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Organic Mutagenic/Cell Fusion Hybrid Seeds are Genetically Engineered

Opinion

It is spring planting time for farms, and, if hybrid seeds are being planted, chances are some might be genetically engineered (GE) and technically genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to a growing movement in organic agriculture.

High Mowing Organic Seeds, an organic seed company based in Wolcott, VT, bans the sale of hybrid seeds produced by a commonly used industry method called cell fusion to manipulate plant DNA — because the seeds are viewed as GMOs.

“We do not support or sell cisgenic (within the same plant family) CMS cell fusion seeds as we believe the process is the same as GMO,” says Tom Furber, general manager of the company.

Other organic seed companies which have similarly adopted a policy of banning cell fusion-created F1 hybrid seeds, because company owners view the process as genetic engineering, are challenging the current USDA National Organic Program which permits cisgenic cell fusion hybrid seed in organic production.

“We’ve been committed to non-GMO and organic since our inception and always will be. We need to educate the market regardless of a USDA classification,” Furber says.

In organic farming, transgenic (between different biological families) GE is banned, but cisgenic (within the same species family) GE used in the cell fusion process is permitted under USDA organic regulations.

By international organic certification standards, cell fusion is classified as genetic engineering, but these standards established by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) are being ignored by the United States, Europe and other countries.

In April 2014, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), representing more than 850,000 members, including several thousand businesses in the natural foods and organic marketplace, launched a consumer campaign to ban cell fusion mutagenesis in the USDA NOP organic production standards.

“Like genetic engineering, mutagenesis can cause dramatic shifts in genetically determined traits, producing unknown toxins or allergens. ‘Wheat Belly’ author Dr. William Davis blames mutagenesis, which is used to produce modern wheat — including organically grown wheat — for increases in wheat allergies and intolerances,” states the OCA.

Cisgenic cell fusion is a biotechnical process of mutagenesis whereby the nucleus is removed from a plant cell and replaced with a nucleus from a different plant within the same botanical family. Chemicals and radiation are used in the process to created a hybrid plant with mixed genetics containing the mitochondrial and chloroplast DNA from one cell and the nuclear DNA from a different one.

Cell fusion is also called protoplast or somantic fusion and can involve a mutant gene with the purpose of creating cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS), which allows classified F1 hybrids to avoid inbreeding. It also prevents the seed from recreating the variety because it results in sterile or no pollen.

While natural CMS plant lines do occur, it is rare, so cell fusion is used to transfer a single wild mutant CMS gene on a mass scale from one species to another cisgenically — as in a radish to cabbage or sunflower to chicory.

“Cell-fusion is a controversial topic and IFOAM would like to ban it from organics completely, as they consider it a form of GM. But many of us in the organic community know that that would seriously compromise the ability of organic farmers to grow commercial crops of several brassicas,” says John Navazio, senior scientist with the Organic Seed Alliance and a Washington State University Extension Specialist in Organic Seed.

“Several of the large production research seed companies that produce organic seed are not talking when asked which of their hybrids are produced using cell fusion-mediated CMS. By the way, there is also ‘naturally occurring CMS,’ which we have used in hybrid carrots, onions, and beets for many years and SHOULD NOT be included in this debate,” Navazio says.

Not all F1 hybrids are developed using CMS GE cell fusion.

In the world of seed breeding, there are open-pollinated, hybrid, heirloom, transgenic GMOs and cisgenic GE mutagenic seeds.

Open-Pollinated (OP) varieties, grown in isolation from cross-pollinating with different same species, are designed to produce seed offspring very similar to the original parent population. OP seeds will grow “true to type” generation after generation.

Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated produced and handed down by seed savers for at least 60 years.

Hybrids in general are the first generation of offspring plants created by a cross of two genetically different parent varieties, usually from the same species. Seeds from the second generation will not grow “true to type,” so the buyer has to return for each planting of that crop.

Naturally occurring hybridization in the wild involves the crossing of compatible varieties, and, since the beginning of agriculture, plant breeders have experimented with this process to control the outcome.

A modern natural hybridization method of controlled crossing to create F1 seed was devised by Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century and is used by plant breeders to grow two parent lines in the field each year, designate the male and female parents, carry out pollination under controlled conditions — such as hand-pollination under row cover — and then harvest seed from the females.

