Translating the Language of Seed Packets: Hybrid, Heirloom, non-GMO, and more

Hybrid, heirloom, organic, non-GMO, natural….there’s lots of labels on those seed packets or plants you pick up at the garden center or from your favorite catalog.  Since the seed-starting season is upon us, let’s take a minute to look at some of the information – and mis-information – you might find on those seed packets.

For a brief overview, here’s a short video segment I recently shot for the Backyard Farmer Show, a popular public TV offering for Nebraska Extension:

Hybrid vs. Heirloom vs. Open Pollinated

Just what is a hybrid anyway?

Source: http://www.biology.arizona.edu

Simply put, a hybrid is a plant (or any living organism, technically) with two different parents. Take for example the Celebrity variety of tomato, which is very popular among home gardeners. In order to get seeds of Celebrity tomatoes, whoever produces the seeds must always cross two specific parent plants to get those specific seeds, called an F1 hybrid.

These parents have been developed through traditional breeding programs (read: the birds and the bees — no genetic engineering here) from many different crosses. Hybridization has occurred naturally ever since there were plants. Man has been directing this process throughout most of his agricultural history to get better crop plants. How else would we have many of the vegetables and fruits that we take for granted today?

Crops like corn have very little resemblance to its wild counterpart, many thanks to selection and even crossing of superior plants by humans over the centuries. University researchers and seed developers use this natural ability of plants to cross to direct the formation of new varieties that improve our ability to produce food.

What is an heirloom?

Perhaps the first question we should ask is, what is an open-pollinated seed? An open-pollinated variety is one whose genetics are stable enough that there is no need for specific parent plants, because the seeds produced from either self-pollination (as in the case of beans and tomatoes) or cross-pollination with the same variety will produce the same variety.

An “heirloom” plant is basically an open-pollinated plant that has a history, either through age (50-plus years) or through heritage (it has a family story).

Take for example the Mortgage Lifter tomato.

Mortgage Lifter Tomato Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/blewsdawg

It was developed by a gentleman living in West Virginia (my native state -there are two competing stories as to who developed it). For all intents and purposes, the Mortgage Lifter started out as a hybrid, since the gardener in question developed the tomato by crossing many different varieties to find one that he liked.  He sold so many of them to his neighbors that he was able to pay off the mortgage…thus its interesting moniker.

It just so happened that the genetics of this tomato were stable enough that its offspring had the same characteristics, so seeds could be saved.  Therefore, it was technically an Open-Pollinated variety. Over time, the tomato became considered an heirloom because of both its age and unique story. This story has played out many times, in many gardens and in many research plots at universities.

There are some trying to revive the practice of plant breeding for the home gardener. If you’re interested, check out the book “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener” by Garden Professor emeritus Joseph Tychonievich. Who knows? Maybe in 50 years we will be celebrating your plant as a distinctive heirloom.

So which is better – Heirlooms or Hybrids?

There are pros and cons to hybrid plants and heirlooms both, so there really isn’t an answer as to which one you should plant. It really boils down to personal choice. Hybrid plants tend to have more resistance to diseases and pests, due to the fact that breeders are actively trying to boost resistance. This means that there will be higher-quality produce fewer inputs. This is why hybrids are popular with farmers — nicer, cleaner-looking fruits with fewer pesticides. Many times hybrids are also on the more productive side, thanks to a phenomenon called hybrid vigor.

Heirlooms, on the other hand, help preserve our genetic diversity and even tell our cultural story. Heirlooms do not require a breeding program, so there is built-in resilience, knowing that we can produce these seeds well into the future with little intervention. But we do have a trade-off with typically less disease-resistance and less consistency on things like yield.  Since they are open-pollinated, they are often a good choice for people who enjoy or rely on saving seeds from year to year.

GMO-Free or Non-GMO

As we have pointed out several times before, when it comes to seeds for home gardeners, the label of GMO-Free is largely meaningless and sometimes mis-leading.  Whether or not you believe the prevailing science that shows that genetically engineered plants are safe for human consumption, you can rest assured that there are currently no genetically engineered seeds or plants available to home gardeners.  Not on the seed rack at the box store nor your local garden center.  Not in a catalog or online.

