Mexican Maize - Industry Disinformation

More GM Smokescreen Journalism?

The Case of the Mexican GM Maize

"David Quist and mycologist Ignacio Chapela reported evidence that
genes from genetically-engineered maize (corn) varieties had crossed
into landraces of maize in southern Mexico and had become permanently
established (introgressed) in the genome of the maize landraces they
tested, and that the transgenes were unstable and moving around in
the maize genome.... Within days, numerous independent scientists
identified flaws in the Quist and Chapela report and notified the
Nature editors of the errors.... [However] None of the critical
reviews of the Quist and Chapela report disputed the possibility that
transgenes may have crossed into landraces.... Quist and Chapela have
subsequently presented data that further supports the presence of
transgenes in maize landraces - a point that has not been
disputed..... Ultimately, science still must resolve whether or not
the flow of transgenes into maize landraces will have significant
negative impacts on either maize genetic diversity or on the broader
Professor C.S. Prakash, Progressive Farmer 'Man of Year' 2002
Research scientist on the development of genetically modified
transgenic plants, tissue culture, and plant genomics, and
President of the AgBioWorld Foundation, 'the leading biotechnology-
related on-line discussion services that shares news reports,
scientific research, and commentary with thousands of participants
each day'

14 April 2002

British tabloid newspapers have been frequently criticised for their
alleged simplistic standards of journalism when dealing with the GMO
debate, particularly when it comes to vigorous attacks on the
technology. But more recently reporting by the London Times suggests
that accurate journalism is not guaranteed even in the broadsheets,
particularly when it comes to defending the position of the GM

On 5 April the London Times ran an article entitled "Attack on safety
of GM crops was unfounded". The paper reported that "Nature, one of
the world's most prestigious peer-reviewed journals, admitted
yesterday it had been wrong to publish flawed research that claimed
to prove that genes from GM maize had accidentally crossed into a
traditional variety in Mexico."

Whilst it is true that Nature had made a statement indicating that
the research concerned was inadequate in some areas, this concern was
related to parts of the paper which included suggestions that foreign
DNA had become fragmented after inadvertently entering non-GM maize

Contrary to the impression given by the report in the Times the claim
in relation to out-crossing has not been disputed either by Nature or
the critical reviews of the paper (see ISIS report below, as well as
the remarks by Professor Prakash at the top of the page). More
illogically, however, the newspaper then uses this false premise to
state that Nature's criticism of the research paper represented "an
unprecedented step that weakens the scientific case against the

Whilst getting the wrong end of the scientific stick can happen in
even good journalism, it is somewhat peculiar that the Times feels
the need to forcefully repeat its misinterpretation again at the end
of its report in language which appears verging on the partisan.
With virtually the same wording as used at the beginning of the
article it finishes by seeking to remind readers of its claim that
the study "has severely weakened the case against the technology."
Is this repeated emphasis not rather labouring the point - especially
if it is not true?

This journalistic approach is particularly remarkable because the
month before the European Environment Agency had published a major
report concluding that cross contamination by a variety of GM crops,
including maize, is all but inevitable. The heavily referenced EEA
report was co-authored by one of the UK's most respected agronomists
at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany. Given that the EEA
paper was widely reported in the media it is surprising that the
Times was seemingly unaware of it.

Unfortunately seemingly biotech-industry led reporting by the Times
on GMOs appears not to be new. As far back as the summer of 1998 it
relayed at face value Monsanto's claimed environmental benefits of
genetically modified sugar beet. Providing little in the way of
questioning observations along side it, the Times reported an all-
singing all-dancing claim by Monsanto funded scientists
that "Genetically engineered crops can save farmers money, reduce
chemical spraying and create a better habitat for birds and insects".
The article headline, which is as far as many readers will have got,
was "Modified crops 'help man and wildlife'".

These claims were subsequently revealed in October 1998 by New
Scientist (as well as in later published research) to be a highly
misleading smokescreen produced by Monsanto (in the event serious
limitations were associated with the proffered approach meaning that
it was unlikely that farmers would make use of it in the way it had
been presented).

The real significance of the currently controversial paper on Mexican
maize turns out not to be in relation to cross contamination at all.
The really contentious issue is that the scientists concerned claimed
to have found evidence of the fragmentation of the genetically
modified construct after it had inadvertently found its way into the
genome of unmodified maize. It is in relation to this issue that the
data submitted to Nature has been challenged.

However, if this issue were to be proven at any stage such a finding
would (to use the type of phraseology favoured by the Times)
represent "an unprecedented step that weakens the scientific case" in
favour of the technology. It would show that GMOs are potentially
inherently unstable.

It is possible that it is precisely for this reason that the genetic
engineering industry has been so keen to kill this paper. Inadvertent
cross contamination is 'old hat' and now widely accepted by both GM
pros and antis. What is new in the paper is the issue of transgenic
construct fragmentation. Few in the biotech industry would wish to
draw the attention of the wider public to this issue even when
condemning the paper.

