Finding Transgenes in Maize Landraces

In another project that I lead, biodiverSEEDy, we have been doing some work to see if transgenes have spread to landraces in the center of origin and diversity of maize, Mexico.

The potential for transgene flow into both landraces and wild relatives is a well recognized biosafety issue and therefore an important component of the regulatory risk assessment performed on GM crops prior to their approval for cultivation. The case of transgene flow into traditional maize landraces was first reported in Mexico 15 years ago and drew the world’s attention to the possibility of contaminating crop varieties at their center of origin and diversity.

The reported presence of transgenes in Mexican maize sparked an intense scientific, political and environmental dispute over the extent to which the culture and traditions of indigenous people were being threatened by the unchecked spread of GMOs owned as the patented inventions of multinational corporations. This controversy lead to a long-standing legal battle over the regulatory status of GM crops in Mexico, which continues today as approvals of GM maize for cultivation remain subject to contestation in the courts.

Although maize is currently not permitted for cultivation in Mexico, in a recently published study, we found transgene contamination of landraces being grown by indigenous farmers, as well as maize being sold in government stores as grain, which some farmers then plant as seed. This study also demonstrated how societal organization and the seed management systems of local communities significantly influence the extent and frequency of transgene flow. The work showed how socio-biological factors (such as seed saving and sharing practices, communitarian organization and land tenure arrangements) are highly important determinants affecting the frequency of transgene presence and the potential for spread within farming communities. In doing so, the work also highlighted how social practices and arrangements may be used as a resource to minimize the potential for or scale of transgene flow.

In debates over transgene flow into landraces of maize in Mexico, there has been significant scientific disagreement over what are appropriate and reliable methods to use for GM detection. The use of diverse approaches and a lack of harmonized methods specific to transgene detection in landraces have generated both positive and negative results regarding GM contamination of Mexican maize over the years. In a second newly published paper, we reviewed the scientific debate over methods for detecting transgenes in landraces and wild relatives and made recommendations for sampling, testing and policy. We used this review to inform our own approach to trasngene detection in the work described above. Some of the recommendations we made include: an integration of social and biological data, development of threshold levels and limits of detection relevant for environmental monitoring of low level presence, and the establishment of a public registry with open access to transgene sequence information and all event approvals.

Both of these new papers seek to advance the establishment of good practices for transgene detection and monitoring, issues that are also very important in the contexts where the Agri/Cultures Project is working (Spain and South Africa), as well as anywhere that there is an attempt to achieve co-existance between GMOs and other cultures of agriculture.

We published a new paper!

Socio-economic research on genetically modified crops: a study of the literature“, this is the title of our new paper published in Agriculture and Human Values and co-authored by Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr, Brian Wynne and me.

This has been a long-lasting research, based on an extensive literature review (410 papers were analysed) on socio-economic impacts of GMOs.

Abstract: The importance of socio-economic impacts (SEI) from the introduction and use of genetically modified (GM) crops is reflected in increasing efforts to include them in regulatory frameworks. Aiming to identify and understand the present knowledge on SEI of GM crops, we here report the findings from an extensive study of the published international scientific peer-reviewed literature. After applying specified selection criteria, a total of 410 articles are analysed. The main findings include: (i) limited empirical research on SEI of GM crops in the scientific literature; (ii) the main focus of the majority of the published research is on a restricted set of monetary economic parameters; (iii) proportionally, there are very few empirical studies on social and non-monetary economic aspects; (iv) most of the research reports only short-term findings; (v) the variable local contexts and conditions are generally ignored in research methodology and analysis; (vi) conventional agriculture is the commonly used comparator, with minimal consideration of other substantially different agricultural systems; and (vii) there is the overall tendency to frame the research upon not validated theoretical assumptions, and to over-extrapolate small-scale and short-term specific results to generalized conclusions. These findings point to a lack of empirical and comprehensive research on SEI of GM crops for possible use in decision-making. Broader questions and improved methodologies, assisted by more rigorous peer-review, will be required to overcome current research shortcomings.

You can cite the paper as follows: Catacora-Vargas, G., Binimelis, R., Myhr, A.I. et al. Agric Hum Values (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9842-4

What Breeding Techniques are Appropriate for Organic Agriculture?

Some months ago we published a blog post announcing a new paper we had written on whether organic agriculture should maintain its opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This question is being asked now due of the development and use of a range of new biotechnological tools and plant breeding techniques that give scientists an increased ability to make more targetted changes in the genome. This includes new tools for genome editing, such as the much discussed (dare we say hyped) CRISPR-Cas9.

