A technology like GM crops is neither good nor bad,” Qaim says. “Talking about the impact of GMOs is way too broad.” The diversity of engineering processes and the products that result will probably continue to grow. For example, the relatively new CRISPR technology, which allows for superprecise gene editing (SN: 12/26/15, p. 18), may soon become a GMO tool of choice. But generally speaking, the technologies behind GMOs are decades old. And despite fears of unknown risks, GMOs have been studied extensively. The picture drawn from decades of research is out of sync with many common public perceptions. While unforeseeable health issues are often at the forefront of public concern, foods containing GMOs have been on grocery shelves for more than 20 years. Piles of evidence suggest that eating GMOs is no riskier than eating conventional foods. Effects on the environment are more mixed. Some of the problems that have arisen, such as the uptick in the use of certain herbicides, are more about farming practices than about dangers inherent to GM technology; the same problems arise with conventional, non-GM crops. The environmental consequences of engineered genes escaping into the wild are less clear. But while the fallout can be hard to predict, the odds of such escapes actually happening can often be evaluated. With the Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of GM salmon (SN Online: 11/19/15), for example, scientists agree that there is a slim possibility that escapees could harm native fish populations; that risk could be curtailed, however, with strict oversight about where and how such fish are farmed. There’s also a lot of unrealized promise. GMOs are often touted as a way to boost the nutrient content of foods to fight malnutrition. Yet GMOs that are on the market have largely benefited those producing them — companies and farmers — rather than consumers. There are many health-boosting GMOs in development, including bananas with increased iron; plants that make omega-3 fish oils and rice, sorghum and cassava enriched with vitamin A. New crops, such as those engineered to tolerate drought or excess salt in the soil, could play a crucial role as shifts in climate threaten the farming status quo and in turn, food supplies. Over time, plant breeding has gained speed and precision. Traditional crossbreeding mixes entire plant genomes and can take decades to yield a new variety. Transgenics and RNA interference breeding influence a handful of genes and can bring new products within a few years. Expose seeds or young plants to radiation or chemicals and select desirable mutants Transfer specific genes by nonsexual means from one organism into another Herbicide- and pest-resistant crops. In development: drought-tolerant peanut, wilt-resistant banana, bacteria-resistant orange, fungus-resistant chestnut, biofortified rice (includes Golden Rice), barley, corn and potato Using RNA to turn off specific genes Nonbrowning potato and apple. In development: decaffeinated coffee, tearless onion, higher-nutrition tomato, peanut and corn Foods containing GMOs have been on the market since the 1990s. Some are eaten as a whole organism — such as papaya engineered to resist the ringspot virus. Others end up as ingredients in processed foods, such as corn syrup. Genetic engineering is involved in more than two-thirds of foods sold in the United States, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The processes that yield foods considered GM vary. Some contain genes from other organisms that impart a particular trait. Bt corn, for example, contains bacterial genes that make the crop toxic to soft-bodied caterpillars and some other insects. With other GMOs, the modifying entails dialing down the activity of genes that already exist in the plant, as with the just-approved Arctic apples and Innate potatoes that don’t brown when cut. The genes responsible for the enzymes that brown the flesh are silenced. Common GM ingredients, such as canola and soy oils, cornstarch and corn syrup, and sugar from beets, come from crops that have been modified to make farming them easier. Genetic engineering is also used to make minor ingredients that might be too complicated or expensive to produce via standard chemistry or too difficult or inefficient to harvest from their habitats in nature. Many microbes have been engineered to pump out vitamins, enzymes and other food additives, for example, a process that’s typically much easier and more environmentally friendly than acquiring such ingredients from natural sources. The first genetically engineered food product approved by the FDA, in 1990, was a version of the bacterium E. coli engineered to make the enzyme chymosin, which prompts the ripening of cheese. Before the E. coli effort, chymosin was harvested from the stomachs of nursing calves as a by-product of the veal industry. Today, roughly 80 percent of hard cheeses sold in the United States are made with chymosin from