Aired May 13, 2020
Ignacio: The big problem of the consequences is that we don't know what they are. It's the vast, vast palette of options for bad results to come out.
GORDON KATIC: I’m Gordon Katic. And this is Cited.
GORDON: It’s June 3rd, 1992. The leaders of the world have gathered here in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They chat amongst each other and slowly shuffle into their seats.
It’s the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—otherwise known as the Earth Summit. UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali opens the 1st plenary.
Boutros-Ghali: “As our first order of business. I wish to invite the conference to observe two minutes of silence. On behalf of the Earth. Two minutes shall be observed at this very moment, all over the world.”
GORDON: Rio was a watershed moment in environmental history. There was a real appetite for change—governments seemed poised to address climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss.
Boutros-Ghali: Distinguished delegates I must say this is a historical moment. However, it will only be so if our efforts on behalf of the planet endure. It will only be so if the rio conference—the culmination of long deliberations also marks a new beginning. And by this, I mean a new point of departure.
GORDON: Of course, Rio didn’t solve all our environmental problems. But it did define how we understand them. It’s no exaggeration to say Rio shaped mainstream environmentalism for a generation. Because it’s where our policy experts said: here are the best ideas we got… and those ideas, they’re basically what we’re still working with, what we’re still fighting over.
Ideas like sustainable development. This is the notion that our economy can and should develop in a way that is sustainable with our environment. Rio. ‘Common but differentiated responsibility’-- that’s notion that all countries share a burden to fight climate change, but the richer nations must do more. Rio. The ‘polluter pays’ principle—that’s the a principle that now serves as philosophical justification for things like carbon pricing. Rio.
But one was a little different. An idea that was borne out of uncertainty. Because while the policy experts agreed on a lot—they also said, there's still a lot that we just don’t know.
Boutros-Ghali: We are in a situation where we have to take action in the face of uncertainty: this is because we do not fully understand how ecosystems function. Because we have sometime to work with a very long timescale. And because cause and effect are often separated in space. It will therefore be important to ensure the emerging opinions amongst scholars and experts receive full attention in decision-making processes.
GORDON: Secretary General Boutros-Ghali is revealing an unsatisfying truth about science. We sometimes look to scientists for certainty: for definitive answers. But that’s not what they give us. What they give us is their best approximation of what they know. And with our planet and how it behaves, they’re never quite sure. But how do you make policy when there’s scientific uncertainty?
At Rio, they said you should use ‘the precautionary principle’. It’s sort of a legal and regulatory philosophy— and the idea goes something like this: If you have a reasonable expectation that some action could be potentially harmful, but you’re not actually sure, well, you should proceed with caution. Perhaps not at all.
Let me use an example. Say you’ve got a pesticide. There’s some scientific evidence that it might be causing birth defects—but the scientific jury’s still out. There’s no definitive consensus. Well, if the birth defects look bad, maybe you shouldn’t use the pesticide.
That’s the precautionary principle. Sounds pretty intuitive right? Better safe than sorry.
But this is actually a departure from the norm. Because the precautionary principle flips the burden of proof. Historically, scientists were asked to prove something is harmful. But with the precautionary principle, industry has to prove something is safe. If you accept this fully, the conclusion is pretty radical: we can’t risk our environment for the sake of our economy.
But look, the precautionary principle, and everything they agreed to in 1992, these were just high-minded ideas. The people at Rio hoped that we’d take those ideas and actually do something with them.
Boutros-Ghali: Let me end with these few simple words: never will so much depend on what you do or do not do, for yourself, for others. For your children. For the planet. For life, for the planet in all it’s interdependent forms.
GORDON: So, almost 30 years later, what ever happened to the precautionary principle? And what does it look like when you take it out of the world of abstract philosophical principles and you bring it into the real world?
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be exploring just that. We’ll be telling the story of genetically modified corn in Mexico. It’s a story of unproven scientific concerns. But because of the precautionary principle, those concerns take on a new meaning-- and in the process, they shake Mexican politics.
The story comes from Cited Producer Polly Leger, and freelance producer James Frederick.
[SOUNDS OF WALKING THROUGH A FOREST]
JAMES FREDRICK: I’m following two men through the forest on narrow little footpaths...we’re deep in the Sierra Juarez mountains of Mexico’s Oaxaca state. For these last 20 minutes of hiking, they just keep saying “we’re close, we’re close.”
[BIRD SONG AND RING UP WALKING THROUGH FOREST, ALDO SPEAKING]
These two men want to show me something. One of them is Aldo Gonzalez, he’s a farmer and activist for indigenous and campesino rights. He’s tall, over six feet, and has a long, black ponytail and thick, rough farming hands.
