What Monsanto and “Food, Inc” have in common

Close, but don’t light those cigars yet, fellas: The blog Monsanto According to Monsanto writes that “Food, Inc.,” like all movies, represents the intellectual property of the people who spent their time, effort, and money into the production of the film. Monsanto’s patented seeds are the equivalent of the film, it says: its investigators and legal teams who pursue IP-stealing farmers are no different than movie-theater workers who confiscate video cameras, and studio lawyers will be on the lookout for bootleg copies. The analogy almost works. But the makers of “Food Inc” actually have control over their IP: frames from the documentary don’t blow around and cross-pollinate other documentaries (although that would be cool). And we have yet to see any movie industry personnel granted the right to come into the average citizen’s house and scan their computer looking for illegal downloads. (Monsanto According to Monsanto)

34 Responsesto “What Monsanto and “Food, Inc” have in common”

  1. HOT TOWN says:

    I just illegally downloaded Monsanto’s yet-to-be commercially released GE wheat seeds through a torrent. The internet is baffling.

  2. Trish says:

    I think that it’s disingenuous to think that some copyrights and intellectual properties are worth protecting and other’s aren’t. The seed traits that Monsanto and most other seed companies incorporate into the product they sell to farmers are technologies that are protected like any other.

    As for the pollen blowing around issue, it’s being confused (shocking) in the film’s presentation. Soybean plants pollinate in a completely different manner than corn. That’s just one erroneous presentation in Food Inc, a film that’s just truthful enough to slip in mistruths and giant leaps in (il)logic to make it seem plausible to the audience. Funny how the discussion of soybean issues and saving seeds was always staged in front of a corn field. Do the film’s producers not know the difference? Where were the actual scense of soybeans?

    Oh and by the way, the (RoundupReady) soybeans aren’t insecticide resistant, as is stated in the movie, they’re herbicide resistant. Details, right? Nope. That’s another example of shoddy research and besides it’s flat out incorrect. Roundup Ready soybeans can tolerate an application of glyphosate which is product that kills plants of any non-tolerant or resistant (as listed on the label) variety. The product must touch a green portion of the plant where it is then transfered to the roots. There is no residual to this product.

    At the end of the film, (which I saw in Chicago weeks ago at an early screening) it was difficult for those of us that are involved in agriculture every day of our lives not to giggle at some of the same old, tired, mistaken arguments and misconceptions. But on some points I can nod my head in agreement: 1)be an informed consumer 2)vote with your food dollar 3)make healthy choices. Those are the same things we in agriculture tell our audiences.

    But people wonder why we’re so quick to shut down in these (attempted) dialogues…maybe it’s images like the quick bit in the film where the word “Evil” transposes itself into “Veil.” Seriously. Really? We’re evil? I don’t think so.
    Anyway, back to the issue at hand. Intellectual property rights are extended to everybody that qualifies, applies, and is granted such a protection. Monsanto can’t enforce those unilaterally and without checks and balances. Any alleged violation has its due process in the US courts with constitutional rights guaranteed to the accused.  And without such legal protection, there would be a rapid and final decline in new research and technology discovery in the private sector. That’s a no-brainer.
    In the end, Food Inc is just a film that will play to limited audiences. Very few members of those audiences will be fence sitters that are just waiting for some morsel of information to make up their minds. Most will be people like you and me who already believe what we believe. I support your right to your beliefs. I also support good and accurate information upon which to base those beliefs.

    Have a great day, and may you never feel the pain of being hungry.

  3. Hi Trish:

    There are many issues with Monsanto’s efforts to protect its intellectual property rights. The one that currently interests me is whether it even deserves the legal protection for those rights, as Monsanto has proven itself unable to control its IP from spreading and cross-contaminating other crops — and from mutating with the plant itself.

    • “Genes From Engineered Grass Spread for Miles, Study Finds” (New York Times)
    • Gone to Seed: Transgenic Contaminants in the Traditional Seed Supply: Seeds of traditional crops are contaminated with DNA from genetically engineered (GE) crops according to Gone to Seed, a 2004 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Laboratory testing of traditional (non-GE) seeds of corn, soybeans, and canola commissioned by UCS documents the presence of DNA commonly used in commercial GE crops.
    • And from part one, “The Development of a Flawed Enterprise” (PDF)  of the recent paper “The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science,” in the Journal of Society of Agriculture and Food: “Separate groups in Spain, France, India and Italy (Collonier et al., 2003; Hernández et al., 2003; Singh et al., 2007; rosati et al., 2008) report that transgenic crops are prone to genetic instability. The transgenes in commercial corn varieties and soy varieties, when analyzed by DnA sequencing, were in each case different from the ones described by the company of ownership when they were released.”

    May you also never feel the pain of being hungry. I’d argue that millions of Americans might feel less of that pain if this country began supporting the growing more crops we could actually eat.

  4. John says:

    Thanks for acknowledging that the intellectual property analogy applies.

    It would seem that that Magnolia Pictures, the distributor of Food Inc, does not have complete control of their IP.  Apparently segments of one of their films was “blowing around” YouTube without their permission. That forced them to subpoena Google, the owners of YouTube.
    Of course, as we’ve stated many times, Monsanto does not pursue farmers for the accidental presence of our patented technology in their fields or crop. We have no motivation to do so and we surely would not prevail in the courts if we did.
    Regardless, thank you for giving people the opportunity to know the other side of the story. You certainly represent one side, so it’s great that people can look at the facts and draw their own conclusions.

  5. John: When “Food, Inc” loses control of a copy of the movie on YouTube, no one’s own movies are harmed, nor are any viewers. When Monsanto loses control of its seeds in non-participating farmers fields, or in whole swathes of Mexican traditional corn varieties, a lot of people face potential economic and health consquences.. So while it’s great that “Monsanto does not pursue farmers for the accidental presence of our patented technology in their fields or crop” — it would be much more fabulous if the company compensated farmers for this “accident.” Any incidents where that’s happened?

  6. John says:


    Good questions.  To my knowledge, no traditional corn varieties have been lost due to biotech or Monsanto products.  Nor organic farmer has EVER lost certificiation due to unintentional presence of biotech.  Can you provide me with one example where someone has been harmed due to pollen movement?


