A Biologist Fights Back Against Big Biotech
Dr. Jane Doe is a biologist who works on crop evolution, genetics, and improvement at a major university. She asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of her work. Dr. Doe talked to Green American editor-in-chief Tracy Fernandez Rysavy about her research into stronger, better hybrid seeds, how they compare to GMOs, and how biotech companies have tried to stand in her way.
Green America/TRACY: We can’t talk specifically about your work with crop improvement, because it’s so unique and needs to be protected. Would you give our readers a general sense of what your research entails?
Dr. Doe: My work uses conventional hand-pollination techniques to move genes from wild relatives into crop plants to create new lines that are eco-friendly, cause no harm to human health, and are as hardy and strong as the biotech companies promise their GMOs are. These wide-cross varieties have native pest resistance, native drought tolerance, and many other native traits that make a great product with great yields and are well adapted for sustainable agriculture. We can do it better than industrial agriculture with genetic engineering.
TRACY: Most people didn’t even know about genetic engineering technology back in the ’90s when it was first being introduced, but you’ve been skeptical since the beginning. What made you so cautious?
Dr. Doe: I’m a geneticist. Back in 1996, I knew the details of how genetic engineering works and knew there were a lot of possibilities for harm. Most people have no clue, because they do not understand the science involved in genetic engineering.
Our genomes are designed to be stable and keep out bacteria and viruses to keep us healthy and whole. You have to understand when you’re working with genomes, when you insert DNA into a chromosome, it causes all kinds of shifts in the genome. Biotech companies don’t just put an alien gene, also referred to as a transgene, in a plant, for example. When they insert a gene in the lab, it includes a whole cassette of foreign DNA that goes in with it. It has insertion sequences that come from viruses or bacteria. It has antibiotic-resistant reporter genes. It has promoters that will ramp up transgene production so the level of the toxin in the GMO plant is many hundredfold times anything that would ever occur in nature.
We’ve never created any regulations around GMOs that address the genomic changes that occur from use of transgene technology, what effects the movement of transgenes have within genomes or into other crops, wild plants, bacteria, and the human gut. There’s no independent research on GMOs —only test data generated by the companies themselves that they report to the federal government to satisfy the loosely defined “substantial equivalent” guideline. We have no idea whether GMOs are safe or not. This is huge to me! What are we doing?
If you look at data, the increase in food allergies in children, gluten sensitivities, leaky gut, and other immune-related health problems corresponds precisely with the proliferation of GMOs. I suspect eating these products is having an impact on our health. If we could really do independent research, I am confident we’d see some major things going on. And it’s exacerbated by the fact that GMOs are tied to more harmful chemicals going into environment.
|GMO seedlings in an environmental growth chamber.
TRACY: You had your own problems with an allergy to GMO corn.
Dr. Doe: Yes. The biotech companies say, “Oh, there’s no problem with our GMOs. They’re not allergenic.” But I grew out some GMO plants when my state’s agriculture department asked me to provide samples for their exhibit at the state fair. We grew the plants in a greenhouse. When I went in to make pollinations, I went into anaphylactic shock and had to be rushed to the hospital. The doctor said, “You’re allergic to the pollen, and your career working with this crop is over.”
But we did a skin test using GMO pollen and non-GMO pollen, and it was obvious I was only allergic to something in the GMO pollen. I have seen the same thing at a biotechnology company: A man who was working in the greenhouses was literally so allergic to the GMO plants, he had to take medication and completely suit up before he could go inside. I’ve seen other greenhouse workers who get sick when they go in to care for transgenic plants and scientists who wear masks and gloves when working with GMO plants because they know they are allergic. This makes me suspect a lot of people may have allergic reactions to GMOs, but without labeling, doctors cannot trace health problems related to GMO exposure.
TRACY: The reason we can’t talk in depth about your work is that you have experienced some negative push-back from the big biotech companies. Can you tell our readers about some of it?
Dr. Doe: I had a collaborative grant from a scientific foundation with matching funds from a big life sciences company involved in biotechnology. The life sciences company didn’t come through with its funding commitment—it turned out there was a high-level executive blocking it. This kept me from ever getting a product to market. One of the scientists in the company told me they had been stringing me along to keep my non GMO technology off the market. We were going to sue for breach of contract, but a lawyer advised they’d countersue and tie up my technology for years.
TRACY: This wasn’t your only experience with sabotage.
Dr. Doe: I developed an agreement with a mid-size seed company that paid an annual fee for access to my genetics to create commercial hybrids for sale. The first year the company tested my lines, it hired outside farmers to grow them. I got a call telling me the farmer had driven his tractor over my plants, and only my plants, within this huge field. They thought the plants were destroyed, but then they bounced back up! They were very hardy survivors!