Aldo towers over his friend, Margarito Hernandez Sebastian, a farmer in this little town called Santa Gertrudis. Margarito is short and nimble, and is kinda hard to keep up with as he skims his way over these forest paths in a pair of leather sandals, known as huaraches.
[SOUNDS OF A CREEK, GOATS CALLING]
The goats are calling. That means we’re close…
Margarito has brought me to see...his farm. And when I walk out of the trees I understand why it was worth the 40 minute hike.
This is unlike any farm I’ve ever seen. For one, it’s on a hill. Like a 60 degree mountain. Too steep to ski down. And Margarito has… everything here.
[SOUNDS OF PIGS, TURKEYS, GOATS, CHICKENS]
A very eager pig on a ten meter leash comes up to greet us. One huge beautiful turkey and a brood of chickens waddle around..
Margarito: Si, se da de todo. Todo tenemos. Aguantamos sembrar de todo…No nos dedicamos a sembrar una cosa bastante. No tiene mercado. Si lleva una lechuga, se va a vender poquito…[Faded under narration]
JAMES: Margarito says he grows just about everything on only a few acres of farmland, all of which is on this steep hillside surrounded by conifers.
This is the traditional Mesoamerican farm known as a milpa: beans, peas, squash, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce, they all grow together here.
Most of this produce is for him and his family to eat. Some is saved for his animals. And sometimes he’ll sell extra at a town market 30 minutes away. And then the rest is shared in the community.
But one thing you’ll find on this farm, and every farm around here -- is corn.
Margarito: Es maíz chico, maiz chico. El que les enseñe ahorita es marzo….Pero más arriba?...Si, más arriba en el cerro. Más abajo chico. Aca arribita se siembra mayo, pero este es otro maíz, maiz chico [continues under transcript]
JAMES: Corn is everywhere. Margarito points at one field -- This is the “chico” variety of corn -- he tells me. Then he points up to a patch on a hillside about two miles away, to another field where he grows a completely different variety of corn, which he calls marzo.
Margarito -- and all the farmers in the area -- are very specific about the type of corn they plant -- and so were their ancestors. He explains some strains grow best in hot, wet coastal climates. While others flourish up in the mountains higher than 2,000m!
GORDON: The creation of corn started sometime between 7 and 10 thousand years ago ago. in a place we now call Mexico. With a tall grass called teocintle. Through selective farming over thousands of years, that grass turned into dozens of different varieties of corn, or in Spanish, maiz. Today in Mexico there are over 59 distinct varieties of corn, each finly tuned by generations of Mexican corn farmers.
JAMES: You’ll also find it in just about every meal. And not just tortillas: tostadas, tlayudas, sopes, tlacoyos, huaraches, pozole. By one estimate, there are 600 different preparations of corn in Mexican cuisine. It’s the centerpiece of the diet here.
But it’s not just that, Aldo tells me later, as we drive through the Oaxacan mountains.
Aldo: Es importante para todos los pueblos indígenas de mesoamérica porque es el base de la identidad cultural. Es el principal alimento pero no es solamente un alimento del cuerpo es un alimento de espíritu. [continues under transcript]
JAMES: Aldo says maize is the foundation of the cultural identity of all Indigenous people in Mesoamerica, an area covering most of Mexico and parts of Central America. He says corn is the main source of physical nourishment, but also the main source of spiritual nourishment.
Take the Popol Vuh, the book of history and cosmology of the Mayans. It explains the origin of man this way: out of the ground grew the first stalks of corn, one yellow and one white. Then, the creators of the universe made it into corn dough and shaped it into the arms and legs of the first men. Corn became their flesh.
Or the Nahuatl people, the ethnic group of the Aztecs. They call the corn plant “tlaolli” which means, “our sustenance” and “that which generates movement.”
Corn is central to every civilization in Mesoamerica: the Aztecs, the Zapotecs, the Totonacas… and has been for thousands of years.
Aldo: El maíz es el elemento ha permitido que los pueblos indígenas de mesoamérica son lo que son ahora.
JAMES: Maize, Aldo says, is what has allowed indigenous people in Mesoamerica to become what they are today .
GORDON: But about 20 years ago-- something showed up in Aldo’s town that shouldn’t have been there. Aldo worried that this unwanted intruder might destroy his beloved corn. I don’t mean spoil a harvest, I mean fundamentally alter its very nature -- the very genetic makeup of the corn. If he’s right, it could wipe out the work of generations of Indigneous farmers.
Cited producer Polly Leger picks up from there.
The story starts with two scientists who have nothing to do with corn…
POLLY LEGER: They’re academics, studying mushrooms…
David Quist: The relationships between mushrooms and ants and mushrooms and plants.
POLLY: This is David Quist. In 2000, he was a grad student at UC Berkeley studying ecology -- fungi, mostly.
