Where I live in the Midwest, in the suburbs, it is a challenge to rely on locally grown food for the entire year–even if we are in the way out suburbs with quite a bit of surrounding farm land. We do a good job of it for about 7 months of the year, and my husband and I play the “let’s-brag-to-each-other-about-how-local-our-food-is” game. We are often rock stars with everything except olive oil and lemons. And okay, avocados and pineapples and bananas. However, our suburban homes are not set up with cold storage and our local farmers and farm stands are inaccessible in the winter. Most of the farmland around here is big-Ag corn, soy and wheat. These are not crops that are ending up in the local food system except as an ingredient in some end product. I remember last October when my husband and I were scrambling to find the last of the local farms that we could get produce from and we drove forty miles and ended up with some onions and a butternut squash. Relax– I have a Prius, so driving that far is totally okay. Heck, our favorite farmer’s market is almost 30 miles away and we go to that regularly. To get good, local produce, you sometimes have to expend some energy–literally. Unless… you grow it yourself!
This brings us to the third installment of the GMO question: What seeds do I need to watch out for if I am trying to avoid GMO? Even more, what vegetables in the store do I need to watch out for?
To be really safe, buy organic! If the seed package or produce is labeled USDA organic, it is not GMO. Direct from a really informative USDA blog: “The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients.”
Great. What about non organic seeds? Well, the truth is that you are probably okay in the garden without even really trying. Even die-hard anti-GMOers seem to concede that there are no GM seeds out there for the home gardener to accidentally purchase. However, to be extra, especially certain, peruse this nice blog post from the Non-GMO Project outlining some guidelines for making sure as much as possible that you are not planting GM seeds–or supporting GM companies.
Unfortunately, most of us cannot grow all of our own food, even if we have taken the initiative to eat non-GM foods. We are, then, faced with the challenge of figuring out what is GM in the produce aisle and even at the Farmer’s Market. Just because it is sold in an outdoor stand doesn’t mean it’s not GM! While Monsanto does not sell seeds for the home gardener, they do sell seeds for commercial growers, i.e., farmers. However, of all the seeds that Monsanto and its subsidiaries sells ( and they sell seeds for more than 2000 products) only two are GM: squash and corn.
But, if you’ve been hearing even a little bit of the hype about GM produce in the market, you probably recall that there are concerns about more than just squash and corn out there. How is that? Well, it’s not all Monsanto out there. And … the high-risk crops out there aren’t necessarily in the produce aisle (they are in the processed foods you buy). High risk crops, you ask? I got that term from the non-GMO Project, which had this list of crops that were known to be GM:
- Alfalfa (first planting 2011)
- Canola (approx. 90% of U.S. crop)
- Corn (approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011)
- Cotton (approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011)
- Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop; approximately 988 acres)
- Soy (approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011)
- Sugar Beets (approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010)
- Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx. 25,000 acres)
As you can see, the things in the produce aisle we most have to worry about are the corn, squash and papaya. I ran across a lot of information that warned of GM tomatoes, but, in fact, the Non-GMO project points out that tomatoes are pretty low risk:
- Tomatoes: In 1994, genetically modified Flavr Savr tomatoes became the first commercially produced GMOs. They were brought out of production just a few years later, in 1997, due to problems with flavor and ability to hold up in shipping. There are no genetically engineered tomatoes in commercial production, and tomatoes are considered “low-risk” by the Non-GMO Project Standard.
Potatoes, on the other hand, might be something to watch out for. The Non-GMO Project points states that:
- Potatoes: The Simplot White Russet™ potato recently acquired USDA and FDA approval and went into commercial production. In August 2015, the Non-GMO Project added the potato to our Monitored Crop list. As a genetically modified organism, the Simplot potato is not allowed in any form in a Non-GMO Project Verified product. Genetically modified NewLeaf potatoes were introduced by Monsanto in 1996. Due to consumer rejection by several fast-food chains and chip makers, the product was never successful and was discontinued in the spring of 2001.
In the Midwest, though, we don’t really have to watch out for Papaya–it’s too expensive to buy for kicks. But Corn! I don’t even have to say how connected corn is to the Midwest. And squash is pretty common, too. How does one know whether the squash and corn they are buying are non-GMOs? Well, the good thing is that vendors are becoming more savvy. Even at the farmer’s market I see the farmers putting up signs indicating that their corn is non-GM. This is critical in August as local corn shows up in the grocery stores, farmers markets and road-side stands! Again, you can be safest with organic. Following that, you can know your vendor and your local farms.
If you are curious about what squash and what corn seeds Monsanto produces for the commercial farmers to grow, they are obliging enough to tell us and show us: Yellow Straightneck, Yellow Crookneck and green Zucchini squash and a variety of corn. To find out what they look like, go this page. Monsanto’s sells vegetable seeds under their brand Seminis® and DeRuiter TM. However, DeRuiter TM does not develop an GM product. The webpage above showing us the products, labels which are bio-engineered. Quite helpful, actually. DeRuiter TM does not produce any GM product.
But this is the tricky part, isn’t it. It does not seem to be enough to just avoid GM seeds and produce. The goal out there for serious, non-GMO, mostly-organic, anti-Monsanto gardeners, then, is to avoid even supporting companies that benefit Monsanto and their ilk– a goal which I am completely on board with. As I have said before, while I am not entirely sure about the health effects of a GMO plant itself, but I am pretty sure that I do not want to support the environmental, health, cultural and economic effects of large mono-agriculture dependent on chemicals. Like the war waged against that GM potato, I feel strongly that our purchasing power can make a difference. Companies like Monsanto, are, after all, companies that have to report to shareholders. If something is not profitable, they will not continue to sell it.
