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This weekend I listened to the webinar broadcast of the Organic Seed Growers Conference 2014. One of the sessions was titled: 'Unpacking the Cell Fusion Debate'. I touched on this topic in a previous blog on landrace gardening, and promised to return to it at a later time. Seems like now would be appropriate.
What is Cell Fusion?
Cell fusion is a genetic engineering process in which the nucleus is removed from a plant cell and replaced by a nucleus from a different plant that might be from a different species or genera. This creates a new plant with mixed genetics. It contains the mitochondrial and chloroplast DNA from one cell and the nuclear DNA from a different one. This is typically done for the purpose of creating cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS), which allows hybrids to be created reliably and inexpensively, and prevents anyone other than the seed company from recreating the variety. This process is also called somatic fusion or protoplast fusion. The plants created by using this technology are sometimes called transgenic cybrids.
Is Cell Fusion Compatible With Organic Standards?
The discussion at the conference centered around whether it is appropriate to use this sort of genetic engineering in Certified Organic production of fruits and vegetables, and how the industry might adapt if the standards are changed. Cell fusion technology is currently being used extensively in the production of both organic and conventional foods. I have been writing about this topic since 2011. Now that it has gained national attention at a major conference attended by many of the prominent players in the organic seed movement we can expect to see it become a common topic of conversation. It is likely that the USDA's National Organic Program will be asking for public comment on the issue.
Who is Affected?
As things currently stand, buyers of organic food, and of hybrid organic seed may not be able to determine whether or not the plants are derived from genetically engineered ancestors. Growing non-hybrid seed is currently the most reliable way to avoid growing plants created via cell fusion genetic engineering.
Seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge may want to re-evaluate their hybrid seed offerings to make sure that they are honoring their promises in light of the new understanding of this topic. I would like to see signers of the safe seed pledge providing details about how their hybrids were created: Especially regarding the brassicas, alliums, chenopods, and umbifers. Some of these types of hybrids may also be made using self-incompatibility. It would be nice to know which are which. I would like to see the release of a Safe Seed Pledge 2.0 which generally bans the use of cytoplasmic male sterility and specifically bans cell fusion genetic engineering.
There may be disruptions in the availability of seed if the industry consensus determines that cell fusion technology does not belong in organic agriculture. Large-scale growers might want to start planning now in order to avoid uncertainty later on. Small-scale growers can avoid transgenic cybrids by not planting hybrids.
A Muddled Mess
Now for the part where it gets confusing. Cytoplasmic male sterility has been known for a long time. In some species it may be obtained by natural means. Onions are an example. Hybrid onions are grown extensively. The parent varieties were probably created using the naturally occurring sterility. But what if some hybrid onion varieties were created via genetic engineering? How would the average grower or even seed company be able to tell which is which? The seed companies haven't been forthcoming with that type of information. Cell fusion genetic engineering allowed the creation of hybrid broccoli (and other brassicas) by combining a broccoli nucleus with radish organelles. These types of genetically modified organisms are extremely common in the grocery stores, even in the organic aisle. The same type of sterility traits might be obtained by natural means or might only be obtainable by genetic engineering, with all sorts of in-between states.
For my own purposes on my own farm I have determined that cytoplasmic male sterility is not compatible with organic standards regardless of whether it originated naturally or via genetic engineering. It seems wrong to me to intentionally grow defective plants if alternatives are readily available. I'm guessing that won't be a popular stance among regulators and large-scale growers, but it's likely to be favored by small-scale growers and by end users of organic food and seeds. For now cell fusion GMO seeds are most easily avoided by not planting hybrid seeds.
The organic food and seed industry is faced with a decision about whether to continue business as usual by using hybrids derived from cell fusion genetic engineering or to come clean, resolve mistakes made in the past, and get on with providing the kind of food and seeds that people expect from “Certified Organic” and the Safe Seed Pledge.
On my own farm I bypass this issue by constantly screening for cell fusion and naturally occurring male sterility and eliminating it. I make whatever sacrifices or investments necessary to create and maintain crops with perfectly functioning male and female flower parts. This allows my crops to become locally adapted through survival-of-the-fittest and farmer directed selection. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.
In my next blog I will explore cytoplasmic male sterility from the point of view of a home grower saving their own seeds.
Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.