His thesis supervisor had set up some labs in the hills of Oaxaca, including in one small town:
David: La Trinidad
JAMES: It’s about 40km north of where I was with Aldo, and Margarito and all that corn.
David: It was primarily predominated by pine forests, dotted with clear lands that had maize and beans growing on them.
GORDON: The Milpas.
POLLY: The hills around here are so rugged and steep, that instead of the sprawling soccer pitches you’d see almost anywhere else in Mexico, here, everyone plays basketball.The slope is just too steep to build a pitch.
David: It was great for me because I'm 181cm, and most of the residents there are about 150-160 centimeters tall.
POLLY: David’s about 5’9. The people he’s playing with are closer to Five-nothin’
David: I was like the Shaquille O'Neal of the basketball tournaments up there. Yeah, I never felt so tall in my life.
GORDON: But David wasn’t just shooting hoops and studying mushrooms. David and his supervisor helped train community members on lab techniques.
POLLY: Students from the nearby agricultural school, old ladies, maize farmers, whoever wanted to learn. And eventually--
Ignacio Chapela: It became clear to them ...
POLLY: This is Ignacio Chapela, David’s supervisor at Berkeley
Ignacio: It became clear to them that they wanted to have the technical capacity for the detection of transgenic DNA within plants that they were familiar with, mostly corn.
POLLY: Basically, the locals wanted to be able to prove that their corn was free of genetically modified genes. And not because they thought there were any in there-- Mexico had actually placed a moratorium on planting GMO corn. So they were sure that their crops would be totally GM free, and that meant they had a marketing opportunity.
GORDON: This was the late 1990s, and genetically modified food was pretty new.
It was growing increasingly popular in the United States. But globally, there was a lot of skepticism. Especially in Europe. GMOs were new, and a lot of people just didn’t trust them. This created a unique opportunity for these Indigenous maize farmers.
If the farmers could prove their corn was GMO-free, they might be able to market it to Europeans
POLLY: But In order to put GMO free on a label, they needed to actually prove it.
Which is where David comes in. He says, “yeah, I can help with that. I can teach you this test. It’s a pretty easy way to prove that your corn is free of modified genes”
David: I mean, where better place than rural Mexico are we going to find a transgenic negative maize sample
POLLY: “We can use this test called PCR.” Or Polymerase Chain Reaction.
GORDON: The PCR test is pretty simple. It’s a way of finding something that you can’t quite see. Like, say you want to know if there’s a needle in a haystack-- there’s no way that you can just look at the haystack and see the needle. But imagine if needles were like DNA, imagine they could actually replicate. Well then you could add a needle, and then those needles would make more needles. That’s basically what this test does. And then you’re literally seeing the thing you’re looking for.
Let me give you another. Sorry for the mixed metaphors, but I think this will help explain things. Imagine that you’re at a concert, and that each segment of transgenic DNA was like the flame of a lighter.
No transgenic DNA -- no lighters. An audience just vibing to the music, hands in their pockets.
Now, imagine that a few dozen people start waving their lighters around -- you’d see faint pinpricks of light in the audience, but not too many. That’s kind of what it’s like if there’s only a faint trace of transgenic DNA.
Now-- Imagine the encore of a U2 concert. Everyone’s out there with their Zippos, and the whole crowd lights up. That’s what it’s like when you have a LOT of transgenic DNA in a PCR test.
Basically, what happened was there was some transgenic DNA in your sample-- you added more, and suddenly it’s everywhere. If it wasn’t there in the first place, it wouldn’t have replicated like this.
POLLY: So David lines up his samples: He has one, from canned corn from the US, which he knows is genetically modified. And then a bunch of local samples.
David: From various places, their uncle's farm, their uncle's plots, neighbors, and then one of them came back with a sample from Diconsa.
GORDON: The Diconsa is a food store. You can find one in almost every tiny town in Mexico-- there are 27-thousand of them across the country. They provide cheap food staples to the area -- including corn.
POLLY: So It’s the night before David’s going to give this workshop on PCR to folks in La Trinidad, and he decides to run a test trial.He’s got his transgenic corn from the U. S., the seeds from the Disconsa. And the kernels from local plots -- which should basically be the furthest ing you can get from mass produced, transgenic American corn.
First up, the Canned All American Corn.
David: So, transgenic positive from U.S. Yep, there's the transgenic DNA lighting up.
POLLY: As expected. The finale of a U2 concert.
Then a seed from a local plot:
David: Then a Mexican Oaxacan maize sample, no transgenic DNA looks good. Another one, looks good
POLLY: Then he gets to another local sample… and something weird happens
David: There seemed to be a faint band, a faint signal of this transgenic DNA.
POLLY: Like a small group of people flicking their bics.
David: And then there's another sample, positive transgenic DNA. Really bright, like bright as my control, positive control.
