1.Modified corn didn't mix with native maize in Mexico, study says
2.'Worst GM pollution incident' vanishes
Here comes the industry spin on the latest Mexican maize study. The press release for the study quoted one of the lead researchers as saying that "transgenes that were present in Oaxaca prior to this study simply may not have survived".
But note how in an article authored out of Monsanto's home town paper (item 1) we're told something quite different: "Barbara Schaal, a Washington University plant biologist, said the study raised doubts as to whether there ever was gene flow in the first place."
In the days prior to news of the publication of this study in PNAS - the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - we heard on the grapevine that an article along these lines had been "induced into the PNAS by Barbara Schaal". Schaal - as the Vice President of the National Academy of Sciences - would be in a perfect position to wave this paper through.
And VP at NAS is not all Schaal is. Washington University, where she is based, is in St Louis, Missouri, Monsanto's home town.
Schaal is also on the Scientific Organization Committee of the Danforth Plant Science Center launched with a $70-million pledge from Monsanto, which also donated the Center's 40-acre tract of land, valued at $11.4 million.
The two other scientists quoted in the first article below are also key players in the Danforth Center - Roger Beachy is its President while Peter Raven is not just on its steering coimmittee but is said to have been the driving force behind this collaboration with Monsanto.
Also on the Center's Scientific Organization Committee with Schaal is Willy Gruissem. In correspondence to Nature, Prof Richard Strohman (Emeritus, Department of Cell and Molecular Biology University of California, Berkeley) and two other Berkely academics noted Gruissem's connection to Quist and Chapela's critics:
"All eight authors of the two critiques of Quist/Chapela published by Nature either currently or recently have had all or part of their research funded by the Torrey-Mesa Research Institute (TMRI), a progeny of ag-biotech firm Novartis (currently Syngenta). The affiliation of seven of those authors with TMRI is a result of that company's $25-million "strategic alliance" with the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. Wilhelm Gruissem, formerly of U.C., Berkeley and architect of the strategic alliance, whose current laboratory is in partnership with TMRI, is the supervisor of the eighth author, Johannes Fütterer. None of the eight authors declares this funding from an ag-biotech firm as a competing financial interest. Such a funding arrangement might be less noteworthy had Chapela not been the leading faculty critic, and Quist a leading student critic, of the strategic alliance and its implications for scientific freedom and balanced science.Their vocal opposition to the alliance jeopardized a large flow of financial support for these same scientists who, out of the thousands of biotechnology researchers qualified to evaluate their research, have now become their chief critics."
The smears against Quist and Chapela and their study are also very much in evidence in the article. We are told, "The study was later discredited for its shoddy chemical analysis. Nature said it shouldn't have been published, although the scientists stood by their work."
No mention here of the source of the criticism - the Berkeley opponents of Quist and Chapela - nor of the fact that the editior of Nature gave in to the industry-backed campaign of pressure despite the fact that 2 of the 3 peer reviewers who he asked to review the criticisms did not call for a withdrawal of support but confirmed that the critics had failed to undermine Quist and Chapela's main findings. (SCIENTIST TELLS NEWSNIGHT HE WAS THREATENED)
Similar smears pop up in the Daily Telegraph piece (item 2) where we are told, "The [Quist and Chgapela] paper had sparked a protest to Nature by 100 biologists and was disowned by the Mexican government after its scientists could not repeat the experiment." The "100 biologists" were organised by CS Prakash's AgBioWorld in a campaign that was later shown to have been launched by Monsanto and its PR company. And the AgBioWorld signatories were not even necessarily biologists - some were GM lobbyists and assorted others.
Moreover, the Mexican scientists far from not being able to "repeat the experiment" came up with still more extensive evidence of DNA from GM maize in Mexico's farmland. But - and here's the point - they could not get their findings published! The journal Nature refused to publish their paper.
Now, however, that no contamination has been found in 870 maize cobs there has been absolutely no problem over publication and it has taken place not to the deluge of abuse that Quist and Chapela faced but to a fanfare from St Louis and even suggestions there may never have been any contamination!
And this, in the end, is what is so surreal about the whole Mexcian maize affair. On the one hand, GM proponents have been extraordinarily anxious to attack Quist and Chapela, to smear their research and to create as many questions as possible over the issue. On the other hand, as one of Chapela's principal critics has readily admitted - it's a "no-brainer" that GM maize will contaminate other maize plants!
And even in the St Louis article below this kind of contamination is described as "inevitable"! Yet the industry and its supporters have created so much noise and confusion around that simple reality that they have helped to stall a decisive response to limit the damage from the "inevitable".
1.Modified corn didn't mix with native maize in Mexico, study says
By Eric Hand
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
(KRT) - ST. LOUIS - Genetically modified corn hasn't mixed with native maize in southern Mexico, according to a study posted online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study contradicts results from four years ago, when scientists said modified corn genes had moved into the traditional crops, called maize in Mexico.
But scientists said that gene flow - which leads to the movement of traits from one plant to another - is inevitable for both traditional and engineered plants since it happens during the constant, natural process of crossing.
