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

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.


27 thoughts on “A 19th Century Garden Hero: Hero or villain today?”

  1. There is not a scientific concensus about GE crops being safe. There has been corruption in the FDA that passed them on, their own scientists were on the record as saying that these items were not safe. Many scientists today from all over the world say also that these crops are not safe. There is much confusion, spin and bullying going in in the scientific world as well as in the public arena. Some scientists said that they were safe, but their beliefs were not based on scientific trials. They let everyone assume that the science had been done, but it had not. Read the expose “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth” by Steven M. Druker if you want the facts. He documents everything.

    1. I agree. There is no consensus on GE crops, scientific or otherwise. What we do know is that Monsanto is shoving them down our throats, that small organic farmers can be destroyed by Monsanto if there is genetic drift into their fields from these crops and that you cannot save the seed! Once the damage is done, there is no going back, but companies like Monsanto don’t give a darn as long as they make millions. I’m shocked that this piece of rubbish is on the Garden Professors. Extension needs to stop doing the multinationals bidding.

      1. Linda, the 3 links from the nutritionfacts.org actually sites peer reviewed studies. The videos mention them. Check the Sources Sited tab for direct links to them.

  2. Come on, folks, this is a science-based blog. None of the references mentioned above are from legitimate peer-reviewed sources. If we want to have an objective discussion about this we need to look at the peer-reviewed information. Not the scare tactics published by those without expertise in the field.

  3. Thank you Linda. I will point out, HOWEVER, that this article is not about GMO crops, per se. It is about how hybrid crops, that have been around since the advent of agriculture, have been unfairly lumped into the GMO category as a scare tactic. I think a lot of the confusion comes from seed companies using the “Non-GMO” label as a gimmick. Of course they are non-GMO….there are no GMO crops available to home garden consumers. It would be just as accurate to label my packet of bean seeds as “Elephant Free.” Much confusion exists around hybrids, and they have been caught in the cross-fire of this anti-science crusade.

    1. Yes, I was going to mention that this discussion was going off-target, so thanks for pointing that out, John. I am trying to prevent more unsupported statements from being posted. (Fair warning here: I will delete any further comments about GMOs made on this post. If you want to discuss GMOs we’ve talked about them several times on the blog: http://blogs.extension.org/gardenprofessors/?s=gmo.)

  4. Well the O.P. to me was discussing the definition shell games used by Biotechs in labeling exactly what it is they do. Without hitting on the subject of chemicals and all the other dirty politicking that usually goes on with this subject and Monsanto and the Anti-Science label getting thrown around by those who champion it, I did find a page which is interesting enough to explain the differences and show the games played when it comes to definitions which I thought this was what the O.P. was about. It is incorrect to say this post was not about GMOs, because it is, but only from one aspect. This definition debate is actually related to the time period of around 1990 when the major players were setting up rules on how to regulate and this is why they continue to parrot over and over these games with words/terms. Define it differently and it opens up and can of worms for them as far as being forced to take things slowly with regards responsible testing. That slows down their business model and that is unacceptable to boards of directors and large investors. Remember, this was mostly about business, not the science. If it really were about the science, then they would have exhausted all the biomimetic applications they could by responsibly trying to replicate nature. Anyway, here is a link I enjoyed. Right off the bat it takes us through the industry’s manipulation of words and terms.


  5. Mr Porter mentioned GE crops at the very beginning of his post, so he himself opened the door to a discussion of GE crops, especially when he made the statement about scientific consensus. That being said, most of the seed companies I deal with such as Fedco and others do not conflate hybrid with GMO. In fact, they go out of their way to explain the difference and offer excellent hybrid seed to their customers. The problem is that most of the independent seed companies have been bought up by large biotech companies, such as Monsanto. These same companies also manufacture such things as neonic pesticides. The other problem are the patents theses companies are placing on seed and other living organisms. Food labeling would go a long way to easing the confusion, but Monsanto and others are fighting it tooth and nail. None of this is about science-it’s about money. It’s well to remember there once was “consensus” that thalidomide was safe for pregnant women. I would welcome scientific studies on these topics. As a physician, I cannot rely on anecdotal evidence to treat my patients. My previous post was not meant to be a personal attack on Mr Porter, and I apologize if he took it that way. He may want to omit absolutes and post peer-reviewed references in future postings to avoid confusion.

  6. While I have yet to be concerned for my health when consuming GMOs, I do have concerns over their direct and indirect ecological effects – for example, pollen from insecticide-producing, GMO corn harming non-target insects like monarch butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, or the destruction of nearby plant communities caused by the increased use of herbicides enabled by herbicide-resistant crops. Because humanity already had a pretty poor record on managing ecosystems before the advent of genetic engineering, I’m not optimistic about that record with the additional power of designer organisms, especially considering profit is the main motivating factor for developing them.