  7. J.T. says:


    What does “whole swathes of traditional mexican corn varieties refer to?”
    Separately, you bring up an interesting subject which is the very recent creation of organic channels in the U.S. food supply. There’s no scientific rationale for segregating the crop but there is an economic reason as organic produce can capture significantly more at retail among its niche audience.

    But the organic grows in the same geography as conventional and so contamination is a possibility. However, not likely, as corn pollen is pretty heavy.

    I guess that I’d side with organic and conventional farmers should be forced to pay any lost revenue to the organic farmers. Organic has been successful creating a market, regardless of its specious foundation.

  8. John: As you probably know, the USDA doesn’t actually test for genetic contamination of organic food and feed, so that’s why no one has lost certification. When organic dairy farmer Albert Straus decided to test the organic feed his cows were eating, he found 6% of it was genetically modified. (Time magazine) I wonder if the organic farmers growing and selling the corn as organic were even aware. I hope that the Non-GMO Project, of which Straus and Whole Foods are both members, will engage in more testing that may prove equally instructive.

    Regarding Mexico, a 2009 study led by Elena Alvarez-Buylla of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City looked at nearly 2,000 samples from 100 Mexican cornfields, and found that around 1 percent had genes that had jumped from GM varieties (PDF of study).

    As for “harm,” since Monsanto is currently only interested in harm to its bottom line caused by illicit seed movement, I guess we’ll have to wait for the long-term health and environmental effects of these uncontrollable, and unstable genetic modified organisms to become evident.

  9. Anastasia says:

    Food Inc. makes some great points about the food supply (at least, so I gather from the interviews and website). Lots of sources in this genre do. What I genuinely don’t understand is why they end up making things up. Is it just that they don’t understand? They should ask for technical assistance or something if that’s the case. But sadly, I don’t think that’s it because it’s the same “mistakes” again and again. I think that they are purposely making little untruths that support their points. But then I wonder, if their points aren’t strong enough to stand up with truth, do they deserve our attention or support?

    As for gene flow, I still want to know why no one (besides me, it seems) is worried about gene flow from from non-GM varieties to things like heirlooms, wild relatives, etc. All crops today (including organic) are highly selected, containing genes from varieties from around the world as well as including genes that were mutated artificially. Could some of these genes have a negative impact through gene flow? Sure they could!

  10. Peter says:

    won’t geneflow only be an issue if:
    a) plants that can sexually cross (e.g., plants of the same species) with GM plants are being grown nearby and…
    b) the genes offer some kind of selective advantage, and there is selective pressure to maintain said genes in a given population? 

    which genes are the ones that people so concerned about?

  11. Aimee says:

    I will have to do some research to look up the source, but I have certainly read about a study of traditional corn varieties in Oaxaca, one of the suspected homes of corn domestication, to count varieties and study the DNA. DNA assays showed GM contamination (this was the infamous “startouch?” brand) of many strains. How they got there is anybody’s guess, most likely Mexican farmers bringing home or being sent seed from the US. I believe this episode is documented in Marion Nestle’s “safe food.” will look it up.

  12. Aimee says:

    A one minute google search turned up this, and also numerous reports of more recent incidents, including Japan’s threat to embargo some U.S. corn for undisclosed contamination with GE genes. Mexico’s contamination problem is a tragedy, considering that it harbors almost all of the native genetic diversity extant in corn, which could be seriously compromised by GE drift.   On September 18th, 2001, Mexico’s Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) confirmed reports that native corn (maize) varieties in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Puebla had been contaminated by genetically engineered varieties. The SEMARNAT’s admission confirmed the fears of many civil society organizations: the genetic contamination of a center of origin and diversity for one of the world’s most important crops, corn. For last year’s alert and subsequent updates see  http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/mexico/news/gmo100101.html. The announcement sparked a firestorm controversy with the publication of a report in the prestigious science journal ‘Nature.’ Nature published the findings by two UC Berkeley researchers, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, which 1) exposed the genetic contamination of native corn, and 2) described potential modes of genetic contamination. The report was sharply criticized by the biotechnology industry, not for the revelation  of genetic contamination of corn, but for the way the genetic contamination is spreading.

  13. Peter says:

    for the sake of this discussion, i am not really sure this statement is true:

    “native genetic diversity extant in corn, which could be seriously compromised by GE drift”

    how would this diversity be compromised?  if a gene for the BT toxin, e.g., made it into a native landrace of corn (and i don’t really have any idea of how possible/probable that would be), what actual harm is that doing?  sure, it isn’t exactly the same genetic make-up as it was pre-drift (and presumably, the beneficial trait of insect pest tolerance would be acquired), but you would have to ask and assess what other non-GE genes are drifting into those populations too, and what effects they have.

  14. Re: Aimee – the research you are talking about was conducted by Ignacio Chapela, which was later disavowed by the journal Nature, where it was originally published. That is also where the claim that the trangenes are unstable comes from, which Bonnie repeats here. That part of the paper used a very iffy method of reaching that conclusion, without any confirmation of the results – which is why the journal said that the paper lacked the evidence to have been published in the first place. This was a first for the Nature journal. (Even Chapela’s own colleagues have used his paper as an example of what not to do in their classes)
    Chapela claimed that native landraces of corn has transgenes in them, a finding that no study (of the several conducted) has confirmed. There has also been no confirmation of Chapela’s elusive “unstable” transgenes claim. Low-level presence of transgenes has been found in a few farmer’s fields, but these are amongst commercial plantings, not landraces.
    The claim that these genes will “damage” the genetic diversity of wild or landrace varieties has never been substantiated with any research. Bonnie, could you provide the basis for your statement that they are ‘unstable?’ And also, you suggest that people are being harmed by GE crops – can you provide any peer-reviewed evidence of that as well?
    Indeed, as Anastasia points out, the transgene issue in Mexico woke up researchers to the fact that pollen is flowing from non-GE commercial varieties and would be putting pressure on landraces all the same. Furthermore, genes bred from wild relatives of crops without using genetic engineering shoudl pose the same concerns… but only transgenes are being objected to. That suggests to me that the focus is more sociopolitical than scientific.

  15. [oops, submitted this accidentally before proofreading]

    Karl: Re: Chapela

    The science community loves to cite the Chapela case almost as much as the sust-ag community loves to cite the Percy Schmeiser case. In both instances there is far, far more gray than black or white. I would be careful making statements like “never.”

