GM probe: Minor transgressions…major implications

By Peter Griffin 01/12/2009

It hasn’t been a great year for New Zealand’s genetic modification research efforts, even if viewed from a purely “PR” point of view.

Last December, the anti-GM environmental group the Soil & Health Association of New Zealand had a poke around Crop & Food’s GM brassica trial going on at the company’s campus at Lincoln near Christchurch and found a flowering kale plant where it shouldn’t have been. As a result of the ensuing investigation, the 10 year trial of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and forage kale was abandoned in February, around 2 years into its consent period. A lot of investment that ultimately came from us the tax payers, came to nothing.

Soil & Health’s Steffan Browning later told me the discovery was a bit of a fluke, but it showed that an unofficial, self-appointed watchdog was studying GM trials in New Zealand like a hawk, and quite rightly pointing out where containment wasn’t 100 per cent airtight.

Still it was a set-back for the scientific community’s efforts to progress GM research here. The perception is that the New Zealand public is incredibly wary of GM and a determined group of activists including Browning and his comrade-in-arms, Claire Bleakley of GE Free NZ, are determined to prevent the commercial release of GM organisms.

It means that any minor transgression in GM research is amplified by these groups, adding to the perception that GM is something we need to keep a lid on. So a second probe by MAF Biosecurity into a GM plant breach at Lincoln is pretty worrying news for scientists working in the field.

What third party?

On the face of it, this breach looks less serious – scientists approached by the Science Media Centre said the risk of these self-pollinating plants spreading quickly over large distances is low. But seedlings discovered by Plant & Food staff and tested by MAF were indeed found to have genetically modified “constructs”. That means they shouldn’t have been there.

Plant & Food’s chief executive Peter Landon-Lane told The Press:

“It is unclear how these seedlings came to be outside the facility as they do not match to any work Plant & Food Research has done. There is evidence suggesting they have come from a third party.”

So where did they come from? The arabidopsis plants analysed by MAF are very commonly used in genetic studies – a colleague at the SMC was working with them at university while completing her microbiology degree, so perhaps they originated from studies undertaken by researchers at Lincoln University, which shares a campus with Plant & Food.

There are other research campuses in the area, but its unlikely they are involved in GM research involving these types of plants.

Close the glasshouse door!

If the plants definitely do contain GM constructs, as subsequent testing will confirm, it will be important,  for the integrity of containment programmes underway at research institutions based at Lincoln and the rest of the country, to find out exactly where they came from and how they came to be growing outside of a containment facility.

A lot of containment facilities used in GM trials here and abroad are no more than glasshouses – the photo below is of a glasshouse at the John Innes Centre in the UK I visited earlier in the year where scientists are splicing genes from the snapdragon flower into tomatoes. Taking a tomato or some tomato seeds out of the glasshouse, we were told, would have constituted a breach of the rules and caused all sorts of hassle for the researchers, but overall, the approach to containment was fairly common sense. We could have carried material out on our shoes but the risk from that was obviously deemed low.

New Zealand faces stricter containment rules than other countries when it comes to GM trials. Given the intense scrutiny of the current trials underway here by environmental groups its paramount that the organisations involved uphold these high standards. If they don’t they face more serious knockbacks on the road to commercialising their research.

john innes glasshouse

0 Responses to “GM probe: Minor transgressions…major implications”

  • I genuinely understand your scientific interest in researching GM, but your story above shows it’s not possible to provide 100% containment. As I don’t want *any* GM in my diet, *all* GM research is a threat to my rights (and those of the many others who don’t want a bar of it), and the ethics of pursuing it are, um, interesting, if you ask me. I think the risk calculus means the whole field is not worth doing. BTW I’m no luddite – I have a good science grounding and respect for what science can do, have family members with science PhDs, etc. We just don’t know wnough about the human body and plants to be able to determine and contain all of the possible negatives of GM in advance.

    Maybe in a super-secure underground bunker with multiply redundant isolation levels it would be OK. But that doesn’t happen other than in the movies. Can you justify presenting a non-zero risk of contamination to the environment at large, and thereby violating the rights of people like me to remain GE free?

  • Rainman, GM crops have been grown commercially for years, Australia has GM canola and cotton crops and the Aussie public barely bats an eyelid. Those crops are safe. Sure, lets be careful and make sure the new GM organisms aren’t going to harm us or the environment, but I’m really wary of ever being opposed to something on ideological grounds. I’m thinking here of G.W Bush and his approach to climate change, stem cell research, evolution… look what that contributed to America and the world…

  • I don’t understand what peoples problems are with GM food. I personally welcome the advances that they can bring. Yes it will provide large companies to patent strains of plant and make huge profits off it, but that’s ultimately a small sidestep in the long run.

