Malicious pollen? Malicious genes?

posted in: Commentary | 59
Does this little lady look like a malicious gene carrier to you? Image of a European honey bee carrying pollen in a pollen basket back to the hive via Wikipedia.

In my last post, Co-existence isn’t easy, I discussed some ways that a conventional farmer might accidentally make life difficult for an organic farmer. Some people might not believe it, but gene flow aka “contamination” can happen regardless of organic status. Organic plants could even screw up genetically engineered plants if pollen goes where it isn’t intended.

One example is in plants that are genetically engineered to silence an unwanted protein. Peanuts or wheat could be (and have been – peanuts, wheat – though they are not yet on the market) engineered to eliminate allergenic proteins from those crops. Any genetic contamination from “regular” peanuts or wheat could be very problematic because it would re-introduce those allergenic proteins. Someone prone to hyperbole might even call those genes “malicious” because they would be turning an otherwise safe food into a dangerous food for those who are allergic.

Mandarin orange on the tree. Image by Wikipedia.

Another example, one that’s happening right now, is Mandarin oranges in California (thanks to Karl for bringing this up). No GMOs necessary – the case here is regular old seedless Mandarin oranges. Farmers growing seedless Mandarins can command a higher price for their produce than if they had seeds. However, any stray citrus pollen carried by bees onto the Mandarin flowers can cause seeds to be created in those tasty little fruits. Farmers who are the “victims” of the “malicious” stray pollen can be adversely affected financially.

According to Kim Flottum at the Daily Green, there’s a lot of competing interests here. Who are we going to root for? Seeded citrus farmers? Bee keepers? Seedless citrus farmers?

Do the seedless citrus farmers have a right to demand that the bee keepers knock it off, to the detriment of the bee keepers and seeded citrus and almond farmers? My gut reaction is no. The California legislature seemed to be leaning towards yes, at least in 2009 in their Chapter 3. Seedless Mandarin And Honeybee Coexistence Working Group Act (see non-legalese explanation by Serge Labesque of the Sonoma County Gazette). I haven’t been able to find the updated legislation. Can you?

In my current total lack of legal or regulatory experience I’m generally of the opinion that farmers who need special conditions to meet a voluntary goal should take special precautions to ensure they will meet that goal, within reason. And their neighbors have an obligation to not trespass on their neighbor’s property within reason which might include their pollen, and maybe includes their bees.

So, in an ideal situation, a seedless Mandarin farmer to-be would separate their intended seedless Mandarin trees from their neighbors by distance and with plants that aren’t attractive to bees (maybe even plants that are repulsive to bees if any exist). They’d communicate their goals to their neighbors who would respond by moving their beehives away from the property line. Would this always work? No. Would it sometimes end up in a lawsuit or at least in small claims court? Probably. I’ll leave it up to someone with more expertise to discuss who should pay damages and such.

The case of seedless Mandarin oranges has obvious parallels to other farming situations. For example, does an organic farmer have the right to demand that none of their neighbors for miles and miles grow any transgenic varieties to avoid having a handful of flowers pollinated with transgenic pollen which might cause them to loose a special Non-GMO certification (or a zero-tolerance Australian organic certification)? What about the rights of the other farmers to grow approved transgenic crops if they so choose?

Farming is complicated, never black and white. Can you think of other examples of “malicious” pollen or genes? I hope you’ll share!

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!