US to NZ: Get real about GM crops

By Peter Griffin 29/01/2010 14


It was fairly predictable that Dr Nina Fedoroff’s comments about genetic modification during her visit to New Zealand this week would raise the hackles of anti-GM group GE Free NZ.

Nina Fedoroff - GM advocate
Nina Fedoroff - GM advocate

It was also ironic that Fedoroff, Hillary Clinton’s science and technology advisor, arrived just as GE Free New Zealand went back to court where Crown research institute AgResearch was seeking to overturn a decision that last year saw its applications to undertake GM research across a range of species withdrawn.

Fedoroff is an expert in plant genetics, author of a book on genetic modification and an unabashed advocate of the technology. This New York Times piece gives Federoff’s take on GM, which can be summed up with this quote from her:

“There’s almost no food that isn’t genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution.

“Things change because our planet is subjected to a lot of radiation, which causes DNA damage, which gets repaired, but results in mutations, which create a ready mixture of plants that people can choose from to improve agriculture.

“In the last century, as we learned more about genes, we were able to devise ways of accelerating evolution.

“So a lot of modern plant strains were created by applying chemicals or radiation to cause mutations that improved the crop. That’s how plant breeding was done in the 20th century. The paradox is that now that we’ve invented techniques that introduce just one gene without disturbing the rest, some people think that’s terrible.”

Fedoroff’s presentation Rethinking Agriculture in a Changing Climate (see  a version of it below – minus the video clips) formed the basis of her public lecture at the University of Auckland on Wednesday and also forms the bones of her pro-GM justifications, which focus on food security and the challenges faced by the world of feeding more people using less arable land.

It is the “accelerating evolution” using genetic modification that has been such a touchy subject in New Zealand, and while it wasn’t top of the agenda as Fedoroff met some of the country’s top scientists in a series of high-level discussions, her message will certainly be getting sympathetic nods from scientists she has met this week who are extremely limited in the GM research they can do and who have been unable to get a commercial release of a GMO of any kind in New Zealand, after decades of effort. AgResearch chief executive Andrew West went as far this week as to suggest scientists have a moral obligation to pursue GM technology.

“If genetic modification can create more food from fewer inputs, I think we have a moral obligation to use it. With our current product mix, New Zealand can feed 17 million people,” Dr West said.

Fedoroff is well aware of the antipathy to GM in New Zealand. But she believes public sentiment on GM may shift as rising demand puts pressure on food prices. She told the Herald:

“Stay tuned … dug-in positions can change quite rapidly.”


14 Responses to “US to NZ: Get real about GM crops”

  • It’s nice to see that her sentiments, as expressed in the quotes you give, are very similar to key messages of an article I wrote on the topic in December GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”:

    http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2009/12/15/gmos-and-the-plants-we-eat-neither-are-natural/

    I don’t feel quite so alone in putting out the same message.

    It also shows that the “get real” isn’t just US to NZ!

    (And not limited to AgResearch: I have no formal ties with them.)

  • I’ve always wondered about the argument that “all food is genetically modified”. When organisms are genetically engineered in the laboratory much more significant changes can be made over a much shorter period of time. “Natural” genetic modification occurs over centuries and has natural selection to contend with. Laboratory GE relies on scientists judgement and knowledge. I think this is what worries “greenies” and other opponents of GM food.
    Also the statement that “a lot of modern plant strains were created by applying chemicals or radiation to cause mutations that improved the crop” surprised me. Can someone give me some examples of this or a book describing this area of science. My background is chemistry, so I was aware of the carcinogenic nature of many chemicals but didn’t realise there were chemicals that had been used for GM. Fascinating.

  • drmike,

    Suggest you look at my article. It covers the points you raise. Hope you don’t mind me correcting, but a lot of what you’re saying isn’t right.

    GM introduces smaller changes.

    Laboratory GE relies on scientists judgement and knowledge. I think this is what worries “greenies” and other opponents of GM food.

