Terminator 2: My Mission is to Protect You

In discussions about GE crops, one of the contentious topics that often comes up is the use of what has been effectively dubbed “Terminator” technology. These are crops that are engineered to produce sterile seeds that cannot be regrown. The use of this technology to force farmers to repurchase their seeds every year is often what causes the greatest objection from opponents of genetic engineering. But what is interesting is that like the films where this technology gets its nickname, it can also be used to protect seed-saving farmers.

“Terminator” technology, also referred to as “Suicide Seeds,” are marketing terms coined by GE opponents to reframe what is technically called Genetic Use Restriction Technology, or GURT. This technology can take several forms, the most widely discussed one was developed by scientists working at the USDA and the Delta and Land Pine company, which is now owned by Monsanto. It works by means of three engineered genes, that when brought together in one plant, they act in combination to halt the development of embryos in the seeds the plant produces. The result is a plant that produces food as normal, but does not produce fertile seeds.

For those that are interested in a full scientific explanation of the technology, you can read about it here. But in short, GURTs can be used by seed companies to protect their intellectual property by preventing farmers from saving and replanting their seeds, which has often led to several lawsuits, some high-profile. It has also been suggested that for some crops that do not get much attention from plant breeders, that it would provide an incentive for them to spend the time and money it takes to improve a crop, because they could guarantee being able to sell their seeds in the future.

The public reaction to GURTs has been to imagine that it will turn farmers into servants of the seed industry, completely dependent upon them for seed purchases year after year. It is assumed that no non-GURT seeds will be available, and that this technology will allow seed companies to tell farmers what to grow and at what price, tell people what to eat, and basically rule the world. Hyperbole aside, at the very least the worry is that it will make farmers unable to choose what to grow, or financially yoked to a large corporation. For small-scale farmers in developing countries, they worry that it will give those large companies the power to extract all the money they can, keeping them in an impoverished state.

The strong backlash against “Terminator” GURTs has likely contributed to Monsanto’s decision to pledge not to use GURTs in any of their seeds. They acquired the technology when they bought Delta and Land Pine in 2000, a cotton breeding company. Nevertheless, many people believe that GURTs are widespread in use, even Vandana Shiva seems to repeatedly indicate that she believes that Bt cotton seeds are sterile and cannot be regrown. (You would think that since preventing the use of GURTs in commercialized GE crops is regarded as a victory for GE opponents, that they would all be very conscious of its absence.)

How much of this opposition is based on legitimate fears, and how much does would it change seed buying/replanting practices on farms?

As I have said elsewhere, monopolistic control of food crops by a few companies does not sound very likely to me, since companies making GE crops are sprouting up around the world, and antitrust laws in this country and others. Not to mention that government agencies and nonprofit organizations are also working on GE crops for developed and developing countries alike. In the case of GE crops developed by companies, since they would have patents on their engineered traits, they would have the authority to require royalties for farmers to plant fields of those crops. Given that farmers today are not allowed to save GE soybeans and replant them without paying a fee to the seed company, the only difference in this situation with a GURT is that the control would be biological rather than legal.

Would it force farmers to buy seeds every year? The fact is, many farmers already rebuy seed every year. In the case of hybrid crops that have higher yields than open-pollinated varieties, the hybrid must be regenerated each year from two inbred parents (which are typically proprietary). The debate over seed saving was hashed out in the debates over hybrid corn in the 1900s, and the result is that the vast majority of corn grown are hybrids. The increase in yield and other beneficial traits outweighs the continual cost of buying the seed.

Indeed, as Raoul Adamchak explains in Tomorrow’s Table, even organic farmers often purchase new seeds every year. Whether it is an heirloom Brandywine tomato or a hybrid sweet corn, seeds bought from a company that specializes in seed production (and/or breeding) are often a good bet against a bad batch of seed. From page 133:

At reasonable prices it is easier to let the seed companies provide the seed. In addition, they generally do a better job of maintaining seed purity and quality. If hybrid prices get too high, growers can switch to [Open-Pollinated varieties] instead, and save seeds. This can be a difficult choice is a specific trait like disease resistance, size, or uniformity is needed. Yields may also be less.

Even if seed saving is possible to do, it is still economically preferrable to go with seed provided by professional seed-producing operations, aside from issues of variety and transgene patents. If the price of seed gets too high, whether genetically engineered or not, farmers will go back to other varieties that are better for their bottom line. The economics of the situation will drive farmers one direction or another. I’m no economist, but it seems that the economics of competition in the seed market will ensure that there are alternatives available, irrespective of the presence or absence of GURTs.

