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Biologically diverse gene flow is natural and expected, not "contamination"

Contact: C.S. Prakash, 334-633-1511, prakash@agbioworld.org

Tuskegee, AL March 1, 2002 - The AgBioWorld Foundation announced today that nearly one hundred prominent scientists have signed a petition calling for greater scrutiny of a report claiming that genes from genetically modified corn have spread into corn landraces in southern Mexico (see http://www.agbioworld.org/jointstatement.html).

The original research, conducted by University of California at Berkeley ecologists and published in the journal Nature, used sophisticated techniques that are highly prone to error. Three groups of university-based scientists, working independently, have examined the research data and found it to be erroneous. Each group has submitted formal letters to Nature questioning the study's validity. In addition, the editors of the journal Transgenic Research examined the data and have determined it to be "fundamentally flawed."

Despite the inadequacies and misrepresentations of this particular study, gene flow from biotechnology-improved corn, as with all corn, is most likely occurring at some frequency and will certainly be demonstrated and accurately characterized through further studies. However, if indeed gene flow is demonstrated, there is no reason to believe that it will threaten the diversity or vitality of Mexican landraces, and labeling gene flow as "contamination," as activists have done, is a misnomer and is a deliberate attempt to provide an emotional tone to a benign natural phenomenon.

Mexican landraces should not be confused with teosinte, the wild plant from which maize is thought to have been originally developed by humans over millennia. Far from being static, non-changing genetic entities, landraces are ever-changing due to human intervention -- in fact, they only exist because of human efforts. "Just as wild Mexican wolves are different from Chihuahuas, which have been bred for centuries, teosinte is vastly different from all cultivated maize, including landraces," said C.S. Prakash, Tuskegee University plant genetics professor and president of the AgBioWorld Foundation.

Mexican landraces of maize have always outcrossed with modern maize varieties. But far from being a threat to biodiversity, as has been claimed by activists and the flawed-study authors, it instead promotes diversity by allowing for the development of additional new varieties. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that transgenic hybrids would affect biodiversity more than any other hybrid. "If anything, gene flow would aid diversity by increasing variation," said Prakash.

Despite the fanfare and media buzz the flawed-study authors have created and encouraged, gene flow between biotechnology-improved maize varieties was publicly anticipated long ago by plant breeders and scientists and is no cause for alarm. In 1995, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) held a workshop on "Gene Flow Among Maize Landraces, Improved Maize Varieties, and Teosinte: Implications for Transgenic Maize," and CIMMYT scientists have transparently presented their findings, writing journal articles and giving presentations on related topics.

It is regrettable that Nature, the same publication that released the Monarch butterfly study - which activists use to this day to inaccurately discredit GM corn -- decided to publish these new claims. As with the Monarch report, which extensive review has demonstrated greatly exaggerated any risks to Monarchs, respected scientists now have shown significant flaws and exaggerated claims of harm with the Chapela and Quist research. Unfortunately, this latest activist-fueled scare campaign may have far worse consequences, as Mexican farmers will be the ones who ultimately suffer if denied the same technology that American farmers have successfully used for years.