Polly: It’s giving him a reading that says there is as much transgenic material in this local, Mexican sample -- as there was in the genetically modified corn from the States.
So he’s going back through his notes like--
David: Which one is that? That was the one from the government store, from the store of the seeds coming in the communities.
[Pause] And that was just a oh shit moment. For me.
GORDON: David’s found -- or at least pretty sure he’s found-- transgenes... where there should NOT be transgenes. GM corn isn’t supposed to be growing in Mexico at all --- let alone in the Southern highlands of Oaxaca, where maize had been cultivated for millenia.
David: This potential for this kind of whether it was intentional or not this transgenic contamination of the entire Mexican landscape.
POLLY: So he did the first thing he could think of. He called his supervisor, back at Berkeley.
But this is 2000. There’s no internet, and there’s only one phone in town, in this little store.
David: There's a woman sitting there at this glass counter with all these stacks of products. Personal sanitary products and bath soaps and apples, oranges, you name it
POLLY: And she’s the keeper of this green push button phone.
David: The way it worked is that if someone called you, and there was a loudspeaker that was right there at the office. And so, every time you heard the loudspeaker come on, you know, there's this kind of, you know [Whooshing sound], testing the loudspeaker and then everyone would stop and listen and see and it would be you know, “Senior Ramirez por teléfono” and then you'd hear somebody running down the street, you know going to get their phone call.
POLLY: So David goes to the little store, with the piles of nail polish and pads and fruit on the counter, and leaves a message for Ignacio on his home number… and then he just has to go home and wait.. Until the phone lady lets him -- and the rest of the town -- know that he has a phone call.
POLLY: And then he hears it
David: [Whooshing sound] David Quist!
POLLY: David runs up the hill to the store, zig-zagging through the cobblestone streets.
David: This is about 1000 meters elevation so it's not super easy to breathe there. There I'm going running down the path, thinking what am I going to tell Ignacio here, now that we've had this result suggesting that transgenes had already made their way into Mexico.
Ignacio: I think it was six in the morning. And it was David. It was David, a little bit worried, a little bit curious, saying this is what I'm finding, this is what I found last night.
David: You know, we never discussed what...what we were going to do if we actually found transgenes here.
Ignacio: And I remember really stalling the conversation by asking technical questions. Are you sure that you cleaned all the materials that you were using? Did you maybe contaminate it with one of your positives? Maybe your negative controls are coming out positive?
POLLY: Ignacio is like : Are you SURE it wasn’t a lab error ?
David: Saying that out loud on the phone in this little store, in the highlands of Mexico, where it really hit upon me that we had a story on our hands that could have real significance.
And that's when he said, grab some samples, get back to Berkeley, we've got work to do.
GORDON: Look, I know you probably don’t want to hear another GMO story. It really is a tired debate. But that’s not exactly what our story is about-- at least, it’s not about GMO foods. There is a pretty strong scientific consensus there: most scientists think GMOs are no more dangerous than other foods. That's a scientific question; but the political question, that’s far from settled. All foods, one way or another, are GMO foods. The question is: where should the genetic modification happen? Sometimes it happens in a lab, other times it happens on a farm-- like, through millennia of indigenous agricultural practices. That’s what’s at stake in this story
POLLY: If David is right, that there’s GMO corn here in Oaxaca, it would be explosive.
So back at Berkeley, Ignacio and David re-run the experiment to check their figures.
Ignacio: We re-ran the samples. We ran them in different labs with completely new materials and new instruments, so that we made sure that all these positives were positives.
POLLY: They had two questions: Was there actually genetically modified corn growing where it shouldn’t?
David: Okay, the transgenes are there.
POLLY: Yes -- again -- they found some presence of genetically modified maize in the samples from Oaxaca.
David:Now, the second question, what happens to them-- do they flow into wild relatives. When they cross pollinate do they have an impact on the genetic diversity? Do some of them survive better, do the offspring survive better? Do some of the offspring survive, not survive?
GORDON: Their second question is a lot more worrying. OK-- it’s here, but what does it mean? What impact might that have on Indigenous maize, and the overall biodiversity of the region? They just don’t know.
Ignacio: The big problem of the consequences is that we don't know what they are. It's the vast, vast palette of options for bad results to come out.
GORDON: David and Ignacio are worried that the GM corn is wandering into the Indigenous maize. It’s not simply cross pollinating. It’s actually entering the DNA of Oaxacan maize and fundamentally changing it.
It’s creating a kind of hybrid corn. And over time, this could have huge consequences for biodiversity. Because maybe this new hybrid corn would have a kind of fitness advantage-- so over generations of breeding, it might take over the Oaxacan landscape. If this were possible-- it would threaten thousands of years of Indigenous tradition.
Ignacio: It wasn't until then that we started thinking about how are we going to publish this? And what are we going to do after?