“Terminator’s” you Eat

Afternoon_DelightThere is a very widely used and accepted conventional analog of Terminator GURTs that most of us have eaten – they’re called Seedless Watermelons. These are generated by manipulating the number of chromosomes in watermelon cells to give them three copies of each chromosome instead of two. (For more on how this works, you can watch a video I made about it here.) The resulting “Triploid” Watermelons sponteneously abort their seeds, leaving a juicy, seedless fruit. The seeds have to be regenerated year after year from other plants, and farmers and consumers obviously cannot replant seeds that don’t even exist!

Ironically, while genetic engineering is not allowed in organic agriculture, Seedless watermelons are. Nevermind the fact that the chromosome numbers are artificially manipulated using chemicals – it appears that this early form of direct genetic manipulation has been grandfathered in.

My point in bringing up the seedless watermelon is this: It results in exactly the same thing as genetically engineered GURTs – and that is it effectively prevents the plant from generating fertile seeds. bananaThe argument is often made, most vociferously by Shiva, that GURTs are immoral because they interrupt the traditional practice of seed saving. Shiva and others must therefore agree that seedless watermelons are also immoral for the same reason. Why is there no call for a moratorium on seedless watermelons? Well, that would be the pits. :)

Anyone wonder where the seeds are in bananas? There’s another one for you. The bananas we eat are also triploid, and produce no seeds. Although you can grow new banana trees from cuttings, it doesn’t produce any seeds that you could plant. Is the cavendish banana immoral, too?

Neither of these were made with genetic engineering, which means that unless Shiva hasn’t heard of Bananas and Seedless Watermelons, that the objection is not based on its effects on seed saving but on something else.

Can you think of any more examples?

Spread of Sterility?

In the global discussion of GURTs, there is a widespread perception that the “Terminator” will get out and run rampant, killing off not only every native crop but also spreading into other species and wiping them out. This about this for a second, is it possible for sterility to spread?

Not by any genetic mechanism I am familiar with. The pollen grains from GURT crops that cross-pollinate with others will make a few sterile seeds that will not grow and so their genes will not make it to the next generation. So if you grew corn next to another farmer who grew corn with a GURT in it, some of the seeds from the edge of your field could have been pollenated by a few stray grains from your neighbor’s field. If you were growing an open-pollinated variety and saved seed from year to year, you would have a few seeds that wouldn’t grow – but only if you gathered them from the margins of your field (which is not a good idea anyway).

And as for GURTs spreading into other species sterilizing them – these claims are based on a basic misunderstanding of how evolution works. Genes spread when they provide a benefit to the organism, and sterility is the exact opposite of an advantage. Aside from the small increases that can be seen from genetic drift – a trait needs to help the plant survive and reproduce to sweep through a population, and sexual sterility by definition does not do that.

But take a look at what Vandana Shiva said on pages 82-83 of her book, Stolen Harvest:

Molecular biologists are currently examining the risk of the terminator function escaping the genome of the crops into which it has been intentionally incorporated and moving into surrounding open-pollinated crops or wild, related plants in nearby fields. Given nature’s incredible adaptability and the fact that the technology has never been tested on a large scale, the possibility that the terminator may spread to surrounding food crops or to the natural environment is a serious one. The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet.

It is ironic that Shiva often argues that genetic engineering and the “Terminator” violate evolution, when it is evolution that proves that her claims are unfounded.

It is possible that one of the three genes in the Delta and Pine-style GURT could mutate and not function anymore – so this style of GURT is not 100.00% fool-proof. However even in that case the remaining two functional genes would not spread sterility because you would need all three genes to bring about sterility. Still no scientific justification for Shiva’s declaration about ‘spreading sterility,’ however it is possible that a few transgenes of the other traits in the crop could still leak out on rare occasions.  At Genetic Maize Anastasia argues that a different style of GURT would be a better choice for preventing gene flow.

The prevention of gene flow is an interesting issue when it comes to GURTs. On one hand, companies want to make money selling their GE seeds and not have to chase patent infringers for saving their seeds. So the biological reification of the legal landscape seems to be what the opponents are the most afraid of. On the other hand, GURTs can be seen as a layer of protection for those who do not want to grow (or eat) genetically engineered crops.

My Mission is to Protect You

terminator-2-judgement-dayIn the first Terminator film, Arnold Schwarzenegger played the enemy, a robot bent on terminating Sarah Connor before she could bear Humanity’s Last Hope. In the second film, the same Schwarzenegger instead played the part of the protector of Connor and her son. How can “Terminator” technology instead become a protector working for seed savers rather than against?

