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The Cisgenic Hybrid Seed Conundrum

It is spring planting time, and most farmers are out planting seeds. The process of developing varieties of plant traits is as old as agriculture and farmers have been selecting seed from plants they like and replanting it for generations. They use open pollinated (OP) seed in this process, which in nature creates new varieties by spreading pollen to flowers randomly. When grown in isolation from cross-pollination with different same species, however, OP methods 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 and have been handed down by seed savers for many years.

But since the industrialization of farming, farmers and gardeners have increasingly handed that seed breeding role over to companies that specialize in the genetics of seeds.

The monk Gregor Mendel was the first to get a scientific understanding of seed genetics a generation before the end of the 19th century. His work was discovered at about the turn of the century and in the 1920s Henry A. Wallace (later Ag. Secretary & Vice President under FDR) perfected the process of hybridizing seed – carefully crossing two different parent varieties and producing a new hybrid variety.

The first step in producing hybrids is to breed inbreds. These plants are crossed with themselves for many generations and they become highly uniform genetically. When two different inbreds are crossed with each other the first generation of hybrid seed produced by the cross (the f1 generation) often exhibits uniformity and special size, taste, earliness, or other desirable traits because of “hybrid vigor” or the tendency of that generation to exhibit the best traits of the parents. If the product of planting f1 seed is replanted for an f2 generation, however, the old parental traits recur and the product is neither uniform nor desirable.

Because many plants are hermaphroditic and have both male and female parts, it is crucial to the process of hybridizing to produce a female parent line that is “male sterile” or does not contain viable male gametes. Then, when crossed with another line, all the viable pollen comes from the second parent line. One common way to create male sterility is to do it through the cytoplasm, the non-nuclear material that fills a cell and is inherited only maternally through the mitochondria or plastid genome. This is termed Cytoplasmic Male Sterility or CMS.

This trait of hybrids to not breed true was quite valuable to seed breeders because farmers could no longer save seed for a new generation, but had to come back to the breeder each year and buy a new supply of this valuable f1 hybrid seed. When Wallace started, virtually no corn seed was hybridized, but by the 1940s, 90% of it was, mostly by Wallace’s own company, making him quite wealthy.

For the last couple of decades, however, since the US Supreme Court allowed the patenting of life forms, the momentum in the US seed market has been held by the biotechnology companies with their genetically engineered, transgenic seeds. Transgenic seeds have DNA from a totally different species spliced into them – say a flounder gene spliced into a strawberry. They could never have existed in nature as they could not have been produced by natural breeding.

But a non-transgenic seed breeding technology has been gaining interest among the biotechnologists. Cisgenic (meaning within the same genetic family) hybrid seeds are produced by means that many consider unnatural and offensive. Should these be treated as GMOs and prohibited in organic agriculture? Opinions differ on this and the question needs to be discussed far more widely within the organic community.

Cisgenic seed cell fusion is a biotechnical process using mutagenesis (the creation of mutations) in which the nucleus is removed from a plant cell and replaced by a mutated nucleus from a different plant within the same botanical family. Chemicals and radiation are used in the process to stimulate the mutations. This creates a hybrid plant containing the mitochondrial and chloroplast DNA from one cell and the nuclear DNA from a different one. Cell fusion can also involve protoplast or somatic fusion – meaning the nuclear DNA from two or more plants from the same family are fused so the resulting seed contains DNA from both.

Hybrid seeds were first developed with induced mutagenesis in the early 20th century to possess disease resistance and features to increase yields. Since the 1950’s cell fusion hybrid techniques have evolved from random treatment with chemical/electrical/radiation stimulation to a site-direct mutagenesis process targeting specific genes with “marker assisted breeding”.

This targeted mutation, known as genome editing, uses tools including complex protein structures called “zinc fingers,” or meganucleases, that can selectively insert or silence genes in crop species and induce errors in DNA repair to stimulate mutations. This shortens development time for crops by years, compared to working with traditional breeding and open pollinated seed.

