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Biotech big biz to farmers, consumers: 'Plant what we tell you to, eat what we tell you to'

Also in CropChoice this week:

China jumps into GM labeling and marketing, http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=550

(January 8, 2002 – CropChoice opinion) – The purveyors of genetically engineered seeds and their supporters in government, academia and media relied on a variety of their trusted tactics, including pressure and obfuscation, last year in their ongoing effort to win the hearts, minds, stomachs and fields of farmers and consumers around the world.

What we found interesting, albeit outrageous, was the twist on the biotech spin when it came to the issue of transgenic DNA showing up in wild, conventional or organic plant varieties. The argument had been that such genetic contamination couldn’t happen. The biotech biz condemned detractors as loonies. After all, the official chorus of assurances went, buffer zones would help to eliminate any possibility of gene transfer from modified to unmodified crops. (Of course, no one has ever enforced these buffer zones, which in actuality have everything to do with limiting the effects of pesticide drifting onto neighbors’ fields and nothing to do with genetic drift. Pollen and seed ride on the wind, with insects and with human and non-human animals.)

But that all changed in November when Univeristy of California at Berkeley microbiologists Ignacio Chapela and David Quist issued a peer-reviewed (five rounds of review) study, which the journal Nature published -- http://www.checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?fuseaction=news&doc_id=2274&start=1&control=154&page_start=1&page_nr=101&pg=1. The research found that the DNA from transgenic corn had mixed with that of indigenous corn in remote portions of the Qaxaca state of Mexico. The Mexican government confirmed those findings.

With Tuskegee University geneticist C.S. Prakash and his AgBioWorld.com service in the lead, biotech proponents immediately criticized the work. Prakash commented that, "we knew about it [the contamination]" and that there was little reason for concern. After all, he reasoned, corn hybrids from the U.S.A. and elsewhere have been crossing with the native Mexican varieties for hundreds of years, and the transgenes might even improve them.

He forgot to mention that stopping such contamination of corn was the basis upon which the Mexican government established a moratorium on the importation and cultivation of genetically modified corn seed.

Those who question the efficacy or wisdom of planting and consuming genetically modified crops should be concerned. Already in Canada, farmers have given up on growing organic and conventional canola because of widespread contamination from genetically engineered varieties. One group of farmers is considering suing the government, Monsanto and others over this mess, which has hurt their operations financially, agronomically and environmentally. See story at http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=499. And now, despite the canola situation and the StarLink debacle in which one of Aventis’ transgenic Bt corn varieties ran amok and contaminated lots of corn, Monsanto wants permission to commercialize its Roundup Ready wheat, engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). See story at http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=387 .

Professor Chapela shared with CropChoice his reaction to the criticism from Prakash and others regarding his and Quist’s research:

"Even imagining that transgenic DNA is not different from traditionally bred DNA, there are signs that introgression of hybrid materials into landraces has indeed reduced diversity and produced genetic depression of these important populations. This is shown, for example, by the extraordinary increases in yield and vigour achieved by diversity-enhancing management in the state of Tlaxcala, which in effect purges out the accumulation of introgressed materials from these landraces. So claiming that introducing transgenic DNA on top of the hybrid-corn DNA is not important is equivalent to claiming that we should not worry about chemical pollution in Mexico City simply because the place is already quite polluted.

As we have already discussed, the ‘Substantial Equivalence’ dogma has received enough of a battering as evidence accumulates in the 90s and 2000s to say that it is NOT a good principle to move the technology into the future. Among others, see the report of the Royal Society of Canada (January 2001), or the discussion in the journal Nature for more details. Briefly, the question can be addressed from two perspectives:

1) Trait-based analysis. The traits expressed by transgenically produced crops are nothing like traits obtained through traditional breeding. The obvious and well-known bt-toxin production or Green-Fluorescent-Protein glow-in-the-dark trait from a jelly fish are examples of traits which we could not have dreamed of in traditional corn breeding. In the words of an East-Oregon farmer: ‘[We] have not been crossing corn with bacteria lately.’ If insecticide production and herbicide resistance are problematic in their own right (re. ‘superweeds’ and non-target effects), we should be much more cautious about the traits expressed by second- and third-generation products. These include the production of pharmaceutical compounds, human proteins, viral pieces of all kinds, and other beauties of the imagination, such as the spermicidal (yes human male-contraceptive!) corn being peddled by a San Diego-based company (Epicyte, http://www.epicyte.com). At the very least, we should be asking what will happen when spermicidal corn starts showing up in India, or France...