Here are two assurances to that statement:  A majority of the things that you grow in the home garden don’t have a genetically engineered counterpart. Only

Source: USDA Animal and Health Inspection Service

12 genetically engineered crops have been approved in the US, and only 10 of those are currently produced.  Most of these are commodity crops that home gardeners would not even produce, such as cotton, sugar beet, canola, and alfalfa.  A few more have counterparts that are grown by home gardeners, but are vastly different from those grown by commodity producers (soybeans vs. edamame soy).  And some just aren’t that very widespread (there are some GE sweet corn cultivars and squash cultivars, but they aren’t widespread on the market).

So for the most part, there aren’t any “GMO” counterparts to the crops you’d grow in the home garden.  They don’t exist.

The other assurance is that genetically engineered crops are not marketed or sold to home gardeners as a matter of business practice or law.  In order to purchase genetically engineered seeds or plants, it is current practice in the United States that you must sign an agreement with the company that holds the patent stating that you will not misuse the crop or propagate it (and before we get into the whole intellectual property argument – plant patents and agreements like this have been around since the early 1900s – it isn’t new).  So you know that you aren’t buying genetically engineered seeds since you aren’t being asked to sign an agreement.  Plus, these companies make their money by selling large quantities of seeds, they just aren’t interested in selling you a packet of lettuce seeds for $2.

So since there aren’t any GMOs available to home gardeners, why do all these seed companies slap that label on their packets?  Marketing, my dear!  It started off with just a few companies, mainly using the label to compete in a crowded market.  And fear sells.  The label has spread to more and more companies as this fear and anti-science based marketing ploy has spread…both by companies who jumped on the fear bandwagon and by those who took so much harassment from the followers of the non-GMO crowd or they lost sales to people sold on the non-GMO label that they finally gave in.  Unfortunately for some companies, slapping the non-GMO label on a product seems to give them permission to charge more, even if has no real meaning….so buyer beware.

Treated vs Non-Treated

Image result for treated seed
Treated seed Source: pesticidestewardship.org

Seed treatment usually involves the application of one or more pesticide such as a fungicide or insecticide to protect against pathogens or pests, mainly in the early stages of growth.  A good example would be if you’ve ever seen corn, pea, or bean seeds at the local feed or farm store that are bright pink or orange in color.  These seeds have been treated with a fungicide to offer short-term protection against damping off.  Some crops are also treated with systemic insecticides, such as imidacloprid, to protect against insect damage. There’s been a big emergence of organic seed treatments, so treatment doesn’t necessarily mean the crop can’t be labeled organic.

Treated crops are most-commonly found at farm supply stores and aren’t generally marketed directly to home gardeners. You’ll likely not find them at most box stores or garden centers catering exclusively to gardeners. Many packets will specify whether they are non-treated or treated.

Organic and Natural

In seeds, the term Organic largely refers to seeds harvested from plants that were certified organic.  Generally speaking, these seeds were produced on plants that received no synthetically produced fertilizers or pesticide sprays.  However, it does not mean that the plants were not treated with pesticides.  There’s a great misunderstanding about organic production – there are a number of pesticides and even seed treatments approved for use on organic crops.  Typically, they are produced from a plant or microorganism extract, naturally occurring mineral, or other organic derivative.  So organic does not equal pesticide free (on the seed rack or on the grocery shelf).

There are a few different levels of “organic,” too.

Sometimes small producers use the label in a general sense to mean that they follow organic practices, but aren’t certified.  The process for certification is often onerous and costly for small producers, so they often opt to not get it.  This is especially true for producers that market exclusively to a local clientele, like at the farmers market, where they can rely on their relationship with customers and reputation to speak for their practices. Some food companies may also use a simple “organic” label – either as a design choice, or because their product wouldn’t qualify for a certification.

"Certified Organic" Label“Certified organic” means that the producers practices have been certified to meet the requirements laid down by a certifying agency.  A certifying agency could be a non-profit or a state department of agriculture.  The requirements and practices vary from entity to entity.

Image result for certified organicUSDA Certified Organic” means that the producer has been certified by the USDA as a follower of the guidelines set forth by the National Organic Program (NOP).  This is usually seen as the most stringent of the certifications, and is standardized nation-wide.

