A bag full of fresh broccoli is seen in the author’s kitchen in Anchorage, Alaska, in August, 2020. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

A bag full of fresh broccoli is seen in the author’s kitchen in Anchorage, Alaska, in August, 2020. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Gene editing debate takes root with organic broccoli, new UBC research shows

Broccoli is one of the best-known vegetables with origins in this scientific haze

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

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.

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.

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.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

Nuxalk Public Health Nurse Sophie Mack is all smiles as she vaccinates her dad, hereditary chief James Mack Sr., with his first dose of the Moderna vaccine (photo submitted)
Cases drop as vaccine continues to roll out in Bella Coola

Seniors at Mountain View Lodge, Nuxalk elders, hospital staff and long-term care residents have all started to receive their vaccines so far

Interior Health has declared the Cariboo Chilcotin a community cluster. (Angie Mindus photo)
Interior Health declares Cariboo Chilcotin region a COVID-19 cluster, 215 cases since Jan. 1

Most cases are related to transmission at social events and gatherings in Williams Lake

A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is displayed on Jan. 5, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
Power outage spoils COVID-19 vaccine at Tl’etinqox

Temperature-sensitive vaccine no longer viable after Jan. 18 event

Nuxalk elder Caroline Mack, 85, receives her first dose of the Moderna vaccine on Jan. 19, at the Nuxalk Hall. (Caitlin Thompson photo)
First vaccines roll out for Nuxalk elders, hospital staff and long-term care residents

The Moderna vaccine arrived in Bella Coola on Sunday, Jan. 17

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move to Vancouver Island will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

A video posted to social media by Chilliwack resident Rob Iezzi shows a teenager getting kicked in the face after being approached by three suspects on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Rob i)
VIDEO: Security cameras capture ‘just one more assault’ near B.C. high school

Third high-school related assault captured by Chilliwack resident’s cameras since beginning of 2021

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

Economic Development and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly responds to a question in the House of Commons Monday November 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Federal minister touts need for new B.C. economic development agency

Last December’s federal economic update promised a stimulus package of about $100 billion this year

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2017, file photo, Larry King attends the 45th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton, in New York. Former CNN talk show host King has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for more than a week, the news channel reported Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. CNN reported the 87-year-old King contracted the coronavirus and was undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Larry King, broadcasting giant for half-century, dies at 87

King conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews

BC Coroners Service is currently investigating a death at Canoe Cove Marina and Boatyard in North Saanich. (Black Press Media File)
Drowning death in North Saanich likely B.C.’s first in for 2021

Investigation into suspected drowning Monday night continues

Kimberly Proctor, 18, was murdered in 2010. Her family has spent many of the years since pushing for a law in her honour, that they say would help to prevent similar tragedies. (Courtesy of Jo-Anne Landolt)
Proposed law honouring murdered B.C. teen at a standstill, lacks government support

Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions has concerns with involuntary detainment portion of act

Most Read