GMO crops and the gardener

In The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi describes a dystopian future where a few large food companies have waged genetic war against each other, causing numerous plant and human plagues which can only be fixed by further genetic tinkering, and as a result they control all worldwide production with seeds that can’t be reused.  The large part of the plot revolves around the desire of the companies to get control of ancient seed banks which may contain new genetic information for them to use.

This future is the fear of many anti-GMO activists.  My crystal ball is in the shop for repairs, so I can’t prognosticate about whether thiis is our future, but I can talk a little about GMO (“Genetically Modified Organism”) crops and whether they affect you as a gardener.

In 2013, you, as a home gardener cannot buy GMO seed.  It’s not in the catalogs you are reading, it’s not on the seed racks, and it’s not the seed those transplants were grown from.  There are three plants commonly grown in home gardens which are available in GMO: corn, yellow squash and zucchini.  The squashes are unlikely to cross-pollinate with other fields where plants are being grown for seed stock.  Corn, however, pollinates for miles.  So when you see catalogs promising they test for GMOs at the moment that means they mostly are certifying their corn is GMO-free from cross-pollination.  The Safe Seed Pledge, on the other hand, is pretty much symbolic at this point.  If being GMO-free is part of your motivation for home gardening, you should support seed companies who have taken this pledge with your seed buying dollars.

GMO, as we think of it, is largely a misnomer.  All plants which have been bred to a purpose are genetically modified by humans.  When people talk about “GMO,” they are really talking about transgenic organisms — taking the gene or genes from one or more species and inserting them into the DNA of another.  When this happens naturally in nature, it is called introgression.  Yes, it does happen in nature, but generally between very related species’.  Oak trees, for example, hybridize freely and introgression among members of the oak family is common.  Introgression also happens with the aid of viruses but is usually referred to as “gene flow.”

So are GMO seeds truly unnatural?  Well… yes, pretty much, as is currently practiced.  It’s very difficult to imagine a sequence in nature wherein fish genes get into a tomato (the now defunct Flavr-Savr).

If you want my opinion (and, hey, it’s my blog) I think that GMO crops *may* have positive uses, however there is very little research which is independent and well-constructed that has conclusions which are either pro or con.  Before unleashing GMO crops on the open environment I think they should be carefully studied in laboratory settings.  Unfortunately, the cat is already out the bag.  Because genes *do* naturally flow across species’, glycophosphate resistance is already present in some of the weeds that Round-Up is supposed to kill.  That’s a shame, because as herbicides go, glycophosphate is pretty benign when used correctly.  This means that biochem companies will need to escalate the battle and create both new herbicides and new genetically modified seeds.  And they love that… glycophosphate, for example, is out from under patent protection and no longer makes them as much money.  A new herbicide would.  The logical end of this genetic battle might be the future of The Windup Girl, but I certainly hope not.

Conclusion: As a home gardener, the fear of GMO genes in your home garden is vanishingly small unless you grow corn and live near commercial corn fields, or you attempt to save seed from store-bought produce.  In the case of corn, because you are eating the new seeds themselves, you will be ingesting non-corn genes if your crop is contaminated.  However, corn is in virtually all processed food today and it is unlikely that the corn you buy is untainted unless it is a) certified organic and b) GMO tested.

I’m not sure there is a downside to growing your own corn, provided you have the room and it isn’t squeezing out more cost effective crops.  As for the other produce you might grow, it’s not a worry for today.  If the situation changes, I will be sure to take note and post an update.

(By Nicole Castle)

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