  7. Aloha, This issue is a cat out of the bag so it looks like the consumers will decide. If anyone wants to do some LED Plant lighting work that could be peer reviewed please let me know. We want to see how the Seattle Product hold up against the Dutch lighting systems growing bedding plants and herbs.

  8. We also have the issue of the misuse of the word consensus. Consensus implies accord or unanimity. If we base decisions on consensus, the selected alternative is something everyone can live with, not necessarily a unanimous favorite. If something is decided by a majority vote, it does not mean there is a consensus; you could a minority bitterly opposed to the outcome. A more accurate statement is that, by a wide majority, scientists agree that GMO foods are safe (link below). There is a small minority of scientists that disagrees. Likewise there is a small minority of scientists that disagrees that climate change is related to human activity or that humans have evolved over time.


    1. I understand where you are coming from there. However, the way that I understand the concept of scientific consensus (and not just consensus in a general term) is that it is a concept generally agreed upon by MOST scientists in a given field. The general consensus you speak of, Bert, would be for a group of people sitting down together to discuss an issue and coming to an agreement. One would not be able to get all scientists to sit down at a table to hammer out an agreement.

      Some examples of the definition of “scientific consensus:”

      From http://www.greenfacts.org/glossary/abc/consensus.htm
      The Scientific Consensus represents the position generally agreed upon at a given time by most scientists specialized in a given field.
      Scientific Consensus does NOT mean that all scientist are unanimous: disagreements may occur and can be necessary for science to progress, or that the position is definitive: the consensus can evolve with the results from further research and contrary opinions. Therefore, Scientific Consensus is NOT a synonym of “Certain Truth”.

      From http://www.odlt.org/dcd/ballast/scientific_consensus.html

      A shared belief about a complex theory (e.g., that evolution best explains the fossil record) amongst a large majority of scientists in a particular field. Those who disagree with them are called skeptics, or if the subject is highly political, deniers.

      From wikipedia:

      Scientific consensus is the collective judgment, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field of study. Consensus implies general agreement, though not necessarily unanimity.

      In searching, I found this interesting look at scientific consensus: http://arstechnica.com/science/2014/09/scientific-consensus-has-gotten-a-bad-reputation-and-it-doesnt-deserve-it/

      1. Nice definitions John Porter. The subject of scientific consensus being brought up into any discussion [irrespective of the subject] is a common default answer meant to stifle any further discussion on a topic and if you don’t agree with the consensus as defined by those recommending it, you are simply anti-science, which the label in itself, “Anti-Science” is yet another common default answer meant to squash any discussion on a matter. The other default answer, “peer-review” is another insert meant to settle the argument. The problem is now that even that seems to be redefining itself if you’ve read some of the latest news recently. Is a consensus even be capable of knowing what is best? There are tradeoffs in any method of peer-review that get’s adopted. It should be obvious that no system of peer review will work without those involved being scrupulously honest. I like Michael Crichton’s take on Scientific Consensus. In the end, each one is going to except their own person flavour on what they like.

        “I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet because you’re being had. Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.” – Michael Crichton



      2. I actually like the topic that John Porter brought up which basically touched on the original definition shell games of the words “Genetic Modification”. It’s the historical origin which goes all the way back to 1990 when regulations were being hashed out as to whether GMOs would be given the same rigorous testing as other food additives such as Saccharine, Yellow #5, etc, etc, etc. The major hurdle in making money, especially for Big Ag giants like Monsanto is being forced to responsibly spend time testing whether or not their product is safe for the environment and humans. Canadian Shark Tank multi-billionaire Kevin O’Leary believes that GMOs are safe and the world doesn’t need anymore testing. However, in almost the same breath is is angry at the debate regarding anthropological caused Global Climate Change and he feels studies need to be conducted over the next 50-100 years before governments start making economic policy changes. So is Kevin O’Leary pro-science or anti-science ? It apparently depends on who you talk to and which mood they’re in. Kevin’s not alone. There have been several articles over the past two years that I have been able to count about the huge scientific disconnect with a vast majority of pro-gmo Farmers and whether humans have anything to do with climate change or if there is any climate change occurring. I was blasted for pointing this out on the UBC Botanical forum for briefly mentioning this by the forum admin over there who had not read the entire post over links to such info. Actually I have posted them, but as per his M.O. was quick to judgement. In any event, I made it a mission these past couple of months to follow many of the GMO News articles which seem to come out every week on various media sites and almost every time, the same Sock-Puppets and well known Biotech industry proponents who came out to defend GMOS, if you follow that username history on posting, I would say 80% of them were also commenters on Global Warming or Climate Change articles in which they were strong deniers of climate change with humans at fault. I pointed this out and they got mad, many later editing their profiles so that no one could follow their posting history, but you can still Google them. Everybody knows that conventional breeding and crossing species barriers with genetic constraints and splicing in genes from one unrelated organism with another entirely different organism is not the same thing. Shoving this definition down the public’s throat is cowardly and irresponsible, because it has to do with the money and not the science.