High Mowing Organic Seeds uses a natural method with no laboratory steps called self-incompatibility (SI).

Overall, plant breeders prefer F1 hybrid seed because it’s faster and easier than breeding new open-pollinated seeds, and they can cull the bad traits from the parents while stacking their good traits (e.g., disease resistance) in the F1 offspring.

Seed companies also like F1 hybrids because the second generation will not grow “true to type,” so the F1 hybrid buyer has to buy new seeds for each planting. Another reason big, and, more recently, smaller seed companies, prefer the hybrid process is because it gives them proprietary ownership of each new F1 variety.

Cell fusion F1 hybrid seeds were first developed with induced mutagenesis in the early 20th century to process disease resistance and growing features to increase yields. Since the 1950s, cell fusion hybrid techniques have evolved from a random chemical/electrical/radiation blending to a site-direct mutagenesis process targeting specific genes with marker-assisted breeding (e.g., zinc fingers).

Targeted mutation, known as genome editing, are tools which use complex protein structures called zinc fingers or meganucleases and can also selectively insert or silence genes in crop species, shortening years off development time.

According to a Nov. 21, 2013, news report by Business Week, industry experts say that, over the past five years, breeding and biotechnology have improved on prior haphazard methods of cell fusion mutagenesis by using molecular markers and sequenced genomes of crops to site-direct crossbreeding, making conventional breeding more like GE. The article quotes Paul Schickler, president of DuPont’s Pioneer seed unit, as saying, “There is not a black line between biotechnology and nonbiotechnology, it’s a continuum.”

According to company filings in Canada, BASF, the world’s biggest chemical company, developed its Clearfield wheat and other crops through chemical mutagenesis, which alters the crops’ DNA by dousing seeds with chemicals such as ethyl methanesulfonate and sodium azide, as reported by Bloomberg News on Nov. 13, 2013.

“This has been a technique used for many decades without issue, without concern,” Jonathan Bryant, a BASF vice president, was quoted as saying.

BASF enlists the help of 40 seed companies, including DuPont Co. and Dow Chemical Co. in the U.S. and Switzerland’s Syngenta AG, to sell Clearfield wheat, rice, lentils, sunflowers and canola crops in markets that reject GMOs without regulatory review, according to the same Bloomberg story.

For many environmental and organic consumer groups, they see a continuum of GE crops hiding as substantially equivalent to “traditional” and therefore natural methods of seed production. These groups are concerned the unregulated grey area of GE cell fusion and site-directed mutagenesis is being used by BASF and the major agri-biotech companies to sidestep GMO labeling of their seed products.

In the 1990s, Monsanto lobbied USDA to agree that GMOs are substantially equivalent to natural forming plants.

The majority of the world’s food seeds are owned by six companies: Monsanto, Bayer, Sygenta, BASF, DuPont and Dow. The top three (Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta) account for 47 percent of the worldwide proprietary seed market. These firms are expanding their operations by buying other seed companies and controlling the pricing and use of seeds through proprietary patents.

In 2005, Monsanto became the world’s largest seed and GMO company with its purchase of Seminis, which was the largest developer, grower and marketer of fruit and vegetable seed. Seminis’ 3,500 seed varieties are sold to farm/garden seed companies globally.

Monsanto’s newly developed proprietary lines of fruits and vegetables currently sold in supermarkets use a technique called genetic marking. A January 2014 story in Wired magazine cites Monsanto’s genetic marking technique with potentially producing a new method for organic seed production.

According to the article, after mapping targeted genes, researchers identify and crossbreed plants with traits they like without GE and then run millions of samples from the hybrid through a machine that can read more than 200,000 samples per week and map all the genes in a particular region of the plant’s chromosomes.

Monsanto’s crossbreeding technique also uses a seed chipper to enable breeders to scan genetic variations to predict inheritance patterns without having to go through multiple planting trials to figure out if they’ll result in plants with the desired traits. Patented crops created with this method of gene stacking with multiple characteristics don’t require government safety testing because they’re viewed as natural by FDA.