To explain this, let me turn to Jeremy at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog. Jeremy is not known for very glowing reviews of genetically engineered crops, although he has said that he tires of the same old pro-anti debate. But recently, he posted a very thoughtful rant on seed saving and GURTs:

When are the knee-jerk opponents of genetically modified crops going to realize that genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs) are their friends?1

(…)

GURTs thus stop any characters bred into a GMO from being transferred into another variety of the same crop and into the crop’s wild relatives.

So, IIED, remind me, please: why is that a bad thing?

Does it stop the farmer saving seeds? On the contrary, it makes life easier, because the farmer does not have to worry about genetic pollution. She can, of course, still take advantage of good pollution, or introgression, if she wants to.

Does it stop her using farm-saved seed? No, how could it, when any polluted seeds are going to fail to grow. It makes using the farm-saved seed more secure.

Can she still exchange and sell farm-saved seed? You bet, and not only that, but her customers and swap-partners will be grateful that her seeds cannot possibly be polluted.

Opponents of GURTs seem to think that massive influxes of foreign pollen are the norm. They’re not. And I certainly wouldn’t want to accept, even as a gift, seed from someone who knew so little about farming and seed saving that they couldn’t even maintain their own varieties. Cross pollination from a different field is a fascinating and rare source of diversity in farmers’ fields, not the norm. GURTs pose absolutely no threat to farm-saved seed. In fact, I believe that they can enhance genetic diversity (by maintaining the separation between varieties), improve seed quality (for the same reasons) and have no impact at all on the livelihoods of poor farmers.

So you can easily see that GE crops with GURTs in them can instead be used to protect non-GE crops from cross-pollination. Indeed, as many opponents of GE crops argue that farmers are afraid of getting sued for cross-pollination, this fear would be all but eliminated if they were using GURTs. Percy Schmeiser would have remained an obscure canola farmer in Canada. He wouldn’t have been able to spray his fields and collect herbicide-tolerant canola seeds for replanting, and he couldn’t have gotten sued.

There’s something else to think about when it comes to opponents of genetic engineering. Often, the argument is made that GE crops cannot be grown unless there is a 0% risk of affecting the environment, organic farms, etc. Zero percent risk does not exist anywhere in the Universe, but this is as close as it comes. Essentially, the most hardcore anti-GE voices out there are asking for GURTs, whether or not they are aware of it. The more you demand absolute exclusion of cross-pollination in biosafety regulations, the more incentive you are giving biotech companies to develop terminator technologies. If you really cannot stomach GURTs, then maybe pushing a little less hard on absolute separation would be tactically smarter (just a little advice).

Vandana_Shiva,_environmentalist,_at_Rishikesh,_2007GURTs are not opposed for scientific reasons – the pseudo-biological reasons given by Shiva et al are a scientific veneer on what is really an economic argument. They fear consolidation of the seed market and corporate control of the food supply. But as Jeremy has demonstrated, the seed-saving diva Shiva might find GURTs to be her best ally in keeping a GE-free farm-saved seed supply in circulation amongst poor farmers. If a GURT can prevent the flow of patented transgenes into openly-traded seed supplies, it would instead be a A T-101 working to protect her effort from Monsanto’s T-1000. Ironic, isn’t it?

I’m not advocating the use of GURTs, lest anybody misunderstand me. (Although I could form a cogent argument in favor of GURTs in pharma-crops.) But there is more to this trait than meets the eye, and I think that it has become a lightning-rod issue that is less clear-cut than its opponents make it out to be. The Terminator can be sent to kill, but it can also be sent to protect. Discussions about the use of technology so often hinge on these kinds of dualities, which is why we need to discuss these things in a more sensible (and scientific) fashion.

I’ll leave you with Jeremy’s dynamite conclusion.

I hold no brief for or against GMOs, though I do think they have yet to prove themselves in the areas where they make the loudest claims. This is not about GMOs. It is about honesty. Any opponent of GMOs, however good the rest of their arguments might be, immediately loses my respect if they are also against GURTs.

*Arnold voice*: “Respect Terminated.”

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a Post Doctoral Research Associate for the USDA in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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27 comments to Terminator 2: My Mission is to Protect You

  • Tyro

    Thank you so much for that excellent article. I had heard some of the anti-GM arguments (“propaganda”?) and hadn’t given them much thought beyond “ooh, spooky”. It’s embarrassing now as some of the arguments (like spreading worldwide and killing everything!) should be absurd to anyone with any familiarity with evolution. I’m bookmarking this right now.

  • When I was doing grad school admissions interviews, I had a chance to talk to Mel Oliver at University of Missouri (he was on the USDA side of the collaboration that created the Terminator system), and his response to fears that the genes would escape and end life as we know it drives how the point really well (with apologies if I’m not remembering the phrasing perfectly):

    “That’s like saying I inherited sterility from my father.”