        This is why we get the definition shell games on the word “Modification”. In almost every article lately, we get , “Genes are just Genes and DNA is just DNA”, everything we eat has DNA and Genes in them. This was the line of reasoning presented to the FDA and politicians who pushed for the definitions. The problem is it’s not just Genes and DNA, it’s about the informational content within. But there is very little respect for that when it comes to the Biotech business model. Impatient Boards of Directors with frustrated investors breathing down their necks makes responsible testing impossible. But you must also factor in some of the religious and ideological influence of non-scientific concepts like “Junk DNA” , things like Vestigial Organs” and the view of nature being a mess, flawed and imperfect which allows scientists a feeling of “We can do better than nature”. Recently, the New York Times ran a stupid article defending Junk DNA and warning scientists they had better not find function in non-coding DNA or you risk being alienated by the consensus. Gee what a surprise. The fact is nature is not flawed nor imperfect as far as my own experience. But this has opened the door for irresponsible science thinking it knows better how to build a superior biological machine. In the first place they were never needed had they actually used natures giant tool-kit.

        But when it came to regulations, Monsanto was indeed instrumental into how the FDA would regulate them. In the December 4th 2014 Intelligence Squared Debates, Monsanto’s Chief Scientist, Robert Fraley was technically correct when he insisted Monsanto abides and strictly follows all the regulations of the United States when it comes to testing GMOs. But what he failed to tell the audience is that Monsanto basically decided what the standards and regulations would be and that in a nut shell Stinks. When I wrote about that debate, I was as harsh if not more so against Team Organic than Team Monsanto. There was one point in the debate where both Team Organic talked about cross breeding for drought resistance for Corn to be grown in Africa. Team Monsanto insisted they were working on this and would have a GMO resistant Corn for Africa in about 10 years. Both sides were wrong and I blame the Organic side most for their lame approach. I can make any plant drought resistant by using the correct mycorrhizal fungi that very first season. I know because I have been doing this for almost 30 years. But you don’t hear about this in mainstream science. It gets honorable mention now and again, but it doesn’t rule and control industrial agricultural practices. Why ? Off hand I’d say there is no money in this approach for the Biotechs. The Extension Group here should start doing more articles and research into what Mike Amaranthus is doing with his company in Grant Pass Oregon which is your backyard. Not only are his customers proving drought resistance, but the fact that mycorrhizal fungi outcompete weeds for phosphorus and therefore are less of a problem for farmers. This is actually feedback from his own clients. Other studies have shown that with potatoes which were evaluated by Universities in Wisconsin and Maine, showed that with conventional Agriculture practice which required 130lbs of phosphorus per acre, the mycorrhizal fungi potatoes required only 30lbs of phosphorus per acre. The mycorrhizal potatoes also had a higher yield with less fertilizer applies. So do the math, how much saving is that for the farmer and how much loss is that for Industrial Biotechs like Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, etc when it comes to chemical sales ? So less chemical fertilizers, less weed chemicals, less watering and higher yields and not once does this info hit the major Media outlets. Not even here. Why ?

        I’d post links but the system won’t allow my posts from the blog. Still, I understand the point of this extension is to expose and make fun of some of the myths out there, but it should also deviate more often from the conventional norm and show more Biomimetic or Biomimicry approaches which actually do replicate what nature does for real. In the mean time you can Google

        “INTELLIGENCE SQUARED DEBATES: “Genetically Modify Foods” – the Winners & Losers” and see I didn’t play favourites. Most Organic sight can’t seem to go beyond manure and cross breeding, with a few exceptions. Many sights also deal with the combative approach which I believe is mainly out of frustration with economic behemoths who out gun them financially and politically. Here is Mike Amaranthus website for the folks really interested. BTW, they just merged with another larger company which does not take the GMO approach.


        1. While I believe many scientists at Extension are doing splendid work, I do feel that Big Ag has co-opted much of Extension’s mission. Here in Michigan, the preponderance of articles emanating from the labs promote the use of more and more chemicals, not fewer. Criticism of factory farming? Hard to find. Follow the money and you find the reason. The same problem prevails in medicine with Big Pharma. Budgets to consumer extension programs have been slashed. We continue on this course at our own peril. Where have all the Monarchs gone? And the bees? And the giant moths? And the amphibians? Is carrying Big Ag’s water really worth the destruction of entire ecosystems? Many years ago, one scientist, at the FDA, Dr Frances Kelsey, stood up to a big drug company and demanded that they produce proof of their drug’s safety before she would allow its importation into the US. The company refused. Kelsey told them to take a hike. That drug was thalidomide. We desperately need more Dr Kelseys.