    Not using GE relies on testing alone, as you’ve no idea what was altered in the breeding/chemical mutagenesis. I wrote in my article “I imagine if you philosophically object to “blind tinkering”, I’d hear you tell me we have to use GE methods.” Long story, short, the “blind tinkering” is the conventional methods, not GE. (There’s irony in that, as I hope you can see.)

    Carcinogens aren’t used in GM, she’s saying (as I did) that they were previously used, before GM was around.

  • This is not primarily a technology issue, it’s a political one. One word: Monsanto. If that’s the world you want, have fun. But I’ll pass, thanks.

    I’d love to stay and chat about this but the long weekend beckons and I must be off to my all-organic, non-GM, rural hidey-hole. Sincerely doubt I would shift the views of the pro-GM lobby here anyway, to be honest, so I’ll bid you all a good weekend.

  • Thanks Grant, as was asking questions I’m not surprised what I said didn’t sound quite right. Your explanations make a lot of sense thanks for that, I had misunderstood your initial point about modern GE allowing providing smaller changes. Though would it be fair to say that when genes from one organism are incorporated into the genetic material of another you are producing changes highly unlikely to occur by natural events?
    I’m still curious about the previous use of mutagens to intentionally cause mutations. I will have to follow this up, it sounds interesting from a historical perspective.
    I will have to track down Dr Federoff’s book. It looks like an interesting read.

  • Happy to help.

    about modern GE allowing providing smaller changes

    It’s not that it allows for smaller changes, but does smaller changes, or is limited to smaller changes.

    Though would it be fair to say that when genes from one organism are incorporated into the genetic material of another you are producing changes highly unlikely to occur by natural events?

    Yes and no.

    Bear in mind that the “from an other organism” line is quite a red herring (and played for the emotive pull too often). I might try write an article explaining that, with examples; it deserves more than a “sound bite” answer in a comment.

    A gene is just a gene, it’s the code, or blueprint, describing a protein (an enzyme, a structural protein, whatever). It just makes a protein. (Or RNA for the pedants.) It doesn’t “know” what species it comes from, nor is it limited to working in only one.

    Probably a terrible analogy, but imagine complaining about that standard-issue screw came from a Ford, not a Holden. (Some might, but purely for ideological reasons that would leave everyone else’s eyes rolling skyward…) The screw is just a screw, it can be used as the component of many things, and not just cars, either. Genes are like that, they’re like the blueprint for a screw, a component that could be found in many cars or other machines.

    (I’m over-simplifying to get the main point across; analogies in variably break down if you pick at them too hard.)

    Also, you don’t have to introduce new genes, GE be used to modify existing ones. In that case there is nothing “from another species”. The species thing really is misleading, it’s not the essence of the thing. I feel there is some irony that much of what the anti-GMO crowd (for want of a better label) seem to have been sold by their leaders (and politicians!) on what really are not the things that they ought to be looking at I would have thought. It strikes me as playing on others’ lack of understanding. It’s one reason that my article points to testing, for what it’s worth.

    Coming back to your question, in another sense yes, in the sense that if the variants could be found naturally in the wild (i.e. could occur easily naturally), people would be using them already. You’d have the trouble of checking what other genetic changes came along “for the ride” in that case, of course.

    I wrote a sentence or two in my article roughly pointing to why people use GE, something along the lines of what it enabled to be done (haven’t time to look it up).

    I’ve a story (i.e. not a blog article) that I’ve written that if I can’t find a (print) publisher for I’ll put it up on “Code for life”. Among other things, it gives an example of using GE (in this case not introducing a new gene, but altering an existing one).

  • Our farming family strongly disagrees with Nina Fedoroff, who has made various misleading comments about GE food and the nature of transgenics (genetically engineered organisms or GMOs).
    It’s an interesting situation, because I’m an ex-pat American and my husband is a typical Kiwi farmer, we earn our living (here in Northland) producing the best, safe and clean food for the most discerning markets- that means nonGM. That’s what our key markets want.

