Biotechnology Spin-Zone

The suppliers, producers, and retailers in the industrial organic food chain have long lamented about the possibility of grains from plants bred with molecular plant breeding getting into their organic grain supply.

It is a fundamental fact that we cannot keep any seed supply free of seeds from other plants, whether they belong to the same species or not. Thus there is a widespread acceptance of a 1-2 percent level of other types of seeds, whether these might be from weed plants, other types of the same plants, or in this case, plants that have not been bred with molecular plant breeding methods.

It still baffles me that there is such a resistance against these plants, but if these guys and their customers are willing to pay for the cost of keeping a grain supply outside of the regular grain supply chain, I don’t mind. Their problem is that they are fighting the tide of history, and the non-molecular plant breeding supply is growing smaller with each growing season. This means the prices are going up.

This story from Carey Gilliam at Reuters in Kansas City is one of those one-side sourced stories and I have several questions to her two “shocking” facts:

“There were 39 cases of crop contamination in 23 countries in 2007, and more than 200 in 57 countries over the last 10 years, according to biotech critic Greenpeace International.”

OK, so Carey is hedging by labeling her information as one sided, but what constitutes crop contamination for Greenpeace has been known to be a mixed bag. A farmer that was convicted for brown bagging licensed seed is still hailed by Greenpeace and their peers for being a victim of big evil corporations.

I am not sure what contamination is in this case, is it a level of commingling of seeds above the industry standard of 1-2 percent? Is it pollination of a couple of flowers on a plant in a crop by a plant that has been bred with molecular plant breeding? It could be other things as well, so I wonder what it is.

The organic farmer that claims to test every load of grains he buys also puzzles me. This seems to be an excessive cost, especially when he is hedging by also putting warning labels on his products. I only know of two methods of testing the seed, and please correcting me if I am wrong here, but one is to use tissue culture after sterilizing the grain, germinating them, and then pouring the herbicide used as the marker for the novel gene over the germinated seed.

If parts of the seed survive and start propagating new shots, you have a plant bred with molecular plant breeding. This seems straight forward, but it takes time, money, and a lot of care. This farmer also faces the problem of testing for the different herbicides used as markers, which counts somewhere between two and four for corn currently on the market. I don’t see a cattle farmer doing this for every load of grain he buys for his cows.

A cow will eat 7 lbs of corn for every 1 lbs of weight it puts on, and they do gain several hundred pounds during the fattening up stage of their lives where they are forced to sustain themselves on corn anyways.

The other way I can see him doing it is extracting the DNA from the corn and sequencing it to look for the particular gene that was inserted. This takes a lot of expensive equipment and time, and again, I don’t see a cattle farmer taking time for this. But I might be wrong, and there might be some quick shot test on the market that I don’t know about. It is worth investigating, and I will do so in the next months while I work on the book. I promise to report the results here.