GORDON: GM corn is big business. And at the time, these multinational agribusiness companies were hoping to slowly make their way into the Mexican market. But if David and Ignacio’s paper was right, that GM corn threatened to wipe out indigenous maize, that would put a stop to everything. So this wasn’t just any old academic paper that would simply collect dust on a library shelf. There were billions of dollars on the line here.
After the break, David and Ignacio submit their paper. I’m Gordon Katic, and you’re listening to Cited.
GORDON: This is the part of the program where I sell you on creating your own email newsletter.
Just kidding— Cited fans know we don’t do ads. And the reason why, the reason I can make a show like this and not have to sell you ads, it’s because our program is mostly funded by public grants. In particular, grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
We don’t have to answer to these agencies—we only take projects on that we want to do, and they don’t any say over our editorial direction. The only thing I really do need though: it’s to know I’m making something that you like. And so each week I’ve asked you these favours: send me feedback, leave me reviews, recommend me to your friends. And you’ve done just that. Thanks for your support. It really does mean a lot to everyone at Cited— so this week, no particular favour to ask of you. Just a thank you. And keep spreading the word, and keep writing me. firstname.lastname@example.org. I read every email: if I haven’t responded, I will soon.
Oh, and a couple housekeeping things before I forget. No Secondary Symptoms episode this week— sorry, we can’t quite keep up. But we’ll be back next week.
POLLY: David and Ignacio submitted to Nature, one of the biggest scientific journals in the world. And, in 2001, after going back and forth for over a year, Nature finally published their two and half page paper: “Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico”
David: I personally didn't expect the level of international tension that it received once we published our research in December of 2001.
POLLY: The press went wild.
David: Le Monde, El Pais, BBC, etc.
POLLY: It BLEW UP:
“E.U. confirma mais contaminado con trangenico en Mexico”
“Bad seeds? Fight brewing over genetically modified corn in Mexico”
“Mexico’s GM Corn Shocks Scientists”
“Des scientifiques dénoncent l'existence de maïs contaminé”
Mexican Story Raises GM Concerns.
“Genetic modification taints corn in Mexico”
David: transgenes Gone Wild and all these kinds of things. Which, which certainly got people's attention
JAMES: There was an active ban on planting GM corn in Mexico, but there was no ban on buying it from the U.S. So the best explanation for how transgenic corn wound up in the birthplace of maize was NAFTA.
GORDON: When NAFTA was ratified in 1994, it was a huge deal for Mexico -- this less developed country was setting up free trade with two major first-world economies. So NAFTA marked a new era.
But under NAFTA, it was now cheaper to import US corn than to grow it. By 2000, six million tons of US corn was coming into Mexico -- and a third of it was genetically modified.
JAMES: Some of it went into the Diconsa food stores, those government food shops all over the country that David Quist had taken samples from. It wasn’t labelled GM corn. They wouldn’t have known.
GORDON: The working theory is that this was all an honest mistake. Maybe the farmers confused the local corn meant planting with the NAFTA corn meant for eating.
JAMES: So that's why genetically modified NAFTA corn ended up in the milpas that David and Ignacio were studying.
GORDON: So the very trade agreement that the Mexican government had hailed as a victory might have been leading to GM corn being supplied to Indigneous farmers.
David and Ignacio’s paper put the Mexican government in an awkward position.
POLLY: So Ignacio is in Mexico city, trying to explain the whole thing to Mexican officials
Ignacio: This guy showed up and he said, I'm hear representation of the chairman of the bio Safety Commission, and he would like to talk to you.
POLLY: The Chairman’s name was Fernando Ortiz Monasterio. He’s in charge of regulating GMOs in Mexico. And this research could be very embarrassing for his department.
JAMES: Monasterio felt that GMO crops could do a lot of good and prove Mexico was a “modern” economy, and he was actually hoping to lift the ban on them.
Ignacio: They took me to this empty building in an office that was not really an office but felt more like a, you know, a makeshift interrogation place.
POLLY: Ignacio says that they were the only three people in the building.
Ignacio: They dismissed the one lady that was looking after the coffee.
POLLY: And that as soon as they got there, the Chairman started YELLING at him.
Ignacio: Telling me that I was doing something terrible, that I was about to get myself into a huge amount of trouble, and so on and so forth. For about an hour he did that, with this burly bodyguard. ‘This data, this result that you're reporting are not true. This is all a lie.’
POLLY: And then… the tone starts to shift.
Ignacio: [laughs] He said, I have arranged for you and the other four ‘greatest scientists of plant science in the world’ [chuckles] to meet in, in a resort in Baja, California, all by yourselves and repeat all these experiments. Whatever you need to do, and you will submit another paper to nature that says that-- and he had the results he wanted me to say some stupid result-- that basically said that was not true. That it was the opposite of what we want to publish.
