Melchett replies to Nature editorial (11/8/2003)

Here's Peter Melchett's reply to the recent Nature editorial which advanced the view that, "A scientific review, farm-scale trials and extensive public consultations on genetically modified crops should pave the way for greater benefits and choice for consumers - provided that the organic movement abandons self-damaging dogmas."

From the second item: "The question of cross-pollination in corn has become a big issue for corn growers, consumers and others who want to keep corn varieties separate and distinct."

*Dear Editor
*Genetically modified mystery
Dear Editor,

The organic movement will be grateful for Nature's interest in our well-being ('Diversity in food technology', Nature424, 473 (31 July 2003)), but when you urge us to abandon "self-damaging dogmas", I hope you'll forgive us for looking at your advice a little sceptically.  In practice, you are advising one of the few sectors of UK agriculture that has a real and growing market, strongly supported by consumers, to introduce a radical change in our product. You don't claim to be doing this to further the interests of organic farmers, organic food manufacturers, organic retailers or the millions of people who now consume organic food in the UK.

In your editorial you say that the Soil Association 'will resist seemingly to their dying breath the idea' that GM technology 'could be as ethical' as conventional plant breeding. Ultimately it's up to consumers, not those who grow or sell food, to make this decision. Given that people who buy non-organic food don't want GM in it, it's hardly surprising that organic consumers are even more determined that GM should be kept out of organic food. The significant areas of uncertainty described in the Government's scientific assessment of GM crops suggest that these consumers know what they're talking about. You say that our determination to keep GM out of organic is 'artificial, arbitrary and self-defeating". No doubt you would have said the same when the organic sector banned the feeding of ground-up animal remains to ruminants ten years before the discovery of BSE.

Thankfully the Government has learnt some lessons from past food disasters and, in particular, they seem willing to listen to the market and consumers in a way that the overwhelmingly pro-GM scientific establishment in the UK finds completely impossible.

The Government have promised to protect organic farming from GM contamination, in line with consumers wishes (and incidentally the EU regulation defining organic production). As you say, there is now increasing recognition of what organic farmers and environmentalists have been saying for nearly a decade: namely that co-existence of GM and organic farming may not be possible in the UK.  We shall have to make a choice.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Melchett
(Policy Director)
The Soil Association
Bristol House,  40-56 Victoria Street
Bristol,  BS1 6BY
Genetically modified mystery
By JERRY PERKINS, Register Farm Editor
Des Moines Register, 10 August 2003

Mount Vernon, Ia. - Laura Krouse is stumped.

She does not know how her old-fashioned, open-pollinated corn picked up traces of newfangled, genetically modified corn two years ago, or why her corn tested clean of the GMO genes a year ago.

All she knows is that it is critical for her business - Abbe Hills Open Pollinated Seed Corn - that the corn be free of the genes from genetically altered corn.

"I want to be certified organic by 2005, when every organic farmer has to plant certified organic seed," Krouse said. "But if I test positive for genetically modified corn, what's going to happen? Most of my customers will stop buying from me, and I'd have to go look for a different kind of customer."

Krouse's Abbe Hills seed corn is favored by organic farmers and livestock producers who do not want her corn if it has been contaminated by corn that has had its genetic makeup altered to make it resistant to herbicides or to make it toxic to pests, like corn borers.

The question of cross-pollination in corn has become a big issue for corn growers, consumers and others who want to keep corn varieties separate and distinct.

Last year, questions were raised about possible contamination of cornfields by test plots of specialty corn varieties that had been altered genetically to produce pharmaceuticals, vaccines and industrial products. Cornfields in Iowa and Nebraska that were suspected of being contaminated by the so-called "pharma-corn" test plots were destroyed.  

Last week, the federal government tightened its restrictions on growing corn for industrial purposes by requiring, among other things, that "pharma" crops be grown in isolation so they cannot cross-pollinate nearby cornfields.

This year, Krouse has her seed corn planted in a five-acre plot in the middle of her 70-acre farm northwest of this eastern Iowa community.

She is hoping the one-eighth of a mile between her corn and her neighbors" genetically modified corn will be enough to keep her crop clean this year.

"I'm trying a couple of strategies," said Krouse. "First, I'm trying to isolate the corn by distance. Second, I'm timing the planting of the crop so that tasseling occurs later in my corn than the neighboring corn."

It is the tassel, the male part of the corn plant, that throws its pollen into the air to inseminate the silk, the female part of the corn, that emerges at the end of the cob. When a grain of pollen lands on a silk, kernels form on the cob with a mixture of genes from the male and female parts of the corn.

Experts disagree on how far corn pollen can carry, but all agree that cross-pollination in corn plants is a subject that needs more research, especially now that new types of corn are being developed for specific uses that may not be suitable for mixing with other types of corn.

Kendall Lamkey, a plant breeder at Iowa State University, said organic-corn growers like Laura Krouse face a tough problem. The genes of genetically modified corn have already become mixed into the general corn gene pool because of cross-pollination, he said.

"GMO genes are already widespread," he said.

Mark Westgate, an ISU plant physiologist, said cross-pollination is much more of a problem for corn than it is for soybeans.

Soybeans self-pollinate much more than corn because of their physiology, he said. That means soybeans do not spread their genetic material as far as corn does.

"Corn is supposed to cross-pollinate," Westgate said. "Cross pollination makes corn plants more vigorous and produces more and better seed."

Corn pollen is viable for two hours or more after it is cast off by the tassel. In that two hours or so, the pollen can be carried a mile or more by the wind into a neighboring field where its genes are not wanted.

"Six hundred feet of isolation doesn't mean a thing if the wind is blowing your way at 20 miles an hour," said Westgate.

Lamkey said Krouse's corn is in danger.

"She can't control what her neighbors do, so she's only got a couple of options and they aren't enough," Lamkey said. "Organic corn in Iowa is going to be really hard to do because of the pollen issue."

Organic farmers prefer her corn

Laura Krouse bought 70 acres in 1988 and the seed business that went with it.

The seed business had been started by the Neal family in 1903, when Burt Neal bought kernels from the world champion ear of corn at the World Corn Exposition


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