According to a 11/21/2013 news report by Business Week, industry experts say 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 genetic engineering. The article quotes Paul Schickler, president of DuPont’s Pioneer seed unit as saying “There is not a black line between biotechnology and non-biotechnology, it’s a continuum.”

Business Week also cites reports from the National Academy of Sciences, representing the consensus of experts in the field, saying that the risk of creating unintended health effects is greater from mutagenesis than any other technique, including genetic modification. Mutagenesis deletes and rearranges hundreds or thousands of genes randomly, spawning mutations that are less precise than GMOs. The academy has warned that regulating genetically modified crops, while giving a pass to mutant products, isn’t scientifically justified.

In addition to the regulatory-free environment they operate in, the magazine suggests mutant crops are also gaining in popularity because they’re cheaper to produce. Monsanto spends anywhere from $150 million to $200 million to launch a single genetically engineered product. Japan, by comparison, invested $69 million from 1959 to 2001 on mutant breeds that yielded $62 billion worth of products over that period, according to data from the United Nations’ Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture program.

“These difficulties in getting a GMO to the market, we don’t have in mutation breeding,” says Pierre Lagoda, who heads up the UN program. That’s spurred even more interest in the mutant varieties, he says. In 2013 alone, Lagoda’s program has received requests to help irradiate a record 31 plant species ranging from sugar beets from Poland to potatoes from Kenya.

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, according to company filings in Canada, reported Bloomberg News in a 11/13/2013 article.

“This has been a technique used for many decades without issue, without concern,” Jonathan Bryant, a BASF vice president was quoted as saying in the Bloomberg news report.

Overall the debate over whether cell fusion and mutagenesis in seed production are genetic engineering has caused confusion and conflicting answers in the organic community. In organic farming transgenic genetic engineering (GE) is banned, but cisgenic seed created by the cell fusion process is permitted under USDA organic regulations. By international organic certification standards, however, established by The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) cell fusion is classified as genetic engineering.

“Cell-fusion is a controversial topic,” says John Navazio, Senior Scientist with the Organic Seed Alliance and Washington State Univ. Extension Specialist in Organic Seed. “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 brassica varieties.”

“Several of the large production research seed companies that produce organic seed,” he continues, “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.”

“We do know that Monsanto/Seminis are getting into the ‘organic’ seed line,” says Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition and National Organic Action Plan. “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. Organic has a long way to go to clarify the definition of GE as an excluded method, 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).”

Organic seed companies have taken mixed positions on the use of cisgenic cell fusion seeds in organic production.

“At this time we know of 4 varieties we offer that were developed using these techniques. ‘Gypsy’, ‘Diplomat’, and ‘Imperial’ broccoli and ‘Denali’ cauliflower, said Paul Gallione, technical services technician at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. “CMS is a USDA NOP (national organic program) approved practice at this time and we at Johnny’s will be in tune to any new developments in that arena.”

High Mowing Organic Seeds, an organic seed company based in Wolcott, Vermont, bans the sale of hybrid seeds produced by cell fusion to manipulate plant DNA.

“We do not support or sell cisgenic CMS cell fusion seeds as we believe the process is the same as GMO”, says Tom Furber, general manager of High Mowing Organic Seeds.

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,” he says. “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.”

Politically, in Europe and the US the debate of whether the process of using cell fusion in seed production is genetic engineering comes down to looking at the issue in a product-oriented or process-oriented perspective.

Klaus-Peter Wilbois is head of the agriculture division at the German office of The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, FiBL.

“In the private organic farming sector as outlined in the IFOAM standards,” he says, “a process-oriented approach prevails. Therefore the use of genetic engineering lab techniques is not in compliance with principals of organic farming.”

Legally, however, 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 GMOs.

“For instance,” Wilbois continues, “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).”

Right now, farmers wanting to avoid genetically engineered seed and protect their crop’s organic integrity have no way of knowing if their seeds are cisgenic. If the campaign to ban genetically engineered 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. As organic farmers, we need to be ready to offer our thoughts on this to our colleagues, our customers, and our certifiers.

Donald Sutherland and his wife Laura Davis are USDA organic certified farmers in Hopkinton, MA. Donald is a freelance writer and a member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.