    I am citing in full this passage from Don Lotter’s paper, “The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science – Part 2: Academic Capitalism and the Loss of Scientific Integrity,” which corroborates accounts I have read elsewhere. (Yes, i am a broken record at this point, but I would get to read some other things if I didn’t have keep answering versions of the same tired questions.) You can find the full references cited below at the end of that paper:

    The Chapela Affair: Pressure to Retract a Peer-reviewed Paper Unfavorable to Transgenics
    Ignacio Chapela, professor at the University of California Berkeley, tested native corn being grown in indigenous areas of oaxaca in Mexico and found genetic contamination by transgenes from exported US corn, a highly significant finding that has never been disputed. A second finding in the paper, published in the journal Nature, that transgenic DNA is unstable and that fragmentation occurs during the transformation process, was the source of controversy. On the day the Quist and Chapela (2001) paper was published, emails attacking him and his research started showing up on AgBioWorld, an Internet forum popular with biotechnology scientists. AgBioWorld was associated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-funded body ‘notorious for its extreme pro-corporate agenda’ (GM Watch, 2002a; Matthews, 2003a). the emails accused Chapela of being an ‘activist first’ and a ‘scientist second’, that he colluded in attacks on ‘biotechnology, free trade, intellectual property rights’, and participated in other ‘politically motivated agenda items’. They insinuated that Chapela had actually designed his research in collusion with ‘fear-mongering activists’ and asked how much money Chapela was getting in expenses from the ‘anti-biotech industry’. Later, the vice-president of BIO, the Biotechnology Industry organization, is quoted as saying that the authors’ (Chapela and co-author Quist) ‘commitment was not to data and science but to a religious commitment to an [anti-biotechnology] dogma’ (Matthews, 2003b).

    There have been reports in the media that the attacks on Chapela on Internet biotech forums were part of the ‘viral marketing strategy’ of a specific biotechnology company (Quist and Chapela, 2001), and that these attacks came from ‘phantom scientists’ – phony personages created by the viral strategists – whose emails were shown to have originated on the servers of the biotechnology company’s PR group in the US (Littek, n.d.; Monbiot, 2002a, 2002b; Ross, 2004).

    After the attacks were posted on AgBioWorld, negative articles began appearing in the press with headlines such as ‘Doubts over Mexican GM maize report’ (Kirby, 2002). This, plus a massive email campaign to the editor of Nature, galvanized support for pressuring Nature to retract Chapela’s paper. Nature appointed a committee to examine possible retraction. The paper’s main finding that transgenes were found in native Mexican corn was upheld by the committee. However, the second conclusion of the Chapela paper, that fragmentation and subsequent ‘jumping’ of transgenic DnA occurs, was not accepted. Nevertheless, despite two of three referees failing to find sufficient reason to retract the paper, Nature published a statement that there was ‘insufficient evidence to justify the original publication’ (Dalton, 2008) (not a retraction). With this decision, ‘the biotechnology industry won a major public relations victory’, according to one media source (Philipkoski, 2002). BBC News criticized Nature’s editor for going against the majority decision of the committees (GM Watch, 2002b). A well-balanced journalistic review of the retraction controversy exists by Salah (2002).

    One major point stands out on the Chapela affair after five years: the fragmentation and subsequent movement of transgenic DNA in plants, as posited in the Chapela paper, has become the focus of research, as described in works cited in Part 1 of this paper. The idea that DNA fragmentation and migration to other parts of the genome is ‘unprecedented’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘totally ludicrous’, and ‘more mysticism than science’ (Sallah, 2002), as described by Chapela’s detractors during the controversy, is looking much less likely.

    A November 2008 article in Nature reports that research to be published in the journal Molecular Ecology has replicated Chapela’s finding of transgene contamination of native Mexican maize but does not mention DNA fragmentation and migration (Dalton, 2008).

    Next, regarding your statement: “And also, you suggest that people are being harmed by GE crops – can you provide any peer-reviewed evidence of that as well?”

    One of the major arguments that “my side” is making that there has been a striking paucity of good science done regarding health affects on people, very few of them in the U.S. This is a result of the growing role that industry now plays in driving the subjects of academic and institutional research. Again, see part 2 of Lotter’s paper. Nevertheless, scientists in countries less strangled by the biotechnology industry are doing some.

    Appendix 3, “Potential human health risks from Bt plants” (PDF) from the book “Hope Not Hype,” by molecular biologist Jack Heinemann, summarizes the existing research in this particular GMO area, which points to grave concerns regarding potential toxicity.

    What I don’t understand, to be honest, is why the scientific community is not embracing the challenge to conduct long-term studies that actually test these organisms as food, in the levels of exposure that typical Americans now encounter them. Can y’all really be so hubristic as to claim based on the studies that have been done that they are “safe”? I come back to this again and again. Do the benefits of Bt corn, just to take one example, really outweigh the unquantified potential risks to society, none of whom gave permission to be enrolled in this vast experiment on human and environmental health?

  16. Bonnie, I was very specific in my statement – no one has confirmed the presence of transgenes in the landraces. This was emphasized by the news release about Dalton’s paper -

    However, the new paper doesn’t confirm an important conclusion from the original Nature paper — whether the transgenes had been integrated into landrace genomes and passed along to progeny plants.

    Dan Lotter’s paper contains numerous errors and omissions, some of which I will detail in an upcoming post on Biofortified, including making claims that are not supported by the references. Notice in the passage that you quote from Lotter’s paper that he makes the claim, without supporting argumentation, evidence, or reference, that Chapela’s claim that the genes broke up and moved throughout the genome is likely to be happening:

    The idea that DNA fragmentation and migration to other parts of the genome is ‘unprecedented’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘totally ludicrous’, and ‘more mysticism than science’ (Sallah, 2002), as described by Chapela’s detractors during the controversy, is looking much less likely.

    Also notice that Lotter includes no analysis of the merits of the paper’s claims, and its fatal flaws. In contrast to your suggestion that it is a favorite of pro-GE folks to bring up, it is a favorite of anti-GE folks to bring up, often because they don’t take the time to understand the controversy from a scientific standpoint. Finally, Lotter makes the mistake of equating the findings of Dalton with the findings of Chapela – Chapela focused on mexican Landraces, while Dalton did not.