engineered microbes. Crops engineered to be herbicide tolerant (HT) or toxic to specific insects (Bt), or both, have taken over U.S. farming acreage since their introduction in the 1990s. These modifications can reduce pesticide use and carbon emissions, but they can also lead to herbicide resistance if overused. These diverse products are all subject to testing before they can be sold. While there’s always concern that genetic modifications could introduce a new allergen or a toxin into the food chain, that hasn’t happened yet. Testing is typically framed in terms of the notion of “substantial equivalence.” The GMO is compared in substance and nutrition with its nonengineered version. The introduced genetic material, which yields a transgenic protein that causes some change to the organism, is also scrutinized for structural similarities with toxic proteins or other biologically active molecules, such as known allergens. The temperature and acidity level at which the transgenic protein breaks down is also assessed to see how it might fare in the body. Digestibility and potential toxicity are also evaluated. While every new modification presents a new case for scrutiny, so far the GMO health track record is clean. And GMO products have been tested by more than their developers, who have a clear interest in their approval. Independent researchers have looked for red flags in numerous studies. “So far, there is no reason for concern,” says biotechnologist Alessandro Nicolia of the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development in Rome. He was a coauthor of a 2013 paper analyzing 10 years of GMO studies, 770 of which related to human and animal safety. Despite numerous studies finding that eating GMOs is no riskier than eating conventional foods, claims of adverse effects persist. GMOs are sometimes a scapegoat for allergies, including the uptick in gluten intolerance — digestive problems caused by a protein found in wheat and some other grains. But no such link is supported by the research, says Nicolia. He points out that, although GM wheat exists, it is not on the market anywhere in the world. And correlations can be easily conjured: The rise in gluten intolerance also coincides with a rise in the availability of organic foods, for instance. The few cases in which a transgenic protein has acted as an allergen were identified via testing well before the products reached consumers. One, for example, involved transferring Brazil nut proteins, which contain an important dietary amino acid, into soybeans for animal feed. Testing revealed that the transgenic Brazil nut protein provoked an immune response in people; the study reporting the findings made headlines in 1996 when it appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. Development of those soybeans was abandoned. Minimum fraction of foods sold in the United States that contain GMOs Estimated portion of hard cheeses sold in the U.S. that are made with enzymes created by genetically modified microbes Of course, because evaluations look primarily for molecules that resemble known allergens, there is always a risk that something novel could spur an immune response. Absolute certainty doesn’t exist, for GMOs or conventional foods. In fact, because the testing is fairly extensive and the quantities of transgenic proteins in an engineered organism are typically so low, many scientists argue that it’s easier to detect a potential allergen in a GM crop than in a conventional crop. Not long after the kiwifruit’s arrival in the United Kingdom, several adverse reactions revealed that some people were allergic to the fruit, according to the United Kingdom’s 2003 GM Science Review Panel. Several scientific bodies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization, have reviewed the existing evidence and concluded that eating GM foods is no riskier than eating conventional foods. Numerous studies, and reviews of those studies, have come to similar conclusions. Plant geneticist Agnès Ricroch coauthored several review papers assessing GMO safety, including a 2012 paper examining the long-term health of animals fed GM corn, potatoes, soybeans, rice and the grain triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. “In all of the studies published, of all GM crops authorized to be marketed, we have seen no adverse effects,” says Ricroch, of France’s Academy of Agriculture and AgroParisTech in Paris. “There is no risk to health for humans or animals.” Still, fears that genetically modified organisms cause health problems — from cancer to autism — linger. Such concerns have been fueled by a now thoroughly debunked but high-profile 2012 study by French researchers purporting to show that GM corn caused cancer in rats. The work was almost immediately discredited on multiple accounts, including faulty statistics and the fact that the researchers used rats from a strain that is naturally prone to tumors. The paper was widely criticized and later