Biotech Gone Mad

Corn flap tears husk off GE food-safety claims

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in an unprecedented move last month, Nature, the prestigious British scientific journal announced that it could no longer stand by an article it had published last November on the subject of genetically engineered (GE) corn invading Mexico.The drama of this retraction has sent the scientific world into a tizzy and led to a spate of articles in the media touting the original findings as a mistake. Both the Globe and the Toronto Star carried pieces pointing to the unusual backtracking, and La Presse opined that “it seems that it is impossible to prove beyond all doubt that Mexican corn has indeed been contaminated.”

The biotechnology industry, for its part, wasted no time pointing to the retraction as evidence that its products are safe and its overly zealous critics use bad science. Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization told the Washington Post, “The authors made mistakes that first-year grad students learn to avoid.”

But in all the controversy, most media outlets failed to address the complex science behind the retraction, and as a consequence misinterpreted its significance. The fact is, few scientists, including those who wrote papers criticizing the original Nature article, disagreed with one of the original paper’s most alarming claims: genetically modified corn has spread outside contained areas beyond all possible control.

Nick Kaplinsky, for example, who co-authored one of the critical papers, agrees that there is little doubt that transgenic corn is growing in Mexico. “It is absolutely not surprising. That seems like an obvious finding to us,” says Kaplinsky, a graduate student in plant and microbial biology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Kaplinsky says this was not the focus of his critique at all. Rather, his piece targeted a different, even more explosive claim in the Nature article. This was the suggestion that once in Mexico, the bioengineered corn actually mates with traditional stocks, leading to a mutant species. Put another way, this means the DNA of the engineered species has actually entered indigenous corn genes and produced a third, unpredictable strain.

This claim is highly controversial because it suggests that transgenic (bioengineered) organisms behave in unstable, dangerous ways that undermine the entire scientific basis of the multi-billion-dollar biotech industry.

“Biotech is founded on the idea that you know something about what you are doing and can make predictions,” says Kaplinsky. “(If the original paper were right) you would want to rethink deploying transgenic organisms on a grand scale.”

On this second claim, the jury still appears to be out. The paper’s co-authors acknowledge that they misinterpreted data in their tests, but they say they re-tested the data using another method and came up with the same results.

The debate highlights how tragically little is actually known about biotech. Says Ignacio Chapela, one of the co-authors of the original paper and a professor of microbial ecology at Berkeley, the science of studying transgenic contamination is at a nascent stage. The biotech industry hasn’t been rushing to investigate the question, so techniques for studying it are still evolving, he says.

“The situation right now is, we have discovered a new planet and trained a relatively crude telescope on it. It’s an interpretation we made. The critique (of our study) was also based on an interpretation. The debate in Nature is, “That looks like a mountain to me, not a crater,'” says Chapela.

Other biotech experts say the Nature controversy has missed the boat by obscuring the fact that transgenic corn has indeed been found in Mexico.

“The debate is really remarkable. The argument is about whether someone’s shoes are undone when they don’t have any clothes on,” says Pat Mooney, executive director of Winnipeg’s ETC Group, a biotech and agriculture policy institute. “It’s an absurd scientific obfuscation of the real issues.”

The discovery of transgenic corn in Mexico is alarming in its own right because that country is where all of the world’s corn originated. This pollution means the integrity of Mexico’s corn strains may have been compromised forever. Even before the Nature paper came out, Mexicans were in a panic about the discovery, and the Mexican government has ordered a series of studies to determine the extent of the contamination. Five of the six studies are now done, and they concur that transgenic corn is growing in Mexico, says Mooney.

“The integrity of these strains is enormously important, and it has been compromised,” says Barry Commoner, a veteran biologist and environmentalist who was the founding director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at the City University of New York.

Commoner, too, points to the industry’s lack of sophistication. In his article in February’s Harper’s, Unraveling The DNA Myth: The Spurious Foundation Of Genetic Engineering, he challenges the industry’s “central dogma” that DNA is the code of all life. This, he says, has been scientifically discredited for years. Proteins, he says, are just as important as DNA in passing on genetic information, a fact known to scientists as far back as the 1960s but downplayed by biotech proponents keen to convince the public that DNA can be spliced from organism to organism without any complications.

The implications may well be that an organism’s proteins interpret the DNA of another organism in unpredictable ways.

“Molecular genetics is a science badly in need of self-examination,” says Commoner. “We’re flying blind.”

What’s at stake in this debate is much more than Mexican corn. Many other crops around the world are at risk and could already be undergoing the same kind of corruption. Canada, the world’s third-largest grower of transgenic crops, with 6 per cent of total acreage, is not immune. Already, the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate has filed a class-action suit against biotech giants Monsanto Canada and Aventis complaining that transgenic contamination has made it impossible for Saskatchewan farmers to certify that crops are pure. The issue was also at the centre of a last year’s suit by Monsanto against Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser.

Canada has been slow to enact controls. Since 2000 there have been “eight to 10” incidents in which transgenic corn was discovered in U.S. grain shipments that were supposed to be GM-free, says Bart Bilmer, director of the office of biotechnology at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. In October Ottawa finally required U.S. shipments to be tested for transgenic contamination, but even now the government merely relies on companies to do their own testing.

Bilmer says transgenic contamination is inevitable in Canada (“We assume it’s going to happen”) but denies there are “safety concerns.”

Mooney disagrees. He says the unexpected spread of contamination caught scientists off guard and reveals yawning gaps in their knowledge. “The companies and scientists are shocked by how far the pollen spreads. They don’t know what it means or what are its implications.”

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