    Bonnie, there have been hundreds of studies done on the safety of GE crops, everything from a feeding study standpoint to a proteomic standpoint. There has also been a lot of research about quantifying risks of unintended consequences from transgenics compared to breeding. Lotter dismisses this in his paper, for example, citing a paper as saying something it didn’t. (Bonus points if you can find it before I publish my critique!) They are “safe” insomuch as food is “safe.”

    You suggest that the scientific community should be jumping at the opportunity to do long term human feeding studies (how this would happen on a practical scale, I don’t know) when there has already been a lot of research showing that little, if anything would be found at all. The same argument can be made for why medical researchers aren’t jumping at spending their research dollars studying homeopathy for cures. I argue that food safety research money is much better spent elsewhere on much more pressing and practical food risks, such as food-borne illness caused by bacteria.

  17. Parke says:

    Inoculated Mind says “Bonnie, I was very specific in my statement.” 

    By which he means it was literally true but misleading.  Kind of like, “I didn’t actually sleeeep with that woman.”

    Earlier he said.  “Chapela claimed that native landraces of corn has transgenes in them, a finding that no study (of the several conducted) has confirmed.”  What really happened is that new refereed research by PIÑEYRO-NELSON and colleagues found transgenes in some of the same fields of local corn that had been sampled in earlier research, even though GMO maize had been illegal for several years.  The authors say very carefully that either the genes have been adopted into the local landraces or the GMO has been recently reintroduced in nearby farms, even though it is illegal.  Either outcome reflects very poorly on the protections from GMO regulation.  The literal truth of Inoculated Mind’s comment comes from stretching the word “confirmed” to mean the exhaustion of all possible alternative explanations besides adoption of transgenes into the local landraces.

  18. Parke says:

    And, more constructively, a policy question.  As a skeptical, sensible, scientist, based on this literature to date, with all its remaining uncertainty, what would be your recommendation to the Mexican government regarding prudent regulation of GMO maize in the region of origin for the crop?

  19. Anastasia says:

    Sorry to butt in, but Parke asks a really good question.
    Mexico has two choices, as far as I can tell, from a maize genetics standpoint. Let’s think it through…

    They can go with the precautionary principle – protect the origins of maize because we don’t know what will happen if we don’t. If we allow this resource to be lost, we might not be able to recover from disasters like disease and climate change (I’m deadly serious here, the germplasm needs to be protected no matter what course the Mexican government takes). This could means prohibiting the use of any non-Mexican germplasm in areas that might allow pollen to blow onto the precious resource. We’re not just talking about one gene here. The problem is potentially all of the genes. When a maize landrace hybridizes with anything but a maize landrace, the resulting seeds will only contain half (on average) of the genes of the native parent. In fact, to truly protect each landrace, they need to be kept separate (not allowed to interbreed) because each one will have evolved to perfectly fit the specific conditions in which it lives and mixing them could mean the loss of genes. The same goes for teosintes and, really, for everything else. As intermating happens, some genes are lost, new ones develop through mutation, etc. The resulting generations are all subject to the pressures of natural and artifical selection. The new varieties may be better suited for the situation, but no matter what, genes will be lost.

    The problem is that each landrace, while having many beneficial traits, could be lacking other traits that are useful to farmers. So some farmers choose to plant modern varieties of corn that aren’t native to the area. Some farmers creatively obtain seed that has been genetically modified to withstand pests (this is how the GM corn got into Mexico, same as the way GM crops were released prior to deregulation in South America and India – having nothing to do with policy or containment and everything to do with individual people wanting to make a better life for themselves and their families).

    To put it plainly – the landraces now have been contaminated with maize genes from all over the world by farmers planting legal non-GM seed. They have been contaminted with the Bt gene as well as any marker genes that were in the GM seed planted illegally by farmers (if this hasn’t been detected yet, it’s just because we haven’t looked hard enough). Not only that, but these farmers are replacing fields of landraces with fields of modern varieties. If not actively in use, the seeds of those landrace populations could be lost.

    Now what do you do? Tell the farmers they have to plant landraces that won’t yield as much as modern varieties, tell them that they can’t utilize lines with beneficial traits (GM or not)? Will you pay them all subsides to compensate for that yield loss and for the choices you are taking away from them? I’m not being rehetorical here,  you’re the one with the Food Policy blog, Parke. I’d really like to learn about some potential policy solutions here. I can tell you about the potential genetic/agronomic solutions, since that’s my area.

    The alternative to complete prevention (which is impossble anyway) is risk assessment and, when possible, risk abatement. The genomes of maize landraces and teosintes have been contaminated, along with just about every native variety and wild relative of every food species around the world ever since humans started selectively breeding plants. To save the genes that we will need in the future, we need to characterize, collect seed from, and preserve DNA of everything we possibly can as quickly as we possibly can. This is already happening to some degree. For example, the USDA ARS NCRPIS in Ames has a great <a href=”http://www.ars.usda.gov/Main/docs.htm?docid=8642″>collection</a> of maize and maize relatives along with tons of other plants. CIMMYT has a great <a href=”http://www.cimmyt.org/Research/Maize/MFSGB/htm/MFSGB.HTM”>collection</a> as well. These resources are used by plant breeders, basic researchers, and genetic engineers alike as a source for genes that might be useful in new crop varieties – but are inexplicably not very well funded at all. One of the greatest arguments in favor of biodiversity preservation both in place and in vaults is the need to maintain those genes/traits. I’d like to see new policies that make genes in these collections “open source” to researchers and breeders the world over instead of patentable, but sadly, I don’t think that’s likely.

    While continuting to maintain all of those seed stores, Mexico could enact policies that require farmers who choose to use modern varieties to employ safety measures that will protect neighboring fields to some degree. These measures include planting border rows around their fields that will keep most of the pollen from dispersing and timing their planting to ensure that pollen shed will not happen when landraces and teosintes are receptive. Measures that are a little more extreme include using only male sterile lines, detasseling each plant, and using some type of improved GURT (genetic use restriction technology aka “terminator”). Whatever mehod(s) that was chosen would obviously have to be enforced to reap the most benefit (unlike the lax enforcement of non-Bt refuges and rotation of herbicides that should be preventing insects and weeds from becoming resistant but not enough farmers are following recommendation).

