Grain growers meet, Biotech presented

On the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 7, the first public meeting of the newly-formed Belize Grain Growers Association was held in Spanish Lookout. The group was formed to promote the introduction of genetically-modified (GM) corn into Belize.

GM seed is prohibited by BAHA from being introduced into Belize because of the growing list of problems with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and the attractive though unqualified claims made about GM crops.

Dr. C. M. Herron, a British plant pathologist who teaches at the University of Belize and is an expert in citrus diseases, was an appropriate speaker for educating farmers and others about the relatively recent transgenic technology that is driving the world-wide controversy.

Herron’s talk began by defining biotechnology broadly to include her ancient Celtic ancestors’ invention of beer and to include the usual historic breeding of plants and animals.

Lumped in with this was the recent emergence of bioengineering that can take genomes, which are an organism’s plan of itself, and extract segments that will express certain traits in a different organism.

Bioengineering has advanced to the point where features from either plants or animals can be put into the other, leading technologists to new-found powers reminiscent of the ancient legends of half-man, half-animal creatures in Greek mythology.

Those uninterested in the GMO debate, besides eating food, might ponder how this will change the world, with the ability to plan living organisms, a power that is potentially greater than nuclear and capable of being used for good or ill. Transgenics is this new technology and is rapidly developing.

Herron focused on crop biotechnology for the grain-grower audience and emphasized the advantages of transgenics as applied to Bt cotton in Burkina Faso and Golden rice in Asia. This rice looks yellow because it is natural rice that has been genetically modified to include a gene that produces beta carotene for vitamin A. Typical of transgenic crops, golden rice took 15 to 20 years to develop before being commercialized. Why so long?

Herron described the steps in transgenics and how to get genes from one organism into another. One way is to use bacteria that can inject the genetic material into the cells of the target rice or cotton or corn. This process is more controllable than with a commonly-used method, the “gene gun”. It literally shoots the genes into cells. Because the method leads to uncontrolled results, the desired organism must be then culled out from the ones producing undesirable traits.

The culling process itself, if not carefully performed, could lead to detrimental side-effects, and takes extensive and time-consuming testing. Those opposed to GMO cite various indicators of inadequacy in this culling process from studies in epidemiology and health research. Epidemiological evidence against GMOs includes a variety of new diseases in the form of allergies and strange growths, such as Morgellon’s disease (which is still treated by the medical mainstream as delusional parasitology), in which plastic polyethylene fibers grow out of lesions in skin.

These maladies began to be recognized some time after the commercial introduction of GMO food. There is a correlation between them, but correlations are not necessarily causes.

What is much closer to causal identification is a recent study of French researchers headed by Gilles-Eric Séralini of the Laboratory of Biochemistry (IBFA), U. of Caen, on the biosafety of GM crops.

Their extended study, considerably more involved than the testing required of government safety agencies, led to the conclusion that the 90-day tests of Monsanto, (for which court action was required to obtain the data from them),  are not long enough to evaluate the toxicity of GMOs.

Their two-year study on GM corn, which produced obvious tumours in rats, led the country of Russia to officially ban GM corn. The French government also ordered its food-safety agency to review the study and has been considering asking the European Commission to ban the particular GM corn (Monsanto NK603) used in the study from importation.

Bolivia has now banned GM corn and its neighbour, Peru has a 10 year moratorium on GM products. This study has been so influential that pro-GMO interests have attacked it, critiquing details of a kind that received no scrutiny in the 90-day tests that won government approval.

Dr. Herron gave a mini-tutorial on genetics – on how DNA, which expresses life’s blueprint or plan of an organism, is by transcription converted to messenger RNA (mRNA) – a working copy of the code – which then translates into proteins which cause the particular feature of the plant or animal to be expressed.

When stopped at mRNA the process is safer than if it is allowed to produce proteins which do the real work. While being optimistic about crop transgenics overall – especially from her own presented work on cassava – she did allude to some of the concerns that some of those opposed to bringing GMOs into Belize expressed at the meeting.

It was clear from her presentation that Dr. Herron has a scientific motivation and, while her background orients her to transgenic technology, she showed some of the characteristic objectivity that one should expect from a scientist – a truth-seeker of nature in that she also had her cautionary concerns about some of what can be or is being done with this technology.

A substantial question and airing-out time was included in the meeting, hosted by Midwest Steel’s Henry Wolfe. Several people active in opposing GMOs in Belize spoke out, airing a variety of concerns about this multi-faceted issue.

Health is one.. Control of the food supply and the opening of Pandora’s Box are others.

The irreversibility of the spread of modified genes, mixing in and polluting the natural-bred varieties of crops that have become highly adapted over the years is yet another. Mexico has over 50 varieties of corn, each adapted to a local area.

Some of the GMO advocates, before and after the meeting, expressed their viewpoints in informal discussions.

Some are aware that there might be a toxicity issue with GMO but prefer to take their chances with it than with the current state of chemical farming and the toxicity of pesticides and herbicides. Everybody wants toxicity reduction.

One of the major herbicides allowed in Belize, atrazine, is banned in the USA.

GMO crops that have a gene that produces the same toxin as a bacteria found in the soil, Bacillus thurengiensis, or Bt, is produced in large quantity by the crop plant itself. The toxin kills the corn borer, a major corn pest, though reports from the U.S. are that some farmers have now discontinued use of Bt corn because the worms are developing a resistance to it.

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