Nature backtracks over GM maize controversy

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The journal Nature has disowned a paper that it published last year, which suggested that transgenic DNA from genetically modified (GM) maize had been found in wild varieties of the crop in Mexico.

In a statement released on 4 April, the journal said that “in the light of the criticisms and advice from referees, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify its publication of the original paper.”

The research, published in November and written by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley, had heightened concerns over the potential effects of transgenic crops on plant diversity, considered essential for global food security.

But, according to two letters published on Nature’s website yesterday, the study was flawed and the authors had misinterpreted their results.

“Transgenic corn may be being grown illegally in Mexico, but Quist and Chapela’s claim that these transgenes have pervaded the entire native maize genome is unfounded,” say Nick Kaplinsky and colleagues, also from the University of California.

They add: “It is important for information about genetically modified organisms to be reliable and accurate, as important policy decisions are at stake.”

Quist and Chapela acknowledge some of the criticisms. But they stand by their original finding that one in 100 wild maize cobs had genes from GM crops, and add that other studies by the Mexican government confirm their results.

“As the authors wish to stand by the available evidence for their conclusions, we feel it best simply to make these circumstances clear, to publish the criticisms, the authors’ response and new data …, and allow our readers to judge the science for themselves,” says Nature editor Philip Campbell.

But Hope Shand of ETC group — a non-governmental organisation that promotes cultural and ecological diversity — says that “the whole debate in Nature is an obfuscation of the real issue”.

“Maize breeders and geneticists all know that GM [contamination of] traditional farmers’ maize varieties in Mexico is inevitable,” she says. “Whatever the status of the various studies, the reality is that a Centre of Crop Genetic Diversity has been contaminated and no one is doing anything about it.”

© SciDev.Net 2002

Link to letter by Matthew Metz and Johannes Fütterer
Link to letter by Nick Kaplinsky et al
Link to reply by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela
Link to original paper by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela

See also:

ETC group

SciDev Homepage

Photo credit: Warren Gretz/NREL