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Broccoli sex is controversial. Especially organic broccoli sex.

That’s because new gene editing technologies developed in the last 10 years have forced organic plant breeders, certification bodies and farmers to re-examine techniques commonly used to breed the Lorax-like plants. These techniques are banned in organic agriculture, a decision that’s forced the community to deepen its commitment to the social and economic values underpinning the agricultural technique, according to a new paper by researchers at UBC.

“For this community, there are many aspects of how this technology is used and what it actually does that is against their values,” said Susanna Klassen, co-author of the paper and a PhD student at the University of British Columbia studying food system sustainability.

Those values — fairness, and care — are central, if lesser known, parts of organic certification. They’re included in the legislated standards established by Canadian and American organic certification bodies for agriculture, and help clarify what receives certification when the science exists in a grey area.

Organic certification reflects social and economic values in addition to ecological ones. (Photo: USDA)

Broccoli is one of the best-known vegetables with origins in this scientific haze. That’s because the seed for some commercial varieties is inbred, explained Jim Myers, a professor at the University of Oregon and one of three broccoli breeders at public institutions in the United States.

Inbreeding means crossing two plants that share the same DNA. Usually it is avoided, with increased genetic diversity essential to plant and animal health. But in commercial seed production, plant breeders will create inbred varieties that produce specific features sought out by farmers and consumers — for instance tall stems, open florets, or more durability.

Breeders will grow strains of broccoli in isolated plots, ensuring that the plants — all of which have both male and female reproductive organs and are genetically related — only breed with their genetic relatives. This creates mutations, and if the breeder wants to keep or enhance them, they will eliminate plants that don’t have those features from the plot. Over time, this process will refine the variety’s genetic code.

Once several strains of inbred broccoli with specific features have been created, the breeder will have to complete a final cross between two inbred varieties.

This is called an F1 hybrid, Myers explained, and can only be achieved if the male part — the pollen — of one variety pollinate another variety. As all broccoli usually have male and female reproductive organs and can pollinate themselves, this cross can only be achieved if the male part of one variety is sterile.

That’s where things get complicated.

Broccoli sex is controversial. Especially organic broccoli sex. That’s because new gene editing technologies developed in the last ten years have forced organic plant breeders, certification bodies, and farmers to re-examine techniques commonly used
Broccoli seeds are tiny and can be tricky to breed. (Photo: Craig Dietrich/Flickr)

One technique for fusing the cells of two different species is a technique called protoplast fusion. At some point in their genetic ancestry, plants created this way were reduced down to individual cells, which were then fused with cells from a different species and regrown into a full, hybrid plant.

“That process of using ... protoplast fusion is where you crossed the line in terms of techniques that are not allowed by organic, at least in the U.S. by the National Organic Program Standard,” Myers said.

The problem was that these new regulations were implemented over the past decade, a timely response to new gene editing techniques, but years after broccoli varieties created using this technique had been integrated into commercial organic agriculture.

The new rules meant that broccoli growers could suddenly lose their organic certification and, because organic produce fetches a higher price, most of their income.

In recognition of this problem, the advisory bodies that help the Canadian and American governments set organic certification standards created an exception for broccoli and other crops with similar ancestries.

Still, the new regulations raised questions. Everyone agreed the new technologies should be banned. But why?

“One thing, to be clear, organic agriculture is not anti-technology,” Klassen said.

Rather, the sector wants to consider the overall benefits innovations can bring to people and the environment. That means certification bodies will also look at whether farmers or large corporations own new innovations, how much farmers will need to pay to access them, and whether they support industrial or biodynamic farms.

Gene editing has never met these standards.

The first genetically engineered organism — a bacterium — was created in 1973. By 1994, commercial scientists had created a GMO tomato by inserting a genetic sequence from another species into the plant.

The first commercial GMO plant was a tomato. It would soon be followed by major crops such as wheat, corn and soy. (Photo: Pikist.com)

It was the first genetically modified crop to be commercially sold, and a watershed moment in the development of GMO crops as large agricultural companies such as Monsanto developed pesticide-resistant plants that could be grown at industrial scale and patented.

