Throwback Thursday: Björk’s ‘Debut’ — what a way to begin

Updated 12 July 2018
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Throwback Thursday: Björk’s ‘Debut’ — what a way to begin

ROTTERDAM: By titling her 1993 breakthrough “Debut,” Björk cutely shrugged off the juvenilia of an earlier self-titled solo album — an Icelandic collection of translated covers released some 16 years earlier — and subtly distanced herself from the three LPs she recorded as lead singer of The Sugarcubes, pointedly signaling her unfiltered voice as unleashed for the first time.   

As revolutionary as it was, “Debut” —which celebrates a 25th anniversary this month — held only bare hints of the heights of artistic invention its author would later rise to. Yet it remains both a generation-defining classic and an apt introduction to one of the most rewarding back catalogues in popular music.  

Opener “Human Behavior” welcomes us to Björk’s cosmic universe with skittish marching band rhythms and a funky timpani riff sampled from Antônio Carlos Jobim, framing that searing, untamed trademark voice — both playful and primordial, coquettish and confessional. The lyrics address us from the point of view of an alien — establishing its creator’s otherworldliness from the off.   

So much of the record’s charms lie in these contrasting textures and unexpected instrumentation — such as the chiming percussion, tabla and Indian orchestra of lilting love letter “Venus as a Boy.”

The role of then-hip producer Nellee Hooper has perhaps been historically overstated, but the influence of the UK’s early 1990s club scene remains revelatory, most evident in the repeatedly remixed singles “Violently Happy” and “Big Time Sensuality.” While far from the first female falsetto to wail over a four-to-the-floor beat, Björk did so as a singer-songwriter, not a hired gun, flipping the genre’s predominant DJ-led hierarchy squarely on its head.  

And, pivotally, she sold records doing so — Björk legitimated electronica to critics and introduced clubby sounds to a mainstream audience, decimating the post-grunge idea that serious and insightful music needed to be made by moody men with guitars. Debut also made Björk a household name, eventually selling close to five million copies and topping numerous decade-end poles. For all its depth, originality and impact, Debut was just the tip of an iceberg — but what a way to begin.


Battle lines drawn as EU court weighs fate of gene-edited crops

Updated 20 July 2018
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Battle lines drawn as EU court weighs fate of gene-edited crops

  • The European Union has long restricted the use of genetically modified organisms widely adopted around the world
  • The first wave of gene-edited crops may involve removing harmful elements from food
LONDON: Gene editing in agriculture takes center stage next Wednesday when Europe’s highest court rules in a case that could determine the fate of the technology that is already making waves in the field of medicine.
The European Union has long restricted the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) widely adopted around the world, but there is legal uncertainty as to whether modern gene editing of crops should fall under the same strict GMO rules.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) will rule whether the use of genetic mutation, or mutagenesis, which is now exempt from GMO rules, should differentiate between techniques that have been used for decades and the new gene-editing technology.
The biotech industry argues that much of gene editing is effectively little different to the mutagenesis that occurs naturally or is induced by radiation — a standard plant breeding method since the 1950s.
But environmentalists, anti-GM groups and farmers concerned about the potential environmental and health impacts of all genetically engineered products fear that allowing gene editing would usher in a new era of “GMO 2.0” via the backdoor.
Gene editing with the CRISPR/Cas9 tool and other techniques has the potential to make hardier and more nutritious crops — as well as offering drug companies new ways to fight human disease.
US biotech firm Calyxt, for example, has gene edited soybeans to produce healthier oil with no trans fats and it is growing 17,000 acres of its new design across the US Midwest this year.
Big agrochemical specialists such as Germany’s Bayer and US firm DowDuPont are also stepping up investment in the technology.
The case before the ECJ was brought by a group of French agricultural associations that want the existing EU exemption for plant varieties obtained via mutagenesis to be restricted to long-standing conventional techniques.
While older GMO technology typically adds new DNA to a crop or animal, gene editing can cause a mutation by changing a few pieces of DNA code. It works with great speed and precision, like the find-and-replace function on a word processor.
“Anything you can do by standard mutagenesis you can do 10 or maybe 50 times quicker,” said Johnathan Napier, who is leading a trial at Rothamsted Research which has involved the sowing of the first gene-edited crops in Britain.
He said the first wave of gene-edited crops may involve removing harmful elements from food, such as developing peanuts without peanut allergens or castor bean oil without ricin toxin.
But critics say the technology is not yet proven safe — an argument that may have gained weight this week after research suggested gene editing can cause risky collateral DNA damage.
So far, the signs are that the court may lean toward the biotech industry’s view. ECJ advocate general Michal Bobek advised in January that organisms could be exempt from GMO rules if they did not have added foreign DNA.
The advocate general’s view is not binding but is usually followed by ECJ judges.
John Brennan, secretary general of the biotech industry group EuropaBio, believes gene-edited crops will bring consumer and environmental benefits, as well as keeping Europe at the forefront of a technology important for jobs and growth.
“A clearer regulatory status is essential for communicating and understanding the opportunities that these tools and products present,” he said.
The first wave of gene-edited crops involves removing potentially harmful elements, such as the allergens in peanuts or ricin toxin in castor bean oil, said Napier at Rothmsted.
Environmental groups see things very differently.
“We’re talking about genetic engineering and that should be regulated under GMO law,” said Franziska Achterberg of Greenpeace.
Friends of the Earth, which helped bring the original case in France, contends that failure to regulate gene editing could cause permanent damage to Europe’s food sector.
Some retail groups that have been working to produce and market non-GMO food have also expressed concern.
Currently, strict rules mean only one GM crop, a variety of maize, is grown in Europe and while the EU allows the import of others they are exclusively used as animal feed.