“We do know that Monsanto/Seminis are getting into the ‘organic’ seed line. Which is precisely why OSA advises caution at this point in demanding that farmers use only organic seed — if the requirement to use absolutely only organic seed were made in stone right now, we would find a narrowing of the organic seed line, and a virtual takeover of the organic seed industry by the big boys,” says Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition and National Organic Action Plan.

“Organic has a long way to go to clarify the GE (Excluded Methods) definition, and if the USDA doesn’t get working with the true organic seed industry, we will indeed see organic seed production consolidated into the big GE guys (Monsanto/Seminis and more), ” she adds.

The classification of conventional and organic cisgenic cell fusion CMS seeds as GMOs by High Mowing Organic Seeds and other seed companies joins a European movement banning such seeds from organic production.

European and USDA agricultural and food safety government bodies only identify transgenic (between different species) cell fusion hybrid seeds as GE and GMOs, excluding cisgenic cell fusion as a “traditional method” and not genetic engineering/modification.

In Germany (Europe’s largest organic consumer) and France, organic agricultural organizations are endorsing IFOAM’s classification of laboratory cell fusion techniques used in the production of hybrid seeds as genetic engineering (GE).

“In the private organic farming sector as outlined in the IFAOM standards, a process-oriented approach prevails; therefore, the use of genetic engineering lab techniques is not in compliance with principles of organic farming,” says Klaus-Peter Wilbois, head of the agriculture division at the German office of The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).

Politically in Europe and the U.S., the debate of whether the process of using cell fusion in seed production is GE comes down to looking at the issue in a product-oriented or process-oriented perspective.

Legally, current USDA and EU directives are product-oriented, and, if cell fusion is used within the same botanical family, it is not GE and those seeds are not judged to be GMOs.

“For instance, cell fusion techniques which are used to convey cytoplasmatic male sterility (CMS) in cabbage or chicory crops to produce hybrids are regarded as genetic engineering in the organic sector but would not lead to a GMO in a legal sense, since the crops (Japanese radish as CMS donator) belongs to the same brassica family as cabbages like cauliflower or broccoli. The same is true for sunflower and chicory (both asteraceae),” Wilbois says.

The organic farming industry and their organizations are conflicted and struggling with the conundrum that organic production relies on CMS F1 hybrid seeds. These hybrids are developed with unregulated biotechnological DNA mutagenic techniques, which might be non-GMO in the legal framework, but are process as viewed against the organic farming background and principles banning the use of GE.

In the IFOAM, the product/process argument has come to one conclusion: Cisgenic cell fusion in seed production is GE and should be banned.

IFOAM, comprising 800 affiliates in 118 countries, mandates all GE seeds be banned from organic production (both transgenic and cisgenic) and cited the process of cell fusion as GE. This ruling defines seeds produced with cell fusion as a genetically engineered/modified organism, a classification that should technically ban it from EU and USDA NOP organic production.

The IFOAM GE cell fusion ban for hybrid seed production has broad international implications for all farming operations which use the biotech technique of mutating DNA to make hybrid seeds in both conventional and organic crop production — particularly in countries where governments mandate the labeling of GE organisms.

In more than 64 countries, the labeling of GMO seeds made with GE is government-mandated, but that is only for transgenic GE using DNA technology to insert genes from unrelated species.

Currently, GE cell fusion F1 hybrid seeds are only privately banned in European organic production (mostly German), but not under government EU directives for GMOs. There are no CMS hybrid seed safety or disclosure requirements for Europe or the U.S., but lists of acceptable F1 hybrids are being disclosed to the public by German organic farming organizations.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has ruled that cisgenic cell fusion is excluded from GE classification as it is based on traditional methods.

EFSA’s role is to provide independent scientific advice on matters linked to food and feed safety in Europe. EFSA’s risk assessments provide risk managers (e.g., European Commission, European Parliament and Member States) with scientific advice to help them in legislative or regulatory decisions required to ensure European food is safe for consumers.

“For your information, at the time of developing the legislative framework for GMOs in the EU, regulators specifically excluded from this category techniques/methods of genetic modification as long as they do not involve the use of recombinant DNA (see Annex IB of Directive 2001/18/EC, here).