 

For certified organic producers, a requirement for production is that all seeds or plant sources are organic.  For home gardeners, I often question the need for organic seed, even if organic methods are followed.  A quick literature search turned up no evidence that garden seeds contain pesticide residues.  There’s been no evidence that plants translocate systemic pesticides to their seeds or fruits(Though it is impossible to prove a negative).  Since seeds are located inside some sort of fruit, there would be little chance of residue on the seed from a pesticide application.  And even if there was some sort of residue, it would be such a small amount in the seed that it would be so dilute in the mature plant that it would likely be well below any threshold of threat to human or wildlife health…or even measurability.

Personally, I may opt for the organic seed at home if it were the same price of the “conventional” on offer…but that organic label often includes a pretty good price differential.  Knowing that there likely isn’t a huge difference in what is in the packages….my penny-pinching self will reach for the conventional, cheaper option.

And what about “natural.”  That one’s easy….there is no recognized definition of natural by the USDA or any other body.  Companies use that term to mean whatever they want it to mean….meaning that it is relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

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NON-GMO FERTILIZER?

http://passel.unl.edu/pages/informationmodule.php?idinformationmodule=1057077340&topicorder=3&maxto=14
Image courtesy of Plant & Soil Sciences eLibraryPRO at UNL

I was asked by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott to look up some information in order to answer a recent comment and question on a previous post.

Paraphrased, the question is, “… are there any verifiable “organic” fertilizers that can be guaranteed to be made from 100 percent non-GMO sources.”

First off, let me state up front that the whole “Non-GMO” labeling effort is pure marketing. There is no evidence to suggest products that come from genetically engineered crops are any different than crops made from other plant breeding methods. The body of evidence in fact suggests they are as safe as their conventional counterparts, and have some excellent benefits to farmers and consumers from an economic and environmental standpoint.

Having gotten that disclosure out of the way, and assuming that price is not a factor, it turned out to be an interesting question to answer.

“USDA Certified Organic” fertilizers would be problematic, since there are exceptions to the organic standards, which allow manures fed GE crops to be used.

Similarly, oilseed meals like cottonseed, soybean meal, etc. also can be certified organic, even though they come from genetically engineered crops.

ALFALFA MEAL

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lucerna_-_Budaörs.jpg
Alfalfa Field image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One possible alternative in that category is alfalfa meal, since genetically engineered alfalfa is currently grown on only 13.5% of alfalfa acreage, whereas in the case of cottonseed, soybean, sugar beet, and corn products, the rate of adoption of genetically engineered crops is well over 90% of U.S. acreage.

Only about 13.5 percent of harvested U.S. alfalfa acreage is genetically modified, compared to more than 90 percent of corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets acres, according to a new USDA report that cites 2013 farmer surveys.

It appears likely the percentage of genetically engineered alfalfa will continue rising, though: Roughly one-third of newly seeded acreage planted that year was of a biotech variety resistant to glyphosate herbicides, USDA said.

Farmers have been slower to adopt genetically engineered alfalfa partly because it’s a perennial crop that stays in the ground for roughly five years, said Dan Putnam, an alfalfa extension specialist at the University of California-Davis.

It would be incumbent upon the buyer to ask, however, if the alfalfa meal came from a grower who does not use genetically engineered alfalfa, and whether or not the supplier of the alfalfa meal guarantees that.

MANURES FROM LIVESTOCK FED ONLY ORGANIC FORAGE

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hestemøj.jpg
Manure, a field in Randers in Denmark. Image courtesy of Malene Thyssen at Wikimedia Commons

“Demeter USA” … the private certifying entity that guarantees “Biodyamic” preparations does require that any manures come from livestock fed only “USDA Certified Organic” feed. So manures that carry that seal should satisfy the question.

As an aside, here is Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott’s literature review of “Biodynamics” and why that certification has little science to recommend it.

Further, finding the product would be difficult, since it is primarily produced on-site at certified Biodyamic farms, and used there.

SEAWEED FERTILIZERS

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KelpforestI2500ppx.JPG
An underwater shot of a kelp forest. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Next products that might qualify are seaweed, or kelp products. There are no genetically engineered seaweed/kelp products I’m aware of. However, there are real concerns about the sustainability of harvesting seaweed and kelp from the wild.

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott wrote about them here:

The ecological impacts of increased seaweed harvesting are currently under investigation and the possibility of significant ecosystem damage is real.

There is however, some interesting research and startup companies that are farming seaweed and kelp for a variety of potential uses.

I can’t however, find any products available for the home gardener that are sourced from this effort. Still early.