    A well designed GURT (I usually just say Terminator) is completely safe, but having that discussion draws attention away from the most important point you make:
    The technology was NEVER used commercially. I run into so many people who are convinced that all the corn grown today is genetically engineered to be sterile. Even people who claim to know someone who knows an organic farmer whose germination rates are dropping precipitously because of all the “terminator pollen.”

    My advice to any of you reading, if you get in a debate with someone about Terminator, just stick to that fact. Debates about science and safety can go on for hours, days or even weeks, but the fact that as far as I know nobody is using GURTs and basically nobody is even proposing to use GURTs is hard to argue with.

  • Thanks, Tyro! This one took me a while to write. I wanted to find some links to show where, directly, Vandana Shiva makes some of the specific claims about GURTs, and was quite surprised about what she said in her book. Glad you bookmarked us!

    Yeah, James, the more I think about it, I can’t understand how someone with scientific training cannot see through an elementary question such as whether or not sterility can spread. And Shiva has a Ph.D. in physics… mind-boggling.

    The idea that “Terminator Seeds” are being grown is also very weird – like I said you’d think that people would know that they are not being grown anywhere as it would be seen as a ‘victory’ for the anti-GE side. That they aren’t even aware of this tells me that at the very least, few people know very much about genetic engineering in agriculture at all. (Try Smith and Mercola here.) We have a lot of work to do…

  • scotti

    Monsanto seemed to try this on twice , but there is trade and coporate pressure to maximise profits with it.Not all precautionary principle arguements are limited to the science.

  • john

    Opponents of GURTs seem to think that massive influxes of foreign pollen are the norm. They’re not.

    It doesn’t matter if it is a massive or minor influx of pollen. Any pollen is a potential patent infringement. Why do companies bother threatening legal action against seed collectors?

    Would it force farmers to buy seeds every year? The fact is, many farmers already rebuy seed every year.

    Am I wrong in believing that if I grow non-GMO crops and wish to collect my seeds, I am in practice essentially unable to do so? And would have to fight intellectual property lawyers from mult-billion dollar companies in order to stand up for the right to do whatever I want on the land that I own?

    monopolistic control of food crops by a few companies does not sound very likely to me, since companies making GE crops are sprouting up around the world

    The concern for me is less monopolistic control as much as it is the potential to remove choice in what is grown for the farmer or in what is eaten for the consumer.

  • Cody

    How’s this for a compromise:

    Use the recombinase technology in the terminator seeds to remove the introduced traits from the F2 generation. Instead of producing sterile seeds, you produce fertile seeds that lack the improvements of the transgenic progenitors.

    This way, you eliminate any concern over sterility spreading, and the seeds can be saved if the farmers so choose. Additionally, the biological enforcement of intellectual property rights is still in effect since the farmers will have to repurchase seeds if they wish to grow more crops with the beneficial transgene.

  • Am I wrong in believing that if I grow non-GMO crops and wish to collect my seeds, I am in practice essentially unable to do so?

    Yes, you’re wrong.

  • john

    Skeptico, care to elaborate? My understanding is that if I choose not to grow patented crops on my land and I then choose to harvest the seeds, a company can prevent me from doing so because patented pollen may have blown onto my land, cross polinated with my un-patented plants, which have now become the intellectual property of the company.

  • Am I wrong in believing that if I grow non-GMO crops and wish to collect my seeds, I am in practice essentially unable to do so? And would have to fight intellectual property lawyers from mult-billion dollar companies in order to stand up for the right to do whatever I want on the land that I own?

    I agree with Skeptico, that is not correct. There are still many farmers that collect their seeds today, among them are organic farmers as well. To my knowledge no organic farm has been sued and/or lost its organic certification from ‘contamination.’ To maintain a seed variety, you have to collect from the interior of your field, or plant the variety in isolation (either in time or space). This isn’t terribly hard to do, we did it with a field of corn at the UW that was surrounded by other corn fields. They just flowered a couple weeks later than the rest – no problem.