    Another option is to improve landraces to meet the needs of farmers using biotechnology like marker assisted selection, allowing them to have the traits they want while keeping as many of the native genes in place as possible. For example, developing open pollinating lines that are derived from combinations of landraces with the addition of some germplasm from high yielding lines or lines with other desired traits. Genetically engineered traits like Bt or improved nutrition could be inserted directly into landraces. These types of lines can be used in conjunction with techniques that reduce gene flow (as described above) such that the amount of pollen blowing into neighboring fields is reduced, but if an unwanted fertilization does occur, then the number of non-native genes will be lower than if typical seed corn had been planted. Another benefit of improving landraces in the situations in which they are currently planted is that no new farming methods need to be integrated. If a landrace already does well with little irrigation, why replace it with a variety that does?

    These solutions obviously aren’t perfect, and would have to be fine tuned according to research, shareholder needs, practical concerns, etc. While imperfect, though, I think they are better than ignoring the problem, which is pretty much what has been happening. Unfortunately, what’s happening in Mexico with maize is happening all over the world with other species. Some enterprising farmers plant the best seed they can get and are able to out produce their neighbors so some of the neighbors switch and then before you know it all of the native varieties are gone. The same is hapening / has happened with animals. One example is with <a href=”http://www.geneticmaize.com/2008/02/wheres-the-doomsday-animal-vault/”>cattle</a> in Africa, where native lines are being bred with Holsteins. As awesome as I think Norm Borlaug’s work was, they didn’t realize how important it was to maintan native varieties. Now we know better, so let’s work together to preserve them in ways that will benefit farmers and consumers today and in the future.

  20. Aimee says:

    I’m hesitant to chime in again, since everyone else here seems to be an expert of one sort or another (thanks for sharing your expertise, folks) and I’m a total layperson, but I wonder if anyone can answer a question. The particular GE gene which most concerns me with regards to it’s possible “escape” and contamination of regular crops is the so called “terminator” gene developed by Monsanto some years ago. I do not remember which crops it was inserted into, and I do seem to remember something about it having been withdrawn, so I don’t know if this is even a relevant questions anymore. But according to the imperfect understanding I gleaned from the popular press, this gene caused the plant to produce only sterile seed, so that it could not reproduce from saved seed at all. Does anyone have any information about whether this gene is still in commercial production, about whether it has ever spread to non-GE crops, and please! speculation from the experts on whether or not this is a potential disaster in the making as traditional crops lose their ability to produce fertile seed.

  21. Anastasia says:

    Aimee, the “terminator gene” has never been used anywhere in any species. For better or for worse, use of them has actually been banned. So, rest assured, it’s never spread or anything like that :)

    Without getting too much into details, there were actually multiple genes that interacted with each other to produce sterile seeds. If one of the genes gained a mutation through natural processes, then the resulting seeds might not actually be sterile – not so good if you were using this system to control the spread of a transgene. Researchers need to develop a simpler system.

    Another problem is that the pollen actually wasn’t sterile. So, if pollen blew over from one field to another, the resulting seed would be sterile. This isn’t a huge problem because, well, they’re sterile. The genes stop here. Because pollen generally stays within a field, only a small portion of the plants in the hypothetical neighboring field won’t germinate when planted. The rest of the seeds will still be the normal traditional variety or whatever and will spring up just fine when the farmer plants them. However, the sterile seed resulting from pollination with the transgenic variety may also contain the transgene that the “terminator gene” was supposed to keep from spreading. That could be a problem if the transgene coded for something that people or animals shouldn’t eat.

    There is also a version of “terminator gene” that doesn’t produce sterile seed. Instead, it prevents the transgene it protects from producing any protein unless it is treated with an activator chemical. This version is more promising than the “suicide seed” variety, but to my knowledge is included in the ban.

    There alredy exists a natural system that works really well and is used in the production of some hybrid crops: male sterility. Basically, the pollen from a male sterile variety will only be able to fertilize a plant that is receptive to the pollen – sometimes called a restorer line because it restores fertility. There isn’t any problem of pollen spread because it’s the pollen that’s sterile, not the seeds. It’s not a perfect system, but it might be preferable to the “terminator gene” systems that have been developed so far.

    I hope that helps. If you’d like to learn more about how the “terminator gene” systems work, you might be have better luck searching for the term GURT (genetic use restriction technology). The full term for sterile pollen is CMS (cytoplasmic male sterility).

  22. Don Lotter says:

    In a rather incomprehensible statement, Inoculated Mind writes above:  “no one has confirmed the presence of transgenes in the [Mexican] landraces.  This was emphasized by the news release about Dalton’s paper”.  

    Here is the statement by Dalton in Nature about the  paper in Molecular Ecology by Álvarez-Buylla et al. :

    “Transgenes from genetically modified (GM) maize (corn) crops have been found in traditional ‘landrace’ maize in the Mexican heartland, a study says. The work largely confirms a similar, controversial result published in Nature in 20011 and may reignite the debate in Mexico over GM crops.”

    Here is the text from Part 2 of my paper:
    “A November 2008 article in  Nature [Dalton] reports that research to be published in the journal Molecular Ecology has replicated Chapela’s finding of transgene contamination of native Mexican maize” (the Dalton article is not a paper, as stated by Mr. Inoculated)

    Here is Quist and Chapela’s original statement in Nature, finding: ‘‘a high level of gene flow from industrially produced maize towards populations of progenitor landraces’’.

    If transgenes have been found in Mexican landraces, that is “gene flow”, by definition.

  23. Aimee says:

    Thank you Anastasia, I think I understand a little better now.