"That's what plants do. They do it all the time. They've been doing it for millions and millions of years," said Roger Beachy, director of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, Mo.
The flow of an engineered gene isn't any different from the movement of genes during the making of a hybrid flower or fruit. Missouri Botanical Garden Director Peter Raven said people need to stop "treating transgenes like viruses."
Instead, Raven and Beachy argue, the consequences of gene flow need to be examined individually, country by country, plant by plant, gene by gene.
"If there is a mixing, which there will surely be, the question is, 'What's the biological impact?'" Beachy said. "Is it a positive or a negative effect?"
Four years ago, two scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, announced in the journal Nature that genetic mixing in southern Mexico was "relatively common" and "maintained in the population from one generation to the next."
The study received attention because in 1998 Mexico had imposed a moratorium on planting of biotech crops. The mixing, if it happened, was because engineered corn had slipped across the border.
The study was later discredited for its shoddy chemical analysis. Nature said it shouldn't have been published, although the scientists stood by their work.
In the new study, Ohio State University ecologist Allison Snow looked for the unique markers of genetic modification in an analysis of more than 150,000 corn kernels harvested in 2003 and 2004 from Oaxaca, Mexico.
She concluded exactly the opposite of the Berkeley scientists: Genetic mixing was non-existent. The maize was pure. And if transgenes existed at the time of the Berkeley study, they were eliminated in a few generations.
Barbara Schaal, a Washington University plant biologist, said the study raised doubts as to whether there ever was gene flow in the first place. But it will happen eventually - for better or for worse, she said.
"I don't think there's any inherent difference between gene flow in regular crops and (genetically modified) crops," Schaal said. "You have to look at the consequences."
Often, genetic mixing results in positive traits that farmers want. Sometimes, the traits are neutral and are eliminated in a generation or two. Sometimes, though, gene flow can be bad.
Schaal has seen it happen naturally in southeast Asia, where traditional, domesticated rice has crossed with a wild ancestor to form a weedy intermediate.
Undesirable gene flow has happened with genetically modified plants, too. In Canada, canola has been engineered to resist the Monsanto weed killer Roundup. The engineered canola has crossed with existing canola and caused problems for farmers who want to certify their canola as organic.
An international panel of scientists commissioned to study the issue of Mexican maize concluded in 2004 that transgenes would cause no harm, but said Mexico could regulate it however it wanted.
Schaal also said that some plants exchange genes more readily than others. Rice plants, for instance, only breed with themselves. Moreover, rice grains are often polished before being exported, which sterilizes the seed.
That's why Schaal thinks rice is a good candidate for pharmaceutical applications. Ventria, a California-based pharmaceutical, has proposed such an operation for Missouri. There would be very little chance of the pharmaceutical traits getting into the food supply, she said.
On the other hand, corn genes easily mix because corn plants like to breed with neighboring cousins, Snow said. Also, exported corn grains are often viable seeds.
Just as transgenes appear to be eliminated in Mexican maize, the Mexican government has taken action that will likely encourage more genetically modified corn to be planted. President Vicente Fox has signed a law that ends the de facto moratorium and encourages biotechnology via a regulatory process. The process will give special attention to preserving the biodiversity of maize, since it originated in Mexico.
Raven said the threat to maize's biodiversity is less about genes and more about dollars.
"The real danger to the persistence of the genetic diversity of maize in Mexico is the danger of its being replaced by more modern and efficient methods of agriculture and more modern and efficient strains. It's not economically viable to be a small cultivator of maize," he said.
© 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
2.'Worst GM pollution incident' vanishes
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Daily Telegraph, 09/08/2005
What was billed by the media as the world's worst incident of pollution by genetically-engineered crops, one that provoked a row among scientists, has vanished, says a study published today.
Four years ago, researchers reported finding cobs of genetically modified maize in Oaxaca, Mexico, suggesting that GM maize (corn) from the US had invaded a traditional maize variety.
In a country whose culture and identity are linked to maize - the crop was developed there thousands of years ago - the thought of GM varieties that could contaminate native plants was abhorrent.
Then the leading journal Nature disowned the paper that described the discovery by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.
The paper had sparked a protest to Nature by 100 biologists and was disowned by the Mexican government after its scientists could not repeat the experiment. The anti-GM lobby portrayed the row as an attempt to discredit the research and as part of a biotech industry vendetta.
Now a two-year study published by Prof Allison Snow's team, of Ohio State University, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says genetically modified corn has not spread to native maize crops in southern Mexico.
The researchers gathered more than 153,000 seeds from 870 maize plants in 125 fields in Oaxaca, for the first survey of foreign "transgenes" in native varieties, and found no evidence of contamination. The finding surprised the researchers, said Prof Snow, because millions of tons of GM grain were imported from the US each year for processed food and animal feed.
Transgenes in Oaxaca before this study may not have survived, she said. Modern GM varieties may not be hardy in Oaxaca even if they could mate with local plants.
The genetic diversity of native maize was an important resource with great cultural significance. "If farmers think their highly revered native plants have been altered by transgenes, they might stop planting them."