    As for being sued, there is likely mixture of blatant patent infringers and some farmers who were caught up by accident. Since I don’t know the details of all of them I cannot speak about the lawsuits as a whole. But I do know that Percy Schmeiser in Canada was found by the Canadian Supreme Court to have infringed on Monsanto’s patent, as he was spraying his fields with herbicide and collecting the seeds from the survivors. (Basically trying to save the transgenic seeds, wherever they came from.) In a recent popularized case, a seed cleaner (featured in Food, Inc.) was sued because he was telling farmers to save patented seeds (to increase his business) – he was inducing them to break their contracts, and the farmers testified against him. That case deserves a post unto itself, once I see Food Inc. I’ll be sure to write it. (Not long to go on Netflix.)
    That being said, I know that at least Monsanto (don’t know off-hand about the other companies) has said that they will not sue for ‘low-level presence’ of transgenes, the kind you could expect from accident, and Calfifornia has a law prohibiting it as well. Perhaps there could be some more protections for farmers in this regard, but genetic engineering and patented seeds aren’t leveling the landscape and creating serfs of farmers like it is often claimed.

    I think part of the issue with pollen drift and fears of contamination lies with the fact that we really don’t know who is responsible for pollen coming from crops. There is a tendency to blame the farmer whose plants produce the pollen, or the seed company that has patented transgenes inside the pollen. But it takes two gametes to tango.

    I often find that the people who speak of a farmer’s right to grow something they choose to, are arguing against a farmer’s right to grow what they choose – e.g. GE crops. My suggestion is that we should take the discussion of pollen drift out of the issue of GE crops and into something else.

    How about two cotton growers, one who plants regular white cotton, and another who plants cotton that has colors bred into the cotton fibers. The white cotton grower is afraid that if pollen drifts over, it will ruin their pretty white cotton and lower the value of their crop. The colorful cotton grower is an organic farmer who breeds the cotton for a premium market and keeps getting chased out of whatever cotton growing region they move to, and believes that they have the right to grow their cotton where they want. The question is: Which farmer’s rights trump the other?

  • Skeptico, care to elaborate? My understanding is that if I choose not to grow patented crops on my land and I then choose to harvest the seeds, a company can prevent me from doing so because patented pollen may have blown onto my land, cross polinated with my un-patented plants, which have now become the intellectual property of the company.

    Your understanding is incorrect. And quite ridiculous, if you think about it sensibly. Karl Haro von Mogel above elaborates on this quite well, if you’re interested.

  • john

    Thanks, Karl. I appreciate the thoughtful and detailed response. The concern lies less in the farmers’ rights argument as you pose it than in intellectual property rights for multi-billion dollar publicly traded companies butting up against choices made by small farmers who cannot possibly defend themselves on equal footing.

    Skeptico,
    I suppose I’m not thinking sensibly. Your single sentence response followed by calling my thinking ridiculous really helped clear things up. I appreciate the time you took in repsponding.

  • john

    And, for clarity, here is a story covering the concern raised up-thread.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/04/26/eveningnews/main4048288.shtml

  • John, at the very end of the article you linked to did you catch the sentence:

    And now four states, including Indiana, prohibit seed suppliers from entering a farmer’s property without a state agent, tactics which have threatened a way of life.

    I’m all in favor of such laws. If blatant infringement is going on, bring the state in to investigate. In the Percy case, it was shown he’d be intentionally spraying round-up to select for the resistant contaminant seed. By all means let’s write that into the law too. If there’s no evidence the farmer intentionally created the contamination, no lawsuit.

    Changing the laws to protect farmers from harassment and frivolous lawsuits, as it sounds like Indiana has already done, is both easier and more effective than stopping the use of a technology with real benefits for both farmers and consumers.

    Anyone in this discussion opposed to passing such laws to protect farmers? No? Good.

    Does that resolve the debate?

  • Ewan Ross

    Awesome post Karl – GURT really seems like a great solution for many of the issues surrounding GM crops – reduced worries of cross pollination leading to GM crops on farms which do save their seed, or on ‘pollution’ of organic seed stock by GM seed (making the whole sugar beet fiasco even more redundant than it is), you’d pretty much do a way with the legal machinations surrounding seed saving etc, farmers wouldnt have to be concerned about volunteers from the previous year turning up as weeds in the next year (which I’ve read can be an issue when growing roundup ready after roundup ready).

    Perhaps the opposition to the technology stems from these very points – application of GURT would in one fell swoop demolish many of the arguements against GM crops and corporate ownership of commercial traits – the opposition would have to fabricate a whole new set of made up facts to maintain their ideological position.

  • Thanks, Ewan. I think GURTs would demolish the patented-seed-leaking-into-your-field corporate ownership fear, but it also adds to the farmer-as-servant of seed company fear.

    A GE trait that I think fits your description is golden rice. To accept golden rice is to accept that almost everything about the opposition to GE crops is false. (almost) Humanitarian, benefits eaters, sustainable, healthier, save-and-replant, etc.