So, when it comes to seaweed/kelp products, you’ll have to (again) ask a reputable supplier to answer the “sustainable” question.

BAT GUANO

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat_Cave_mine
Bat Cave Mine Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In a similar vein, “Bat guano” products would also qualify as “non-genetically engineered”, but the sustainability question also comes into play. How is it harvested? 

I can’t deny that it’s a great fertilizer, but if you want to use an organic fertilizer why not at least consider one that is renewable instead of one that is from a limited resource and which may cause harm to a unique ecological system?

SEAFOOD BY-PRODUCTS

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSM_V45_D079_Non_edible_fish_scrap_processing.jpg
Non edible fish scrap processing … Public Domain image from 1894

Fertilizers made from by-products of the seafood and fish industries, assuming they don’t come from aquaculture farms, since the livestock feed for those operations could be sourced from genetically engineered crops, do have a history.

Two links (there may be others, but these seem sufficient for now), a comprehensive review of products (including fertilizers) from the Alaska seafood industry, put together by Oregon State University

Fish Fertilizer Product Descriptions

Fertilizers are characterized by their Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium content (N-P-K). Therefore all fish material will have some fertilizer value since fish contain protein which is Nitrogen,
the bone contains Phosphorous and the flesh and bone contain Potassium. Generally, fish products are re-allocated to fertilizer use for any number of reasons including quality too poor for feeding, volume too small to convert to fishmeal and oil, and an available agricultural market in the vicinity of the waste material.

And a similar document put together by Michigan State University about the use of fish by-products for other uses.

In an effort to help the Michigan fish processing industry find better solutions to handle fish processing waste materials, a project was initiated to determine the viability of composting fish waste.

CHILEAN NITRATE

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dusičnan_sodný.JPG
Mined Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3) Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

There is a mineral product called Chilean Nitrate or Nitrate of Soda that is mined from a desert in northern Chile that is allowable for use under the standards for organic production in the U.S. However, it is not allowed for use under Canadian, or international organic standards, and a change to prevent its use under U.S. standards is still pending. Up until 2012, this was the wording for its use.

Sodium nitrate, also known as chilean nitrate, cannot account for more than 20 percent of the N requirements of organic crops in the United States.

Its use is also prohibited by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and most other standards for organic production outside the United States.

After 2012, the 20% restriction was dropped in the U.S.

The expiration of the current notation will effectively mean that sodium nitrate may be used in organic crop production without a specific restriction on the amount used: however, producers must continue to comply with all requirements of the soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard.

Although the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended that sodium nitrate become a completely prohibited nonsynthetic substance, the NOP has not issued rule-making to carry out this recommendation as of yet.

FEATHER MEAL

A by-product of the poultry industry.  Is it from poultry fed only non-GMO feed?

LOCALLY PRODUCED

The final piece of the puzzle can be found (only partly in jest) in Dr. Jeff Gillman’s post about a cheap, locally available source of Nitrogen.

You’d be saving yourself the cost of fertilizer, saving the environmental cost of shipping the fertilizer you might otherwise purchase, saving water, and you’d have something unique to tell your gardening friends about.  Win – win situation as far as I’m concerned.

In summary, I don’t buy into any of the fear-based marketing of products that come from genetic engineering. There may be (at this time) sources of alfalfa meal that do not come from genetically engineered sources.

Biodynamic manures certified by Demeter USA require that the animals be fed only “USDA Certified Organic” feed, but will be difficult to come by. Seaweed/Kelp and Bat guano products would qualify, but have major sustainability questions about them. Lots of potential with seafood/fish by products, and finally … a personal possible solution.

Many thanks to Emanuel Farrow, a consultant to both conventional and organic farmers, who helped point me in the right direction and provided important fact checking expertise for this post.

Stuck in the middle with you

Clowns to the left of me,

Jokers to the right, here I am,

Stuck in the middle with you

 

More than once in the past couple months I’ve come close to pulling the plug on FaceBook.  What started as a fun and easy way to keep up with family and friends back home and stalk old girlfriends has devolved into an infinite do-loop of whininess, acrimony and vitriol over GMO’s, organic food, vaccines, and President Obama.  Of course, I brought a lot of this on myself based on the virtual company I choose to keep.  While my allegiances generally align with groups such as GMOLOL, GMOskepti-forum, and the Genetic Literacy Project, more and more I find myself just as appalled by their tactics and rhetoric as I am by those of the anti-GMO side.  I have many thoughtful and intelligent friends that think GMO’s should be labeled or even banned and I’m fairly certain none of them want poor African children to go blind.