    I remember well the response of Americanos back home (well, the right wing conservative types) who objected so strenuously years ago to NZ (as a sovereign nation) choosing to be nuclear free (in terms of warships, reactors etc).
    Alexander Haig and then President Ronald Reagan tried to intimidate NZ, and since they have been doing their best to boycott our products. I remember one particular military “hawk” at the time urging Americans to boycott NZ lamb and butter.
    These days even a National Party Prime Minister ( John Key) goes to New York City to the United Nations and boasts about NZ’s nuclear free policy … working with President Obama & other heads of state in an effort to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

    Now we have Ms. Fedoroff coming to NZ in 2010 and making disparaging remarks about the wishes of the majority of New Zealanders (as reflected in a number of Colmar Brunton polls, including a recent one from Auckland to Cape Reinga, where 72%+ expressed strong opposition to GMO land use and particular concern about the lack of strict liabilty imposed on those who wish to experiment with GMOs.

    Clearly some things don’t change. Sadly, US foreign agricultural policy appears to be one of them.

    The country is maintaining its uncritical evangelism of GM agriculture as one of its science envoy’s recent comments show (Fedoroff).

    To an extent, the US’s strident advocacy for GM food crops is understandable (if not rather tiresome) out of pure self interest- it would benefit the US to have NZ go down the GMO road:

    the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of GM crops, and although the bulk of production is still channeled to cheap animal feed and domestic consumption (without proper labelling to meet consumer need for identification of GE food so they can avoid it), rejection of GM food ingredients by European and Asian markets has caused more than a few headaches for US growers. It has hurt them in the pocket, big time.

    US consumers who ate highly allergenic GE Starlink corn (invisible to the eye in taco shells) would not agree with Ms. Fedoroff’s claims that GE foods are “harmless”*.

    As a GM Free food producer, we can and should remain critical about the outdoor use of GMOs in agriculture: it is a stance that has been hard won and is vital to smart decisions about sustainable food production and our standing in the world.

    I’ll finish off by saying farming colleagues of mine (back in the States) deeply regret being taken in by the pro GE hype. The promised greater yields did not manifest themselves in the majority of crops and even GE corn (which does show a higher yield) is difficult to sell (just like the US cannot sell its dairy products to nations like the EU because of their foolish and risky use of Monsanto’s Bovine Recombinant Growth Hormone) rGBH.
    cheers all
    Farmgal

    **the following comment was made on National Radio by Dr. Elvira Dommise, a former Crop & Food GE scientist who has abandoned her GE research because of her concerns about the stability of GE crops and the risks they present to NZ. She is also concerned about various gaps and flaws in the HSNO Act and the appalling performance of ERMA, MAF/Biosecurity NZ and NZ CRI’s like Crop & Food and Forest Research (now called Scion). Dr. Dommise is now a member of Physicians & Scientists for Global Responsibility (NZ) and Soil & Health (NZ).

    “This morning on National Radio, Nina Federoff presented some urban myths which are obviously untrue, were she to think about them with some basic NCEA science. She said that corn was genetically engineered over the centuries from a small hard kernel to a big, sweet, juicy kernel. Corn was not genetically engineered at all, simply made into a valuable crop by centuries of selective breeding. There is a big difference and she knows this.

    Secondly, she went on to say that with GE you simply “place” in one extra gene and there is no way that gene can spread, because corn doesn’t grow wild like a weed. But wait. She did not even mention pollen. GE corn, just like normal corn, sheds vast amount of pollen that is transported by wind, sometimes many kilometres away. GE pollen will pollinate non GE corn and contaminate it with this so-called “one gene”.