retracted. But the initial media campaign by the scientists, which included images of rats with enormous tumors and offers of early access only to journalists who agreed not to talk to other scientists about the results, had lasting effects. The paper, which was recently republished in a different journal, is still cited in some anti-GMO camps as evidence for a lack of consensus concerning health effects. Discourse about the health hazards of eating GMOs is frustrating on multiple levels, says Ricroch. Controversy has slowed GMO progress in the area of enhancing foods’ nutritional value. The poster child for such a crop is Golden Rice, which has been engineered to produce a vitamin A precursor, beta-carotene, in the grain (the plant normally produces the stuff in its green tissues but not in the edible endosperm). Because of vitamin A deficiency, more than 250,000 children become blind every year, and half of them die within a year of losing their sight. By adding a gene from a bacterium and one from corn (swapped for a daffodil gene used in earlier versions), the rice makes beta-carotene that is converted to vitamin A when eaten. The Golden Rice project was never a commercial one. When its creators launched the project more than 20 years ago, the intention was to combat malnutrition in developing countries. Yet the crop has met serious resistance. In August 2013, fields of trial plants in the Philippines were trampled and destroyed by anti-GMO protestors. The destruction prompted thousands to sign a statement condemning the destruction of the rice fields, which was echoed in an editorial in Science. Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of blindness and death in children. Golden Rice (bottom), engineered to make a vitamin A precursor in the grain, offers an antidote, but has met strong opposition from environmental groups. Science has repeatedly laid to rest claims about GMOs’ adverse effects on human health. But some environmental impacts have surfaced. The primary problem, though — weed resistance to particular herbicides — is not unique to GM crops. Engineered crops typically have traits that help farmers tackle very old foes. Weeds are one such headache, and they were among the earliest targets of genetic engineers. While chemical weed killers were in use before the advent of GM crops, the use of the herbicide glyphosate, marketed as Roundup, has skyrocketed since the introduction in the 1990s of crops engineered to withstand it. Glyphosate meddles with an essential plant enzyme; the engineered crops have a bacterial version of the enzyme, so the plants persist while neighboring weeds perish. “Roundup ready” plants, which now dominate U.S. fields, include soybeans, corn, canola, cotton and sugar beets. Many herbicides interfere with a specific aspect of plant metabolism. Repeated use (across acres and time) leads to weeds resistant to the herbicides’ action. A growing number of weeds are resistant to several herbicide classes (listed below), including glyphosate (black line). GM crops that tolerate herbicides deserve some praise: They help minimize mechanical weed removal, which means less soil erosion, more carbon stored in the soil and fewer carbon emissions from tilling equipment making trips across fields, scientists noted in 2012 in a special issue of Weed Science focused on herbicide-resistance management. And compared with many of the herbicides it replaced, glyphosate is less toxic; it also offered ease and flexibility to farmers who previously had to carefully navigate the timing and selection of applying various herbicides. “Everyone started growing them and then everyone started using glyphosate,” says weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith of Oregon State University, an expert in herbicide resistance. When the same herbicide is applied to the same area year after year, overuse can lead to evolved resistance, as it does with antibiotics, says William Vencill of the University of Georgia, coauthor with Mallory-Smith of a paper in the Weed Science special issue. There are now major weeds, such as Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri), that have developed resistance to glyphosate, leaving farmers scrambling for new solutions, including use of chemical controls that are more toxic than glyphosate. These weeds are not “superweeds,” Mallory-Smith says. “There’s nothing super about them and they can still be controlled with other herbicides.” She emphasizes that this cycle, known as the herbicide treadmill, isn’t unique to GM crops. “We’ve had resistance problems for more than 50 years,” she says. “It results from overuse and mismanagement.” Herbicide resistance is predictable — that’s Evolution 101. And the chances that genes from GM crops will spread to wild relatives is similarly predictable. It depends on basic biology, says Mallory-Smith. “The bottom line is if you have a species with compatible relatives that occur in the same area, gene