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Context of 'Late November 2001: Berkeley Scientists Publish Study on GM Contaminated Maize in Mexico'

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Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist, and his assistant, David Quist, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, discover the presence of genetically modified (GM) genes in native Mexican maize growing in the remote hills of Oaxaca, Mexico. The contaminant genes contain DNA sequences from the cauliflower mosaic virus, which is often used as a promoter to “switch on” insecticidal or herbicidal properties in GM plants. Contamination is also found in samples from a government food store that purchases animal feed from the US. The Oaxaca region is considered to be the birthplace of maize and the world’s center of diversity for corn, “exactly the kind of repository of genetic variation that environmentalists and many scientists had hoped to protect from contamination,” the New York Times reports. Scientists worry that the genes could spread through the region’s corn population reducing its genetic diversity. Critics of genetically modified crops have long argued that the technology cannot be contained. According to Dr. Norman C. Ellstrand, evolutionary biologist at University of California at Riverside, the discovery “shows in today’s modern world how rapidly genetic material can move from one place to another.” The findings are not good news for the biotech industry which is currently lobbying Brazil, the European Union, and Mexico to lift their embargoes on genetically modified crops. [New York Times, 10/2/2001; Manchester Guardian Weekly, 12/12/2001; BBC, 3/13/2002] It is later learned that the contamination resulted from Oaxacan peasants planting kernels they purchased from a local feed store. Though there’s a moratorium on the growing of GM crops, there’s no such ban on animal feed containing GM seed. [Cox News, 10/2/2001]

Entity Tags: Bivings Group, Monsanto, David Quist, Ignacio Chapela, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Berkeley grad student David Quist and Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist, publish the results of a study (see October 2000) finding that native Mexican maize has been contaminated with genetically modified genes. The study—published by the British journal Nature after an eight-month long peer-review process—presents two arguments. In addition to reporting the discovery that some of Oaxaca’s maize contains transgenic material, the paper says they found transgene fragments scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA. [Quist and Chapela, 11/29/2001 pdf file] The study’s second conclusion causes a controversy because it contradicts the assertions of the biotech industry that genetic engineering is a safe and exact science, and that the technology is capable of controlling precisely where the modified sequences are positioned, how they will be expressed, and whether or not they will be passed on to successive generations. One of the main arguments of the technology’s detractors is that the methods used to insert trangenic genes into an organism’s DNA cannot be done with accuracy and therefore are liable to produce unpredictable and undesirable effects. Following the publication of Quist and Chapela’s article, other Berkeley biologists—who work in a Berkeley University program partially funded by Syngenta, a major biotech firm—criticize the study, leading Quist and Chapela to acknowledge that the analyses of two of the eight gene sequences in their paper were flawed. However they stand by their conclusions that the remaining six sequences contained scattered modified gene sequences. Critics of the article also note that both Quist and Chapela strongly oppose the genetic engineering of crops and participated in an unsuccessful effort to block the Berkeley-Syngenta partnership. The issue soon grows into a very large controversy that some suggest is fueled by the efforts of the biotech industry, and in particular, the Bivings Group, a PR firm on Monsanto’s payroll. Forum postings at AgBioWorld.org are reportedly traced to a Bivings’ employee. It is also noted that another person posting on the forum makes “frequent reference to the Center for Food and Agricultural Research, an entity that appears to exist only online and whose domain is [allegedly] registered to a Bivings employee.” Bivings denies that it is in any way connected to the forum postings. In spite of the controversy surrounding the article’s second finding, the other conclusion, that Mexico’s maize has been contaminated, is largely uncontested, and is buttressed by at least three other studies (see January 2002; February 19, 2003-February 21, 2003). [Associated Press, 4/4/2002; East Bay Express, 5/29/2002; BBC, 6/2/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002]

Entity Tags: Monsanto, Bivings Group, David Quist, Ignacio Chapela, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources publishes the results of its study (see September 18, 2001) on transgenic contamination in Oaxaca and nearby Puebla. The study found contamination levels between 3 and 13 percent in eleven communities and between 20 and 60 percent in four others. Tests conducted on maize sold in government food stores revealed that 37 percent contained the GM genes. [East Bay Express, 5/29/2002]