          1. Well yes on some of that I agree April, they are dedicated to defending science as a whole, but often times it becomes also one of those “Not seeing the forest through the trees” issues. Why can’t the science that discovers and actually practices true biomimicy be more readily discussed, instead of some of the fringe extreme new age examples out there. I will however agree with them that many of these Anti-GMO sites are ridiculous in that the average person doesn’t do their homework and that is why I am often critical of the Organic movement who have an incredible amount of Natures tools at their disposal, but don’t really do their own personal homework to see what they are. The prime example of more use of Mycorrhizal fungi is a prime example. Very few of those sites will even discuss it. Yesterday there was a brief post on Eurekalert from the journal, “New Phytologist” with the title: “Genetically manipulating plants can reduce their water needs”. Seriously ? ? ? There is no reason for this. The tools out in Nature already exist and have for 10s of thousands of years. But this is more of a business decision for making money and nothing to do with real clean science. This is exactly what was wrong with both side in the “Intelligence Squared Debates on December 4th 2014. No one brought it up, not Monsanto, not Organic not even the so-called lovable science geek in the audience Bill Nye who is supposed to be the brilliant science guy. But I blame the Organic people more for not doing so. There was no excuse.


            Here is an image from Mike Amaranthus [these Professors here all know full well who he is since he along with others like Dr Donald Marx and Paul Stamets have been preaching this for years and written most of the early papers on Fungi] who posted a Florida Study on drought resistant Maize as a result of mycorrhizal colonization. Notice, this is one season, not years of research and millions of wasted dollars to achieve a Patent for high priced magic seeds.


            See April, even a child gets this


  9. I come at it from the ecology side, so not that interested in whether GMOs are safe to consume.

    That said, it is misleading to state all of the food crops that we plant have been modified at some point in history through human intervention, whether purposeful or not.

    They have been modified by sex, not by direct substitution of one gene for another.

    Sex is much different than GM, and no one benefits by conflating the two. No one.

  10. I suspect some of the concern about F1 hybrids comes about due to introducing traits such as Cytoplasmic Male Sterility by way of cell fusion. Depending on how broad one wishes to define genetic modification it could I suppose include tissue culture, mutagenesis, chromosome doubling, and so on. I prefer to go as broad as possible: recombination, translocation, copying errors, etc. In my book, if you’ve got genes, you’ve been genetically modified.

    1. “In my book, if you’ve got genes, you’ve been genetically modified.”

      Every living thing has genes. That is the blueprint for life. We all have genes, therefore by this standard all life on earth is genetically engineered, which is not the case. Though it could be argued that, through the reproductive process, all living things are genetically modified. Otherwise, there would be no diversity of life.

      1. Michael:
        “In my book, if you’ve got genes, you’ve been genetically modified.”
        John Porter:
        “Every living thing has genes. That is the blueprint for life. We all have genes, therefore by this standard all life on earth is genetically engineered, which is not the case”

        Yep, he tore pages right out of the Biotech definition shell game playbook. Genes are just genes and DNA is just DNA except it isn’t in this case. Its called informational content. See or Google the link, – Biotech’s simple defense of Genetic Modification for the Lay Person: “Just Add Water”

        John Porter:
        “Though it could be argued that, through the reproductive process, all living things are genetically modified. Otherwise, there would be no diversity of life.”

        Except when Nature does something it’s often in an orderly way. The only disorder comes when humans create an environmental scenario that screws up the natural order and Nature attempts to compensate. As you clearly stated, “through the reproductive process.” It’s a pity that nature’s tool-kit isn’t more consulted before divining a plan of action business-wise. This is the problem however that every single Biotech faces. Demanding Boards of Directors and impatient Wall Street investors wanting profit yesterday.

  11. Steven Druker’s book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, leaves the impression that we should be careful about who we should trust, including eminent scientists (including those with regulatory responsibilities) and peer-reviewed publications. I have more confidence in non-scientist Druker than some of “authorities” because he has documented his findings in this book. It now seems naive to believe all the scientists and not believe all the non-scientists.

    1. What’s important to ask is whether or not the author of anything has credibility in the topic under discussion. Does a lawyer have the background to discuss molecular genetics? Clearly Dr. Terry Simpson (MD) doesn’t think so, as he reviewed the book: “The book is filled with several logical fallacies, and is clearly written by a lawyer, arguing a point. Mr. Druker seeks to show that there is a vast conspiracy on the part of corporations, biotechnology types, and the government to promote genetically modified foods and he attempts to validate his points using pieces of science, and a lot of assumptions.”

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