Indeed, this issue is capable of killing the technology stone dead in
the same way that Dr Pusztai's paper on the claimed toxic effects on
GM potatoes on laboratory rats could have done had that paper not
been crushed back in 1998. Some are now saying that the attempted
discrediting of the latest paper on Mexican maize is a new Pusztai
type incident - a forcible and orchestrated attempt to suppress a
valid scientific issue lest it destroy the validity of the technology
at its core.

The conclusion in relation to the genome fragmentation issue raised
by the Mexican research seems to be that there were indeed some
errors in the data. However, there may also be enough substance in
the data to indicate that a valid scientific issue remains at stake
here and that more research should be done. That of course would
mean discussing the issue, and that is precisely what the biotech
industry does not want.

Significantly when the UK government arranged for the sacking of Dr
Pusztai back in 1998 after he had talked to the press about his
preliminary results (scientists routinely discuss their preliminary
results with the press prior to publication as is confirmed by the
Monsanto sugar beet case that succeeded in hoodwinking journalists
also back in 1998) the Royal Society called for the government to
redo the research. Despite funding the original Pusztai work, the
government refused to do so.

To refuse to redo the work indicated either that the government
considered the purpose of the research unimportant, or that it wished
to eliminate the newly revealed possibility of results that might be
damaging to the technology. The former option is rather difficult to
reconcile with the fact that the government was prepared to spend
over one million pounds commissioning the research in the first place.

From time to time there is a really major fuss over some research on
GMOs which produces results which raise serious questions regarding
the safety of the technology. As examples of such cases both the
Pusztai potatoes, and now the Mexican maize study, suggest the
likelihood is that a rearguard action will usually be mounted to bury
such an issue before it can gain a serious scientific foothold.

Both seem to be classic cases of 'Me thinks they do protest too
much'. In the most recent case of the Mexican maize it rather looks
as if it may be the construct fragmentation issue that the GM camp is
trying to bury if the analysis by ISIS (below) is correct.

Contrary to the allegations in the Times of 'flawed research'
Associated Press made clear in its own report published the day
before that "Rather than retract the study, Nature printed two
criticisms of the work, as well as a rebuttal from the authors.....
The journal stopped short of declaring the research flawed. Instead,
[the editor] Campbell wrote that Nature would allow its readers 'to
judge the science for themselves.... The move enraged the study's
authors, who concede only minor interpretive errors...".

Associated Press also clearly highlighted the most sensitive
issue: "Particularly egregious, critics said, was their claim that
the transgenic material, once it entered the maize's genome,
scattered randomly, an entirely unpredictably effect unseen in normal
DNA.... Nature arranged for three additional scientists, all
unidentified, to review the criticisms and the researchers' reply....
However, only one called for a retraction unless further evidence for
the claim could be provided "

Perhaps it comes as little surprise to read, therefore, that in a
separate political development in the UK relating to open public
discussion on the impact of GM crops, an anonymous senior ministerial
source is quoted in the Independent 13 April as saying that "People
who are 'pro' the technology don't want a debate".

Meanwhile the prominence given to the contamination red herring that
has been incorrectly attached to reporting of the disputed elements
of the Mexican maize case looks suspiciously like another biotech-
industry driven media smokescreen.

Significantly in this respect Associated Press further reports
that "Nature took the unusual move after Chapela and Quist's study
was severely criticized by at least four groups of scientists, many
with ties to Berkeley.... In 1998, the university signed a five-year,
$25 million contract with Novartis, giving the Swiss chemical company
first option on much of the genomic discoveries made in its plant and
microbial biology department. Critics, including Chapela, alleged
conflict of interest."

Novartis is one of the world's leading developers of genetically
modified maize.



ISIS Report, 8 April 2002.
Astonishing Denial of Transgenic Pollution
Top scientific journal Nature retracted a paper on transgenic
pollution of Mexican landraces under pressure from pro-biotech
scientists, but the authors stand by their conclusions, now firmed up
by new data. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho exposes the real agenda behind the
continuing attempt to confuse the public, and the significance of the
scientific findings for biosafety.

If you wish to see the complete document with references, please
consider becoming a member or friend of ISIS. Full details here

A paper published in Nature last November provoked a furore of
responses from the pro-biotech community. The journal succumbed to
pressure by issuing a retraction: "In light of ..discussions and the
diverse advice received, Nature has concluded that the evidence
available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the
original paper." But, as the authors wish to stand by the evidence
and conclusions, Nature thought it best to publish the criticisms,
the authors' response and new data, and to let readers "judge the
science for themselves."

The criticisms appear to hinge on the experimental techniques used by
Berkeley scientists David Quist and Ignacio Chapela to support their
claim that transgenic DNA has polluted the Mexican landraces. First,
polymerase chain reaction (PCR) enabled them to identify the
cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter in the landraces. This
piece of DNA is incorporated in virtually every commercial transgenic
crop. Then, inverse PCR (iPCR) was used to look for unknown DNA
sequences joined to the CaMV promoter, which would give information
on the structure of the transgenic DNA and its precise location in
the genome. PCR is a standard technique, widely employed for
amplifying and identifying specific sequences present in trace
amounts. Inverse PCR, on the other hand, is a much newer technique,
and not yet widely used.