    Incidentally, it is never just one gene, but a whole conglomerate of bits of DNA from all sorts of organisms. The so-called one gene is in this case the gene for tolerance to Roundup (or glyphosate, as it is generically known). The DNA contained within a GE transgene, which is inserted into the plant, can be from any organism or can be synthetic. It can also be DNA coding for a drug. So, corn containing pharmaceutical proteins like blood thinners, spermicidal proteins etc will still produce pollen and will still readily contaminate other corn grown in the region for food.” ENDS

    more about Starlink from Farmgal:
    *StarLinkâ„¢ is a corn variety that has been genetically modified to contain an insecticidal protein derived from a naturally occurring bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt.) The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the gene-spliced variety of yellow corn in 1998 for use only as animal feed and set a zero-tolerance level for its use in human food based on the fact that this particular Bt protein does not break down easily in the human digestive system, is heat resistant, and could prove allergenic. StarLink corn was detected in taco shells in did-September 2000.

    CRS Report: RS20732 – StarLink TM Corn Controversy: Background – NLEThe presence of StarLinkâ„¢ corn in food has become the first test case of contamination of the food supply by a genetically modified organism (GMO). …. Aventis will reimburse USDA for the cost. Early estimates of the cost to the …

  • farmgal,

    If Nina Fedoroff’s comments on radio reflect those cited by Peter above, they’d be accurate. (I don’t listen to radio.)

    Just a bunch of loose points from your comment:

    Transgenic organisms are one subset of GMOs, not “the same thing as GMOs”. Transgenic organisms contain genetic material from other species. GE can also be used to modify DNA/genes without introducing DNA from another species. (If you think I’m being pedantic, here’s pedantic! — strictly speaking ‘transgenics’ refers to the science of working with transgenic organisms, not transgenic organisms themselves.)

    There are “conventional” means of mixing genetic material from other species; from memory I very briefly touch on this in my earlier article. (See: http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2009/12/15/gmos-and-the-plants-we-eat-neither-are-natural/ )

    It’s worth remembering polls measure the popularity of an opinion or belief, and opinions (or beliefs) can be wrong. That some idea or opinion is popular does not mean it is right or even sensible. (In hindsight!) I wrote recently a short article about this, for fun using as an example how it was one commonly believed that some people might accidentally be buried alive (see http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/01/26/popularity-does-not-mean-effectiveness-or-sensibility/ for example). People sincerely believed that at the time, but we can now look back at that and know better.

    Peter brought this issue up in the context of AgResearch’s work. The aim there isn’t to use USA-developed products, but to move NZ’s own forward.

    Conventional breeding can generate plants/animals that have issues, too. There are plenty of allergies, etc., to “conventional” plants after all! The difference isn’t if the process of making them is GE or traditional, but the testing and people being aware of it, a point my earlier article touches on. (See: http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2009/12/15/gmos-and-the-plants-we-eat-neither-are-natural/ )

    Most of the other “issues” you mention seem to be about business, not GE/GMOs themselves. (I’m not taking sides—it’s not my argument—but I think it’s worth remembering that this side of things seems to be about business interests, not “facts” about GE/GMOs.)

    bits of DNA from all sorts of organisms

    The “other species” thing is a really an ideological thing. Knowing what Dr. Elvira Dommise is meaning in what she’s saying, I have to say that she’s being (very) cheeky to pull that one. Ditto for playing the “drug” line. I’m a bit curious as if to if she’s citing what Dr. Fedoroff said accurately, too, e.g. She said that corn was genetically engineered over the centuries. Selective breeding is a process of modifying the genetics of the thing being breed. While it’s possible Dr. Fedoroff used ‘genetically engineered’ in an informal way, meaning ‘genetically modified’, but I’d have thought she is more likely to have said genetically modified. Either way, Dr. Dommise is overplaying her card.

    The irony, to my eyes, is that much of the fuss isn’t on what are the real issues, but on peripheral issues that being played out on emotive lines, which I can’t see helps anyone.