Entity Tags: Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

In an unprecedented move, Nature runs an editorial pulling its support for a controversial study by Berkeley scientists David Quist and Dr. Ignacio Chapela on genetic contamination of native Mexican maize. The study, published the previous fall (see Late November 2001), reported that native maize in Oaxaca had been contaminated with genetically modified (GM) genes and that transgene fragments were found scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA. Immediately after being published, the article came under attack by pro-GM scientists who disputed Quist’s and Chapela’s second finding. “In light of these discussions and the diverse advice received, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper,” the journal’s editor, Philip Campbell, writes. “As the authors nevertheless wish to stand by the available evidence for their conclusions, we feel it best simply to make these circumstances clear, to publish the criticisms, the authors’ response and new data, and to allow our readers to judge the science for themselves.” Though the journal withdraws its support, it does not retract the article. [Associated Press, 4/4/2002; East Bay Express, 5/29/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002] The decision to withdraw support is based on the opinions of three unnamed independent experts whom Nature consulted. Only one of those experts, however, disputed Quist’s and Chapela’s finding that there was evidence of contamination. All three agreed that the second finding—that transgene fragments were scattered throughout the plants’ modified DNA—was flawed. [BBC, 6/2/2002]

Entity Tags: David Quist, Ignacio Chapela, Philip Campbell

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Jorge Soberon, the executive secretary of Mexico’s biodiversity commission, announces that government scientists have confirmed that genetically modified (GM) corn is growing in Mexico. The finding supports what two US scientists reported several months earlier (see Late November 2001) in a highly controversial paper published in the journal Science. Calling it the “world’s worst case of contamination by GM material,” he says 95 percent of the sites sampled in Oaxaca and Puebla were found to have GM maize. Samples taken from these sites indicated a contamination level as high as 35 percent. [Daily Telegraph, 4/19/2002; Mother Jones, 7/9/2002]

Entity Tags: Jorge Soberon, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources

Timeline Tags: Seeds

An ad hoc expert panel created by the sixth conference of the Biodiversity Convention convenes in Montreal to consider the impact that genetic use restriction technology (GURT), also known as terminator technology, would have on small farmers, indigenous peoples, and local communities. The expert panel hears from 11 groups including the US, Canada, two individual farmers, an indigenous rights group, four civil society organizations, the International Seed Federation, and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). [Collins and Krueger, n.d. pdf file; ETC Group, 4/17/2003; Convention on Biological Diversity, 9/29/2003 pdf file] The paper presented by UPOV, completed in January (see January 10, 2003), is not well-received by the US or industry representatives. Though the UPOV is generally an ardent supporter of intellectual rights protections, its analysis argues that GURT technology could threaten the interests of small farmers. The paper is so unwelcome, in fact, that the US and the International Seed Federation will succeed in pressuring the UPOV to revise it (see March 13, 2003-April 11, 2003), eliminating all references to GURT from the body of the paper. Prepared by Monsanto’s Roger Krueger and Harry Collins of Delta & Pine Land (D&PL), the International Seed Federation’s analysis takes the position that GURT technology would be advantageous for small farmers. Their paper argues that GURT would benefit small farmers and indigenous peoples by providing them with more options. “The International Seed Federation (ISF) believes that GURTs have the potential to benefit farmers and others in all size, economic and geographical areas… In reality, the potential effects of the GURTs may be beneficial to small farmers… ,” the paper asserts. “It is the strong belief and position of the ISF that GURTs would potentially provide more choice, to the farmers, rather than less choice.” Kruefer and Collins also say the technology could be used to prevent the contamination of non-transgenic plants with genetically modified genes and thus could be “quite positive for the environment and biodiversity.” [Collins and Krueger, n.d. pdf file; ETC Group, 4/17/2003; Convention on Biological Diversity, 9/29/2003 pdf file] The expert panel’s final report will list 35 “potential negative impacts” of GURT on small farmers and local communities and only nine “potential positive impacts.” It will recommend, among other things, “that parties and other governments consider the development of regulatory frameworks not to approve GURTs for field-testing and commercial use.” [Convention on Biological Diversity, 9/29/2003 pdf file]

Entity Tags: International Seed Federation, International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, Roger Krueger, Harry B. Collins

Timeline Tags: Seeds

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