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article imageOp-Ed: GM seeds last 10 years; concerns about controls, and some black humor

By Paul Wallis     Apr 2, 2008 in Science
One of the original problems with genetically modified plants was their ability to survive. The discovery in Sweden of GM oilseed rape, (aka canola) which was planted 10 years ago, and has survived eradication attempts raises a whole new set of issues.
The BBC reports:
Presenting their findings in the journal Biology Letters, the researchers note that after the trial of herbicide-resistant GM rape, the Swedish Board of Agriculture sprayed the field intensively with chemicals that should have killed all the remaining plants.
And for two years, inspectors looked specifically for volunteer plants and killed them.
This is much more effort than would usually be deployed on a normal farmer's field.
But even so, 15 plants had sprung up 10 years later carrying the genes that scientists had originally inserted into their experimental rape variety to make them resistant to the herbicide glufosinate.
Non-GM varieties were used in the 10-year-old study as well, and some of these had also survived.
"I wouldn't say that the transgenic varieties are able to survive better," said Dr D'Hertefeldt. "It's just that oilseed rape is a tough plant."
So it is. It’s one of the oldest cultivated crops on Earth.
But there’s a lot of irony in this story.
Given the problems with GM food on the market, and the growing perception of organic produce as a safer natural alternative, farmers now make more money growing organics. Therefore any presence of GM genes in their crops is a liability to their organic status. They’re not considered “pure” plants.
This is no minor problem. With the development of GM plants has come the possibility of random crossbreeding. Viable GM plants in the environment are a wild card. That’s raised ecological, legal, commercial and biological problems for organic and conventional farmers and environmentalists, as well as agribusiness.
But in commercial crops cross fertilization is almost inevitable, if natural and GM plants of the same species are in proximity to each other.
Monsanto recently infuriated some people, suing farmers with claims that non-GM plants in the vicinity of their GM crops, which showed signs of their product’s modified genetic structures, were using their patented genes. That's a serious legal issue, as well as an environmental issue.
Just allowing my horticultural training to take over for a moment:
In an agricultural area containing large monocultures, pollination doesn’t play favorites. Bees require large volumes of pollen, and naturally tend to focus on the better supplies of pollen. So if you have GM canola and natural canola growing in a region, they’ll harvest what’s available from both.
By rights, Monsanto should have sued the bees.
Bees generally don’t check with the Patent Office before gathering pollen.
(Well, most of them don’t. There is one that does, but she’s considered rather obsessive, even by bee standards.)
This discovery has thrown a very large number of spanners into agriculture’s not-very highly developed thinking on the subject of GM crops.
Until now, GM plants and proprietary GM seeds were considered to be once-only crops. They weren't intended to self-seed, and had to be replaced with a new crop. GM plants in the wild were thought to be not particularly viable. GM potatoes, a few years ago, were found to be hopeless as survivors, unable to reproduce.
On that basis, Monsanto and other GM producers thought they had a product which would be purely commercial, a virtual monopoly, with growers dependent on them for seeds. That's never been entirely accurate, and some GM plants have self seeded from the start, but growers aren't allowed to grow crops from those seeds. Even possession of GM seeds can be a breach of the buyer's agreement. In poorer countries, this is real commercial dependency, and you can imagine some Indian farmer trying to fight a big multinational.
An entire market philosophy, irrational as it may be, is based on this concept.
Hybrids, however, are a different genetic structure. The patent applies to specific genes, which might be commercially enforceable on individual farmers, but not on nature as a whole. If the environment contains a lot of plants with hybrid genes, the farmers can't really be held responsible for their presence in the crops. Exit a monopoly or several. The actual genes may be mixed outside the genetic patent, too.
These Swedish seeds obviously aren’t following the script. Not good news for the would-be genetic monopolies, because long living seeds can hybridize over generations, and spread over whole continents, like the Canadian canola.
Therein another level of significance of the survival of these canola plants.
Ten years would be good viability for any crop seeds. In fact it would be exceptional, as anyone who’s bought commercial seeds would know.
The level of disconnect between the biological facts about the plants and the issues being raised is pretty funny.
The Swedes attempted to wipe out the GM seeds with herbicides, and it didn’t work. That’s led to sagacious remarks about the difficulties of controlling GM plants generally.
So the renegade canola has effectively outgrown the design framework.
It’s also outrun most of the thinking on the subject of GM crops and their uses.
The joke here is that the canola has opened up a new area of development, and it’s been buried under the theology of the marketplace and standard environmental arguments.
In fact, long term viability in seeds could be an extremely useful development. "Normal" hybridization of plants is based on improved viability and resistance to diseases, etc, and most researchers would be pleased with producing anything that lasted 10 years.
Seed survival is a logistic nightmare in agriculture. Quite unintentionally, the canola has developed an ability which could be invaluable to agriculture, the ability to store good seeds with strong survival abilities.
Seed viability is extremely important, because crop yields depend on it for commercial viability. An “unkillable” seed would be a major plus in a food production market where staple food yields, particularly grains, are dwindling, and demand is growing as the human and animal populations increase.
The argument, meanwhile, is still back in the Stone Age:
"It's been known for some time that oilseed rape is a bit of a problem because of the survival of its seed," he told BBC News.
"It means that if farmers want to swap [from growing GM rape] to conventional varieties, they will have to wait for a number of years."
Clare Oxborrow, GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth (FoE) UK, commented: "This study shows just how little we really know about the most basic aspects of growing GM crops, like how long seeds persist in the soil."
Canola produces valuable low fat vegetable oils, commonly used in margarine and cooking oils. It’s the fourth most cultivated GM plant on Earth.
Environmentally and legally, GM canola created a storm over Monsanto’s proprietary demands in Canada, where the court system was used to enforce Monsanto’s claims to ownership. That was a rather Pyrrhic process from everybody’s perspective, because the GM canola soon became a weed, spreading merrily without regard to ownership, or organic sensitivities.
There’s a certain naiveté here.
Natural fertilization is a largely mechanical process. Natural hybrids from pollination sometimes occur, producing new species. It’s more normal that related species cross pollinate, but other species can be pollinated as well.
The lavender hybrid, lavendula, is a case in point. It's a different species, different morphology, grown from two lavender species.
The introduction of millions of new organisms into an environment must have some effect. Pollination is not accidental. Any plant can expect to have its pollen distributed throughout the environment rapidly.
In theory, GM plants can cross pollinate with anything, like natural plants, under the right conditions. It’s really a matter of producing a viable hybrid. Pollen will either fertilize the other plant, or it won’t.
So while the world frets about its agricultural chastity and violation of commercial greed, billions of unknown elements have been introduced into the environment.
It is quite possible, that across North America, and wherever GM plants have survived, their pollen is now being spread throughout the plants in those regions. Successful hybrids are rare in nature, but they do happen, and their seeds aren’t super-viable.
Don’t be surprised to hear of a miraculous new breakthrough in seed viability some time in the next few years.
Or that thousands of new hybrid plants are being discovered.
More about Genetic modification, Canola, Seed viability
 
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