Some people believe that since the emergence of these new techniques gives scientists an enhanced ability to make smaller and more targetted changes to the genome, and that since these changes need not necessarily involve the insertion of material from a different species as has previously been the norm, that they may be considered ‘more natural’ and thereby more acceptable to both members of the public and the organic movement who have been sceptical about embracing GMOs.

While others have performed academic research to see whether cisgenic crops (i.e. those who have been modifed using genes from the same or closely related species) are indeed considered more natural than transgenic crops (i.e. genetically modified to express genes from a different species), our paper focused on how the international federation for organic agriculture movements (IFOAM) is approaching the issue.At the time when we were writing that paper, there was a position statement from IFOAM international on GMOs in general, and there was a particular position on new plant breeding techniques from IFOAM Europe that was open for public comment and consultation. Although the European position  has now been published, IFOAM international is also now working to develop a specific position statement on how the organic agriculture movement relates to a range of plant breeding techniques (including those available both now and in the near future). There is currently a draft position statement available on this from an expert working group of IFOAM international, which is open for comments and inputs until March 31st 2017.

It will be really important for the future of the organic movement to develop a clear set of guidelines and/or principles to help them navigate decisions around which breeding techniques are in line with their overarching values and agenda and therefore acceptable for use. Genetic technologies for plant breeding are emerging and evolving at a rapid rate. This means that the lines between genetic modification and conventional breeding (and particularly the products thereof) are becoming harder to distinguish. It is therefore very timely and relevant that the organic movement is working to establish its position on these developments.

If you would like to help inform and shape this discussion on the role of different plant breeding techniques in the organic movement, then now is the time! Read the draft position from IFOAM International and send your comments on it to David Gould (the Coordinator of the IFOAM Working Group on Breeding Techniques) [email protected].

Just Existing is Resisting: new paper and short movie published!

The Agri/Cultures team are proud and excited to announce that we have just published a new open access paper: Just Existing is Resisting: The Everyday Struggle against the Expansion of GM Crops in Spain. The paper reflects, based on empirical data, on the multiple forms of everyday practices of resistance by which different stakeholders linked to the maize sector in Spain challenge the expansion of GM crops. Below you can find the abstract and here the full text. Enjoy the reading!

Together with the publication of this article, and responding to the objective of exploring novel ways to making scientific results accessible to a non-specialised public, we have also produced a beautiful short animation movie based on this academic publication. Have a look at it and feel free to distribute among your own networks!

English version:

 

Spanish version:

Do GMOs have conservation value?

Below is an article that I recently had published on the website called The Conversation, and since their articles are all under a Creative Commons licence, I am able to share with our readers here. Understanding the relationship that biotechnological organisms have to the value awarded to biodiversity is something that I have been philosophically grappling with over the last year or so. The article republished below, is a popular science version of a longer academic article I published (also available by open access) asking whether anyone cares about ‘synbiodiversity’. All comments, feedback, ideas and reactions would be most welcome as I continue to work to establish a philosophical position on this difficult topic.

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Should genetically modified organisms be part of our conservation efforts?

Fern Wickson, GenØk – Centre for Biosafety

Biotechnology is rapidly evolving through developments in genome editing and synthetic biology, giving birth to new forms of life.

This technology has already given us genetically modified (GM) plants that produce bacterial pesticides, GM mosquitos that are sterile and GM mice that develop human cancers. Now, new biotechnological techniques are promising to deliver a whole host of new lifeforms designed to serve our purposes – pigs with human organs, chickens that lay eggs containing cholesterol controlling drugs, and monkeys that develop autism. The possibilities seem endless.

But do these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have conservation value?

The biodiversity of life on earth is globally recognised as valuable and in need of protection. This includes not just wild biodiversity but also the biodiversity of agricultural crop plants that humans have developed over thousands of years. But what about the synthetic forms of biodiversity we are now developing through biotechnologies?

Does anyone care about this synbiodiversity?

It’s a question I was compelled to ask while conducting research into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV).

A frozen ‘Noah’s Ark’ for seeds

The SGSV is the global apex of agricultural biodiversity conservation, an approach to conservation where collections of diverse seed samples are kept in frozen storage in genebanks for future use by plant breeders. The SGSV is a frozen cavern in a mountain on the arctic island of Svalbard, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It has been called a Noah’s Ark for crop plants (also the “doomsday vault”) because it is the place where genebanks from all around the world send backup copies of their seed collections for safe-keeping. Here the seeds are sealed inside bags sealed inside boxes locked in a freezer locked in a mountain. They are sent there to be kept safe from the threats genebanks can face, such as energy shortages, natural disasters and war. img_2911 Seeds in the SGSV can only be accessed by the genebank that deposited them and only one withdrawal has been made so far, by researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) seeking to restore their collections after the destruction of Aleppo in war-torn Syria.