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Quick aside here: Raise your hand if you have ever changed your mind on an important issue based on an internet meme.

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The problem in this type of discourse is that everything has become an all or nothing game.  If you concede even the slightest point to the other side, you have become a wishy-washy capitulator.  But the underlying problem is the answer in science is often “It depends.” In the GP blog and elsewhere, much has been made of the Pew Research poll that showed the biggest opinion gap between the scientists and the public was over GMO safety.  Had I been polled, I would have agreed that GMO’s are generally safe.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there are concerns. Heavy agricultural use of glyphosate is leading to the development of Round-up resistant weeds. Likewise, the potential of GMO crops out-crossing with native plants cannot be discounted.  Scientists working on GMO’s, of course, are aware of these issues and are constantly working on steps to manage and minimize these risks, but they could still come back someday to bite us in the butt – the risks, not the scientists.

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Another problem with controversies on the interwebs is that issues get over-simplified.  The endless argument over organic food is just stupid.   Saying organic production is better than conventional farming (or vice versa) is like saying Ford is better than Chevrolet:  You can’t compare without knowing which model: Pick-ups? Sedans? SUV’s?  Or  what’s being compared: Gas mileage? Crash safety? Resale value?  The same is true with organic vs conventional: What crop? Celery? Apples? Carrots? Lettuce? And what measure? Pesticide residue? Carbon footprint? Food safety?  The debate is an interminable game of whack-a-mole. I suspect anyone with access to ‘Web of Science’ and an afternoon to kill could come up with a couple dozen studies to support either side.  My personal view is I’ll pay a modest premium for organic produce if it clearly looks better, or in the case of small fruits that I can sample before I buy, tastes better than the conventional counterpart.

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The other issue in the social media wars is that we need to admit and accept the limits of our knowledge.  The Pew poll and other surveys indicate that most scientists agree that climate is changing due to human activity.  Again, I’m with the majority of scientists on this.  But only a small portion of those scientists are actually trained in climatology and understand and appreciate the nuances of the Global Circulation Model or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. What I know with certainty is that CO2 and other greenhouses gasses have risen consistently and dramatically since the Industrial Revolution.  How will that impact climate in 100 years?  I have no clue beyond what the climate scientists tell me.  Do I have any reason to doubt their projections of steady increased temperatures? None beyond the fact the GCM, like all models, is only as reliable as the data and assumptions it is built on.  Does this make me a right-wing climate change denier?  Hardly.  But I am self-aware enough to know what I don’t know.

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Bottom-line, even on issues where a vast majority of scientists agree, there are still unanswered questions and areas of uncertainty and always will be.  In the meantime, we still have to make policy decision with the information at hand.  Talking about these issues intelligently and respectfully will get us further than derision and mockery.

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In the meantime, if you open up FaceBook and I’m not there, you’ll know I’ve finally had my fill.

A 19th Century Garden Hero: Hero or villain today?

John Porter: Extension Blog Contributer
Extension Agent, Ag and Natural Resources
West Virginia University
John.porter@mail.wvu.edu

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.

 

Label GMO foods? Sure, why not?

Lots of coverage in the mainstream media these days over various initiatives to label GMO foods.   I think GMO foods should be labeled; but not for the reasons you might think.

My personal opinion on GMO foods is that their benefits outweigh the potential downsides.  I think GMO foods should be labeled to make the public aware of how much of our food supply depends on GMO’s and the cost of not using GMO’s.  Obviously this will raise some social justice issues since wealthy people will have more opportunity to opt out of buying non-GMO products than the poor but it’s the same problem we have with organic already and it doesn’t seem to cause much of a stir.  My hope is that once GMO products are labeled we could get to the point where the main discussion on GMO’s focuses on the rational and scientific questions, not the irrational and emotional.  This weekend our Sunday paper included a quote from a local anti-GMO activist who tried to link the rise in obesity to increased use of GMO’s.  How about we’ve become too sedentary and we’re eating too much, period?  Or this from the “Health Ranger” Mike Adams: “Roundup herbicide devastates soils, rendering them contaminated and unable to produce healthy crops using traditional (or organic) farming methods. Once a farm plot is destroyed with Roundup, that farmer is forever enslaved to a chemical-based farming protocol.”   Hmmm… last time I checked farms could be certified organic after three years without synthetic chemicals.