  • Hey, what do you guys think about this:
    http://www.france24.com/en/20090418-superweed-explosion-threatens-monsanto-heartlands-genetically-modified-US-crops

    I don’t know the source so can’t comment on bias, but the logic that excessively zapping weeds with Roundup would accelerate the selection of weeds resistant to this makes sense to this simple soul. This is perhaps only obliquely related to GM, but certainly calls into question the wisdom of the GM mods to create Roundup-ready crops. Life is not that simple, and unanticipated consequences are quite possible.

  • @Rainman- Yes, indeed … “Whocouldanode?!?” [sarcasm]

    If only this consequence was unanticipated. But it was not. We ignore the implications of selection for resistance at our risk – as some US farmers have found to their cost. Those familiar with pesticide management regimes know this >will http://www.frac.info
    Herbicide Resistance Action Committee (HRAC) > http://www.hracglobal.com
    Insecticide Resistance Action Committee (IRAC) > http://www.irac-online.org

    Use of any single herbicide for weed control (e.g., glyphosate) risks selection for resistance. Hence, sole reliance on glyphosate for weed control, in conjunction with induced glyphosate-resistance in the GMO crop, is not a sound long-term management strategy. It is almost certain to create problems, unless used a part of a wider pest management plan.

    Pest resistance, arising from over-reliance on a single pesticide class (and not just a single synthetic chemical such as glyphosate – antibiotics and Bt toxin are ‘natural products’), or resistance gene, affects the practical management of >all http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extnews/pestqtrly/pq19-3.htm#Obituary

    You can not fault Monsanto on its commercial strategy. Truely awesome – protecting an existing RoundUp business by linking it tightly to supply of proprietary RoundUp Ready seeds – 10/10. A+!

    However, you can fault the questionable agronomics of the RoundUp Ready system – 4/10. D!

  • Hi Peter

    My initial comment seems to have been mangled in the unmoderated post. Here it is again, minus the offending characters …

    Thanks.
    ______________________________________________________________________
    @Rainman- Yes, indeed … “Whocouldanode?!?” [sarcasm]

    If only this consequence was unanticipated. But it was not. We ignore the implications of selection for resistance at our risk – as some US farmers have found to their cost. Those familiar with pesticide management regimes know this _will_ happen. It makes one wonder about the quality of the technical advice they received …

    The risks of single mechanism pest control strategies have been understood for decades – if not centuries. It is one virtue of the traditional ‘fallow’ system – a strategy advocated as part of the Biblical ‘jubilee’ – at least three millenia ago!

    A well-designed modern pest management regime will include a rotation through different chemical classes. For more information on this issue see, these international science websites:
    Fungicide Resistance Action Committee (FRAC) = http://www.frac.info
    Herbicide Resistance Action Committee (HRAC) = http://www.hracglobal.com
    Insecticide Resistance Action Committee (IRAC) = http://www.irac-online.org

    Use of any single herbicide for weed control (e.g., glyphosate) risks selection for resistance. Hence, sole reliance on glyphosate for weed control, in conjunction with induced glyphosate-resistance in the GMO crop, is not a sound long-term management strategy. It is almost certain to create problems, unless used a part of a wider pest management plan.

    Pest resistance, arising from over-reliance on a single pesticide class (and not just a single synthetic chemical such as glyphosate – antibiotics and Bt toxin are ‘natural products’), or resistance gene, affects the practical management of _all_ pests, pathogens and weeds. Many otherwise highly-effective tools have been rendered useless because target organisms quickly developed tolerance.

    A classic example is the fungicide Benlate. A nice summary is here: http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extnews/pestqtrly/pq19-3.htm#Obituary

    You can not fault Monsanto on its commercial strategy. Truely awesome – protecting an existing RoundUp business by linking it tightly to use of proprietary RoundUp Ready seeds – 10/10. A+!

    However, you can fault the agronomics of the RoundUp Ready system – 4/10. D!

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