A GMO Conundrum: Organic Mutagenic/Cell Fusion Hybrid Seeds are Genetically Engineered

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 Agricultural 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.

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