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RR® seed even worse than feared

(Nov. 2, 2001 -- CropChoice guest column) -- Ecologist Robert Mann submitted the following piece as a follow-up to what Colorado farmer David Dechant had to say yesterday on CropChoice --Saving conventional, non-GMO seed? Beware!)

Also, on CropChoice today, please see the press release about a new resource from The Non-GMO Source -- Resource available for those seeking non-GMO seeds, crops and food ingredients

by Robert Mann

Farmer David Dechant points out that not only the dreaded RoundupReady® seed but also many other patented seeds, if permitted by the current court examination, will lay farmers open to severe court actions if seed is saved. I am afraid the scene is even more menacing than David says.

The important suits by GE-seed creator Monsanto against the former mayor of Bruno, Saskatchewan, canola breeder & producer Percy Schmeiser, and against the Nelson family, which grows soybeans, wheat and sugar beets in North Dakota, reveal major difficulties about what genes end up on whose land. The pressure to buy the proprietary seed for each planting is greatly increased by these new threats.

But let us not forget that proprietary 'hybrid' seed has been a huge trade in the overdeveloped world for half a century. Typical F1 hybrids are not sterile, but their progeny seeds vary so much that there's very little point in trying to grow a crop from them. What few farmers have realised is that the properties of GM-progeny are unpredictable and may be not only uneconomic but also downright dangerous.

At a recent large international meeting (the world dairy "summit"), I spoke during a buffet lunch to a high-flyer biochemist who had just delivered a very impressive talk. When I mentioned 'biolistics', the gene-jockeys' name for one radically novel method of inserting genes into plant cells by blasting in tiny metal pellets coated with synthetic DNA 'casettes', this prominent professor vigorously made like a tommy-gunner spraying bullets around the room, yelling 'weapons grade'. I look forward to a more formal public statement by this influential scientist; meanwhile, I note that scores of other scientists were standing around that luncheon room and had just heard him demonstrating high expertise in biochemistry, so I take it he wouldn't mind my recounting this memorable expression of scorn for this principal method of gene-tampering.

The 'gene gun' is favoured for monocots (e.g. maize). The main current method for dicots (e.g. soya, potato, oilseed rape) uses a less drastic method which is nevertheless bound to cause mutations of unprecedented, unforeseeable kinds: synthetic DNA in 'constructs' assembled from a modified plasmid of Agrobacterium which causes the only known tumour of the plant kingdom, typically spliced together with modified copies of viral DNA genes ('promoters') which not only force the desired property (e.g. Roundup resistance) to be expressed 'irregardless' but also provoke dozens of 'cassette' copies to be synthesized and inserted at almost any part of the target plant cell's genome. These blocks of foreign genes randomly inserted cannot provide predictable behaviour.

Both of these 'technologies' are practically certain to cause a wide range of unforeseeable mutations. Some novel traits will appear promptly. Of the minority among the target cells that survive the genes-inserting violence, most are obvious monsters; and more subtle defects emerge among those few cells that can be grown into a whole plant, e.g. the 6 percent lower yield of some resulting RR® soybeans, 30 percent lower in drought districts. But the mutations will continue to cause misbehaviour over many generations (if viable seed are set). Generally, GE plants should be assumed less capable of producing useful seed than the typical F1 hybrids from which nobody would bother to propagate sexually.

The bizarre 'constructs' inserted can be safely assumed to cause a huge, florid variety of defects. Novel pathogens of various hosts could emerge from these genetically unstable GMOs. If any identifiable fragments of rogue DNA appear on a farmer's land you might think he'd be entitled to sue for damages; you might even think his government would have protected him from, rather than promoting, such pollution; instead, the genetic polluters have the nerve to sue him! Go back to 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' for a precedent to this inversion of justice.

I, therefore, add to David Dechant's wise warnings my opinion that current GE-crops are unfit for open planting. I implore farmers to read the declaration of a card-carrying gene-jockey, Professor Patrick Brown of UC Davis, who hopes for good GM plants in future but judges current methods too dangerous: http://news.gefree.org.nz/patrick-brown-jul-2000.html.

Here are a few other links to scientific criticisms of gene-jiggering:

Dr Mann, a retired academic, is a consultant ecologist in Auckland, New Zealand. He has served on New Zealand government advisory boards.