Which is not to say I don’t have concerns about GMO’s; there are issues with any technology.  The largest questions I see, and the ones that are most difficult to answer, relate to unintended consequences.  One of the biggest selling points of Round-up ready technology, for example, is that it enables farmers to manage weeds with glyphosate, a relatively safe product in the world of industrial-strength herbicides, in order to reduce tillage and maintain crop productivity.  But as farmers use more and more glyphosate, they are also selecting for Round-up resistant weeds.  How long until glyphosate is no longer effective? Difficult to predict, but glyphosate resistance has already evolved in many weeds.

On the other side of the equation, the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, with a disproportionate increase in the least developed countries.  As the need for food increases, land and water resources will become more limited and catastrophic droughts are likely to increase.  While it is easy to demonize industrial agriculture, it’s difficult to envision feeding ourselves and the world without the technology it has developed.

Balance

By this time most of you have probably read all about Mark Lynas, the anti-GMO activist who decided that GMOs are actually a net benefit to society.  I’ve been asked by a few people to comment on how I feel about Mr. Lyna’s changing sides.  I think they expect me to be jumping up and down for joy.  But that’s not how I feel at all.  I’m happy when anyone decides to let research lead them to a conclusion rather than politics or gut feelings, but in this case it also makes me nervous.  This is because some people tend to travel too far towards one side or another.  I’m just as fearful of the damage that people who are radically pro-GMO may cause as I am of radically anti-GMO activists.  And, in my opinion, this guy just seems to be radical.  Saying that you have research that supports one side of an argument is fine, but in almost all cases there is research that supports the other side too, and you ignore it at your own peril.  Balance people — Balance.

An Interesting Video

Every once in a while someone sends us  a news story or a video to look at critically.  A couple of days ago Michael got in contact with us through Facebook and asked us to take a look at a video he saw recently and let him know what we thought of it.  This video was posted on Russ Bianchi’s website (he goes by the name Uncle Russ).  He includes a short note with the video which says “ALL Genetically Modified Organisms, Ingredients, Crops, Livestock, Food, Drugs, Cosmetics, Beverages, Packaging, Flavors, Fragrances, Colors! Soaps and Detergents are UNSFAE AT0ANY EXPSURE LEVEL and are proven to cause cancers, disease and premature DEATH”.  Wow.  All that from a video?  Must be a heck of a video.

 

Here’s the video.

 

As far as I can tell, The party responsible for this video is Media Roots which is defined as “a citizen journalism project that reports the news from outside of party lines while providing a collaborative forum for conscious citizens, artists and activists to unite.” Too bad they didn’t include scientists who know something about genetically modified crops.  According to Youtube this video has been viewed over 250,000 times.

I can’t tell you exactly what the other garden professors think of it (it may not be printable), but from my end, much of this video is absolute hogwash.

But, having said that much of this video is hogwash, I must give credit where credit is due.  The first part of the film which explains how genes are moved from one organism to another was, in my opinion, pretty well done.  Sure, there were parts of it that a serious molecular biologist would complain about, but for the average person I thought it was a nice explanation.  In fact, after seeing this first part of the film I was expecting to see some really serious and thoughtful critiques of genetically modified organisms – because there absolutely are some good critiques of genetically modified organisms out there.  Unfortunately I was sorely disappointed.  Let me go through the major problems that this video raised one by one and explain why they’re faulty arguments (I won’t go through all the problems, just the major ones):

  1. Genetically Modified crops show lower yields – Yes, this is sometimes true, genetically modified crops aren’t genetically modified to produce more, just to resist certain pests that might reduce yields (or resist certain herbicides that help control pests).   So the maximum yield for genetically modified and non-modified crops are usually pretty similar if the farmer growing the non-genetically modified crop controls pests with pesticides, or doesn’t see the pest for some reason.
  2. Genetically Modified crops have poisons in them – Yes, this is sometimes true.  Genetically modified crops may have genes from Bacillus thuringiensis in them (In the video this name was misspelled and the species was capitalized – which is a big deal to a scientist).  What the video didn’t mention is that this is an organic pesticide that has been used for years with, as far as we can tell, no adverse effects to humans.  The report about people being hurt in the Philippines is a complete red herring.  This supposedly occurred in 2003 and all of the data that we have points to a problem besides GMO corn pollen – in fact, the data points to a flu outbreak.   This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that GMO corn pollen hasn’t been implicated in a similar incident since then.
  3. Genetically Modified Insulin is bad! – This one does have a grain of truth.  GMO insulin is cheap and available, which is why it is used.  In the vast majority of patients there appears to be no difference between it and naturally acquired insulin.  But it does seem as though some people do have a negative reaction.  It terms of deaths, I can’t find much that is trustworthy to corroborate what was said on the video.