The critics do not take issue with the identification of the CaMV 35S
promoter, thereby implicitly acknowledging the presence of transgenic
DNA in the landraces. In other words, they are not disputing that
transgenic pollution has occurred.

Rather, their criticisms centre on the iPCR technique for identifying
unknown DNA sequences linked to the CaMV promoter, which they regard
as "suspect" and "artifactual".

Quist and Chapela have found a diversity of sequences linked to the
promoter, thus giving the impression that the transgenic constructs
were "fragmenting and promiscuously scattering throughout genomes",
which "would be unprecedented", according to the first critique. It
also denies that transgene fragments can move around the genome after
integration, and does not bother to tell us that there have been no
experiments done previously to address the issue.

The first critique comes from microbiologist Mathew Metz, former
colleague of Quist and Chapela, now in University of Washington,
Seattle, and Johannes Futterer, from Institute of Plant Science, ETH,
Switzerland. The second critique comes from six colleagues of the
authors in Berkeley. Berkeley's bioscience department was taken over
by biotech giant Novartis in a controversial bid a few years ago, and
Ignacio Chapela attracted attention as a major opponent of the take-
over. There is no doubt that the attack on Chapela is at least partly
motivated by politics, a charge levelled against Chapela's work by
his critics from Berkeley. But fortunately, politics is irrelevant in
considering what the experimental results are telling us.

PCR and iPCR both depend on short stretches of DNA, called primers,
which pair up (or hybridise) with parts of the longer sequence to be
amplified. This then enables the DNA copying enzyme to make the rest
of the sequence. Unfortunately, the primers often have sequence
similarity to other DNA, and so they could hybridise to the wrong
places, leading to wrong sequences in the plant genome being
amplified. The primers used do have similarities (homologies) to
known plant gene sequences, and hence false priming and
misidentification of sequences could have given the impression that
the CaMV 35S promoter is scattered throughout the genome.

In their reply, Quist and Chapela acknowledge that some, though not
all of the iPCR results could represent false priming and
misidentified sequences, and point out that such problems are
inherent to the technique. However, that does not alter their main

They provide new data based on a dot-blot technique. A measured
amount of DNA is transferred to a filter (in a dot), dried, and then
probed with transgenic DNA; in this case, the CaMV 35S promoter.

The new data clearly show the presence of CaMV 35S promoter in four
landrace samples at levels less than 5% and greater than 1%, while a
historic maize sample and a maize sample from Peru both stained
negative. In other words, transgenic pollution had indeed occurred as
reported in their previous paper.

The real disagreement is to what extent the transgenic constructs had
fragmented on entering the genome of the landraces or thereafter. The
existing evidence on transgenic instability, documented in some
papers cited by Quist and Chapela, does not rule out the possibility
of "fragmenting and promiscuous scattering" of transgenic constructs,
which could have introgressed into landraces via horizontal gene
transfer as well as by cross-pollination. The significance of Quist
and Chapela's work is that it is the first of its kind in attempting
to address this possibility.

Once again, the scientific establishment serving the corporate agenda
has been caught out taking the absence of evidence as evidence of
absence. The agenda is to keep the public confused while transgenic
pollution continues unabated.

Above all, corporate scientists want to avoid having to prove
transgenic lines are stable by the appropriate 'event-specific'
molecular data that the new European Directive requires
(See "Europe's new rules could sink all GMOs", ISIS News 11/12,
October 2001
This involves documenting that the transgenic insert has maintained
the same structure and location in the plant genome in successive
generations. No such 'event-specific' molecular analysis has ever
been done for any transgenic line. Significantly, Monsanto's Roundup
Ready GM soya failed the test when recently analysed. Regulators
should insist on this molecular data, and the data should not be
hidden away from the public under "commercial confidentiality".
Otherwise, regulators should be held liable for any damages caused as
a result.

The only decent thing for the scientific establishment to do now is
to give plenty of support to Quist and Chapela and others to extend
their research. The aim is to rule out the possibility that
transgenic constructs could be fragmenting and scattering, throughout
the genome as well as throughout the ecosystem, by horizontal gene
transfer and recombination. Meanwhile, no more transgenic crops
should be released, especially those with the CaMV 35S promoter,
until they could be proved stable by event-specific analyses
(see "Who's afraid of horizontal gene transfer?" ISIS report, 4
March, 2002

If you wish to see the complete document with references, please
consider becoming a member or friend of ISIS. Full details here

This article can be found on the I-SIS website at http://www.i-
The Institute of Science in Society
PO Box 32097,
London NW1 OXR
Tel: 44-20-8731-7714


"This information is posted for nonprofit educational purposes, in
accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Chapter 1,Sec. 107 copyright laws."

Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Donate | About Us | Contact Us

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.