Farmers, consumers, plant breeders and other activists were horrified.

Beyond potential health impacts from these new crops, they were concerned that patented plants would infect traditionally bred seeds — a cross that could open up farmers inadvertently growing this seed to intellectual property violation lawsuits. Using the new seed also forced farmers to adopt an agricultural model where seeds, fertilizers and pesticides were all controlled by the same company.

Fierce resistance successfully banned plants created using these early genetic modification techniques from organic certification in North America.

In 2013, new forms of genetic engineering were created that reignited this debate, the most common of them being CRISPR-Cas9. Instead of introducing genetic material from one organism into another of a different species, these techniques allowed scientists to directly edit a cell’s genetic code.

That creates an artificial mutation that, from a strictly scientific perspective, isn’t too different from one achieved in traditional breeding. For broccoli, it could theoretically be used to sterilize the unwanted pollen or develop other features that might speed up the breeding process, Myers said.

Still, that isn’t enough to make it eligible for certification.

“Organic is one of the few agricultural areas that has its own philosophical basis, and that’s really the rationale for why something like gene editing would not be allowed,” he said.

It’s a position Klassen and her co-authors say was consistently heard from participants in their research.

“There are many aspects of how this technology is used, and what it actually does that is against their values,” they said

The ethics of organic agriculture — health, ecology, fairness and care — remain the key in determining how new technologies are used in the sector. It is an ongoing debate, but for now, it seems like organic broccoli can reproduce in (relative) peace.

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

This is a very muddled article. It doesn't do justice to the genetics, the value system of organic certification or the problem with patented organisms (however derived). There are clear dangers in transposing genes from one species to another, although these are often exaggerated. Selecting mutated plants to get new properties is as old as agriculture. From a genetic perspective there is no difference between a mutation induced by random ambient radiation than one induced by irradiating a plant in a lab. Techniques like CRISPER follow this same principle but add accuracy and efficacy to the age old practice of selecting random favourable mutants. There is no particular virtue in taking 10-15 years of selective breeding to get a result that might be obtained via modern genetic techniques in one year or less. Arguing about this just diverts attention from the more urgent issues of cloning, monoculture, plant patents, seed monopolies and vertically integrated corporate agribusiness as these affect food security in North America.

Please do some reading, to understand the difference between natural selection and mutation.

I am a gardener, now "advanced" years, who grew up where people got almost all their food from family gardens and local farms (meat, dairy, and, for townies, eggs). Seeds were saved from generation to generation, not only generations of the planted and harvested crops, but generations of *people*.
Having studied a bit of genetics, I know enough to spot so many statements in the article that are simply technically/factually wrong, that I wonder if it is BS ghost-written by pro-GM propagandists, or just a befuddled reporter.
My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all grew up on farms, saving their own seeds (selecting, yes, from the "best" specimens). That is selective breeding, not inbreeding or causing mutations. Nature does it over the course of evolution, where individual plants or animals are selected for by the environment -- no CRISPR tek required.
It is by design doing something akin to what Hitler thought he could do with people, creating a superior race of fair-haired, blue-eyed Germans. Even he wasn't so stupid as to engage in breeding sibs, or parents with offspring.

Hybrid plants involve crossing one variety of the same species with another. The first cross gives plants that resemble one another closely, but don't "breed true," i.e., are not settled down into a consistent phenotype and genotype. These plants are then often crossed back with one of the parent variety plants, to get more consistent genetics across the offspring.
Over time, new varieties arise, that "breed true" -- that is, always produce plants like the parent plants.
In such a way, loganberries were obtained from crossing a variety of blackberry with a variety of raspberry. No GM tek or CRISPR involved. Just so, youngberries are a cross between a blackberry variety and a dewberry. Same with tayberries.
They self-propagate through roots and off-branching from stems that take root in the ground. No inbreeding involved.
For annual or biennial plants, consistently fertilizing only between the offspring of the original cross, and removing plants with undesirable characteristics, eventually results in a new variety, which breeds true almost all of the time. Again, nature does this, too: no CRISPR involved.