flow will occur,” she says. We’ve had [herbicide] resistance problems for more than 50 years. It results from overuse and mismanagement. And it has. While corn and soy don’t have close wild relatives in the United States, canola, another widely planted GM crop, does. Herbicide-resistance genes from GM canola have turned up in wild, weedy mustard plants on roadsides in the United States, Canada and elsewhere. Mallory-Smith and colleagues have documented another escapee: a GM version of creeping bentgrass, a turf species that was being tested in Oregon. The grass has established itself in patches near the test site, and it has hybridized with a local weed called rabbitfootgrass. “It’s always good to ask where will the genes go and what difference will it make,” says ecologist Allison Snow of Ohio State University, also an expert in transgenic gene flow. And while the documented cases of escapees suggest that regulatory agencies need to apply more caution regarding where GM plants can be grown, there haven’t been any catastrophic outcomes, she says. “The things we worried about 10 years ago haven’t yet happened,” she says. “I can’t point to anything dire.” GM escapees present legitimate legal and cultural conundrums, Snow notes. For example, an organic farmer can no longer call crops organic if they get contaminated by nearby GM crops. “But that’s not an ecological problem,” she says. “It has nothing to do with a GM species taking over.” The potential environmental implications of an escaped GM Atlantic salmon, the first GM animal to garner regulatory approval, are a little harder to predict. But there are multiple safeguards in place to prevent the fast-growing fish from escaping and breeding in the wild. There are biological precautionary measures: The fish are engineered to be all female and to have three sets of chromosomes so they can’t breed with wild fish. But error rates in the sterilization process are inevitable and roughly 1 percent will probably be able to breed successfully. There are also physical hurdles: The current approved arrangement for farming the fish entails producing the eggs in an indoor facility in Canada and then shipping them to inland covered tanks in the highlands of Panama. What would happen if GM fish escaped and bred in the wild is a big question. In experiments with GM coho salmon, the transgenic fish grow rapidly in a hatchery tank, but not in a simulated natural stream. It’s unknown if the same would happen for newly approved GM Atlantic salmon. “There are a lot of redundant layers of strict confinement,” says Virginia Tech fisheries expert Eric Hallerman. “That’s why I’m comfortable with it.” The fast-growing fish contains a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and regulatory DNA from the eel-like ocean pout that keeps the salmon growing all year, enabling the fish to reach full size in a year and a half instead of the standard three years. And while the modified salmon look formidable next to slower-growing relatives, if they did escape and somehow managed to persist, it’s not clear who would outcompete whom in the wild, says fisheries biologist Robert Devlin of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. For several years, Devlin and his colleagues have been growing an equivalent transgenic Pacific salmon in land-bound caged tanks and mock streams. Experiments with these transgenics and wild fish present a mixed picture that plays out differently in different contexts. For example, the engineered salmon outcompete their wild relatives in the cushy tanks where food is plentiful. But they are at a disadvantage in the mock streams where there is less food and there are predators. Evidence from other studies, reviewed in June 2015 by Devlin and coauthors in BioScience, suggests that the GM fish take more risks than wild salmon, which makes them more likely to be eaten. Yet different experiments, breeding GM Atlantic salmon with wild brown trout, suggest that in some contexts hybrid offspring can outcompete both their GM and wild parents, scientists reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2013. Devlin is reserved in his verdict. “I’m not against transgenic technology and I’m not for it,” he says. “I’m neutral. There could be lots of benefits, but my view is we proceed with scientific information rather than speculation.” That view dominates in the scientific community, yet acceptance of GMOs by the public hinges on more than good science. Some critics take issue with GMOs, not out of misplaced fear, but because they see a yawning gap between the promise of GM foods — feeding the world’s poor — and what’s been realized: a handful of corporations making money selling both the GM seeds and the chemicals needed to grow them. That scenario doesn’t inspire trust, Qaim notes. In the United States, a legacy of regulatory debacles, such as the delay in curtailing the use of the pesticide DDT, doesn’t help either. Fraction of biotech crop farmers