  • Ewan Ross

    It may add to the fear, but again, irrationally – all commercially traited seeds legally cannot be saved, most hybrids cannot be saved (I’m only slightly shakier ground here numbers wise) -the only way you could have the farmer as a servant concern be legitimate is to completely do away with the seed farmers can legally save anyway, which it appears to me at least would be harder to do in a world where GURTs existed in commercial transgenics – the genes cannot sneak into farmer saved/non commercial lines.

    I guess the arguement may be that for commercial transgenics GURT seems like an ideal solution on all sides (although possibly lawyers wanting to hold on to jobs may disagree….) whereas in humanitarian efforts GURT would simply add an unneccesary element of complexity – assuming that the infrastructure in areas where these would be most useful is probably not too great, and that a renewal of seed from source each year would not be the best way to go forwards – open pollinated versions may do better here (although there may need to be some renewal over various time periods as there is the potential for the transgene to drift to numbers in the population over time which make it less effective – evil non-transgenics polluting the gene pool with cross pollination – perhaps though these farmers could demand the abolition of organic agriculture in their area)

  • scotti

    It makes more real sense to ban transgenics if they have HGT or can’t co-exist with organics and spread or pollute that’s finally why Percy Schmieser won against Monsanto this year in the Canadian courts ,though they tried to makeout the opposite as the last writer finished with; perhaps a joke.GURTS aka ‘terminator’ gene technology are not good for a sustainable future.

  • I’m dead against GM – the cross contamination with organics is now a proven issue. They should be banned outright, and safer alternatives explored.

    • Derek, I think there’s a lot more nuance with cross pollination than you realize.

      For one thing, the rate of outcrossing varies widely by species. Some plant species are natural selfers, others reproduce clonally. In these cases, there isn’t any cross pollination, so no cross contamination. Even if cross pollination was a good enough reason to ban GMOs, there’s no reason to ban genetic engineering in crops that don’t cross pollinate.

      Another issue is contamination of one type of crop with another. Let’s say we’re neighbors. I grow sweet corn to sell at the farmer’s market and you grow feed corn to feed to your organic heirloom chickens. Both of our corn fields are certified organic and do not have any genetically engineered seed. Your pollen blows over to my field in the wind and pollinates my corn. Since field corn does not contain any of the mutations that makes corn sweet, any of my ears that are pollinated by your corn don’t taste good. Word goes around that my sweet corn isn’t sweet and my business is ruined. Is it your fault for contaminating my sweet corn? Maybe. If a farmer with GMOs should be blamed for “contaminating” a non-transgenic field, you should certainly be blamed for “contaminating” my sweet corn.

      Finally, there has been quite a bit of research that shows mutagenesis, tissue culture, and wide crosses (crosses between a crop plant and a relative of a different species) cause more unintended changes in the genome than genetic engineering. None of these have to be tested for safety, and all of them are allowed in organic farming without question. Doesn’t it seem strange that the safest method is considered the least safe?

  • Andre

    Derek,

    I’ll add yet another nuance to Anastasia’s answer.

    Many crop plants are not allowed to flower in production fields, so there can’t be any “cross contamination with organics”. Seed production for those crops is furthermore undertaken by specialist farmers (and I would also surmise, organic seed savers – if they were not, they would be rather incompetent) under very strict conditions which prevent cross-pollination not only between GMO and conventional (or organic), but also between the variety that is the subject of production and any other variety. So there is no “cross contamination” either. Examples are the beets and all root and leaf vegetables, e.g. the cabbages.

    The original post has referred to the (seedless) banana, and you call for the exploration of alternatives to GMOs. Well, in the case of bananas and some other crops such as sugar cane, the alternatives are extremely complicated . The position you expose means that adepts of organic food, a minority in affluent countries, are in effect depriving millions of people who depend on bananas for their staple in developing countries of the benefit of genetic progress, even where that progress is a matter of life or death as in the case of the black sigatoka disease . They are also condemning workers in banana plantations, their families and people living nearby plantations to massive doses of pesticides. Is this ethical?

  • Anastasia, I think it is possible that your corn example is too generous. Check my reply with someone who knows about corn, but here’s my concern:

    If pollen from field corn fertilizes silks from sweet corn, the resulting kernels will develop a tiny embryo inside a very much larger packet of starchy endosperm. I believe that the latter’s composition is entirely dependent on the genetics of the parent plant. I think your sweet corn will taste just fine. Unless you save the kernels as seed for next year’s planting, I don’t think you’ve been harmed by cross-pollination.