  24. Re: 
    Parke and Lotter:
    Thanks for pointing out my error, I misread the article and the paper before I had commented. For some reason I mistook the author of the article as the author of the paper, definitely my bad on that. (It was a touch and go during lunch). Although I was attempting to be clear, Parke pointed out that I was not being very clear at all. Let me try to clear it up. (I have also been unable to access the internet over the weekend, so it appears there has been more discussion, which I will address at the bottom)

    One of the things that Chapela et al have been claiming is that the transgenes automatically make plants “more fit” – which is a claim not based on any peer reviewed research, but on a piece of ‘correspondence’ published in a scientific journal by Joy Bergelson. When Interviewed Chapela a few years ago on my radio show, he seemed to believe that the landraces were ‘contaminated,’ specifically using that term, and that they had “Introgressed” into the landrace genomes. Introgressed is a very specific term, meaning that the gene has been introduced into the genome, and through a series of crosses, remains in the genome, along with the other genes from the original parents.

    For example, I am currently growing a Red sweet corn in my backyard – to generate this a breeder took a red variety of corn and crossed it with sweet corn. Each generation, by selecting red kernels to plant and crossing it over and over again with sweet corn, through genetic recombination you can eliminate most of the genes from the red corn variety, so your corn is now a sweet corn variety – with one key difference, red kernels. The red kernel gene has been introgressed into the sweet corn I am growing.

    Chapela and Quist claimed that the transgenes had introgressed, which is still to this day not specifically supported. Moreover, the second part of their paper claimed that the genes had ‘broken up’ and spread elsewhere throughout the genome. This more problematic part of Chapela’s paper drew the most attention – now that I see Dan Lotter is reading the discussion, would you care to comment on what scientific evidence you have that this second part of the paper is correct?

    As the Álvarez-Buylla paper discusses, transgenes were found in the ears that they sampled. Were they from cross-pollination from another field, or from seed replanted year after year? The authors prefer one conclusion but say that they do not have evidence that could tell the difference between one possibility or another.

    From my experience with molecular genetics, I can say that it would not be difficult to figure out, and I don’t think they would need to go collect more samples, as long as they have their original DNA samples. They could pick a whole bunch of ‘molecular markers’ – specific places around the genome where you could tell whether it was inherited from one plant or another. Then, by sequencing and screening for those markers they could figure out whether their samples were the result of a cross between a commercial planting of transgenic seeds and a landrace, or if the landrace’s genetics dominate the samples – which would indicate introgression. This is probably a larger undertaking than many are willing to do to verify a specific claim, but it would not be difficult in theory.

    Re: Aimee – Anastasia is right that there are no “Terminator” seeds grown anywhere. Thanks to The Future of Food by Deborah Koons Garcia, many people believe that it would kill off the landraces. That conclusion is more than implied by the film, which has done a lot of damage to the debate over GE crops by being so poorly researched. (I also interviewed Koons Garcia who contradicted herself and didn’t realize the biological errors made in the film.) By definition, a gene that is deleterious – as in, prevents an organism from reproducing, cannot spread in a population.

    I think one of the things missing in the discussion over transgene gene flow is a comparison to non-GMO commercial plantings. I know that Paul Gepts at UC Davis has said that the gene flow issue in Mexico has alerted geneticists to the overall issue of gene flow, which Anastasia does a really good job discussing above. Landraces are not static and unchanging – they constantly change with the influx of new genes from fields of modern corn, wild teosinte, and everything inbetween. They are a valuable resource for picking up useful genes for breeding, and should and are being protected.

    What the anti-GE folks are worried about is that a beneficial transgene will sweep through and eliminate its competition in the landraces, wiping out the genetic resource. But what they are forgetting is that any gene that gives a plant a competitive edge, whether a transgene or not could have the same effect. If a transgene such as Bt that kills insect pests worries anti-GE activists, then any gene or mutant of a gene that is discovered in corn around the world that makes a plant withstand drought or disease or produce more seeds, etc, should in principle alarm them. But it doesn’t, which make one wonder.

    I hope I have cleared up my mistakes, and that this addition adds a good dose of science to the discussion.

  25. Don Lotter says:

    The second conclusion of Chapela and Quist’s 2001 Nature paper, that post-transformational (the gene splicing process) fragmentation of transgenes occurs, has never been definitively found, but this error was small next to the main finding of their  paper, that they had found transgenes in native Mexican maize.  Do you realize how many important, indeed classic, Nature papers have been published whose secondary conclusions were wrong?  Lots. 

    The viciousness of the reaction to Chapela’s paper, discussed in Part 2 of my paper, was off the scale and reflects the anti-dissent attitude of the biotechnology community.  Chapela’s main finding was enormously important, Mexico being the center of origin and diversity of maize.  It boggles the imagination as to how the US agricultural science community could have allowed the export of millions of tons of transgenic US maize to Mexico (I did an article about this for New Farm magazine, “Transgenic contamination of Mexican corn adds insult to NAFTA injury” at http://www.donlotter.net/New_Farm_index.htm).

    Re: Fragmentation of transgenic DNA: It is known that transgenic DNA undergoes fragmentation in the transformation (splicing) process, and these fragments end up in the target plant’s genome.  This may have been what Chapela found.  Multiple copies of transgenic DNA also end up in the target plant genome (up to 40) and fragmentation of the target plant DNA also occurs. 

    In other words, the target plant genome is severly disrupted in the genetic engineering process, not only at the site of insertion, but genome-wide, with dysfunctional proteomic (protein) consequences that are increasingly being uncovered.

    Intergenerational genetic instability in transgenic crops has been documented in a number of studies (in Part 1).  Owing to nature of the promoter gene in the transgene package, transgenes jump around from generation to generation, giving different gene sequence profiles, and with, again, unknown proteomic (protein) consequences.

    These are all hugely significant flaws in crop transgenics and in a good part make up the case for the failure of science on this issue.

  26. Anastasia says:

    Hello, Dr Lotter. I’m hoping you will indulge a graduate student in a little conversation on a few topics regarding your comments here. I really should be working on my prelim right now, so unfortunately don’t have time to look up relevant papers on what I’m about to comment on, please forgive me :( but I still wanted to ask/muse while I have the opportunity to talk to an influential scientist (thanks, Ethicurean!)…

    1) Regarding transgenes in Mexico – what about non-transgenes? If one gene is integrated into a landrace, it can be bred back out in one generation if needed. What about entire chunks of genome that will be lost when non-transgenic pollen from modern lines fertilize landraces or even when one landrace fertilizes another? (see my comment above: http://www.ethicurean.com/2009/06/15/monsanto-food-inc/#comment-120783).

