Bizarre Case of Cross-Border
'Super Corn'

Calling Poirot bizarre case of cross-border 'super corn'

Calling Poirot: bizarre case of cross-border 'super corn'
Scientists claim genetically modified grain from US invades
Mexico, threatening purity of birthplace of corn.
from the March 20, 2002 edition
By Laurent Belsie | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ST. LOUIS - It's a border crossing of the worst kind. US
biotechnology has spread southward to Mexico, its effects showing
up in the native corn of remote southern villages. The high-tech
invasion may threaten the birthplace of corn, which is also a key
center of biodiversity.

That's the contention, anyway, of two scientists in the United
States who have touched off a firestorm.

Scientists around the globe are trading increasingly vitriolic
charges over the scientists' findings. Mexican activists claim
biotechnology has violated their natural heritage. And an
international research center in Mexico faces the unsavory
possibility of spending its entire biotech research budget to test
its gene banks for the offending material.

Can corn really be so controversial? Apparently so, when the
subject is bioengineering. The current corn clash shows how
quickly and unexpectedly genetically altered DNA can hop over
national borders. It also poses a new question for biotech crops:
If the new genetics invades its own cradle, will it weaken the old
genetics? Or will it, oddly, enhance it?

No one knows the answer yet.

The skirmish had its beginnings last September, when Mexico's
Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources announced it had
found native corn contaminated with bioengineered DNA. The
findings seemed to confirm what the two scientists had already
discovered in two remote locations of southern Mexico.

But when the scientists – microbial ecologist Ignacio Chapela and
graduate student David Quist, both of the University of California
at Berkeley – published their findings in the journal Nature in
November, the fireworks began.

'Biotech invasion'
One Greenpeace activist reportedly called the biotech invasion a
worse cultural attack than tearing down Oaxaca's cathedral to
build a McDonald's. Last month, the Mexican government enacted a
law threatening up to nine years in prison for anyone who
commercializes, stores, transports, or releases into the
environment a genetically modified organism.

Particularly surprising in the Berkeley study were the remote
locations where the altered DNA purportedly appeared. Not only had
Mexico banned the planting of such bioengineered corn in 1998, but
the affected native corn was growing many miles away from
commercial varieties.

How it got there – if it indeed did – remains a mystery. In fact,
many crop geneticists doubt it has. They don't like the testing
methodology that authors Quist and Chapela used. "Poor
experimental design and practices," Transgenic Research, a
scientific journal, editorialized.

"Clearly, what they were picking up were false positives," says
C.S. Prakash, professor of agricultural biotechnology at Tuskegee
University in Tuskegee, Ala.

Such criticisms unleashed further charges and countercharges.
"Pro-industry academics are engaging in a highly unethical
mud-slinging campaign against the Berkeley researchers," read a
statement from 144 nongovernmental organizations. The respected
and normally mild-mannered International Maize and Wheat
Improvement Center in Mexico weighed in with its own press release
decrying "the flamboyant and often misleading headlines that
dominate today's debate."

Nearly lost in the furor is the key question raised by the
original study: What effect will bioengineered DNA have as it
spreads into the environment?

Scattered seeds
Scientists have long known that genes from their biotech crops
would scatter. What the study suggests is that they've moved
faster than expected and – perhaps – recombined in surprising

Quist argues that such findings call into question assumptions
about these genes behaving the same way whether they're in
predictable places, like Iowa, or unexpected places, like southern

"We are becoming aware that the most basic conceptions and
paradigms of genetic engineering have fatal flaws, which need to
be revisited if these concepts fail to stand up to scientific
rigor and new experimental evidence," he says.

But crop scientists insist they have taken a hard look at "gene
flow." The likelihood of spread is already being reduced by
mandated buffer zones and other planting regulations. And spread
isn't necessarily bad, they argue. After all, nature and
conventional breeders have moved and recombined genes for
thousands of years to create today's "natural" foods.

Even Mexico's native corn, at the center of the debate, represents
an ever-changing collection of genes, says Marilyn Warburton, a
molecular geneticist at the International Maize and Wheat
Improvement Center. Over time, genes move in and fall out
depending on which varieties local farmers choose to plant the
following year.

Dr. Warburton and other crop scientists doubt that altered DNA
poses much risk to Mexican corn, since farmers aren't likely to
select traits from corn bioengineered for other climates and other
pests. But everyone agrees more testing needs to be done.

"There shouldn't be a massive impact of this gene flow on
biodiversity," says Luis Herrera Estrella, director of the plant
biotech unit at Mexico's National Polytechnic Institute.
"Nevertheless, we should make a study to determine the possible

Meanwhile, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
has put Warburton in charge of testing its own gene banks for
evidence of the bioengineered corn. So far, the 125 varieties of
tested native corn show no signs of contamination. But that's only
1 percent of the holdings – and testing all of them, she says,
would eat up the center's biotech research budget.


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