Scientists Reject Mexican Maize Claims - Andrew Apel, AgBiotech Reporter,

    A paper published in November last year in the science magazine   Nature claiming that GM maize had interbred with native varieties of Mexican maize has sparked an uproar around the world and imperiled agricultural trade between Mexico and the US. It now appears that the paper, written by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, is so deeply flawed that it is virtually meaningless, and the science magazine which published it is suffering increasing embarrassment at the hands of critical scientists. The authors of the paper used tests prone to false positives to identify gene fragments "associated with" transgenes found in GM maize. However, these fragments are also found in common microbes and it is now generally agreed that the tests themselves, rather than Mexican maize, was "contaminated." Chapela is a professor of mycology at the University of California (Berkeley) and Quist, also at Berkeley, is pursuing a doctorate in environmental studies. Both are outspoken critics of GM crops, first coming to notice late in 1998 through their opposition to an agreement between Berkeley and the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute in the area of plant biology. A series of attacks on experimental crops at Berkeley began later that year, and Quist was suspected of taking part in one of them. The allegations were never proved.In October and November of 2000, Quist and Chapela trekked to the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca in Southern Mexico for the purpose of detecting transgenes, where they sampled whole cobs of native maize from four standing fields in two locations.

The two say they first detected the transgenic DNA in October 2000 while working with the Mycological Facility in Oaxaca, where Ignacio Chapela serves as the scientific director. Though Quist and Chapela claim this work is the basis of their article in Nature, the work was duplicated at Berkeley "to double-check the findings." According to Klaus Ammann, noted scientist and director of the Berne Botanical Garden, Chapela also had the maize tested by Urs Pauli of the Swiss Ministry of Health in March 2001. When the tests were complete, Pauli advised Chapela that the PCR tests he requested, designed to detect the 35S cauliflower mosaic virus promoter, are prone to false positives.  Nonetheless, authorities with Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Ecologia (INE) and the Instituto Politecnico Nacional (INP) were notified the following May that unnamed investigators with the Union Zapoteco-Chinanteca (UZACHI) and the University of California in Berkeley had detected transgenes in the native maize of Oaxaca.  The role the UZACHI played in the findings is as remarkable as it is unusual. The group, said to represent Mexican farmers, has close ties with Francisco Chapela, Ignacio Chapela's brother, who has an agricultural consulting business. This consulting business often shares the same telephone and postal address as the Mycological Facility in Oaxaca and through this consulting business, Francisco is interested in starting up a non-GM certification business. To verify the UZACHI's claims, Mexico's Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources (Secretar$B!)(J de Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca, or SEMARNAP) ordered further tests. It later reported that the "contamination" of native strains of maize had been reported by Ignacio Chapela and confirmed. However, those tests merely duplicated those carried out by Chapela, the tests prone to false positives.

After this announcement, Greenpeace joined the UZACHI in warning that transgenes had crossed into native Mexican maize. The Amsterdam-based group demanded that the Mexican government "develop an emergency plan," including "de-contamination" of Mexican maize, a halt on the import of transgenic maize, and legal action against companies responsible for "transgenetic organisms." This had little effect. However, a scientific paper was in the works.

On November 29, 2001, Greenpeace and the University of California both issued press releases calling attention to a paper published on the same date in Nature purporting to prove the presence of transgenes in native strains of Mexican maize. The paper, authored by Quist and Chapela, detailed the tests which led them to conclude "that there is a high level of gene flow from industrially produced [GM] maize towards populations of progenitor landraces." With that paper, the activists finally got the attention they had been seeking.