I have been chastised previously for being pro-pesticide, pro-GMO, pro-Monsanto, etc.  I don’t blame people for saying this because, let’s face it, I do end up defending these things sometimes because their opponents often use bad science.  But saying that I’m for these things is going a little far.  There is good science and information out there that calls into question the value of certain pesticides, GMOs, and even Monsanto.  Look up the new genetically modified Kentucky bluegrass that may be coming out soon.  Look up atrazine.  Look up how Monsanto protects its patents.  These are things I’m opposed to.  Another thing I’m opposed to is saying that something is bad without having a good understanding of it.  If you’re going to make a video that 250,000 people watch then do your homework and get as much of it right as you can.

Bt in the Bloodstream!

Over at my favorite blog (besides this one of course!) Garden Rant, Amy Stewart posted about exploding watermelons — which Linda blogged about below — and about how Bt from genetically engineered food had found its way into our blood stream (and the bloodstream of unborn children).  Sounds pretty scary doesn’t it?  I’m not going to tell you it isn’t a little troubling, because it is, and I absolutely do not think this finding should be disregarded.  But the truth is that I’m not too worried about Bt in the bloodstream for the following reasons:

1.  The world’s ending on Saturday anyway, right?

2.  It’s impossible to tell from this study where the Bt toxin came from — I do think it probably came from transformed crops — HOWEVER, as scientists we can’t make that assumption.  We eat Bt all the time EVEN IF WE EAT NO TRANSGENIC CROPS because this bacteria is found all over the place.  I would have liked to have seen testing between people who eat transgenic food and people who eat no transgenic food.

3.  The Bt toxin is extremely specific in terms of what it affects in an insects gut.  It’s unlikely (but not impossible) that it would react with anything in our bloodstream (or an unborn child’s bloodstream).

4.  There are arguments over whether transgenic crops are sprayed more or less than than non-transgenic crops — but for insect control transgenic crops are generally sprayed less — and non-transgenic crops are sprayed with some seriously nasty stuff including nerve toxins.  If I get to pick my poison I’ll go with Bt any day.

5.  As a rule you should NEVER worry until a second study confirms the findings.  This paper is important enough that you can be sure that within a year someone else will try something similar.  If the findings hold my concerns will increase somewhat.

6.  Finally, the dose makes the poison.  Bt has been fed to various mammals for years to determine the effects that it has on them — and it generally has little effect, even over long periods of time.  These animals, obviously, had the toxin in their blood (just because it wasn’t tested doesn’t mean it wasn’t there).

It should be no surprise that when we eat something with a toxin in it, that toxin gets into our blood.  When you eat garlic — toxins from the garlic get into your blood.  When you eat hot peppers — capsaicin (an insecticide) gets in your blood.  When you drink alcohol — you get the picture.  Is it bad for things to be in the blood?  It depends entirely upon the thing and the concentration.  This article talked about fetal issues so lets use a fetal example — Aspirin is considered a bad idea during pregnancy — it can get into the unborn child’s bloodstream.  However, low doses of aspirin can reduce risks of pre-eclampsia.  By the way, a chemical very similar to aspirin is also known as a fungicide….(actigard).

So, there are my reasons for not being too worried.  Could I change my mind — YES.  Could I be wrong — YES.  BUT as a scientist who reads a lot of what I’ll call “reactionary/radical articles” I have my doubts when I read about the next thing that’s going to kill us all.  If we responded to every troubling article we’d never leave our houses.  BUT there’s always that one important article that warns us about something real — and we need to be on the lookout for it.  My reaction to the Bt threat — this isn’t it — but time will tell whether I’m right or wrong.