POLLY: Ignacio says he was told the other four scientists were from Monsanto and Dupont. Two of the largest manufacturers of genetically modified corn. And Ignacio is like -- no way.
Ignacio: I am very happy to help anyone, including in industry. I can give them all the information we have. They can work from that. But I'm not going to rewrite this paper to come to the opposite conclusion of what we see.
[Pause] And after that moment, this guy stood up and left, went out, and he told the bodyguard, he said, ‘show him the offices.’
POLLY: The burly guy takes Ignacio on a walk around this whole floor of empty offices.
Ignacio: In some places I remember the carpet being rolled up from flooding. And we were on the 13th floor. It pretty high and the windows were, you know, floor to ceiling. And this is a part of Mexico when many people are disappeared and especially at that time, it was basically the place where people go dump bodies.
Of course, I was worried. Of course. I was scared, but I was thinking okay, maybe we're all this is it. And so what… I don’t know. I kept thinking, ``So how is this going to work? Are they going to push me out of the window? Is that really possible?” [laughs] Like, I was just really thinking that way.
POLLY: Ignacio is thinking that this is it -- he’s going to get killed… over corn. But then he says the chairman switches tones again. He’s like, “Please, friend, we’ll drive you home. We insist.”
Ignacio: And they pulled up in a black suburban, which is this massive SUV, you know, that gangsters use. [laughs] it's like a cartoon. And then throughout the trip, they were telling me talking to me about my daughter, and talking to me about you know, it's again, like in a movie. A bad, cheap movie gangster kind of style. Yeah, it's the only time in my life when I've had that experience.
POLLY: Ignacio says that he got the message. If he was going to do this work -- he should be prepared for backlash.
GORDON: We couldn’t find Fernando Ortiz Monasterio. But he did talk about this meeting in Caitlin Shetterly’s book “Modified”.
Monasterio remembers the meeting quite differently -- he calls it, quote, “professional but not friendly.” He says there was no swearing or threatening, and that the office was just under construction.
And yes, he did suggest Ignacio re-do the study, and that among the people he should work with were industry people, including Monsanto.
POLLY: But most importantly, he said the position of the Mexican government was that Ignacio and David’s research was a quote, “a cherry bomb for biosafety”. That it could hurt both the biotech industry and NAFTA, and that could have major economic implications.
He goes on to call Ignacio courageous for the way he quote, “Fought for his study like Quixote and the windmills.”
GORDON: Which, when you think about it, is a pretty sick burn…. Because, in the story, Don Quixote charges towards what he thinks are giants, but he runs into windmills.
Monasterio is saying David Ignacio going to battle with their own imaginations
POLLY: Nick Kaplinsky kind of agrees
Nick Kaplinsky : My name is Nick Kaplinsky. I'm a professor of biology at Swarthmore College. I teach plant biology, molecular genetics and genomics.
POLLY: Back then, Nick was a grad student studying corn. He was planting these big fields of it at Berkeley.… not all that far from David and Ignacio’s lab.
And Nick thinks it’s a little weird that their paper had been published in Nature. After all, it’s one of the most prestigious science journals in the world.
Nick: Because neither of them are really trained molecular biologists.
POLLY: Nick IS though -- he’s in the department of Plant and Microbial Biology. Ignacio and David are in Environmental Science --- the building just opposite Nick’s department.
So Nick writes into Nature, which is standard enough for academic journals. But Nick says there was no way that David and Ignacio had the data to back up their claims.
Nick: What Quist and Chapela were claiming were that these transgenes were found at high rates, scattered throughout the genomes of local varieties of corn. And if that had been true, this would have been a totally groundbreaking discovery.
POLLY: Nick says the paper was full of bad science. First of all:
Nick: There are missing data points. There are data points that they're comparing that clearly come from different experiments.
POLLY: Basically, he says they’re comparing apples to oranges.
GORDON: Or corn to carrots..
Nick: Fundamentally, they used a very very sensitive and error prone technique incorrectly. And then they misinterpreted the data that it generated.
POLLY: First of all, Nick’s not convinced that they even found evidence of GM corn in Oaxaca. But what he’s even more unconvinced of is the argument that David and Ignacio make that genetically modified genes somehow behave differently in the wild.
Nick: Their results didn't provide any evidence for this, and certainly provided very clear documentation that their PCR results were artifacts, and that they'd grossly misinterpreted those, those results.
GORDON: Nick thought David and Ignacio were just looking at windmills, not giants. Here’s why. Remember that PCR test-- you know, the U2 concert? Well that technique is a very error-prone technique if you’re not careful. It can take a small trace of something, and then blow it up out of proportion. So maybe what you’re seeing-- it’s not a result of what’s in the sample, but it’s a result of something you did during the test.
