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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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