The SGSV is managed through a collaborative agreement between the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).

It opened in 2008 and currently houses 870,971 different samples of 5,340 species from 233 countries, deposited by 69 institutes. img_2893 Are there any GMOs frozen in the vault?

During my research into the SGSV I asked if it held any GM seeds. Despite initially receiving conflicting responses, the formal answer was ultimately “no”. But different reasons were given for this and all are open to change.

The vault is not a certified facility for GMO storage

Facilities working with GMOs require certification to do so. While the SGSV is not currently certified, it could be since requirements typically relate to ensuring strict containment and the SGSV is already oriented towards this goal. Also, since no analysis of seeds is performed at the SGSV or required for deposits, the collections may actually be unintentionally (and unwittingly) contaminated. This is because a mixing with GM crops could have happened via seed or pollen flow before the material was sent to the vault.

There is no political will to include GM crops

Currently, no one in the SGSV management wants to become (any further) entangled in the controversy surrounding GM crops. They already face what they see as false conjectures about the role of the biotechnology industry (fuelled no doubt by the fact that organisations involved in the biotechnology industry have donated funds to the Crop Trust). Several of the depositing genebanks also actively support biotechnology research. Therefore, if they wanted to store GMOs in the future, the will to seek certification may certainly change.

Norway has a strict GMO policy that requires not just evidence of safety but also of social utility and contribution to sustainable development. This means no GM crop has yet been approved for either cultivation or import. But this is currently being challenged by a government committed to speeding up assessments and advocating for weakened interpretations of the law. This further indicates the potential for political will to change.

GM crops do not meet the requirements for multilateral access

The International Plant Treaty is a crucial foundation for the SGSV. As such, depositing genebanks are required to agree to multilateral access to their collections if they wish to deposit backup copies in the SGSV. <p>But GM crops are not freely accessible to all as part of the common heritage of humanity. They are patented inventions owned by those claiming to have created them. The SGSV requirement that deposits be available for multilateral access can be waived though.

But if GM crops are not in the SGSV, should they be?

Do GMOs have conservation value?

Very little work has examined the moral status and conservation value of GM crops.

As the fields of genome editing and synthetic biology are now undergoing rapid development though, we have an important opportunity to consider how we relate to biotechnological forms of biodiversity. We can also think about whether it might be possible to navigate through syn- to symbiodiversity.

That is, instead of focusing on these life forms as synthetic human inventions, we could begin to think about them as co-creations of human-nature interactions. In doing so, we may then shift the focus away from how to make synthetic organisms to satisfy our needs and place more emphasis on how to interact with other life forms to establish symbiotic relations of mutual benefit.

The French sociologist of science and anthropologist Bruno Latour has urged us to love our monsters, to take responsibility for our technologies and care for them as our children. Certainly it seems fair to argue that if we don’t care for our biotechnological co-creations with a sense of (parental) responsibility, perhaps we shouldn’t be bringing them to life.

How do we care for GM crops?

The model of freezing seeds in genebanks and backing up those collections at the SGSV is one way to conserve biodiversity. Another, however, is the approach of continuing to cultivate them in our agricultural landscapes.

While this model of conservation has generated and maintained the biodiversity of traditional crop varieties for thousands of years, there is now a significant shift taking place. More than 90% of traditional crop varieties have now disappeared from our fields and been replaced by genetically uniform modern varieties cultivated in large-scale monocultures. Meaning, there may be no GM crops frozen in the SGSV, but there are plenty in the ground.

So this leaves me questioning what it is we really cherish? Are we using our precious agricultural resources to expand the diversity of humanity’s common heritage? Or are we rather placing our common heritage on ice while we expand the ecological space occupied by privately owned inventions? And who cares about synbiodiversity anyway?

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

New paper published! Should Organic Agriculture Maintain Its Opposition to GM? New Techniques Writing the Same Old Story

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This new open access paper from The Agri/Cultures Project reflects on whether organic farming should accept GM technologies as an additional tool to use, especially in light of new breeding plant technologies (NBPT). Below you can find the abstract and here the full text. Enjoy!