“One of these techniques is mutagenesis. This means that a new organism/crop/variety obtained through mutagenesis, giving that it does not involve the use of recombinant DNA, is not considered a GMO (legally speaking in the EU) and hence is not subject to the entire approval process (e.g., pre-marketing risk assessment) laid down in EU legislation,” says Sylvie Mestdagh, a spokeswoman for EFSA’s GMO unit.

In 2013, the USDA NOP ruled similarly: “However, the NOP further concludes that cell fusion (including protoplast fusion) is not considered an excluded method when the donor cells/protoplasts fall within the same taxonomic plant family, and when donor or recipient organisms are not derived using techniques of recombinant DNA technology.”

How is it that a cisgenic cell fusion process using the DNA of a sterile male plant (CMS) resulting in a F1 hybrid is not a genetically modifying process?

“All I can tell you is that the USDA does not consider this to be a GM process when it is done within the same family,” says Don Franczyk, spokesman for Baystate Organic Certifiers, a USDA certification body. “You cannot do the same procedure transgenically. It is only allowed within the family and considered hybridization rather than genetic modification,” he said.

Overall, the debate over whether cell fusion and mutagenesis in seed production are GE has caused confusion and conflicting answers in the organic community.

USDA’s National Organic Program and its European counterpart, EFSA, cite the practices as “traditional” and excluded from organic standards, but IFOAM identifies these same laboratory processes as DNA GE and bans them from organic production.

“IFOAM is supposed to be the global clearinghouse for organic rules and the NOP was closely modeled on its standards. As such, the recent directive on cell fusion by NOP is at odds with IFOAM, and, I think, causing a certain degree of consternation,” says James R. Myers, Baggett Frazier Professor of Vegetable Breeding and Genetics in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University.

“My overall feeling is that there are long-term goals that the organic community should strive for, but it may take time to reach those goals and, in the meantime, the standards may need to be relaxed in certain areas so as not to cause extreme hardship to the organic community. This has been true for the exemption to the requirement for the use of certified organic seed, which allows untreated conventional seed to be used when there is no equivalent variety,” Myers says.

Conflicting and confusing opinions among respected organic seed breeders on cisgenic mutagenesis and cell fusion as genetic engineering has also added to the GE consternation.

“Induced mutagenesis is not GM, but it is a technique that directly interferes at DNA level and that is why it does not comply to the principles of organics as we do not want to accept breeding techniques that interfere at direct DNA level such as GM, or cell fusion (by kicking out the nucleus) or protoplast fusion or mutatgenesis,” says Edith Lammerts van Bueren, senior researcher in plant breeding at the The Louis Bolk Institute in Driebergen, Netherlands.

“Induced mutations are knockouts of functioning genes, and one is not likely to run into a dangerous situation when a gene loses function and stops making a protein,” adds Myers.

Frank Morton, an organic plant breeder/seed grower and founder of Wild Garden Seed in Oregon, opposes any use of CMS hybrids in organic production.

“CMS hybrids depend upon patented techniques and patented germplasm. The process creates hybrids that produce offspring that have sterile pollen or none at all, and this trait is persistent and irreversible, making the genetics unavailable to anyone besides the patent holder. The patent holders ARE the GMO industry, so only that industry can make use of this breeding technique. If they aren’t GMOs, they sure have all the sociopathic traits of GMOs,” Morton says.

Farmers wanting to avoid GE seed and protect their crop’s organic integrity have no way of knowing if their seeds are cisgenically processed GMOs without a government cisgenic GE labeling requirement.

Without a government cisgenic GE labeling requirement or a ban on cell fusion and biotechnological mutagenesis, there is no way of knowing if seeds and their crops are cisgenically created GMOs — unless there is a CMS marker.

German genetic identification companies working in coordination with the private organic sector have developed a testing procedure to identify GE CMS seeds and are posting lists of CMS vegetable hybrids to be avoided.

Organic farmers and food markets in Germany wanting to avoid genetically engineered CMS cell fusion seed and their crops have recently been weeding out identified GE CMS vegetables from their inventories, according to European news reports.

John Navasio believes for now that both a ban on mutagenesis and the continued use of cell fusion in organic seed production are a dead end.