One week later, the Mexican Congress unanimously demanded that President Vincente Fox ban the import of GM maize. Fox declined to take that step, and the Mexican government ordered a new round of tests, the results of which are still pending.Activist groups increased their pressure, presenting a petition before the Mexico's Federal Attorney for Protection of the Environment, (PROFEPA) over the alleged transgenic maize. They claimed a failure to comply with several articles on the Convention on Biological Diversity, national environmental law, and the Vienna Convention on Treaties. They also demanded a ban on the import of GM maize. The petition was presented by the National Farmer's Association of Commercial Enterprises (ANEC), Greenpeace, the Environmental Studies Group (GEA), the Center for Study of Change in the Mexican Countryside (CECCAM), the National Union of Regional Organizations (UNORCA) and Alejandro Nadal, an investigator with the College of Mexico. With the possible exception of Greenpeace, it appears that all of the petitioning activist groups are subsidized by public funds: sources include the US and Dutch governments, the United Nations and the European Union.

Early in December 2001, scientists began submitting rebuttals of the Nature article to the magazine, and its editors responded by imposing a "blackout" on the scientists. This prevented the scientists from commenting publicly on their conclusions, namely, that the tests performed by Quist and Chapela were flawed to the point of uselessness. It also prevented them from speaking out against the activists who exploited the article mercilessly. Some Mexican farmers feared they would be prosecuted if their maize was found "contaminated," or that the government would order their crops burned. According to one report, "contaminated" maize was growing everywhere in Mexico, and that it was so aggressive that it even grew in concrete.

On the first of this year the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) reported that it had been unable to find transgenes anywhere in Mexico, neither in its extensive seedbank nor in samples newly collected from the field. Significantly, their tests were designed to detect the 35S promoter from the cauliflower mosaic virus-the same gene that Quist and Chapela claimed was widely present in Mexican maize. This lent credence to growing concerns that the Quist and Chapela findings were merely false positives. The report was ignored by the mainstream press and more activist groups joined the fray, some of them insisting that the CIMMYT seedbank itself was "contaminated."In the midst of the uproar, the scientific community remained largely silent, with the exception of the staff of the journal Transgenic Research. It published a scathing editorial dismissing the claims of Quist and Chapela and expressing surprise "that a manuscript with so many fundamental flaws was published in a scientific journal [Nature] that normally has very stringent criteria for accepting manuscripts for publication." The editorial also noted that members of the editorial board of Transgenic Research and "a number of other scientists with many decades of experience in the area of transgenics, have provided comments that indeed demonstrate that the data presented in the published article are mere artifacts resulting from poor   experimental design and practices."

In response, 89 activist groups and individuals collectively accused scientists critical of Chapela's research of "academic intimidation" and "a highly unethical mud-slinging campaign."This provoked tremendous response from scientists around the world, who denounced the claims of activists as "absurd," "annoying and insulting," and as using "flawed data and bad science to push an agenda forward." Nature also came increasingly under fire. "I find it outrageous that Nature refuses to discuss the scientific basis of the controversy," said Klaus Ammann. "Has Nature become a boulevard science journal altogether?"

A clear consensus is emerging among plant molecular biologists that the article by Quist and Chapela is inconclusive. Some have even suggested that the authors may have intentionally used testing procedures prone to false positives.

At the same time, a clear consensus is emerging that transgenes will eventually be found in native varieties of Mexican maize and that, contrary to Chapela's claims that "The probability is high that diversity is going to be crowded out by these genetic bullies," diversity will be unhurt by their presence. But that is another fiasco, for another day.

Compiled from sources too numerous to mention, but with special thanks to the contributors to AgBioView.


AgBiotech Expert Appointed to Top Position at FDA

I congratulate Dr. Les Crawford who has recently been named FDA  Deputy Commissioner and will be running the agency until a new head is named.

See below for the press release from HHS .

I had the pleasure of working with Les on many occasions and proud of

his new appointment.

- Prakash


Lester M. Crawford Jr. Named FDA Deputy Commissioner

HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson today named Lester M. Crawford Jr., D.V.M., Ph.D., to serve as deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Crawford begins in the position immediately.As deputy commissioner, Dr. Crawford will be the senior official at FDA, pending the installment of a permanent commissioner of food and drugs.