Last year, I asked the very silly sounding question, ‘Why does Greenpeace like the grapefruit?’ As absurd as it sounds this is probably one of the most important questions to be asking the organisation right now. This is because it exposes a double standard that lies at the core of Greenpeace and shows their opposition to GMOs to be hypocritical and irrational. Today I would like to ask another silly sounding question that, once again, exposes weaknesses in Greenpeace’s arguments against GMOs. Why do they like the watermelon?
Greenpeace is one of many organisations that oppose not one specific GMO but GMOs in general. Looking past how ridiculous it is to be against a plethora of unique organisms created using a wide range of technologies that happened to fall under the umbrella term of “genetically modified techniques” why do these organisation oppose this technology? One reason they give is their concern over the use and development of “terminator seeds”.
“Terminator seeds” also known as “suicide seeds” are GM seeds which are incapable of producing viable offspring. Most people who oppose them do so on ethical and emotional grounds, believing that these seeds are purposely created to protect the patents and profits of large corporations and that there is something inherently unnatural about taking away a plants’ ability to reproduce. Others worry that these GM plants will contaminate “wild crops” and produce sterile offspring, causing irreversible environmental damage.
Despite what many GMO activists would have you believe, there are no “terminator seeds” on the market and, to give credit where credit is due, Greenpeace does acknowledge this fact. They also acknowledge that the godless scientists at Monsanto have publicly stated that they have no plans on developing this technology in the future. This is backed up by retired scientist Fred Perlak (one of the people credited with developing Bt crops) on my podcast when he said that Monsanto research into “terminator seeds” never got beyond a pen and paper excise.
At first glance, the development of these seeds does seem insidious, however, creating a plant that is incapable of producing offspring by genetic manipulation is nothing new. For example, this is where we get the watermelon from, or more specifically the seedless watermelon.
Watermelons, like you and I, are diploid, meaning that they have two sets of chromosomes within the nucleus of their cells. Like us they get one copy from their mother and one from their father however, unlike us, they only have 11 pairs of chromosomes compared to our 23. To reproduce, they split a diploid cell into two haploid daughter cells known as gametes that contain only one copy of each chromosome. This process is called meiosis and the haploid cells in humans are called eggs and sperm, depending on the sex. When the sperm from the father combines with the egg from the mother, their single copies of each chromosome pair up to create a diploid cell once more. To create a seedless watermelon, this process is disrupted by a particular toxic chemical called colchicine.
Colchicine is an extremely hazardous substance and is known to cause, among other things, bone marrow suppression, multiple-system organ failure, delirium, respiratory failure, to name a few. Believe me when I say I am barely scratching the surface of horrid things that will happen to you if you come into contact with a relatively high dose, all of which is made worse by the fact that there is no known antidote. However, colchicine also has medical uses, it is used to treat gout. The compound is subject to strict reporting requirements by facilities which produce, store, or use it in significant quantities, meaning that it is not available to the average farmer.
When placed on a plant like the watermelon, it prevents normal cellular division by inhibiting chromosome segregation. This results in two daughter cells where one contains no chromosomes at all and the other contains double the usual amount. The DNA within the daughter diploid cell is then replicated to give a grade total of four sets of chromosomes. This is called a tetraploid and, whilst it would be fatal in most higher animal cells, it is usually not only tolerated in plant cells, but can result in more desirable traits than its normal diploid parents. According to the patent and YES there is a patent on this method these tetraploids are identified cytological examination and seed shape of the fruiting plant. This trick of genetic manipulation is often used in commercial plant breading, but we still have one more step before we get to the seedless watermelon.
Next, if we take our tetraploid watermelon, which will produce two daughter gamete cells that will each contain two sets of chromosomes, and breed it with a normal watermelon whose gamete cells only contain one set of chromosomes, we get a plant with now three copies of chromosomes, called a triploid. These plants are usually unable to reproduce, as they don’t produce any fertile seeds or spores, and this is where we get the seedless watermelon from. Although most triploid plants can be propagated vegetatively (a form of asexual reproduction in plants), most people who grow them rely on fresh seeds from the supplier each year.
So, just to clarify, we have a patented seed that is the result of genetic manipulation by exposing a plant to a potentially lethal chemical that can only be planted once because it is incapable of producing viable offspring, and Greenpeace is ok with this, but not the prospect of “terminator seeds”. Where are the protests full of people holding banners saying, ‘down with seedless watermelons’? Where are the thousands of people signing a petition on change.org demanding that these seedless abominations are removed from shelves? Where are the zealots telling us that it is wrong to play god and to mess with the DNA of an organism? Why are people not worried about the parents of these triploids that can contaminate normal watermelon creating sterile seeds? They are nowhere to be seen because, like with the case with the grapefruit, technically, the seedless watermelon is not a GMO and therefore no one cares.
In all honesty, I do agree with some of the concerns raised by Greenpeace. For example, I would be dead against the development and deployment of terminator seeds in poor countries whose infrastructures are unstable, as I believe they could have the potential to cause people to die of starvation. However, I can also see the benefit in using them in the developed world as a way of controlling contamination. If the “terminator” seeds, like the triploids, are unable to develop any fertile seeds or spores then, if accidentally released into the wild, it would prevent their spread and contamination. What I am really trying to say here is that there is a lot of nuance to the subject of GMOs, and we get nowhere for demanding a blanket ban on them because some, one day, might have traits that some disagree with, despite them sharing the same traits with something that can be found at your local greengrocer.
So why does Greenpeace like the watermelon? Because they don’t know what they are talking about regarding GMO and their position isn’t just inaccurate but full of hypocrisies and complete and deliberate miscommunication of the technology.