John Porter: Extension Blog Contributer
Extension Agent, Ag and Natural Resources
West Virginia University
There’s been much ado in the press and on social media about the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the food system. While there is a scientific consensus on their safety, many still reject their use. While the controversy rages on, an innocent bystander has taken fire, mainly from the spread of misinformation on social media. It seems that simple hybrids, produced through a selective, yet natural, breeding process have been mislabeled as genetically modified. These misinformation sources point to heirlooms as the only non-modified (and thus safe) source of food. The thought is that since the development of a hybrid is directed by humans, they are genetically modified. This simply isn’t the case.
The truth of the matter is that all of the food crops that we plant have been modified at some point in history through human intervention, whether purposeful or not. The simple act of seed saving is a selective breeding process selecting for the best and the tastiest. So even heirlooms are modified through human interaction. The comparison of a hybrid to a GMO is starkly false. I once saw someone explain it this way: breeding a hybrid is like crossing a beagle and pug, making a GM crop is like crossing a potato and a fish. While it is a simplistic comparison, it does make it a little easier to understand.
Many of the heirlooms we now have today were developed by breeders over the last century or so. No one man had such an impact on agriculture as Luther Burbank, who was a prolific plant breeder and a well-known national hero. However, in today’s anti-science fervor, would he be considered more of a villain than a hero? That was the topic of one of my recent newspapers articles. Read more about Luther Burbank, 19th century garden hero.