POLLY: Okay, so we’re back at the U2 finale. Bono’s got his shades on, The Edge is about the shred, I don’t know the names of the other members of U2. But all those lights in the air? Maybe it’s GMO corn from Oaxaca, or maybe it’s something that your PCR test introduced. What if you’re not actually looking at lighters at all; maybe it’s the exit lights of the stadium, or somebody on their cell phones, and people with glow sticks, and the red tip of someone lighting up joints...
Nick says the technique David and Ignacio used could not distinguish between lighters and phones, joints, glow sticks, exit light.
Their technique misinterpreted all of those sources of light -- as being people waving their lighters in the air. So, as being evidence of modified corn.
It’s not that there weren’t lighters there… you just couldn’t prove that ALL the light was from lighters.
But basically, this was the fight that was happening in the pages of Nature-- did David and Ignacio interpret their results correctly? Or not.
GORDON: But this story wasn’t just about a PCR test and how to interpret it. Because here’s the thing: the people who wrote angrily to Nature-- they didn’t just say the test was wrong.They called Ignacio and David anti-science anti-GMO crusaders. And those on David and Ignacio’s side, they accused the others of being corporate shills.
And all of this - most of everyone in this story, they were at Berkley. It was really two departments fighting against each other-- and they had been for a while. So, fight, it was personal.
POLLY: The fight in Nature fanned the flames of a fire that had already been burning for a few years… like some kind of horrible tire fire at the town dump.
GORDON: These two departments were fighting over the role of corporate funding at the university. A few years before all of this, Berkeley had signed a $25-million dollar contract with a major biotech company called Novartis. And it caused a huge divide.
The Plant and Microbial Biology department -- that’s the department that Nick was in -- gained a TON of new funding. But other the departments, including the Environmental Science Department, where Ignacio worked, they were dead set against it.
Ignacio: And I was one very clear and very vocal opponent of that proposition.
POLLY: He said it had massive ramifications for academic freedom. And David was part of a campus group called Students for Responsible Research. Nick Kaplinsky was too…
Nick: I stayed involved for a little bit until, and and again, I dug up some old emails, until he called me and the members of my department ‘corporate whores.’ At which point I stopped attending those meetings.
POLLY: Nick showed me those emails. The term was used.
GORDON: Once the Novartis deal was signed students started taking direct action.
A group calling themselves Green Streets started to destroy the corn plots growing on Berkeley campus.
POLLY: Including Nick’s.
Nick: It was trampled and chopped down. So that cost me about two years of research time. It significantly setback my graduate career.
POLLY: The students left notes behind saying that they did it because they were against the Novartis funding, and GMOs as a whole.
Nick: So this science occurred in an atmosphere where I'd say people weren't having constructive conversations with each other.
GORDON: That’s the atmosphere on Berkeley leading up to the publication in Nature--Two departments on the same campus pitted against each other, over GMOs.
POLLY: So when David and Ignacio published their article in Nature, It was like dousing that tire fire with gasoline. And the fire... Well, it came for Ignacio. After the piece was published he didn’t get tenure.
Ignacio: Usually, the Chancellor simply approves what the faculty, after this process, has said. In this case, the Chancellor came out contradicting all the process, and single handedly said “No. No, this guy should not receive the next round of employment and tenure”, promotion to tenure. And so they put me basically on a terminal contract that was going to run out at the end of the year.
POLLY: It made the news. There was even a rally. Supporters said that he was being punished for research that could be bad for biotech -- now a major funder at the university.
Ignacio: What I feel very strongly about is that this came from, you know, softly spoken, spoken words behind closed doors, to simply get rid of me from the campus.
POLLY: It’s impossible for us to know if that’s exactly what happened-- the tenure process is confidential. At the time, Berkeley said no one person could quote, “hijack” the process. But one minute Ignacio was on track for tenure, and the next he wasn’t.
GORDON: The same thing happens to his paper. Nature ends up issuing a disavowal of it. Not a retraction. A disavowal. It’s the first time in 133 years of publishing that this has ever happened. The editors wrote: “The evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.” But since the original authors -- Ignacio and David-- stood by their results -- Nature said it wanted the readers to judge the science for themselves.
POLLY: By this point, David had moved into GMO research full time. But he says it was just too hard to get funding.
David: In two instances, I remember getting a call from the USDA. And from a very nice worker there at the office and saying, “Can I talk to you off the record? I just wanted you to save your time and say, despite what, what is good and probably very important research, politically, there is no way in hell you're going to get funding from our agency.” And it really was a signal to me that there was not the space to ask these kinds of questions in the United States.
POLLY: He ended up in Europe, working on biotech regulation in Norway, which is where he lives now.
