International Seeds of Mystery

By Sophie Harrington

The path to new varieties of hybrid seeds created by companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer is long and expensive. They come from crosses between lines of inbred seeds, each line of which can cost between 30 and 40 million USD and take up to 8 years to develop. These seeds are closely guarded by the companies, with concerns that individuals or other companies might attempt to obtain varieties of inbred seed that they could then cross with a separate inbred, creating their own hybrid line. But until recently international espionage hadn’t been considered.

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Are spies stealing our seeds? (Credit Tony Fischer Photography)

As reported in the New York Times, various Chinese nationals are suspected of returning inbred rice seeds to crop researchers in mainland China. Mo Hailong is one of the few who has been charged with stealing trade secrets. Mr. Mo was caught in 2011 digging up seeds in a DuPont research farm, from which he fled in true super-spy style in a getaway car. The F.B.I had Mr. Mo under surveillance until his arrest last December.

While the implication of China in a case of so-called “economic espionage” is in and of itself not particularly surprising, the reach into agriculture is unprecedented. But perhaps this, too, is to be expected. Growing middle class populations have resulted in a sharp increase in demand for meat, putting pressure on the supply of corn, often diverted for use as animal feed rather than as food. In the US requirements for ethanol in fuel have also served to drive up the prices of the crop. Obtaining a new line of more virile and fit crops, such as corn, could be crucial in allowing an increase in production.

Yet the strict control that companies such as Monsanto and DuPont have maintained over their proprietary seeds has been a barrier to the easy dissemination of such traits. Corn yields per plant in China haven’t changed significantly in many years, while it’s been over 10 years since the last major Chinese hybrid strain was developed. Stealing the inbred lines developed by American corporations appears to be much quicker and more effective when you aren’t caught. It’s unlikely that this will be the last we hear of agricultural espionage.

More details on the case can be found here

Christianity and GMOs: An Interview with CICCU (2)

Nick Dinan talks to James Roberts from the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union about the role of Genetically Modified Organisms in a Christian world view.

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Nick Dinan: With regard to ‘not rushing things’, would it be right to frame your opinion as one that believes global issues such as global hunger are important, but if we want solutions we should take the slow route despite the urgency of these problems?

James Roberts: We could do a whole load of things other than GM crops to solve world hunger, such as better distributing the food we’ve got. There are perfectly adequate stopgap measures while we think about GM crops and evaluate them – whilst we make 100% sure that they’re all right. Doing that is a much better option than simply going ‘oh, GM crops are the answer here’ – it might not be.

ND: In May 2013 Monsanto sued, and won $85,000 from, a 75-year-old farmer for sowing the next generation seeds of the seeds that they had sold. Do you think there’s a major concern with the exploitation of GM crops by larger companies?

JR: You have situations where whole groups of people are dependent on the seeds of a genetically modified crop. Seeds are marked up in price and aren’t affordable, and the farmers end up in a worse position than before. We need to consider how to ensure that this technology isn’t manipulated simply for profit by big business. We need to think about how to regulate that.

ND: I assume that most people in the Christian community would agree with this?

JR: The Christian community I can say generally agrees on this, and I think this applies to a wider range of issues than GM crops as well; the issue of justice is one that hopefully would be close to home.

ND: So the ‘Christian value’ would be to help people, but in a way that conforms to what you’re taught in the Bible?

JR: I would say that the Christian moral standpoint should come from the Bible. That has to be our first authority on everything. So how we think through these issues should ultimately derive its reasoning back from the Bible.

ND: And finally – you said that your opinion came from studying biology in school, so it obviously was the result of some educational exposure. Do you think that members of the Christian community could do a lot more in educating themselves on the biology of GM crops before making an opinion?

JR: We need to make decisions based on the facts, based on what we’re presented with through the education system. I don’t think that’s our responsibility; the government has to give us the facts. Then, what we do with them has to conform with our reading of scripture. If someone’s honest view is that tampering with God’s creation is morally wrong, then I think no matter the biology that’s the conclusion they have to come to. However, if someone from scripture like myself has come to the conclusion that tampering with God’s work is not the problem, then the next step down in your reasoning has to be whether or not the biology says it’s the right thing to be doing. Have we got a full enough grasp of how it works to be able to do it in a way that isn’t going to cause damage? Can we do it as responsible stewards? If it’s yes to that, then I think the conclusion that we should come to is ‘yes, it’s fine’.

Controversial anti-GMO study retracted

By Sophie Harrington

In November 2012, researchers from France shocked the world when they published a highly controversial paper claiming that there was a link between genetically modified foods and the incidence of cancer. The work by Dr Gilles-Eric Séralini and his team from the University of Caen, France showed that feeding rats Roundup-resistant maize was leading to the growth of tumours in lab rats. However, after a year of heated debate and outcry in the scientific community following the publication of the study, on 20 November the paper was retracted by Food and Chemical Toxicology, the journal which had originally published it.

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A blow for anti-GMO activists?

Shortly after its publication, concerns were raised over the quality of the data used in the paper, outlined in various letters to the editor of the journal. These included the small sample size of each test group, inconsistent interpretation of results, and apparently contradictory results that were not addressed by the authors.

Additionally, the strain of rats Dr Séralini chose to use is known to have a higher incidence of cancer, particularly in old age. The study considered the development of cancer over two years in rats, which is near the end of the rats’ natural lifespan. It has been suggested that the high incidence of cancer the study reported was due to the strain’s propensity to develop cancer late in life, rather than due to their exposure to GMOs.

The decision to retract the paper is controversial in itself. Questions have been raised regarding the decision to retract a paper without evidence of fraud or misrepresentation of data. It appears that the decision to retract was taken with the view that the paper should never have been published in the first place. In a letter announcing the proposed retraction, William J. Hayes, the editor-in-chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology, stated that the results are inconclusive, and consequently “do not reach the threshold for publication.”

Unsurprisingly, Dr Séralini has condemned the decision to retract. Since its publication, the paper had been cited 28 times, and Dr. Séralini has been called to testify before the French National Assembly on the paper. Critics of the decision have called out the ostensible conflict of interest seen in the recent appointment of an ex-Monsanto employee to the post of associate editor at Food and Chemical Toxicology; Monsanto is currently the world-leader for the production of GMO foods, and it also produced the GM strain of maize used in the study.

The retraction of this paper has been seen by many as a victory for many in the scientific community who support the safety of GMOs. It remains to be seen, however, whether backlash by those concerned with the reasoning behind the retraction will increase the controversy over genetically modified organisms.

For more information, see Retraction Watch’s coverage of the event: http://retractionwatch.com/2013/11/28/controversial-seralini-gmo-rats-paper-to-be-retracted/

Details of the retraction letter and further discussion of the paper can be found here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637