    2) Has potential gene fragmentation of transgenes inserted with both gene gun and Agrobacterium been studied? Have genes inserted by natural Agrobactertium been studied for signs of fragmentation? I ask because, to my knowledge, the gene gun actually isn’t used as much as Agrobacterium in transgene insertion due to the lower copy number and “finesse” displayed by the bacteria. If there is gene fragmentation with Agrobacterium, then it should be compared to natural insertions caused by Agrobacterium. We should also compare any potential genome disruption of the various methods with hybridization of diverse lines and various types of mutagenesis that are used in “traditional” breeding.

    3) What promoters are you referring to? It is true that the cauliflower mosaic virus promoter is often used when ubiquitous expression is desired, but it isn’t the only promoter used, nor is it the only promoter that can be used (for my transgenic research in maize, I use a maize promoter). Have a variety of promoters and genes been tested for “genetic instability”? Is there a difference between promoters for ubiquitous expression and localized expression? How about promoters and genes from the species itself (cisgenes) compared to transgenes? How do the rates of potential gene jumping compare to that caused by different types of transposons? Could transposons actually the cause of this potential jumping? Has a mechanism been proposed?

    4) You mentioned “unknown proteomic consequences” due to transgene insertion. I don’t really have any questions on this, but would love some comments on the following… I’ve seen pretty convincing research that shows environment to be a bigger factor than transgenic/non-transgenic in differences in proteome and metabolome. In other words, identical plants grown in different locations show more variability than a transgenic plant and its isoline in the same location. Of course there is variation across events. My lab always screens multiple transgenic events (as many as we can) for every construct because there is variability due to where the gene is inserted. Some academic researchers don’t bother with multiple events, but seed companies certainly do (with way more events than I could ever handle) and combine event event screening with marker assisted selection. Sometimes the gene is silenced, sometimes other genes are disrupted and show an undesired phenotype (but this happens even with a traditional breeding program). We choose the events with good expression and backcross them with non-transgenic lines to remove genetic material from the donor parent except for one functioning copy of the gene of interest. The exact location(s) of the gene can be easily determined with sequencing. Through the backcross process, I haven’t seen any intergenerational genetic instability in the lines I’m working with, although the gene of interest is occasionally silenced, so those plants are removed from the breeding program.  I guess what I’m trying to say with this explanation of what I personally do is that there are relatively easy ways to assess expression of the gene of interest and of other genes and as far as I know such assessment is common. Variability of expression isn’t a reason to drop genetic engineering as a technology because it happens in breeding as well. If we are going to require proteomics and/or metabolomics for multiple generations of transgenic crops before release, then we ought to do the same for traditionally bred crops, particularly ones bred from diverse parents or with mutagenesis.

    If you have any papers to recommend on these subjects, I would be grateful.

    5) As for the Chapela paper, I think there are problems with the conclusions drawn from the results, but that just means there needs to be more research.. The whole thing was terribly anti-science (on the part of the people who disputed the paper in inappropriate ways), but at the same time I can understand some of the frustration of scientists who have to deal with crap like science by press release from anti-biotech “researchers”.

    Before you talk too much about the anti-dissent attitude of the “biotechnology community” though, you might want to consider the anti-dissent attitude of the “organic community”. I’m minoring in sustainable agriculture because I really want to understand as many aspects of farming as I can in order to help develop policy and science that will result in better farming methods for all – but any time I suggest that biotech or another modern method could be a solution to a problem, I am promptly shushed, even by faculty! Some are more open-minded, but they are the minority. As for non-scientists who consider themselves in the “organic community”, I’ve actually received threats at my blog along with all of the typical baseless insults.

    Thanks for reading my 5 cents, I must get back to writing!

  27. Don Lotter says:

    Anastasia – To try and answer your questions:

    Re: Migration of non-transgenic maize genes into Mexican maize.  This has been the norm for millenia.  When you say above that “the landraces now have been contaminated with maize genes from all over the world by farmers planting legal non-GM seed”, remember that those maize genes all originated in either Mexico or Guatemala, the center of origin of maize.  Transgenes on the other hand, come from different orders, classes, even other phyla and the target plant genome has never had anything like that happen to it.

    Re: Fragmentation of transgenes in Agrobacterium vs. gene gun transformation.  The Latham et al. paper discusses this.  I agree that we should compare potential genome disruption of the various transgenics methods with hybridization of diverse lines and various types of mutagenesis that are used in “traditional” breeding.  

    Re: The Cauliflower Mosaic Virus CaMV35s.  This promoter has been used in all of the current roster (at least up to 2006) of transgenic crops. 

    Re: The unknown proteomic consequences of transgenic DNA.  I have seen the research on the environment generated proteomic variation vs. transgene generated variation.  What is not known however is whether the environment-generated protein variation is variation that has occurred throughout the evolution of the plant, which is probably the case.  Transgene-generated proteomic
    variation is unlikely to have been part of the plant’s evolution, and perhaps more importantly, those novel proteins (the variants) likely have never been part of the mammalian or human digestive system.  This is the biggest flaw in crop transgenics.  The environment-generated proteomic variation has very likely been experienced by the digestive systems of our ancestral species, and thus our own digestive systems are adapted to them.

    Re: Intolerance of dissent.  I feel for you here, when in an organic ag class you bring up points of biotechnology and get shut down by classmates or even the instructor.  I never ever shut down or even discourage students who bring up different points of view in my classes.  Often at the end of the discussion I thank them for bringing up the dissenting point, and I make sure that students know that well-presented dissenting points are rewarded grade-wise.  If I disagree with their point, I usually ask them to read specific material and get back to me.  Often I am familiar with their sources (or lack thereof, such as talk radio), but if not, I ask them to bring them to me if possible.

    My pro-transgenics stance on pharmaceutical and industrial biotechnology is a dissenting view within my own community (organic and sustainable ag) and I’m getting some flack for it. However, I make it clear that transgenic pharmaceutical crops and all transgenic crops MUST be grown in biosafe greenhouses and stored and transported in hazardous-waste type systems that NEVER contain food or feeds.  The main difference from food is that pharmaceuticals are specific compounds that are isolated from the transgenic crop, thus you don’t have the novel protein issue, plus you have a paper trail if there is something wrong with the pharmaceutical.  Pharmaceuticals are high value products and growing them in greenhouses shouldn’t be a huge hurdle, if indeed crop plants are the best delivery system for those compounds.  Most pharmaceutical transgenics are and will continue to be bacterial, a taxon that has been a successful host for transgenics because of its much simpler genetics.  With bacteria, the one-gene-one-protein theory holds up well, unlike plants.

