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.

Countdown to release our interactive website

It’s been a while since I last update about the development of our interactive website.

The aim is to create an interactive tool to explore and understand some of the main traits of each of the different agri-food systems we have been studying in the last 3 years, as well as offer a way to be able to compare these systems and facilitate the identification of their main differences. It is meant to be used mainly by students and, of course, anyone else interested in the issue.

Slow but steady, we are getting there. Now we have on board a web designer and a programmer who is about to start putting the different pieces developed (i.e text, video, fotos, design) together. An important part of the content is the creation of short videos which can illustrate or add valuable information to the text content found in each of the nodes. We aim at releasing in in early January. We’ll keep you updated about this issue!

As a part of the content for the interactive website, a couple of weeks ago we interviewed a GM farmer. He was a kind man and his interview was very interesting. When asked about the benefits of GM crops, he answered that, even if GM crops around his area are claimed to be less productive and he is aware of some of the controversy regarding GM crops (i.e he actually literally said that he did not know whether GM crops were actually good for consumers), he used them because they gave him ‘tranquility’ and avoided him headaches with the potential problem of the corn borer plague. His fields were actually not exactly next door where he lived and he could not go often to see how they were doing. By sowing GM crops, he perceived that his task as a manager of the field was facilitated.

Of course, this could raise questions about whether his ‘tranquility’ is a legitimate reason to grow GM crops despite its potential implications (e.g social and ethical aspects). Or whether by sowing GM crops it meant the creation of ‘headaches’ for others (e.g organic maize farmers). Actually, when asked about this latter question, he said that luckily in his area there were no organic farmers, so that potential conflict did not exist. Most of his neighbours were, in fact, sowing the same variety as him. However, I wonder if, perhaps, there are not organic farmers because of the potential risk of contamination.

Confusing statistics regarding GM maize in Spain

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I am currently trying to compile statistics on GM, conventional and organic maize in Spain. Article 31 of Directive 2001/18/EC establishes that Member States shall establish registers for recording the location of GMOs, and make them  known to the public. This means compiling statistics on the situation should be a quite straightforward task. As a person involved in the GM debate in Spain for long time though, I know it is not.

As information to the public, the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture publishes yearly statistics on the surface area cultivated with GM maize (the only authorised GM crop in Europe) on the level of Autonomous Communities. This information is very far from being a useful public register, for example in terms of being the appropriate scale of information to prevent contamination. This data is also produced according to what the biotechnology companies declare as being sold (in units of 50.000 seeds) and this quantity is multiplied by 1,7, which is considered the “normal” sowing dose per hectare. In contrast, the regional Agriculture departments publish data based on what variety the farmers state they grow when applying for the CAP subsidies. Differences in the figures presented by these two levels of the agriculture authorities are as high as 66%, as reported by a coalition of NGOs and farmers unions linked to agriculture and environment in Spain.

Different hypotheses for the discrepancies could be posed: a) Either farmers do not declare the variety they will grow (deliberatively or because they do not know or they have not decided when applying for the subsidies), or b) The biotech companies are exaggerating the numbers so it looks like adoption rates in Spain are much higher than the actual figures. Both (and other possibilities) could also be happening at the same time.

In the graph below you can see the number of hectares of GM maize in Catalonia depending on the data source, and the difference (%) between the two data sets for each year. A similar situation can be found for Aragón.

Surface of GM maize in Catalonia depending on data source (1998-2015)

Funnily enough, it is also not easy to get statistics on organic maize in Spain. This is because up until 3 years ago,  the official agricultural statistics did not differentiate the surface area cultivated with maize on its own, simply registering it under the umbrella category of “grains”.

Struggling with how to get an accurate picture of how much GM vs organic maize cultivation is taking place and how this has changed over time leaves me also questioning how it might be possible based on these poor registers to assess in a reliable way what is happening and how coexistence is playing out in Spain.

Seminar on Critical Perspectives on GMOs at Cape Town University

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The last two weeks we have been in South Africa. It has been truly a very insightful experience that has helped us understand slightly better some of the complex realities that shape maize production in this amazing country. During the first week, we visited three very different small-scale farming communities in Kwazulu Natal, and for the second week we traveled to Cape Town to have our team meeting and to participate in two seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The first seminar was with postgraduate students conducting research related to GMOs in South Africa. It was a really interesting session that allowed us to share our own experiences with other researchers working on this topic from different perspectives and contexts. It also helped us us very much to better understand the functioning of the food systems where GM maize has been introduced in the country, the driving forces, circumstances and changes produced. Finally, we also focused on the ethical implications of our research, our challenges and strategies.

The second seminar was titled “Critical perspectives on GMOs”, and was organised by the Bio-economy Chair at the University of Cape Town.

critical-perspectives-posterThe seminar brought together different critical perspectives on the analysis and assessment of GMOs. The session was chaired by Rachel Wynberg from the University of Cape Town and Maya’s PhD co-supervisor. First, Fern Wickson presented her paper on exploring the advantages of using feminist care ethics lens for the assessment of agricultural biotechnology. Following this presentation, the three other presentations explored the concept of resistance related to GM crops from very different approaches. In the second talk, I discussed the emergence of glyphosate-resistant Johnsongrass and the situation in relation with herbicide-resistant weeds in Argentina by analysing the driving forces behind the initial spread of GR johnsongrass, its impacts and the social, economic and environmental implications of response strategies, including the institutional conditions and constraints involved. Then, professor Johnnie van den Bergh from the Northwest University explored the insect resistance in Bt GM crops in South Africa, its consequences for the future use of Bt maize and for the conservation of heirloom seeds. It was very interesting to see many coincidences in the processes of resistance evolution in both cases, as well as in the responses given to it. Finally Amaranta Herrero introduced a paper we are currently working on the everyday forms of human resistance to the expansion of GM maize by exploring the often no-visible practices of farmers and other actors practicing non-GM agriculture in Spain.

The seminar ended with a vivid round of question and discussions, and a shared lunch. It was again a great opportunity for us to share our research and to learn from all the assistants at the seminar.