    I’m not sure about corn, but I can give a better assurance with some fruits. For example, I once planted sweet peppers in my backyard garden and when I ate one of the peppers it was hot, e.g. it contained capsaicin. My initial assumption was that it had been pollinated from someone else’s nearby hot peppers. But I was wrong. All the peppers from that one plant were spicy, and nobody nearby was growing hot peppers. What happened was that the seed from which the sweet pepper plant grew was the accidental result of a cross-pollination. The pepper plant fruit consists of a fleshy fruit entirely created by the parent plant, and seeds which contain some of the genes from the pollen. But of course, we don’t eat the seeds.

    Similarly, if you have an apple tree, the apples are all genetically identical to the parent except for the seeds, which nobody eats. Named apple varieties are all clones, propagated by grafts.

    • Hello c_rader,

      Double fertilization is a funny thing that causes unexpected changes in fruits (the fleshy sac around seeds). Pollen actually contains two sperm. One fertilizes the egg and the other fertilizes the fleshy sac which already has two polar nuclei. The genotype of the sperm fertilizing the egg affects the next generation but the genotype of the sperm fertilizing the fleshy sac affects this generation’s fruit (or endosperm as the case may be).

      For corn, this means that field corn can mess up sweet corn and sweet corn can mess up popcorn, and so on whenever there are traits in the pollen that are dominant that will show up in the seed. That’s why we can get purple kernels resulting from a fertilization with pollen from a purple corn plant.

      Unfortunately, my research focus on corn has made me less knowledgeable about other fruits, but I believe double fertilization still affects them

      For apples, this means that each apple on a single tree could have different fleshy sac (fruit!) genotype and phenotype, depending on the pollen source.

      I may be wrong, but your experience with the hot peppers seems to be a perfect example of double fertilization. Is the fruit of Capsicum a structure truly created only by the female plant or is it, like apples and corn endosperm, part of the developing ovule? I think it is the latter, though I couldn’t find a reference with a quick search.

      Aren’t plants amazing? :)

  • After all the complaints about how genetic engineered seeds prevent farmers from saving seeds for future harvest, I want to offer a suggestion for the possible exact opposite result.

    We all know that many crops are almost exclusively hybrids and that second generation seeds from hybrids are worthless. Let’s see why?

    If one parent line of a hybrid contains a chromosome with alleles ABCD … and the other parent line contains a chromosome with alleles abcd …, the hybrid results all contain A,a,B,b,C,c, D,d, … Presumably this is the genome that we want. Some trait of the plant is superior if it has both genes “A” and “a”, “B” and “b”, etc.

    Conventional breeding can’t produce one chromosome containing A and a, B and b, etc. But genetic engineering can. So it is possible to use genetic engineering to create a plant with two identical chromosomes with AaBbCcDd …, which will then breed true.

    I don’t see any company investing to create such a plant, because it wouldn’t be able to sell its seeds year after year. But that’s an economic issue, not a technology issue. A non-profit institute could create effectively pure reproducing seeds with the desirable traits of any hybrid.

    • Second generation seeds from a hybrid do not breed true, but they are not worthless. It all depends on the situation. In the progeny of a hybrid x hybrid cross, we still have all of the genes present in the original hybrid. Some of the seeds will get all of the “positive” alleles and some will get all “negative” alleles while the majority will get some combination – resulting in a bell curve shape if you plotted a histogram of the quality of the genotype of each seed. With a few generations of selecting out the plants with a lot of negative alleles, you could get a good open pollinated variety that contained germplasm from each of the hybrid’s inbred parents. This method is used in breeding all the time. Farmers would rarely do this, for one because most hybrids are protected with plant variety protection and for two because it is a lot easier to just buy more hybrid seed. But if you were in some unusual situation, like Hatian farmers who suddenly have a no-strings-attached donation of locally adapted hybrid seed, it would make a lot of sense to breed with that material.

      Conventional breeding CAN produce specific combinations of alleles on a single chromosome because of recombination aka crossing over. Of course, for the most part, the alleles have to be on homologous chromosomes. While it is possible to get chromosomal rearrangements where parts of one chromosome end up tacked onto or replacing part of another chromosome, those events are more rare and can cause more trouble than they are worth. If some sort of genetic engineering was used to create the perfect chromosomes (what you speak of is extremely difficult if not impossible with current technology) those chromosomes would promptly mess themselves up with recombination.

      There are other nuances of what can be done with both breeding and biotech, but I am off to the field. Thanks for some early morning food for thought!

    • Ewan R

      Conventional breeding can’t produce one chromosome containing A and a, B and b, etc. But genetic engineering can. So it is possible to use genetic engineering to create a plant with two identical chromosomes with AaBbCcDd …, which will then breed true.