who are in resource-poor nations Yet while GMOs and profits for agribusiness seem cemented together in the public’s mind, it’s an inaccurate picture, Qaim says. Despite approved crops being created for markets in the developed world, farmers in developing countries have seen higher incomes, greater productivity and significant reductions in pesticide use, according to a 2014 analysis by Qaim and former Göttingen colleague Wilhelm Klümper. And the next generation of GMOs, many of which are stalled in regulatory limbo, increasingly have traits that benefit consumers, not just the producers of the crops. Whether the specter of Big Ag’s role in developing and selling many of the existing GMOs will overshadow future developments remains to be seen. Currently, even when there’s funding and momentum to develop a new GMO in the lab, public sector efforts often wilt in the face of the cost, time and political will needed to gain approval — leaving the successes to the giants, Qaim notes. If the tide turns, promising crops, such as a gluten-free wheat or GM green beans with added iron to fight anemia, might make their mark alongside the yield-improving GM crops. Hallerman says the real significance of the GM-salmon approval is that it could be a step toward opening minds among the public, although that may take generations, he says. (Whole Foods and Costco have announced they will not sell the GM salmon.) “It’s not about salmon for Western consumers,” he says. “It’s about food security in the developing world.” In 1999, a small study published in Nature found that monarch butterfly caterpillars that ate milkweed leaves dusted with Bt corn pollen died after a few days. But research reported in six studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2001 found the pollen was toxic to the caterpillars only in the huge doses used in the study, which were much greater than what the insects would encounter in the field. Still, GM crops appear to pose a legitimate threat to the butterflies: Heavy use of the herbicide glyphosate, thanks to the widespread planting of crops engineered to resist it, has wiped out much of the milkweed the butterflies rely on for food. Farmland in the Midwest lost 80 percent of its milkweed from 1999 to 2010; the decline was mirrored in monarch populations, scientists reported in 2013 in Insect Conservation and Diversity. — Rachel Ehrenberg This article appears in the February 6, 2016, issue of Science News with the headline "GMOs under scrutiny."
« Paice files complaint against VW Group with ITC alleging hybrid patent infringement | Main | FTA selects 7 projects to receive $22.5M in grants for battery-electric and fuel cell buses, infrastructure » California Air Resources Board (ARB) Chair Mary Nichols today is leading a rally of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles with Energy Commissioner Janea Scott and Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) Deputy Director Tyson Eckerle on a 400-mile journey from Los Angeles to ARB headquarters in Sacramento in celebration of Earth Day. The rally is intended to highlight that these hydrogen-fueled electric vehicles are now available for sale or lease, and there is a rapidly growing statewide network of hydrogen filling stations to support them. California leads the US in developing hydrogen fueling stations, with 15 retail stations open now and more than 30 additional in development. In an effort to put my money where my mouth is, I’ve become an early adopter of electric vehicles and just recently extended my range with a new fuel cell electric vehicle. Thanks to California’s hydrogen infrastructure investments, my Toyota Mirai FCEV can get me anywhere I need to go. This rally puts the network to the test and gives us a fun opportunity to highlight that hydrogen-powered cars are essential to meeting our climate goals and a crucial tool in the state’s effort to clean up our air—especially in the Central Valley. Fuel cell electric vehicles in the rally include models from Toyota, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz. The California Energy Commission’s Alternative and Renewable Fuels and Vehicle Technology Program is providing cost-sharing for an initial network of at least 100 stations through 2023 by investing up to $20 million each year for stations located where customers driving fuel cell electric vehicles live, work and travel. About $100 million has been invested to date to support the construction, operation and maintenance of 49 hydrogen refueling stations, including a mobile refueler. There are more than 300 fuel cell electric vehicles on the road in California today; ARB staff projects 6,650 fuel cell electric vehicles will be registered in the state in 2017, and 10,500 in 2018.