“Without high-quality commercial alternatives in the form of organically bred and developed crop varieties, it will be very difficult for the NOSB of the USDA or even IFOAM in Europe to ban this technology that crept into organics while everyone was taking a nap and relying on the big boys in the seed industry to take care of our seed needs,” he says.

Open-pollinating (OP) crops are a natural alternative to the sterile-pollen CMS hybrid conundrum, according to Navasio.

“The major reason we do not have commercially acceptable OPs in many crops is because there are very few breeders working on OPs,” he says. “The structure of the seed industry relies on hybrids — we are training a new generation of seed growers and seed companies in hopes of changing this to some degree.”

If the campaign to ban GE seeds in organic production, currently being promoted by OCA and organic seed breeders (High Mowing Seeds, Wild Garden Seed, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, Adaptive Seeds, etc.), converges with state GMO-labeling campaigns, there is going to be a flurry in the open-pollinating and natural hybrid seed market.

© Food Safety News
  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Very interesting and informative writing. Very. Thank you.

  • RobertWager

    And what about ionizing radiation mutagenesis and chemical mutagenesis?both scramble the DNA far far more than GE breeding.

  • mem_somerville

    Oh, I hope the organic purity trolls win. And then they get the GMO label they want on top of that to apply to all these products that organic farmers currently use.

    Sometimes you want to see what bad policy really looks like, and for the real consequences to manifest. I might actually support this for the sheer humor.

    • anthony samsel

      Mary we’ve got to stop meeting like this ! I found your comment most amusing. I should invite you to the farm for an all organic brunch.

      Yes, if the organic farmers only knew how many of the hybrid varieties they are planting have been genetically engineered they would freak out. Its interesting how the seed companies have removed the US Patent numbers from their varieties so that they can’t be tracked. The only problem I have is that these novel proteins haven’t been tested as to their effects (if any) on the microbiome. FDA recognizes these hybrids as GRAS and they don’t get tested.

      • mem_somerville

        But they have really really teeny RFID chips embedded in everything now though, with the patent numbers…oh, god, I’ve said too much!

        See–already the humor value pays off.

    • First Officer

      Unfortunately, they are crazy enough to do it.

  • Linda Adsit

    Well, if we want to grow organic stuff, we have to make sure we buy Certified Organic AND Untreated seeds. Some contact with organic produce suppliers might be a good idea, too. Sounds tiring. I’m settling for a regional CSA for now.

  • Bill Pilacinski

    “Oh, what tangled we we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Genetic engineering is just the latest technology in a 10,000 year continuum of plant breeding and development. There is no “bright line” between genetic engineering and techniques that, in some cases, have been used for decades, 100s, even 1000s of years, to develop plant varieties. Wheat, even organic wheat, is a chimera of 3 different grassy weed species, developed 1000s of year ago. The distinction between organic and GE is a deception that the organic industry uses to convince the unknowing that they should pay higher prices for their products.

    • mem_somerville

      Yeah, and we have evidence that grafted trees swap DNA too. So those are right out.

      Really, I hope they enjoy their diet of foraged mushrooms when they are done with all this.

  • FosterBoondoggle

    “Overall, the debate over whether cell fusion and mutagenesis in seed
    production are GE has caused confusion and conflicting answers in the
    organic community.”

    Is it just me, or does this start to sound more like a religious debate than a factual one? Kind of like the Dead Sea Scroll Jewish community declaring that the act of pouring water from a pure vessel into an impure one would render the pure vessel impure…

    Bittman’s latest NYT piece starts to move towards a reasoned view — eat food prepared at home and don’t obsess so much about exactly how it was grown. But that won’t fly with the modern-day Essenes.

  • RDobe

    Nice response Dr. Pilacinski. This article is so very confused on what happens during breeding. Guess what, we are all the products of mutation. If not for mutation, we would not have evolution. I agree with the comment below that is starting to sound like a religious debate.

  • First Officer

    Interesting,

    “Without a government cisgenic GE labeling requirement or a ban on cell fusion and biotechnological mutagenesis, there is no way of knowing if seeds and their crops are cisgenically created GMOs — unless there is a CMS marker.”