      Genetic engineering thus far can’t do that either. Gene insertion is still pretty haphazard, genes may land anywhere in the genome – part of the selection process for any GM organism is to pick those which have a single insertion in a spot which is not deleterious – generally you’ll want to figure out exactly where in the genome the gene landed (figuring out the border is, if I recall correctly, one of the regulatory hurdles you need to jump to commercialize – so woe betide any gene that lands in a highly repetitive region (as it becomes nigh on impossible to figure out exactly what the surrounding code is)

      As far as I am aware there are methods developed now for more targetted gene insertion (I think Pioneer has at least one patent/patent application in the works using zipper technology to stick genes into precise spots – and I believe that artificial chromosomes are another development which may see the light of day in the next 10-20 years)

      You also have to keep in mind that creating two chromosomes with AaBb etc on each chromosome may not actually work at all – you’re essentially doubling the number of genes (Aa…Xx) which could play havoc with gene regulation etc particularly if one of the alleles you’re playing with is a master regulatory element (also recombination would prevent breeding true, after a few generations AaBbCcDdEe could well become AAbbCcDdEe – and with sufficiently homologous alleles crossing over could create some weird AaAaaABbDdEEEEEe type oddness (where Aa crosses over with Aa but the A from Xsome1a gets inserted into the a of Xsome1b to yield AAa)

  • Ms. Bodnar, we need some clarification here. As an engineer from a completely non-biological discipline, I’ve probably been using some terms incorrectly, leading to confusion. I’ll try therefore to state what I think in lay language – which is safer.

    A fruit like an apple or a pepper begins with an ovary (a part of the flower) containing ovules (eggs, haploid). A pollen grain fertilizes each ovule. Never mind whether one or two sperm are involved – it’s irrelevant. The fertilized ovule becomes a seed, which has genes from the ovule and from the pollen, e.g. diploid. In an apple or a pepper, the seed is a discrete little pip and in theory it can grow into a new plant, at least sometimes. The genetic traits of the seed come from both parents.

    But the pips are found inside a container which develops only from the ovary. The ovary expands and becomes the largest part of the fruit. In the case of the apple or the pepper, that’s the part we eat. I’m claiming that the fleshy part of the apple or pepper is entirely genetically like the female parent. I’m claiming that the only genes originating from the pollen are in the seeds. Yes, the seeds consist of an embryo and a surrounding structure and two pollen sperms are involved in the seed, but the thing that matters for the quality of the fruit is not the seeds but the outer fleshy container which we eat.

    I’ve used this argument to claim that stray pollen doesn’t matter and GMO pollen can’t cause economic damage unless the farmer is saving seed for a future crop. Your answer tells me that this argument is wrong for corn, that the source of the pollen contributes to the traits of the kernels. That’s disappointing, but inconvenient facts trump even the most satisfying hypotheses. I think my argument is still correct for apples and peppers.

    With apples (and pears, peaches, plums, etc.) there’s another issue that the anti-biotech ignoramuses ignore. Just about all fruit trees are reproduced asexually (by grafting) because that’s the only way that a predictable variety can be reproduced. In many cases, the fruit tree has a root from one variety and fruit-bearing branches from a different variety. You can even buy, from garden catalogs, trees which produce different named varieties of fruit on different branches, because several different varieties have been grafted onto the same rootstock. The propagandists make a big deal about how GMOs are unnatural, and how farmers can’t save seeds. But where was their outcry when something was introduced so unnatural as a tree bearing three different kinds of fruit on a rootstock of a fourth variety. Is this something that could happen naturally? If the seed from one of these fruits were planted, would the resulting young tree bear any resemblance to the chimeric parent tree? Of course not.

  • Andre

    c_rader,

    You are correct as regards the fruits of dicotyledons, your examples apple and pepper. In cereals (and other graminaceae), the fruit wall is thin and fused to the seed coat, and the grain is essentially comprised of a tiny embryo and the endosperm.

    Anastasia is of course right on corn pollination. For more on this, see here . For grain color, here.

    Your argument that “stray pollen doesn’t matter and GMO pollen can’t cause economic damage unless the farmer is saving seed for a future crop” has two parts: the word “stray”, and the rest. I’m afraid the anti-GMOs will not bite into the “stray” as a matter of principle (here, in Europe, they have fought hard to impose the detection limit as the trigger for labelling products as containing GMOs — for a robust piece of criticism of the ridiculous situation in Europe, see here). Nor are they biting into the main argument, not even for apples and peppers, since they get sick at the prospect of having to swallow a “GMO seed” or a “GMO pip” (let’s call them like that for convenience purpose).

    To the extent that you have an interlocutor who is prepared to listen, your argument remains essentially valid for corn, however, unless the genetic modification is one which has a direct bearing on the grain characteristics.

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