Abstract: Biotechnology is diversifying rapidly through the development and application of new approaches to genome editing and ongoing research into synthetic biology. Proponents of biotechnology are enthusiastic about these new developments and have recently begun calling for environmental movements to abandon their campaigns against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and for organic agriculture to reconsider its exclusion of Genetic Modification (GM). In this article, we begin by describing the diversity of practices that cluster under both the terms GM and organic and show that although there is a clash of different cultures of agriculture at stake, there is also a spectrum of practices existing between these two poles. Having established the terms of the debate, we then go on to analyse whether the organic movement should reconsider its position on GM in light of new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), using the criteria highlighted as important by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in their 2016 draft revised position on GMOs. Through this analysis, we suggest that given the in-context-trajectory of biotechnology development, the continued narrow framing of agricultural problems and the ongoing exclusion of important socio-economic, political and cultural dimensions, the organic movement is justified in maintaining its opposition to GM in the face of NPBTs.

Responsible Governance of (New) Agricultural Biotechnologies

In an earlier post, I described an international workshop we held in November 2015 with experts on risk assessment, responsible innovation and ethics of agricultural biotechnology. Happily, I can now report that our learning from that worskhop has been available for everybody in the form of a publication in the journal PLoS Biology.

In the published paper, entitled “Essential Features of Responsible Governance of Agricultural Biotechnology” we argue that changes to the governance of agricultural biotechnologies have become particularly urgent as new genomic tools and products (such as CRISPR-Cas9, RNAi, synthetic biology, and GM animals) continue to emerge and controversies surrounding GM crops remain unresolved.

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What we have seen is that much of the current debate around these new genomic tools and products is focused on whether or not they fit within existing regulatory frameworks. This is no doubt a very important debate that will have significant consequences no matter which way nations decide. However, it is also important to question whether or not the existing regulatory frameworks are sufficient for addressing the issues that continue to generate controversy in this field. Since they have not been capable of allieviating controversy around GM crops, we argue that the new wave of biotechnologies provides a useful opportunity to revise not just our specific regulatory frameworks but also our general approach to governance so as to make it more socially robust and ethically responsible.

Integrating findings from both our dedicated workshop and several decades of work within social studies of science and procedural ethics, we propose five features that are essential to advance responsible governance of agricultural biotechnology. These essential features are:

  1. Commitment to candour
  2. Recognition of underlying values and assumptions
  3. Involvement of a broad range of knowledge and actors
  4. Consideration of a range of alternatives
  5. Preparedness to respond.

Each of these are outlined in more detail in the paper, where we also give specific examples of how social scientists have been working to advance these features in technology governance. In doing so we seek to show how ideas from several fields can be fruitfully integrated into a common framework to advance scientifically and socially responsible forms of governance for both existing and emerging agricultural biotechnologies.

Published in an open access journal, we hope that you might find this paper interesting and encourage you to share it with friends and colleagues. Of course, we would also welcome your questions and feedback!

Paper Published…and therefore no longer ours

In an earlier post, I described a paper I was working on together with Assoc. Prof. Christopher Preston on the value of using a care ethics lens in the governance of emerging technologies, using agricultural biotechnology as an example. I am pleased to report that that paper has now been published. While the general content of the article was outlined in the earlier post, anyone wanting to read the work in all its glorious detail can access it here.

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Or at least, they can access it via that link until May 3rd. After that, all readers (or their supporting institutes) will have to pay to see the full content of the paper. Alternatively, for us as authors to make the content free to everyone through the open access mechanism, we will have to pay $US 1800.

The challenge of weighing up different criteria when publishing a paper was something I presented in a previous post. The topic of how to handle the competing demands of publishers wanting to recoup their costs (and make a profit) and authors wanting to reach as broad an audience as possible (and minimise their research costs) was also the topic of a lunch discussion here at GenØk this week. Are researchers ethically bound to respect the exclusive contract they sign with their publishers, or can it also be acceptable for them to take additional actions to enable their work to reach as broad an audience as possible?

As new players in facilitating scholarly networking and communication, such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate, gain users and popularity, publishers are increasingly having to police the way their papers are spread online. This is because while researchers routinely share pdfs of their papers online, this usually constitutes a breach of copyright because when academics publish in scholarly journals, they typically transfer their copyright to the journal’s publisher. This effectively means that they are no longer the owner of the article’s content.

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To help authors swallow this bitter pill, we are offered concessions, like the link I have shared in this post which gives everyone free access to the article for 50 days after the date of publication. So I suggest you access this link while you can, download the paper, read and enjoy it, because after May 3rd, my ideas are no longer mine to share as I wish. Unless of course I can find $US 1800 to pay the open access fee.

Perhaps my next paper should be about what a care ethics lens may reveal for the context of academic publishing.

A New Era for GM Crop Regulation in Europe?

