GURT big mess

When are the knee-jerk opponents of genetically modified crops going to realize that genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs) are their friends?1

The latest gusher of drivel comes from the International Institute for Environment and Development, which really ought to know better. In a press release designed to ride the intense interest swirling aound the World Seed Conference, which opened at FAO yesterday, IIED “researchers” point out that:

in order to continue conserving and adapting their varieties, farmers also need to be allowed to freely save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. Technologies which restrict these customary rights — namely Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTS) — pose a very serious threat to genetic diversity, seed quality and the livelihoods of poor farmers.

New readers (and IIED researchers) should start here. GURTs (there are a couple of different kinds) are bits of DNA that are intended to prevent any seed that contains them from germinating and growing.

Why?

So that farmers cannot save their own seeds.

Which farmers?

Farmers who choose to buy the seeds that contained the GURTs because they think that those seeds offer them valuable advantages over other seeds.

Why?

Because a company invested a sackload of money in developing a variety. So the company is going to do two things to recoup its investment, and more. It must persuade farmers to buy the seed. And it must stop everyone else from making use of the investment without paying for it.

So far, note, this is nothing to do with GURTs, which in any case are not currently permitted in seed anywhere. It is one good reason why seed companies like to produce F1 hybrids. The seeds of an F1 hybrid are no good to the farmer who wants the same performance from the seeds she saved as from the seeds she paid for. In that sense, GURTs are a logical extension of the desire of seed breeding companies to protect their investment. You can save the seeds of an F1, but those F2 seeds are not a replica of the F1. The company wins, although canny breeders can easily dehybridize the hybrids, and even farmers can benefit from the flow of interesting genes into their crops.

Now, whereas F1 hybrids produce pollen that can indeed pollute the seeds of a neighbouring farmer exercising her right to freely save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed, GURTs actually prevent this kind of pollution. Any seed fertilized by pollen from a GURTed plant is effectively dead.

GURTs thus stop any characters bred into a GMO from being transferred into another variety of the same crop and into the crop’s wild relatives.

So, IIED, remind me, please: why is that a bad thing?

Does it stop the farmer saving seeds? On the contrary, it makes life easier, because the farmer does not have to worry about genetic pollution. She can, of course, still take advantage of good pollution, or introgression, if she wants to.

Does it stop her using farm-saved seed? No, how could it, when any polluted seeds are going to fail to grow. It makes using the farm-saved seed more secure.

Can she still exchange and sell farm-saved seed? You bet, and not only that, but her customers and swap-partners will be grateful that her seeds cannot possibly be polluted.

Opponents of GURTs seem to think that massive influxes of foreign pollen are the norm. They’re not. And I certainly wouldn’t want to accept, even as a gift, seed from someone who knew so little about farming and seed saving that they couldn’t even maintain their own varieties. Cross pollination from a different field is a fascinating and rare source of diversity in farmers’ fields, not the norm. GURTs pose absolutely no threat to farm-saved seed. In fact, I believe that they can enhance genetic diversity (by maintaining the separation between varieties), improve seed quality (for the same reasons) and have no impact at all on the livelihoods of poor farmers.

I hold no brief for or against GMOs, though I do think they have yet to prove themselves in the areas where they make the loudest claims. This is not about GMOs. It is about honesty. Any opponent of GMOs, however good the rest of their arguments might be, immediately loses my respect if they are also against GURTs.

  1. I’ve asked before, here, here and here, and never received even an unsatisfactory reply. But I’m willing to try again. []

15 Replies to “GURT big mess”

  1. I do have a few objections to the Delta and Land style GURT that was developed (which I elaborate on in my post Gene flow, IP, and the terminator). However, I don’t think that most people who are against GURTs have actually bothered to learn about GURTs in that much depth, and if they had, I doubt they know enough about the biology to know that the problems are solvable.

    Thanks very much for writing this.

  2. It’s frankly hard to respect someone who will ‘immediately lose respect’ for others simply because they hold opposing opinions. The pros and cons of GURTs may well be debatable, but their implicit value is certainly no ‘law’ of the universe. Therefore opinions of them, either pro or con, are valid and should be respected regardless of one’s position.

    Thanks

    1. People are free to hold whatever opinions they like. I myself am firmly of the opinion that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is as good an explanation of the Universe as any other supernatural being.

      I’m not talking about opinions. I am talking about the ways in which GURTs work and the ways in which seed-saving works.

      Maybe you, Jack, can help me to understand the mechanisms through which GURTs threaten farmers. I’m honestly open to persuasion. Show me either a thought experiment or a real one and I will give it due consideration. Meanwhile, as I said, if you’re opposed to GMOs, which you have every right to be, don’t bring GURTs into it, because to do so undermines your standing, at least in my eyes.

  3. I don’t understand why someone is entitled to have an opinion but someone else is not entitled to have the opinion that the first person’s opinion is not worthy of respect.

    1. Recently, and out of desperation, I have had to fall back on a quote from Alan Greenspan: “I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.” Why is it that this happens so frequently in association with the topic of this post?