    They say if you get objections from people on both sides of an issue you’re probably on a better tack than if the objections all come from one side.

    I hope I have gone a small ways to answer your questions.

  28. Anastasia says:

    Thank you for the response. I’m still not clear on a few things and am hoping to learn more.

    First, are you saying that protection of the unique cultivars of maize and teosinte in Mexico from non-transgenic pollen isn’t necessary? Shouldn’t biodiversity be preserved and genes preventing from being lost? The origins of maize are in Mexico, but it has been taken out of Mexico and modified heavily thorough natural and artificial selection. The extents of the changes are obvious just from visual phenotype.

    I think you are saying that we specifically need to keep transgenes out because potential gene fragmentation could lead to the production of unknown proteins. Has anyone found additional gene fragmentation in subsequent generations after the transformation itself, particularly once the transgenic line has been backcrossed multiple times so that mutations due to insertion have been removed from the line? Has anyone found unknown proteins that were due to gene fragmentation? Is there evidence that those proteins are harmful or that they are far removed from any other proteins in the species?  If yes, is there reason to believe that these things could not happen and are not happening naturally?

    Various genomic changes, from point mutations to chromosomal rearrangements, occur on their own, without any intervention from humans. Also completely natural are a variety of mechanisms of interspecies gene transfer. It is entirely possible that a non-maize gene could end up in maize all on its own, and that a gene can be broken up and reshuffled into the genome all on its own… we just direct and accelerate the process. I’m not trying to be flippant about this – if there are risks then we should be aware of them – but from what I know to date I don’t think we should be more or less worried about transgenic plants than non-transgenic plants.

    Of course, I could have just not seen the papers yet, or perhaps the research has not been done yet. I searched a bit, and didn’t find anything that adequately answered my questions. Ah, I wish someone would just give me a ton of money to research this… the experiments I could design… maybe once I finish my PhD  ;)

    I appreciate your sympathy and your efforts to have productive conversations with students that have diverse viewpoints. I agree that getting objections from both sides is probably a good sign. I hope that if I continue to be polite and attempt to engage people both on my blog and at my university then we might get somewhere, get some real dialogues going. Too many people just repeat rumors instead of discussing the science – which is a shame because the science is so interesting!

  29. Don Lotter says:

    Anastasia – No I’m not saying that protection of the unique cultivars of maize and teosinte in Mexico from non-transgenic pollen isn’t necessary.  What I am saying is that the flow of maize genes  in and out of local maize land races has been occurring for centuries,  and genes from modern varieties bred in other regions have been part of this.   I think transgenes should be kept out of all Mexican maize, period.   (And all maize anywhere for that matter).   The boundary between transgenes and non-transgenic genes is self-evident.

    Re:  the natural transfer of non-maize genes into maize.  This is rare and I know that genetic engineers like to cite its occurence and that they, the engineers, just “direct and accelerate the process”.  

  30. Anastasia says:

    Of course horizontal gene transfer is rare (although that fact isn’t stopping some people from <a href=”http://www.i-sis.org.uk/FSAopenmeeting.php”>freaking out</a> about it while others downplay the frequency when convenient) but I’d like to know how rare it is compared to other phenomena. You’ve mentioned that a genome does all sorts of strange things when a transgene is around – how many of these hypothesized events like gene fragmentation happen when a transgene isn’t around? It kind of makes sense to me that it would be fairly common, at least compared to chromosomal rearrangements and things like that, because it would be just another mechanism to introduce change for the purposes of evolution.

    I’m not asking these questions to be difficult. I’m genuinely interested in what’s happening at the genomic level, but I don’t feel like people are even asking the right questions let alone answering them. When we conduct risk assessment, we must compare the new to the old, not just assess the new.

  31. Don Lotter says:

    Anastasia – I think it’s important to always look at things from an evolutionary point of view – this is part of my training in Ecology at UCD.  Whether it’s human behavior or natural occurrences of horizontal gene transfer into food crops.   Similar incidents of horizontal transfer have likely occurred in the evolutionary past and have necessitated the selection of mammals/humans to be tolerant of the small amounts of novel proteins they might cause to be produced (after all, that horizontal transfer occurs in a single plant which doesn’t have large corporations reproducing and dispersing the seed all over the world) .    And since transgenics involves the horizontal transfer of genes on a vastly greater scale than in nature and involves much greater disruption of the host plant genome, this should have been enough to prevent the approval of transgenic crops.

  32. Anastasia says:

    Where is the research that shows “horizontal transfer of genes on a vastly greater scale than in nature and involves much greater disruption of the host plant genome”? As I asked before, has gene fragmentation or random new proteins in lines that contain an established transgene been found? Has anyone compared the frequency of these phenomena to that in lines that don’t contain a transgene, particularly under conditions like wide crosses and various types of stress? And what about cisgenics (using a gene from the same species, usually with a promoter from the same species)? Do you think these present the same risk as transgenics?

    Of course looking at things from an evolutionary point of view is important, but it’s also important to make solid comparisons, preferably with as little assumption as possible.

  33. Peter says:

    Thanks to everyone who has commented here, and especially Anastasia and Don.  Your considered and informed points of view continue to be interesting and educational.  Keep it up!

  34. Don Lotter says:

    Anastasia – Re:  “Where is the research?”  This is one of the major points of my papers and I have citations from the food safety literature on this paucity.   The much-needed research simply wasn’t done comparing transgenics to natural processes before transgenic crops were pushed ahead for approval.  

    Re: Cisgenics.  I haven’t seen enough of the research on this.   I don’t think there is enough knowledge of the effects are of inserting a gene from the same family (cisgene)  into a plant vs.  inserting a transgene.   Therefore, I would oppose the release of  any genetically engineered crops -whether  cis- or transgenic.  

    As the world’s top geneticists wrote in the 2007 report on the Human Genome Project, writing about the genetics of higer organisms (including plants):  “genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood” and that scientists need to “rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do”.