« Mitsubishi establishes special external committee to investigate improper fuel economy testing | Main | FCA US to invest $74.7M in Trenton Engine Complex for new 4-cylinder » Comet Biorefining recently signed an off-take agreement with bio-succinic acid producer BioAmber for high-purity dextrose from Comet’s planned commercial plant in Sarnia, Ontario. The dextrose will be produced from agricultural residues using Comet’s innovative technology. (Earlier post.) The off-take agreement also includes provisions for Comet to supply dextrose to future BioAmber manufacturing facilities and provides BioAmber with certain exclusive rights in the fields of succinic acid, 1,4-butanediol (BDO) and tetrahydrofuran (THF). BioAmber provided an equity investment in Comet in 2015 and its CEO Jean-Francois Huc is now joining Comet’s board of directors. The Comet cellulosic sugar process uses a novel, two-stage process to activate cellulosic biomass, followed by conversion to glucose at very low enzyme loading. Comet’s technology enables sugars to be produced competitively from biomass versus corn or cane-derived sugars, the benchmark raw materials for today’s biochemical production. Comet’s facilities can also be built on a smaller scale enabling greater flexibility to locate production closer to biomass supplies and lower a region’s greenhouse gas footprint. The off-take agreement is the culmination of development work performed by Comet and BioAmber as part of BioIndustrial Innovation Canada’s recently completed cellulosic sugar study. Comet Biorefining operates a demonstration-scale plant in Rotondella, Italy, owned by ENEA—the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and Sustainable Economic Development. In February 2016, Comet Biorefining announced the construction a 60 million pounds per year commercial sugar plant to come online in 2018. The company plans to build, own and operate its own plants and will strategically license its technology to select partners on a worldwide basis to meet the growing demand for bio-based products.
News Article | March 24, 2016
Last week, San Francisco residents found that their regional rail service, the BART, was experiencing systemwide delays and thwarting commutes. Such service problems aren't unusual. In response to the news, for example, one rider tweeted, “we've come to expect rush-hour equipment problems and train delays from you [BART]. What you're saying is that today ends with '-day'.” What was uncommon was the response from @SFBART, the service's official Twitter account, which happened to be run that day by employee Taylor Huckaby. Instead of merely apologizing, Huckaby explained. “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality,” he tweeted. “We have 3 hours a night to do maintenance on a system built to serve 100k per week that now serves 430k per day. #ThisIsOurReality” While Huckaby’s response was taken by many as a refreshing bit of candor from a public agency, others were more cynical. SF Weekly's Chris Roberts equated Huckaby’s BART sanctioned “real talk” to a long con on the part of BART designed to raise enough political will to pass a $3.5 billion dollar bond measure which BART says it needs to overhaul the system and make critical maintenance changes. The problems that Huckaby highlighted are real, however, and they aren’t limited to BART or to San Francisco. Nationwide mass transit systems are faltering. Washington, D.C. shut down its Metro for 29 hours last week, citing the need for critical repairs after an electrical fire halted its rail system. The shutdown left 700,000 commuters scrambling for alternative transportation and exacerbating the city’s already awful traffic. Over the next year, New York City's MTA is closing 30 subway stations to fast track overdue repairs. Boston’s T is plagued with maintenance problems that became particularly acute during the winter of 2015 when snow and cold crippled service for a month. And all of this is happening at a time when more of us are riding public transportation than ever before. In 2014 Americans took 10.8 billion rides on mass transit—the highest number of rides in 58 years, according to the American Public Transit Administration (APTA), a mass transit advocacy group. APTA’s data reflects much of what Huckaby tweeted: Between 1995 and 2014, mass transit ridership increased 39 percent nationwide, while driving peaked in the mid-2000s. This shift to mass transit isn’t happening just in cities with established mass transit systems like New York and San Francisco. It’s also happening in cities that we don’t necessarily equate with mass transit—cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Salt Lake City. If BART and Huckaby are trying to manipulate riders into voting for increased financing—and they claim they're not—you can hardly blame them. Mass transit is starved for cash. The money that funds mass transit, whether it's bus, train, light rail, or trolley, comes from a mix of four sources: riders, federal subsidies, state subsidies, and local transit support, usually through property taxes. And all of them are shrinking. On the federal side, most of that money comes from the federal gas tax: 18.4 