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6/24/2013

Genetically Modified Organisms: To What Purpose?

"The C4 strain of Agrobacterium sp. is a species of bacteria that was found growing in the waste-fed column at a factory that made glyphosate. The EPSP synthase enzyme from this bacterium (C4 EPSP synthase) was almost completely insensitive to glyphosate. The C4 EPSP bacterial gene was cloned and inserted into a bacterial plant vector in order to prepare for cloning into plants. The details of one of the Monsanto C4 EPSP cloning vectors are shown in the first patent filed on September 13, 1994 ( U.S. Patent 05633435)." Sandwalk Blog, Larry Moran, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto, March 14, 2007

On May 29, 2013, the Register Guard reported that stands of genetically modified, Roundup Ready wheat had been discovered in a field in eastern Oregon. Though Willamette Valley activists have spoken out against the ethics of genetically modified organisms for years, the issue made the front page of the RG because of its economic impact. Some ninety percent of Northwest wheat is exported to Asia where three of the largest buyers, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, much like the European Union, have stated categorically they do no want GMO products. Within two days of the eastern Oregon find, both Japan and South Korea put holds on their orders of NW wheat. According to Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Kathy Coba, $300 to $500 million of annual Oregon wheat sales are at risk.

The June 7, 2013 edition of the Capital Press, a regional agricultural newspaper published in Salem, contained a "GMO Wheat Special Report" section that helps fill out the story. Though the grower's name has not yet been released, CP reported that the discovery was in a single 125-acre plot, where isolated contaminated volunteer wheat represented approximately one percent of the field—or one and a quarter acres of Roundup (glyphosate) resistant wheat. Exactly how this happened was a key part of CP's special report. Though Oregon State University tests results revealed that the wheat held Monsanto's patented gene, three experts quoted in CP could do little more than scratch their heads when asked about the GMO wheat's origin.

Oregon Wheat Commission CE0 Blake Rowe's initial reaction was shock: "How could this have happened?...This is impossible; it has to be a false test."

Willamette Valley wheat grower Jerry Margurth found it so strange he ventured that, "This is naturally occurring glyphosate resistance."

OSU wheat breeder Bob Zemetra cited the long period of time between the closure of the last test plot in 2001 and the discovery, saying, "If it was a contamination, why didn't it (the discovery) happen sooner?" The suggestion here is that if the source of contamination was residuals from a test plot, it should have been noticed years ago. Growers commonly use Roundup to clean up their fields and resistant stands are quite obvious—if they are in a regularly worked plot. The other possible source would have been a seed mix-up at the Monsanto distribution center. Zumetra felt both scenarios were unlikely, and yet he offered no other explanation.

To add to the mystery, CP reported that Monsanto has tested 600 samples of wheat grown by the farmer in question. All the samples came up GMO negative. Another "30,000 samples from wheat varieties that represent 60% of the acreage grown in Oregon and Washington" were also tested by Monsanto and found free of contamination.

Monsanto's CTO, Robb Fraley, seems so certain Monsanto's practices are sound that he wondered if the Oregon wheat could have been the result of intentional sabotage. But by whom? An eco-terrorist knowing its impact on the industry? Or the industry itself knowing that once NW wheat is deemed irreparably "not GMO free," then why not just plant it all?

Monsanto has no explanation for the event and takes no responsibility for the "incident." (It's worth noting that in this same issue of the CP, a small article on page 17 announced that Monsanto is planning a new Wheat Technology Center in Flier, Idaho. Clearly, they have no horses in this race!)

Effectively what the CP's special report gave us was a series of experts saying–well, gosh, I just don't know how something like this could happen. Sadly, none of them was willing to say the obvious; it was poor test plot management–and there's no telling how much more of it's out there!

This kind of accidental contamination of a commodity crop is one good reason not to introduce GMO crops to our food supply. They cannot be contained. (It happened to a vastly greater extent to U.S. rice in 2006-7.) But the list of negatives doesn't stop here.

Foremost is the farmer's loss of ownership of the seed. For 25,000 years, farmers have planted, nurtured, adapted, and saved their seed. The patenting of seeds and related seed ownership laws impinge on this primordial human right.