    So, except for the CMS marker, the cisgenic GMO is identical to one that could have occured naturally, though such occurances may be rare. As a famous First Officer once said, “A difference that makes no difference is no difference.”

    http://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&docid=dGc0rqmA9mYeLM&tbnid=JR6XXDD8x3dEyM:&ved=0CAUQjRw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.quickmeme.com%2Fmeme%2F3rqf5c&ei=emV1U-vsAearsATBxICQAQ&psig=AFQjCNEUIMJg8i1KCFYiRHDeQhA96qlJ1g&ust=1400288962573398

  • First Officer

    In an organic nut shell;
    Sequence “…AGCT…” begotten by techniques that don’t involve conscous thought about DNA, that’s OK.
    Exact same sequence, “…AGCT…”, begotten by us humans precisely directing the process, EVIL !

    • Bill Pilacinski

      …and the non-conscience thought process would also have generated 65,536 other, random sequences, none of which would have been evaluated for safety or impact on the plant.

  • Bill Pilacinski

    So, the bottom line moral/philosophical argument is not about GMOs but about who/what is producing them, i.e., those “evil” multi-national, capitalist seed and food companies (and I suppose we have to throw in the farmers that grow them also). This may be worthy of its own separate discussion, but the consequence of this confused moral discussion is that products not produced by the multi-nationals that have great moral value, i..e., Golden Rice, are not allowed to enter the market because of political pressure and the great cost of regulatory compliance (also politically generated).

  • FosterBoondoggle

    Opposite? I’m not seeing it.

    Bittman: “[M]ore sustainable does not mean “pure,” and organic often generates
    unreasonable expectations. Many experts are now using the term
    “agro-ecological,” which has the disadvantage of being unusable in
    casual conversation — why not just say, “We want to make crop production
    better?”

    [T]here’s a very real difference between eating better and growing better.
    I can eat better starting right now, and it has nothing — zero — to do
    with shopping at Whole Foods or eating organically. It has to do with
    eating less junk, hyperprocessed food and industrially raised animal
    products.”

    I’m unclear what you think I’ve misrepresented. Mostly I was noticing that the debate over what counts as organic has a strong whiff of the sort of religious purity debates that have been going on for millennia. Given your angle on this, I get why you wouldn’t appreciate the comparison, but that doesn’t make it a misrepresentation of anything.

  • FosterBoondoggle

    Here’s another bit of Bittman that you left out:

    “If anti-G.M.O. activists were successful in banning G.M.O.’s, we’d still
    have industrial agriculture, along with its wholesale environmental
    degradation and pollution, labor abuse and overproduction of ingredients
    for the junk food diet.”

    I know from your prior posts that your concerns are mostly with sustainability and corporate ownership of seed supplies, not so much with health/safety. But as Bittman’s pointing out, if you get the causation backwards, even if you get your wish and get rid of GMOs from the agricultural system, it won’t solve the problem you’re concerned about.

    As for corporate ownership, you’re surely aware that Monsanto and other seed companies sell non-GM seed (e.g., patented hybrids) under similar reuse restrictions as the GM varieties. And those can even be grown and sold as organic. The right of developers to patent plant varieties dates back to 1930 in the US and has nothing to do with GM, except to allow the developers to benefit from their work.

  • http://cultivariable.com/ Bill W.

    I don’t really care if a variety was engineered to male sterility or developed naturally. The end result is a variety that durably passes male sterility on to future generations. Unlike a standard hybrid, which produces variable progeny, but is otherwise no more difficult to save seed from than any other variety, seed simply cannot be saved from a male sterile line without crossing it to a male fertile variety. The male sterility will then be passed on to the progeny which must be again crossed to a male fertile line and so on. Sterility may be desirable if you are thinking about products, but less so if you are thinking about organisms. Adding somatic fusion to the prohibited methods for Organic agriculture doesn’t change much, other than the way that breeders would go about producing sterility. Certified Organic sterile, dead-end varieties don’t sound any better than whiz-bang genetically engineered sterile, dead-end varieties.

  • jmfarmster

    Will somebody provide a link to one of these ‘lists’ being distributed? The links within the article do not attach to such lists and a Google search is proving futile. Thank you.