GORDON: I’m sure you’re wondering who was right? David and Ignacio, or Nick and the molecular biologists? Well, one 2002 study refuted David and Ignacio, but it was corporate-funded. And then there were dozens of other follow up studies -- some found transgenes, others didn’t. And there’s been debates about all of them: who’s funding what? At the end of the day, there’s been some support for David and Ignacio’s first claim -- that there’s transgenes in the Mexican maize. But really no one has backed up the idea that these GM corn behaves differently in the wild and somehow threaten the biodiversity of the region.
POLLY: And part of that is that it’s not a very popular area of research. There’s not really funding for it. Not when David and Ignacio first made their discovery, and not even now. It’s still seen as a politically toxic issue… and some scientists see what happened to David and Ignacio as a cautionary tale. So we don’t have a definitive answer for you.
GORDON: Based on what is out there, here’s the state of the science. Molecular biologists we talked to said it was highly unlikely that GMOs could bully out local varieties . And even then, the genetically modified corn wouldn’t necessarily overthrow Oaxacan maize-- it would still need the right conditions to thrive…. And a milpa just isn’t one of them. So maybe David and Ignacio were charging against windmills.
POLLY: But--they also told us that with biological systems, you never know. One scientist told me “biology is full of surprises.” It’s a dynamic system. It all depends on the crop, the local conditions, how people plant and how everything interacts with everything else. You’d have to do a lot more research, and even then you’d never know for sure what might happen, or what could happen in the future. Which is kind of the point that David and Ignacio were making.
GORDON: Sometimes, scientific experts just don’t give us the definitive answers we want. So we have to operate under conditions of uncertainty. But that uncertainty brings risk, because what if David and Ignacio were right?
JAMES: Try to put yourself in the shoes of an Indigneous farmer – remember Margarito from the very beginning? His maize is fine-tuned just for the hills of Oaxaca. His maize has cultivated over generations. His parents, his parents parents-- thousands of years of work. It’s his heritage. Not just his agricultural heritage, but his spiritual and cultural heritage. And then this new corn comes around, and he thinks-- what could this do my corn?
GORDON: Next week, we return to the hills of Oaxaca. Indigneous farmers react to David and Ignacios findings with alarm. And so they fight to defend their maize. And that fight puts them against their own government, against NAFTA, and against the most powerful multinationals in the world.
TRAILER FOR EPISODE 2:
Pablo: Mexico, in that moment didn’t have any regulations about transgenics.
ANTI-MONSANTO PROTEST CHANT
JAMES: It’s part two of the fight over corn. When farmers and activists face off with the Mexican government, and the world’s largest agribusiness companies.
ALDO speaking in Spanish
TRANSLATOR: I didn’t think the lawsuit would win, although of course I wanted it to.
VERONICA speaking in Spanish
TRANSLATOR: If just one judge decides they can’t find a reason to block transgenic corn, I’m not sure we could file another lawsuit. It would have been decided for life.
CARLOS speaking in Spanish
TRANSLATOR: If the worst did happen, a flood of transgenic corn being planted here, we’d have to leave.
This episode was produced by Polly Leger and James Frederick.
Our research assistant was James Rhatigan . And the episode was edited by Acey Rowe, and me, Gordon Katic.
Our theme song and music is by our composer, Mike Barber.
Fact checking by Aurora Tejeida.
Dakota Koop is our graphic designer. Cited’s production manager is David Tobiaz. And our exe executive producers are Sam Fenn and me, Gordon Katic.
Thank you also to: Ana de Ita Rubio , Santiago Muñoz and Daniela Moreno from the Maizajo tortilla shop, Silvia Ribeiro from ETC Group, Topher Routh at Berkeley Advanced Media Studio for recording assistance, Martin Gepp and Katrina Hiiback of the University of Toronto for help fact-checking. Thanks also to Professor Dave Ng and Dr. Sophie Comyn for teaching us a thing or two about plant genetics.
Fernando Ortiz Monasterio’s account of his meeting with Ignacio Chapela comes from an interview with Caitlin Shetterly, in her book, “Modified”.
This episode was funded in part by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We got a grant to discuss ideas in liberal environmental theory; James Rhatigan was our research assistant on the project, with further research advising from Professor Jessican Dempsey at the University of British Columbia, and Professor Rosemary Collard from Simon Fraser University.
Cited is produced out of the Centre of Ethics at the University of Toronto, which is on the traditional land of Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat Peoples.
Cited is also produced out of the Michael Smith Laboratory at the University of British Columbia -- that’s on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
POLLY: [struggling with sentence] Transgenic DNA introgressed into… Transgenic DNA introgressed.. Transgenic DNA introgressed into trad-- whew! What a title! Transgenic DNA introgressed into.. Transgenic DNA introgressed into… Holy shit! Okay, I’m going to run out of battery before I can say this.