2) DNA-based analysis. The statement ‘DNA is DNA is DNA’ is often used to dismiss the relevance of even thinking about transgenic transformation per se as a method of genetic manipulation. I believe that this is a good statement for a chemist to make, but not for a biologist, since we certainly know that different 'species' of DNA have extremely different properties and behaviour in the genome and in the context of the cell, the organism, the population, the ecosystem and the biosphere. I do not have time to address here what should be obvious to any biologist worth her/his salt, apart from noting that if the ‘DNA=DNA=DNA’ argument were true, we would not be scrambling in jungles, hot-springs and ocean trenches for DNA that might have unique properties. DNA from all organisms appears to be equivalent only when the wrong disciplinary tools are used, namely those of chemistry, not when the right ones are taken into account (population biology, developmental biology, ecology, etc).

‘So what?’ I have addressed some of these questions from the biological perspective above. It remains to be added that Mexicans place a very high cultural value on their local landraces of corn, quite independently from the great economic value of the genes contained in these landraces, the subject of multiple economics studies. Mexicans are also not very different from Europeans in being generally conservative about what they put in their stomachs: they reject transgenic manipulations out of a legitimate precaution for unexpected effects. In introducing transgenic corn to Mexico, it should not be surprising that the public (as seen through media attention) should be alarmed, not only at the materials themselves, but at the fact that they were not consulted to have these materials introduced to areas such as Oaxaca, which are particularly sensitive biologically and culturally. Furthermore, the fact that markets for transgenically-manipulated foodstuffs is closing down –or at least faring at a discount-, means that Mexican growers have had their options dashed to access the premium GMO-free markets (e.g. Europe, Japan). These are weighty reasons to care about the phenomenon."

When industry is not trying to argue that the work in Mexico is quackery, it’s relying on good old Uncle Sam to apply the pressure here and abroad for approval and acceptance of biotech food.

As CropChoice and others reported in December, the United States moved swiftly to warn Croatia what might happen if it followed through on draft legislation that would ban or severely restrict the importation and use of genetically modified organisms. The U.S. embassy sent to Croatian officials a letter basically threatening action at the World Trade Organization if such legislation were to become law. See story: http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=542.

The U.S. government probably figures that Croatia is much easier to bully than the European Union. But that hasn’t stopped it from trying to force the latter to back down on its ban on the introduction of new transgenic crops. The United States has threatened WTO action if the moratorium is not rescinded and if the EU adopts strict labeling, traceability – and, possibly, liability – protocols for transgenic seeds and food products. The only way the folks across the pond get relief from the U.S. pressure is to allow the importation and cultivation of biotech products.

On the home front, it wasn’t enough for the Food and Drug Administration to deny consumers information about what they’re eating by refusing to mandate testing and labeling of genetically modified products. Now, this agency is telling the natural foods processors that they shouldn’t use labels stating that a food product is free of the modified genetics. The FDA position is that with cross contamination, it’s hard to guarantee that the non-gmo corn or canola in a product is really non-gmo. Indeed, tests have found contamination. This just goes to show that the industry can’t control its technology and that our government must hold it responsible and liable for any problems.

The U.S. Supreme Court did its part to put the biotechnology industry at ease by upholding utility patents on seed when it ruled in favor of Pioneer Hi-Bred International in its lawsuit against J.E.M Ag Supply. See story: http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=534.

Let’s not forget a key theme of the book, "Governing Molecules: Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States." Policymakers in the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s marked biotechnology as one of THE economic growth areas to replace the computer industry when its growth leveled off. Agricultural biotechnology will go down, but not without a fight.

Meanwhile, the ongoing message from the U.S. government, Monsanto and the rest of the multinational agribusiness giants to farmers and consumers: "Shut up and plant what we tell you to, and eat what we tell you to."