  4. I don’t think you would have needed to write this post if the authors of the piece you quote had appended the proviso “…if the farmers had abandoned their traditional varieties in favour of the GURT usupers.”

    Unfortunately, it seems that public perception of GURTs (as evidenced by Terminator technologies) damns them as the worst sort of GMOs because they smuggle in a seemingly malign dependence on the “big bad guys”. Contentious stuff, but it’s difficult to put down conspiracy theories in this domain.

    1. Thanks Kevin, and of course you are absolutely right. But seriously, do you think that’s what they mean, but forgot to write?

      I find it hard to believe that anyone who fights for and understands small farmers on the margins of society would think that they might be a target for the companies that would like to sell seeds containing GURTs. Maybe, I suppose, but really, how much of a market would those farmers represent?

      Anyway, if you’re right, and I start seeing provisos like that, I promise I’ll consider thinking about supporting them.

  5. I wanted to weigh in on some interesting contradictions with regard to GURTs as well. If it is bad to have a built-in biological requirement that forces farmers to continually purchase seeds for a crop year after year, when traditionally they were able to save and regrow, it leads to some interesting necessary conclusions.

    Therefore anyone opposing transgenic GURTS must also oppose seedless watermelons derived through polyploidy. By the very nature of triploid watermelons, which are generated artificially from induced tertraploids crossed with diploids, you cannot save seeds from them… because they are seedless. If someone made a transgenic seedless watermelon, it would be the same sort of thing. So when it is derived through one method it is perfectly ok, but another method and it is evil?

    Another interesting contradiction that I note is that anti-GE proponents often say that transgenic crops are risky because they can cross-pollinate and contaminate other people’s seeds. As Jeremy points out, then they should be in favor of GURTs because they would for the most part prevent this from happening. The demand for near-100% separation is encouraging the development of GURTs to solve this ‘problem.’

    Finally, there is a really bizarre notion going around. That GURTs would spread around the world and kill of traditional varieties. This goes against the basic biology involved. If it produces infertile seeds, it cannot spread.

    1. I have gotten more and more alarmed over the past few years at the level of hostility found among many well-educated, progressive people, to the very concept of intellectual property rights in plants (as in people owning rights to plant varieties, not plants themselves holding patents, which I’m not sure I’m cool with either). On some level I take this really personally, because it almost seems like its saying, basically, that what I do as a plant breeder has no real value. Why else would it be absolutely okay for everybody to share freely in the products of my labor?

      These same people generally have no problem with the idea of patents for, say, car parts, or hard drives, or toaster ovens. But there’s this idea that since nature invented strawberries, then I can take no credit for any variety of them I might generate (or “discover”, as one person pointedly informed me was the best I could do, as I could not actually create new strawberries myself).

      Especially now that many of the public breeding programs have been essentially gutted, if not discontinued entirely, we’re stuck with the same system which more or less works okay for, say, car parts, hard drives, and toaster ovens. That’s capitalism, and while it has its faults, it’s what we’ve got, and if people want to pretend that it doesn’t apply to plant breeding, pretty soon there won’t be plant breeding, at least not to any serious, expensive extent.

      Sorry, just felt like griping. I’m biased, of course, but I kind of feel like plant breeders don’t get their due in our society…

  6. No, no… Definitely not. Sorry if I implied that. Plant breeders get plenty of love over here.

    I’d had a few conversations that week that had me steaming a little, and I was venting a little, I think.

    No, my point was that I think a fair amount of the hostility towards GURTs stems from a general hostility towards plant IPR’s. Compound that with the hostility towards transgenics that’s out there as well, and you have a technology pretty much guaranteed to upset people. (I actually think a not insignificant chunk of the hostility towards transgenics also stems from the fact many people are uncomfortable with the idea of people owning it, but maybe that’s a different conversation).

  7. Your analysis does not consider that the GURT that drifts into the neighbor’s seed stock means a great deal of his seed for the next year will not be viable, making planting a nightmare.

    1. What crop are you speaking of? To my knowledge – feel free to correct me – the pollen of most crops falls close to the plant. Sure, some grains will travel into neighboring fields, but not “a great deal”, certainly not enough to “make planting a nightmare”.

    2. Dear Joe

      Actually, it does consider exactly the point you think it does not, in the paragraph that I am quoting below, for your convenience:

      Opponents of GURTs seem to think that massive influxes of foreign pollen are the norm. They’re not. And I certainly wouldn’t want to accept, even as a gift, seed from someone who knew so little about farming and seed saving that they couldn’t even maintain their own varieties. Cross pollination from a different field is a fascinating and rare source of diversity in farmers’ fields, not the norm. GURTs pose absolutely no threat to farm-saved seed. In fact, I believe that they can enhance genetic diversity (by maintaining the separation between varieties), improve seed quality (for the same reasons) and have no impact at all on the livelihoods of poor farmers.

      In the wake of scares about pollen drift from GMOs there are actually scads of studies that measure it in different ways and under different circumstances for different crops.

      Some day I might feel like reviewing some of those, but in the meantime, please tell me where you get the idea that “a great deal of … seed” could be affected by GURT-containing pollen.

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