Real berries, fake news!

posted in: Commentary | 7

I’m back from my trip to Thailand safe and sound, a little prematurely tan on my neck (for Wisconsin), and big smile on my face. One of my favorite days of the year is the first of April, trickery in the name of brief entertainment spreads creativity and hilarity throughout the lands. On April Fools, you could play a trick on a friend and have a chuckle amongst a few people, or attempt to spread a joke across the intertubes to maximize the number of affected individuals. Last year on Biofortified we were subjected to a hostile takeover by Greenpeace, and this year I was hoping to do some sort of joke on the blog, but my trip across the world was befuddling my plotting and scheming. I couldn’t think of anything before I left, and was worried about being able to pull something off. Then the “Pineberry” hit the news.

A white strawberry that tastes like pineapple – sounded fantastic. While people on Wikipedia were debating whether these press releases on March 31st were real or not, to me it didn’t matter. Time to pile on. I pulled a story from the Guardian (that was about the Large Hadron Collider) and rewrote the article. Then I had to edit the features of the html page to make it seem real. (Why would a story on strawberries have physics articles in the related article section of the sidebar?) Interestingly enough, the Guardian also put out a real article about tasting the Pineberry – perfect to include.

Finally, I had to upload it and promote it. It was late in the evening on April 1st in Thailand, but it was morning back in the states. I didn’t get to it until the next morning, hoping that some twitter posts would send the word around. The next morning, I tried to put together a post to promote it before the day was over, but the inconsistent wireless internet in my hotel wasn’t letting me get through. And I had a bus to catch!

Luckily, I managed to send a text message to Anastasia, who finished up the post for me and put it online! What was great about that was that I had intended to mention the allergic reactions to Kiwi fruit in the post, and she also brought that up. (Thanks!)

The point of the article, besides having a little fun, was to point out how strange it is that introducing new foods into the human diet in the form of ‘resurrected’ wild berry varieties is nothing to fear, with countless uncharacterized substances in them. But if you introduce just one well-characterized gene and can predict what it will do and send it through a regulatory regime before commercial release – then you’ve got an evil, suspect “Frankenfood” on your hands. One that some people will devote their entire lives to eliminating.

Take a look at this line in the article. Despite the fiction of people having reactions to this Pineberry, and the fake quotes and tongue-in-cheek commentary, there is a very truthful message contained within it that is both true of genetic engineering and crossing plants with wild relatives (or even landraces that are not eaten):

Crossing wild plants with cultivated varieties can have unpredictable consequences and introduce foreign proteins that have no history of being consumed safely.

Everyone who discusses the issue of genetic engineering in agriculture must know that this is a true statement. It is also used as an argument against genetic engineering. Therefore, those who use this argument honestly should conclude the same thing about wide crosses and any other process used in modifying the genetics of our food. Every time a breeder crosses two plants together, the plants that result from that cross have never existed before. Even plants that reproduce by making identical copies of themselves, such as potatoes and strawberries (and fruit trees with grafting) still accumulate mutations (and epimutations) down the line and are not 100.000% identical. Every new combination carries a risk of unintended consequences – the point is how big is the risk and how can we compare it to other risks that we take every day?

There is a danger with the anti-GE arguments being made that goes beyond preventing beneficial applications of the technology. Since GE is in many ways like breeding, and carries all the same categories of risk, the arguments used against GE also work (or don’t work) against breeding, and polyploidy. Don’t like moving one gene between species, try combining tens of thousands of genes from two or three species together! That’s called Wheat. Or Sugar Cane. Or Rutabaga. Or if you go back far enough… it’s called soybeans. Assuming that these kinds of processes aren’t already at work in our food, and then setting up a social and legal and political structure that assumes this can run the risk of harming breeding as well. There’s a bill being crafted in New Hampshire that defines GMOs in such a way that wide crosses count as being genetically engineered:

a. “Genetically modified seed or organism” means any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology including the application of in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection. (emphasis added)

Notice how in this definition they do not limit the definition to only those things that use recombinant DNA techniques. The definition includes recombinant DNA and cell fusion, but the key phrase is that it overcomes natural reproductive barriers. Crossing plants with distant wild relatives falls under that definition. Maybe it is just a poorly worded phrase, but nevertheless the umbrella widens.

Now who’s up for some nasty tasting wild strawberries?! Who was fooled and who was playing along? Some of the folks at Wikipedia couldn’t decide one way or the other. 🙂

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
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 recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.