With this loss of ownership, patented seed becomes no different than fertilizer or diesel–another farm input that has to be bought every year. Rather than making food cheaper for all, as GMO advocates have claimed, GMOs actually are making food more expensive–not just in dollars and cents but also with external costs to the environment.

The two most noted GMO commercial successes, Roundup Ready field crops (soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola) and Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) corn, offer clear examples of their transient effectiveness and their environmental impact. The wide use of Roundup as an all-purpose weed killer on some two hundred million acres of Roundup Ready crops has, not surprisingly, produced weeds that are resistant to glyphosate.

"Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers' near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds...The first resistant species to pose a serious threat to agriculture was spotted in a Delaware soybean field in 2000. Since then, the problem has spread, with 10 resistant species in at least 22 states infesting millions of acres, predominantly soybeans, cotton and corn." New York Times, William Neuman and Andrew Pollack, May 3, 2010

Roundup Ready is not a super ag-product it's a super weed vector.

Again, broadcast tens of million of acres with any new product and nature's fractal engineering team will respond. The corn rootworm (European corn borer), for which Bt corn was created, is now showing resistance to Bt.

"Last year, we reported that a major insect pest, the corn rootworm, had 'found a chink in the armor' of genetically engineered crops. In several different places across the corn belt, the insects have developed resistance to an inserted gene that is supposed to kill them. Now, in a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released this week, 22 of the nation's top experts on corn pests lay out some of the implications of this discovery, and they are potentially profound. In order to slow down or prevent the spread of resistance, the scientists are calling for big changes in the way that biotech companies, seed dealers and farmers fight this insect. The scientists urge the agency to act 'with a sense of some urgency.'" NPR News report, Dan Charles, March 9, 2012

It's true that Bt is a naturally occurring insecticide used by organic farmers to combat pests, but it is a toxin. What happens when you plant 70 million acres of Bt products annually? Bt runs through the ground water at concentrations found no where else in nature, and you get more than the adapting rootworms; you impact a whole variety of insects and microorganisms. The health of the caddisfly, found in so many of our lakes and streams, has become one of the concerns.

"Genetically modified corn, commonly called Bt corn, is engineered to kill pests such as the European corn borer. However, a new study shows that Bt corn may also harm the caddisfly, which serves as food for fish and amphibians. The new study also shows that parts of Bt corn, such as leaves, cobs and pollen, can travel as far as 2000 meters away from source areas--a phenomenon that was not considered when Bt corn was licensed." Science Daily, October 10, 2007

No matter how adept our bio-tech engineers become, they will never be able to modify genes as rapidly as nature can adapt, especially when such huge acreages are involved. GMOs are little more than a ponzi game with Mother Nature. Guess who comes out on top of this pyramid scheme?

GMOs, for the most part, represent short-term, shortcuts to weeds and pests. But the same results can be achieved without GMOs, and often without chemicals at all. Natural practices are a slower process, and perhaps not as all-encompassing as Roundup, but they are genuinely safer for all living things in the long-term.

The inability to contain GMO products may be an obvious economic liability for NW wheat, but what about NW organic producers and our world class specialty seed crop? Why would we jeopardize the purity of two strong sectors in the state's agricultural economy–for a product that has yet to show any comprehensive long-term advantage?

Possibly the biggest issue is the unknown. What exactly are the unintended consequences of widespread genetically modified organisms? No one really knows what high-acreage transgenic crops will do in a free biotic space. No one! Could we inadvertently create an invasive species? Or destroy microorganism populations critical to soil health? Or even alter the microbiota in our gut so necessary for digestion?

Even though it is tentatively accepted that GMO food products are not toxic or genetically damaging for humans to eat, negative results are only as true as the last test. If Bt in our water supply can effect critters like the caddisfly, then what does that do for humans when these products complete their full cycle through the food chain? In the end, life on planet Earth is a continuum, not a collection of singularities. There is simply no good reason to introduce GMO products to our food system when they can't be traced or contained.