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Before the holiday season, we published a short piece in The Conversation on the new situation concerning the cultivation of GM crops in Europe. The article was titled “Why Europe will let member states opt out of GM crops” and described how the new European Directive 2015/412 now gives Member States more freedom to decide for themselves whether they wish to allow the cultivation of GM crops within their territories.

While we have been following (and critiquing) the development of this new Directive over the past 5 years that it has been under negotiation, we were inspired to write this piece after reading an article by Mark Lynas published in the New York Times, which we felt seriously misrepresented the new Directive and what it opens for. We therefore wanted to write an article that accurately described the new rules in a way that was accessible for a general audience, and particularly those in the US that may not be so familiar with the European regulatory system.

This turned out to be quite a challenging task. Trying to accurately convey the nuances of a rather complicated piece of legislation, developed within the even more complicated history of European debates and disagreements over GMOs, in a style that presented some of the new legislation’s strengths and weaknesses and made sense for a lay audience, was certainly not easy. It was especially not easy since our section editor at The Conversation had given us a limit of just 1000 words to work with.

Through offering comments on our text, the editor also regularly reminded us of just how little a US audience may be expected to know and understand of the European regulatory system, especially given how different the two systems are in their foundational beliefs and approaches. For example, the US system is based on a product  based approach and the idea that GM crops and conventional crops are substantially equivalent, with no federal requirements for traceability or labelling. The European system, however, regulates on a process-based approach, meaning any crop created using modern biotechnology has to pass through a specific regulatory system, and there is a committment to freedom of consumer choice that requires GMOs to be detectable and traceable throughout the agri-food system, e.g. through measures such as labelling schemes. (If you are interested in more detailed analyses of US-EU differences over GMO regulation you can read some different views here, here or here).

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We still have some serious questions and concerns regarding the new Directive and how it may play out in practice. Including, for example: the power granted to biotechnology corporations to deny a Member State request to have their territory excluded from GM crop cultivation, the inability to use scientific grounds and alternative scientific assessments as a reason for opting out, and the questionable ability of non-scientific reasoning to hold firm if challenged in international trade courts. However, we were all quite surprised at how when writing this piece for a US audience, the Directive emerged as a much more postive development than we had expected.

The Directive arguably breaks a long held dictatorship of science and opens for a much more democratic approach to decision-making on GM crop cultivation – an approach in which questions of acceptability are not simply reduced to a narrow concern with “Is it safe?” but can also expand to include questions such as: “Is it sustainable?”, “Is it socially desirable?”, “Is it ethical?” and “Is it in line with broader policy objectives?”. This allows Member States to consider and balance assessments of health and safety concerns with assessments of other types of concerns, policy objectives and socio-economic impacts. Furthermore, the new directive allows Member States to make these assessments on a case by case basis, allowing them to accept some GM crops (e.g. those modified to resist a certain disease) while rejecting others (e.g. those tolerating ever higher levels of applied herbicides).

While it will be important to follow how engagement with the new Directive takes place over the months and years to come, we see this opening up for a more flexible approach to GM regulation in Europe, and particularly its recognition of the legitimacy of reasoning based on both scientific and social grounds, as a largely positive move. We are wondering how others out there feel about it though, so if you are not familiar with the new Directive, read our short piece and let us know your thoughts!

¡Hemos participado en un documental!

Pablo amb la càmera

Durante los últimos meses que hemos pasado haciendo trabajo de campo, hemos estado a menudo detrás de la cámara. Sin embargo, recientemente también hemos tenido la oportnidad de cambiar nuestro rol, ya que también hemos participado junto a muchas otros expertos en un documental para el programa Latituds del Canal 33. El programa se titula “Dependencia o Soberanía Alimentaria

Aquí podéis encontrar un breve resumen del contenido:

“El sistema alimentario actual se basa en la producción intensiva para la exportación. Esto lleva a una creciente dependencia del mercado global, cada vez más concentrado en grandes empresas vinculadas al sector financiero. Otro sistema alimentario surge con el principio de la Soberanía Alimentaria. Plantea que son los pueblos los que tienen que decidir su modelo de alimentación, priorizando la calidad de los alimentos y los mercados de proximidad.

Así mismo surgen bancos de semillas locales que, sin ánimo de lucro, conservan variedades tradicionales, que a menudo no se encuentran en el mercado. Son semillas locales que los campesinos y campesinas pueden reproducir, a diferencia de lo que pasa con muchas semillas comerciales, y que por su diversidad genética están muy bién adaptadas al territorio. Mucho/as consideran que en el marco de la creciente degradación de los suelos y del clima, de aquí a unas décadas las semillas locales serán las que garantizarán la alimentación”

Y aquí podéis ver el documental (en catalán).