The next year, the farmer who was growing out the materials again for the company went in and sprayed my plot with herbicide. Then we discovered my plants were naturally resistant to the herbicide he used.
TRACY: The million-dollar question is, were these accidents?
Dr. Doe: Since it only happened to my plants, it seemed pretty obvious it was not accidental. We later found out that another biotech company had paid the farmer to get rid of my crop, but subtly. [The sabotage] would have worked except my plants were so resilient.
Tracy: Biotech companies seem to have a troubling amount of control over the US seed supply. How bad is it?
Dr. Doe: The strategic plan of the large chemical companies has been to take over the seed industry, so they started buying up foundation and other seed companies.
Examples are the Monsanto buy-out of DeKalb, and Dupont’s purchase of Pioneer Hi bred. The business plan has been to convert all of the seed to patented GMOs and force the public to buy the GMO seeds that are tied to the company’s chemicals. The medium-sized seed production company I mentioned earlier started getting squeezed financially more and more. By our fourth year of working together, it was having to pay such high tech fees for the GMO traits from Monsanto and other biotech companies, it could not make a profit and was forced to sell its business to one of the chemical giants. I saw this coming and wanted my genetics to stay completely non-GMO, so we parted ways.
TRACY: Can you explain how the “inbred” seed technology works, and how seed companies have ownership of it? This seems to be at the heart of the problem when it comes to these seed company buyouts.
Dr. Doe: The commodity seed that’s sold to farmers every year is an F1 hybrid that gives big yields from hybrid vigor. To produce a hybrid, you have to have two inbred lines, which are proprietary. It takes many years to develop a true breeding inbred.
Because of inbreeding depression, elite inbreds are usually small and wimpy. So the challenge for the plant breeder is to find two inbreds that, when you cross them through natural pollination, make a good hybrid—give the best agronomic performance and yield.
In the past, foundation seed companies sold inbred seed with a license agreement, and you’d have to pay a royalty if you used one of their inbreds in a commercial hybrid. The inbred combinations that make up commercial hybrids are every company’s trade-secret. Companies obtain patents or Plant Variety Protection Act (PVP) certification on their hybrids and proprietary inbreds.
Now, companies like Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Pioneer, Dow, and Bayer Crop Science have bought out most of foundation seed companies and smaller seed producers, and are primarily selling GMO seed and the chemicals that go with it. There are very few seed companies that sell non-GMO seed any more.
|GMO cotton farm in South Africa.
TRACY: How do scientists like yourself obtain inbreds to create non-GMO hybrids, then?
Dr. Doe: The PVP certification has expired on a lot of old elite inbred lines, and you can get seed of those lines through the USDA germplasm bank. That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s how smaller companies can access inbred lines to make non-GMO hybrid seed to sell. What’s interesting lately is that as inbreds come off PVP, USDA often refers you to request seed from Monsanto or another company assigned the certification. Corporations are savvy in how they try to protect business interests.
It’s getting harder and harder to get good non-GMO inbreds for making hybrid seed. Today there are fewer and fewer independent seed companies. Many of the ones that still exist sell GMO seed. The big companies have converted almost all of their materials to GMO.
One big company that used to sell non-GMO seed is selling less and less. From what one of the company scientist told me, I suspect it can’t maintain the purity of the non GMO lines because of GMO cross-contamination in genetic nurseries and production fields.
TRACY: What are your options now for getting your hybrids to market?
Dr. Doe: One option would be to form a seed production company and develop new hybrid seed for sale. But getting it to market in the US would be challenging, because biotech companies control most seed distributors, and they aren’t going to sell my seed.
One distributor told me he couldn’t sell my non-GMO seed. He was afraid the biotech companies whose products he sold would put too much pressure on him and shut him down. They have a lot of power over the supply chain. It’s a bad situation. There are some small seed companies that sell non-GMO and organic seed. If consumer demand for non-GMO goes way up, there may not be enough non-GMO seed supply to meet demand. That scenario could increase opportunities for me to partner with US seed companies that sell non-GMO seed.
Another option is working with seed companies in Europe and other countries where there is high demand for non-GMO seed.
TRACY: You’ve turned your back on lucrative offers from the biotech industry to buy your technology. Any regrets?
Dr. Doe: I sometimes have regrets. gave up a lot of money when I walked away from a particularly lucrative offer from a big biotechnology company. But I know I’ve stayed true to what I believe.
I’ve seen a lot hard data that raise red flags about the safety of GMOs, and I really question whether GMO food is good for people, for the future, for children’s health. I’ve seen lots of scientific evidence that proves we can grow all the food the world needs with non-GMO seed. I know that the arguments companies make for their GMO technologies are false and misleading the public. I couldn’t die in peace, I couldn’t face my maker if I sold out to those guys. I’m doing what I believe is right.