Given that, I do feel it is important to know what roads lead back to those companies that promote that kind of farming–or, by extension, GM seeds. I am not re-inventing the wheel here. There are plenty of people with a lot more animus than I have towards Monsanto that have done some research. I came across this blog post that has a pretty extensive list of companies to potentially avoid. You’ll probably recognize a lot of familiar catalog and seeds companies on that list. However, the article does provide a caveat that you should use the information to start your own research. Believe me, I would love to trace ALL of those companies…but this blog is not my full time job.
Perhaps it is easier, then, to know a few seed companies that do not support or develop GM seeds and go out of your way to support them. The Non-GMO Project does have a page for verified non GMO planting seeds and animal feeds, though of that list it really only looks like High Mowing Organic Seeds fits the bill of what we would know as a vegetable garden seed company. The trouble with just looking at whether something is GM or organic is that this doesn’t mean that it is not related to big Ag– or, more specifically, Monsanto. In fact, nothing precludes Monsanto from getting their hybrid seeds, which are the majority of its seeds products, as verified non-GMO. Neither does buying something organic mean that the seed was not a non-GM seed produced by a Monsanto company. While I cannot find anything that says Monsanto produces organic seeds, I cannot find anything that says it does not. And organic farmers only need to grow from organic seeds as long as the organic seeds are commercially available. This is the aggravating part of the non-GMO vs. Organic vs. anti-Monsanto equation. One does not necessarily exclude the other.
Companies like Seed Savers, have given a safe seed pledge. They are also a non-profit. That being said, I did not have to dig too far to find conspiracy propaganda regarding the board and Monsanto. However, I can’t figure out how Seed Savers allegedly throws money back to Monsanto, which is what I would like to prevent, so I think that I am still a fan of Seed Savers. It’s all so confusing, though. Even when I think I can feel confident that if I buy heirloom seeds, I am not supporting Monsanto, I find out that Seminis develops heirloom seeds–though most of their seeds are hybrids.
Okay, so now I am really stumped. How can I now guarantee that even heirlooms do not lead back to Monsanto? I came across this article that implies that all the varieties on the list in the article are heirlooms and that all the heirlooms are trademarked. However, upon doing more digging, I think it’s pretty clear that this is not true. To begin with, most of what Monsanto grows through its seed companies appears to be hybrids. They have a huge stock of parent plant material, that is either public hybrid or open pollinated, sometimes heirloom. They also develop their own hybrids. When they do develop hybrids, they patent them. They do not seem to have any trademarks on any heirloom varieties. Much of what they grow is not necessarily varieties they develop. They grow some really well known hybrids and sell the seeds, like the Celebrity and Better Boy tomatoes. I can’t even say for certain if they are the only ones that grow those seeds for sale. That would take a lot more research. Seminis is, in part, a wholesale seed company, so it is entirely possible that the Better Boy you buy from your local source gets their material from a larger supplier like Seminis. I guess the suggestion of the blogger above to take the list of varieties of seeds Seminis produces so you can avoid those varieties completely and, therefore, not unintentionally support Monsanto even remotely is a solid one. Is it realistic? Not really.
As I was researching the issue of whether Monsanto “owns” the heirlooms, all that came up was other bloggers–bloggers that mostly regurgitated the same article and, while not necessarily fear mongering, it was definitely lazy and indicative of the reasons that anti-Monsanto-ers keep disappointing me. Before I get into this, let me state again, I do not want to support Monsanto and I have put a lot of energy into trying to avoid this. However, when those trying to make a case against Monsanto continually put out bad information, then it dilutes the effectiveness of the arguments. I could not find one investigative piece on the issue of whether Seminis has trademarks on heirloom names. I also searched the Seminis’ trademarks under the U.S. government, and I could not find any trademarks that Seminis has taken out for what we consider heirloom varieties.
Despite that, it is also clear that Seminis does grow heirloom varieties and sells the seeds to seed retailers and farmers. That is probably where the confusion and the wild dash to untrue conclusions came about. The well-intentioned question, though, is still there. How do you avoid supporting Monsanto even tangentially? And by the way, it’s not only Monsanto out there in this GM/chemical debate. DuPont, Dow, Bayer, BASF, and Syngenta are all big players here. Monsanto just gets the brunt of the hate-focus.
Regardless, I think the only solution is to get to know a couple of seed suppliers really well and ask them. Start supporting small producers and stop supporting big agriculture. Companies like Monsanto are driven by profit. When farmers can’t sell their corn and soy to manufacturers because it is GM, then farmers will stop buying GM seed. It happened with the GM potato. But this means being more aware of all the things corn and soy show up in (Read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.)
I am still a fan of Seed Savers. I have also come across this intriguing seed grower and farmer, Dale. His company is definitely worth checking out next year when I am ready to plant. I will also be exploring a local (to me) seed company, Terroir Seeds. I think the Sustainable Seed Company has promise. And I plan check out these other seed companies listed on the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) web page. Beyond that, I am already starting my efforts to seed save and exchange.
On that note, I have Calendula seeds if anyone is interested! Please let me know of your trials and tribulations or if you have any good local seed resources. There are a lot of really small companies out there saving seeds that follow the ideals that I believe in and, maybe with your help, we can help make them even more successful.