None of this is "inbreeding," a term applied to animals, including humans: it's why religions and countries have consanguinity laws that disallow marriages between closely-related individuals.
It's also why some dog breeds, for instance, developed by purposely breeding parents with offspring, or sibling offspring, has resulted in recognized "health" problems in some breeds: congenital hip displasia, congenital blindness, deafness, heart or other organ disease, etc.
These breeds are not comparable to plant breeding, which much more resembles say, breeding a border collie - black lab cross, with another border collie - black lab cross of parentage unrelated to the first.
In the plant world, it is very difficult to cross a "parent flower" with an "offspring flower," except in very long-living species, like trees. Trees don't have precisely the same genetics along the branches and shoots of the entire tree. Nor does one blossom crossed with another of the same tree produce the same "mix" as the original, and anyone who's tried it will tell you that seed thus produced do not "breed true," and rarely produce plants that are both viable and desirable (producing, say, only sour, tiny fruit with poor pest tolerance for the environmental conditions in which the parent thrived.)
GM technologies, including CRISPR technologies, as readily and usually involve trans-species gene insertion as anything else ... and even with old-style GM technology, result in many unviable plants, reduced yields, poor suitability for local climate conditions, and high susceptibility to disease/pests.
Anyone who thinks GM crops have been a boon to the world's food production, should investigate what has happened in countries where the local seed, saved for generations and generations, even many hundreds of years, got squeezed out of production by government-mandated removal of peasant farmers, and inroads by Big Ag.
Anyone who thinks foodstuffs that have absorbed 30X the amount of glyphosate that was used before GM, are good for (or neutral to) humans should investigate the biology of the human biome. No one needed fecal transplants before all the GM BS started.
"Fecal implants," you ask, dumbfounded? Well, the human gut is subject to the same chelation by glyphosate as non-GM plants are. And the "good" bacteria in the human biome *do* use the metabolic process known as the "shikimate pathway." We depend for our health (and lives) on those good bacteria, as part of our immune systems, and self-regulatory systems, as part of digestive processes, and as part of waste-removal processes. Not much left between human health and sickness, or death, is there.
Yes, "fairness" is part of the "organic ethic." As in no more stealing old varieties, holing them up in vaults in Svalbard, and then desecrating the lands on which they were developed, driving the formerly isolated people who bred those seeds off the land ... leaving them to labor in opium poppy fields owned by drug lords and warlords.
That, too, is part of the "work" of Monsanto (which has since sold its assets, without revealing that it was about to lose its pants and half its arse in a lawsuit showing that glyphosate/RoundUp is *not* safe for humans, and was known by Monsanto to cause all sorts of genetic problems, malformation and mortality of offspring, etc.
That stuff is one of the "marvellous" things made from petrochemicals ... and it is a member of a class of pesticides shown to produce Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, from which more and more individuals suffer over time.
The EPA (and possibly Health Canada) stand by the company's assertions as to human (and animal) safety, claiming "reviews" of thousands of studies. All studies conducted by the producer of the pesticide, and far from exhaustive, as many studies have been shown to have been aborted when problems arose in test mammals, etc. etc. etc. Worse, the individuals in charge of the licensing process at the chemical company (in the case of glyphosate, at Mondanto), then leave the company, and are hired to head up the approval process at the EPA, and then when that is successful, return to their former employer, with a reward promotion, and around and around we go again.
I.e., the article is either really poorly informed, or it lies. There are no alternatives, as it strays so far from fact as to be complete hogwash.
Ultimately, it's all of a piece: climate change, Big Ag, the petro industry, plastics problems, our consumption of more and more energy, ongoing exacerbation of pollution -- of air, water, land, plants, people and other animals: in short, the planet.

My apolgies: I should have put quotes around "superior" in terms of the Aryan race Hitler was determined to propagate.