A word about GMOs from our visiting GP

I gave a talk to a group of gardeners last year about vegetable and community gardening.  There was a wide variety of gardening experience represented, but one statement from a seasoned gardener bothered me a bit.  And I think my response bothered him a bit too.  I haven’t thought much about it until recently, when a high school English teacher I know told me a student expressed similar ideas in her class.  The erroneous idea from my audience member was this: our tomatoes are being poisoned with ‘germetically modinified’…something something.  The arguments have lost me beyond that (because there aren’t any).  And really, there hasn’t been much talk about sex on this blog recently, so that should be remedied too.  Therefore, I would like to take the platform offered by the Garden Professors to talk about plant breeding.

 

 

Fig. 1: Jaune flammee, which has at least one gene from at least one of its parents that causes the fruit to have very little lycopene.

Conventional” breeding is when a plant breeder selects parents and offspring and tests them for desirable characteristics (traits).  It works the same way as breeding works in nature, except that we humans have a goal we’re working toward.  Firm, 5-oz, disease-resistant, crack-resistant tomatoes, for example.  In nature, the offspring that survive and reproduce the best in a given environment are ‘blindly’ selected and tend to stick around (Darwin, 1859).  Male (sperm) cells are transferred to female (egg) cells by a plant breeder, or a bee, or the wind, or a beetle, or a fly or bird or bat or moth (etc.).  The sperm and egg fuse to form an embryo, which grows to become what we’d call a plant.  In both natural and artificial selection of tomatoes, no non-tomato DNA has been added, and no tomato DNA has been removed.  By the classical definition of ‘genetic modification’, there has been none.  I suppose this paragraph was only incidentally about sex, and probably a disappointment to some.  Sorry.

Fig. 2.  Tainan, a tiny heirloom

The confusion of the issue may lie with the Flavr Savr tomato.  This was developed (yes, genetically modified) in the mid-90’s to resist softening during ripening.  It has a couple bits of manufactured DNA in it to make this possible.  The Flavr Savr is no longer grown or sold in the marketplace (that was SO 1990’s), and to my knowledge, no other transgenic tomatoes are either.

 

Fig. 3.  Rutgers, historically much-cultivated and like all other tomatoes we can buy, bred conventionally.

Confusion may also lie with the plant hormone ethylene.  Ethylene is made from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, but it’s also made by plants.  Keep your bananas away from your carnations, right?  Bananas make ethylene gas, which causes carnations and snapdragons to senesce (die).  Tomatoes make ethylene as they ripen.  If you harvest tomatoes a bit early, but not too early, they are hard enough to ship but will still turn red later.  If you expose these pre-ripened tomatoes to ethylene gas, they will ripen more quickly and uniformly.  That’s what happens to a lot of the tomatoes in our stores.  They are not genetically modified, they are treated with a plant hormone.  That’s not unusual at all.  Ethylene is used to ripen bananas, and to help make cucumber seeds (by eliminating male flowers from female parents).  It’s used in growing ornamental plants quite a bit too (but not as much as many other hormones, and especially hormone inhibitors).

So please, if you are someone who tells anybody who will listen that the tomatoes in the store are GMOs, stop it.  They’re not.

Genetic Engineering, Veal, and Rennin

Today I thought I’d go just a little off topic. Lots of people out there are really upset about the idea of putting genes into plants, like putting genes for Round-Up resistance into soybeans, or genes for caterpillar resistance into corn. And, I do agree, this is a pretty powerful technology that needs to be used carefully – probably more carefully than it’s being used right now with plants.

But the funny thing is, one of the places where transgenic creatures really dominate the market is in a place that is almost never considered. Today 80-90% of cheese made in the United States is produced using bacteria genetically engineered to produce rennin. What is rennin you ask? Renin is the stuff normally found in a cow’s stomach which causes milk to curdle – and cheese to be created. For those of you interested in looking into this further look up rennet which is the substance in a cow’s stomach which naturally contains rennin.

After looking around a bit I really can’t find that many people upset about the use of genetically engineered microbes to produce rennin.  Actually, some people who are quite sensitive to environmental concerns may prefer it.  Historically rennin comes from dead young cows – it’s a byproduct of veal production (kind of a nasty industry if you ask me).  Rennin that comes from genetically altered bacteria has nothing to do with dead cows and so vegetarians often find cheese produced with genetically engineered rennin to be more appropriate.