    The overwhelming material I’ve seen in NZ regarding GE has been anti-GM propaganda filled with hysteria and outright lies. It’s almost the same as those opposed to wind farms in Otago – the people opposed to the new, better technology are portrayed as the heros.

    I’d like to see Greenpeace feed 2 billion people with organic, non-GM, locally sourced food.

  • Exactly… anti-GMers dominate the issue entirely – time for some reasoned discussion on the issue, because the rest of the world is moving full steam ahead on GM with the realisation that we will have to feed 9 billion people in 2050 using the same amount of water…

  • I must say, I have yet to meet anyone who is firmly familiar with the mechanics and science of GM food, who is actually uncomfortable with it (I’m a genetics/microbiology major myself). Science PhDs don’t necessarily denote an understanding of this branch of science.

    Further, research into GM food absolutely does not infringe your ‘human rights’ (and ‘not eating GM food’ is not a human right: feel free to check). You simply need to take care that you don’t eat any GM food. In fact, you’re asking that other people’s rights are infringed, by asking that your preference be applied to the entire population.

    GM food is going to be extremely important in feeding the world’s less privileged – it’s rather unfair of you to, through your preference, remove other people’s right to eat at all (which IS a human right).

  • Peter: “Those crops are safe”

    With all due respect, that was not my question. Calling me an ideologue isn’t very nice, either.

    Aimee: “You simply need to take care that you don’t eat any GM food”

    I do. Part of that is ensuring that my GM-free food sources are uncontaminated. (Nice strawman, btw). My assertion is that you (well, Peter actually, but feel free to have a go too) are unable to guarantee that your activities will not contaminate my food sources, and therefore have an ethical problem to address. Two predictable words: Percy Schmeiser. In general, I agree “research into GM food” does not infringe my rights – however your inability to completely contain your experiments does.

    BTW, on the matter of whether GM is required to feed the worlds starving millions, I call BS. Starvation is a social problem, as evidenced by the amount of food thrown out every day in Western countries. If we moved to a lower level of meat consumption and added some magical sort of distributive justice brain transplant, we could feed our 6 billion quite easily. Probably even organically, at least considerably more so. Might even make a lot of jobs in the process. If the GM magic beans are required to feed the next 3 billion, fair enough – but what then for the next next 3 billion?

    By all means study GM in a isolation lab, but not in my environment. Maybe the knowledge you gain will be useful when we finally understand enough about human and plant biology for it to be safely implemented. I assert that won’t be for some time, and that to assert otherwise is simply all-too-typical hubris.

  • rainman, I’m surprised you took offence to my comments about ideology given your statement: “As I don’t want *any* GM in my diet, *all* GM research is a threat to my rights.” That sounds like an ideological opposition to all genetically modified organisms to me. That’s fine that you think that way, a lot of kiwis do, but at least accept is for what it is – green ideology.

    There are scientists in this country who have been working on GM plants in labs for up to 20 years. They haven’t seen a single commercial release yet despite the fact farmers are similar crops successfully and safely in other countries. As for the looming crisis of how to feed so many people – you may be right, food wastage is rife and we could all get by with some belt tightening, but try telling that to the burgeoning middle class in India and China developing an insatiable appetite for meat and dairy and our way of life. Who the hell are we to tell them they can’t have it? The figures just don’t add up longterm…

  • Part of that is ensuring that my GM-free food sources are uncontaminated.

    If you step back and look at this more broadly, you’d see that “GM-free food sources” are naturally “contaminated” in the way that you consider GMOs to be. They contain genetic variants, too. Just a thought 😉

  • I think you may need a dictionary upgrade: ideology is about motivation, not determination.

    And I take it that’s a no to my original question? You’ve now ducked it more than once.

    The problem with your “burgeoning middle class” argument is it inherently reveals the value asymmetry in the decision processes behind this – it’s basically the tragedy of the commons. An incremental environmental degradation risk is outweighed by the unreasonableness of the demanding masses/won’t someone think of the starving children? And what about the next burgeoning middle class, thereafter? Et voila, un boiled frog (or is it a Kuhnian paradigm shift by then? 🙂

    By all means study GM because it’s shiny stuff that appeals to your intellectual curiosity (remember those triple secured vaults, and no field trials) – but don’t kid yourself you’re saving the world. And do by all means make a buck out of it when you adequately price in the risk you present to me/others as a result. However I ,for one, am not buying.

  • @Grant, yes, by processes that will happen regardless, and in accordance with rules not fully understood by us. I’ll pick processes refined on an evolutionary timescale over some hairless apes tinkering with shiny toys, any day of the week. To assume there is no possible difference between natural mutations and our GM monkeying is simply breathtaking arrogance.

    It’s like a 3 year old trying to play chess against a Grand Master. Not Ready Yet.