cents on a gallon of regular gas 24.3 cents on the gallon for diesel, with 81-percent going to fund highways and the remaining 19 percent going to mass transit. That’s right—mass transit depends on people driving cars for a significant portion of its federal funding. Unfortunately the Highway Trust Fund is perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy. The fund was designed to collect the gas tax and dispense it to states and municipalities to spend on their transit projects. The money collected was to roughly equal the money dispensed minus reserves. Since 2008, however, the fund has spent more than it's received. The issue is that while costs, partly due to inflation, have increased the gas tax has remained the same since 1993, not keeping pace with inflation. At the same time, cars become more efficient, which means people are buying fewer gallons of gas. The end result is less funding for transit, and a find that's only managed to stay afloat this far through congressional dispensation. “There have been substantial declines in the gas tax between 2002 and 2012,” said Phil Oliff, a manager at The Pew Charitable Trusts and an author on a 2014 Pew study that looks at transportation funding. “When you adjust for inflation, the gas tax has declined about 31 percent at the federal level and 19 percent at the state level.” This leaves little money for the maintenance necessary to keep mass transit systems going, nevermind the expansions necessary to move increasing numbers of riders. This isn’t a problem just for mass transit, but when you’re drawing from a smaller pool of money in the first place, its impact is more acute. When combined with the fact that, at every level of governance the percentage of dollars we direct to highways exceeds what we spend on mass transit, it becomes apparent that not only does mass transit receive a smaller percentage of the pie, but that pie is shrinking. This isn’t just a problem for mass transit riders, it's a problem for drivers too. Quality mass transit trumps road building when it comes to reducing traffic. In fact, planners and economists call road building “induced demand” because it encourages people to hop into their cars instead of walking or taking mass transit. Cities like New York don’t have high rates of mass transit ridership simply because they have broad comprehensive systems, but because driving in New York City is frequently more expensive and slower than alternatives. “Bringing cars off of the roads, both saves money in terms of road building and road requirements,” said Glen Weisbrod, whose company, Economic Development Research Group, Inc., researches the economic impact of a range of development projects including mass transit. Each time mass transit proves itself be less reliable, however, it creates an incentive for people to take to the roads. Why not simply have the riders bear the full cost of the system? After all on average, the cost of a BART fare covers 68 percent of the cost of a ride, more than that of most transit systems. Subsidies make up the rest. But even if riders bore 100 percent of the cost, this would only cover the cost of daily ridership, not long-term maintenance and capital improvements. Additionally, there’s a tipping point at which transit costs will push people back into cars, and road building as already mentioned does nothing to combat traffic while also being still more costly. Finally, there’s the issue of fairness: Drivers don’t bear the full cost of roadways, so why should mass transit riders bear the full cost of mass transit? A 2015 US PIRG study found that user revenue only covered 48 percent of the costs of roads. General taxpayers, and bond dollars filled in the remaining 52 percent. The way we talk about mass transit funding could leave one with the distinct impression that it’s a burden, not a boon. “Public transportation is seen as having three kinds of benefits social, economic, and environmental,” said Weisbrod. Socially, mass transit benefits the many people who can’t (or shouldn’t) drive: children, the elderly, the blind, and St. Paddy’s day revelers. Environmentally, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and economically, Weisbrod found that for every $1 billion of annual investment in public transportation leads lead to more than $1.7 billion of net annual additional GDP, most of which stays in the local community. To get those benefits, we need to have mass transit that’s reliable and responsive to people’s needs. And for that, we need proper funding. “It’s important to understand financing isn’t funding,” said Oliff. “Financing measures like municipal bonds, infrastructure banks, and public private partners are not by themselves the solution to the country’s transportation funding challenges. Financing is an important tool, but at the end of the day they need to be repaid using revenue sources like taxes tolls or fees.” And that means getting serious about funding mass transit.